Clean Sweep (book #146)

29 August 2015

Ilona Andrews, 2013.

This is the first of the Innkeeper Chronicles, a free online serial, though I read it in paperback. I enjoyed it, though not enough to read the second one.

My favourite bit was when the protagonist goes to Costco – people in paranormal novels do not generally do enough mundane things.

There was something almost serene about walking through Costco … Maybe it was the feeling of plenty. Everything was supersized. … It was a false but pleasant feeling of buying a lot at once and getting it at a good price. I could buy ten enormous jars of peanut butter and stuff it in the back of my car. My home was a battleground between a surly werewolf and an arrogant vampire, and a murderous alien was trying to kill us, but I would never run out of peanut butter again and I would get it for a steal, too.

The alien attack in Costco and the help from a bystander is well done, too.

This England (book #145)

25 August 2015

Mary Ellen Chase, 1936.

I had not heard of Chase before seeing a mention of In England Now (1937) in Juliet Gardiner’s comprehensive The Thirties: An Intimate History. Despite the slightly different name and date, from the quotations Gardiner gives I think In England Now and This England are the same book, a collection of essays about England by Chase, an American novelist and academic.

Wikipedia says she is regarded as one of the most important regional literary figures of the early twentieth century. There is a 1995 biography by one of her students, A Lantern in the Wind by Elienne Squire. There is a 1962 article about her here (PDF) and a 2003 thesis about her life and work here (PDF, 272 pages, mostly about her family background and early life, and the themes of her books, rather than her later, professional, life). I was particularly interested in the sections in the thesis about Chase’s character Mary Peters’s creation of art through rag rugs:

She became an expert in dyeing bits of wool, working hours to get the exact shade she needed. When her piecebags and closets were exhausted of old material, she bought odds and ends from factories and coloured them to suit herself. The knuckles of her fingers and the palms of her hands grew rough and calloused by hook and burlap, but she had never in her life felt more free.

(from Mary Peters, 1934).

Chase was apparently much influenced by Sarah Orne Jewett, whose The Country of the Pointed Firs I was amazed by when I read it. I have not read it since as I’m not sure how well it would stand up to re-reading.

Anyway, about This England. I must say it is a rather irascible book. Chase, spending two years in England, based in a cottage in Grantchester (not clear whether her companion, the historian Eleanor Duckett, was with her, but if so Chase wrote her out), was unhappy about many things:

The English weather and its associated travails: “chilblains … demand more resignation and humour than is the capital of most steam-heated Americans. The woollen underwear which one must wear or perish harbours and transmits its manifold vexations … this dismal monotony of discomfort … unspeakable irritation”.

No ice: “Ice simply is NOT … the English consider ice an extravagant and unnecessary commodity”.

Wasps: “There is hardly a breakfast or lunch, surely never a tea, from May to October which is not copiously attended by wasps.”

The lack of good service: The American expects “that when his trousers need pressing, they will be pressed well and quickly; that when dry cleaning is imperative, it will be perfectly accomplished in a short space of time; that when he gives his orders for immediate delivery to the grocer, the chemist, or the tailor, these men will jump to execute them. … [When this doesn’t happen] he is at first amazed and then annoyed. If he stays long enough in England … there is a chance that he may become partially converted to this incredible manner of living.”

Shops in the north of England: “miserable shops displaying through grimy, unwashed windows pink rock candy, drill overalls, tinned sardines, sticky kippers, sucking dummies for babies, garish underwear, impossible hats.”

People who visit museums and galleries on Sundays: “there are few pastimes less agreeable in London as elsewhere than Sunday visits to such places. Among the crowds who throng them on that day there is, on the one hand, too much consciousness of self-improvement, and, on the other, too little appreciation or intelligence.”

Luggage: “sundry cases of fibre or pasteboard or worn leather, baskets with lunch and bathing-costumes, umbrellas, tennis racquets, boxes and bundles of sorts. English luggage in general rarely delights the fastidious eye and never less so than when it is carrying the family clothing to the seaside.”

