Sunday, 17 November 2013

Mother and Child Reunion

It’s been a while since I’ve posted my thoughts on any tales from The Persephone Book of Short Stories, but I certainly haven’t forgotten them. So here’s are two for this week’s Short Story Sunday. You’ll find there is a kind of loose theme, or link, in that both today’s tales explore the failing relationship between mother and child during a reunion.

Elizabeth Berridge.
Subject for a Sermon, by Elizabeth Berridge, studies the relationship between Lady Hayley and her son John, and the conflict between tradition and duty, and an individual’s independence. It is set in 1944 and opens as Lady Hayley addresses the Guides, on behalf of the Red Cross – on the very night her son is due home on leave. As her train pulled out, we are told, his train pulled in. And she must catch the early train next morning, because she has a meeting a meeting at noon, and John will understand.

Everyone thinks Lady Hayley is marvellous, for doing so much, and putting duty before her family, but she reminds me of EM Delafield’s monstrous Charmian Vivian, Director of The Midland Supply Depot in The War Workers. They are both overbearing women who have created an image of themselves as busy, selfless workers which is at odds with the hollow central core within. And there are moments when you sense the faith of Lady Hayley’s adoring fans is shaken, and they query her motives. Miss Pollett, from the Guides, for example.

… she had a strange feeling that if the other coffee cup had not been on the table, the cap beside it, she could have believed herself alone in the room. And to allay the disturbing feeling that she could never get past that quick smile – to prevent it pushing her away – she asked about the morning train.

For Lady Hayley her duties, especially in war, are everything, pushing personal feelings, family and her own likes and dislikes into the background, and she cannot understand John, whose outlook is very different, and she tells him:

Always you see things in the wrong perspective. There are many things I do not like doing – Miss Pollett frays my nerves, I dislike long journeys made in uncomfortable circumstances, I am nervous when on a bicycle. But if I did not do these things, who would? It is expected of my position – our lives are not our own John.

But John believes she is wrong, and that she should let people organises their own schemes. And he realises she doesn’t really care about people, doesn’t want to know them and wouldn’t recognise them if she met them again. She’ll talk to them to raise money for the war effort, but she’s only interested in maintaining her own position, he says, and seeing that other people keep to their place.

I’ve lived among them, mother. I know what they think about people like us. I know what they’re like, and what they want – and it’s nothing we represent. We’ve had our chance as leaders of society, and lost it.

He can see that the world is changing, but I think the thing that angers and distresses him most about his mother is not her values, or moral code, or political views, but the fact she seems to have as little interest in him as she does in anyone else, and ignores him while administering to the needs of thousands of unknown men, and it’s this which causes the impasse between them.

During his visit Lady Hayley continues her relentless round of meetings, but she keeps the afternoon and evening of his last day free. However, it’s a gesture which comes too late, for he leaves earlier than planned, to meet an Army friend. The two part still unable to understand each other, and Lady Hayley pedals off to a meeting where, as usual, she preaches at her audience, telling them that in war women must be companions, mothers and organisers, and how this involves sacrifice, loss and pain. She stresses the need for solidarity and tells the women she feels ‘so much at one’ them… and once again we find Miss Pollett wondering, and wishing Lady Hayley really means it.

I hadn’t come across Berridge before, but apparently Persephone also publish Tell It To A Stranger, her collection of short stories, and she also wrote nine novels, which were very popular in their day.

Wednesday, by Dorothy Whipple is an old favourite – it’s in The Closed Door, an
Dorothy Whipple
anthology of her short stories put together by Persephone, which I reviewed here and, should you wonder, I know this post is beginning to sound like a promotional piece for Persephone, but they do publish some exceedingly good books, and I do read lots of books published by other companies.

In Wednesday we meet divorced wife Mrs Bulford (she still refers to herself by her married name) paying her monthly visit to her three children, who are already beginning to forget (and, possibly, to resent) her, and are forming allegiances to their new ‘mumsie’, for their father has remarried.

