23 June 2020

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

A few weeks ago Notes from a Small Island was mentioned during an episode of Daisy Buchanan's wonderful podcast You're Booked.  Daisy and her guest were discussing books they turn to as reliable comfort reads.   This same book was mentioned again, less than a week later, on Book Snob's blog.  I can't tell you how many times Bryson's travel memoir has crossed the desk at the library without a second glance, but suddenly I found myself in the midst of a severe case of FOMO. 

If a holiday in England isn't in the cards for me this year, the next best thing is to read about someone else's travels to my favourite destination of choice.  Within a few days I found a copy in a second-hand shop that was allowing three customers in at a time.  Decades of circulation experience at the library has taught me a thing or two.  For instance, I know when a book has been resting on a wet tummy in the bath.  Forensically speaking, the wavy water-damaged pages on the bottom of the book, mostly in the middle, are a dead give-away.  So it was a wide swerve on the second-hand copy, but within days I was able to buy a copy at our newly reopened bookstore!

'My first sight of England was on a foggy March night in 1973 when I arrived on the midnight ferry from Calais.'

Experiencing some difficulty in finding a room for his first night, modern readers will instantly appreciate what the internet has achieved for adventure seekers, holiday makers or people relocating to distant cities.  The lack of internet technology or cell phone usage adds a layer of charm that dates this book somewhat, but Bryson's muddling through makes for good stories.

After five months of travelling, Bryson was a day away from arriving at Heathrow for a flight back to the States to continue his university studies.  A last minute job offer at a local hospital changed the course of his future when he met the woman who would later become his wife, while working a shift.  Fast forward twenty years and a family, the author was busy preparing to relocate everyone to the States.  But not before embarking on a tour of Britain that would last seven weeks and result in a bestselling book.

By the the tenth or eleventh page I had already laughed out loud a few times and recognized a couple of sentiments.  From the stern B&B owner with a strong resolve about bathroom hygiene to a British fondness for what Americans would consider underwhelming nibbles, Bryson hit the mark.   

   'It's the most extraordinary thing.  They actually like their pleasures small.  That is why, I suppose, so many of their treats - teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys - are so cautiously flavourful.  They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake.

But beware, there are comic barbs to many of Bryson's observations that can sting a bit.  It's obvious he loves Britain and most of its citizens but his humour can run to the loutish every now and then.  

Bill Bryson has made me curious about visiting Salisbury, and I had no idea there are hedgerows still in existence that date back to Anglo-Saxon times.  Describing the friendly way people living in the Yorkshire Dales will let themselves into your home without knocking first (I'm sure he's making some sweeping generalizations) has made me keen to visit.  And can it be true that Blackpool served up the equivalent of forty acres of potatoes each day in chips during the 90s?!  But when Bryson is annoyed regarding a particular service, or what he perceives to be an excessive cost for an item, he doesn't come across as very patient or understanding.  My hope is that this is just a case of dramatic license in storytelling....or that Bryson has mellowed since the mid-nineties.

I spent most of the time reading Notes from a Small Island on the patio while landscapers sawed, shovelled, and bulldozed their way through a neighbour's back garden; a project that's been going on for weeks.  With so much stone cutting going on it would appear they're on their way to having their very own cathedral just behind the pool.  So was I happy to have a book that could distract me from all of the noise and dust?  Absolutely! 

View over Burnsall

9 June 2020

Starlight by Stella Gibbons

It's nice to be back here after several weeks of reading The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel.  Deciding to forego any note taking, I thoroughly enjoyed a lazy immersion into Thomas Cromwell's world of privilege, mindful dialogue and keeping on the right side of King Henry VIII.  Why would anyone strive to catch the attention of a King or Queen in any court?  Give me a small cottage as far away as possible and one or two loyal friends.  

