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

Friday, December 24, 2010

And a Merry Christmas to all you book lovers

This post is exactly what it says on the tin. It is Christmas Eve and we are just preparing to head off to Norfolk for a few days of over indulgence. Wish me luck... I have a couple of books packed (War on the margins by Libby Cone and the splendidly titled Fanny by gaslight by Michael Sadleir) and would not be too surprised if I return a book or too richer after Santa has done his stuff.

Where ever you are in the world, thank you for reading my blog and (whether you are celebrating it or not) have a warm, safe and joyful Christmas/time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Snow City (inexperienced style)

Now, I know that there are many of you will not be impressed with what must look like a "mere sprinkling" but the truth is that it doesn't usually snow like this in London, so it is worthy of comment, or if not comment, then certainly a few pictures. So here they are...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pottering with Pym: Excellency amongst women and novelists

I have just finished Barbara Pym’s novel Excellent Women over a cup of tea, in somebody else’s home whilst marooned in London due to snow, and just for a moment, albeit a short one, I identified with its heroine, the inestimable Mildred Lathbury. I am happy, but not quite settled. I take the view that a cup of tea solves most problems but I know that it doesn’t solve them all. I am looking around at the snow caked city and thinking – well – let’s just wait and see.

Mildred is a bit like that. She is the narrator of this excellent novel in which she reveals her character and her place in the world by gentle turns and subtle humour. Mildred is a clergyman’s daughter who has found herself over 30 and unmarried in an age when that usually meant that you could forget your chances in the marriage market. She is not at all rich but she is firmly middle class. She lives in a flat which shares its bathroom with others. She is extremely churchy – her closest friends being the local vicar and his spinster sister. Mildred volunteers and helps and sorts and mucks in and is generally a self contained, self sufficient woman upon whom everyone seems to depend.

Enter stage right a considerable amount of disturbance in the form of Mildred’s new neighbours, Rockingham “Rocky” and Helena Napier. Helena is a spirited anthropologist who is more interested in the origins of civilisation than in being a “proper” wife 1950s style. This state of affairs has poor Mildred completely flummoxed, not least because Mrs Napier’s husband Rocky is rather lovely. He has spent the war in Italy – Mildred imagines charming Wrens.

This book is largely about the distinction – now very little but then a vast chasm – between married and unmarried women. At the beginning of the book, Mildred comments disarmingly “Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women, who tell their stories in the first person”. That is to say - reader don’t expect an “I married him” moment.

The distinctions which Pym illustrates have mostly to do with status and position. One that really fascinates is the dividing of the married and the unmarried between the passive observers and the active non-observers. According to one of her fellow unmarrieds: “We, my dear Mildred, are the observers of life. Let other people get married by all means, the more the merrier”. He lifted the bottle, judged the amount left in it and refilled his own glass but not mine. “Let Dora marry if she likes. She hasn’t your talent for observation”.

Other excellent opinions are to be found at Dovegreyreader, the Red Room library and the wonderful My Porch. I have included a picture of the front cover of the latest Virago edition, and the lady herself, together with a slightly grumpy looking cat.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Treasures of the bedside Lilliput – part 1 (Nancy Mitford’s Christmas)

Regular readers may remember that although I am not a worshipper, I am definitely an admirer at the book shelf of the legendary Nancy Mitford. I think that she is funny, and it is as simple as that. So, I was thrilled to settle down with my Bedside Lilliput and discover that a short and festive tale from the comic Nancy was first behind the cover.

This short story is called Aunt Melita’s Christmas Party and it is classic Mitford – all dysfunctional families and acerbic comments. Aunt Melita likes to think of herself as the Queen Bee of her family Christmastide and although they don’t declare themselves to be willing, they all seem to comply. Even her husband, who is nobody’s idea of a natural Father Christmas. It captures beautifully how we all end up doing things at Christmas without being at all sure why.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Singled Out!

I am a silly one. All that rambling back in October about G. C. Pain’s novel Surplus Women and I didn’t realise that the phrase “surplus women” was common currency in the years after the first world war. I spent the first few chapters of the novel wondering slightly when it was supposed to be set and of course had I done my research or been of an older generation, I would have known that Pain had announced the period setting in the very title itself. Maybe I should have read Virginia Nicholson’s excellent Singled Out – How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War, before. Oh well, you can’t have it all. Suffice to say that this is a super social history that will no doubt inform my reading for many years to come.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Who was changed and who was dead: a case of Comyns fever

In celebration of the publication by Dorothy of a new edition of Barbara Comyns’ wonderful novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, I have posted below a review of this novel which I wrote earlier this year for Pattinase’s feature “Forgotten Book Friday”. My copy of the new edition has arrived all the way from the US and I can’t wait to re read it. The cover is just as good in real life and Brian Evenson’s new introduction is excellent. So, here are my thoughts…

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is the story of a family, a household and a village in a time of flood, plague and savagery. The year is 1914 and the family is that of widower Ebin Willoweed. Ebin is the lethargic home tutor to his three motherless children – Emma, Dennis and Hattie. He is also the dependent and resentful son of the rich forbidding matriarch – Grandmother Willoweed. Grandmother Willoweed is an old tyrant with a forked tongue who refuses to step upon land that she does not own. The wider household includes their tender maids – the sisters Norah and Eunice – and their gardener – the frank speaking, keeper of traditions – Old Ives. Beyond the gates of their manorial home sits a community wider still; the doctor, the baker, the farmer, the miller, the rector, the idiot; their wives, their lovers, their children. As the novel opens the river has burst its banks and flooded the house and the village. Ducks swim through windows and Ebin rows his daughters around the garden in a small boat. Everything is displaced. But soon it will be worse – for plague follows flood and madness follows hard behind. Who will be changed by it, and who will be dead?