She waits for the children outside the garden wall, and we learn that she is an outsider in every sense of the word, shut out from the home and family that were once her’s, and shut off from respectable society. For Mrs Bulford, ‘on the verge of middle age’ went ‘gallivanting’ with a younger man. When the affair was discovered her young lover’s family took him abroad, her husband (who she believes pushed her into adultery) divorced her, and she was deemed neither fit to proper to care for her children. Now, lonely and friendless, with nothing to do to fill her time, she cannot understand what has happened to her, and still harbours a forlorn hope that one day she will be able to walk back into her old life.

She was like an exile waiting all the time to go home, devouring news of the place she longed to be in. She bought the Beddingworth papers, morning and evening, and read every word, even the advertisements. She knew who was born and who died or was married, she knew who wanted domestic help or houses.

She knows more about the city and its people than she did when she lived there. What she doesn’t know is what her children are doing, how they are growing and changing, what they like and don’t like, and how they feel. But as she stands waiting to meet them she imagines them inside their house, eating their lunch. She takes to them to the park, and treats them to afternoon tea, but the relationship between mother and children is uneasy, and they are growing away from her – indeed, they are pleased to be reunited with their father and ‘mumsie’. As they disappear from view Mrs Bulford cannot bring herself to pass the house.

But later when the dusk was deeper, she passed it on her way to the bus. Elsie had just come out to pick up the hoop on the lawn. Upstairs someone was drawing the curtains, first at one window, then at another. They were all gathered in for the night. Everything was very quiet. Even from the gate she could smell the sweet peas. She walked away down the road.

Mrs Bulford may be a very silly woman, but it is a touching and beautifully written tale, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for her watching life carrying on without her. Whipple’s writing is so understated – she really does ‘show not tell’ and doesn’t go in for big emotional scenes, but the details of the routine of family life are so perfect, right down to the perfume of the sweet peas, and it all highlights Mrs Bulford’s feeling of loss. 
The endpaper at the back of the book is
Cote d'Azure, a scree- printed cotton
furnishing fabric designed by Susan Collier
 and Sarah Campbell for Fidchbscher.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Autumn Leaves and Soil like Gingerbread...

On the theory that example is better than precept, I went out yesterday to rake leaves. This is a job that must be done slowly, in a reflective mood. Also, one must first find the rake. I found it, final, under the pile of leaves raked up last weekend, so the visiting small cousins would have a place in which to practice standing on their hands.

Next, one must lean on the rake handle, admiring the scenery, the magnitude of leaf-fall and one’s own courage, the sunny autumn day, and life in general.

November in the garden can be damp, dull and drear, but I love the way that in Rural Free, A Farmwife’s Almanac of Country Living, author Rachel Peden manages to link the life of the tree with her own life as a farmer’s wife in Indiana, and how she turns what could be a boring, repetitive task into a meditation, moving from past to present to future, reaching the conclusion that perhaps, after all, she and the tree have both left their mark in their world. 
 Lovely leaves - at the moment they're covering much of the
Castle Grounds in Tamworth.
I think Rachel is quite right, with her reflections, and found myself thinking along similar lines when I walked in the Castle Grounds earlier this week. There were great drifts of leaves piles up under trees, and in the little,  corners where no-one goes, and ridges and furrows of them along the edges of the paths, and a scattering of raggedy yellows, browns and reds blowing across the lawns. It was a sunny day with a gentle breeze, and leaves were falling from the trees like great golden snowflakes and slowly floating to the ground, which was quite magical, and I stood and watched, and thought about how the trees have changed over the year, from the bare branches outlines against the sky and the snow at the start of the year, through the green haze of spring to the lush growth of summer - and now they are returning to that earlier, dormant state.

Rachel goes on to explain:

While my leaf mountain grew, I thought over some of the summer’s events that occurred while those trees were growing old. A tree’s fiscal year begins with the separation of one crop of leaves from its branches, where already by that time the tight, pale-brown knobs of next year’s leaves are formed, to swell and shrink all winter, according to the fluctuations of temperature and moisture.

