Translated by Jamie Bulloch 2013

Peirene Press do publish some very interesting books – slight novels/novellas of less than 200 pages, from across Europe. These are books which I might never come across if it were not for Peirene’s presence on social media and the excellent reviews of other bloggers.

I had originally intended to read The Mussel Feast for #WITmonth which was in August – but just didn’t get chance to fit it in. The Mussel Feast has become a small, German modern classic. First published in 1990 – this translation from 2013.
Birgit Vanderbeke’s novel is in the form of a monologue, her writing has few paragraphs and no direct speech. It is nevertheless a quick and involving read. The author said of her novel…

“‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start.”
(Birgit Vanderbeke)

Vanderbeke uses a seemingly normal family, in which to explore this idea – a mother and two teenage children – we never actually meet the father – though he is a constant presence.

As the novel opens the mother and her two children are at home awaiting the arrival of the father. In the middle of the table is a large pot of mussels. The mussels have been prepared in anticipation of a kind of celebration – the expected promotion of the father. Although our narrator – the daughter of the family insists…

“It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening. Yes, it was slightly unusual, and afterwards we sometimes spoke of the mussels as a sign, but they definitely weren’t; we also said they were a bad omen – that’s nonsense too. Nor were the mussels a coincidence. This evening of all evenings, we’d say, we decided to eat mussels. But it really wasn’t like that; you couldn’t call it a coincidence. After the event, of course, we tried to interpret our decision as a sign or coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet. We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion although in a very different way from what we had in mind.”

There are many questions the reader has immediately – upon reading that – and it’s perhaps no surprise that not all of them are answered – that would be too easy.
The daughter’s monologue – having no interaction between characters – the story, such as it is, emerges from the strands of remembrance told to us by the daughter. The story weaves back and forth between the present moment, waiting for the father, a pot of mussels cooking on the stove, and the past. Neither the mother or the daughter are particularly partial to mussels but they have spent time preparing them anyway, the mother bent over the bath, scrubbing each shell under cold water, knowing how much her husband dislikes finding sand in his favourite dish.

“Although I found the mussels creepy I went over, as I didn’t want to be cowardly; and they looked revolting, lying there, some opening slowly, fairly slowly, and then the entire heap of them started to move with this rattling sound. Unbelievable, I said, how revolting these creatures are, gasping as instead of seawater they get air, which they can’t breathe, and they’re also being scalded in the boiling water, and then they all open, which means they’re dead.”

As the clock ticks past six o’clock the daughter can’t help but get a strange uncanny feeling – something in the air. While the mussels cook, the son cuts chips – apparently, you must have chips with mussels, but as time goes on, the family begin to lose their appetite for the mussel feast.

It is soon apparent that the reason the father’s presence is so strong – despite his absence – is due to his quiet, domestic tyranny. The reader naturally wonders – along with the family themselves – what has happened to delay the father.The story we get is that of a family falling apart. The parents fled the east to live in West Germany – the story of their flight has the feeling of legend for the children, the division of East and West Germany very much represented in the divisions within the family caused by a tyrannical father. A man whose rules have slowly chipped away at the happiness and confidence of each member of the family. Various incidents are recalled – the forgetting of salt on a holiday, the obsessional collecting of German stamps, evening piano playing being outlawed.

The eighteen-year-old daughter (no character is ever named) shows her mother to often being in what she calls ‘wifey mode’ but as the evening goes on, the clock moves around, it is now almost ten, and still the father has not returned – there is a shift in mood, as the telephone starts to ring.

This offering from Peirene Press is a powerful, thought provoking little book. Brilliantly executed, and immediately compelling, the ending is both perfect and frustrating.



There were tears on Sunday morning – actual tears – and that’s not something that happens very often. The tears were for Leon, a child, albeit a fictional one – a boy who stole my heart and broke it a little bit.

