Sunday, 19 January 2014

Short Story Sunday - Telling Tales with STW

I'm not sure if  a Gainsborough portrait of Arminella Blount
in the character actually exists, so here's his painting of
his daughters chasing a butterfly.
This week a short story much more to my taste – A View of Exmoor, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose work I adore. Here the Finch family, dressed in their best, are off to a wedding in Devon, for Mrs Finch’s niece, Arminella Blount, is getting married. They make, says STW, a very ‘creditable’ contribution. Returning home, they’re still clad in their glad-rags: Mrs Finch in green moiré, Mr Finch is his ‘black-and-grey’,  12-year-old Arden looking pale and ‘owl-eyed’ in his Eton suit (he’s had measles), and Cordelia and Clara in their bridesmaids’ dresses ‘copied from the Gainsborough portrait of an earlier Arminella Blount in the character of Flora’. They also have Arminella’s piping bullfinch and the music box needed to continue its education, as well as the bridesmaids’ bouquets.

It was born in on Mr Finch that other travellers along the main road were noticing his car and its contents more than they needed to, and this impression was confirmed when the passengers in two successive charabancs cheered and waved. Mr Finch, the soul of consideration, turned in to a side road to save his wife and daughter the embarrassment of these public acclamations.

Actually, I suspect it is Mr Finch who is embarrassed by his family, and they’re about to get a whole lot more noticeable. He can’t find the map, and has no idea where he is, but he drives on and on across Exmoor, until they stop to look at the view and have a picnic. At this point Mrs Finch recounts a strange and seemingly pointless tale of Aunt Harriet’s ‘inexplicable’ boots, spotted by Aunt Harriet and her brother when they were children in an empty, open, horse-drawn cab on Exmoor. The duo continued their walk, and saw another pair of boots, on the ground by a sulky-looking man and a crying woman, who snatched up those boots, ran back to the cab, and off it went, leaving the man behind. The people were both wearing boots, and the strangest thing of all, says Mrs Finch, was that the woman had no hat. 
A bullfinch - in case you don't know what they look like!
Explanations for this odd story keep everyone happy and entertained, and things seem more or less normal – but this is STW, and nothing is ever normal! Arden is playing tunes on the bars of the bullfinch’s cage when the door flips open and the bird flies out, and they all rush around trying to catch it. Arden falls out of a tree and makes his nose bleed, and they all get more and more dishevelled. Eventually they heave the music box out of the car, hoping that if the escapee hears the music he will come back.

The music box weighed about fifty pounds. It was contained in an ebony case that looked like a baby’s coffin, and at every movement it emitted reproachful chords. On one side it had a handle; on the other side, the handle had fallen off, and by the time the Finches had got the box out of the car, they were flushed and breathless. His groans mingling with the reproachful chords, Mr Finch, staggered up the lane in pursuit of the bullfinch, with the music box in his arms.

Isn’t that a wonderful image? I just love the description of the music box, which is not one of the flimsy, pretty, little trinkets we know today. No, this is a solid affair (my maths isn’t good, but I reckon it’s roughly as heavy as 25 bags of sugar) and its colour and shape, and the ghostly noises it produces (playing chords of its own accord) make it seem rather sinister. But Mr Finch is ‘devoted’ to music boxes – which makes him sound a lot less conventional than he’d have his believe. I know this is set in 1936 (and written in 1948), but even then I’ll bet there weren’t too many family men with a thing for music boxes!

So, while his wife and children rush off, still searching for the missing bird, takes a moment’s ‘repose’, sits on the ground, plays some music, and lights a cigar. Then, he realises they have company - a young man whose ‘bare ruined legs and rucksack suggested that he was on a walking tour’. And at that moment:

Around the bend of the lane came two replicas, in rather bad condition, of Gainsborough’s well-known portrait of Arminella Blount in the character of Flora, a cadaverous small boy draped in a bloodstained Indian shawl, and a middle-aged lady dressed in the height of fashion who carried a bird cage.

The young man on a walking tour continues his journey, skirting nervously round this apparition, and Mr Finch is mortified that his family, away from his ‘supervision’, have once again made themselves conspicuous. He thinks his wife should have explained the situation to the young man. But she says:

He looked so hot and careworn, and I expect he only gets a fortnight’s holiday all the year through. Why should I spoil it for him? Why shouldn’t he have something to look back on in his old age?

That made me smile, and I thought she’s absolutely right. By saying nothing she’s given something to that young man that he’ll remember for ever more, and I could imagine him at some stage in the future telling his children and grandchildren, and everyone sitting around trying to make sense of the mystery, using their imagination to tell stories which create possible explanations… Murder perhaps, madness, ancient rituals being re-enacted. And would anyone have believed the truth if they’d heard it?

And I thought back to Mrs Finch’s story about Aunt Harriet’s boot, where everyone had their own idea about what might have happened, because nothing is ever quite as it seems. So there are issues here about truth and reality, just as there are in many of the other pieces in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, but I also see this as a real celebration of the power of storytelling, linking up with old oral traditions.
I like Jeanne Elizabeth Chaudet's picture Young Girl
with a Birdcage. It was painted in the late 18thC,
and her career overlapped Gainsborough, so the
 cage may  be similar to the one in the story.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Poirot's First Case

Poirot at work: Actor David Suchet as /Hercule Poirot
in the Chanel 4 TV series.
I sat and enjoyed a Poirot-fest over the weekend, thanks to ITV3, which screened enough back to back episodes to satisfy the most die-hard addict. So having immersed myself in the television version and watched the ever-wonderful David Suchet, I decided it was time to go back to basics, and I dug out a copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the very first Poirot story, published in 1916. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction, and I’d forgotten how good Agatha Christie can be – she’s not called the Queen of Crime for nothing.

