Beverley Nichols – Cats’ A.B.C.


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Frolicsome, fantastic, feline frivolity

cats-abcA chance mention of a Beverley Nichols book on gardens and gardening by a book blogger (thank you Karen) sent me scurrying to my bookshelves to find Nichol’s ABC of Cats, bought for me as a child – though Nichols writing style is anything but childish – by a family friend, who had a slightly waspish and fastidious nature, and didn’t really like cats – or children. He did at least have the generosity to realise the child I was had an enthusiasm for good writing, which ought to be encouraged, and that despite the fact that Nichols was expressing a lot of distaste for children in these pages (with a tongue I hope at least marginally in cheek) his veneration of cats, and approval of those who he regarded as ‘true Fs’ (feline lovers) would meet with my regard. As indeed it did.

So it was with great delight that I re-opened the well battered, oft read, delightfully illustrated – line drawings by Derreck Sayer – Cats’ ABC. With short, letters of the alphabet chapter headings, running from such important subjects as A for Amusements

Let us take as a simple example the familiar device of a length of string to which we attach a screwed-up piece of paper, in order to simulate a mouse. A regrettably large proportion of cat-owners, having manufactured this elementary form of diversion, seem to imagine that nothing remains to be done but to drag the string languidly across the carpet, giving it an occasional twitch, while the cat or kitten leaps and pounces and cavorts in its wake

This is surely the most stingy and unimaginative behaviour; it is totally lacking in drama, and drama is the essence of all feline diversions

to Z for ….

Z stands for…Whatever else we may decide that Z stands for, it does not stand for Zoos. This is a book in which no institution so miserable as a Zoo should play any part. I am totally unable to understand the general public’s attitude to Zoos

with many delightful staging posts in-between. Nichols’  aura is remarkably patrician and has definite sharpness and sting, a marvellous foil to his whimsicality. There is at times an acidity and definite wasp – the reiteration of ‘their horrible children’ though babes appear to escape disfavour somewhat – but his moues of perhaps slightly affected campness are not malicious.

I like to imagine that if I, as a small child, had smeared chocolate stained fingers over cat-nichols-illusthe Ming, that my obvious respectful adoration of kitten-and-cat, and my instinctive awareness that any feline should be approached softly and patiently, would have led to Nichols regarding me as ‘needs some improvement, shows promise’ as he summoned Gaskin-the-butler to clean the offending smears off the priceless porcelain, which at least I had had the delicacy and appreciation not to break

Following, mainly the lives, loves and loathings of his three-in-residence, Four, Five and Oscar, affectionate attention is also given to the very lamented Siamese, One, who, for very sad reasons darkens the entry on G for Gardening – one of Nichols other passions, which inspires his writing.

The G chapter made me cry, though he was recounting an event which must have happened nearly 75 years ago, given this book’s publication date.

Other chapters are far happier.

A wonderful divertissement. Cats a springboard to take in other important matters like music (classical) and art.

Beverley and Leo

Beverley and Leo

To my delight I have also discovered he wrote another, similar tome, again with illustrations by Sayer. Which the postie has just delivered, as I sourced a beautifully preserved copy, at reasonable price, from a market place seller. PURR!

Cats’ A.B.C. Amazon UK
Cats’ A.B.C. Amazon USA

The UK edition I have linked is the Paperback One, which seems more readily available at reasonable price, and new, than the hardback. which I have

And, not at all in the spirit of Nichols book, as it is distinctly made to satisfy the non-Fs among us, rather than the Fs, but still too amusing to miss

Astrid Lindgren – Seacrow Island


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More innocent times, more innocent places: extreme charm without saccharine

seacrow-islandI had not encountered Swedish author Astrid Lindgren as a child (Pippi Longstocking) and I have no idea why she fell below my radar (or parental radar) at the time that I would surely have loved her. Nonetheless, I was delighted to read the reissued Seacrow Island after hearing Lindgren’s daughter, Karen, (for whom Pippi was created) talk about her mother.

Seacrow Island has left me with an extreme sense of loss that I didn’t read it in-the-day of childhood. Published in 1964 I can see its connection to childrens’ writing I was devoted to – Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, as there is a lot of messing about in boats, but Lindgren, writing this in the 60s not the 30s, would have had an immediate allure for me (had I found it) because she was writing from such a different world, and the exoticism would have appealed – the Stockholm Archipelago.

It is her characters and setting which most enchanted me – though the writing itself is wonderful, here in an unobtrusive translation by Evelyn Ramsden, and the ‘storyline’ believeable and with the right amount of drama, page turn, and rest-and-look-around-you – it was the island itself I fell in love with (like her central characters). And I also utterly surrendered to the wayward charms of her characters, particularly the triumvirate of the three youngest ones, Pelle, Tjorven and Stina.

Photo by John Sodercrantz

Stockholm Archipelago Photo by John Sodercrantz

The Melkerson family, who are headed by an accident prone, not quite practical father, Melker, an author, have rented an unseen cottage on a far island, Seacrow, for the summer. ‘Mother’ to the family is Melker’s beautiful, strong daughter Malin, aged 19, who had to assume this role when her youngest brother Pelle, now 7, was born, as their mother died in childbirth. Malin, always being fallen in love with by besotted youths and men, also has to manage and mother Johan and Niklas, 13 and 12, her middle brothers, similar and different in nature – one more practical and steady, the other more of a reflective dreamer.

Seacrow is a tight knit community, invaded in the summer months by tourists renting cottages.

