Sunday, 27 June 2010

Too hot to read? Cold Comfort for you....

It's as much as I can do to waft through the Sunday papers on the sun roof, after having made what is likely to win 'The Prettiest Salad of The Summer (so far)' complete with pea shoots and white pea blossoms to even dream of reading anything that requires concentration. No, an old favourite is called for.  One that I have re-read so many times, that I am on my third replacement paperback.
It's a hot day, so let's all take the charabanc to Howling, in Sussex (where else?) to Cold Comfort Farm where I can promise you delights that will soothe even the most fevered of brows. Our guide there is Flora Poste.  A wonderfully tart heroine.  She weaves through the book always appropriately dressed and waves her calm hand over the problems of the Starkadders. Flora has been orphaned, you see, so she writes charming begging letters to all her known relatives, pleading for board and lodgings. After dismissing a few replies, she turns up in Sussex to a veritable feast of eccentrics.  Presiding over them all, but seldom seen is crazed Great Aunt Ada Doom (I've seen something nasty in the woodshed!) Judith (who heaves and sighs in a shawl whilst adoring her good looking and lusty son Seth) Big Business -  the bull, Rueben who tallies the books in a somewhat unconventional manner, hellfire preaching Amos, and wild spirit Elfine who adores walking on the downs communing with nature. (Flora thought, 'What a dreadful way of doing one's hair; surely it must be a mistake.') And I cannot leave out Mrs Beetle the 'woman that does' ( 'T'was a black day for me when I took up with Agony Beetle and moved to Sussex....') There is a magical make-over scene, pages and pages of comic genius, and you can almost smell the sukebind as it flowers in the giant urns on the overmantle.
Stella Gibbons wrote this rural parody of a melodrama in 1932. If you haven't read it - please do.  It's funny and smart and Flora is an absolute delight.
A keeper - I might even invest in a hardback....

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Books to read when your heart is heavy

Books to read when your heart (for whatever reason) feels heavy, or scalded, or broken are very different from reading books that are about that.  Those, I find anyway, are not helpful.  When you are tottering on the verge of weeping into your pillow at night, every night, I want a book that absorbs me to the point that I simply cannot think of anything else.  Distraction is the key.  Not too heavy, not too sad, not too many plots to follow. I don't want too much brash honesty and truths, what I'm after is a shifting canvas. Lawrence Durrell and The Alexandrian Quartet is about as perfect as it gets. Consistently voted as one of the best novels of all times, by people, I assume, who KNOW about such literary things, it is a masterpeice of deceptions and shifting ground.  Justine, Balthazar, Clea and Mountolive make up the four books. I first read these when I was an angst ridden teenager (skipping bits, I'm sure) then I forgot about them.  They found a home on the top shelf and stayed there for years.  Later, in my thirties, my heart was broken (a man) and I took myself off for a solitary weekend by the sea in France.  For some reason (directed I suspect from my guiding reading angel) I slung two of these in a bag. They absorbed me so that I didn't think of the man for a full half hour of the time.  (And anyone who has been through that particular heartache will appreciate just how long thirty minutes can be...) They are set in Egypt and centre around Justine.  What was she? A spy? A thwarted woman in love? A sex crazed frustrated wife? All of those things and maybe none of them. The book presents one story told by four different perspectives . Lost in a world of intrigue and sand, wealth and poverty, the all pervading palm print that is put on walls to evade the evil eye -  hidden truths and lies come alive. Smallpox, gout, amputation, terrible uncured sexual diseases, heat, love and lust are played out against the backdrop of Alexandria.  Nothing is as it seems. Once you have tasted that world, you can drink deeply and settle down to losing yourself completely to it. 
I was intriuged to discover that they play bibliomancy in the books, and I have done so ever since.  Just as accurate as the I Ching and a lot more fun. I am heartbroken this weekend (not a man, but a beloved dog) and so, I made some mint tea and started to read again...