Last week I was fortunate enough to see Kit de Waal and Jackie Kay at the Birmingham literature festival, they were wonderful. I don’t want to go on about that evening too much, despite it being amazing as I have a book to talk about, but I found both women extraordinarily inspiring, funny and moving. We had readings, poetry recitals and a lively question and answer session, alongside this, both women talked about their backgrounds and what had brought them to writing. Kit de Waal’s debut novel My Name is Leon had been on my radar for months – she is a Birmingham writer – and I always love to read local authors. Kit de Waal told us about her own background, growing up in Birmingham, becoming a mother, and sitting on an adoption panel. I was soon determined to start reading My Name is Leon as soon as I had finished One Fine Day.

I devoured the book over the weekend, it is a novel about love, identity and family, it explores the bond which exists between siblings and reminds us how home may not always be where you expect.

Taking us back to 1980/81, and an unnamed city- which as a local I recognised as Birmingham, My name is Leon is brilliantly evocative of the early 1980’s and a childhood set against the back drop of civil unrest and a Royal Wedding.

Leon is nine years old, quite big for his age, he has a brand new baby brother Jake with bright blue eyes. Jake is white, and Leon is black. Their mum Carol is beautiful, and Leon likes to take care of her and help her look after Jake. Leon simply adores his baby brother. He tells his little brother all about the world.

“My name is Leon and my birthday is on the fifth of July nineteen seventy-one. Your birthday is today. School’s all right but you have to go nearly every day and Miss Sheldon won’t let proper footballs in the playground. Nor bikes but I’m too tall for mine anyway. I’ve got two Easter eggs and there’s toys inside one of them. I don’t think you can have chocolate yet. The best programme is The Dukes of Hazzard but there are baby programmes too. I don’t want watch them any more.”

Carol is finding life hard, and over the next few months following Jake’s birth – the children are beginning to get neglected. Leon is missing school, caring for Jake himself, their upstairs neighbour Tina is called on more and more often to look after the boys.

Social services come and take Leon and Jake to live with Maureen while their mum gets better. Maureen is nothing like Carol, she’s quite old, has a belly like father Christmas and fuzzy red hair. Leon notices all the adults around him speaking in strange, quiet voices, wearing what he calls pretend faces. Maureen has fostered lots of children – she has lots of love to give, and a big gold biscuit tin, but her health is not as good as it could be, and she isn’t getting any younger. It’s quickly apparent that Carol won’t be able to look after her children herself, Leon hears mention of a half-way house in Bristol – wherever that is. After a while the social services decide it would best to have Jake adopted – ‘to give him a chance’ – no one it seems wants a black nine-year-old boy and a white baby. The separation is hard on Leon; Jake is his baby – his responsibility – he doesn’t think that he’ll be happy away from Leon who is the only person who understands how to look after him. Maureen puts a photograph of Jake by Leon’s bed – but the hole in Leon’s world is huge.

Things don’t get any easier for Leon, Maureen is taken into hospital, so Leon goes to stay with Sylvia (Maureen’s sister – who social services have approved). Leon still hasn’t heard from Jake – and he finds it hard to cope with all the anger he has inside.

“Once when he was little, he was in the park with his mum and she covered him over with a blanket. He was lying on the grass. He remembers the smell of the earth and the feel of scratchy leaves on his legs. The sky was far away and everything was still and quiet. His mum was singing to him but it was more like a whisper and his dad was there as well. His dad was reading the newspaper and he was leaning against the tree. Leon had a blue and red ball and an Action Man and they left the Action Man at the park and his dad promised to get him a new one. And he did. But that was later.”