There are also resident island children and other ‘incomers’. The most important of these are the three children of the local shopkeeper. Teddy and Freddy, 13 and 12 are exact matches in age, temperament and adventurousness to Johan and Niklas, except, as island dwellers they are far stronger, tougher and more resilient in such matters as sailing boats, fishing and trekking than the city-dwelling Melker boys.

The four almost adolescents have their adventure companions; Malin, apart from keeping every one together has her tribe of wannabe swains, but the real central characters are the youngest ones.

Flicr Commons, Photo by Per Ola Wiberg : Midsummer in Stockholm Archipelago

Flicr Commons, Photo by Per Ola Wiberg : Midsummer in Stockholm Archipelago

Pelle Melker is a little like Dickon in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, in that he has a special relationship with animals of all kinds. He is exceedingly tender–hearted and cannot even bear to disturb the wasps from nesting in the eaves of their holiday cottage. Nor can he go fishing, as he is too empathetic to put worms on hooks. Pelle is enchanting, and a very strong minded little boy because of his tender regard for the suffering of others.

Perhaps the most memorable character however is bossy, obstreperous, fiendishly precocious, warm-hearted, volatile Tjorven. She is the youngest child of the shopkeepers, Teddy and Freddy’s little sister, Pelle’s contemporary.

She looked like a well-fed sausage…round and wholesome. The face which was visible under the raincoat was, as far as he could see through the smoke, a particularly clear, charming child’s face, broad and good-humoured with a pair of bright, inquiring eyes. She had the enormous dog with her, which seemed even more colossal indoors than out. He seemed to fill the whole kitchen

And the final child of great note and uniqueness is dreamy Stina, Tjorvald’s great friend and nemesis, aged 5. The two little girls jealously vie for ownership of Pelle, and also jealously vie for ownership of, and friendship with, a variety of animals – a raven, a lamb, dogs and puppies, a rabbit and, most valued of all, a rescued baby seal.


Little Stina, who has managed to lose all her front milk-teeth simultaneously, presenting the world with a perfectly gummy smile, is a natural story-teller, obsessed with myths and fairy tales, and more than half-convinced all the tales are true. There is much humour to be had from this. Frogs feature delightfully.

This is an utterly enchanting book – it needs no fantasy, no magic, no superpowers – the enchantment is firmly set in the reality of small island life in the far North. Its reality also means that things don’t always go well, there can be danger, sorrow, anger, loss, as well as fun, games and happiness


Despite the fact that the central three characters are between 5 and 7, I would surmise this is most suitable for children 8-11. Boys and girls will find characters to identify with and there is an effortless, rather than a tickboxy, avoidance of gender stereotyping, though I would suggest this comes from Lindgren’s ability to see each child as unique and complex, rather than a strapped on PC consciousness

If I HAD to pick a favourite, it would probably be lovable and annoying, bossy, sassy little Tjorvald. I suspect a lot of little girls (not to mention grown women) will be able to identify with this spirited little girl. But choosing between any of the youngest is impossible.

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK

PS I know some of the readers of this blog have extremely sensitive dispositions, so, astrid-lindgren1hopefully this won’t be regarded as any kind of spoiler, but I do want to reassure you than fur-traders and the like do NOT make any kind of appearance within these pages. All Seacrow Islanders seem to be remarkably united in their love of animals, tame or wild, and live in harmony with the creatures gambolling through these pages. Except, perhaps for herrings, which seal-pups eat a lot of . Perhaps tender-hearted herringophiles may find this book a bit upsetting. Though rest assured, Pelle will also empathise with your fishy friends.

Seacrow Island Amazon UK
Seacrow Island Amazon USA

Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own


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“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”

a-room-of-ones-ownI read this many years ago, and always remembered it fondly, so it has been a real pleasure to re-read it. I had forgotten quite how sharply, precisely, creatively and wittily Woolf makes her points. And I had also forgotten quite how beautifully her ‘stream of consciousness’ style works in a non-fiction setting, where she is exploring the unequal opportunities afforded to women in terms of exploring and fostering their creativity, their education, their growth and development, in a world whose systems were designed to exclude them.

Her 1928 book, A Room Of One’s Own is a world away from the dry marshalling of facts, and a world away from hammer bludgeons of polemic too. Yes, there is anger – at discovering as a female, she is not allowed to walk on the hallowed grass – only College Fellows can do that, and, hey-ho, there are no female fellows. The chapter of ‘disallows’ on a quite ordinary day continues, locking her out of the library, the meaner endowment of colleges for women – because, until only some fifty years before the book was written, all a woman possessed was her husband’s. Changes were put in place after the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. But it did mean that as, in the main, as she points out, most men were less interested in advancing the education of women than women were, until Married Women had the legal right to own the fruits of their own paid labour and to inherit property, the likelihood of generous endowments to colleges for the further education of females was less likely than the generous endowments to colleges for the further education of males.

The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.

The writing of this essay followed on an invitation Woolf received from a Cambridge college to give a lecture on ‘Women and Fiction’ and follows her musings on what this could possibly mean : A talk about women in fiction, as described by male and female writers; a talk about female authors; a talk about what women are like – or some combination of ‘all of the above’

Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ writing perfectly serves this incisive, discursive account, examining women’s position in society, examining why the novel has proved to be a potent creative place for women, and mixing analysis of society, history, literature, and political structures in a wonderfully fertile, creative, juicy, living way. She refutes those who have undervalued women’s creativity, dedication, imagination and genius, in the creative arts or elsewhere, by showing how often it was a powerful, moneyed, privileged few who produced ‘geniuses’ – and how much of this was due to access to education. She points out that our dearly loved Shakespeare himself was some kind of rarity – he was not part of the aristocracy. And, to take another tack, over the last hundred or so years, there have been all those pathetic attempts to claim Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, but some cover for a lord.

a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes.

