Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Monday, November 29, 2010

Page-turning with Pears: “Stone’s Fall” and its mysteries

As regular readers of this blog know, I am not generally one for popular contemporary fiction and generally prefer to sequester in the “forgotten” section of the library getting all dusty and reading books that nobody has heard of. Not quite all the time though… Since reading An Instance of the Fingerpost I have been a declared Iain Pears fan and not ashamed to say so. When I saw his new novel Stone’s Fall on 3 for 2 at Hatchards, I thought – well; go on – you know that you like a bit of costumed mystery and mayhem. That is exactly what you get here, and it is jolly good too.

I don’t think that I would be giving too much away if I said that Stone’s Fall is about a wealthy Victorian financier who falls to his death from the first floor window of his London town house at a time when his labyrinthine businesses are not doing at all well and he and his glamorous wife Elizabeth have become embroiled in an anarchist group which is, on any reckoning, quite contrary to their interests.

Just like An Instance of the Fingerpost – Stone’s Fall is a revelation in three parts. Three different narrators focus on the same object. That object is actually a woman – the beguiling Elizabeth. She is rich and beautiful and graceful and lovely but who is she and where does she come from? When the dark and ruthless underbelly of her personality manifests itself, as it occasionally does, how can it be explained? I rather get the impression that Iain Pears must be one of those people who loves to chew over things and analyse them again and again. So – he sets about revealing Elizabeth by degrees through the eyes of men who in differing ways and to varying extents adore her.

The first part is the bewildering and at times hilarious adventures of Matthew Braddock. Braddock is a Fleet Street hack (in the days when that meant that he was a journalist, not a lawyer or an investment banker) whose career in crime writing has done little more than keep him in gin. He has a few pals to go to for advice and he has a journalist’s nose for a story but other than that he is hopelessly unsuitable for the role which is inflicted upon him in this novel. He is hired by the mysterious and rather sexy widow Elizabeth to unravel a bizarre clause in her husband’s will. He is not quite up to the task but he does know when there are forces at work which he doesn’t understand. The reader emerges from his chapters with a real affection for him but with far more questions than answers about the mystery in hand.

Part the second is the contribution of the banker turned proto spook Henry Cort. This part of the book is intricate and exquisite – it is by far and away my favourite section. The man who emerges from the pages is clever, urbane and self reliant. He is also arrogant and hubristic. At the dramatic climax of his story, he commits an act of dreadful, spine chilling betrayal, which had me reeling in my chair, shocked to my core. Pears plays a clever game with his readers when it comes to Cort. He gives you enough information to be attracted and repelled. For those who are attracted, he gives enough history for an excuse (did I say excuse, I meant explanation…) Cort has more than a bit of the Michael Corleone about him, and I declare here and now that I rather fancied him.

The final third is told by John Stone himself and will, needless to say, answer most of the questions (of which there are many) thrown up by the preceding pages.

This is a superb historical mystery with wonderful characters and twists. There is an extra big twist at the end which I was happy with but which I understand other readers have felt was “twisting for twistings sake”. You will have to read for yourself to see what I mean.

There is an excellent review by Clare Clark in the Guardian and another by Jake Kerridge in the Telegraph. In the blogosphere Farm Lane Books, My Blank Thoughts, and MJ’s Literary Odyssey also have something to say. I have featured here a picture of the front cover, a picture of Pears himself and also, for fun, the site of the novel’s opening, and a place I love, the church of St-Germain des Pres in Paris.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Weekly Portrait: Nina Hamnett by Roger Fry

This painting is called "Woman" but the model is Nina Hamnett, who has appeared in this blog more than once (infact, at least twice) and it was painted in 1915.

Some years later, in her wonderful autobiography Snakes and Ladders, Marjory Todd describes how Hamnett introduced her to her mentor C. K. Ogden:

""This is C. K. Ogden, my dear. Ogden, this is Blackie".... "very rich man, my dear! He is going to give me a marvellous dinner!"

But a little later Ogden said to me "You are dining with me" and bore me off to the Etoile. Nina never showed the slightest resentment about this sort of thing. She always brought a most unfemenineblandness into everything, and yet, I am afraid, in those days as in later years, she often ended the evening alone".