Thursday, 24 June 2010


After a staggeringly wonderful reading weekend at Tilton House (more of which later) it seemed rude not to wander down the track for a tour of the sublime next door neighbour of Charleston with the magical garden. Of course, it was hard not to resent the other guests which seemed to be wandering through my garden, but with a willing spirit I tried my best... the foxgloves, the roses, the wild strawberries, the lavender, the apple orchards, the pond, the waterlillies, the mosaics, the statues seemed to be from an age that I longed to be in.  Even the tour of the house with its casual boho decor, the careless sheaves of old magazines and books, the narrow beds adn the unheated bathrooms didn't distract from the longing to live there. I even had a slight spooky moment in Clive's boudoir (do men have boudoirs? - no matter) where I thought I saw from the corner of my eye, just for a nano second the outline of a portly smiling man... Vanessa's glasses were on the table (I read somewhere amongst the many, many books of the Bloomsbury lot that she started the day with strong coffee, an orange, and a cigarette which I find endearing) and her enduring art fills the small farmhouse that was rented to her and her family for more generations than she could possibly have imagined. 

In the shop the books on all things Bloomsbury are seductively prolific.  There was one amongst them that I had read the previous year - Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light that had stayed with me... Virginia and Vanessa were, so they thought, both blessed and cursed by the servant question.  Some remained 'loyal' and others 'turned against them'.  The life and conditions of their servants were probably no better or no worse than others of the time, but it made me realise that much as I longed to live in that house and take tea with Lytton and Carrington, Clive and Vanessa, waving at Angelica playing by the pond and watching the sun set over the haystacks whist discussing high art and sketching famous profiles, I would no doubt feel guilty about the scullery maid washing up in the chipped enamal sink with cold water. I sighed, stole a strawberry and went home to wash up in my warm kitchen with copious amounts of hot water.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Dreams of Venice

Last week I jumped into a taxi in the pouring rain, and feeling like Phileas Fogg I asked for The Royal Geographic Society in Kensington Gore.  It was rather thrilling. If I had 80 days to get around the world for a wager, what a place to start from. A real Victorian adventurers club, complete with a scale model of The Alps, and a slice of the Albert Hall as a backdrop in the courtyard. I was there for a Venice in Peril talk (courtesy of fellow Venice lover Mr B).  Now, I should declare, that Venice is my dream city.  A city I visit as often as I can (which is never enough) and to compensate that I am not sipping a Bellini in Harry's Bar, I tend to over buy books on my ideal place.
Anything and everything. If it has a picture of Venice on the cover, I can be found at the till, handing over my money.
I knew I had on my shelves Carnivale by Michelle Lovric, and it was she who was giving the talk. So, I was pre-disposed to adore it.  But - I found myself drifting off... (not helped by a slight fit of giggles whan she was talking about the 'Column of Infamy' that is hidden in the depths of a museum that she feels should be brought to light, which made me nudge Mr B and do a bad Frankie Howerd impersonation of 'Infamy, Infamy, they've all got it Infamy')  it made me realise that Venice almost doesn't need any more stories.  The whole place is a story.  Layers upon layers of the most wonderful and vainglorious of histories superimposed on the stones. From the incomparable Venetian Queen of storytelling - Jan Morris, to the enormous ego of  Erica Jong, they've all had their say on the enchanted city.
Maybe because I have read so much on it, that all the books (and the centuries) have become jumbled in my mind.  Lagoons and glass-blowers, masked lovers in gondoliers, Byroinc escapades, trysts on bridges, traitors being imprisoned, great artists starving, floods and plagues, nuns and priests that reveal themselves to be sinners or saints, fritto misto on the side of a canal, almond pastries, fleeting love, and oh, who can forget the terrifying figure of the small red hooded murderer in Don't Look Now? are all imprinted in great glittering hook in my head.
So, they are all there, mixed and jumbled and adding to memories, but not really adding up to a cohesive reading subject. The few of the many that stand out for me are: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. I adore this beyond measure.  A relief as well, ( a relief because sometimes the sheer weight of historical details can drag one into the lagoon if not careful) as it is a contemporary love story, and , oh, so funny....  it made me long to go to the Biennale. 
The City of Falling Angels by John Brendt, with his masterly pen of making us believe we are THERE.  He says somewhere in this book that...'there are no truths in Venice.  I can change.  You can change. That is the Venice effect.'
Venetian Dreaming by Paila Weideger who did that thing that I have only dreamt of, actually moving there.  Her trials of house hunting, dealing with Venetian landlords, shoppping, learning the language are enchanting.
And I suppose, for those of us who have fallen under the spell - who hasn't wished of living in the city of domes and bell towers, topped with impossible gilded angels or marble saints, haunted by poets, reeking of canals and coffee, almonds and fish, oranges and peaches.....shimmering lights and broken dreams?
We finished our Ventian evening at Polpo in Beak Street where amongst the cicheti of taleggio, asparagus and prosciutto, the glasses of wine, the sound of the rain against the window and the chatter we could almost persuade ourselves we were back on the lagoon.
What to keep?

