29 April 2013

Flea Market Book Finds

 Hmmm...spend time in the garden tidying up or jump in the car for a drive in the countryside that will take us to the opening day of an outdoor flea market?  Well, there were also a few outbuildings absolutely crammed with all sorts of junk and treasure.  One vendor had tables and tables full of books - they were $2 for 1 or $5 for 3.  I found...

...an E. M. Delafield, a Folio Society edition of The Diary of a Nobody, and a lovely orange Penguin by Ann Bridge.

I don't know how such a lovely book came to be shoved into the bottom of a box full of discarded coffee table books on flower arranging, cooking and paperbacks from the 70s but there it was.  And an American first edition at that.

Another irresistible item that I brought home is a pamphlet from the 30s or 40s advertising vegetable compound tablets.  Chock full of anecdotal evidence of its efficacy from women laid up by everything from menstrual discomfort, ovarian pain, and lack of energy after the birth of a ninth child.  Also included were some cringe-worthy recipes such as...


3 cups shredded cabbage                 1 cup crushed pineapple
pinch of salt

Moisten with salad dressing to taste and mix lightly with two forks.  Serve on a lettuce leaf.  Sprinkle with paprika if desired.

Pass your plate if you're interested....or brave.

25 April 2013

Nella Last's War edited by Patricia & Robert Malcolmson

Stories about daily life from the Home Front fascinate me.  I think it has something to do with the paradoxical notion of child-rearing and hanging out the wash during the day while dodging bombs from warplanes at night.  The pride to be had in a bountiful table while queueing for rations in the afternoon.  Mesmerizing images of women clad in feminine prints and high heels daintily scouting a route through the rubble that is their village without the slightest hint of shock.  Domestic soldiers.

Nella's writings weren't exactly on my mind, Delafield and Bowen were, but when I saw this book in a second-hand shop in Charing Cross Road last October I didn't think twice.  It contains excerpts from the diaries she kept from 1939 - 1965 as part of a Mass Observation project and is divided into two parts: War and Peace.  At this point I've only read her writings from during the war as that is what interests me most but plan to go back for more soon.

Beginning her writings with the headline Housewife, 49 (her age) Nella describes her thoughts about a war which at first seems a million miles away from Barrow-in-Furness.  Her eldest son Arthur is training to be a tax inspector while living in Manchester and his brother Cliff is about to be called into service.  Her husband, Will, would appear to be one of the most frustrating stick-in-the-mud types you could ever meet.

'It's a good thing that my husband likes his bed and insists I go up when he does.  I feel so over strung tonight I 'could fly' and know if left alone would have gone on sewing - silly to knock oneself up so early.'

Nella's writing must have been quite therapeutic as well as a documentary on life during wartime.  Her voice is very much that of a woman frustrated by the confines of marriage.  In many ways, the war provided an arena for her to utilize her organizational abilities and if she couldn't exude much in the way of control at home she could at the Red Cross canteen.  Her discerning eye taking in every aspect from how much food 'the conchies' (conscientious objectors) got at mealtimes to the slipping standards of women in their dress...

'I could not help but think that many women are seizing the excuse of there 'being a war on' to give full rein to all the sloppy lazy streaks in their make-up.  When the raids were on anything could be understood or forgiven - but WHY NOW?  Surely it's best to try and keep on as usual and not let go and grow careless and untidy?'

One of the vignettes from the book that stood out for me is of one of the ladies helping out at the canteen and her expanding girth.  The fact that her husband had been absent for over a year while she had a close friendship with a South African officer was cause for much speculation.  Once she realized her changing shape was being sized up she announced a case of fibroids and wore her coat over her dress for the duration.  The fact that there is a wire cage in the front room to sleep under, cracks in the walls from bomb blasts and food shortages to deal with were just part of life but if social mores were deviated from it would amount to endless conversation.  Even the editors of her diaries note that the amount of gossip was extensive at times but if I'm honest it makes for some of the best reading.

Nella was extremely proud of her domestic skills and would clean alongside her cleaning lady.  Even if her husband was a bore she still worked tirelessly to put on as grand a spread for him as she could at dinnertime....

'I opened a small tin of grapefruit and served it first and then the roast lamb, baked potatoes and brown gravy and lots of lovely sweet sprouts from the garden.  Then jellied apple pie, warm and fragrant with custard sauce....Everything was perfection and I could have purred like a happy cat.'

For Nella at least, and perhaps many women, the war was a chance to shine.  It was an equalizer for those who became head of their household and young ladies who worked at the Yard alongside the men in trade.  I have to say that at times I did find Nella's 'high and mighty' opinions a bit tiresome but overall the glimpses into her life were very interesting and insightful - not to mention addictive.  Like eating a bowl of chips it was hard to stop and one entry would easily cascade into the next and the tasks needing attention on my own homefront were neglected.

My favourite war diary from one of England's 'domestic soldiers' remains to be Vere Hodgson's No Eggs and Few Oranges for its blitz spirit and images of London but first-hand stories from this era are finite and all are priceless.

