30 April 2014

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Sunday was a great day to take my car out for a nice drive in the country.  It wasn't a pokey drive along stretches of quiet tree-lined lanes but rather a direct route with an 80 mph limit.  Just the thing for blowing the cobwebs out of the engine due to my puttering around calming zones, school crossings and a ridiculously short commute to work.

It was opening weekend for the Aberfoyle Flea Market.  The air had a cool bite, all the better for eating french fries smothered in gravy (I'm eating healthier but never proclaimed to be a saint!).

We met a man standing in the corner of a large stall, sharing the space, guarding a single bookcase.  There was a common thread running through the collection that seemed to speak of the reading tastes of one person.  My guess was an aged mother or aunt...and she liked Viragoes.  The seller's asking price was 50 cents each.

I'm not too sure about The Daisy Chain by Charlotte M. Yonge but for the price I can afford to be wrong.  The Virago Book of Ghost Stories features stories by E. M. Delafield, Winifred Holtby, Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Elizabeth Jenkins, Enid Bagnold...Stella Gibbons...need I go on?  As for The Duchess of Jermyn Street the back cover says it's 'the real life model that was the inspiration for BBC Television's Duchess of Duke Street.  Last, but not least, is Elizabeth von Arnim's Vera which I know nothing about but the first page has roped me in.  Apparently it's quite autobiographical and according to von Arnim, her best work.  Let's hope it fixes a bit of a reading slump (otherwise known as 'reading ADHD') I've been experiencing these past couple of weeks.

The two little Wade figures now decorate my bookcase.  They used to come in boxes of Red Rose tea...ooh, it must be over forty years ago.  Just about every house had several of these lining a shelf when I was in elementary school.  My mother had a shadow box hanging above the telephone table that held sixteen little creatures.  Oh, the things that were tossed over the years that we now spend money on to get back.

25 April 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1888 - 1923

Saturday:  This joy of being alone.  What is it?  I feel so gay and at peace - the whole house takes the air.  Lunch is ready.  I have a baked egg, apricots and cream, cheese straws and black coffee.  How delicious!  A baby meal!  Athenaeum is asleep and then awake on the studio sofa.  He has a silver spoon of cream - them hides under the sofa frill and puts out a paw for my finger.  I gather the dried leaves from the plant in the big white bowl, and because I must play with something, I take an orange up to my room and throw it and catch it as I walk up and down.


  'Still Life with Oranges' by George Hume Barne

18 April 2014

Happy Easter

It was at a vintage paper and book show in Toronto last year that I first discovered the whimsical art of Charles van Sandwyck.  His adorable-beyond-words cast of woodland animals make me smile but the price of his storybooks will make your eyes water, although the detail involved makes them worth every penny.  A box of cards would be quite reasonable and lovely for sharing with friends...or hoarding.

Have a wonderful Easter weekend!

Mr. Rabbit & Basket 

15 April 2014

Back by Henry Green

For the past several years a large portion of my reading has been inspired by the World War II era.  And a great chunk of that has centered around the lives of women on the Home Front.  After reading the astoundingly excellent (favourite read of 2013) The Love Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel last autumn, centering on literary greats such as Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Graham Greene and Henry Green, I am stretching out a bit.  Time to learn more from the soldier's perspective.

Published in 1946, Back is about Charley Summers and the devastating effects of war and shell shock once those in active duty return home.  Returning to England after being confined as a POW in Germany for three years, and minus one leg, one of the first things Charley does is to visit the grave of his lover, Rose.

'For Rose had died while he was in France, he said over and over under his breath.  She was dead, and he did not hear until he was a prisoner.  She had died and this sort of sad garden was where they had put her without him, and, as he looked about while he leaned on the gate, he felt she must surely have come as a stranger when her time came, that if a person's nature is at all alive after he or she has gone, then she could never have imagined herself here nailed into a box, in total darkness, briar roots pushing down to the red hair of which she had been so proud and fond.'