Given the wonderful, but dice-weighted-against-it, reality of Shakespeare, Woolf imagines a sister, equally rare in creativity, and unique imagination, born in the same fertile environment which did produce Shakespeare. And she traces the impossibility of ‘Judith’ to have had access to the chances and accidents, the opportunities seized, to produce our Bard of Avon, for the distaff side. Woolf gives us sharp, thoughtful analysis – but the packaging is delicious, playful, inventive and remarkably potent.

I re-read this simultaneously laughing in delight – and raging

Life for both sexes – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to one-self.

And, suddenly, my reading of Woolf came bang up to date, and I felt her going beyond the well known argument she makes, here, for the necessity for the creative artist to have ‘A Room of One’s Own’, some freedom from the demands of service to others, some independence of means – and I felt her talking about more than literature, and speaking about our divide-and-rule, and the myriad places we practice it

This is a wonderful laying out of thoughtful, philosophical, sparkling creative feminism. Delivered with wit, humour, inventiveness. Oh, she dazzled and she dazzles still.woolf-like-a-painting

This was read towards the end of last month, for the particular stage of HeavenAli’s Woolfalong, but, alas, a growing sense of alarm about what might be going to happen ‘across the pond’ rather took away the energy for the writing of reviews

A Room of One’s Own Amazon UK
A Room of One’s Own Amazon USA

Antoine Leiris – You Will Not Have My Hate


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A candle in the darkness

you-will-not-have-my-hateWe are living in difficult, divisive times. A group of mainly young men are groomed, undercover, to think of themselves as martyrs of a holy army. Lies are served up to them that their missions of destruction are righteous actions on behalf of a divine being. Meanwhile, out in plain view and in control of powerful media, other powerful figures serve up lies fuelled by equally hate filled rhetoric against this group or that. These are both faces of ideology which use cheap, easy inflammatory slogans designed to have a hot, visceral appeal.

Making connections, learning how to live in a way which sees humanity, commonality rather than division is a harder path. One which requires much more work, bravery, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute effort. It’s quieter, humbler, and truly heroic work


On November 13th 2015 3 people who had swallowed the martyr lie, killed 90 people, and injured several hundred more who had gone to enjoy a gig at the Bataclan, a concert venue in Paris. One of those killed was a young mother, Hélène Muyal-Leiris. Hélène was one of the 90 ordinary people, special people to their friends and family, whose lives were ended by acts of meaningless, whipped-up hatred. Hélène’s husband, Antoine Leiris, a journalist, was babysitting their young seventeen month old son, Melvil, and discovered, from a swathe of surprising texts asking if he was okay, that something exceptional, something terrible had happened in Paris.

Of course, having a culprit, someone to take the brunt of your anger, is an open door, a chance to temporarily escape your suffering. And the more odious the crime, the more ideal the culprit, the more legitimate your hatred. You think about him in order not to think about yourself

In the immediate aftermath of the senseless violence at the Bataclan Antoine posted a letter on Facebook to the attackers and those like them, ‘You will not have my hatred’, which went viral. It was a passionate and positive statement of intent to do the hard, heroic, daily work of continuing to love and grieve for Hélène, and to raise his little boy without succumbing to bitterness, hatred, and the kind of unthinking demonization of ‘the other’ which led those woefully duped young men to their terrible acts.

I am the one who loves Hélène, not the one who loved her

This beautifully written, simple, in many ways ‘ordinary’ book is a continuation of the commitment expressed in Leiris’ letter – it is a celebration and appreciation of his dead wife, and her value to him, to their little boy, to their friends and family. And it recounts, in a very honest and heartfelt was, how he and Melvil dealt with the whole process of losing Hélène so tragically and so shockingly in the immediate aftermath of the Bataclan attack. The account, beginning with hearing the news on 13th November, ends 12 days later, as Antoine has to find a way to help Melvil absorb the fact that Mummy will never come home, without allowing Melvil to become infected by the destructive, vengeful legacy of bitter hatred, in the future, towards a random group of ‘other’,

A child is not weighed down by grown-up things. His innocence is our reprieve

I say this book is in many ways ‘ordinary’ – because, actually, if our sorry species is to avoid savaging itself and our planet to destruction, it will only be because the hard, daily choice to make living in conscious kindness, compassion, tenderness and generosity of spirit is the choice made by an overwhelming majority of people. However extraordinary Leiris’ choice might seem, however impossible it might seem that any of us, so tested, might make his choices, it would be essential that we can, and do. I don’t think any of us can afford to believe Leiris is exceptional. But he is the kind of hero to inspire us. I hope I will never have to be in the dreadful place from where Leiris made, and makes his continual choice for life, and hope and growth, but in small ways these choices present themselves to all of us. You Will Not Have My Hate shines a candle in the darkness, and maybe, in the way of candles, others can see the way to light their own from it

This book is almost finished.

It will not heal me. No one can be healed of death. All they can do is tame it. Death is a wild animal, sharp-fanged. I am just trying to build a cage to keep it in. It is there, beside me

I received this as a digital version for review, via NetGalleyleiris-and-melvil

wrote a thoughtful reflection on this
which I came across as I finished one book and was about to start on another. And, her review chiming so perfectly with all I was reflecting on, she made sure that the one started on, was this one.