Here we meet Hercule Poirot for the first time, and I realised that David Suchet’s interpretation of the little Belgian detective really is quite extraordinary. I suppose it helps that the two men are not too dissimilar physically - I never could believe wholeheartedly in Peter Ustinov’s Poirot, because he was too big and looked all wrong. But it’s not just appearances. David Suchet has acquired all Poirot’s mannerisms, his fussiness, his precision, his intelligence, the way he walks and everything, without ever tipping over into caricature. He makes Poirot seem very human because he brings warmth and humour to the character, and he inhabits the role rather than merely acting it.

First edition of Agatha Christie's
first Poirot novel.
Now normally I read a book first, then watch the film or TV programme (and if I really like something I rarely watch it on screen, because I’m scared it will spoil my enjoyment of the book). But with Agatha Christie it’s the other way round. I honestly cannot remember which books I’ve read in the past, and my view of the stories and characters has been shaped by movies, television shows and radio versions of her work. So I found it interesting to read Christie’s own description of her creation, and I was surprised that he and Hastings both appear here fully shaped: they are as they are, and I don’t think either of them changed or evolved in the years that followed. 

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles Poirot is a Belgian refugee, living with a group of his countrymen in the village of St Mary Styles, thanks to a helping hand from elderly Emily Inglethorp, who lives in nearby Styles Court.  And staying at Styles Court while he recovers from a war wound is Lt Arthur Hastings (not yet a captain), a friend of the family, who also knows Poirot.

So when wealthy Mrs Inglethorp (formerly Mrs Cavendish) dies from strychnine poisoning Hastings calls upon Poitrot for help. Prime suspect is Emily’s new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, who is 20 years her junior, has a strange bushy black beard and wears patent shoes every day (so we know he’s a bounder!). But he has a cast iron alibi, so it can’t be him… Or can it? And why does everyone else’s behaviour seem so odd?

Take Hastings’ friend John for instance, the stepson of the murdered woman from her previous marriage (she was widowed). He is strapped for cash and is having some kind of liaison with a neighbouring farmer’s wife; his beautiful wife Mary is extremely friendly with a German doctor who is the world’s top toxicologist. John’s younger brother Lawrence studied medicine and knows about drugs and poisons, and so does orphaned Cynthia, who lives with the family and works in a pharmacy.

Then there is Emily’s companion Evie, who fell out with her mistress after warning her against Mr Inglethorp… but can her intense hatred of the man be genuine? No-one, it seems, is telling the whole truth, and everyone has hidden secrets.

A modern edition of the book.
Mystery surrounds the dead woman’s will, a locked room and a document case which is broken open. And there’s a fragment of burnt paper among the ashes in the fireplace, a strange strand of green thread, a broken coffee cup, hot chocolate dregs and a damp patch on the carpet, which all have to be considered. Are any of these things important? ~Or none of them? Two officers from Scotland Yard arrive to lliok for answers, and we get our first glimpse of Inspector Japp, looking smaller, thinner and much less important than I visualised, but it is Poirot, of course, who manages to unravel the various strands of the mystery and unmask the killer.

We learn from Hastings, who narrates the tale, that Poirot is a world-famous Belgian detective, now retired (so how old is he meant to be, I wonder?).  And we are told:

Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.

Throughout the novel we see evidence of his fussiness and neatness, as he straightens ornaments and rearranges things. But his obsessive attention to detail is what makes him such a good detective, for it enables him to look for patterns, and to pick out the blips, the small things that don’t quite fit the picture and are overlooked by everyone else, but make him think, and think again. He’s very logical, and believes in reasoning things out, so looks at the clues, and draws conclusions from what he sees, but he also uses psychology to try and work out who could be a killer, and why they would commit murder. I think his need to see justice done is part of that urge he has for everything to be neat and tidy: he wants to put the world to rights. And he has a very strong sense of right and wrong.

I was rather shocked that in his efforts to bring criminals to justice he can be very manipulative, and quite cruel, especially in the denouement, when he plays with the characters as a cat plays with a mouse, before revealing what has happened. He even lets a man he knows is innocent stand trial for the murder, partly to lull the real culprit into a false sense of security, and partly to effect a reconciliation between husband and wife. It may be a cruel trick to play, and Poirot makes an unlikely Cupid, but he is a great believer in love, which is rather endearing.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the twists and turns of the plot kept me turning the pages to find out what happens. I have to say I thought the TV version was pretty true to the book. There were some differences, but nothing which materially alters Christie’s creation. 
Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Short Story Sunday: The Lottery

Oh, this was absolutely horrid and I hated it, hated it, hated it. Shirley Jackson may be highly esteemed by many of you, and she may be an excellent writer, but that doesn’t mean I have to like her. And if her other work is any way similar to The Lottery then I don’t want to read it. All in all, I found it deeply disturbing and unsettling. There are other pieces in The Persephone Book of Short Stories which I disliked, but I don’t think I felt quite as strongly about them as I did about this, and it is probably a failing on my part. All I can say is that this author is not for me.

