29 November 2019

London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

While watching World on Fire recently, I was especially interested in Helen Hunt's character, Nancy, an American journalist detailing events during WWII from the Polish-German border.   The content of one particular report was enough to concern a member of the Nazi Party into bullying her.  Refusal to comply with his 'request' to pull the piece would result in dire consequences against Nancy's German friends.  Bearing witness to the impact of war is an incredibly vital role.   When World on Fire ended I went straight to the shelves and grabbed my copy of London War Notes.

Already a successful novelist, Panter-Downes was in her mid-thirties when asked to write a regular column for the New Yorker.   From 1939 to 1945 she wrote 153 letters to its American readers describing the mood of  London's citizens, the details of rationing, the results of European invasions and the political landscape.  Living in Haslemere, Panter-Downes would travel to London for short periods of time each week to collect notes before returning home to write her article.  Then it had to be delivered....

'...transported by car or bicycle through the blackout to the guard on a London-bound train, where it would be met by a Western Union messenger who cabled it to New York.'

From the first pages of real-time reporting it's impossible not to feel downcast about almost everyone's optimism that the war would be over in a matter of months.  Rationing isn't much of a concern, but the blue light installed in train carriages makes reading at night nearly impossible.  But, if you nurse a cup of coffee in the Dining Car, the blackout curtains allow a relatively bright light to read by.  Reading these notes with hindsight we're aware of just how minuscule a small thing such as a reading light will be once the bombing begins.  An uneasy feeling ripples through parents when The Express published a slogan saying '...every schoolboy who could throw a cricket ball was perfectly capable of throwing a grenade'.

With a strong resolve to plow ahead and tackle incidents with a 'come what may' attitude, one delicatessen in Aldersgate posted a sign after suffering bomb damage that read 'We are wide open'.  Customers visiting the shop enjoyed the novelty of entering and leaving the shop through the front window.  After a sweet shop was damaged during a bombing raid, two little boys had the time of their lives helping themselves to a few treats.  A crime of opportunity I certainly wouldn't begrudge them!

There were two particular points made that I hadn't really given thought to before.  The first was an appeal to the families of service men and women to regularly write letters assuring them that everyone was safe back in England.  We're used to the image of a relieved family receiving word that their son or daughter is safe while serving their country abroad.  Women and men stationed in the midst of war were every bit as worried about their families in England surviving the night during German air raids.  The second interesting point is that Americans living in London were not allowed to send letters to the States asking for items such as food.

'The official attitude toward food parcels is divided between reluctance to check these friendly impulses and a wish that precious shipping space could be left clear for bulk consignments, which would benefit the many instead of the few.' 

There were other advantages that pertained to the few over the many.  Those fortunate enough to be of the middle and upper classes with a home in the countryside were scoffed at for abandoning London during extended raids, then popping back to London for supplies when it quieted down. 

By the end of June, 1941 Panter-Downes was expressing the British public's view that America should become actively engaged in the the war against Germany.  She then follows this up with the  sentiment that British schools will be adding more American content to their history lessons....so that they will have the right background for telling their children about Anglo-American co-operation'.  The message is a soft sell but she makes her point.

London War Notes is a collection of Panter-Downes columns that can be dipped in and out of; each year of the war begins with a page listing the dates and topic covered.  I chose to read this collection from cover to cover and feel the experience was all the richer for it.  Reading the columns in order brought to life the highs and lows of each passing year.  British citizens were anxious about the start of another war but there was optimism and even some excitement.  The span of time during the middle of the war was filled with weariness, short tempers, and worry about a German invasion.  As the end of the war edges closer and victory is within sight, jubilation and a surge of renewed strength ripples through every community.

The last few pages describe Churchill's declaration over the radio that the war was over and the sea of people spilling onto the streets of London to celebrate.  Conga lines wound their way along Piccadilly and thousands upon thousands congregated in front of Buckingham Palace to see the Royal family and cheer.  They shouted for Winston Churchill to appear on the balcony and screamed their approval when he did.  There's footage on youtube which was fun to see.  As night falls, and not all streetlights are working, it really gives you a sense of how dangerous it would have been navigating through the dark.