Raking up long swaths I reflect that the tree works all year to produce this annual accomplishment, for me to scoop up and carry to the midden behind the barn, where leaves will grow soggy and disintegrate. For the tree, leaves are like my daily chores, of meals, bed-making, floor-sweeping, laundry, which take perpetual energy and leave no record.

This started out as a Garden Gaze piece, looking to see what gardening gurus think we should be doing this month, but I seem to have been led astray (up the garden path, perhaps). Rachel's book is not about gardening - it's about her life in general, and was published in 1961, arising out of the columns she wrote for a newspaper during the 1950s, and it’s an absolute joy. I discovered it through Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm, (thank you Nan!) and it is an absolute joy. Similar in tone and outlook is Still Meadow Daybook, by Gladys Taber, who also wrote press articles about her life on a Connecticut farm at a similar period. Nan spent a year exploring the women’s lives and writing, and you can find her posts here – do pop over and take a look.

Unlike Rachel, Gladys has no gardening advice to offer this month, but she gives us this wonderful view of the countryside:

After the leaves come down, the countryside has an open look. New vistas appear, hills unseen when summer’s wealth of green is spread, now stand, blue and hazy, in the distance. In the cropped fields the browns and copper and smoky tan make a smoky symphony, not as dramatic as the blaze of October, but lovely to look at.

Autumn colour features large in a piece by Katherine Swift, who is entranced by the view from her window – her account of the glorious trees she can see reads like a description of bonfire night. Her trees send up 'incendiary' rockets of scarlet and gold, they they flush, darken, fizz and collapse 'into glowing embers', until they're finally extinguished by wind and snow.  However, she has some sound (and reassuring) advice about bulbs in The Morville Year, telling us:

And there is still time to plant those bulbs. I have often been reduced to planting bulbs at Christmas or even on New Year’s Day, and they seem to come to no harm. There is even an argument deliberately delaying planting now that our autumns and early winters are so mild and wet. According to tulip-grower Steve Thompson, tulips will not start to make roots until the soil temperature drops below 520F  (110C), so if planted too early, the argument goes, they will sit dormant in wet soil, at the mercy of slugs and susceptible to diseases.

Don’t worry, she says. Chill out. I find this cheering. Even the Provincial Lady is ahead of me when it comes to bulbs – remember how Lady Boxe chastised her for planting indoor bulbs late? But the PL got them into pots on November 7, whereas mine are still reclining (minus soil) in old plastic dishes in the Futility Room. Note to Self, as the PL would say, Must Plant Bulbs.
I thought I'd left it too late to plant bulbs, but according
to Katherine Swift I should still be OK, so I'm going to
stick them in pots tomorrow...
Finally, I can’t resist Karel Capek waxing lyrical in The Gardener’s Year, about the joys of digging and the right kind of soil… my grandfather would have enjoyed this, he was a great believer in the importance of digging.

Getting dug in: An illustration from The
Gardener's Year by Capek's brother Josef.
Yes, in November the soil should be turned over and loosened: to lift it with a full spade gives you a feeling as appetizing and gratifying as if you lifted food with a full ladle, with a full spoon. A good soil, like good food, must not be either too fat, or heavy, or cold, or wet, or dry, or greasy, or hard, or gritty, or raw; it ought to be like bread, like gingerbread, like a cake, like leavened dough; it should crumble, but not break into lumps; under the spade it ought to crack, but not to squelch; it must not make slabs, or blocks, or honeycombs, or dumplings; but, when you turn it over with a full spade, it ought to breathe with pleasure and fall into a fine and puffy tilth. That is a tasty and edible soil, cultured and noble, deep and moist, permeable, breathing and soft – in short, a good soil is like good people, and as is well known there is nothing better in this vale of tears.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Honey, Prisoners - and a King's Speech!

During the war honey was popular, because sugar was
rationed. But Vere doesn't tell us if her sweet gift was made
by a local beekeeper, or was a mass produced jar.
Feel much better this week. Very hot. A jar of honey has been given me. Very pleasant to receive. Able to get one whole pound of tomatoes without queuing for them – so Hitler is not having it all his own way.