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why you cannot beat a cream tea and a bunch of bloggers

This post is a quick and inadequate eulogy to a wonderful afternoon spent with the authors of some of my favourite blogs; Simon, Claire, Hayley, Miranda, Donna and Polly. Blogger of honour was of course the inimitable Thomas, owner, author and decorator of My Porch. We all met up at the one and only Persephone Book Shop in Lambs Conduit Street and then repaired to the British Museum for afternoon tea. I am so looking forward to the book that Thomas gave me – The Professor’s House by Willa Cather – which I *think* is my first foray into American literature since childhood. Stateside, here I come....

Monday, November 22, 2010

A “lost life” available for discovery: Marjory Todd and her game of snakes and ladders

When I read Jonathan Rose’s landmark social history The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, I didn’t have either a blog or the words to say how good I thought it was. Amongst other achievements, he has trudged around otherwise unvisited accounts of working class life in the 20th century. A lady called Marjory Todd and her autobiography Snakes and Ladders are among his footnotes.

Marjory Todd was born in the 1900s. She was part of the generation for whom the First World War was a childhood memory; who grew to maturity in the late ‘20s and ‘30s and who were pretty hardened by the time the Second World War came along. She was one of five children born to a gentle former teacher and a hard drinking and maudlin cabinet maker. When their mother dies they are exposed to the caprices of their father who is as ridiculous as he is cruel. He is soon joined by a vulgar sailor’s wife whom his children label “the woman” in a domestic set up which is never quite clear to anyone.

Marjory is clever but she is poor and without her mother’s influence it rather shows. She meets snobbery at school and resentment at home and so jumps the education ship in favour of work at 14. There begins a catalogue of different jobs as lady’s maid, children’s nanny, civil servant, employment exchange operative during the 1926 General Strike, broadcaster and probation officer. Geographically, she treks up hill and down dale to earn a living and in pursuit of her dream – of going to university.

Snakes and Ladders is human and humorous and a staggering account of self reliance. Its voice is charming and self possessed. The book is also a splendid period piece. Being rather fashion conscious, I am drawn to the passages which touch on clothes. This (circa. 1925) is one of my favourites:

“I only had a jersey and a skirt; these were all my clothes. The jersey was a sort of Fair Isle I had knitted out of oddments, including, I remember, some unpicked brown woollen stockings. It was really rather gay. The skirt had been given my by a neighbour. I had no hat. I had had one; I had made it out of the raided cuffs of an old coat of my mother’s, but it had blown into the river a few weeks before. Since then, I had been going about feeling eccentric and rather brazen”.

Here is a woman of her age. A woman whose belongings can be packed into a single case; who earns her own money; and for whom “living in digs” was the final emancipation.

Her gift for giving a flavour is not the end of Todd’s historical value – for she finds herself on the spot at significant moments in history.

Firstly, this is an account of pre war labour politics, as viewed intelligently from the margins. Her account of the left wing in London in the ‘20s and ‘30s is philosophic and engaging. What is more – this is an account of the development of her ideas. Like many working class people she was educated voluntarily and in the evenings at the WEA (Workers’ Education Association) which hosted lectures and classes in chilly communal halls. She speaks for many when she writes: “we really did believe in perfectibility”. She is a thinking woman with an independent mind; idealistic but not blind to absurdities. I was particularly tickled by her brush with the Fabian Society: “The few I knew talked a lot about the working classes and seemed interested to hear that I lived in Limehouse”. She provides little further comment and I rather think she doesn’t need to.

Secondly, her life was touched by the great and the good (and the interesting). At Toynbee Hall, Todd was tutored by Cyril Joad, the intellectual and broadcaster who it seems to me, rather fancied her. He certainly provided her with mentoring and assistance in the world which few of her background could hope for. Nina Hamnett, the famously dissolute and rather interesting painter introduced Todd (whom she called “Blackie”) to C. K. Ogden, the eccentric philosopher who also became a great friend. Of all the strange and unexpected people to wander across the stage of a working class memoir; even Lady Ottoline Morrell, scary sight and patroness of all things bohemian, puts in an appearance.

