10 July 2019

To The River by Olivia Laing

During a staycation a couple of weeks ago, I went to Toronto for an afternoon at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  The air was thick with humidity that day, the sun was blazing, and I felt sorry for those suited in business wear because I was hot in a light dress.  During the fifteen minute walk from the train station to the gallery I made two stops to cool off.....one for a yogurt berry parfait and the other at Ben McNally Books.  Buying a book is a necessary souvenir while on a day out and I was going to leave with one, no matter what.  My eureka moment arrived in the Literary Travel section.  Having just finished reading The Years by Virginia Woolf it felt like a bolt of serendipity to turn the book over for the blurb and read....

Over sixty years after Virginia Woolf drowned in the River Ouse, Olivia Laing set out one midsummer morning to walk its banks, from source to sea.  Along the way she explores the roles that rivers play in human lives, tracing their intricate flow through literature, mythology and folklore.

To The River was such a perfect find that I pushed aside the book I'd planned to read and just dove straight in (bad pun, sorry).

After a sad parting of ways between the author and her longtime partner, as well as a job loss, Olivia Laing planned a solo adventure along the River Ouse.  Describing herself as a 'hydrophile' the lure of water always held both fascination and a sense of calm.  What better way to distract yourself from the anxieties of what's to happen next than to focus on something you both love and have no control over.

Booking rooms in the small villages that dot along the river, Olivia used ordnance maps to carefully plot her route.  Packing a rucksack and counting on cheese and oatcakes to fend off hunger between stops she set off for a week-long journey.

   'The swifts were there when I woke, rising as if from deep water, rinsed clean by sleep for the first time in months.  The swifts were there, and a fox in the car park of the hospital, a scrawny, mottled orange-grey fox, who sat and scratched in the sun and then slunk back into the shadows of the old incinerator.  It was 21 June, the longest day of the year, the sky screened by fine cloud, the sea swaddled in mist.  My pack was ready at the bottom of the bed, stuffed with neat layers of clothes and maps, the side pockets bulging with bottles of suntan lotion and water, a battered copy of The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe and a rusty Opinel that no longer locked.'

Beginning with a train ride, then a cab to Slaugham to check in at the Chequers, Olivia heads out into the nearby field through wildflowers and fence lines.  There are laws about trespassing on certain plots of land but sometimes you just have to duck under a fence and hope for the best.

I can't say enough about how much I loved this book for the beautiful writing,  both lyrical and straightforward in turns.  On one page I was learning about the bloody Battle of Lewes and King Henry III, and then further on about the burning of martyrs during the time of Marian persecutions.  Laing also paints beautiful mental images of the trees, flowers and wildlife bordering the river and the birds that fly past.  I had no idea that a hawk's vision is 20/5 or that the author Kenneth Grahame's life was dotted with such sadness.  And while we should all be concerned about climate change, coastal villages have experienced rising sea levels, erosion and devastating storms since the Middle Ages.

After feeling as though I too had spent an afternoon hiking in the sun alongside Olivia, I smiled with satisfaction at the flask of hot milk and homemade truffle that Olivia was handed at one stellar B&B.  Although, I can't say that stepping into the sucking mud for a refreshing swim had the same effect.

Having taken the train from London to Lewes myself in 2017, I so enjoyed the anticipation of Laing's journey eventually taking her to Rodmell.  Virginia and Leonard Woolf are frequently mentioned but in a tender and thoughtful way; this is not a book that acts as a backdrop to Virginia's suicide.  While I was visiting Monk's House another visitor asked if I wanted to join her for a walk to the place where Virginia walked into the river.  That wasn't an experience I felt I needed so the offer was politely declined.  The River Ouse is more than the place where Virginia Woolf ended her life, it has a fascinating history that's worth exploring for its own sake. 

I didn't just like this book, I loved it.

The River Ouse
(photo credit here)

25 June 2019

The Years by Virginia Woolf

I've just counted the number of pages I filled with notes while reading this book.....thirteen!  Possibly a new record for me when it comes to note-taking for sheer pleasure.  With the streets bustling around St. James's in the first paragraph before moving into an upper middle-class home a few sentences later, I was hooked from the very first page.