Nella Last

10 April 2013

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

'To the Italian Riviera hotel of my first novel succeeded the large, lonely Irish house.  I am, and am bound to be, a writer involved closely with place and time; for me these are more than elements, they are actors.  The impending close of 'the season', everyone leaving, gives climax to the drama of The Hotel.'

The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen
Edited by Hermione Lee

Oh, this was lovely.  It took me ages to get through because...well, it's Elizabeth Bowen and you absolutely must drink in every heavenly bit of prose that drained from her inkwell.  The Hotel was her first novel and while the average reader, if there is such a thing, could be forgiven for thinking the language bogs a bit I found it to be quite readable.  What is clearly evident in this book is that by the age of twenty-eight, Elizabeth Bowen was destined to shine in literary circles.

Published in 1927, the Italian Riviera is the backdrop for a group of upper-class English holidaymakers...'an ideal place to spend the winter'.  Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald have had a tiff and must find ways of avoiding each other for the time being.  The glamourous Mrs Kerr is searching for young Sydney Warren whose company she seeks out more than any other, a sort of protégé.  With swishing pleated skirts, parasols, and loose gauntlet gloves to protect her ivory skin from the sun, Mrs Kerr begrudgingly invites Miss Pym to accompany her to the tennis courts.  A coup indeed for the timid woman. 

The atmosphere is something like a Merchant Ivory film with its rich seaside scenery, siestas from the heat, romantic pairings, tea-filled afternoons, and a lift with a steel gate, no less.  Mr and Mrs Lee-Mittison (always with knitting close at hand) provide much of the social observations, the eyes of the group shall we say.  In one of the more hilarious scenes Mrs Pinkerton ('...with her Olympic cloud of hair') and her sister-in-law encounter an unwelcome guest in their bathroom.  It's supposed to be a shared bath but there is an 'understanding' with the other guests.  Let's set the scene shall we...

'...here in white-tiled sanctuary their bowls of soap, their loofahs: here, too, their maid could do their smaller washing and hang the garments up to dry before the radiator.  There generally were garments drying there, the two distrusted foreign laundresses, perhaps with reason.'

Then James Milton, the awkward clergyman, arrives...

'...going upstairs directly after his arrival locked himself into Mrs Pinkerton's bathroom.  Here he hoped to remove by steaming and by prolonged immersion the grime, ingrained in one till one is almost polished, of a transcontinental journey....He did not notice the bath salts, but, unthinkingly, made full use of the loofah...'

Can you imagine a more cringeworthy moment for the poor Pinkertons?  Oh the upheaval and anxiety!

As the season reaches its end and conclusions become crucial the chapters unfold like acts in a play and in one of my favourite scenes (read three times) from 'Cemetery'...

'Candles for the peculiar glory of the lately dead had been stuck in the unhealed earth; here and there a flame in a glass shade writed, opaque in the sunshine.  Above all this uneasy rustle of remembrance, white angels poised forward to admonish....Everywhere, in ribbons, marbles, porcelains was a suggestion of the 'salon', and nowhere could the significance of death have been brought forward more startingly.
"I must say, 'remarked Cordelia, 'I do like Italian graves; they look so much more lived in."'

This is a book to be revisited again and again; something tells me the better you get to know the characters the more there will be to admire and amuse any reader.  Don't ask me to choose a favourite novel by Bowen; so far I like each one I have read but if you are new to her work then I would highly suggest this as an excellent place to start.

5 April 2013

Manet and Popcorn

Plopping down onto the sofa in our staffroom the other day I searched the coffee table for something to read while I topped up on yogurt and muffin.  A movie magazine really didn't look all that appealing with Robert Downey Jr. on the cover in the guise of a comic book hero but I flipped through it anyway.  I am so glad that I did!

Cineplex has been branching out in exciting ways.  Last year my husband and I were able to see One Man Two Guvs with James Corden on a Saturday afternoon at our local cinema.  Two trips to London and we couldn't get past the box office as tickets were completely sold out.  Filmed at the National Theatre it was almost as good as being right there in the audience and there were no worries about obstructed views or sitting behind someone a whole head taller than we are.

One of the many things I love about London is the culture and wealth of art.  I daydream about spending a whole afternoon of gazing at a mere handful of paintings instead of zipping through galleries like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland because the clock is ticking on my travels.  In a new venture, Cineplex is bringing an exhibit in London to me and it won't stop there, over the next few months two more exhibits will be showing at neighbourhood cinemas here in Canada. 

I have been spreading the word to everyone who crosses my path and hopefully the turnout will be such that head office will take note and give the culturally deprived even more.  In an age when digital downloads are reducing the number of people plunking down money for movie tickets I think this is a brilliant strategy.  Next week is Manet: Portraying Life and while it won't be the same without the tube ride, architecture, and stop at a Marks & Spencer Food Hall it will be the next best thing.

The Railway by Édouard Manet (1873)

2 April 2013

Rescued From the Bin

The timing couldn't have been better.  I rescued these from the discard bin at the library...

...with this...

...just a couple of pages away on the calendar.  For more details click here, you will find yourself at Thomas's blog My Porch. 

All of sudden I don't mind being surrounded by people who love contempory fiction, people who would have brushed these aside.  They will have a very nice home with me!