Sylvia is obsessed with the Royal Wedding – she and her friends are planning a street party. Meanwhile, Leon loves to ride his bike fast, he also loves curly wurlys and hanging out with Tufty down the allotments who reminds Leon of his dad – and teaches him about growing things. In his red rucksack Leon puts all the things he pinches, the coins he collects which will one day help him find his Mum, and rescue Jake. During the summer evenings, there is unrest on the streets near to where Leon lives with Sylvia, a strange feeling of excitement in the air, and some of Tufty’s friends speak of violence and police harassment. allotments

Leon has a lot of things to sort out in his head, about his mum, his brother, who he is, and where he belongs. Leon must learn to cope with his unbearable loss, and listen to the people around him who care for him.

Those of us who work with children, sometimes come home, worrying, wondering about the small people we had in our care that day. The world can be tough on children – and Leon is a heart-breaking reminder of how that world can appear to a child, and how it might feel.

This novel is poignantly powerful, and Leon is an unforgettable child character, who reminds us how vulnerable children are to the decisions that the grown ups make for them.



My second read for the 1947 club hosted by Karen and Simon was One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes, a novel which has been on my radar for a long time.

Taking place on one long hot summer day in 1946, the first real summer of peacetime, One Fine Day recreates the mood, atmosphere and changing times that peace has brought to an English village. The village in question is Wealding, a village commutable to London, surrounded by a perfect English landscape.

“Up here, on the empty hilltop, something said I am England. I will remain. The explosions in the valley, the muffled rumbles and the distant flashes far out to sea, had sounded remote as the quarrelling voices of children somewhere in the high, cool rooms of an ancient house from which they would soon be gone. But the house said I will stand when you are dust.”

At the time Panter Downes was writing this novel, thousands of families were adapting themselves to the changes that came with the end of the war. One Fine Day goes right to the heart of those difficulties. Mollie Panter Downes doesn’t limit her story to a plot driven domestic drama, although a small middle class family are the focus. She is a superb observer of people and communities, and demonstrates an astute understanding for the challenges for people coming out of a long, uncertain conflict.

Laura and Stephen Marshall and their ten-year-old daughter Victoria must learn how to live with each other again in this new world. A world inhabited by widows, where food is as strictly rationed as ever, and domestic help is hard to come by. The Marshalls’ garden is badly overgrown, attended to by a man too old for the work. Laura is helped in the house by her daily Mrs Prout – a local woman who jibs at calling her employer Madam. Laura is vague, distracted a slightly bohemian character, she isn’t as distressed by the domestic disharmony as her puzzled husband who views the evidence of these more straitened times at home with some dismay.1947club

As the novel opens, the family dog Stuffy has got out again, the family know she has gone up to Barrow Down where the gypsy lives, where she will run wild with his dogs, later – no doubt – presenting her family with yet more puppies. Before Stephen leaves for his day at work outside the village, the two contemplate the difficulty of the garden, and Laura resigns herself to going to look for Stuffy later that day. Victoria leaves for school in a rush with satchel and music case. Reminded by her mother that she is having tea that afternoon with her friend Mouse Watson. Laura, alone finally, contemplates the day ahead, as she clears the breakfast dishes, which will include picking gooseberries, cooking, the weekly shop, seeing to the ducks and hens. It’s an evocative portrait of domesticity, one at which Panter-Downes excels.

“Now, said the house to Laura, we are alone together. Now I am yours again. The yellow roses in the bowl shed half a rose in a sudden soft, fat slump on the polished wood, a board creaked on the stairs, distant pipes chirped. She knew all her house’s little voices. As she had never done in the old days when there had been more people under her roof.”

Stephen has returned to his little family after the war, aware of how many years have been wasted by the grey in his wife’s hair – testament to the years of struggle she has endured without him, cooking, cleaning, washing; all the domestic chores she was not born to. Now Stephen commutes to his office in London, sharing a railway carriage with other men like him. Suddenly he is aware that he could, quite easily spend the next twenty years catching the 8.47 to London, it’s a shattering idea. He has another image, the dream of another life, a new life in another land. Knowing, of course that in reality he will never leave England.