The tone of this tale is surreal and slightly magical – but it is not meaninglessly strange. Rather – bizarre happenings and peculiar interludes are used to illustrate themes that are close to us all. Barbara Comyns explores snobbery and insecurity alongside kindness and understanding. She explores the casual cruelties of family life, the odd traps of domesticity, the secrets and lies that lurk in every household. She shows how people can become displaced – by their own attitudes and the mentalities of others. The characters that she creates are powerful because they are candid. Although the moral compass is stronger in some than it is in others, everyone in this stricken village has more than one side – there are no pantomime villains or heroes beyond reproach. Barbara Comyns builds a topsy-turvy world and uses it to illustrate a landscape of great familiarity.

This is not a story without horror. Indeed, the grotesque descriptions of the damage caused by the flood led to the book being banned in Ireland when it was published in 1954. Barbara Comyns was not a user of the euphemism. She wrote frankly and unapologetically. But if a history of censorship suggests to you that this book might be gratuitously unpleasant – then her history of censorship has done Barbara Comyns wrong. In Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead there is an overwhelming feeling for the profound and confusing oddness of everyday life. The true horrors of the novel are the ease with which people will turn to violence – the speed with which they will lose compassion – the comfort which they will take from prejudice. Alongside this disturbing narrative – there are also the unexpected new beginnings that emerge from chaos – the happier, surer future beyond the disaster. This is a lyrical and humane book which ought not to be forgotten.

Monday, December 6, 2010

More competitive dabbling, this time with a festive flavour

Those wonderful people over at The Dabbler are running another promising competition in association with the brilliant Slightly Foxed. Some of you may recall my feverish discovery of Slightly Foxed this summer, and I have also dabbled with The Dabbler’s 1p book review.

Now, the snow has fallen, the winter is not exactly drawing in, but jolly well here already and it is time for us all to try to win something...

And what, I ask you, could be more attractive than a Christmas Fox. Christmas Foxes are Slightly Foxed’s special seasonal editions. Beautifully-bound and compact, they make an ideal stocking-filler, or a literary alternative to a Christmas card.

This year’s edition features a delightful short story by author Linda Leatherbarrow.

Slightly Foxed are giving away a whopping THREE Christmas Foxes to lucky Dabbler readers. There is a little bit of skill involved as competitive foxers need to identify the illustrator of a picture that can be found on The Dabbler....

Go on, you know you want to. Click here to see details and bon chance!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Introducing The Bedside Lilliput….

Along with many odd interests, I have for some time, had a lingering fascination in the history and content of a little and long since deceased literary magazine called Lilliput.

Lilliput was founded in 1937 and was dedicated to humour, short stories and little pieces on art and literature and so on. I first became aware of it because it was Lilliput that first published Sisters by a River, the first novel (maybe you can’t quite call it a novel, but that is another blog post) by one of my favourite writers, Barbara Comyns. The novel was published in instalments under the title “The Novel Nobody Will Publish” and that rather acted as a catalyst for somebody to publish it.

When I took a closer look at the annals of Lilliput, I discovered that Barbara Comyns was very much at the non famous end of its contributors. Here was a magazine which regularly featured the work of Nancy Mitford, Monica Dickens, V. S. Pritchett, Robert Graves and Patrick Campbell to name just a clutch.

My “Lilliput project” has been a casually looking out for information and references kind of affair – rather than a fiendishly searching and hunting down every tiny clue mission. Maybe that is why it has taken me so long to find that which I now proudly hold in my hands: a lovely volume called The Bedside Lilliput.

The Bedside Lilliput was published in 1950 and draws together short stories and other snippets that appeared in the magazine between 1937 and 1949. In his foreword the editor Richard Bennett wrote:

“There is always the possibility that Bedside Books may actually be placed beside beds. If this should happen to the Lilliput Bedside Book, may I wish the reader a good bedside lamp and pleasant dreams?”.

I know that it is 60 years since publication, but yes, Mr Bennett, you can, and thank you very much. It is right by my bed, and I hope to blog about its contents as I go along.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The weekly portrait: Harold Monro

I have searched and searched and I cannot find a portrait of the poet Harold Monro (1879-1932) other than this which is, as you can see, that featured on the cover of his biography. I was tickled to find out a bit about him after reading the following in Marjorie Todd's memoir Snakes and Ladders:

"Most of the young men did actually work at one thing or another, I think, though there were always a few playboys among them. I once overheard a conversation between two of them, and so did the poet Harold Monro who was sitting next to me, leaning blindly forward with both hands on his stick.

After a while he asked them quietly, "what do you do?"

"Oh" one of the young men answered airily, "I drink you know, and I fornicate."

"For which firm do you fornicate?" asked Harold Monro."

So, on that note, I may have to find out more about him.