Having said this, there is more positive stuff. She likes the English countryside and she is even almost persuaded at times that there are good things about the weather. She feels that the northern cities with the terrible shops have more life and welcome in them than the sleepy south. She is transported about “the Yorkshire puddings which my housekeeper for two years has constructed for me [and which] rise like the turrets of some castle at sundown, crisp and golden, and with an appeal to the imagination perilously akin to that inspired by cooking across the channel”. But overall she sounds judgmental about people who are just going about their life, with their ugly luggage and hats and their attempts at self-improvement, and annoyingly patronising when she believes she can read people’s feelings (such as the woman on the ‘bus whom she decides is heart-broken about the flowers she is taking to a friend being less sophisticated than those another friend is taking).

I would like to know when parish churches stopped tolling for the dead (funeral tolling; death knell, passing bells, the latter apparently technically being hand bells rather than church bells). I know this custom best from The Nine Tailors (1934), where the ex-sexton and current bell-ringer, Hezekiah Lavender (good name), says “We got to ring her for every Christian soul dyin’ in the parish … That’s set down for us”. Chase notes that in the West Country, church “passing bells still toll for the dying and the dead, the initial strokes of one, two or three signifying whether a man, a woman or child has died”. And did they toll for all parish inhabitants or only for church members? What Hezekiah says implies everyone except possibly the odd atheist.

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England’s Schools: History, architecture and adaptation (book #144)

23 August 2015

Elain Harwood, 2010.

Short but nicely written and illustrated book published by English Heritage about schools’ archicture. The whole book, with pictures, is now available online as a PDF from English Heritage – worth having a look at if you are interested in social history.

This is a good image of Aynhoe School (Northampstonshire) in about 1845.

Aynhoe

You probably can’t see the detail all that well but I was struck by the number of texts. One knows of course that Christianity would have been a huge part of education but to see so much of the space covered with religious exortations emphasises it. A few I can read: “The Lord you must always obey” on the left under the black and red GIRLS sign; “Remain faithful to The Commandments” in the corresponding place on the right; “FEAR YE GOD” on extreme right; “GOD IS A SHIELD TO US” on blackboard.

I particularly like the colourful duffel bags hanging on the cupboard. There is another image of what looks like the same school (other end of the same room?) on Dawn Griffis’s website. Both show the galleried seating clearly. I like the animal pictures below the GIRLS and BOYs sign on that one – elephant to the right, ?lion to the left.

The painter, Maria Elisabeth Augusta Cartwright, née von Sandizell (1805-1902), has had her watercolours of Aynhoe House published, with some extracts from her diaries, which I would be interested to see. (Lili at Aynhoe: Victorian Life in an English Country House. There’s some discussion of it here, though the blogger’s focus is on another family. A Google images search will show you some of the watercolours of the interior of the house. There is a portrait of the artist in the NPG, but not online.

I had not realised that some London schools had roof-top playgrounds. Makes sense, of course, even though one’s modern health and safety sense tingles. Here is Catherine Street School in Hackney, 1887.

Catherine Street School

That can’t be the whole school gathered there – too few, and too many girls. I like the man with his hand on the gate. (My image has come out rather greener than the original; that is not grass.)

This picture of a reading class at an open-air LCC school in 1907 (at Bostall Wood in Woolwich) is interesting. Several of the children look pretty slumped in their desckchairs.

Open-air

Bostall Wood School was the first open-air school in the UK, and was only open as an experiment for a few months in 1907. It was successful and further permanent schools were opened. This site has more detail, including that many of the children were malnourished when they arrived, and, on average, gained nearly a stone each over the few months the school was operating. This site is good on another open-air school, or series of schools, in Regent’s Park. The clerk, trying to recruit a teacher for it in the 1930s, said “all backward children, throw-outs. No one will touch it”. Not come across throw-outs in this context before – OED has “anything discarded or rejected”. The Muncipal Dreams blog has an interesting post on Aspen House Open-Air School in Lambeth in the 1930s, with pictures of the architecture. There is also a post here about Thackley Open-Air School, also of the 1930s, with good detail about routines, food etc.