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Naughty Princess by Anthony Armstrong, illustrated by A.K Macdonald 1946

This is a glorious book. A collection of short stories that were originally published in The Strand magazine (defunct long before I had ever glimpsed it) It’s a true delight. It’s that rare thing, a book that can be appreciated by children, but has been written for adults.
Royal fairy stories, with a martini drinking fairy godmother, a court magician and a court poet fighting with verses and spells to woo the princess Lillia, a magic looking glass that goatishly looks at the owner as she coquettishly changes clothes, a frog that upon being kissed reveals himself as a very unattractive young man, albeit a prince, and is promptly turned back into a frog by a world weary woman who wants some peace from the hurly burly of royal romance and would rather flirt with the gardener. Saucy Princesses, knights that liked a drink and were quite terrified of dragons, and enchanted Royal rose gardens.

I thought it the height of sophistication and rather daring when I was a child, demanding to know what a ‘stenographer’ was, and was a Grand Vizier a job that I could apply for when I was an adult? (It still seems like a great career move to me, even now)

The book has the flavour of the wise cracking, fast moving New York in the forties and fifties. If it were a film it would undoubtedly star Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. It’s glamorous and very funny.

In ‘The Pack of Pieces’ His Majesty King Plimsoll of Waterline despairs of ever getting in the royal bathroom, beaten as he is every morning either by the Queen, his daughter Princess Helia or her pack of saucy ladies in waiting, dubbed ‘The Pack of Pieces’. The court is full of troubadours and Princes from neighbouring kingdoms, vying for the Helia’s hands in marriage. He is reduced to hauling a chair outside the bathroom to wait for the Royal bath. “Quivering Dragonsblood’ he swears whilst yet another lady in waiting, clad only in flimsy silk manages to nab the bathroom. He gloomily puts on his week day crown and saunters off to breakfast for a strong coffee and a perusal of the local paper The Waterline Daily Palace Guardian and Royal Recorder. His friend, the Acting Vizier, Malan, is a shrewd operator and has a rather charming stenographer that he was dictating to when the King interrupts him, demanding that something be DONE about the overcrowding of the royal bathrooms.
The turning upside down of the standard fairy tale is an absolute delight, and has the added advantage of feeling subversive, too. It also very cleverly avoids being at all whimsical or knowing.

Portly Kings and knights rub shoulders with magicians and knight, Queens keep a firm Royal hand on the gold, and princesses frolic with unsuitable suitors. A dragon called Pongo that lives in a supersized dog kennel made me long to own this exotic creature, especially as he would obligingly start a fire if you were feeling chilly. The illustrations are a joy, I would thoroughly recommend this for some uplifting and enchanting reading.

Second hand on Amazon it seems a bargain to me for a fiver. A keeper – I think. What about you?

Diana Athill OBE OMG

I had the real pleasure of meeting Ms Athill in the rather swanky surroundings of Shoreditch House and like a fool I was rendered speechless.

She was introduced as ‘Our Lady of Letters Diana Athill, O.B.E . OMG!’ and the audience clapped and hooted appreciatively. What a woman.

Stylishly dressed in a black and white long Nehru tunic, wide legged black pants and an enormous silver necklace she looked the part of the grand dame of letters. With her silver hair and walking stick it was hard to believe that she was 93.

