11 November 2018

The London Nobody Knows by Geoffrey Fletcher

I had no idea who Geoffrey Fletcher was when I found this book at a thrift store last Spring.  The charming ink sketches were a clue that he was both artist and writer.  As it turns out, Fletcher wrote and illustrated a column for the Daily Telegraph from 1962 until 1990.  Wikipedia points out that he focused on such mundane sights as gas lamps, Edwardian tea rooms, and cast-iron lavatories and crumbling terraces.  Mr Fletcher and I would have got on quite well because they are the sorts of things that I linger over too.  If you like social history (and I do!) there`s nary a wall of brick that fails to make me wonder about the person who trowelled the mortar into place those many years ago. 

In his introduction, Fletcher writes...

`I should be glad to see London explorers boarding buses (and quite positively the best way to see London is from the top of a bus - the pity is that the old open-topped ones were withdrawn) simply because they like the look of the name on the indicator, and to give the well-known sights, which we all know about, a well-earned rest.`

A selection of Fletcher`s favourite places or observations...

....in Edgeware Road, the old houses have almost gone, but there is a rich supply of delights, architectural and otherwise, as, for instance, Smiths the Butchers, where they take the meat away after the close of the day`s business and sell hot salt beef sandwiches and lemon tea until midnight.

....the gas lamp in Carting Lane, by the side of the Savoy...it`s iron column is hollow to allow for the passage of sewer vapours.

Camden Passage, Islington

....Of all the London cemeteries, Kensal Green, in Paddington, is, I think, the most melancholy.  ....opened in 1833, a product of the movement in favour of something less grotesque and more hygienic than the old churchyards.

....Undertakers` parlours of such Victorian quality must be enjoyed before it is too late.  People stare through the windows of undertakers - at what?  Unless they are connoisseurs of Victoriana there seems to me little beyond the elaboration of terror and a frowsy dread that has no name.


....It is no wonder that Sickert found so much material in Camden Town - those delorous bed-sitters, the damp basement flats where life, seen through lace curtains, is a succession of human feet wearing out the pavement tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  

,,,,Probably the greatest aesthetic pleasure is obtained from the cast-iron urinal at the far end of Cheyne Walk.  This also is lit by a ghostly gas lamp, and behind are the curious assemblage of boats, converted wartime craft, ancient Thames barges, and the like, that house the floating Bohemian population of Chelsea.  This lavatory is also best seen at night and in the autumn, outlined against the plane trees and shining oily river.

....But Gothic architecture, being little understood, produced some weird churches in London and their provinces; `Commissioners` Gothic` the style came to be called.  Nearly all were so utilitarian as to be eminently unromantic, but I have in general a liking for them, especially when, furred with soot in the north of England, they tower over manufacturing town, over the chip and tripe shops and pigeon-haunted backyards.

Star Yard, Holburn

....Off the High Street is one of the most remarkable streets in the East End of London, Albury Street, with its extensive collection of doorways.  Both sides of the street have a succession of early eighteenth-century houses of two or three storeys.

....One of the finest and least-known London pubs is the Crown, Cunningham Place, on the edge of St John`s Wood and the mistressy Maida Vale.  The Crown is magnificently late Victorian, full of old wallpaper and marble, and possessing a billiard room complete in every detail, down to the horsehair seats.  Go there in a straw boater in summertime; smoke a Woodbine, and think about Kitchener.

If the reader was in any doubt about Geoffrey Fletcher`s stance on the future of the landscape of London, he drives it home in his closing paragraph....

`The old London was essentially a domestic city - never a grandiose or bombastic one.  Its architecture was therefore scaled to human proportions.  Of the new London, the London of take-over bids and soul-destroying office blocks, the less said, the better.`

Areas such as Spitalfields, which Fletcher considered long collapsed, are bustling and thriving with independent ventures by hardworking entrepreneurs.  I hope he would be pleased about the transition some neighbourhoods have made from dark and derelict to ones filled with neighbourhood pride.  In any case, I loved reading his thoughts on the parts of London he was passionate about and I`m curious to see if I can spot a few of them during my next trip. I`m no more a fan of glass `beehive` tower blocks than Fletcher was, but there`s usually something close by that is beautiful enough to steal my gaze.  As for eel-pie saloons....some things are best left in the past.

A wonderful read for fans of London, architecture or social history!

2 November 2018

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Our sleepy garden

The remnants of Halloween candy, leftover from Wednesday night's trick or treaters, sit on the counter, it's getting colder by the day, and an almost relentless mist/rain spits from grey skies.  And ten days ago, my sweet two year-old Border Collie bit me on the chin for nine stitches.  Never kiss a sleeping dog!  When I showed up at work a couple of hours later, colleagues asked if a plastic surgeon was called in because the wound was on my face, which made me laugh.  The image of a diva, bleeding through her gauze, rebuffing the help of the attending resident comes to mind and I'm much too practical for that.  As it turns out, I'm healing fantastically well and like to tease that Vogue just might reconsider cancelling my contract.  So yes, the atmosphere has felt distinctly Gothic around here lately.  But on to Melmoth....