'The gates at the Marble Arch and Apsley House were blocked in the afternoon by ladies in many-coloured dresses wearing bustles, and by gentlemen in frock-coats carrying canes, wearing carnations.  Here comes the Princess, and as she passed hats were lifted.  In the basements of the long avenues of the residential quarters servant girls in cap and apron prepared tea.  Deviously ascending from the basement, the silver teapot was placed on the table, and virgins and spinsters with hands that had staunched the sore of Bermondsey and Hoxton carefully measured out one, two, three, four spoonfuls of tea.  When the sun went down a million little gaslights, shaped like the eyes in peacocks' feathers, opened in their glass cages, but nevertheless broad stretches of darkness were left on the pavement.'

And that's why I've come to adore Woolf's writing.  The reader is every bit as much of a spectator as the characters in the story.  The sound of the tea leaves falling into the pot come alive and in that moment I'm not bothered about what happens next because I'm quite happy to soak up the beauty of the moment.  Although the story of the Pargiters, and in particular Eleanor, do make for a satisfying glimpse into late nineteenth century London and the swiftly changing times of the Edwardian era.

It's 1880 and Colonel Pargiter has left Abercorn Terrace to visit his mistress in a lesser neighbourhood of London.  In contrast to the tidy doorways of home, Mira's flat always has a smell and dirty clothes on the line.  Still, it's a distraction from his terminally ill wife who lies in her bed, hovering between life and death.  Colonel Pargiter wearily contemplates...His wife was dying; but she did not die.  Their seven children, the youngest only twelve, are coincidentally equal in number to the combined children in Virginia Woolf's childhood including stepchildren.

As the years pass, the Pargiter siblings leave for university, get married, decide not to marry, and in Rose's case become politically motivated to fight for the right to vote.  Eventually she is incarcerated for throwing a brick through a window and there's mention of force feedings.  In a style I'm becoming familiar with, Woolf never delves too deeply into the thoughts of any one character but  instead chooses to let the reader listen in on conversations.  Although, Eleanor's views on repeat pregnancies and poverty are all too clear while inspecting a boarding house....

   'The door was opened by Mrs Toms, the downstairs lodger.   Oh dear, thought Eleanor, observing the slant of her apron, another baby coming, after all I told her.'

The chapters are labeled by significant years; each with an opening paragraph about the weather.  I found the short chapter of 1913 heartbreaking when Crosby, the Pargiter's housekeeper, leaves the family after forty years to move to lodgings in Richmond.  Initially I thought she was beginning a well-deserved retirement, but instead Crosby is a cleaning lady who has to scrub the tub of a 'foreigner' who regularly spits in the bath. 

In 1914, Maggie and her husband host a dinner that has to be moved to the basement when the guns and bombs begin to blare.  They calmly chart the destruction by the proximity of the booms....first in Hampstead then Embankment.  And with the courage we associate with the British during wartime....

   'It didn't come to much, did it?'  said Sara.  She was tilting back her chair as she held out her glass.'   'Ah, but we were frightened,' said Nicholas.  'Look - how pale we all are.'   They looked at each other.  Draped in their quilts and dressing-gowns, against the grey-green walls, they all looked whitish, greenish.     'It's partly the light,' said Maggie.  'Eleanor,' she said, looking at her, 'looks like an abbess.'

At various times throughout the story I felt that Virginia was reflecting herself in the character of Eleanor.  Towards the end, Eleanor wonders to herself...

'But why do I notice everything? she thought.  She shifted her position.  Why must I think?  She did not want to think.  She wished there were blinds like those in railway crriages that came down over the light and hooded the mind.  The blue blind that one pulls down on a night journey, she thought.  Thinking was torment; why not give up thinking, and drift and dream?