What is probably most brilliant about Snakes and Ladders is that Todd deals with the business of being working class in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a voice which is not often heard and it is a voice that may sound strange to some. There is a constant need to deal with the snobberies of others; their misunderstanding of working class mores and their sense of entitlement. Todd is what my father in law would call “grafter”. She worked hard from girlhood onwards and she was given nothing. This created in her a kind of work mania and an interest in earning money which confounded her middle class friends. When she had to leave a boyfriend with whom she was in love because of work he challenged her “Why must you go? Why must you always be so working class?”

Snakes and Ladders is a kaleidoscope of the personal, the political and the historical – of those things within the mind and the most pressing needs of the body. It is not a “let it all hang out” sort of memoir. Todd hints at her personal life but she does not feel obliged to explain it. Snakes and Ladders certainly does not want for the lack of this; there is more than enough here, to be getting on with.

This is not the sort of book (more is the pity) that can be picked up in Waterstones – but I got mine inexpensively on amazon. I have included a picture of the book itself and to try to make up for the fact that I cannot find an image of Margory Todd – I have included some of the people with whom she was friends: Cyril Joad, C. K. Ogden, Nina Hamnett and Ottoline Morrell.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Daunt Books treat on a hideous November morning

There is nothing like discovering a new Daunt Books whilst trudging through the wind and rain on the way to work. It is lucky that I had my camera with me... Here it is, large as life and twice as bookish on Cheapside. Workers of the city do not despair!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Portrait of the Week: John and Myfanwy Piper

Partly because I loved Frances Spalding's double biography but never got around to reviewing it and partly in anticipation of reading Alexandra Harris's Romantic Moderns; here are this fascinating twosome.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thomas Cromwell: be thou my vision (oh, you already are): Wolf Hall my lovelies

It is nice to know that sometimes, things are all that they are cracked up to be. Viva Wolf Hall is what I say, although I do, as you might suspect, have more to say than that. For those of you who have somehow avoided it, Wolf Hall is Hilary Mantel’s prize winning, literary talk inspiring doorstep of a novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell, right hand man to Henry VIII in the small matter of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his establishment as head of the Church in England.

And it is fair to say that Thomas Cromwell has never had it so good than he has between the covers of this book (apart from possibly in life, of which, more later). Rather than a distasteful politico and Machiavellian schemer who stabbed his boss in the back and connived at the brutal murders of numerous principled old people eventually to die himself at the axe by which he had lived, he is, well, something rather different. Here, in Wolf Hall, he is a trailblazer of humble origin; the king’s fixer; an intellectual man of humanity; a foot soldier in the army of Christ. We are always hearing about the Renaissance man, here is a modern man; a thinker and an advocate; person of reason who we can all understand. Historically, Thomas Cromwell has never known promotion like it.

An outrage on history you might think. On the other hand, you might think that this is a brave new account. I would probably plump for something betwixt. I do wonder if this elevation of Cromwell smacks a bit of the anti Catholicism which is all to familiar in English historiography. At the same time, the Thomas Cromwell of legend is clearly far too much of a pantomime villain. What is brave about Wolf Hall, and what I love about it is how Mantel picks apart the pantomime elements of Henry VIII’s court – the subterfuges which have been all too easy to believe in.

Thomas More – the “man for all seasons” – she picks apart as a sort of counter point to Thomas Cromwell. To history Thomas More is a principled man of intellect; a crusader against the wind of power and a renaissance man of the family: he respected his daughter you know, so he must have been modern. Mantel wonders about this, and she sort of sets up the idea of the More family as a historical truth that might not be true. Maybe he was a principled man but a shocking husband? Who knows; I think that might be the point. She talks about “the family on the wall” as depicted by Hans Holbein and invites the reader to disbelieve in its unity. How inviting that is.