The perspective is almost always Laura’s we see the world of Wealding through her eyes – and occasionally through her young daughter’s or her husband’s – it is in Laura ‘s head the reader is placed. Laura stays in Wealding – unlike her husband who leaves each day for the city – and so it is in her company that we meet other members of that village community. There’s the vicar Mr Vyner, Miss Grant; Victoria’s teacher in her home made jumpers, Mrs Porter with her various offspring by various fathers, including her Adonis of a son, and strange Annabel, the beautiful young war widow of poor Jim Trumper. The family at the big house, friends of Laura’s, we learn, are leaving, a sign of the changing times, it will soon be in the hands of the National Trust. Laura pays the family a visit as they prepare to leave.

“The house, thought Laura looked completely uninhabited, rotting away, basking and staring with blank eyes at the weedy gravel and the lawns, which were now hayfields. It had, for a moment a disconcerting air of being already a ruin, quite hollow behind the plum-pink bricks and the Cranmer hatchments. Rooks cawed, flopping in their crazy-looking settlement in the big old trees; neither she nor Edward spoke for a moment, and Laura had a feeling that the silence would surely be broken up by the boots of the custodian, popping out of his little room, wiping tea from the ends of his moustache, and starting to gabble about the dining hall and the site of the old keep.”

A novel, taking place over the course of one day is a difficult thing to achieve – yet in Mollie Panter-Downes’s hands it seems effortless, the past and present weave together, as she reveals the world of her characters. We get a sense of Laura’s upbringing – the man her mother wanted her to marry. Over the phone we witness the disapproval of Laura’s mother that she chose Stephen – and has spent the war ruining her hands.

This beautifully written novel is well worth spending time on, it benefits from slow reading I think, although it is so readable I could imagine gobbling it down in no time had I not had to go to work or not had two evenings out last week.



Having thoroughly enjoyed both the 1924 club and the 1938 club, I was delighted for another chance to celebrate the work of one literary year. This time it’s the 1947 club, and despite being only just after the war it seems to have been a pretty bumper year.

It is not surprising that in a novel published just two years after the Second World War ended, that that conflict remains present, in the lives of its characters. I think that is what makes 1947 such a brilliant choice of year. I am currently reading my second 1947 read – One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes – an entirely different kind of book – the war is naturally a shadowy presence there too. More of that book another time. 1947club

Dorothy B Hughes is a writer of classic, suspenseful, noir style novels. She was an enormously prolific novelist in her day, I have loved both the Hughes novels I have read previously and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. In a lonely Place, was adapted for the silver screen starring the great Humphrey Bogart. I love Humphrey Bogart and films of this type, though I haven’t seen this particular one. I understand the film is a little different to the book, which I can well understand as no matter how much I love Humphrey Bogart – I really can’t see him as Dix Steele, despite the above cover art prompting me to do so.

As with The Expendable Man and The Blackbirder – the two other Hughes novels I have read, this novel is enormously atmospheric, Hughes gives us tense, compelling storytelling. It really is heart in the mouth stuff, yet I didn’t really want it to end.

War veteran Dix Steele has come to Los Angeles, for several months he has been staying in the apartment of a wealthy young man who he knew at college, before the war. His uncle is supporting Dix, while he writes a book. One night in a bar, a word overheard by Dix reminds him of his one-time best friend who he served with in England during the war. He immediately finds a phone box and gives his old friend a ring. Dix is a troubled man, depressed, cynical he drinks too much – seems angry at the world.

“Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago in an ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

Brub Nicolai lives nearby and is surprised and delighted to hear from Dix – and invites him over that evening. Things have changed since the two were last together, Brub is now married, to Sylvia, a cool, intelligent woman – who Dix notices observes him closely, from the first moment they meet. Brub informs his old friend that he is now a policeman, a detective, and like all his colleagues is working long hours on a most disturbing case.