Emotionally fragile and lacking focus, Charley has lost the one thing he treasured most.  But, Rose was never completely his as she was married to James.  While searching gravestones, Charley hears a man call out to him - it's James accompanied by his six year-old son, Ridley.  The child that Rose was carrying while having an affair with Charley.  

Parentage comes up again when Charley pays a visit to Rose's parents' home.  Mr Grant has been caring for his wife who has never been quite the same since their daughter died and she is exhibiting signs of dementia.  Pulling a card from his pocket, Mr Grant gives Charley the number of his daughter, Nance, conceived during a fling with another woman.  It's all a bit crass but Nance's husband, an RAF pilot, was killed in action and Mr Grant feels that, brought together, they could ease each other's loneliness.  Initially revolted by the idea of another woman he inevitably finds himself at her door and nothing in his wildest imagination could have prepared him for what he sees...a woman bearing Rose's exact features. To say anymore would deprive a future reader of the pleasure of watching a tortured soul rise to the surface of an immense black hole.  

I began this book thinking that perhaps it wasn't quite what I was hoping for; it was far from cosy, there was nary a description of furnishing or surroundings.  But before reaching the midway point, Back was a book that I couldn't put down.  This book is stripped down to the characterization and anything else would have distracted from the main point. Sebastian Faulks put it so eloquently when he wrote about Green's work in an article for The Guardian...

'He seemed to have redrawn the familiar triangle between reader, writer and character, so that you somehow had the impression that you knew his characters better than he himself did. So real were they, so grand yet so fragile, that one felt protective of them - protective even against the plotting of the author.'

Enough said.

14 April 2014

Elora Antiques and E. M. Delafield

Yesterday my husband and I took a drive out to Elora for their annual Spring Antique Sale, although, it was a first-time experience for us.  The skies were threatening rain but the temperatures were forecast to hit 22C and after one of the worst winters in recent history we were desperate to get out.  Anywhere!

We didn't have our eye out for anything particular but there was certainly lots to feast on.  One of the first booths we visited had a ladies WWII swastika-laden link bracelet and all sorts of images of 1940s Berlin went through my head.  The booth next door had a WWI sweetheart pin of miniature pilot's wings with happier connotations.  I would have loved to own it but it seemed such a shame to put something so precious away in a box for safekeeping and away from other appreciative eyes.  The Norwegian Bridal Casket pictured below is from the 1700s and meant to store items for a young lady's trousseau but...oh dear, the term 'casket'.  

 A few dealers had a supply of books and as one would expect they mostly covered various bits of Canadiana (not that there is anything wrong with that).  But then, as my finger trailed along the spines on one shelf I found this...

...a hard to find E. M. Delafield title (not that I knew that at the time).  It was priced at $3 so there was really nothing to think about.  It was published in 1939 and a first edition - unless it was a complete one off collection.  In any case, I was as pleased as punch with my new treasure.  The dedication made me laugh and have all the more affection for the author....


Once we had finished having a super time scouring through the rest of the booths we drove into town for something to eat.  Elora is Amish country so you can expect to find buggy parking next to car parks.  

Since going gluten and dairy-free last September it has been ever so slightly challenging at times when it comes to dining out.  My husband loves nothing more than a menu full of pub grub but I steered him towards The Desert Rose Cafe.  Its friendly staff, cosy kitsch decor and communal tables made for a delightful time spent with another couple who also happened to just arrive from the antique show.  The food was so delicious and the downtown so charming, no doubt we'll be back again soon.  

2 April 2014

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London by Judith Flanders

This book first caught my eye in Hatchards while on a trip to London in 2012.  It was hot off the press with a gorgeous cover that roped me in for a closer look.  Full of fascinating tidbits I was dying to take it home with me but its bulky heft meant foreseeable issues with my luggage allowance.  Then as is so often the case I added it to my wishlist and moved on to obsess about other books and authors.  Last month, while browsing the discounted history books at Indigo, there it was.  I wish this was a case of patience being a virtue but it was more like sheer luck.