In a book filled with so many thoughtful, reflection provoking statements, I was not surprised to see that we had both been struck by one particular quote

You Will Not Have My Hate Amazon UK
You Will Not Have My Hate Amazon USA



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Remembering, forgetting and making connection

It’s been a funny sort of week, a funny sort of few months, a funny sort of year. Funny, most in terms of peculiar, unsettling, weird. Not too much of laughter really.

My reading has continued, though sometimes I’ve lacked the emotional or intellectual energy to devote to the deep and fine stuff, feeling too raw, too wrecked, too appalled and exhausted , too benumbed by what seems to be shouty, screamy, excess in the political arena, rather than the laying out of complexity which needs reflecting on. Reviewing has suffered, too, a kind of ‘what’s the point’ ennui and laissez-faire.


I was approaching the American election with dread and despair, seeing ‘populism’ on the rise, in various countries, and following its landing here, could see similar infections spreading. A pandemic of dissatisfaction being medicated by flaming invective, illusory promises and soundbites  It’s shocking that what is ‘popular politics’ seems to be retrogressive, divisive and narrow rather than the wouldn’t-it-be-wonderful-if-what-was ‘popular’ was inclusivity, connection, a recognition of our common humanity, not to mention the fact that we share our planet with other species, and just as humans need to recognise the needs of shared humanity, we need to acknowledge our interdependence on our Planet Earth, both now, and for the sake of generations which may be to come.


Isolationism, making this little country or that ‘great again’ is a dangerous illusion. We are inextricably linked, each to another.

We have become so fixed on that winners and losers, survival of the fittest, red in tooth and claw view of evolution and reality. But the fittest merely means the best adapted. As a bipedal, not particularly fast, becoming hairless ape, our best adaptation proved to be with each other. We are a tribe animal, and did best by managing collectively together, not purely me versus you, but me with you. And now, we have forgotten that the ‘tribe’ is no longer little isolated pockets untouched by and untouching of each other. The tribe is all of us earth dwellers.

It’s a sobering and darkening time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. The fierce blaze of October fading and quietening, the days shortening, the energies of the natural world going inwards, consolidating, resting, dormant. A beautiful, spare, reflective season as the mask of leaves fall, and reveals the individual beauty of each tree’s core.


The eleventh of November is always a potent day anyway. It took me a long while to come to terms with ‘Remembrance Day’. In my youth, I thought on this day war was being glorified , that conflict was being celebrated. I thought we were being asked to glorify the dead ‘the glorious dead’ when there was little glorious in why they had died like this. I see it differently now. Those who have died in conflict SHOULD not have died in vain, if only we who are living can learn the lessons which their deaths have to teach us – precisely that division and conflict-between-nations will lead to more dead.

It is terrifying that the lessons of not one, but two world wars in the last hundred years (not to mention years of other smaller conflicts endlessly happening) have not been learned, and we seem to be bent on dismantling our recognition that the bellicosity of our nature needs to be tempered and restrained. The more we think ‘greatness’ is this nation against that the littler we become


I thought about those who have died through conflict, and I also thought about two poet troubadours, complex, often deeply troubled men, whose willingness to explore their own contradictions, and the contradictions of the times they lived in, produced songs that said more than simple

Remembrance day brought me to John Lennon’s Imagine, and also to his ‘God’ ( ‘I don’t believe’) We fight each other over so many ‘isms’ Simplistic though Imagine might be, Lennon’s coda,  in ‘God’ after all the ‘I don’t believes’ is ‘I just believe in me, Yoko and me’ – that’s reality’.  I thought that when it is just down to the struggle and complexity of the ‘You-and-me’ what frees us from that charged fear and hate place of ‘the other’, is the recognition of common humanity. Every day (and I am consciously having to work to notice it at the moment) there are tiny, unconscious acts of kindness and recognition between individuals. THESE people are the ‘little people, the ordinary decent people’ – not what the rabble-rousing populists are claiming as ‘ordinary, decent’

In fact, the populists are asking us to embrace everything that is UNdecent about ourselves, and claim THAT as ‘ordinary decency’

Real ‘decency’ is all around, and probably rarely found inside a whipped-up political rally. And never when what is being whipped is a hatred towards ‘other’

I do believe in the You and Me of us. Writ small, life by life, connection by connection, humankind is full of Wordsworth’s :

that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.

That is all around, if I take the time to notice it. The splitters and those who call to our hate, our rage, our fear, make us forget unity, seeking to bind us together through division and disunity. Us and Them. You-and-Me, by contrast, might simply be We

And, of course, Remembrance Day also brought the news of the wonderfully layered, complex Leonard Cohen’s death. Like many, I’m one who has found the man, and his music and lyrics, an abiding comfort and inspiration. His willingness to own and acknowledge his demons, rather than fly from them and project them onto the other, always made him someone who ‘lived in the light’ The truly whole are those who know they are wounded and terribly broken. The damagers are those who see others as broken and view themselves as right and righteous.

One of the very wonderful gifts Cohen’s lyrics have to bring is that whatever a song is seemingly about, it has the possibility of other, wider, deeper meanings. He was far more than a simple troubadour of the layered love song. Poets, poetic vision, poetic writing not only makes us see the world in a new way, but often welds together oppositions which might seem to want to fly apart. With Cohen, the contradictions are deep and viscerally felt. Love itself is both Eros, and a trans-personal yearning for surrender to the Divine. And also a challenging to the Divine, a wrestling between Eros and Thanatos – the blaze of love and life, the loss of love and life, the ‘ring of bright hair about the bone’. Death feared, Death making meaning, Death the awareness of mortality, giving our loves their fierceness and intensity.