The garden beds at home are popping with the glow of newly emerging hosta and Annabelle hydrangea.  Flowers for the pots haven't always been easy to come by.  Stock supplies aren't as plentiful as they've been in the past but it's an opportunity to try something a little different in plantings.  The find of the season was jasmine.  Ever since a flood of that sweet flower engulfed me in front of Keats House in Hampstead a few years ago, I've wanted a plant of my own in the worst way.  Jasmine is hardy to zone 7, unfortunately we're zone 5 so the affair with my two vines will be short, but oh so wonderful.

But, on with Stella Gibbons.  For me, she's an obvious choice for a good read that takes me to a feel good reading place.  Not a sappy or syrupy place, just somewhere I am sure to find interesting characters I will actually care about, copious cups of tea, both city and country landscapes, and a situation that needs resolving.  Starlight has a synopsis that is completely bonkers but Stella Gibbons' talent for writing and quality storytelling had me completely invested.

   'Dust, grease, dimness.  Yet the room was cosy.  Thin red curtains kept out the foggy night at the square window, and Gladys, the one who went out to work every day, knew that, from outside, they made a faint but heartening ruby glow; the little, old broken gas-fire burned with an opulent roasting flame.  It ate shillings, fair ate them, was the sisters' verdict, but what could you do?'

Gladys and Annie Barnes are sisters in their seventies, living in a tired cottage in Highgate.  Also living at Rose Cottage, in the loft, is Mr Fisher, a former teacher, who makes small dolls from bits of straw.  The sisters are not entirely sure if he's peddling or begging while wandering the Heath most days, but they do know he's what people would consider 'odd'.  The fact that he changes his name each month goes a long way to cement the sentiment.

Of the two sisters, it's Gladys who sees to the general running of things.  Having worked in service spanning the years before and after both wars, and now in a family run Greek café, she is very much a doer.  Annie, on the other hand, spends much of each day enveloped in layers of jumpers, scarves and coats while lying in bed.  She suffers from an ailment that seems to centre around anxiety.

Also in the cast of characters is a Vicar.  Mr Geddes considers bringing his mother in to work as a daily at the Rectory as he is tired of Mrs Hemmings cooking and sour face (not very Christian, is it).

   'Would it be shockingly selfish to bring his mother down from Harrogate to look after him?  She had only been released from the tyranny of many stone-floored, rambling, draughty, mousey vicarages three years ago, and the hotel was warm, pretty and comfortable.

Working alongside the Vicar is Reverend Corliss, a young bachelor recently graduated from ecclesiastical college.  Life in the parish is rather routine until Rose Cottage is sold to a suspicious-looking 'rackman', Mr Pearson.

Mr Fisher, Gladys and Annie are terrified of being evicted, but their fears are dampened when they learn that Mr Pearson means to renovate the cottage and move his wife into one of the rooms.  So, what's this all about, they wonder?  Mrs Pearson, at first glance, seems to be a respectable woman but a very colourful past slowly emerges including no small amount of criminality lurking in the background.  They have acquaintances who run a small hotel in a bombed out area off Warren Street.  It's all edging towards a place that's slightly dark for a novel set in Highgate with two spinsters and a retired teacher featured prominently.

There's also a subplot involving the Pearsons' twenty-two year old daughter, Peggy.  There is heartbreak in the young woman's recent past, something that involves a man and a riding school in Sussex.  Desperate for some space and freedom from parental inquisition, Peggy takes a position looking after Mrs Corbett's dogs and to occasionally be available to 'hand out' during gatherings at her employer's impressive home.  Mrs Corbett has a son in his forties....and let me just say, for a woman who doesn't like creepy things, she's not looking closely enough at a few personality traits of her offspring.

Somehow Gibbons manages to layer elements of post-war England with gangland dealings, and contrast religion with psychic phenomena with complete success.  On the surface it could all seem a bit cosy but don't get too comfortable.  If you're a fan of The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns you'll find further entertainment with a copy of Starlight.  Is this the best book I'll read this year?  No, but it was exactly the sort of story I was looking for at the time.

Stella Gibbons has been a tonic during these days of lockdown limbo.  So much so, I've ordered two more.

A Spiritualistic Séance by Kunnas Väinö (1896 - 1929)