It all starts off innocently enough. It’s a clear, sunny day in a small village, and it’s the day of the traditional lottery, when everyone gathers together and takes a slip of paper from a battered old box. The slips are blank, but one has a black spot on it… So someone is selected for something… Initially it’s hard to see where this is leading. There’s a festive mood, and everyone is dressed in their best, and the word ‘lottery’ makes one think of games, and raffles, and sweepstakes, and lucky winners. But a lottery is a game of chance, where the outcome is not necessarily happy. And the boys have filled their pockets with stones, which makes you wonder what is to happen.

Whether or not I like her (and I’ve already said I don’t), Jackson is a clever writer who builds the tension, line by line, word by word, and the feeling of menace gets heavier and heavier as the story progresses. Even so, I was shocked at the spine-chilling ending, which seems all the more horrendous when set against the ordinariness of the day, and the homely activities people have been engaged in.  Why do the villagers go along with this bizarre ritual? They must know it’s wrong, and other places have given up the old ways, but here they stick to the past just as they’ve always done. I suppose it’s a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.

And I began to wonder just how random the choice of victim actually was, or whether there was an element of manipulation, or sleight of hand, ensuring that outsiders, trouble-makers or those that question are removed from society. This was published in 1948 – a few years later and I might have given more consideration to that thought, and seen the story as an allegory for the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’ against Communism. Perhaps Jackson was inspired by the awful events in Nazi Germany, where ordinary people were happy to point fingers of accusation against others, or to become complicit in the atrocities through their silence.

But there seems to be something more ancient here, connected with those old tales about scapegoats and sacrificial victims (willing or unwilling) whose fate ensures the well-being of others for another year. 

Friday, 10 January 2014

Meeting the Moomins...

One grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins. It fell softly and quietly, and in a few hours everything was white.

Moomintroll stood on his doorstep and watched the world nestle beneath its winter blanket. ‘Tonight,’ he thought, ‘We shall settle down for our long winter’s sleep.’ (All Moomintrolls go to sleep about November. This is a good idea, too, if you don’t like the cold and the log winter darkness.

Then family, and all their friends and acquaintances, prepare for winter. They eat a meal of pine-needles, which don’t taste very nice, but you need a tummy full of pine-needles if you’re going to sleep through winter, and they clean their teeth, and the doors and shutters are closed, and a mosquito net hung over the chandelier so it won’t get dusty, and off they all go to bed.

Isn’t that just enchanting? And don’t you sometimes think it would be so nice to dream through the worst weather, and wake in the spring when everything is new and fresh and bursting with energy? The quote above, for those who don’t know, is the start of Finn Family Moomintroll, the classic children’s tale by Finnish writer Tove Jansson. Given my love of children’s books, and the fact that I adore Jansson’s other work, I cannot understand why the Moomins have passed me by – until now! And there are other Moomin stories which I simply must read as well.

The best children’s books always seem to blend the extraordinary and the ordinary in such a seamless way that you believe wholeheartedly in what is happening, however strange the characters and story may be, and that’s very much the case with Finn Family Moomintroll. It’s a kind of fairy tale, where peculiar little creatures have odd adventures, but always behave in a way we recognise. And it’s the little, homely touches, like the tooth cleaning, that bring everything to life (it’s the same with The Hobbit, where poor Bilbo, setting off with the Dwarves on the adventure of a lifetime, forgets his pocket handkerchief, which makes everything seem so normal somehow).

Anyway, in Jansson’s book the Moomins, and all their friends and acquaintances, are woken in the spring by the call of the first cuckoo (rather hoarse, because it’s still early in the spring, as well as being in the morning - four o’clock to be precise). As the world wakes around them, Moomintroll, Snufkin and Sniff climb a mountain, and at the top they find a tall, black, hat (like a top hat), so they take it home, intending to give it to Moominpappa, but it’s too big for him, so they turn it upside down and use it as a waste-paper basket. However, it’s the Hobgoblin’s Hat, and if something lies long enough in the Hobgoblin’s Hat it begins to change into something quite different…  
Moomintroll and Snufkin. The pictures have all
come out blurry - don't know, because camera is
on same setting as usual.
Eggshells turn into soft, woolly, white clouds, like little pillows, which Moomintroll and his friends ride around on. Seawater is transformed into raspberry juice; words in a Dictionary of Outlandish Words placed on top of the hat come crawling out of the pages, and the fearsome Ant-lion, lured into it by a trick, becomes a sad little hedgehog.

But there are sinister aspects to the magic. When Moomintroll hides beneath the hat he is turned into a very strange animal indeed:

All his fat parts had become thin, and everything that had been small was big. And everything that was small had grown big. And the strangest thing about it was that he himself didn’t realise what was the matter.  