One of my favourite elements of the novel is the rather exhilarating and wholly historically unjustified elevation of Mary Boleyn. In addition to being an adorable whore with a heart of gold and a good-time-girl trapped in the wrong era, Mary fixes her sights upon Cromwell. What an odd thing for Mantel to have imagined. I wonder if the idea is that Mary and Cromwell were both inveterate outsiders; she the Queen’s trial run sister; he the boot boy made good – why should they not be interested in one another?

In other aspects, Wolf Hall is none too revolutionary in its historical view. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk is played as an upper class thug with a brain that you could lose on your way to the bus stop; Charles Brandon is a sex and status obsessed thickie; Anne Boleyn is a bit on the self regarding side. Of Henry VIII, maybe the less said, the better. A wonderful summary runs as follows: “he needs to be on the side of the light. He is not a man like you, who can just pack his sins in his saddlebags and carry them from country to country, and when they grow too heavy whistles up a mule or two, and soon commands a train of them and a troop of muleteers”.

Although Wolf Hall is called a historical novel, I would call it a psychological one. Cromwell is a narrator haunted by visions and memories and motivated by deprivations and abuses. He seems to be pondering (for 650 pages, but then again, it could have been more), the nature of submission and the trap that guilt and collusion with corruption creates for the soul. A candid moment in the narrative runs thus: “one fear creates a dereliction, the offence brings on a greater fear, and there comes a point where the fear is too great and the human spirit just gives up and a child wanders off numb and directionless and ends up following a crowd and watching a killing”.

As usual, there are lots of interesting opinions, including at Books Please, Babbette’s Book Blog, Vulpes Libris, the fabulous 3:17am and one of my favourite favourite internet places: Harriet Devine’s Blog. I have included pictures of the tome itself (at Hever Castle, no less), Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More (and family – for this is all about “the family on the wall”) – and to link one advocate to another – Hilary Mantel.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Strange things spotted

This one from Serbia circa. May. What do you make of it?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

(Group) Portrait of the Week: gas masks!

This was, needless to say, not the standard issue!

Monday, November 8, 2010

“Baby I’m home!”: the lives of Lee Miller in our church hall (which is the last place you would expect to find her)

Who would think that the life of the legendary muse artist and subversive Lee Miller could fill a church hall in Surrey a good 30 years after her death. Well, it did – the week before last, and I was one of the congregation of listeners when her son Anthony Penrose gave an illustrated and candid discussion of his mother’s life. I have read quite a lot about Lee Miller and I guess that the number of people should have come as no surprise to me: she always did know how to pull a crowd.

Here was a lady who has gone down in history as a staggering beauty and a muse who utterly obsessed the artists who immortalised her. By far the most famous images of Lee are those photographs of her taken by her lover Man Ray and it was together that they discovered the process of solarisation. As a result of an unplanned encounter with a rat in the dark room, a photograph was exposed to some light during development such that its tones were reversed and a strange line appeared around its object. This odd beautiful effect became entirely associated with Miller and Ray.

And there is one of the main points that Penrose made about his mother: she was not just an beauty to be brushed on canvases and pictured and objectified; she had her own work. Miller’s photography abounds with images of freedom and escape and like many surrealists – she was fascinated by the idea of the “found object”. That is to say that she looked for the marvellous in the ordinary and she, as Penrose put it – used her camera like a cookie cutter to chop out bits of everyday life. Intellectually she railed against being objectified. Here was a woman who served a severed breast up on a plate with a knife and fork to make a point. She was pretty subversive and she was pretty brave.

Which she needed to be when she went into occupied with the allied troops at the end of the Second World War. She was there as a war correspondent and the photographs that she took and the words that she wrote were the first that many people knew of the horrors of life under the Nazis. She took the most harrowing pictures of concentration camp interiors and they were not taken from a distance: they were right close up. She was able to flash her camera while men around her were vomiting into the bushes. Famously her companion took a picture of her having a lounge in Hitler’s bath, her muddy boots, fresh from the camps on the dictator’s bathmat.