So says Vere Hodgson in her diary entry for July 2nd, 1941 – and how luxurious that honey and the tomatoes must have seemed - sugar was rationed, so honey was much in demand, and beekeeping became much more popular. Even the cat was in luck that day, because Vere (I feel I know her, and really cannot continue calling her Hodgson, even if it is the correct way to name an author) managed to get some Kitcat, which was ‘wolfed down as if it were a banquet’. It’s hardly surprising the poor creature fell on this unexpected feast as if there were no tomorrow, because cats and dogs got no rations. At the outbreak of hostilities, the pet food industry was still in its infancy, and animals were usually fed on table scraps, unless owners cooked meat or fish for them. During WW2 there was barely enough food to go round for people, so there can’t have been much to spare for animals.

You can see I am progressing with my slow read of Few Eggs and No Oranges, even if I do have a tendency to get side-tracked along the way. I seem to have become thoroughly immersed in the period, and now have a stack of other WW2 books to read!

On  a more serious note, in this first entry for the second half  of the year, Vere mentions the war in Russia, but has little sympathy for people there since, she says, they have had plenty of time to prepare for the fight, and ‘if they are not ready, it is no one’s fault but their own’. Surprisingly, however, she is confident that Stalin is more than a match for Hitler –because he looks ‘such an unpleasant individual’! 
Three cheers for Winnie! Winston Churchill was one
of Vere Hodgson's heroes.  
Additionally, she tells us about a book she’s read (a biography of Churchill), a radio programme she enjoyed (The Brains Trust) and the sweet-smelling honeysuckle and syringa in her office. This particular entry is a good example of Vere’s range of interest, and the way she jumps from the drama of the war to homely, seemingly unimportant things which mean such a lot to ordinary people.

During these last six months of year, undeterred by the worsening situation, she visits friends and family in various parts of the country, and continues to wander around London looking at the damage. Set against that are small joys, like those flowers I mentioned earlier, a sparrow eating out of a friend’s hand, a garden party, and eating tins of pineapple and prawns with her aunt. 

There are splendid, uplifting stories (Vere likes the word splendid, and I can’t resist using it). In August there is news of the Home Guard catching a German ‘parashot’ who is promptly locked in the Tower. I think this is fascinating - I had no idea they did this in WW2! I was under the impression it was something that happened hundreds of years ago, which shows how much I know! Then, in September, when British bombers arrive in Oslo, residents take to the rooftops and cheer the ‘boys’ as the docks are bombed. In addition there is jubilation when five Free French fighters escape to England in canoes, and Vere enjoys the thought of them sharing champagne with Winston Churchill and his wife.
Were German prisoners really locked way in the
Tower of London during WW2?
In October she’s delighted when she acquires a ‘flatlet’ of her own, and friends and family rally round to help furnish it, which is not an easy task when everything is in such short supply. But she’s less happy when a friend describes life in the Isle of Man:

Full of internees who are doing themselves well. No rationing. Ample supplies from Ireland. His tales of tinned fruit and oceans of butter are galling to us hard-living folk.

Early in December, like everyone else in Britain, she’s stunned by the news from the Pacific (she gives few details but this is, of course, the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbour). And, she reflects, there is an upside to the tragedy, because it pushes America and Australia into the conflict. But things look grim. The British are losing Hong Kong, and everyone is still waiting to learn what is happening in Russia, where the Germans are being pushed back ‘into the snow’.

One of the surprising features of this period is the length of time it took for news to get through, the lack of information when it did, and the way rumours circulated and proliferated. With all our modern technology we are used to ‘instant’ news – we know about things as they happen, and there is such a wealth of data available it is hard not to be aware of what is going on the world. However, the situation was very different during the war. The immediacy of today’s news gathering process and the way it is spread around the world was simply not possible then, and I suppose some things were kept from the public on the grounds of national security, and perhaps there was an effort to keep people’s spirits up by not revealing every detail of what was happening.
The Christmas speech made by King George VI and
 broadcast on BBC Radio 
Anyway, however bleak the future may look, Vere remains upbeat about Life, the Universe and Everything, and she ends 1941 on a high, braving what she terms the ‘Ban on Travel’ to spend Christmas with her family in Birmingham.  Her journey is almost without adventure. Seven family and friends gather for Christmas dinner (a goose), and visitors from next door turn up (with the two airmen billeted on them) for the King’s Speech. More friends arrive during the afternoon and evening, and Vere tells us:
From the back of Elsie’s cupboard came plums and whipped cream. Then Neville poured some exciting looking liquid into glasses, and we did some toasts. Not until we were half-way through it did I discover that it was champagne… brought out specially. So kind.
A good time was had by all, and they shared what food they had - anything nice which could be stored was brought out for special occasions, and their festive fare over the Christmas period includes a tin of butter, and dried apricots, both gifts sent by relatives in South Africa.