None of his friends recognise him but, thinking it is a new game, he plays along, until he finally understands what has happened. By that stage, not unnaturally, he is very frightened, and very upset, so they call Moominmamma, who knows him, and he is changed back into his true self, and she tells him: “You see, I shall always know you whatever happens.” It’s one of the moments when the book stops being ‘just’ a children’s story, and steps up a gear. There are echoes here of old folk tales, like the Frog Prince, or Beauty and the Beast, and it made me think about the nature of identity, and how appearances can be deceptive, and whether anyone really does know anyone else – and whether we even know ourselves.
Moomintroll (second left) after the hat has bewitched
him  - would you recognise him?
 There’s a similar moment when the Hemulen is in despair because his stamp collection is complete – there isn’t a stamp or an error that he hasn’t collected, and he doesn’t know what to do. But Moomintroll understands. “You aren’t a collector any more, you’re only an owner, and that isn’t nearly so much fun,” he says. Owning things carries its own responsibilities, but the Hemulen has lost his sense of purpose, and the enjoyment and enthusiasm he had previously. And that set me off thinking about the differences between owning things, and collecting them – and what you do once you have achieved your goal.

In that respect, Finn Family Moomintroll is a bit like the Pooh stories, and Wind in the Willows, because you can read it and enjoy it as a wonderful story with unforgettable characters, but at the same time you can recognise higher truths, and read all kinds of ideas into it, and make the characters represent all kinds of people dealing with life in their own particular way. 
Does it fit? Moominpappa trying on the Hobgoblin's Hat.
I think Jansson poured much of herself and her experiences into this, just as she did with her other work. It may be a children’s fairy tale, but it seems to be very much about her world, and her responses to it. Descriptions of nature, and weather, and the natural world, which feature so strongly elsewhere, are here too, and that sense of place, and of ‘one-ness’ with place. The Moomin books were written earlier than the novels and short stories, and some of the events here can be found in greater depth elsewhere, precursors, perhaps, of more powerful pieces.

For example, the preparations made by the Moomins, their friends and acquaintances before their hibernation, are similar to the tasks carried out when the Janssons’ island summer house is shut up for the winter, and the family return home to the mainland for winter. And the scary storm encountered by the Moomins when they sail away for a picnic is Sophia’s storm from The Summer Book, with embellishments that make it even more scary.

There’s a host of characters, and storylines, which I haven’t mentioned, but I loved this, and all I can say is that if, like me, you’ve never read the Moomoins, please remedy the situation now – go and hunt out one of the books. I don’t know if they are all this good, but I’m willing to bet they are.

Bob and Thingumy comfort Moomintroll after Snufkin
leaves to go travelling.
Oh, and a word about the illustrations, drawn by Jansson, who was an artist long before she became an author. These black and white drawings capture moments from the story just perfectly, and so they should, because this is the way Jansson saw her creations.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Beautiful Bookmarks!

Woohoo people, I have proper bookmarks!!! A friend who loves books and reading as much as I do bought them for me for Christmas. She noticed that I tend to mark my place when I'm reading with old bus tickets, train tickets, letters, bills, shopping lists and anything else that comes to hand. I've even been known to bend the corners over, which makes most people throw their hands up in horror. So my friend decided the time had come for me to be to be organised, and she got me six dear little double-sided magnetic bookmarks, all with a lovely 'peace and tranquility' picture. I think my favourite is the picture of the pebbles balanced on top of each other. I always do that on beaches - I love trying to create my own 'natural' mini-sculptures.
And in addition there were six beautiful postcards, each with a picture inspired by a classic book, made from letters forming quotes from the book. There is 1984, Alice in Wonderland, and  Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.
 Then there is Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and Sherlock Holmes.
I just love that whale, and the pipe, but they are are all really cleverly done, and I can use them as bookmarks as well, or pin them on my notice board. However, my absolute favourite has to be the cup and saucer, symbolising the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. Around the rim are the words: 'You should learn not to make personal remarks,' Alice said with some severity: 'it's very rude.' On the whole I think that's very sound advice, and it occurs to me that Alice would have got along very well with Thumper's mother - if you remember her advice was pretty similar, for she said:"If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

I think it was a really nice, thoughtful gift, and I shall make sure my bookmarks get lots of use!

Monday, 6 January 2014

Timbuktu: As far away as the Moon!

The Great Mosque of Djenné, which is in Mali 
(but not in Timbuktu, apparently, although the
building methods are the same in both places).
Courtesy of Wikitravel
When I was a child Timbuktu was one of those mysterious places that seemed to exist only in the imagination, like El Dorado, or Shangri La, impossibly far away, a city lost in time, hidden in the heart of the African desert, and it’s an image which has always fascinated me. When Nina Sovich was young her father told her Timbuktu was ‘like the moon… a nowhere place, at the end of the earth’. To her, it’s as far away as the moon, and the picture of a mythical, isolated city stayed in her mind, just as it did in mine.

But, unlike me, she actually got to see this city of dreams. She grew up, travelled widely, and worked as a war journalist. Then she fell in love with a Frenchman, got married, lived in Paris, and was a financial journalist. However, Paris and her ‘didn’t get along’ and she felt as if she had lost her soul, so, in a bid to regain her true self she set off for Africa and Timbuktu. It seems an extreme response, but once she’d been there she wrote a book, To the Moon and Timbuktu: A Trek Through the Heart of Africa, describing both her emotional and her physical journey.