I’ve been listening a lot, over the past couple of days, to my Cohen collection, but also to some of the many covers of his songs. Many by people with voices of far more musicality than Cohen’s. However, for me, the particular laconic, restrained, felt, but not emoted and over-shown delivery Cohen gives us, perfectly allows the listener to experience their own visceral response, in a way that the over throbbed demonstration by others, doesn’t.

There will be no new songs, but we are gifted to be living in a world where we have the old songs, we can play them, even watch Youtube videos of live performance, and, I think, we can continue to find new meanings and resonances in his words, his music, his renditions


Ali Smith – Autumn


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Ali Smith – dancing with falling Autumn leaves

autumnNear the beginning of Autumn, one of the two central characters, centenarian Daniel Gluck, sleeping towards death, finds himself naked on some strange shore, apparently in the company of dancing nymphs. A gentleman of some decency and finesse, he sews himself a garment of leaves. And also, a still more brilliant cloak of dizzying, glittering, playful language.

The sewing together of a supremely practical, supremely creative mesh and web of time, space, memory and connection is this simple, eminently readable, multi-layered delight from Smith.

Autumn is set in the aftermath of Brexit. And it combines both a real, and a stingingly satirical view of the direction this decision may be taking us. But its bleak view of an increasingly robotic, impersonal, uncaring country is always off-set by the surprising, warm connections human beings may make against all those manifestations of corporate and bureaucratic tick-boxery

This is a love story of a strange kind. The two central characters are Gluck, and Elisabeth Demand, or, perhaps, as the punning, verbally stylish Gluck suggests, de monde. The time is now, really now, as Autumn 2016 moves towards winter. But it is also, linked by memory, (Gluck’s) the swinging sixties, when he briefly met the subversive, vibrant, feminist artist and actress Pauline Boty. And it is also a look back further, to Daniel’s European past, and to those earlier manifestations of hate and fear of other groups, other races. Elisabeth, right here and now is a woman in her early thirties, an academic, just, working on a zero hours contract, a lecturer in art history. Elisabeth first met Gluck when she was a rather stroppy, rather difficult almost teenager , and he was in his eighties. Like no one she had ever met before. This is a love story – not a sex story

We have to hope, Daniel was saying, that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters

Pauline Boty (as I discovered) was a kind of icon, and symbol. She was largely forgotten because she was both vibrant, intelligent, creative, joyous, multi-gifted, subversive – and an astonishingly beautiful woman. Her beauty and her gender meant she was not accorded the status which other British Pop Artists achieved. Boty was making collages, thereby making subversive, subliminal statements, often about women in a man’s world. She is recently being rediscovered, though some of her known paintings such as Scandal, 1963, a collage involving Christine Keeler, have completely vanished. Smith makes an interesting suggestion as to a possible reason, and a possible fate (you’ll have to read the book)

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments, I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity

Just when the reader thinks they can’t cope with their own – or Smith’s complex disappointment and rage (as expressed here by Elisabeth’s mother) she blows entertaining brilliant bubbles of playful images and linguistic magic

Clour Her Gone, Pauline Boty, 1963

       Colour Her Gone, Pauline Boty, 1963

Like Boty, Smith makes collages. And, like Boty, there is so much dynamism and vibrant life in her work. She is making, often, deep and serious points, but she uses light, shade, satire, vision, and riffs in jazzy fashion.

At times, her intelligence is so savage, and so funny, that she reminds me of Swift. There is a marvellously funny, but horribly close-to-truth scene set in a Post Office, (one near all of us, probably) where there are a diminishing number of counter staff, and a growing army of terminals to deal with various requests. Elisabeth is trying to get her application for a passport renewal ‘expedited’ As I read, I was simultaneously screaming with laughter, fighting down a rising sense of panic – yes, yes, this IS our dreadful world, RIGHT NOW – and wanting to smash every terminal in every public place. Smith collages so many contradictory responses all at the same time, for the reader

This is a very short book, but it is absolutely one to be savoured, to steep yourself in for full, flavoursome surround-sound and vibrance. Recommended. Massively so.

I received this as an digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalleyalismith

Sorry Statesiders, if you want to READ this at the moment you will have to wait till next year, though you can HEAR it on Audible

Autumn Amazon UK
Autumn Amazon USA

Linda Grant – The Dark Circle


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Outcast by illness, class, race and more in post-war Britain

the-dark-circleI have been a fan of Linda Grant since discovering her 2000 Orange Prize Winner – When I Lived in Modern Times. Grant, born in Liverpool in 1951, often draws on family roots as the starting point for her writing. Her family background is Central and Eastern European Jewish, and the central characters, and themes, in several of her books explore the history of what it means to be ‘the outsider’, even, the despised or reviled outsider.

So I was delighted to be offered The Dark Circle as an ARC.

Grant continues with the theme of looking at society from the point of the view of the outcast. The setting is 1949, and society is changing – most particularly, the foundation of the NHS the previous year gives the novel its particular framework. The central characters are late teen’s twins, Lenny and Miriam, working class, Jewish, aspirational.

Despite the events of that recently ended war, anti-Semitism is alive and well. The book opens memorably, with savage political point and with humour. Sharp young Lenny, Teddy Boy in the making, a young man with prospects in property, is, at age 18 more interested in impressing the girls He is in love, or at least in lust, with a sexy young Italian girl. He is up in Soho on his way to his appointment with the army – conscription, National Service, was not abolished until 1960. He finds himself caught up in a demonstration, which turns out to be one organised by anti-Semites. Lenny interrupts the demo and the hate-filled speaker quite choicely. Grant has a knack for making serious points without being po-faced, indeed using wit so that the reader snorts whilst getting the punch-point, the snapshot she wants us to think and feel about. (The reader must hopefully enjoy their own moment of humour at how Lenny ends the speaker’s rant, it’s a nice touch and I wouldn’t want to pre-empt the amusement.

