30 August 2021

Missing by Walter de la Mare

The only other Hesperus Modern Voices imprint I have read is David Garnett's Lady Into Fox.  I absolutely love this clever story all the way to the moon and back.  So when I spotted Missing for only $5 at a second-hand shop a couple of weeks ago I was hoping for another five star discovery.   The inside flap reads...

With London in the grip of a heatwave, a man takes refuge from the scorching sun in a teashop, only to share his table with a stranger who seems determined to make conversation.

I was on my way to the cash register and easily could have missed my latest happy find.  An eerie coincidence considering the short stories in this book involve serendipitous meetings.

Missing contains three short stories written in 1923, 1926 and 1929.   The title story features a gentleman in London, failing in his attempt to find bathing-drawers.  He decides to divert himself by stopping into a second-hand bookshop to buy a book he more than likely will not read, then enters a teashop where even the marble tables have been warmed by the heat of the day.  Straight away, he is drawn to a man, also on his own, wearing a pepper-and-salt tweed suit.   Within a short time, the well-suited gentleman gets up - but not to leave.   He pulls out a chair at the table of his fellow guest and engages him in conversation.  The tweed-suited man's name is Mr Bleet.  He confesses that his rare visits to London only occur when he is lonely.  He then delivers a narrative about a woman, Miss Dutton, who went missing from his house....it was in the papers.  

The innocent cafĂ© guest at first believes he is being kind while listening to a lonely man's domestic woes but then small details lead to something more violent.  Mr Bleet seems to relish his ability to control the level of tension and his new companion's level of attentiveness.  After missing the #18 bus several times, numerous cups of coffee and a melting bowl of ice cream, the discussion takes a disagreeable turn.

The Almond Tree features a man referred to as the Count who shares the story of his childhood with a friend from his past.  Descriptions of an idyllic home and garden are darkened when we learn he was a child caught between warring parents.  His father was away from home more often than not and quite  frequently spent evenings playing cards with a friend on the other side of the heath.  This friend has a beautiful sister with a familiar name - Jane Grey. 

 As a little boy, the Count (whose name is Nicholas) only knows that his mother is sad and angry in turns.   He has also been told he will be beaten if he crosses the threshold of the house across the heath. Nicholas is completely innocent of what it means when a parent has an affair and the effect on his mother. 
There was a little summer-house, or arbour, in the garden, where she would sit alone, while the swallows coursed in the evening air.  Sometimes, too, she would take me for a long walk, listening distantly to my chatter, only, I think, that she might entertain the pleasure of supposing that my father might have returned home unforeseen, and be even now waiting to greet us.  But these fancies would forsake her.

The Almond Tree is a story that will stay with me forever for being devastatingly raw and beautiful in equal measure.

And last but not least Crewe in which a smallish man named Blake recounts the story of his past employment to a gentleman waiting to catch a train.  He had been a servant for Rev. William Somers, who hadn't cared for females in the house.  The Vicarage is bleakly described as....

A low old house, with lots of little windows and far too many doors; and, as I say, the trees too close up on one side, almost brushing the glass.  No wonder they said it was what they call haunted.

In the course of describing the atmosphere at the Vicarage, Blake reveals he had witnessed the gardener in a drunken state on several occasions, as well as helping himself to the Reverend's own wine stock.   But rather than handle the matter, Blake conspires with George, a meek helper, to do the reporting.  There are dire consequences when one of the characters is found dead, followed by the eerie appearance of a scarecrow bearing a likeness to the deceased.  Our character Blake grows more distasteful with each turn of the page as he excuses himself from all responsibility for certain mysterious and deadly outcomes.  

Walter de la Mare has been hiding in plain sight.  The stories in Missing are considered ghost stories, to lesser and greater degrees, so I pulled my copy of Everyman's Ghost Stories from the shelf and was thrilled to find de la Mare's The Quincunx included.  With the nights beginning to draw in, my advice is to flip through your short story collections in search of Walter de la Mare's writing.  Perfect for any time but especially good for fireside reading on a dark and chilly night.