Miller only left Europe because she was told, none too subtly, that her English husband wanted her back and was not content for her to roam around with the army forever. I got the impression from Penrose that his mother would never have come home of her own volition. When she did come home she suffered badly from having nothing important to do. She became extremely depressed, hit the bottle and there is no doubt a lot in her son’s suggestion that she was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. For those of you (and there are quite a few I think) who excel in the domestic arts, it will be heartening to know that her life was practically saved by the restorative powers of cookery. That having been said, Miller was no Delia – she was a surrealist in all things and her meals reflected her love for the unpredictable and the outrageously coloured.

One of the most touching aspects of Penrose’s talk is that he was utterly candid about his own dreadful relationship with her mother while she was alive. It sounds as though they argued like cat and dog. Miller did not have the normal maternal feelings towards her child and he was embarrassed and no doubt deeply hurt by her. The experiences of the children of avant-garde families in the twentieth century is a pet interest of mine and I think that Penrose would have quite a bit to say on the subject. He described himself as having met his mother through her work and through the work of others who knew and loved her.

The public face of Lee Miller is available for everyone to discover and the archives of her life are kept at her former home Farley Farm House in Sussex. I feel a trip coming on.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Brrrrr.... postal bounty in the garden

The Persephone Biannually is much nicer than the bills that usually come through the letter box, and since it comes but twice a year, I like to read it slowly. I started mine today in the garden, wrapped up warm with a cup of a coffee. Recent acquisitions which I can’t wait to get into are Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out (regular readers may recall how head over heels I was about her book Among the Bohemians back in April), and the intriguing Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Weekly Portrait: Lee Miller, by Man Ray

For more on this legendary lady, watch this blog....

Monday, November 1, 2010

Further adventures in total obscurity: Surplus Women by G. C. Pain

OK so this one is a forgotten novel, even by my standards. A couple of months ago I read a reference to Surplus Women by G. C. Pain in Nick Turner’s excellent study Post-War British Women Novelists and the Canon. Being a bit of a frustrated detective, I found the book cheap on amazon and clicked “buy”. What rocked up in the post a week or so later was this, rather shabby, jacketless, watermarked 1943 edition, printed by a publisher called The Woman’s Book Club (in 1943...? *radical*). And I must say, that I am glad that it did. Surplus Women is an intriguing little book.

It is the story of Kay Burns, a lower middle class young woman of the 1930s or as she puts it, one of “two million surplus women in the country that nobody wants”. Her world is that of the sparsely furnished parlour and the gas-lit suburban street. She is an orphan, brought up by her grandmother, with whom she has little in common. Her inclinations are against convention but her surroundings are stultifying normal. Rather than being embraced by family life, she is suffocated by it. The world of her community is even worse; all dismal interiors and gossip and disapproval. In revolt Kay moves away and boards in a house of unmarried ladies where she is at first liberated and then horrified by the spectre of aging a single woman. She marries in haste and repents in the time honoured way. Not really surprising when at the point of proposal, the groom comments that “I don’t say I go into raptures at the thought of holding you in my arms. I expect it will be quite nice”. Despair not however – those of you who like a bit of real love in your reading - because it does eventually come to Kay, although I cannot promise that it will not be a bitter sweet business.

This book is a well written testimony of its time. It is a swift, focussed and touching glimpse of the clash between individuality and community; between compliance and subversion; between men and women in the interwar years. Kay is an odd kind of heroine. At first, when she is young and raring to go, she is a hard and unsympathetic girl. Her rebelliousness is turned inwards and she is what my grandmother would have called a scowler. As she develops she rather grows up and love certainly changes her into a softer being – in a way which is, I suppose, rather conventional. Hers is a realistic and moving narrative of subversion. She is not a firebrand rebel but a girl of ordinary circumstances who wishes to live differently in a deeply restrictive society. Thus, she dances between the outrageous and the conventional; between what people expect and what she really wants. In the end, I rather loved her, and I recognised her too, as a woman who must, in some way have reflected many of her generation.

I have deliberately not spoilt this book, as I hope that some of you may enjoy discovering it yourselves. I wonder whether Virginia Nicholson read it when she was researching her book, Singled Out? Try as I might, I am still in the dark about G. C. Pain so if anyone knows *anything* about her, I am all ears....