Her goal was Timbuktu, or Tombouctou, once known as Timbuctoo or Timbuktoo. Is it just me, or does anyone else get confused by this constant politically correct renaming of places and people, like Mumbai instead of Bombay, or Boudicca for Boadacea? I know our knowledge of things has improved, and I’d be the first to agree it’s wrong that the British and other Europeans should have imposed their own names on the areas they colonised, but I’m so used to the ‘old’ names (even though they are really ‘new’, having ousted the originals) that I don’t recognise their replacements.

Anyway, Timbuktu really does exist, and Nina found it every bit as difficult and dangerous to reach as legend tells, for there was no road across the waterless desert sands, and no protection from the searing heat and burning winds. Actually, while reading this book (on the Kindle – can I still call it book?) I was reminded of CP Cavafy’s poem Ithaca, where the journey becomes more important than the destination. Towards the end, the poet tells us: 
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey. Without her you would not have set out. She hasn't anything else to give you. 
And that, it seems, is what happens. Nina is aware that the fabled city of myth no longer exists – if it ever did. In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, it was an important place on the trade routes through the Sahara. There was even a royal palace here, and rumours of the city’s wealth spread throughout the world, but they probably had little foundation, for the buildings were made not of gold, but mud, with protruding wooden sticks, so men could scale the walls to undertake repairs. However, Timbuktu had riches of a different kind, since it was a centre of learning, culture, and religion, with mosques, and libraries full of rare manuscripts.

Times change, and for 200 years or more the city was forgotten, until 1830 when Frenchman René Caillié became the first Westerner not only to reach it, but to make it home alive. He didn’t think much of the place, and Nina wasn’t too impressed either. She found a dirt-poor town, poised on the edge of war, which failed to provide the answers she sought. “The chance that I will find some new way of living in this town is remote,” she writes. But she admits:

I came to Timbuktu for the name, and now I too am burdening the town. I am bringing my baggage to this sunbaked end-of-the-road town and asking it to provide beauty and meaning, I am asking it to be something it is not.

The ambiguity of the place – ‘the floating sand, the rising heat, the blurred outline of a town’ – throw her off balance just a little, but it has an odd beauty. There’s the stillness of the old town, where buildings have been ‘baked into a kind of flaky crust’, and mosques have been softened by the rains until they look like ‘melting ice cream that was thrown into a freezer’.

Timbuktu, such as it is, is far-off and blurry, low-slung to the earth and constructed of hardened mud. It seems smaller and more piteous than other Malian villages, which at least have the Niger to ennoble them. Without the great river there is no definite outline to either to either town or the landscape that surrounds it. All in all, Timbuktu seems not unlike a mirage.

To get here Nina has travelled from Casablanca through Morocco, WesternSahara, Mauritania and Mail; by now she is exhausted, dehydrated and ill, but is in the grip of what amounts to an obsession with travelling. She has to keep going, and keep going she does, 300 miles further east to Gao, which is even more remote (as well as being even hotter) than Timbuktu. Travel is torture:

The dust in the air thickens again and visibility falls to almost zero. We pass through sheets of sand like sheets of rain, each hotter than the next.

In Gao she finally admits defeat. She’s had enough, she’s falling apart, and knows she must return home to find healing. Slowly she picks up the threads of her life, decides to have a baby then, when four months pregnant, returns to Africa, to travel through Niger. But this time she takes advice from her husband, stays in decent hotels, and eats properly. She also learns to slow down, and is content to sit and think, to enjoy the moment, to accept what life has to offer, letting the world come to her, rather than going out and confronting it.

She is, at times, extremely irritating in her desire to prove how tough she is, how independent, how feisty, how capable. Sometimes think she is struggling to show us what she is not, rather than what she is. She reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s mother wrestling to hang out the biggest sheets in the windiest days, or my grandfather struggling to force life from the most barren patch of land. Some people, I think, are wired up to make life difficult for themselves.

For all that, it’s hard to dislike Nina, because she’s a very honest writer, who never glosses over her own feelings and motivations. And her accounts of the people she meets, and the landscapes she passes through, are fascinating. On her journeys she finds friendship and laughter, especially among women, who accept her and never judge, although her life and values are so different. I was surprised at the leading role played by some women in their family life, and the fact that they owned property, ran businesses, made decisions, and could in no way be regarded as second-class citizens. And I was also surprised at how the Islam faith was woven into the fabric of people’s lives in a way rarely seen with Christians.

Somewhere along the line Nina does find the strength to balance the conflicts within herself and her life. She allows herself to be ‘warrior and wife’, a free-spirited adventurer who craves solitude, but chooses to live with others. And somewhere inside she carries a piece of Africa, that she can call up in moments of need.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Short Story Sunday: Treachery, Freedom, and Beauty!

This gorgeous screen printed furnishing fabric
is reproduced on the back endpaper of The
Persephone Book of Short Stories. It's called
Cote d'Azure,and was designed by Susan Collier
and Sarah Campbell for Fischbacher in 1983.

Oops! I forgot the title! And the intro! Sorry  - I will amend it now. Since this is Sunday, I have posted a Short Story Sunday piece, with brief notes on three of the tales. A kind of round-up, I guess. 