A valuable collection for anyone interested in World War II chronicles.  I certainly took away plenty of new knowledge and understanding.  My particular interest is the social history aspect of this era but there's also an equally valuable amount of writing that covers the political arena, wartime policy and maneuvering between countries to satisfy any reader's area of interest.   

Celebrating VE Day on Piccadilly - 8 May, 1945

14 November 2019

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

In 2017, our local bookstore chain Chapters moved to another location in the city.   Because it's easier to sell off stock than pack it up, the prices eventually dropped to clearance rates.  I remember pressing $2 copies of Lissa Evans Crooked Heart into the hands of browsers because it's such a sure-fire pleaser with wide appeal.  A small stack of copies of Gillespie and I  were on the same table, triggering the memory of a favourable review by Rachel (Book Snob).  Feeling utterly indifferent about a novel set in Victorian Glasgow but loathe to leave a book sale empty-handed I added it to my basket.  And a good thing too, because it is brilliant.

Harriet Baxter is living in Bloomsbury and writing her memoir, specifically focusing on the time she spent with her dear friend, the artist Ned Gillespie and his family.  Moving back and forth between two time periods: 1933 and 1888, Harriet portrays herself as a loving stepdaughter and endlessly supportive friend.  As readers we know not to trust a first-person narrative, don't we.

After the death of an aunt she has been caring for, and in need of a change of scenery, Harriet leaves London in favour of Glasgow.  A small annuity from her grandfather affords a simple but comfortable existence for this spinster in her mid-thirties.  Harriet is well-turned out, pays scrupulous attention to etiquette, and considers herself a modern woman.  Settling into her new accommodation near West End Park, Harriet spends the next few days visiting the first ever Glasgow International Exhibition.  One afternoon while browsing shop windows, Harriet sees a woman lying on the pavement in a state of medical emergency.  The woman's daughter-in-law desperately looks around for help.  With some knowledge of first-aid, Harriet rushes in and saves the woman from choking to death.  The usual form of payment for being saved from the brink of death is naturally, an invitation to tea.  Harriet promptly accepts the invitation and calls on the Gillespie's.....

   'In contrast to Queen's Crescent (a well-kept terrace of houses sat behind a pretty communal garden) Stanley Street was rather less attractive: a short thoroughfare, flanked by spiked iron blackened by carbonic deposits, the whole vista made all the more sombre by a lack of open spaces or greenery.  These were still respectable dwellings: indeed, it seemed that a well-known composer resided across the landing from the Gillespies.  However, most of the inhabitants of Stanley Street were much less affluent than their neighbours in some of the very grand terraces nearby.'

If only Elspeth had regained consciousness, brushed off her skirt, and went on her way with a thank-you, the future would have been much brighter for the Gillespie family.  But like a cuckoo in the nest, Harriet's arrival in their parlour brings a sinister pall over the household.  Decades later, while writing at her desk, Harriet describes the strange happenings, a sudden illness, devastating injuries, and a young child's death as tragic events she was simply caught up in.  At the end of the book I turned back to reread the first few pages; the disparity between perception and reality is spine tingling.

Jane Harris has created one of the slickest depictions of a character with a personality disorder that I can recall.  Because Harriet is so likable you want to give her the benefit of the doubt but acts of kindness could at any time be just that, or the bait to a trap.  Part of the fun is guessing which way things will go at any given time.  I especially enjoyed the author's subtlety when portraying certain scenes, such as the impulsive shaking of a dove's egg to prevent a hatching, much to an admirer's horror.  These aren't the cliched acts of a psychopath but every bit as chilling.