And finally, a quotation from George Widdows, architect to Derbyshire Education Committee from 1902, who was committed to school buildings that improved the health of both children and teachers: “secondary buildings require just as much revolutionising as elementary. “All one can say is there are not so many children in each class and their clothes do not stink” – an insight into what it might have smelt like in some of these schools. Elain Harwood uses the quote again in a separate article on Widdows – apparently he “collapsed from overwork in 1911, and went on a cruise round the Mediterranean”. He did return to work, however, until his retirement in 1936.

Black Beech and Honeydew: An Autobiography (book #143)

17 August 2015

Ngaio Marsh, originally 1966, 1981 revised edition.

Marsh’s autobiography is unrevealing. Indeed she says as much herself, talking about having involuntarily “withdrawn from writing about experiences which have most closely concerned and disturbed me … I have been defeated by my own reticence”. I like the odd vignette that reflects something in the novels. Here’s the genesis of Death at the Dolphin (1967):

At about this time [1951] another and, to me, most beguiling project was considered by Dan O’Connor. At Woolwich there was a theatre that had received bomb damage and not been repaired. The idea was that, if it could be made usable, a Shakespeare season should be held there during the Festival of Britain. Audiences would be able to “take water to the play” going downstream by barge from Westminster Pier. One sparkling spring morning Tyrone Guthrie (he was not yet knighted), his wife, Bob and I, all went down the river to inspect this theatre. It was the gayest of jaunts. Tony Guthrie was in the middle of producing The Barber of Seville in a lovely licquorice-all-sort kind of setting and he and Judy sang bits of it all the way. We picked up the keys of the theatre at a pub and let ourselves in. The damage was extensive. “No good, dear,” said Tony Guthrie after one glance at it. “What a pity! Never mind.”

This unemphatic hardly-a-description should be set against the pages-long loving description of the Dolphin in the novel, evidently in better nick than the real theatre but still in a bad way, smelling of rats and rot.

He had forgotten about the bomb damage. A long shaft of sunlight from a gap in the roof of the stage-house took him by surprise. It produced the effect of a wartime blitz drawing in charcoal and, like a spotlight, found its mark on the empty stage. There, in a pool of mild sunlight, stood a broken chair still waiting, Peregrine thought, for one of Mr. Ruby’s very own actors. Behind the chair lay a black patch that looked as if a paint pot had been upset on the stage. It took Peregrine a moment or two to realize that this must be the hole the clerk had talked about. It was difficult to see it distinctly through the shaft of light.

Marsh mentions making drawings around the text when she is writing, and Margaret Lewis’s 1991 Ngaio Marsh: A Life shows one of these – group of her characters with added cat. Marsh’s cats kept her company whilst she wrote. I forget whether the characters are the Lampreys or from one of the theatrical books.

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Exhibition at St Barbe Gallery

3 August 2015

Quick note about the exhibition of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Lymington. It’s on until 12th Sept.

I especially liked the prints by Mychael Barrett. Lost Magic Kingdoms – an alphabetical map of fictional places is a kind of puzzle map of places from children’s stories and other fantasy works. The link isn’t a great reproduction but each image in the print refers to a different fantastical story. The key at the bottom gives further clues to identifying them. Pictures + (mostly) children’s books + puzzle element = good stuff.

I also liked his Street piano in Keystone Crescent and A memory of elephants in King’s Cross.

There was also a good cat print by Richard Bawden of a tabby cat stealthing through the undergrowth. I can’t find it online but an images search for Richard Bawden+cat+print may be enjoyable. I liked this one, My Darling, cross-looking cat, complaisant-looking owner.