"Boy Sitting at Window" by Christian Aigens (1870 - 1940)

24 August 2021

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

The teaser on the front cover of this recently reissued novel from 1950 by Margaret Kennedy reads Cornwall, summer 1947.  A buried seaside hotel....

I've previously read two other novels by Margaret Kennedy but remember almost nothing about The Ladies of Lyndon or Together and Apart.  This is no reflection on the writing but more likely a case of having read them too quickly several years ago.  The Feast seems to be a favourite of others reading Margaret Kennedy's books but for me it was about having a vicarious holiday, albeit of literary sort.  Given that we know from the outset that this group of holidaymakers are unknowingly under a cloud of doom is another matter altogether.

Taking place over the course of one week, the first imminent arrival we encounter is Lady Gifford.   She has sent a letter outlining the requirements of her family to Mrs Siddal, owner of Pendizack Manor.  In comic form, Kennedy has created a divine spectacle of entitlement in Lady Gifford.  Due to a mysterious digestive ailment this lethargic visitor submits her dietary requirements, a list that would frazzle anyone during the austerity of 1947.  There is to be no powdered eggs, corned beef or dried milk but haddock would be fine with plenty of butter.  Lady Gifford and Sir Henry will arrive at the manor and then joined by their four children arriving separately.   

In a case of contrast, Pendizack Manor's housekeeper Dorothy Ellis writes a letter to her friend describing the hotel's leaky roof and run down surroundings with only a single bathroom.  Gossip has it the Siddal's have lost all their money.  As such, opening up their large home to paying guests is simply a means of survival.  In any case, Dorothy enjoys seeing wealthy people brought down a peg....or three.  Ellis (as she is referred to) is the dark to Nancibel's bright and optimistic light.  A longtime friend of the Siddal family, Nancibel is working at the hotel until she figures out which direction she should take after her ATS work during the war.  

The Siddals have three grown sons they rely on to help with the running of the family business but for how long?  Gerry has qualified as a doctor and is interested in applying for positions, possibly far from  England's borders.  Mrs Siddal seems to be the driving force behind the running of the hotel while her husband has more of a 'head in the sand' approach to responsibility.  His level of neglect increasingly frustrates his wife, with good reason.  Among the boxes of unopened mail is a letter stating concern over the instability of the cliff behind his property since a mine washed into the cove.

Mrs Cove and her three children have boarded the same train as the Giffords' offspring.  Relations are fraught from the beginning when Mrs Cove slyly maneuvers her family into seats belonging to the Giffords and refuses to budge.  Blanche, Maud and Beatrix have the residual look of shell shock about them but it has nothing to do with the war.  Their mother is something of a wolf in sheep's clothing with a streak of spitefulness layered with evil.  

Other guests include a foul tempered Canon Wraxton and his skittish daughter Evangeline, Mr and Mrs Paley (a massive favourite of mine), and author Anna Lechene with her chauffer Bruce.

On the surface (and the vintage holiday poster look of the cover) the initial atmosphere of this story is one of typical character clashes with a potential for romance, tennis games and sunburn.  But on either side of that are moments of hilarity, sweet episodes of Swallows and Amazons -esque playfulness, and a slightly disturbing scene in which a minor is plied with cigarettes and alcohol.  The Feast isn't a book that is easily labelled for a particular reading audience but for me, that's part of the attraction. 

A couple of months ago I read The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim as a way of experiencing a bit of armchair travel to Italy and it was sigh-inducing.  The Feast started out with the same mandate but made me feel as though anyone who missed out on a holiday at Pendizack Manor, actually lucked out.  A very enjoyable midsummer read that has made me glad about the languishing copy of The Constant Nymph waiting on a shelf upstairs.  

 The Cornish Coast by Dame Laura Knight (1877 - 1970)

10 August 2021

V for Victory by Lissa Evans

It was such a joy to be back in the setting of Green Shutters in Hampstead.  The year is 1944 and the bombs continue to rain down across London.  Noel is as inquisitive as ever at fifteen years of age, and although the dinner table might be skimpy at times, Vee's boarding house residents fill the space with conversation.  Actually, this peripheral cast of characters are among the best, right up there with those from Norman Collins's London Belongs to Me and Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude.  