I’d read her book the month before, indeed galloped through the large volume (at one point reading it in bed I let the large volume slip through my fingers and thought for a moment that I’d broken my nose, so large and heavy is it.) And the contents stayed with me for weeks. It’s searingly honest and touches on subjects that made me think rather uncomfortably about things that we all tend to push to the back of our mind. Death, aging, past lovers, and friends lost. That sounds gloomy. But it isn’t. Hers is a sparkling clear voice of wisdom in a wilderness of clamouring. Her life as an editor, where she seems to have practically edited everyone who is anyone of modern contemporary literature is a list of superstars. And her dealing with such fragile and monstrous (sometimes) egos is touching and revealing.

She said when being interviewed by the master of ceremonies himself – the urbane and witty Damian Barr, that one of the good things about growing older is that she doesn’t remember if she’d read a book before or not – so that she has the absolute delight of reading an old favourite as if for the first time.

How wonderful.

She was in conversation for over half an hour and held an audience of over 200 enraptured. Her talk of Jean Rhys, Molly Keane, her delight on moving into sheltered accommodation, her love of books made you feel that you had just made a new friend.

Perhaps the most moving part of the evening was when she told of her anguish at realising that she had room for only (!) 300 books in her new home. Her nephew spent three days with her, holding up books for her to decide to keep or chuck. These were not ‘just’ books to her. They were her life. And every single one was a treasured friend that represented a massive part of her life.

The personal stories she recounted in her clear voice were a privilege to hear, and when questions were being taken from the floor, for some reason I shrank from asking anything. I think I felt that the best present I could give her was not to pry any more, but to let her enjoy her applause.

I know, I know, what a fool.

A keeper, I would imagine....

Saturday Island - Gotta be a keeper, right?

My dearest of Old Pigs,

This is how Michael in Saturday Island by Hugh Brooke, addresses his much loved ship wreck companion, Aggie.

It’s a Heineman Adventure book that sold for two shillings and sixpence in 1935

Agatha Spottiswood (31, mild mannered, gentle eyes and a good line in rhyming patter inherited from her ex-pierrot mother) lives and works with her bother Charlie, and his blowsy second wife, Dora ‘dyed hair and getting fat’ in The White Hart, a down at heel back street pub in Brighton. They conspire to get rid of her so that they can ‘improve’ the place with such modern delights as a radiogramme and soft shaded lights, with perhaps a creamy cocktail or two on the menu.

They sweet talk Aggie into buying into a tearoom with Cousin Millie, the other side of the world - Jamaica. On board the s.s Hercules she meets Michael. An upperclass boy of thirteen returning home from boarding school with his dragon of a stepmother, Mrs Douglas Crosbie. (She has the coldest eyes Aggie has ever seen)

Aggie, who is rather taken with the rhyming possibility of his stepmother’s name idly writes a silly verse on a scrap of paper in the passenger lounge of the ship, that is retrieved by Michael from the waste paper basket, to his delight (and Aggie’s severe embarrassment)

“My teeth are false, my hair are few.

My age is over sixty two.

Please pass the salad dressing, do,

Said Mrs Douglas Crosbie”

A friendship between these unlikely two is born. All they share is a sense of humour. Aggie is in turns enchanted and intimidated by Michael’s clear voice, exquisite manners, and cold unemotional upbringing. He thinks she is a ‘nice old thing’ and funny. He lets her into a secret. He tells of her of a water tight emergency chest that he has on board and proudly shows her the list of contents: One compass, 5 different fish hooks, 2 yards of gut, 20 yards of fine line, 1 very sharp Bowey knife, 2 tins of sardines, Chocolate, 1 pair of siccors (sic), 1 sack of oats, 1 sack of corn, 1 Billy can, 6 boxes matches wrapped in oil cloth, thick cord, air pistol, 1000 buletts (sic) 1 catapult, 6 foot of thick elastic, a hammer and the Union Jack. ( I do so love a list in books) Aggie remarks that she would have packed some tea, and continues to stare at the silky smooth sea and dread the end of the voyage where she will doubtless never see Michael again and be bound to a hot sticky tearoom in Kingston.
Of course there is a hurricane. Of course they both wash up on an uninhabited (apart from a skeleton they name Mr Grimsby) island. They make a shelter, Aggie nurses him through sunstroke, he teaches her how to fish, he lords it over her with his knowledge of all things outdoors, and when she tries to ‘mother’ him he makes her come up with amusing doggerel that peppers the book. Aggie is reduced to making a grass skirt and uses the Union Jack as a bra. The only thing she misses and longs for is that most British of things, that even now, we have been known to yearn for when in a foreign land – a nice cup of tea. (Aggie takes it Indian and strong and with two lumps of sugar)