Helen Franklin, an English ex-pat living in Prague, works as a translator.  She lives in austere surroundings with a meddling woman in her ninetieth year, whose clothes are nearly always dotted with previous meals.  Helen's most meaningful friendship is with Karel Pra┼żan, whom she met while studying at the cafe in the National Library of the Czech Republic.  She seems slightly out of place in the city`s landscape, despite being a resident of it for twenty years.  The same amount of time Helen has been denying herself the pleasure of eating until satisfied; the first clue that something haunts her from the past.

Karel befriends a curmudgeonly old man, who sits every day in the same carrel at the library for long stretches of time.  Josef Hoffman writes obsessively, filling page after page, but no one knows what it is he works away at so diligently.  Then one day, Josef's heavy leather file is delivered into Karel's possession with a note....

'How deeply I regret that I must put this document in your hands, and so make you the witness to what I have done!'

Josef has felt the stare of cold black eyes following him, but when he turns around, there is no one there.  Having made a study of collecting stories in which a female spectre has haunted people throughout the ages, Josef feels the black eyes of Melmoth now boring into him.  He has been compelled to face his actions while still a child in the face of Nazi occupation.

Through a series of vignettes from the past, we realize the stories that make you cringe with horror are no more horrific than what unfolds on the news each day.  Melmoth bears 'witness to what must not be forgotten'.  So is Melmoth a symbol associated with our conscience?  It certainly feels that way to me, but I`m unfamiliar with Charles Maturin`s book Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the inspiration for Perry`s novel. Something to rectify at a later date....

Regardless of how you choose to interpret this character, Perry has been extremely clever about it.  Midway through the book there was a moment when I felt that the story wasn't what I had bought into....but it quickly passed.  The sections of bizarre imagery such as a broken seed pearl necklace, continuing to spill in streams onto the people below while watching an opera, and sinister jackdaws perching on windowsills reminded me of reading dusty fairy tales.  The parts of the book that made me pull my knees up a little higher on the sofa are the tragedies from the past, but they are examples of tragedies that continue to happen on a daily basis.  A sobering thought we are all aware of, but how deeply do we contemplate it?

I doubt the characters of this book will stay with me for very long, but the message certainly will.  And I applaud Sarah Perry for delivering three different reading experiences from each of the three books she has written.  I have no idea what to expect next, but I`m looking forward to it!  In the meantime, I`ll distract myself with a nice book about London until my nerves have settled.

21 October 2018

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

A couple of weeks ago I stopped by our local bookshop for a copy of Town & Country, the Autumn edition.  It hadn't arrived from overseas yet, but a wander around lead me to the Mystery section.  It's not a part of the store that I venture into all that often, and even then it's usually to root out something for my husband.  But then I noticed Dorothy L. Sayers' books; they've been reissued with eye-catching covers and Gaudy Night had the highest page count of the bunch....oh, go on then.

'Harriet Vane sat at her writing table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.  The late tulips made a brave show in the Square garden, and a quartet of early tennis-players were energetically call the score of a rather erratic and unpractised game.  But Harriet saw neither tulips nor tennis-players.  A letter lay open on the blotting-pad before her, but its image had faded from her mind to make way for another picture.  She saw a stone quadrangle, built by a modern architect in a style neither new nor old, but stretching out reconciling hands to past and present.'

Bloomsbury and Oxford - two of my favourites in a long list of favourite places in England.  Gaudy Night should have gone over a treat, but alas....it did not.  I love nothing more than to sink into the prose of Elizabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf, so I found myself ever more frustrated at the seemingly clinical way in which Sayers doled out late night episodes of vandalism in the colleges of Oxford.  Epithets spray-painted on the wall of the library were apparently too shocking to share, but I wanted to know the topic of the vandal's ire.  I'll admit that I judged the poison pen letters sent to Harriet and other members of staff with a does of twenty-first century cynicism, because the waves of negativity on social media has hardened me.  When Peter Wimsey arrives on the scene to help Harriet wade through a few clues, I laughed out loud.  Would someone employed by the Foreign Office have the time of day to deal with a disgruntled busybody?