Spade Man from Over the Water, written by Frances Towers, starts gently with a conventional scene. Mrs Asher is taking tea with Mrs Penny (Laura) when a telegram arrives for the latter lady, saying her husband is coming home. Naturally she wants her friend and her husband to be friends. And what could be wrong with that? But a feeling of unease begins to build as Mrs Asher, with her dark eyes and waving hands (isn’t she a little too theatrical, I ask myself) looks at a photograph of a man she says looks ‘everything your husband should be’. On discovering the man is Laura’s cousin, Mrs Asher laughingly says: “I suppose you really married the Spade man from over the water!”
And at that point there is a definite sense that something is wrong, for Laura married Rupert, a dark stranger who keeps her isolated from friends and family, and although she is ‘wildly happy’ with him, she has a ‘queer feeling of disintegration’. And Spades are the cards which foretell doom and disaster... And Mrs Asher, whose husband Charles is also absent, is strangely silent when she sees a photo of the real Mr Penny, which is odd…

And Laura never does get to introduce her friend to her husband. The other woman’s house stands dark as the tomb, and an estate agent’s sign creaks in the wind. Treachery has taken place – but whose?

I loved this tale, with its building of tension, and the sense of unease. It’s almost like a ghost story, a haunting. And, as in so many of these stories (I keep saying this), there’s an ambiguity that keeps you guessing. At one stage I wondered if Mrs Asher is really ghost, but she is real enough I think, and I am sure she knows Laura’s husband. So are Rupert and Charles one and the same man? Did Mrs Asher steal Laura’s husband? Or is it the other way round, and has Laura, however inadvertently, stolen Mrs Asher’s husband?

Minnie’s Room, by the inimitable Mollie Panter-Downes, is one of my favourites from this collection. It is quite, quite superb. Here we have Minnie, who cooks for Mr and Mrs Southern and their grown-up children, Maurice and Norah. To all intents and purposes Minnie, an ‘ugly little Londoner’, is well looked after, well thought of, not badly paid, and quite happy. But she has always said she will leave service if she is not married by the time she is 45 – and that is just what she does. 

The family beg her to stay: they cannot understand why she wants a room of her own when she has a decent, comfortable room in their large house. But a room of her own is exactly what Minnie wants. She was independence, and she has been saving for years to make her dream come true. So she sticks to her guns, and tells Norah about the room she is renting, and how opposite the window is a lime tree which will smell lovely in hot weather. She even invites Norah to visit her and promises to make tea, with tea that will be kept in the antique caddy Miss Southern has presented as a parting gift.

And aging, spinsterish Norah, tied to her parents for ever more, envies the servant who has very little in material terms – but has found the freedom to live as she chooses, in a room of her own.

The English Lesson, by Margaret Bonham, is another of those quiet, understated tales where there is a little action, but which makes you think about the way we see each other, and how perceptions change, depending on your viewpoint.

Miss Maurer teaches English at a girls’ school. She seems rather ineffectual, is not particularly good at keeping discipline, and finds IVa especially trying (actually, trying doesn’t even begin to describe the behaviour of these supercilious little snobs). So, as some kind of antidote to the horrid girls, she decides that just for once she will have tea out, somewhere rich and warm. Which is how she comes to be spotted by Prue (from IVa) and her mother.

And this is where things get interesting. I’d visualised Miss Maurer as pale, dowdy and insignificant, Prue describes her as a ‘hag’, but Prue’s mother insists she is an unusually beautiful woman. At this point, since I hadn’t viewed Miss Maurer as being in any way attractive, I went back to the beginning and started reading again, searching for clues about her looks! I think my behaviour was the bookish equivalent of Prue and her friends, who spend their next English lesson staring fixedly at their teacher, which upsets her even more than their usual bad behaviour!
The design at the front of the book is taken from a roller-printed
cotton twill leave, manufactured at the Arnold Print Works,
Massachusetts, in 1911.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Hates, Highlights, and Loves....

Today I am listing. Not as in sinking ships, or leaning towers. No, I am talking about  producing ‘a number of connected items, names etc, written or printed together usually consecutively, to form a record or aid to memory’… so says my Oxford English Reference Dictionary, a reliable but weighty volume which provides invaluable advice about words. All of which is a long-winded way of introducing a compilation of my ‘Best’ and ‘Worst’ Books of 1913.  I know many of you have already posted similar pieces, but you know me, I’m invariably lagging behind everyone else, and it’s only January 3, so the New Year’s only just started.

I’ll start with my ‘Most Hated’ titles, and work my way up to the ones I loved, loved, loved, stealing bits from my original reviews along the way! And at the very end are two Bookish Highlights which made me happier than I can say. Anyway, books I didn’t like. On the whole I’m not very adventurous – I read for pleasure, and I tend to stick with books I think I’ll enjoy, so there aren’t many books that fall into this category, just four which failed to live up to expectations, and left me bitterly disappointed. There were others I didn’t rate very highly, but these the ones I didn’t like the most, if that makes sense.

Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was one of my favourite stories when I was a child (indeed, I still read it from time to time), and I had high hopes of A Vicarage Family, the first volume in her fictionalised autobiography. However my hopes were dashed within a few pages. It was interesting to see how her childhood influenced her writing, but overall, as I said in my review, I felt something was lacking, and couldn’t put my finger on what that something was. I think it has to do with the fact that is not quite an autobiography, and not quite a novel: it falls somewhere between the two, and doesn’t quite come off. 