One of the first pages made me smile with a note on currency.  I don't know how many times I have previously read about a shilling for this or a farthing for that and been completely ignorant as to the impact of that amount on the average Victorian citizen.  A couple of years ago a colleague and I spent a shift at the library nabbing everyone over a certain age, with an English accent, for a tutorial but to no avail.  We went through lots of scrap paper and knitted some brows though.  I digress.

Within the first few pages I was transported to London and whipped back in time..

'It is 2.30 in the morning.  It is still night, but it is also 'tomorrow'.  By this hour at Covent Garden market, in the centre of London, the streets are alive.  Long lines of carts and vans and costermongers' barrows are forming in the surrounding streets.  Lights are being lit 'in the upper windows of public houses - not for the inhabitants retiring to rest, but of active proprietors preparing...for the day...The roadway is already blocked up, and the by-streets are rapidly filling.'

In a time before alarm clocks, I loved the image of an arrangement between parties (with a bit of currency changing hands) that had someone on their way home from a hard night's graft rousing their neighbour from slumber with a hard knock on the door.  This book brilliantly gets across the image of a city that is rarely quiet or ever sleeps.  One of the many occupations that took place during the night was the hot-potato seller.  A large tin heated by a charcoal burner from underneath would attract patrons spilling out of the public houses into the cool night air; August to April being the best months for sales.  If the proprietor could afford a bit of tarp to enclose an area it would attract prostitutes as a way to keep warm while upping the chance of doing some business with men full of drink from a public house.

Riding in a hired coach or taking an omnibus was risky business.  In some instances when the route included a steep incline, much as I imagine in the case of Highgate Hill, extra horses would be stationed at the bottom to be hitched up for extra 'horsepower'.  Going downhill was a different matter- young men would be employed to place pallets of wood in front of the wheels to slow down the rate of speed on the decline and rarely was it a notable experience to be thrown now and again.  Also, experiments with different types of road surfacing such as granite cut down on dust and mud but created a thunderous roar from hundreds of hooves up and down Oxford Street.  Such was the noise that shopkeepers could scarcely hear their customers when placing orders.  One passage in a Dickens' novel casually mentions a character requesting the coach driver to pull over onto a side street so he could hear his companion speak (too engrossed in the reading to make note of which novel, apologies).  Just the sort of vignette that would mean absolutely nothing to me as a reader in the twenty-first century but a tidbit of minutiae that educates me in the nuances and difficulties of Victorian travel.

Chapter fifteen sheds light on the world of prostitutes, real and perceived.  I say 'perceived' because of the ridiculous notion that if you were a woman working in certain low-paid occupations you were likely spending some time selling your body to make ends meet.  Flanders couldn't resist a comment which had me applauding...

'Milliners, for example, routinely worked fourteen-hour days, and sixteen in the season.  In view of the difficulties of life that we have seen - and finding time to collect water and so on - it is worth questioning how much time, if not energy, they had for extra-curricular prostitution as well.'

...Hear, Hear!  In coming up with a figure of how many prostitutes were circulating in London during a given year, a panel immediately began their count with the fact that there had been 42,000 births registered to unwed mothers.  Therefore, I can only assume that should a woman have the misfortune of being raped by her employer and becoming pregnant she was deemed a prostitute.  Is it any wonder young women were shortening their already minimal life-expectancy by throwing themselves off of bridges and into the Thames on a regular basis?

My experience with Dickens' work amounts to reading A Christmas Carol and Masterpiece Theatre so it was off to the library shelves for a closer look.  Finding a copy of Sketches by Boz proved to be just the thing when tackling a chunkster isn't quite in the cards.  Filled with articles, essays and short stories from his early experience as a journalist I chose The Bloomsbury Christening about a grumpy bachelor and his brutally honest observations about babies and parenting.  By the time I finished the second page I was so glad to have been educated by Flanders' book as to the ins-and-outs of cross-sweeping boys and omnibus cads.

The Victorian City is page-turning fun if you are interested in that era, have a fondness for London (I am so envious of readers from the Greater London area who will instantly visualize the streets mentioned) or have a fondness for Dickens' storytelling.