Dr Parry-Jones always gripped her cutlery very near the ends, manipulating the knife and fork with delicate precision.  She had a similar approach to conversation, impassively pinning down and dissecting casual remarks....

Mr Reddish works for the St Pancras Borough Council, Mr Jepson writes for The North London Press, Miss Zawadska works the evening shift at the BBC canteen, and Miss Appleby was teaching Noel French but spends increasingly more time filling him in on relationship woes.

With dramatic descriptions of bombsites and evenings interrupted by the crumping sound of blasts across the city, the toll of nearly five years of war are evident.  Large holes and piles of rubble throw train and bus schedules out of whack and supply chains are sketchy.   Winnie Crowther is in charge of the team of volunteers at Wardens' Post 9 at Deddington Square Gardens.  Married to an officer in one of those mad rushes created by the war, the couple are getting to know each other through letters intercepted by a third party.  A basket under Winnie's bed is filled with envelopes, accumulating dust from the series of blasts around her flat.  Metaphorically, so are her memories of the man she married. 

The other cross Winnie has to bear is her twin sister Avril.  Winnie's strengths are clear but it feels as though she has forever walked in the shadow of Avril's glamour and forward manner.  Using the barely disguised details of Winnie's work as Post Warden to write a tense and important book called Tin Helmet,  Avril has finally produced the straw that broke the camel's back.  After a major event shines a light on Winnie's skills as a leader, the power dynamic between the sisters is about to change.

When called to testify in court as a witness to a tragic accident, Vee is a ball of nerves.  She has been masquerading as Margery Overs as a way of keeping Noel in her guardianship and under the roof at Green Shutters.  Should Vee clear this hurdle it's only a matter of time before another one appears.  If you've been following this trilogy, beginning with Crooked Heart, there is no question about who you've thrown your support behind so this is 'edge of your seat' tension.

Despite the bombs and trail of destruction, Lissa Evans made me laugh out loud with her extraordinarily clever wit, especially displayed in Vee's dialogue - both internal and external.  When an American soldier befriends Vee, she is anxious to behave in a manner befitting a woman of impeccable standards....

  'Right.  Only it's perishing out, I can't think how I'll ever keep warm.'  Which sounded, she realized instantly, exactly like a phrase from a lurid newspaper article about good-time girls; she might as well have snapped her garter and named her price.  Fortunately, the corporal was lighting a cigarette, and didn't see her wince.

'All right, then,' she said, buttoning up her coat.  'Just a quick one.'  God almighty, and now she sounded like Max Miller.  'I mean, a walk - I mean, a quick walk - that what I meant.'

Fiction aside for a moment, I learned that the first four beats of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony correspond with Morse Code for the letter V....short-short-short-long.  V for Victory.  The music became a symbol of solidarity and resistance.  And more personally, I recently bought an extra kitchen knife to give to a colleague.  Immediately reaching for her wallet, she said she had to give me something for it because of a superstition her father had.  I laughed, accepted the penny offered and didn't think anything more of it.  While reading this book, Vee has to give her friend a halfpenny when gifted with a penknife so their friendship isn't severed.  Needless to say, my friend at work was thrilled to know the reason behind her father's superstition.  Oh, and a mouton coat is a lamb skin treated with chemicals that force the fibres to lay flat so they resemble sable or beaver, and tombola is a game similar to Bingo.

It has been such a pleasure to watch the character development of Noel and Vee; to see the fragments, large and small, of their background come together in such a satisfying way.  And the atmosphere feels impressively authentic down to a first taste of grapefruit when expecting something sweet like an orange.  It had to be more enjoyable than a soy-bean paste sandwich with diced gherkin.  Lastly, I appreciated the strong female presence from a Home Front perspective and Winnie's poignant forecast that women would be sent packing from jobs they enjoyed to keeping house with little respite and no income.

If there is a campaign begging Lissa Evans to continue this series I will happily sign my name to it.  Now I'm off to read The Lumber Room by Saki because it's Noel's favourite and just so happens to be on my shelf.

Poster by Percy Drake Brookshaw (1907 - 1993)