Actually, among my stash of WW2 books I’ve got a couple on wartime cookery, and I’m thinking of trying out some of the recipes, to get an idea of what the food was like, but I’m not at all sure if the Man of the House will appreciate austerity in the kitchen – watch this space! 
War Messages: Endpapers in Persephone's Few Eggs and No Oranges
are from a design called London Wall, printed from a fragment of
 rayon  headscarf produced by Jacqmar Ltd c.1942.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Shooting Pheasants...

Well, despite my best endeavours, I’ve been busy over the last week or so (Oxfam bits and pieces, and an unexpected visit from my Younger Daughter), so I’ve not been looking at anyone else’s posts, or checking my own, and consequently missed seeing that I had been selected by Jane and Briar, over at Fleur in Her World, as a participant in their Who Reads these Books quiz! I was mortified at not spotting it the day it was published, because I love these posts, even though I am so rubbish at guessing. In fact, I have to admit I don’t think I would have realised this was me, because one of ‘my’ books selected by Jane and Briar was well outside my usual enthusiasms!

If you’ve never visited Jane’s blog, and don’t know how the game works, she chooses three bloggers (but doesn’t name them), and posts up pictures of five of their favourite books, and readers have to guess who owns the volumes shown… It was lovely being featured, especially as it came hard on the heels of Simon T’s invitation for me to take part in his latest round of My Life in Books. For those who haven’t seen the first part of Jane’s quiz, you’ll find it here, while a follow-up post, revealing the answers, is here.

Anyway, I feel very guilty at not posting new anything new for more than a week, so anyone dropping by has only been able to look at my old stuff. I will try and do better in future! 
The Shooting Party.
So, an overdue book review! When I wrote about my thoughts on JL Carr’s A Month in the Country, Helen suggested that Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party would  make an interesting comparison, so I added it to my Wish List, and forgot all about it until I realised it was last month’s choice over at Cornflower Book Group. I ordered a second-hand copy online, but it didn’t arrive until the end of the read!

It does make an interesting companion piece to Carr’s book, however I’m not raving about it in quite the same way, although I did enjoy it. It’s a very slender novel which takes place over a very short time period – roughly 24 hours. And it portrays a small, enclosed society, a kind of golden age when everything seems perfect, when everyone knows their place, but there are cracks just below the surface. There’s a feeling that things are changing and will never be the same again. But that sense of loss seems to relate to the world outside the characters, not to the events in the novel or the people themselves. I don’t think they are changed by what happens – in fact some of them end up pursuing a different course in life which turns out to be the right path for them, so the book lacks the feeling of blighted lives and missed opportunities which suffuses Carr’s story. 

The Shooting Party is set in October 1913, October, less than a year before the First World War, as a group of aristocrats gather at Sir Randolph Nettleby’s estate for a shooting party. We know from the outset that someone will lose their life, but who, and how are not revealed until later. And there isn’t really a why… the death is senseless and pointless; coupled with the slaughter of all the game birds (bred just to be shot), it foreshadows the tragedy of the forthcoming war when a generation of young men were killed, just as senselessly, and just as pointlessly. 
A pheasant. I think they are such beautiful, exotic birds.
The scale of the shoot is astounding. On the final day there are just eight men in the party, and well over 40 beaters(all clad in long whitish smocks, so interloping poachers can be identified) to scare the birds into flight and certain death. On gthe final day the bag for the morning (not counting the afternoon duck shoot) totals 504 pheasants, as well as hare, rabbits, and woodcock. All shot by eight men! Whatever did they do with all that meat? I know game has to be well hung and, presumably, each man took his own kill home with him, but there must have been more stuff here than could ever be eaten. But I suppose eating it wasn’t important – it was sport, and showing your skill at shooting, and behaving in the right way that were important.