And two prints by Delores de Sade, “Hence arises a digression” and “Not without undue prolixity”. I can’t find a good image of the first but the second is shown in this interview with de Sade, in which she also talks about the source of the titles.

Was good to do something other than data analysis and writing about detective fiction, both of which have taken over my life in the last few weeks. Both are good things to do but for various reasons (deadlines and knackeredness among them) have been hard work.

Latter End (book #142)

28 July 2015

Patricia Wentworth, 1949.

The hero, Antony Latter:

He came back to his room, and to the realisation that it was probably the last night he would ever spend there. His books still filled the shelves of a huge ramshackle bookcase, the sort that runs up to the ceiling and down to the floor – the bottom shelf crammed with bound volumes of the Boy’s Own Paper; school prizes in the next, the kind you never read; and so on through the idols of his teens to long rows of small leather-bound editions at the top. Some of them he would want to take. For the rest, what did one do with the relics of one’s youth? They ought to have gone in salvage during the war, but he could just see Jimmy with his foot down and a peremptory “None of Mr. Antony’s things!”

He goes on to consider the photographs in his room – “school groups, college groups … The years of the war made an impassable gulf between himself and the face, the blazer, the jersey, which had been his on the farther side of it”. Thinks about the friends who died in the war: “Bill Rogers, killed at Alamein – Jervis at Hellfire Corner – Mapleton in the blitz – Anstey in Burma – Danvers in France – Macdonald just gone, nobody knew where. No use looking back. Good fellows with whom he had had a good time, but you have to go on … ”

I like Miss Silver’s comments on Charlotte Yonge. “The Heir of Redclyffe is rather too sad … I must own for a preference for a happy ending, but one cannot cavil when so much faith and courage are inculcated. One day I believe that Miss Yonge will be admitted as the equal of Trollope, if not his superior.”

The Red Widow Murders (book #141)

5 July 2015

Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr), 1935.

This is a locked room mystery, the third in the Sir Henry Merrivale series. I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t much like locked room mysteries, mostly because the focus tends to be on the puzzle rather than the character.

The start is good:

When Dr Michael Tairlane boarded the bus that evening in March, it must be confessed that his somewhat elderly pulse was not as quiet as usual. The distinguished holder of the Lyman Mannot chair in English at Harvard was, to be exact, as hopeful as a boy playing pirate.

Hopeful – it might be well to ask himself – of what? Of adventure tapping his arm in a London mist, a shadow on a blind, a voice, a veiled woman? They did not, he thought in his muddled, kindly way, wear veils nowadays. And he was aware that in any adventurous situation outside a book, because of this muddled, kindly way, he would be lost. Yet he reflected he had not done so badly during that business at Bowstring Castle last September. It was the Bowstring affair which had convinced him that the prosaic world had queer, terrifying holes in it; that he, at fifty, had met danger and found it exhilarating. That was why he had left a warm flat at Kensington to-night.

(Not sure why his thought about women no longer wearing veils is “kindly”.)

Sir Henry is an impressive and eccentric figure with aspects of the grotesque: a kind of Nero Wolfe / Gervase Fen combination, with his huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ accent and elements of silly-assery reminiscent of Wimsey.

He is a member of Mycroft Holmes’s Diogenes Club and “the former head of the British Counter-Espionage Service”. The Club has evidently developed from Mycroft’s day when it allowed no talking at all, to allowing talking but only in Latin: “consequently, H.M. said he found it useful for sittin’ and thinkin’ or else merely for sittin'”.

Sir Henry makes pronouncements like “Somethin’s wrong, son. There’s blood somewhere, and maybe death. I’m not star-gazin’; it’s fact. My brain can’t tell me anything, my brain tells me that nothing’s wrong and I’m a wool-gatherin’ ass.” When he finally epiphanises in a shower of random clues and “ho, ho, ho”, Chief Inspector Masters says “I don’t know what you’re thinking, sir … but what I do know is that you see daylight … And, so long as I don’t have to worry, I’m not curious. Unduly”. HM calls the family of the victim and the others concerned together for the classic reveal scene.