Miriam, his sexy, voluptuous sister, meanwhile, dreams of owning her own flower shop. The owner of the shop where she presently works ‘in a nice part of London’ has re-named her Mimi, because:

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with Miriam, it’s a little too Hebrew for our clientele. Not that they are prejudiced, but they expect a level of service and certain standards from us

Fate however has other things in store for the two siblings.

Screening for TB Harefields Hospital 1943

Screening for TB Harefields Hospital 1943

Lenny fails his army medical as he proves to have TB. And, so it seems does Miriam.

Tuburcle bacillus - oh, if only the streptomycin would come

TB bacilli – oh, if only the streptomycin would come

The bulk of the novel is set in a closed community where everyone is an outcast – a TB sanatorium in Kent – the dreaded country, far away from the city streets the young urban twins are used to. They have bad memories of the country from wartime evacuation. The sanatorium had been the preserve of the titled and the wealthy with TB, but the new Nationalised Health Service brings a new class of patient, as, slowly, others – Lenny and Miriam amongst them are admitted. The sanatorium has to accept these ‘not-quite-us’ patients if they wish to attract certain funds.

Old TB Hospital, Mundesley, Norfolk

Old TB Hospital, Mundesley, Norfolk

The closed society of outcasts gives Grant the opportunity to explore much of interest around different individuals, different cultures, and different kinds of outsiders brought together. It’s as much social satire as it is a darker examination of medical practices, medical ethics and a teasing out of very individual stories, some of which, of course, will involve skeletons. Here, for example is more or less silent, musical Hannah (for reasons which will come clear) whom initially we meet through her thoughts and actions, not her words

She assigned to each of them an instrument according to the sound of their voices and their anatomy, for some had hourglass figures and looked like violins, or spoke like string instruments, high and trembling, or were potbellied and boomed like a kettledrum. Many were weedy and needy and piped like flutes. No one, so far, had the physical or vocal range of the grand piano. Bassoons and double basses were missing

(despite the fact that Violetta (Cossello) is cradling Alagna (Alfredo) in her arms, rather than the other way round, it IS Violetta who is singing her TB death song)

This is territory Grant does well, but, unusually I was more aware of her crafting the story and manipulating its trajectory than I usually am with her. I was not quite fully absorbed by the reality of it. This was particularly the case for the ‘wrap-up, look-back’ sections. Though the bulk of the story is set in the sanatorium “Each Breath You Take” the second part, jumps forward to 1953, where some of the inmates and their significant others take an early holiday in what will later be a staple of the tourist industry, in Majorca. I liked Lenny’s initial assessment on landing in Palma, of the contrast between Majorca and Britain in the early 50s:

it was easy to forget that winter was a product of the rotation of the planets, not some government policy imposed upon its citizens deliberately, like income tax and rationing

Grant makes her astute points with wry, sometimes acerbic wit

The ‘wrap’ where loose ends are tied in 2002, through a device which allows some of the central characters to sum-up their histories, felt less satisfyinglinda-grant

Grant is always a good read, a good story-teller, but this one did not engage me as fully, emotionally, as other books I’ve read by her.

The Dark Circle Amazon UK
The Dark Circle Amazon USA

Beryl Bainbridge – Harriet Said


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The Corruption of Innocence

harriet-said-grant-introI surrendered into reading Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel with great delight. Harriet Said shows Bainbridge’s lush, dark, comedic writing was perfectly placed from the start. Originally written in 1958, the book did not find a publisher until 1972, because its story-line and characters were thought to be repulsive. It was only because later written and published books – A Weekend With Claude, Another Part of the Woods, in the late 60s had established Bainbridge as a class, unique voice, that this earlier book found its publisher

A shocking crime had been committed by two teenage girls in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1954, the Parker-Hulme case. It was the nature of the crime, the fact that it was premeditated, and that two girls, aged 15 and 16, who should, according to the thinking of the time, have been innocent, sweet young things, which was so deeply disturbing. Bainbridge takes this into her rather different story, which nonetheless has supposedly innocent girls with a corrupting friendship, a potential power struggle for supremacy between the two, and the involvement of lonely, weak, predatory men.

She drops the ages of her protagonists by a couple of years, making events still more shocking. Set on the North-West coast, shortly after the end of the Second World War, it is the long summer holiday. The un-named narrator is 13 years old, She is not the favoured child in her family. Her mother gives all her love to her youngest child, and there are clearly tensions between her parents. Her best friend is the prettier, more knowing 14 year old Harriet. Harriet looks younger, more girlish, less womanly than her 13 year old friend. Harriet is hugely manipulative, not just of her friend, but also of her own mother. She too comes from a family where the dynamics are not particularly healthy. The relationship between the two girls causes great unease, and attempts have been made to separate them; the thirteen year old has been sent away to school to try and break that friendship. There have been ‘incidents’ with young men previously, Italian POWs from a nearby camp. And these may have been instigated by the girls. Each is seen as a potentially corrupting influence on the other

Jelly fish, Formby Beach, photo by Colin Lane

           Jelly fish, Formby Beach, photo by Colin Lane

This is a novel about the power a young girl can feel she has when she realises her allure, and wants to play with the fire of her power. Team two girls together, with a relationship between them which supports dysfunction further, and where neither has the checks and balances which might be given by healthy family dynamics and disturbing things can happen

One publisher rejected her book, at the time of first submission on these grounds:

what repulsive little creatures you have made the two central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief! And I think the scene in which the two men and the two girls meet in the Tsar’s house is too indecent and unpleasant even for these lax days. What is more, I fear that even now a respectable printer would not print it!.