Colegate’s research is meticulous, and her portrayal of the lifestyle of the upper classes on the eve of the First World War is excellent – food, manners, clothes and relationships all come under her scrutiny. And I was fascinated to see how the behaviour of these wealthy, leisured people is reflected in the attitudes of their servants and lower classes. There’s intense rivalry between the men attending the two best marksmen: they acquire a glory of their own through the achievements of their masters. And the relationship between maid Ellen and footman John echoes the much more idealised love between Lionel Stephenson and beautiful, married Olivia Lilburn. Indeed, John even steals Lionel’s unsent love letter, hankering after noble thoughts about truth and beauty – but in so doing he loses his loses his own true voice.

The only person who seems free from the pressures imposed by society or the need for other people is poacher Tom Harker, who is satisfied with his life and the company of his dog. And yet Tom is the one doomed to lose his life when the man acknowledged by all as the best marksman lets off a careless shot, desperate to retain his reputation and keep the crown he is losing to a younger man.

Even Socialist, vegetarian, animal rights protester Cornelius Cardew aspires to be part of the magical circle he professes to despise. He interrupts the shoot with his ‘Thou shalt not kill banner’ and his views on Universal Kinship – but he dreams of being invited to tea. Actually, he is such a crank that I felt quite angry with Colegate for making him a caricature! Surprisingly, his confrontation with the shooting party gave me much more sympathy with Sir Randolph, who was able to diffuse the situation by agreeing with some of Cardew’s views (everyone else would have run him off the estate). Ironically, it is Sir Randolph the landowner, rather than Cardew the campaigner, who has a clearer grasp of the issues involved, and who cares most passionately about the countryside and the people who live and work in it. He is also the only person who sees that the way of life enjoyed by his class is changing, and can never be recaptured.

But it is Cornelius who sums up my response to the novel. When Tom is killed Cornelius is:

… frozen by his own helplessness and by the curious sensation he had as if he were watching the whole scene reflected in a mirror or through a window he could not open.

There are lots of good things about the novel, but I didn’t quite connect with the characters, and felt as if I were viewing them through a telescope, so they were distant, and rather untouchable.

Friday, 1 November 2013

My Life in Books!

A selection of some my old childhood books -
can you guess which is my favourite?
I'm always fascinated by other people's reading habits (when I'm in someone else's house I always look at the bookshelves) and I've really enjoyed the occasional My Life in Books series Simon T runs over on his blog Stuck in a Book. So I was thrilled when he invited me to take part in in the latest installment,  and you can read it here. I knew two participants were being featured each day this week (14 of us in all) and I knew we had to try and guess something about our unknown partner, but I hadn't looked at my emails today (I went Oxfamming, then met up with some old friends), so it was a lovely surprise when I went online and found myself on Simon's blog - and it was even more of a surprise when I found my mysterious fellow book lover was Simon himself! 

I felt quite honoured to be sharing the limelight with him, because he's one of my blogging heroes and he's been responsible for many of my book buys over the last couple of years - I tend to find that I like many of the books he recommends (but I disagree with him over Orwell, and nothing, but nothing, will induce me to re-read Nineteen Eight-Four, or Animal Farm, or any of his other novels).

The link above takes you to today's My Life in Books, but the series began on Monday, and continues until Sunday, and you can access the previous three series and have a nose at people's favourite reads. You can find out about their best-loved childhood book, their first adult book, how their reading has changed - and their 'guilty' reading secret (if they have one!). It really is a lovely insight in to the way books can help shape lives, and how much they can mean to people. And it's interesting to see how popular certain authors and titles seem to be. So, if you haven't already visited Stuck in a Book, please hop over and take a look.
My first book - coloured in by me, when I was very young...