The less said about the plot the better, but I will now be that person who presses a copy of Gillespie and I into the hands of anyone looking for their next cracking good read.  As a heads up, the first third of the story is a slow simmer, but you will reach a point when you can't wait to get home from work so you can dive back into the dark world of Harriet Baxter. 
A fabulous read that will keep the bedside lamp on long after bedtime! 

'Countess de Pourtales, the former Mrs Sebastian Schlesinger' by Sir John Everett Millais 

1 November 2019

Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner's name has been cropping up on podcasts lately, down to her book Lolly Willowes.  With one of its themes being witchcraft I can see why it would be an obvious choice as an October read.  My shelves are devoid of a copy of said book but Summer Will Show (1936) has been languishing for ages so it was time to bite the bullet (a French Revolution one at that) and find out what this author has to offer.

The story begins with Sophia Willoughby walking carefully in her silk gown as she inspects the livery that will take her to see the Duke of Wellington.  She is the heiress of Mr and Mrs Aspen of Blandamer House and mother to Master Damian and Augusta.  Her husband Frederick.....well, their marriage has been over for some time and Sophia is far from broken up about it.  Sophia was never deeply in love but marriage provided a small measure of independence and future heirs to the family fortune.  As for Frederick, his bank account is all the better as his contribution to the union was a dowry of debt.

It is hardly a spoiler to say that the Willoughby children die after contracting smallpox, the blurb on the back cover spills the beans.  Sophia's belief that inhaling fumes from the local lime-kiln will rid the children of their whooping cough, tragically exposes them to the kiln master's boils.  Frederick arrives from Paris to be with Augusta (his favourite), whispering Ma fleur as she takes her last breath.  In a shockingly short span of time, Frederick returns to Paris and his mistress, Minna.

What sets this book apart from other stories with themes of infidelity, abandonment and childhood mortality is that the female protagonist does not crumble.  Sophia mourns the loss of her children but having experienced life as a wife and mother, now without ties to either role, she contemplates the path ahead.  I can hear the book club discussions raging about whether or not Sophia's actions are cold or one of self-preservation.  Calling on the doctor's wife, Sophia is told she is unwell with morning sickness....

'Yet in such a narrow den of gentility, and with such a mother, a young woman would bear a child.  Yes, and another, and another; and grow middle-aged, and grow old, and die, and be buried under a neat headstone, describing her as a beloved wife.'

Worse than death, Sophia realizes that this sort of life for a woman means life-long imprisonment and she is still tethered by the labels of wife and mother.  Apparently her hormones are also a factor because despite questioning a woman's lot in life, Sophia cannot deny her urge to have another child.  Considering her options it becomes clear....for all intents and purposes Frederick is still her husband and she will attempt a no-strings conception.  In yards of black mourning clothes, Sophia arrives at rue de la Carabine, the home of Frederick's mistress.  The apartment is heaving with bohemians attending a gathering but Sophia is able to slip quietly to a spot at the back.  Everyone is focused on Minna as she describes her survival of a massacre in the village she lived in as a child in Lithuania.  Minna is Jewish.  Sophia is immediately entranced.

Sylvia Townsend Warner - you are incredible!  Why has it taken me so long to read this book?!  I couldn't wait to get home from work, clear my list of things to do, and steal some time to read before dinner.  And then, within a dozen or so pages, Townsend Warner lost me.  Sophia's arrival in Paris in 1848 coincides with the French  Revolution and the author's meticulous research on the subject was just too much for me to absorb.  My attention span would waver which resulted in losing a sense of place and certain peripheral characters just didn't stick.

But back to Sophia.....most people of means would turn on their heel and hire the first boat leaving Calais but Sophia is drawn to the cause and has become loyal to Minna.   Fairly quickly, Sophia is familiar with pawn shops and sizing up the value of her diamond ring and brooches.  In fulfilling herself by helping Minna and the revolution, she is also depleting every resource she can get her hands on.  Frederick cuts Sophia off from the avails of her inheritance which makes her feminist blood boil but she refuses to be thwarted.  The other side of the coin is that Frederick is familiar with Minna's history as a thief and is concerned about the women's relationship and motive.