At its most simplistic, this is the story of a family living their lives and going about their business.  But Eleanor does realize that she used to be the youngest person on the omnibus, but now she is the oldest.  The portraits of the matriarch and patriarch of the family hanging on the wall eventually become nothing more than pieces of art to the young visiting Abercorn Terrace.  The central characters at the beginning of the story have faded away, replaced by the next generation, and so it goes.

   'The years changed things, destroyed things; heaped things up - worries and bothers; here they were again.'

Published in 1937, The Years sold extremely well.  Why it isn't more popular today is a mystery as it's very accessible and the descriptions of London are beautifully captured.  I could start it all over again.  Highly recommended!

Two Women Having Tea by Frank S. Desch

7 June 2019

The Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

All of the flowerpots have been planted and the gardens, front and back, are pretty much sorted.  We've had quite a bit of rain lately so everything that's green is absolutely glowing so the hum of lawnmowers is almost constant today.  Here's to a long stretch of sunny days and reading on the patio and intermittent games of 'Throw My Spitty Ball' with Kip.  I digress. 

It doesn't sit well to 'enjoy' a Blitz memoir but I do find them incredibly inspiring and humbling.  They're also an interesting way to learn about the politics of this era through its citizens rather than its politicians or newsmakers.  A Chelsea Concerto is among the best I've read, right up there with Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges.

Frances Faviell was born in 1905.  After her studies at the Slade School, the end of her first marriage, and extensive travel while working as a nurse, Frances earned extra money painting portraits in her Chelsea flat.  She begins her memoir with a description of a 'silly' exercise in Civil Defence that has members of the community acting as casualties while appointees conduct a drill.  What these civilians don't realize is that after the calm of the Phoney War, Germany is preparing to drop bombs by the thousands from fighter planes bound for England.  The air raids will be relentless and Chelsea, located along the Thames, will be hit again and again.

It's impossible not to be impressed with Frances's willingness to volunteer wherever there was a need.  She registered as a Flemish translator when Whitehall sent out the call, and acted as an intermediary for a large refugee community.  A deep commitment to help meant Frances had any number of people pleading their cause.  Catherine, eighteen and pregnant, was desperate not to be sent back to Brussels where her baby would be listed as a 'bastarde' on the birth certificate.  Frances sought housing and support for Catherine and her baby, even taking the baby into her own home when Catherine needed special medical care.  An ongoing situation that was also deeply affecting was that of a German refugee whose anguish led to a mental breakdown and a suicide attempt.  But on a lighter note, Frances also takes in a billet from the Canadian army, offers up a constant supply of soup for anyone needing a light meal, and even puts out incendiary fires with her fiancĂ© for fun.

'Domestic servants, already on the decline before the war, were rapidly disappearing, and owners of large houses were closing them and moving to hotels.'

The lack of domestic servants would soon be the least of the worries of the wealthier set and the rationing of tea caused an outcry from everyone.  Out of curiousity I measured out the allotted two ounces a week per person with some Kusmi muslin tea bags and it came out to twenty.  A decision would have to be made as to more cups of weak tea or fewer strong ones.  Also, the sobering image of people wearing gas masks was made hilarious when one woman at a lecture said that her eyes didn't water if she wore the mask while peeling onions.  In response, the other women yelled 'where did you get the onions?'.  In fact, Frances wrote that the best gift she received at one point was two onions.

While Frances writes about her tireless service and camaraderie with the community there are also some very harrowing scenes.  Frances was tasked with collecting body parts after bombing raids to allow for as complete a burial as possible.  She also described being lowered, upside down, into a small opening to administer chloroform to a man so horribly wounded she vomits repeatedly when she is brought out.  In photographs the Underground looks like a safe haven during the night, but the stench was so awful it lead Frances to think of the shelter nurses as true heroines.

   'Richard and I were married during one of London's heaviest day-light raids.  Because of this none of our guests turned up for the ceremony - and, what was more important, neither of the witnesses did.  We went out into the deserted street and found two taxi-drivers....'

Frances was in her mid-thirties at this point and becoming pregnant for the first time...'a nebulous dream of the future...' did little to slow down her work for the community.  Then one night....