For months the women of Los Angeles have been terrified by the shadow of a strangler – a killer who preys on his victims in the dark. The police, as yet have no clues. Dix is rather thrown by Brub’s revelation that he is a policeman, it’s not at all what he had expected of him. He tells Brub he is writing a book, a crime story, with which his old friend might be able to help him.

Hughes is far too clever to give us just another mystery story, whodunit or police procedural, I knew that already. Within a few pages, the reader knows that something is not all it might be – there is a sense of prickling unease, things we are never completely sure of. I love that aspect, though it makes the book hard to put down.

Following his evening at the Nicolais’, Dix heads back to where he has been living, by bus. Dix is very aware of the people around him, he notices people, watches.

“Dix sat in the front seat, his face turned to the window. Away from the dull lights of the interior. Others boarded the bus as it rumbled along Wilshire through Santa Monica, into Westwood. He didn’t turn his head to look at the others but he could see their reflections in the window pane. There was no one worth looking at.

The fog thinned as the bus left Westwood and hurried through the dark lane framed by the woodland golf course. At Beverley you could see street corners again, as though a grey mesh. You could see the shop windows and the people on the streets. Only there were no people, the little city was as deserted as a small town. Dix kept his face pressed to the window.”

One person Dix notices is Laurel Gray, the gorgeous red-head in the apartment upstairs. Laurel has ambitions, has already had some movie experience, likes money – and seems to like Dix. Laurel really knows what she wants, and what she wants takes more money than Dix has. None of that prevents Dix embarking on a heady affair with the sultry Laurel. Soon the cracks begin to show, Laurel asks too many questions, arrives home late, keeps Dix waiting. Dix learns how reliant she is on her ex-husband’s money, while his own financial woes have only got worse.

The interplay between characters is brilliant, characters are mistrustful, watchful and nervous, their mood very definitely reflecting the events which are on the front page of the newspaper that is delivered to Dix’s apartment.

Another woman has been found strangled, and the police investigation goes into overdrive. The most recent victim went to a drive in restaurant for coffee with her killer, and yet no one seems able to describe him. Dix – and sometimes Laurel – spend time with Brub and Sylvia at their club, here Dix hears about the strangler case, the lack of clues, the frustration felt by the investigators. He sees Brub, arriving home later and later, Sylvia, tense, worried, alarmed by the number of women who have been killed already. Dix meets Brub’s chief, is driven out to one of the recent crime scenes, allowed privileged access to the investigation. Learns about tyre tracks, dust and the unreliability of witnesses.

In a lonely place was a great pick for the 1947 club – I really need to read more by this author.



How to be a Heroine; subtitled or what I learned from reading too much (honestly! like there is any such thing) was chosen by my very small book group. A more perfect book for us I couldn’t possibly think of.

This much more than a book about books, it is a work of feminism, literary criticism and memoir – and it is a book about books. I loved every bit of it, meeting up with my own literary heroines, and encountering new ones or ones I had forgotten about.

The book started life as a conversation between the author Samantha Ellis and her best friend Emma. On a trip to the Yorkshire moors – Bronte country – they were arguing about whether they would rather be Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre, Samantha had been trying to be Cathy for years, Emma was firmly on the side of Jane (as I have been since I was eleven). Suddenly Samantha Ellis must face the possibility that she has channelling the wrong heroine all along.

“But when we reached Top Withers, the skies cleared. The clouds vanished and the sun shone, as if this was the backdrop for some moment of revelation. Which it was. I was wrong.
My whole life. I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.”

From here we accompany Samantha Ellis on a fabulous journey through the books of her life (it’s a pretty spectacular list – and yes reader there are spoilers) – meeting up and re-examining the heroines who have meant different things to her at significant times in her life. The eleven essays which follow, explore a myriad of books, examining and re-examining the heroines. Some of those re-examinations stand the test of time, heroines like Lizzie Bennet, Mary Yellan and Esther Greenwood, Tess (whom Ellis calls an avenging angel – oh yes!!) – others are something of a disappointment. Katy Carr (What Katy did 1872) she now finds pious, a vapid goody-goody – not at all how she had thought of her originally.