There is a romance element, sort of, but it’s barely sketched in and seems like Dickson couldn’t really be bothered.

I think it’s well done for what it is, atmosphere and plot, but can’t get past how unbelievable or unlikeable most of the characters are. There are more positive reviews at the crime segments, Classic Mystery Hunt and 混沌の狭間 (with reservations). These give more details both of the locked room mystery and of the characters. There’s also a review of another Carter Dickson novel, The Skeleton in the Clock at Tor, which mentions TRWM in passing and makes some general points about Dickson’s / Carr’s work.

Katherine Wentworth (book #140)

14 June 2015

DE Stevenson, 1964.

I ordered this after reading a review of it as a ‘comfort book’, and I’d agree with that description. Very simple, predictable, generally kind about people and reasonably calm though with some darker hints (the characters of Zilla and Sir Mortimer and the effect of the latter on his grandchildren). As in Charlotte Fairlie, religion is important and there’s a friendly vicar.

I’ve read a few DES now and a couple have been awful, which this wasn’t. I agree with another review that there’s a strange detachment about the way the eponymous narrator / protagonist is presented. It’s not at all like the surreal and funny Miss Buncle’s Book. There is a sequel, which I have ordered and shall stockpile for a trip away I have coming up.

I was interested to see that Mrs MacRam, who cleans and cooks for the family at their Highland holiday cottage, “‘is baking cakes sometimes for the W.R.I. and getting prizes for them'”. I hadn’t heard of the WRI – it’s the Scottish Rural Women’s Institutes, which in fact recently dropped “Rural”. There’s a history of the WRI here, and the notes from the East Lothian branches from 1945 to 2000 here.

The book starts with a few paragraphs of lyrical description of Edinburgh, and there are mentions of going to different places in or near the city (Queensferry and the Pentland Hills). The book falls into three sections based on place (Edinburgh, Sir Mortimer’s estate, called Limbourne, which is somewhere called Wandlebury – not sure if this is supposed to be near Wandlebury Hill near Cambridge, or if it’s a made up place – and Craig-an-Ron in the Highlands). I’m not entirely sure that I’d say that the book has a strong sense of place, though; different things happen in different places but this is more about the plot than the places.

I was also interested in Simon’s statement that “‘I take The Times at school'” – he’s 16 and away at public school. I guess I would have thought that the school takes the newspapers and the boys read them in the library, rather than getting their own copies as this seems to imply.

Edited to add that the blurb on the back has been changed from first person to second and gives pretty much the only piece of text in the whole book that approaches violence or suspense (account of vandalism).

Who Saw Her Die? (book #139)

5 May 2015

Patricia Moyes, 1970.

I’d not come across Moyes before finding this in a charity shop. Her Guardian obituary suggests she was more popular in the US than here. She evidently had an interesting life (there’s another account of it at Rue Morgue), working on radar in the war, then working with Peter Ustinov, and later living in Holland and the Caribbean.

Who Saw Her Die? is part of her series about Inspector Henry Tibbett (Chief Superintendent, by this book) and his wife, Emmy. The victim is a twenties glamour girl now aged 70, and it’s interesting to read about that period from the standpoint of 1970.

I liked this passage critical of some French food – not what one expects from English writing of the period. Emmy is Dutch, according to the internet, though this is only implied in this book (for instance, she’s ‘”glad to be back”‘ when they go to Holland).

Emmy … took herself off to Chez Marcel [in Montmartre], where for a modest sum she ate onion soup made with real onions and home-baked bread, and a beautifully-dressed salad which tasted of real lettuce and chives – compensations for a thin, tough steak, and tinned peas. The excellent cheese board nicely balanced the awful coupe Jacques. If it’s true, Emmy reflected, that English food would be delicious if one had three breakfasts a day, then by the same token cheap French meals could be improved by omitting the main disches and concentrating on the incidentals.

