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2015-07-26 19.53.51

There are plenty of dove grey covered books which are synonymous with the kind of output we have come to expect from the divine Persephone books, works by the likes of Dorothy Whipple, D E Stevenson, Mollie Panter Downes and Marghanita Laski. The Hopkins Manuscript is not that kind of book – on paper it isn’t the kind of novel I would read, but prompted by Kaggsy’s superb review I put it on my Persephone wishlist. Although I received it for Christmas in 2013 it has taken me till now to get around to reading it – and it proved absolutely unputdownable. A Sci-Fi novel by the author of the famous World War I play Journey’s End and another superb novel re-issued by Persephone books A Fortnight in September, The Hopkins Manuscript is a brilliant imagining of the moon’s collision with the earth, and the eventual end of western civilisation. Sci-fi novels vary in type, and I have read only a few over the years, but the only kind of Sci-fi I have any interest in, is the type which is set in a recognisable world, where unexpected, unworldly or fantastic events impact seriously upon that world and the people in it.

The novel opens with a foreword in which an Abyssinian scientist explains how the Hopkins Manuscript was discovered inside a flask by explorers examining the ruins of Notting Hill; working to understand the last days of that dead western civilisation. The document was written in the days before the death of that civilisation, and hidden away for men of the future to discover.

The Manuscript begins seven years after the cataclysm; the world of Western Europe is dying.

“I am writing by the light of a piece of string which I have pushed through a fragment of bacon fat and arranged in an egg-cup. I shall write by night, partly because I can no longer sleep through these ghastly, moonless chasms, and partly because by day I must search for food, and the days are short.”

the hopkins manuscriptThe narrator, Edgar Hopkins a quiet former school master, member of the British Lunar Society, was living in a small house in the Hampshire village of Beadle in October 1945. His concerns were mainly those of a keen breeder of Bantam hens. Edgar’s quiet, comfortable life is thrown horribly off balance when he is called to an emergency meeting of The Lunar Society in London. Edgar travels to London with his heart in his mouth, expecting to be stung for money he can ill afford and rashly promised during an acrimonious earlier meeting. However, Edgar and his fellow members are instead let into a terrible secret, a secret that governments and scientists have known and been preparing for quietly behind the scenes.

“At midnight on the 12th February this year the moon had drawn nearer to the earth by 3,583 miles”

The president of the society lays the facts before his stunned audience, how the measurements have been taken and scrupulously checked, and that according to their calculations the moon will crash into the earth on May 3rd of the following year. There begins much speculation about the nature and severity of the collision and whether it will mean a complete destruction of the earth, or whether the earth will survive altered and in parts devastated but with some life at least preserved. The members of the society are urged to keep the secret until the altered appearance of the moon becomes so discernible with the naked eye that the people need be told. Edgar goes home to his dear little home, his hens and the community with whom he has a reserved relationship nursing his terrible secret.

Bit by bit the world’s fate becomes known, and things necessarily start to change. Sherrif’s descriptions of how the government and media manipulate the populace into calm compliance feels brilliantly realistic; one way to keep the populace busy and active, and giving people hope is in the required development of dug outs in which to spend the hours of the evening of the 3rd May. In the months leading up to the fateful night – Edgar finds new occupations and develops new friendships among the people of Beadle. Aside from a few understandable ructions, the villagers largely pull together, many of them believing in the government’s positive spin on the impending disaster. We know of course right from the start that the earth isn’t instantly destroyed – but that is partly what makes this so compulsively readable, how is the world changed? Who dies? who survives?

Edgar Hopkins is a rather self-important little man (although still likeable enough – he is a recognisable type) he takes great pride in his prize hen Broodie, and has placed himself rather above the patrons of the local pub in the years before that meeting at the British Lunar society which condemned him to the possibility of just seven months left on earth. In the three months before the news of the moon’s collision with earth is made known, Edgar nurses the secret jealously and importantly, imagining how his fore-knowledge will in time make him a hero among the villagers as he calms their fears and intelligently answers the questions that must naturally follow. Things, naturally don’t go quite as Edgar has imagines – but Edgar has skills, and when he begins to throw himself into the creation of the Beadle dugout he finds he has more in common with people from the village than he perhaps thought.

