31 March 2016

Noonday by Pat Barker

It's a bit of a risk to begin a series with the last book but with London during the Blitz as a backdrop I was excited to dive in and see if it would work.  The first few pages did feel a bit like walking into a house full of strangers but isn't that how we usually begin most stories?

Elinor's extended family have gathered at a cottage where her mother lies in an upstairs bedroom, eking out her last breaths.  Outside there are soldiers in the lane and toy soldiers on the carpet of another bedroom as Kenny, an evacuee, plays in his own little world while picking his cuticles and scabs.  He isn't the sort of boy people warm to easily so when he announces he's heading back to London, even it it means walking, Elinor's husband gives him a lift.  It's also the excuse Paul needs to leave the cloying atmosphere of death and family tension.

The first book in this series  Life Class then followed by Toby's Room centres around a romantic triangle involving Elinor, Paul, and Neville.  Within the first few pages I know which character is on the outside, still looking in.  Neville has eventually gone on to marry and have a child but things didn't worked out.  It has been awhile since he has seen his daughter as she's living with her mother in America.  World War II has brought the three friends, together since art school, close again as members of the volunteer service.

Any shortfall in the back story of these characters is filled by the descriptions of Bloomsbury.  My home away from home while in London comes to life with its flats on Gower Street (rooftop ones at that), Russell Square, the British Museum, a volunteer depot on Tottenham Court Road, and strolls along Guildford Street.  Persephone Books wasn't even a twinkle then but I couldn't help visualizing a turn onto Lamb's Conduit Street.

My favourite parts of the book were when Elinor, an artist whose work hangs in the Tate, was narrating the story.  Back in London after the death of her mother, she decides to surprise her husband at his studio and sees him on the doorstep with a woman.  Their body language leaves no doubt as to an affair.  She has overlooked his roving eye in the past but as she's matured Elinor has become more independent.  This is where the rooftop flat on Gower Street comes in - the rent is cheap because who wants to be that close to the direct hit of a bomb?  Elinor is also a voice for other women artists (Laura Knight gets a mention) who are frustrated with being paid only for their commissions rather than a salary as their male counterparts are.  The offer of a job on the War Artists Advisory Committee will hopefully allow Elinor some sort of leverage.

Descriptions of nightly bombing raids are vivid as are the images of bodies torn apart and people, still in a state of shock, searching for loved ones.  In particular, it's the children lying like rag dolls on the pavement that leave the most lasting memories.  At one point Kit Neville remembers his daughter...

'...there was the gap, the all-important gap, the visit from the tooth fairy, Anne smiling, baring her teeth.  And for a long time afterwards, he'd noticed her running her tongue along the edge of the grown-up tooth, which was uneven, not smooth as adult teeth are after years of biting and grinding.  That little girl, last night - Livvy, was it?  Her two precious grown-up teeth would never be worn smooth.'

The almost daily scenes of devastation, long hours on very little sleep coupled with isolation and fueled by alcohol is probably not the best foundation for turning a friendship into something more.  Some may disagree.  But in Neville's case a feeling of desperation that leads to a violent act changes the bond between friends forever with a tragic result.

definitely works as a stand-alone novel.  But who wouldn't want to go back to the beginning?...to find out how this trilogy of characters came to mean so much to one another, for better or worse.

Corporal J.D.M. Pearson, GC, WAAF by Laura Knight (1940)
(first woman to receive the George Cross)


24 March 2016

Vintage Podcasts

Two new podcasts from Vintage Books have just downloaded to my iPod and they sound too good to miss.  The latest episode....

Juliet Nicolson's A House Full of Daughters...'Alex Clark is given a unique tour of Sissinghurst Castle by Juliet Nicholson, whose new book A House Full of Daughters details her childhood and growing up there as the grand-daughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.

The second episode...

...1930s Paris, post-war London and the '60s in Sissinghurst; we've slipped the shackles of the studio for this month's podcast and gone on location for a special featuring apricot cocktails, top London trivia and a unique insight into one of the most famous gardens in the Garden of England.

Will Ryecroft talks to Sarah Bakewell about Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and modern existentialism whilst sipping apricot cocktails at Le Beaujolais.  Alex Clark walks through London with Anthony Quinn as they discuss the landscape of his latest novel, Freya.

Both episodes are just over thirty minutes and available through iTunes..enjoy!

The White Garden at Sissinghurst

10 March 2016

New Books and a New Bookshop in Oakville

These three books caught my eye a few weeks ago while on a bit of a bookshop tour.  Supporting independent shops is important for many reasons but for me, spending time browsing cover art, discovering books I didn't know existed, and luxuriating in the tactile nature of an item that brings such joy, is a necessary part of life.  