   'The raid became heavier and heavier after we reached home.  The wardens were all out - we had met Nonie Iredale-Smith and George Evans and several others hurrying on their bicycles.  And sitting in the road, oblivious to the noise of the guns, was the faithful Peer Gynt (a dog that loved Frances's little dachshund).  I tried unsuccessfully to send him home.  I was no longer on duty.  Betty Compton had said that the refugees took up enough of my time and as the raids were lessening I should do as our gynecologist wished and take things more easily.  It seemed strange not to rush to change into my uniform and report to the FAP or at the Control Centre.'

Heading for the lower level of their flat, Frances described the strange hush before they took a direct hit.  Shielding her unborn baby and small dog, she waited in terror as the house fell around her.  Frances, her husband and their dog eventually made it out of the rubble.  An eerie aspect is that, covered in plaster dust, no one recognized her and word had circulated that she must have been killed.  I read the last forty pages with an intense gaze and there wasn't much that would have stirred me.

Thank you to Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow, and Dean Street Press for reissuing this valuable memoir and piece of history.  And by the way, I did wonder about the cover art and why a cat would feature so prominently in a scene from the Blitz.  The image is from a painting by Frances and the cat is a statue she acquired in Peking in 1937.  She was told that the green cat, if treated with respect, would keep her home safe and prosperous.  Set on the sill of the front window the cat was admired by many walking past, even in defiance of German bombs.....for awhile.

Corporal J M Robins, MM, WAAF by Laura Knight
1941

19 May 2019

Eleanor O. and an Itinerary

There are a few women in my neighbourhood who are good friends because dogs brought us together.  Letting the dogs play has evolved into wine on the patio (as it will) every now and then.  Just over a year ago we talked about starting a book club with my choice of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry as the book to start things off.  At the inaugural meeting it turned out that two of us had finished the book (in my case, a reread) while the other four members bailed before the ending.  As a way to smooth things over, I was asked to suggest something else for further down the road.  'The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is a wonderful read!' I said.  Our host shouted 'What?!'  Apparently her other book group were not at all keen when they read it earlier that year.  To be fair, I wasn't excited about their choices either so I bowed out gracefully.  We still chat about the dogs and drink wine on the patio but when it comes to books I break from the pack. 

A few weeks ago, one of the book club members asked me to join in for their next read.  It was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and my friend just so happened to have two copies at home.  'Oh alright then'.  To be Completely Honest I wasn't expecting to like it.  

With over 39,000 reviews on Goodreads and more than 6,000 on Amazon there can't possibly be many readers out there who don't know what this book is about so I'll take a pass on repeating the synopsis.  What I will say is the same message was often relayed on podcasts I listen to....woman leaves work on Friday, spends her weekend drinking alone, then goes back to work on Monday.  Yes, loneliness plays a part in the story but after only a few pages I was smiling....and slightly worried because, just like Eleanor, I also enjoy the Daily Telegraph and The Archers and am very okay with my own company. 

Talking about the book with a colleague at the library I said 'I'm laughing but something tells me I shouldn't be'. Eleanor is doing her best under circumstances that can sometimes crush people; you can't help but root for her.  Gail Honeyman has done a wonderful job of portraying an unsettling aspect of the human psyche while still allowing the sun to shine through the clouds.  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was an unexpected reading pleasure and I'm very glad my arm was twisted to read the book. 

Reading time is competing with trip planning as I'm going to London in September!  On my list so far is a tour of the London Library, Tate Britain, The Guildhall Art Gallery, Churchill War Rooms, Fenton House and Burgh House in Hampstead, Dulwich Village, and mulling day trips to Charleston Farmhouse or Knole.  Persephone Books is hosting a talk on Anna Gmeyner and Elisabeth de Waal that sounds very interesting, and I'm watching the British Library's events page for their talks. 

No one wants to wish away the next few months of glorious weather but I'm so looking forward to being in London again.

Fenton House
Hampstead