Jeanette Winterson is another of my favourite writers, and her biography Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal, is brilliant. But The Daylight Gate, about the Pendle Witches, is horrid, which is a shame, since she presented a fascinating programme about them on Radio 4.  Nothing pleased me about this novel and Winterson’s prose lacked its usual power and dexterity.

I bought Stella Gibbons’ The Matchmaker because I love Cold Comfort Farm, but this was tedious and irritating, and I struggled to finish it. But I persevered, even though there times when I could happily have hurled it across the room. It lacks the sparkle and wit of that first novel, as well as its charm and humour, and Gibbons seems to have lost her youthful disregard for literary and societal conventions.
Buying a book  because it has a
dancing penguin on the front is
a bad idea!
The worst book, without a doubt, was Mr Petre, by Hilaire Belloc. I was attracted by the dancing penguin logo, which I never can resist (I wish it was still in use). But it was a silly reason to buy a book, because this novel is truly, truly dreadful – I abandoned it in the end, and I don’t often do that with a book. All I can say is that it’s a forgotten novel that’s best left undisturbed. It sounded interesting, because the central character has lost his memory, and it’s supposed to be a satire on the world of finance, but it was so dull and boring, and the characters were flat and lifeless, so I gave up.

Now for the best of the ones I did like! I read so many good books this year it was quite difficult whittling them down to a manageable list – since there were four ‘hates’ I thought there should be four ‘likes’… Just to balance things out. But I didn’t quite achieve that!

A Month in the Country, by JL Carr, may be a slender novel, but it’s a perfect gem and anyone who loves quiet, understated, between-the-wars, English novels, where the focus is on thoughts and feelings rather than action, will enjoy it. The period feel was spot-on, the characters totally believable, and the writing absolutely faultless.

The Enchanted Places, by Christopher Milne (son of AA), was every bit as enchanting as the title suggests. It’s an autobiography which gives a fascinating glimpse into a vanished world. But it also shows how his childhood toys and games inspired his father’s stories about Pooh, and all those wonderful rhymes. But the creations, in turn, influenced the child. It was an almost symbiotic relationship and, for a time, Christopher hated the stories, but he comes across as being a remarkably well-adjusted adult.

I love this quirky and poetic book
I hardly ever buy new books, especially not hardbacks, but I made an exception for Things That Are, Encounters with Plants, Stars and Animals, by Amy Leach. I picked it up in a bookshop, started flipping through, just to see what it was like, and ended up sitting on the floor reading it! Since I couldn't stay there all day, I bought the book. It’s a series of essays on Life, the Universe and Everything, where Leach reflects on the natural world and makes observations which could just as easily be applied to people. She’s quirky (I like quirky), and attracted by oddities, and meanders from topic to topic, as one thing leads to another… and another… another… And she uses words like a poet, valuing them as much for their sound and rhythm as for their meaning.

Crime fiction isn’t usually one of my enthusiasms, but I loved A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan Bradley. This was my first encounter with child sleuth Flavia de Luce, who has many fans, and I can quite see why. If you’ve never read any of the mysteries featuring the 11-year-old prodigy and her trusty steed (a bicycle called Gladys) then I suggest you do so.

And I couldn’t resist including Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I hadn’t read for years and years. In theory it’s got little going for it. It’s certainly not great literature, it’s ideologically unsound and extremely biased (in favour of the aristos). But it’s such fun, and such a great read - I sat up into the early hours of the morning reading this, because I couldn’t put it down. It’s a real romp of a book, a love story and an adventure yarn, that could even be described as a mystery thriller I suppose.

Trailing just behind my Books of the Year are my tw0 ‘slow reads’ which I’ve been dipping in and out of during the year. The links are to the first post on each, which explains why I’m not racing through them in my usual fashion. If, like me, you’ve read many short stories, then The Persephone Book of Short Stories, would be a good place to start. I’ve had mixed responses to the tales – some I absolutely love, while others are not to my taste at all, but they all made me think.

Just ahead of this is Few Eggs and No Oranges, the wartime diaries of Vere Hodgson, which is brilliant, and has set me off reading all sorts of other things about the Second World War. Vere’s voice comes across loud and clear. She’s chatty and informative, juxtaposing major national and international events with the everyday and personal. It makes for fascinating (and compelling) reading.

This is one of the most extraordinary  novels
I've ever read  - I just wish someone would
republish it.
Joint honours for 2013 go to Novel on Yellow Paper, by poet Stevie Smith, and Mr Fortune’s Maggot, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which were both absolutely outstanding.

Novel on Yellow Paper, by poet Stevie Smith, is difficult to describe. It is one of the most extraordinary novels I’ve ever come across. There’s no plot or storyline, it doesn’t slot easily into of the usual pigeon holes, and the central character is as hard to pin down as a will o’ the wisp, flitting from thought to thought and scene to scene. I thought it would a difficult read, but it wasn’t – it was like listening to someone talking, and I just loved it. I think this should be republished, so everyone can read it.

Then there’s STW, who can’t put a foot wrong as far as I’m concerned. She’s quirky, slightly macabre, and very sly writer, who turns the world upside down in just a few words. This is the tale of the Reverend Timothy Fortune, who ends up on a remote tropical island where he converts one person – who turns out not to have been converted at all! There are questions about the nature of belief, and it’s very funny, but the humour is very dark indeed. And the notes about how STW came to write this, and how she felt when it was finished, moved me to tears.