“I thought Katy Carr the heroine of this 1872 book, was a carefree rebel. Her hair, like mine, ‘forever in a snarl’, always having adventures with her five younger siblings, and getting into trouble with her strict Aunt Izzie, who is helping their distracted widowed father bring them up. I remembered Katy falling off a swing and being horribly injured, but if you’d asked me where this came in the book I’d have said near the end. I blanked out the rest of the book – the bulk of the book – in which Katy comes to terms with being bedridden.”

Woven throughout this book of books are the stories which make up Samantha Ellis’s own life, her coming of age – the daughter of Iraqi-Jewish refugees, – the marriage plot was always one which resonated through her life. We see Samantha Ellis at Cambridge, meet the boyfriends and witness the break ups – and see her coming to terms with the seizures which began while she was in her second term at Cambridge. Ellis is very good company, intelligent, funny and engaging, the reader cheers her on – every bit as much we do our favourite literary heroines.

As a writer Ellis is furious with L.M Montgomery for stopping Anne Shirley from writing when she married – the exact same thing which happened to Jo March – I admit I had forgotten that – it shocked me too. How could women writers do that to their creative female characters?

“I started to realise that when bold, clever, creative girls like Anne and Jo became women, something happened. They became less themselves. This was a worry because I would soon be a woman myself.”

Love and marriage is a big theme – naturally enough in a book about literary heroines, – Ellis has had moments of concern about her own prospects. She is dismayed to learn that Anne Elliot is not actually as ancient as she had remembered – just twenty-seven. Laura – the heroine of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s brilliant Lolly Willowes; however, helped Ellis to keep her feet on the floor, worry less about finding Mr Right – Laura taught Ellis (as she teaches all readers I think) about freedom – about having a life that is simply one’s own, that is not dictated by a man, or spent running around after relatives’ children.

Then there is the battle between Cathy and Jane – as Ellis point out hardly anyone loves both books (Wuthering Heights I have only read once – still makes me shudder). Cathy’s love is so extreme – unrealistically so Ellis suggests, written by a woman who had never been in love. Jane; on the other hand, written by a woman who did know love, Jane is a tough little thing. He spirit rages at us from the pages, and I will always love her for that speech, (oh you know the one – I am not typing it out now).

I find there are so many things I could talk about from this book – too many – but before I stop – I will soon, a word about lighthouses. I love lighthouses, they are present in my home in various ways. So when Ellis is told (by a man) that lighthouses are phallic symbols in literature (a thousand times no!) I am as outraged as she was. I agree with Samantha here too as she considers Lily Briscoe from To the Lighthouse. lighthouse

“A lighthouse is a symbol of self-sufficiency. Like the lighthouse keepers who live there, not needing anything from the mainland, Lily has become self-sufficient. And like the lighthouse beam that stops shipwrecks, she saves lives: she has saved her own life.”

This is a wonderful book, I have only scratched the surface of the books and heroines that Ellis discusses – she packs a huge amount into this book of less than 250 pages. Alongside the Brontes, Austen, Alcott and Sylvia Path we have Jilly Cooper’s Riders, The Valley of the Dolls, Scarlett O’Hara, The Little Mermaid and Scheherazade. The list is actually impressively long and varied.

I am looking forward to discussing this book with my friends on Wednesday – but it’s no surprise that I still love Jane, and I won’t be tidying away my lighthouses anytime soon.



You may all remember some exciting news over the summer from Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow. Working in conjunction with Dean Street Press nine titles that Scott has raved about and championed on his marvellous blog are at last being brought back into print. I believe that there will be more coming out in the future.

I was delighted to receive two e-books from the publishers out of the blue – a lovely surprise. I chose to read A Chelsea Concerto first, a deeply personal memoir of the London blitz.