Our first stop was Westdale Village, a charming neighbourhood in Hamilton located near McMaster University.

One of the first things that struck me as I stepped inside is that the space is so fresh, clean, and tidy.  Perhaps it's just the contrast between so many of the second-hand shops I frequent that are dusty enough to make your throat scratchy but both are thrilling in equal measure.  So, what did I buy...

The Windsor Faction by D. J. Taylor - 'Autumn 1939.  In an alternative world, where Edward VIII still sits on the throne, storm clouds gather over Europe, German troops amass and a 'King's Party' of fascist peace campaigners is stealthily undermining the war effort.

For Cynthia Kirkpatrick, the war brings a new-found freedom - lunchtime drinks at the Ritz, rented attic rooms, late-night rackety parties and intriguing new acquaintances.

But two new friends loom larger than others, her glamorous colleague Anthea and Tyler, an enigmatic American working at the Embassy.  Initially Cynthia is dazzled by them both but soon discovers they have secrets which could prove dangerous, both to her and the country at large.'

The alternative world theme isn't one that I would normally be drawn toward but so many of my favourite keywords appeared in the synopsis that it gave me shivers.  Truly.

Carlyle's House and Other Sketches by Virginia Woolf (Foreword by Doris Lessing) - Weeks after finishing Mrs Dalloway its sublime prose has stayed with me.  The very title of this slim volume of 'sketches' caught my eye by virtue of the title; I've been to Carlyle's house in Chelsea.  Not only that - I also went by bus and was told not to ride past the Embankment as that would have been too far.  Virginia's sketch begins 'The bus took me too far.  I found myself beyond the Embankment...'.  At that very minute the book became a must-have.  And thanks to a helpful bus driver I was able to alight at just the right spot.  Other sketches feature Cambridge, Hampstead Heath and a scathing observation of someone called Miss Reeves.

Carrying on to Oakville, my husband and I visited Archetype Books for the first time.  A new shop that's very close in feel to a micro-Hatchards with its curated collection...and the owner, Natalie Jenner, is fond of green spine Viragoes.  We're destined to have many conversations in the future; it's inevitable.

Having very much enjoyed the Eric Ravilious exhibit in Dulwich last May it was wonderful to find a book featuring work by his friend and contemporary, Edward Bawden.

Edward Bawden's London - Peyton Skipwith & Brian Webb - 'With over 200 illustrations, the book draws together the best of Bawden's prints, posters, paintings, murals and advertising illustration, as well as previously unpublished material from Bawden's personal scrapbooks.  It includes works from his student days at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, to the Morley College murals in partnership with Eric Ravilious and Charles Mahoney, to the remarkable 45-foot concertina mural created for the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion at the 1951 Festival of Britain.  Edward Bawden's prolific career also spanned advertising work for London Transport, Fortnum & Mason, Twinings and Shell, as well as a series of exquisite linocuts and lithographs.

This is a beautiful book full of the soft muted tones and line drawings that remind me of picture books from my childhood merged with a love affair with London.  A true gem.

Reading about an alternative world and Nazis is something to hold off on while I am missing Deacon so very much, but the other two books are just the balm I need.  And special thanks to everyone who has passed along such kind words and hugs...it means so much to me.

3 March 2016


Our sweet boy passed away on Monday.  As you can imagine, it has been an incredibly difficult time for us.  Deacon was the silliest of dogs; as busy as they come.  He had very little respect for people sitting still.  It wasn't easy to be a massive fan of reading with Deacon's pleading eyes begging for a game of tug-of-war, fetch, a walk, or hide and go seek.  You couldn't say 'back yard' without squeals of delight being yelped out as the sound of his nails scampered toward the garden door.  He had an unusual fondness for the sound of the woman's voice on our answering machine.  The sound of tea being poured was supposed to mean that I planned to sit down with my book.  Deacon thought it meant that Mum was going to have nothing to do but play.  More often than not, I was only to happy to oblige because I was all too aware that his time with us would never be long enough.

As anyone who has ever lost a beloved pet, or even one that drove you a bit crazy sometimes, it takes time to concentrate on just about anything.  I've spent much of these past few days looking at video, photos, and drinking in the aroma of Deacon's bed blanket.

Deacon was able to enjoy a drive in the countryside, with the windows rolled down, on his last day.  He went to sleep in his bed with cuddles and whispers to send him on his way.  Forever in our hearts..we miss you to the moon and back, sweet boy.