‘The Tsar’ is the nickname the girls give to a weak, 60 year old man, unhappily married, whom one of them has a crush on.

Slightly unsober, slightly dishevelled, always elegant, he swayed moodily past us through all the days of our growing up

No one is ‘off the hook’ in this one – instead, there is an acknowledgement of all-round culpability, though the adults ‘should’ have been the ones taking control of their daughters.

And it is the writing which makes this a terrific book, a shocking book – but not a salacious, lingering, gratuitous one.

Bainbridge’s mordant humour and her artist’s eye (she was also a fine painter) create arresting, unusual, captivating images :

At the gate of the Canon’s house stood a group of men, standing in a circle with legs like misshapen tulips, trousers tied at the knee with string

The subject is shocking, the writing is delicious. She has the ability to lure the reader in, give them the comfort of her craft, so you sink beneath the words as into a warm bath – only to find that under the fragrant bubbles, the bath is full of razor blades.

So, here, early in the novel, the two friends go mooching along the Formby coast:

All the time I kept looking for interesting objects left stranded by the tide. There were no end of things Harriet and I had found. Whole crates of rotten fruit, melons and oranges and grapefruit, swollen up and bursting with salt water, lumps of meat wrapped in stained cotton sheets through which the maggots tunnelled if the weather was warm, and stranded jelly fish, purple things, obscene and mindless. Harriet drove sticks of wood into them but they were dead

I love the way she builds unease, image on image, and we know, instantly, Harriet is a dangerous young girl. But she is also an imaginative, reflective and rather astute one. The girls have kept a kind of journal (Harriet’s) for years. Harriet dictates what shall be written in the book, the un-named narrator writes it

All the best parts in the book were written years ago when we didn’t know the proper names for things. We are limited now by knowing how to express ourselves. It sounds worse perhaps, but we can’t go back

I was offered a digital version of this, as an ARC, by the excellent Open Road Media, who are bringing this out in digital version in the States on November 1st. As always, with this company, the digitisation is excellently done

The original Parker-Hulme case had been rather different in its trajectory than this story Bainbridge wove from the dangerous friendship of two corrupt, yet naïve young girls. It had inspired Peter Jackson’s 1994 film, Heavenly Creatures, which told the original story. In a weird postscript, journalists searching for what had happened to the two teenagers, found that though they had had no further contact with each other, they were both now living in Scotland, less than 100 miles distance from each other. And one of them was a fairly well known popular novelist. It almost sounds like a fictional plot twist, one which, perhaps a novelist would have rejected as too contrived to be employed. Truth often stranger than fiction, and all that.beryl-bainbridge-580_44263a

I also remembered two earlier shout outs on this one so an pingy thingying excellent reviews by cleopatralovesbooks and also by HeavenAli

There is nothing ‘supernatural’ in this, but it does seem an apposite post for All Hallow’s Eve,  as there is definitely a sulphurous whiff of evil afoot – human malevolence though, which perhaps we project onto ‘supernatural forces’ precisely because we don’t want to own what we can be wickedly capable of, all by ourselves

Harriet Said Amazon UK
Harriet Said Amazon USA

Susan Hill – The Travelling Bag


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Well written ghostlies, but creating mild goose-bumps rather than uncontrollable shivers

the-travelling-bagSusan Hill is always worth reading, and she does the ghostly brigade well, though I must confess to wishing for a little more of those factors which would have had me whimpering in slight fear, and turning on all the lights. She did this marvellously of course in The Woman In Black, knowing how to turn up the volume knob of terror slowly and inexorably.

This moderately long story collection comprises 4 tales of the ghostly, and whilst they are well done, the first two did not create any unease in me at all – possibly because the chosen constructions for both stories tended to minimise and undercut fear in the reader, because fear was not really there for the narrator.

The first story, The Travelling Bag is not the narrator’s own story, and so there is a distance from emotion, through the using of one person to tell another’s story. This makes it a ghost story told as entertainment, so I was not surprised to find no hairs rising on the back of my neck, though there might well be some vivid images which make certain readers feel a little whimpery and uneasy!

Boy Number 21 also has a device which turns the fearful volume knob down. The narrator is reminded of an event from his long ago childhood. This concerns the paranormal. At the time, others in his circle were a bit spooked, but he himself was not, so, really, the absence of the narrator’s fear didn’t stir mine

Degas: Intérieur

Degas: Intérieur

It was only the third, and really, the fourth story which made me get close to any kind of feeling spooked and a bit scared – and that, after all, is surely one of the reasons we like ghost stories (those of us that do)

The central characters in the last two are female, as indeed the possible spookers are. What makes it work is that the characters the reader is being encouraged to identify with are uneasy, and becoming increasingly so, as the story progresses, so we have mounting fear going on. In the third story, Alice Baker, the inexplicable spooky goings on take place in the mundane surroundings of the typing pool in an office block.

The last story, The Front Room, was the one which most satisfied my desire for being a bit scared, set in an unexceptional twenties suburban house, at a time pretty close to the present, as DVD players and TVs figure! What makes for a better fear factor is that everyone, bar the source, is in the end scared. And this includes small children, which somehow made the scary happenings more sinister and potent.