“All the way to the village the birds sang in chorus as birds only can upon a dawn in May. I think the singing of those birds in the moonlight was the strangest sound that I ever heard”

What happens after the 3rd of May is brilliantly imagined, Edgar Hopkins finds himself in a world he doesn’t recognise. Yet, Edgar has been changed and rather humanised by the months leading up to the cataclysm, and so he throws himself into working to re-establish is own little piece of the world amidst the changed and devastated landscape. The irony of course, and no doubt the message of the entire novel, is that it isn’t the devastating natural disaster that destroys the world, but man himself.

This novel is brilliant on so many levels, it is a sci-fi novel which should really be every bit as well known as The Time Machine, yet I am sure few people (non Persephone readers certainly) have heard of it. The Hopkins Manuscript examines, quite poignantly how human beings react under extraordinary circumstances, but it also has a lot to say about the ending of the Empire as it was understood at this time, the relationships between nations and how ultimately man is destined to destroy itself. There is naturally a clear allegorical aspect to a novel written and published at a time of dreadful upheaval in Europe, as the threat of war drew ever closer. Outside of all that however, The Hopkins Manuscript   is just a hugely readable story, endlessly compelling I fairly flew through what is a pretty chunky volume.

rcsherriff

go set a watchman

“For thus hath the Lord said unto me,
Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

One of the things that can happen when we emerge out of the cocoon of childhood is that the heroes of that childhood are revealed as flawed, complex creatures in need of re-examination. This is something that I think it is important to remember; Jean Louise (Scout) in ‘Watchman’ has her childhood view of her father shaken horribly, and therefore our view of a character – that for many is a hero of our formative years – is similarly rocked. To Kill a Mockingbird is told in a first person narrative – the point of view is that of a young child, her understanding of the adult world around her is often limited to what the adults allow her to see. Go Set a Watchman is a third person narrative, although we remain very much inside Scout’s head – an adult perspective in the 1950’s rather than a child’s perspective in the 1930’s will necessarily be very different. Alabama in the 1950’s was a volatile place, for many people things were very black and white. There are some frankly horrible opinions expressed in Watchman – they shock, as I believe they are meant to – the adult Scout is a thinly disguised Harper Lee – Scout’s disgust and grief at what is happening in the south Harper Lee’s own.

“She heard her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentlemen, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”

There has, as everyone, I am sure is aware, been a lot of controversy surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman. There are a lot of people who have already decided they don’t want to read it – they don’t want their hero diminished. I can understand that, but in a sense the genie is already out of the bottle – surely everyone knows by now that in ‘Watchman’ Atticus is portrayed as having extreme racist/segregationist opinions – this nearly prevented me reading a book I ordered months ago. When those first reviews and articles about ‘Watchman’ appeared the weekend before the novel was published I read some of them with rising alarm, I began to dread reading the book. I am now very glad that I pushed my fears aside and began to read it on Sunday evening. I don’t want to say too much about the things which make this a weaker book – because for me they were by the by, perhaps one slightly disappointing thing is that the character development is not as rich as in Mockingbird. Scout or Jean Louise as we must learn to call her though, is wonderful – she is every bit the woman you felt the child Scout might grow up to be.

“Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what.”

For me ‘Watchman’ is a tender, angry book, far more powerful than I expected. It is not a flawless book, but really it is not a terrible book – it is a very good book, definitely one worth reading, and I find, again surprisingly, that it has only enhanced my love of To Kill a Mockingbird. I have heard Go Set a Watchman described as a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird – I think it is rather more than that – there is plenty of new stuff in it. Go Set a Watchman is an echo of Mockingbird, a companion piece perhaps – but not really either a sequel or a prequel. There are a few inconsistencies – which I felt really don’t matter – for example Atticus is described as having got Robinson acquitted.

Jean Louis (Scout) now aged twenty-six returns to her home town of Maycomb to see her ageing father Atticus, now seventy-two and suffering badly from Arthritis. Waiting for her at the station is Henry – her long-time boyfriend who at times she thinks she will marry – at other times she is unsure of how right for her Henry is. Jean Louise has spent the last few years in New York – Maycomb is an altogether different place – its concerns seem smaller. Those small town Southern attitudes soon begin to stifle; Aunt Alexandra – living with Atticus to take care of him – arranges a toe-curling ‘coffee’ for Jean Louise. Here she can reacquaint herself with all the local women with whom she has nothing in common. Atticus has taken Henry under his wing – and from him Henry is learning the law with a view to taking over the law practice in time. As Jean Louise settles back into her father’s house and the town of her childhood – her mind returns to the stories of her childhood and adolescence, happier times with Jem and Henry, the time before she was forced to see Atticus in a whole new light.