Frances Faviell lived in Chelsea both before and during the Second World War. Her remarkable memoir opens early in the war, before the devastating bombardment that was to follow. She becomes a Red Cross volunteer– attached to a first aid post, and in those early days there are a lot of drills. At this time Chelsea is still the bohemian district that she is so familiar with, home to artists such as Faviell herself. Like the Londoners of the time, we are lulled into a false sense of security – in the long quiet, uncertain days before the first bombs fall, everything feels normal – just with added sandbags and men in khaki.

In time of course the blitz over London began, and Chelsea was particularly targeted, Faviell is fairly uncompromising in her descriptions of the devastation, the dead, injured, traumatised and bereaved which became a huge part of their lives, night after night after night. Chelsea came under heavy bombardment due to its proximity to the Thames and the bridges which served the river. Time and again Frances is called upon to help people in desperate situations.

“As I hurried by she turned, said something to the others, then called to me, ‘Nurse!’ I went over. The man bending over the hole straightened up, but I could not look at him because of the appalling sound coming from the hole. Someone was in mortal anguish down there. The woman in nurse’s uniform, who was tall and very largely built, said sharply to me, ‘What are your hip measurements?’ I said, above the horrible moaning from the hole, ‘Thirty-four inches.’ One of the men took a piece of stick and measured it across my shoulders, then across my hips, and then put it across the hole. ‘Easy—an inch to spare each side,’ he said”

Obliged to crawl, semi clad, into a tiny space beneath a pile of rubble to chloroform a terribly injured man, on another occasion to grimly piece together the body parts of bomb victims to return to families for burial.

We meet the characters who Frances lives amongst, the people who for Frances Faviell will be forever synonymous with that time and that place. They become people we care about too, involved with and worried for.

“And suddenly, as I stood there, they all came crowding back again – the grey ghost faces, the wail of the sirens, the sound of gunfire, the crash and reverberation of bombs, the drone of planes and the crackle of flames. Back they all came… Kathleen, Anne, Cecil, Larry, Catherine and the baby, Grannie and the horse, Beauty, the East Enders, the refugees…”

Frances is living in a flat, very close to the Royal Hospital – she is friendly with the people upstairs; a woman and her two daughters, one of who is disabled. Her Dachshund Vicki; has become a bit of a local character, affectionately nicknamed Miss Hitler by the neighbours. Engaged to Richard, who is working for the ministry of home security, Frances is soon considering becoming a fully registered nurse. At this point – Frances has already travelled widely, been married once before, learnt a couple of languages and developed a range of skills she able to put to practical use in helping the people of Chelsea during the difficult times in which they find themselves. When Ruth; a Jewish refugee – who left Germany several years earlier – succumbs to paranoid terror and attempts to gas herself, Frances becomes a surrogate mother figure to her devastated daughter Carla.

blitzIn the months and years which follow, Frances shows herself to be a brave, calm and resourceful volunteer. Working with Belgian refugees, she becomes a safe harbour for these displaced people. There’s Catherine, who arrives in London at nineteen unmarried and pregnant ashamed of her unmarried status, she feels judged and looked down upon, and The Giant – who is responsible for more than one fracas. There are moments of humour too – A Chelsea Concerto isn’t all tension and horror – there is a wedding – the author’s own – during an air raid – fun, and lovely friendships, a beautiful baby is born, and Vicki the Dachshund attracts an ardent admirer.

As Frances’s involvement with the lives of the refugees’ increases, she is doing so, while Chelsea is being subjected to the most horrendous bombardment, and she is constantly assisting with the casualties that each day brings. It is difficult for us now to imagine such relentless devastation, streets filled with rubble, broken glass, yet another gap appearing in a row of houses, people trapped under piles of debris. I couldn’t help but think of the people of Aleppo – our modern day equivalent I suppose.