The Monkey's Paw - W.W. Jacobs - scariest ghostly ever, written in 1902

The Monkey’s Paw – W.W. Jacobs – scariest ghostly ever, written in 1902

Hill is an old-fashioned ghost story writer – which I like, in that she focuses most on the psychology of the person being ‘spooked’, not to mention, the psychology of the haunter, so that the journey is about increases in tension rather than the BANG! RATTLE! of a plethora of sudden shocks, clanking chains, groaning coffins and the like which are the territory of what I dismissively think of as ‘Pulpy’ Horror writers.

Though, personally, as stated I do rather like the scare factor of a good ghost story, so would have liked to be a little more terrified, this would be a good one for a reader wanting a milder, gentler shivering turn

Photo credit Ben Graville

        Photo credit Ben Graville

I bought this as a download, but the ‘real’ book by all accounts is a beautifully presented one, and it’s probably particularly well-marketed for a Christmas stocking filler

The Travelling Bag Amazon UK
The Travelling Bag Amazon USA

Julian Maclaren-Ross – Of Love and Hunger


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“Adventurers though, must take things as they find them.
And look for pickings where the pickings are”


I have come to my posting as part of a co-host of The 1947 Club by Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck In A Book and I am late (by a day) submitting my homework!

of-love-and-hungerIt took a little while for me to fully surrender to Julian Maclaren-Ross’s 1947 published novel, Of Love And Hunger, set primarily in the months leading up to the Second World War. The reason for my hold-back is that Of Love and Hunger, both because of subject matter and its setting, not to mention what I knew of Maclaren-Ross within his literary ‘set’, reminded me forcefully of earlier books by writers who are favourites of mine.

Firstly, Patrick Hamilton whose Hangover Square, written in 1941, and also set in the 1939 build-up to war, inhabits a similar achingly sad territory of a weak man, undone by a hopeless love, and yet with something loveable about him

The second is George Orwell’s 1936 Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Like the central character of Aspidistra, Gordon Comstock, Maclaren-Ross’s Richard Fanshawe is a man from the middle classes with some kind of literary pretentions, and a wearily cynical view of his times. Which are those of economic depression.

Fanshawe has had a prior life of some more influence in ‘Empire’ in Madras, but his nature has led to various failures, both professional and personal, and there are hints that he has handled relationships, romantic, and with his parents, badly, and that thinking about his past is a terrible pain and torment, to be avoided. Like Comstock, Fanshawe lacks a certain grittiness about himself, and is prone to melancholy, and a cynical despair.

Whilst I found both the Hamilton and Orwell much more immediately powerful reads, Maclaren-Ross, Fanshawe and his world began to grow on me. Something in the style of writing, the tension between the short, choppy sentences of Fanshawe’s observations, and the ‘left brain’ dialogue he has with himself, and the ‘unbidden’ recollections (stylised in italic text) which rise from his unwilling memories, and which he attempts to stuff down and silence, felt quite alluring and revealing.

Yes. I’d lost Angela all right. Perhaps if I’d married her when I was home on leave that time, when she’d wanted me to, everything would have been different. I certainly wouldn’t have lost my job

That clippedness, that kind of stiff upper lipped buttoned up emotion is set against the unwanted feelings which threaten to rise up and overwhelm Fanshawe

…we drove along the path that was thick with fallen leaves and up into the wood itself, the tree trunks standing out all around us in the headlamps glare. We bumped to a standstill in the clearing and I cut the engine and the headlamps and there was only the light from the dashboard to see her by: the curly black hair and the high cheek-bones and the eyes set deep that gave her a Russian look and her mouth, her kiss

Maclaren-Ross’s writing began to work on me, and bruised, lost, corrupt, innocent, dishonest, honourable Fanshawe stirred my compassion.

It wasn’t much of a job. Two quid a week less insurance, and commission – if you could get it. After the first fortnight I gave up all hope of getting it, myself. For one thing it was the wrong time of year: Easter just over and the summer not begun: all the big boarding houses down by the seafront closed until the season started. Then again all this talk of war put prospects off. You’d think women’d jump at the chance of having their carpets cleaned buckshee, but no: even demonstrations were hard to get those days. We’d start out canvassing at nine in the morning and be lucky if we finished teatime with four or five apiece. You were supposed to get fourteen. A hundred calls, fourteen dems, three sales. That’s what they taught you at the school. But you didn’t have to be in the game long before you found out that was all a lot of cock

The narrative – heart-breaking, in its quiet way, and also at times very funny indeed follows Fanshawe through a rather hand-to-mouth existence on the edges of poverty as he runs up ‘tick’ with landladies and shopkeepers, trying to earn a living selling vacuum cleaners for a couple of rival firms who are themselves dealing shabbily with their workforce of casual salesmen. Hunger, and the avoidance of it, is a major theme. Love comes stalking Fanshawe, in the guise of Sukie, the wife of a colleague away at sea. Sukie is an equally complex individual, far stronger and more intelligent than Fanshawe – indeed she educates him, both in terms of making him think about politics and class, and about literature.

Maclaren-Ross’s women – Sukie herself, Jacqueline Mowbray, who is one of Fanshawe’s prospective customers, and even Miss Purvis, a fabulous canvasser of customer leads for the rather ineffectual salesmen – are seen as much stronger and more capable personalities.julian-maclaren-ross

This short book, just tipping over 200 pages is a deserved re-issue in Penguin’s Classics collection, conjuring up a world a heart-beat away from war, whilst the ‘little people’ lead their daily lives almost unaware of the larger forces of history which are impacting them.

Of Love and Hunger Amazon UK
Of Love and Hunger Amazon USA