I emailed Mary (Mrs Miniver's Daughter) the other day to complain about the lack of description when it came to food in Gaudy Night.  Where were the gas-rings?  The mouthwatering descriptions of cake?  Harriet had been back and forth to her flat in Bloomsbury but I was still none the wiser about the pattern on her curtains or her bedclothes.  Does Harriet wear perfume?  Elizabeth Jane Howard gave her readers all sorts of detail when setting a scene, painting a portrait with words.  Mary was quick in her defense of the author which led me to point out a tea basket pulled out from under the seat of a punt while touring the river.  Not one mention of what was inside said basket until a page and a half later when Wimsey feeds crumbs to the ducks.  Crumbs from what, I ask you?

My favourite character in Gaudy Night is Lord Peter Wimsey's unabashedly entitled young nephew, Lord Saint-George.  Charm and handsomeness aside, his posh ignorance as to the cost of anything was more entertaining than it should have been.

Then a message kept creeping in - equality for women and the desire to choose education and profession over marriage.  It was what drove me to keep turning pages, because I couldn't have cared less who was sending poison pen letters to women at the college.  Although, I did gasp when Harriet left a women, while drunk and unconscious, flat on her back as she went for help.  Didn't they know about the recovery position in the 30s?  I digress.

It wasn't until the last handful of pages that I warmed up to Harriet Vane, or rather Dorothy L. Sayers' writing.  A heartwarming scene at the end of the story won me over...it probably had something to do with the fact it was absent of a single clue or red herring!  I wanted more of that style of writing, but it wouldn't be the sort of writing that made Sayers so popular.  The problem is all mine.

We drove to the lovely university city of Guelph yesterday, to scan the tables at their annual Friends of the Guelph Library book sale (a must if you live within travelling range!).  My husband came looking for me with a book in a pretty shade of blue in his hand....a Folio Society, no less.

I'm willing to give Dorothy L. Sayers another chance....

11 October 2018

Autumn is....

....my favourite season.  After a very hot summer I am more than pleased about the fresher air, atmospheric grey skies, more rain for the garden, and pumpkin pie.

Due to busy work schedules, my husband and I only had one day to celebrate the Thanksgiving weekend together.  We didn't have the luxury of choosing a 'best weather day' for our annual trip to the Niagara region for a fall fair - it had to be last Sunday.  The forecast was calling for part sun, part cloud, part rain so I thought wellies would be a safe bet....but what if the sun came out and left me broiling?  At the last minute, I left home wearing white running shoes with cropped trousers...and it rained.  Well, of course it did!  Nevermind, our umbrellas were open for less than an hour and the 'mucky farm' state of our footwear was a bond between me and other visitors as we made our way through the rows of tents.  Actually, it made a nice change from the heat of the past several years.  Drinking hot apple cider is much nicer when there's a chill in the air.

 After contemplating a few things that, in the end, we decided we didn't need more of, we brought home a clay tile featuring a jay made by Diane Sullivan from Arabesque Pottery.  The back of the tile is lined with cork so it can be used as a trivet but it's much too nice for that.  This fierce-looking fellow will keep watch over one of my bookcases once I've bought a stand.  And we look forward to seeing Diane again as she was out of a specific botanical tile that also caught my eye.

 Forget what I wrote about not buying things I have enough of.  My collection of bookmarks probably hovers somewhere around 30, BUT...I don't own one featuring an English robin.  The gentleman who made the bookmark mentioned that he had sketched the robin while visiting the Isle of Man this past summer.  I like the idea of my robin fluttering around a garden thousands of miles away, while marking my page here in Ontario.  Anyway, Mr Thomson burns his sketches onto very thin, flexible wood veneer followed by the addition of colour, if he so chooses.  You can see more of Mr Thomson's work here.

After snacking on roasted yams, fries, and the must-eat apple fritters fresh from the largest cauldron of oil you'll ever see, we drove to Bench Brewing.  My husband was taken with their product after a bit of sampling in the wine and beer tent.  A drive in this area, at the base of a wall of trees along the Escarpment, is something of a gift in itself.  The reds, yellows, and oranges of the leaves against the cloudy sky were beautiful and several historic homes had their porches dressed with pumpkins and stalks of corn.  We were very impressed with Andres, who gave us a passionate tutorial about Bench's brewing techniques and some of their ingredients.  My husband was thrilled to discover a couple of new favourites when it comes to beer.  I wanted to double back for more hot apple fritters!

Another special moment from last week was having a very pretty fox calmly trot up to us while we walked our border collie, Kip, along the trails not far from home.  He/She stopped just a few feet away and looked at Kip as more of a potential playmate than anything else.  We didn't move a muscle, Kip didn't bat an eye, and after a couple of minutes the fox gracefully jumped through the rails in the fence and moved on.

In bookish news....I set aside Kate Atkinson's Transcription at page 206.  Right book, wrong mood?  I'll try again, but in the meantime I'm enjoying Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night and have ordered a copy of Sarah Perry's Melmoth as my 'spooky' read for the end of October.  I'm just a tad (over the top) excited for the day it lands in the mailbox!