28 June 2021

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

This is a quiet gem of a book that I picked up at a nearby United church sale a few years ago.  I would almost bet that I didn't bother to read a single page before tucking it into my bag - it's Penelope Lively.  The blurb on the back cover mentions an incident in which an elderly woman is mugged on a London street.  Similar to the butterfly effect, the act of violence committed against Charlotte (over in the blink of an eye) tips the first domino in a series of events that will impact the course of several characters' lives.  

Charlotte Rainsford is at the hospital waiting for her daughter to arrive.  She takes stock of the items she had in her purse....

   A handful of Three for Two's at Waterstones?  A ticket to Covent Garden?  It'll have to be Upper Circle, I'm afraid.  A subscription to the Friends of the Royal Academy?

By page six I had already decided that Charlotte and I would get along.  I can't quite remember if Charlotte's hip was actually broken when she was pushed over, but in any case she is now on crutches.  Rose makes up one of the bedrooms so Charlotte can be looked after properly while she recover.  With Rose and Gerry's son James working in Singapore, and daughter Lucy away at college there is plenty of space.  Mother and daughter get along but both women silently acknowledge they are looking forward to having the intimacy of their own home again soon.

Busy with her mother, Rose has to take some time away from work as a personal assistant to Lord Peters; he's asked her to call him Henry.  Formerly head of Royal Commissions and advisor to a prime minister Henry is an endearing character in that he is firmly living in the past.  While most of the world has gone digital, Henry is not about to forego his filing cabinet or landline.  Lately he's been toying with the idea of presenting a six-part series on the essence of the Augustan age.  Delia Channing, an executive in broadcasting is mildly entertained by Henry's pitch but will have to find a way of putting the brakes on his enthusiasm.  And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Corrie, Henry's cook whose menu repertoire hasn't moved very far from the 50s.  

Henry's niece Marion steps in to help out as his PA while Rose takes some time off.  During a talk Henry is giving in Manchester, Marion strikes up a conversation with George Harrington, a self-professed 'money man' with an interest in Marion's line of work, sourcing expensive furnishings for wealthy clients.  There is a property in Hampstead he would like to have renovated and would she mind having a look?  

Marion can't believe her luck as the recession has dried up business.  A new prospect might be the turn of events she has been waiting for.  And Mr Harrington is looking decidedly more interesting than her current fling, Jeremy Dalton.  Jeremy is in the same line of work as Marion but he specializes in reclamation.  Being the opportunistic sort, Jeremy has a string of clichés at the ready and little thought for anything other than his own satisfaction.  His sister-in-law is wise to the sort of man he is...if only Gill could convince her sister to remove the scales from her eyes.    

As Charlotte's hip begins to heal, she craves some purpose to her day.  Handing over the leadership role to Rose feels foreign and leaves her feeling worthless.  Charlotte calls the coordinator of the adult literacy course where she teaches with a suggestion....could she tutor one of the pupils while at Rose's house?  Enter Anton, a handsome Eastern European accountant learning to read English so he can move on from his manual labour job on a building site.

How It All Began is a lovely story, the sort that fall into your lap and end up being so much more than you were hoping for.  I never tire of London as a setting and its boroughs came alive as characters went about their day.  Descriptions of shopping on Oxford Street, strolling in Richmond Park or taking in the exhibits at the Victoria and Albert museum cheerfully reminded me of my own visits there.  And Penelope Lively writes sympathetically of the immigrant experience, their effort to fit into British culture.   With Rose as his mentor and friend, Anton learns the finer points of an English picnic and the nuances of vocabulary.  The crew of Polish builders working for Marion on the Hampstead project are hardworking and dedicated, and people flock to Charlotte's adult literacy classes from countries around the world.  But my favourite takeaway sentiment from How It All Began is the beautifully blended storylines of young and old, past and present.

I hope the person who donated this book to the church sale read it before passing it along.  If not, they have missed out. It is a very good read!