Then it takes a dark turn. They fall out. They move to separate ends of the island. Things begin to change. But as with all good adventure books there is a happy ending. One where Michael gives her the highest of accolades – My Dearest of Old Pigs. (This became an accepted form of address between my mother and I, and she would frequently start letters to me addressed to ’ My Dearest of Gloucester Old Spots’)

It’s a cracking read. Funny and poignant. And still delights.

I recently found it second hand on Amazon and in 2010 it’s selling for £49.50 I may well have to buy it as you can see my Mother’s copy is, quite literally, falling apart. An investment, I would say.

Most definitely a keeper. What do you think?

Pearl S Buck

I thought I would re-read my bookshelves, prior to a much needed cull. Keepers or charity shop? Please help me decide. Most of the books are beloved old friends, some are new, and some are waiting to be tasted. Some need to GO.
I am convinced that one day I will be found buried under the toppling pile of books on my bedside table, but tant pis, there are worse ways to go. I blame it on my mother. She was a true bibliophile, teaching me to read when I was four, begging me with tears in her eyes that “It would be so much fun!” She was right. It was.
Some of her books I inherited (apart from the Dickens which she adored and I had, and have, an aversion to) So, I thought I’d start with some of her old friends.
Pearl S Buck has gone out of fashion, and yet she was a prolific and popular author, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. I adored her books when I was younger as they did that thing that novels should do: Immerse you in another world, a world of which to start with you know nothing but soon becomes a familiar setting with a wealth of detail that stays ingrained for years to come. Buck’s world was China. And in her books the art of transporting one to a time and place that you have never visited is enthralling. She wrote an epic and rich novel combining the broad brush stroke with a fine eye for detail.
I now know the gruesome facts of foot binding (the toes were broken with the big toe pointing up towards the ankle and the other toes crunched underneath) with acrobats and kite flyers performing to provide a distraction from the bloody business. Of concubines swallowing opium and hurling themselves down wells, of thin fish gruel for breakfast, of embroidered silk, of peony planting, of the dangers of bandits and childbirth, the temptation of teahouses and the vast empire that was old China. The glee that I felt when I pounced on these exotic details when I was young didn’t lessen as I re-read them later in life. And who couldn’t love a delicate, trembling hair ornament in the shape of a jade moth?
In The Pavilion of Women, Madame Wu is the head. She rules her estates, her children, her servants and her husband with an icy detachment, and decides, when she is 40, she has done enough and deserves some’ me time’. So, she buys a country girl for her husband as a concubine (to lessen the disappointment of having her peerless presence in his bed) and retires from his courtyard to another to study her books, plant her orchids and contemplate life. This, of course, doesn’t happen.
The unthinkable happens. She falls in love. With a foreign priest that she has employed to teach one of her sons to speak and read English to improve business. With sweeping changes happening to her country mirroring the changes in her household, her life becomes a turmoil of emotions.
How she resolves all of this, and still remains the loved and respected head of the Wu clan makes for a memorable visit to another time and place.
Positively swooning stuff. Keep?
Radio 4 chose a biography of Buck as Book at Bedtime and I rushed (well, clicked on Amazon) to buy it. BuryingThe Bones by Hilary Spurling And I hesitate now, because it told me so much about Pearl S Buck that it left me wondering of sometimes it’s better not to know too much about an author that you have admired. Her life as a child of a miserable missionary father in China was grim. Her married life little better it seemed, and the last stage of her life (described as resembling the main character from one of her books The Last Empress where she surrounded herself with ‘catamites’ and had ladies-in-waiting , would grant audiences to people sitting in a carved throne like chair) and with her family squabbling over her fortune left me wishing that she had stayed in the realms of my mind as a silk enrobed mistress of story telling.
Charity Shop?