This is a remarkable memoir, and it’s so good that people will again be able to read Frances Faviell’s memoir – which could so easily have become another old forgotten book.




Pigeon Pie was given to me very recently, and it seemed to be just what the doctor ordered, so I couldn’t help but start reading it almost straight away.
Written during the first few months of the second world war – its tone is tongue-in-cheek and satirical. Mitford could not then have known the terrible catastrophic toll the war would take. Britain was in the throes of what came to be known as the phoney war. In a note added to the beginning of this novel in 1951 – Nancy Mitford urges readers of the second edition to remember that the novel was written before Christmas 1939, published on the 6th May 1940 it was…

“an early and unimportant casualty of the real war which was then beginning”
(Nancy Mitford Paris, 1951)

However, Nancy Mitford was a great wit, a famous tease – she could winkle out the humour in most situations. Later of course she came to take the war very seriously indeed – and was instrumental in having her own sister (Diana Moseley) and her brother-in-law interned.

Pigeon Pie is not Nancy Mitford’s best novel, but it is as entertaining and engaging, as I always find her to be.

Lady Sophia Garfield thought she knew what the outbreak of war would be like, the reality seemed in fact rather disappointing. Wanting to do something for her country – and vying to outdo her life-long enemy Olga Gogothsky – nee Baby Bagg – she had bagged herself a prince and now affects the role of foreign princess – Sophia dreams of becoming a spy. Married to dull Luke, Sophia is not unhappy, she realises she no longer loves her husband, but consoles herself with the dashing Rudolph, practically under her husband’s nose. Irritated by her German maid Greta – wishing she could just sack her – Sophia loves her home comforts, her French bulldog Milly and tea at the Ritz. The third member of this far from conventional household is Florence, a member of the Boston Brotherhood, a religious organisation, that Sophia’s husband has been involved with for a few years.

“Sophia and Rudolph loved each other very much. This does not mean that it had ever occurred to them to alter the present situation, which seemed exactly to suit all parties; Rudolph was unable to visualize himself a married man, and Sophia feared that divorce, re-marriage and subsequent poverty would not bring out the best in her character. As for Luke, he took up with a …soulmate called Florence, and was perfectly contented with matters as they stood.”

Despite really wanting to be a beautiful, female spy Sophia finds herself allocated to a first aid post. In these, quiet days of the phoney war – there are an awful lot of practise runs. Sophia is sure there must be spies all over the place, and her position at the first aid post provides her with the perfect opportunity of rooting them out. She is convinced that she must learn to wink in Morse code as soon as possible and sets about practising while at the first aid post.

There is shock and embarrassment when it is revealed that Sophia’s godfather, singer Ivor King – is broadcasting nightly from Germany having thrown his lot in with the enemy. His broadcasts so absurdly entertaining that no one thinks of missing one.

Having dreamt of being a beautiful, female spy, Sophie is certainly not expecting to unearth a den of espionage right under her nose. Finding an agent in a wardrobe, a cryptic message written in pencil on the shell of her morning boiled egg, Sophia’s a little slow in realising exactly what is going on. Her maid appears to have disappeared, and then her beloved bull-dog is held hostage. Friends it seems may not after all be friends, and Sophia can’t be sure who to trust.

“Sophia began on her egg and was attacking it with vigour when she saw that something was written on it in pencil. Not hard-boiled, she hoped. Not at all. The writing was extremely faint but she could make out the word AGONY followed by 22.
Sophia was now in agony, for this must be, of course, a code. She knew that spies and counter-spies had the most peculiar ways of communicating with each other, winking in Morse and so on; writing on eggs would be everyday work for them.”

With Luke abroad, and Rudolph bored stupid by daft stories of female spies told to him by Olga, who can Sophia get to help?

This is all delightfully done – Sophia is really quite hilarious – Mitford characters are quite infectious I find. It doesn’t do to take all this too seriously – it is simply all rather jolly good fun.

Nancy Mitford