Detail from The Schoolroom, 1938
Vanessa Bell

14 June 2021

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

It's raining at the moment so a blog post will come before the garden.  The dogwoods seem to have survived their brutal pruning to cut out a fungus, the rambling rose on the back fence has made a lot of bees happy with its yearly mass of blooms, and on a whim we've recently added a patio pond.  Water lettuce and hyacinths float on the surface while aquatic forget-me-nots and a cattail have been sunk in planter baskets.  An inexpensive pump keeps the water moving and makes a nice trickling sound that makes reading outside even more relaxing.  I had a moment of worry that Kip would think the new mini-pond was either a large water bowl or a small paddling pool but it seems he couldn't care less - which is a relief.

I'm forever drawn to the human element of stories from England during World War Two.  Whether the war is merely a shadow in the background, an inconvenience to the pantry, or horrifically described in a memoir I find it all very compelling.  When Claire of The Captive Reader wrote about The House Opposite on her blog I ordered a copy right away.  In this book, Noble encompasses the minutiae of people living in the theatre of war, the swiftness with which lives can be changed or lost, and she portrays characters in situations frequently shielded from readers in the 1940s.  When Claire wrote that The House Opposite is one of the best of its kind I wholeheartedly agree. 

Elizabeth Simpson has moved back to her parents' home on Wordsworth Road for the duration of the war.  She is employed as a secretary to Alex Foster, of Foster and Rowland Exporters in Soho Square.  Reminiscent of Mollie Panter-Downes poignant Good Evening, Mrs Craven, Elizabeth is having an affair with Alex, who has a wife and children tucked away in Oxfordshire.  At the end of her workday, Elizabeth places the cover on her typewriter, says good-night to her colleagues and waits for Alex at a sherry bar.   When she's not on air-raid duty, Elizabeth spends evenings at Alex's serviced flat, carefully navigating her way home through the darkness and debris.  Yes, dear Reader, a few silent comments were directed towards Elizabeth at certain moments as I read.  

Living across the road from Elizabeth's family are the Cathcarts, hence 'the house opposite'.  Occasionally Owen slips out of his bedroom window to watch the sky light up or look for shrapnel.  He is months away from being called up but instead of an understandable case of nerves,  Owen wonders if being killed in action wouldn't be for the best.  He adores his older cousin Derek in an all-consuming way that causes him to wonder about his sexuality.  Overhearing Elizabeth refer to him as 'a pansy' only increases his anxiety.

Both the Simpson and Cathcart families bear other secrets and Noble's portrayal of their shame is exquisite and palpable.  When Mrs Simpson has to be roused from a slumber during an air raid and the smell of rum permeates the air every attempt is made to spare her any embarrassment.  Who could fail to sympathize with someone trying to calm their nerves during nightly bombing raids?  During two other moments of caring intervention Mr Simpson shines as a supportive beacon when it was needed.  His kind and patient nature a complete opposite to the atmosphere of war and destruction.

Published in 1943, The House Opposite is a bold novel for some of its topics but the author resists allowing elements of melodrama to spill over the top.  Well, there is one moment when a pregnant woman faints due to her condition, something I have yet to see happen outside of daytime television, but it was necessary in playing the character's hand. 

 The way Barbara Noble brought together several themes on an epic scale in only 222 pages is something of a marvel:  heartbreak, unrequited love, deception, vice, compassion, and the value of having your eye on the long game against a backdrop of war.  Keeping in mind Noble had first-hand experience during the war it's difficult not to read her own thoughts into certain passages.....

Secretly, like the majority, they believed in their hearts (but would not dare to say) that bombs were things that fell on other people.  At the sound of one approaching, their conviction wavered but quickly reasserted itself when the immediate danger passed.  Combined with the feeling that it would be flattering to Hitler to appear over-concerned, it was easy to light yet one more cigarette with a steady hand, pick up the dropped stitch, count the tricks and find the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle.  In any case supposing, just supposing, that the next bomb was meant for you - well, it was meant.  Then and not before.  Why die before you must?

After only a few pages I found it incomprehensible that this book had been out of print.  Thankfully Dean Street Press have rectified that....long may they continue!

A Child Bomb Victim Receiving Treatment (1944) 
Ethel Léontine Gabain (1883 - 1950)