The last twenty-five or thirty pages pulled me right back in, packing emotional blow after blow.  I did that thing we readers do when the last page has been turned and we're in denial.  I flipped back, checked that pages hadn't somehow become stuck together, read the last page again and felt a bit sad that it was over.

While mired deep among the barricades, fires, shootings and arrests, I wondered who I could pass this book onto next.  But for now it's going back on my shelf for another read one day.

 Women marching to Versailles

17 October 2019

The Easter Party by Vita Sackville-West

This novel from 1953 was unknown to me, but the Oxfam bookshop in Bloomsbury was closing in ten minutes which meant no dithering.  Without a blurb to be found, I opened the book and caught the description of a luncheon (never just lunch) menu featuring curried eggs and a macedoine of fruit.  Oh yes, this will definitely be worth the £3 noted on the first page.

The opening scenes of The Easter Party centre around two households in very different economic circumstances.  Sackville-West brilliantly provides every domestic detail with a tone that equals one of those black and white Sunday afternoon movies that are perfect on a rainy day.  And then the author begins to drop hints....strife in a marriage, a secret, criminality, and an impending tragedy.  If you're in the mood for a bit of melodrama with what feels like a late 1940s backdrop you won't be disappointed.

Rose Mortibois invites her sister's family to Anstey, her husband's ancestral home in the English countryside.  Sir Walter Mortibois, QC is very successful, dedicating nearly all of his waking hours to his office and the courts.  At first glance it would seem that Rose leads the life of a socialite but when Walter leaves for work she wanders the house rearranging objects on the tables.  She is bored.

Rose's sister Lucy lives with her husband, an unsuccessful stockbroker, in a modest home, anxiously awaiting their son's return from four years in the Colonial Service.  The married couple are the picture of devotion, referring to each other as 'Pudding', although Lucy frets over how to tell Dick it might sound a bit common in the setting of a country house.  There are glaring differences in the lives these sisters lead solely down to the earning power of each woman's husband.  Sackville-West makes a point of showing the reader that Sir Walter reads The Times while Dick's paper of choice is the Daily Mail.

Another guest invited to Anstey is the effervescent and notorious Lady Juliet Quarles.   When Walter finds out about the additional guest he adds, with a rare bit of humour.....

'Oh, I adore her,' he said lightly.  'Is her heart broken at the moment, or is it intact, or has it found a new occupation?  If so, will she want to bring the occupation with her?  In any case, if Juliet is coming remember to order some more brandy.'

To even out the adult guests for the Bank Holiday weekend, Rose rings her brother-in-law, Gilbert.  He's described as a 'brain specialist', but Rose is quick to put her sister at ease by mentioning that he's very easy going.  My mind did wander to the notion that in today's world it would be nigh on impossible to find a psychiatrist and a QC with a calendar free of appointments for three days.  I digress.

Over the course of the weekend layers are peeled away to reveal the private thoughts, and sometimes anguish, of each guest.  One of the saddest situations being that of Rose, who at only forty-five is desperately lonely in her marriage.  Walter was upfront when he proposed, telling Rose their marriage would be in name only.  As a very young woman wanting more than village life the offer was a way of changing her circumstance, but her life has been devoid of intimacy.  Rose realizes that Walter's steely nature is a weakness rather than a strength and admits to Gilbert....'I wish also that he could have suffered.'  This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that will change lives.

I am so glad to have found this book.  At times it is over the top but the overall picture of another time balances out the melodrama.  The snobby butler, cars on gravel paths, straight razors and shaving soap, and I would love to know if Lady Quarles was drawn from someone in Vita Sackville-West's sphere of acquaintances.  She's quite wild!  The author's love of dogs is certainly apparent given the important part Svend the Alsatian plays in the story.

The Edwardians has been languishing on my shelves for years but The Easter Party has given me the push to read it sooner rather than later.

Portrait of Mrs Herbert Spencer by Joseph Kleitsch