The by-play between Henry and Emmy is well-done. Apparently there are cats in some of Moyes’s novels (she wrote two books about cats) so obviously I shall have to explore this further.

There is a good review of Moyes’s first novel, Dead Men Don’t Ski, at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre and Backstage with Peggy (books #137 and #138)

19 March 2015

Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre is by Gwendoline Courtney, nd but 1964.

Backstage with Peggy is by Doris A Pocock, nd and not in Bodleian or BL catalogues, but Goodreads says it’s 1950. This sounds about right as there is a suggestion that sugar is rationed.

I got these in one batch from Oxfam, and they are similar enough that it seems a good idea to review them together. I think they probably belonged to the same person (same first name in both books). Here are the covers:

Cover of Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre

I’ve read quite a few of the other books listed. Katherine at Feather Ghyll was an online recommendation and Rhodesian Adventure a recommendation from my mother when I wrote an article about children’s books of the 50s and 60s.

Cover of Backstage with Peggy

Elizabeth isn’t illustrated. Here are the pictures from Peggy, starting with the frontispiece:

Of the two, I think Peggy is slightly the more interesting book. Elizabeth has some lively characters, but the detail of Peggy, such as getting the Scouts to make arrows for props (the school dramatic society is putting on “Robin Hood”) makes it more gripping for me.

The (beloved) father in Elizabeth has unfortunate views about girls’ education (unfortunate to me – Pocock obviously supports him). It’s just to make sure they don’t look stupid. “‘General culture will be of far more use to you than a deep knowledge of higher mathematics or Greek,’ he once told Alison and Elizabeth. ‘If you know something of most subjects you will never appear a fool – as long as you’ve enough intelligence to realise just how little you know.'” Let’s hope his daughters don’t want to specialise in maths or Greek.

The conflict and resolution in both books works out predictably, though I did feel a bit sorry for Elizabeth and her sisters, taken in hand by their (thoughtful and caring) stepmother. Even their best friend, the Rector’s son, is critical of their previously chaotic home life: “Fond though he was of the family, he had for some time agreed with his father that it was time something was done to take the girls in hand. The kind of careless gypsy life they were leading might not have mattered so much while they were younger, but it was time Alison and Elizabeth and even Susan began to alter their ideas a little.” There’s more than a whiff of male disapproval that the girls aren’t fitting themselves to take women’s roles here.

The plot of Peggy follows the usual self-sacrifice route. You can see why Lawrie in Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term (1974) assumes that if she gives up her part in the school play, good things will happen – it’s a well-trodden route. The character of Veronica, film-star’s daughter, was reasonably subtly done, I thought, with the book’s disapproval of her “shallowness” presented alongside her charm and her real affection for her great-aunts, whom she treats selfishly.

I liked everyone’s excitement about the first night bouquet “done up professionally in Cellophane paper” and evidently from Interflora or the like: “‘haven’t you seen those advertisements, “Say It With Flowers”?'”.

In both books the main characters end up planning a theatrical career. Elizabeth is evidently destined for greatness as a Shakespearian actor, but I liked the fact that Peggy’s thinking of her career in much more low key terms:

” … Even while I’m building castles in the air (as of course anybody would) and imagining myself a Hollywood star with an enormous fan-mail and a fabulous salary, a mocking little imp at the back of my brain keeps on insisting that that sort of thing is for Veronica Cheviot, not for me … I’m more than likely to end up as nothing more exciting than a teacher of elocution or something of that sort.” … ” … one little success in a school play … isn’t enough to found a brilliant stage career on! But the funny thing is, Kath, I don’t feel as if I should mind so very much if it did all end in having to do something quite ordinary. It isn’t only the stars who get the fun. … I could be quite happy … getting on whith whatever was my job – only I somehow feel I should like it to be a job somehow connected with the stage. … “

Doris Pocock also wrote Lorna on the Land, which I enjoyed.


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