Finally, the Bookish Highlights!!! I was thrilled when Simon T, over at Stuck in a Book, asked me to take part in his My Life in Books series, and I had great fun putting a piece together about books that mean a lot to me (you can read it here). Then Jane and Briar, at Fleur in Her World, featured me in their Shall We Play (a Who Reads these Books quiz, answers here). I was so touched and pleased that Simon and Jane included me, as they both have a huge following, and are both much more erudite about books than I am. So another huge thank you to them both events (can I call them events?) are way up there in my Memory List for the year, along with my Surprise Birthday Treat, when my Daughters took me to Oxford for the day! And a huge thank you to everyone who has read and commented on my somewhat erratic posts - I write for myself, but it's so encouraging, and so rewarding to get such a positive response. Please keep reading!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Spellbound by a Sparkling Story!

Happy New Year people! I’m still here – I haven’t gone anywhere, and I certainly haven’t given up blogging. But I cannot believe I haven’t posted anything since the middle of November, and I haven’t really got much of an explanation. I’ve been trying to get ‘social media’ stuff up and running for Oxfam Lichfield, and I’ve been focusing so hard on that, it seems to have squeezed everything else out - I even wrote an Advent Alphabet, highlighting things in the shops and the charity's work. Here's the rhyme for 'H' on December 8. 
For warmth when it's cold
Or shade in the Heat
A Hat on your Head
Makes an outfit complete.

And it was the anniversary of my Father’s death, which always gets me down, and then I don’t feel like doing much. And it there was the run-up to Christmas, and New Year, and my Mother has been to stay, and my Daughters visited, with their boyfriends, and I had a lovely time over Christmas, but The Book Trunk got a bit forgotten! 

Now it’s January 1, and I’m trying to organise myself for the year ahead… Back on the diet, lots of walks planned, crochet and sewing to finish, lists to write – you know the kind of thing. Anyway, Oxfam Lichfield’s Facebook page is doing quite well after being ignored for ages because no-one had any time to do anything with it. It’s generating ‘likes’ and a few comments, and almost runs itself. I take photos, and write little bits, then schedule them to appear. Scheduling is like magic I’ve decided, because you can do masses of stuff in advance, then more or less forget about it all – I should use it more here, and it might stop me getting behind! And I wish I could use it on Oxfam Lichfield Twitter, I’m sure it would make life easier – when I’m stuck, then whatever the weather I tell people it’s ideal weather for buying books! The weather can never be too bad or too good for buying books – wouldn’t you agree?

And I’ve set up a blog for our two Oxfam shops. It’s in what can only be described as an embryonic stage, but I’ve got posts scheduled to appear, someone cleverer than me is going to work on the design and, hopefully, it will gradually acquire its own identity. So you can see, I really have been busy, and haven't been idling my time away.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a book blog, so I shall stop wittering on about my volunteering project, and enthuse about a book – Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark. With the exception of The Mandelbaum Gate, which I wouldn’t read again even if you paid me, I just love Spark’s novels, and this is one of her best – way up there with my favourites, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and The Girls of Slender Means. 
Spark doesn’t do heroines – she doesn’t do heroes of villains either – but Fleur Talbot is as near a heroine as you’ll find in Spark’s work. Fleur takes a mysterious job as secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver, who is the director of the Autobiographical Association, a very peculiar organisation whose idiosyncratic (positively batty even) members are compiling their memoirs, but no-one has got beyond the first chapter. They’re hampered by dodgy memories and lack of talent, and it falls to Fleur to try and make sense of their efforts .

She herself is writing a novel, Warrender Chase, which Sir Oliver steals, and somehow life and fiction become strangely and inextricably mixed as things Fleur believes she has created in her story actually happen, and it becomes more and more difficult to tell what’s real, and what’s not, and you start to wonder is Fleur a reliable witness to events – or is the whole mad, chaotic story spun out of her imagination.

Actually, Fleur reminds me a little of Pompey in Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper – I know I said you are unlikely to ever read anything quite like it, but I hadn’t read this then, and quite apart from the fact that Pompey is writing a novel while she works as a secretary for publisher, there is something in these characters’ outlook on life, that is similar, and the way they stand back observing things and people.

I assume Fleur is based on Spark, and her thoughts on writing fiction and the creative process are, presumably those of the author. As in much of her other work, Spark raises issues about the nature of reality and fiction, belief in God, immortal souls, love, death, truth and lies. None of the characters ever quite connect with each other, and they all seem to have shaped their own little worlds from their own realities, but none of the realities fit together – and in any case does anyone ever know what truth really is. Loitering with Intent is darkly funny, very witty, beautifully written in classic Sparkling style, and held me spellbound from start to finish. How could anyone not like a book which opens like this:

One day in the middle of the twentieth century I sat in an old graveyard which had not yet been demolished, in the Kensington area of London, when a young policeman stepped off the path and came over to me.

And if you think that sounds gentle, then beware, because Spark is never gentle, and never safe. She’s wickedly funny, but she’s sharp and spiky and can be very unsettling indeed as she probes below the surface of polite society and turns the world upside down, and at the same time she poses those big questions about life, the universe and everything.