“The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”

Uncle Jack, Atticus’s younger brother is a confidant and old friend to Jean Louise and it is to him that the adult Scout runs when she witnesses her adored father and her boyfriend at a Maycomb Citizens Council meeting. This council, attended by the white men of Maycomb, presided over by Atticus Finch, playing host to a visiting speaker well known for his vile views is a forum for frank discussion of racial issues and the US Supreme Court’s new anti-segregation law – which many in Maycomb believe go right against the traditions of the South. Jean Louise is sickened quite literally by what she discovers – everything she thought she knew is profoundly shaken.

So I laid aside Go Set a Watchman more moved than I had expected to be – and Atticus is not diminished in my mind – he is changed, naturally, and that is sad – but because he is still very recognisable I found that while I may hate his racial, segregationist views I couldn’t entirely hate him. Atticus’s views would not have been uncommon in Alabama at this time; he was representative of the community in which he lived. He is still shown as a moral, wise seeker of justice, and as the novel ends Jean Louise must begin to learn to accept the man she loves in a new guise, and so maybe do we.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.”

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swan song

Swan Song the sixth book of the Forsyte Saga Chronicles is the third book in the second trilogy: A Modern Comedy – and I find it amazing that already I am two thirds of the way through the series. I will be taking a break from the Forsytes during August but nevertheless I am eagerly anticipating the third and final trilogy, in which we shall meet people only distantly related to the Forsytes – a whole new collection of characters. If the first two books of A Modern Comedy lack a little of the brilliance of the first and most famous Forsyte trilogy (I still thoroughly enjoyed them) then Swan Song is at least a return to great storytelling.

Galsworthy is still concerned here with the social issues of the day – the gulf between the working classes and the upper and middle classes, the living and working conditions for the majority of the population, but in Swan Song we have a fantastic conclusion to a story that has been building slowly through the last three books.

Events in the first two books of A Modern comedy; The White Monkey and The Silver Spoon were always leading to the inevitable coming together again of Fleur Mont and Jon Forsyte. The reader knows I think that no earthly good can come of this.

general strikeIt is 1926 and the general strike is in danger of bringing the country to a standstill. The breech is famously filled by members of the middle classes – who suddenly found themselves working long hours driving engines, buses and keeping essential services going. As the novel opens Fleur is occupying herself beautifully by volunteering at a works canteen, supplying food to men (who bless their hearts) have never worked so hard. Fleur has now put the drama of the libel case behind her, and having spent several months touring with Soames and her husband Michael has returned to England and instead of collecting the darlings of society around her has found an interest in colonial students.

As the strike begins Jon Forsyte returns to England from America, leaving his wife and mother in Europe. With his half-sister Holly and Val Dartie, Jon is soon installed at Winifred’s house while volunteering on the railway, stoking engines. With Jon stoking engines and Fleur volunteering at a canteen, the inevitable meeting is not long in coming.

“When, looking down the row of faces at her canteen table, Fleur saw Jon Forsyte’s, it was within her heart as if, in winter, she had met with honeysuckle. Recovering from that faint intoxication, she noted his appearance from further off. He was sitting seemingly indifferent to food; and on his face, which was smudged with coal-dust and sweat, was such a smile as men wear after going up a mountain or at the end of a long run — tired, charming, and as if they have been through something worth while.”

Once Fleur has caught sight of Jon – she can think of nothing else – and in a sense she becomes once more, recognisably the spoiled daughter we first met in To Let. Fleur is older now – six years older – but possibly no wiser, and although she is now a wife, and mother to Kit – she allows herself to become completely obsessed. Fleur uses all her cunning to throw herself into the way of Jon, even once his lovely young American wife joins him, Fleur sees her as nothing more than a slight irritation to her plans. For Fleur sees Jon as her destiny – and pursuing him her absolute right. Watching the coming storm from the side-lines – all very quick to see the danger signs are; June Forsyte (Jon’s much older half-sister) Soames and later Michael, who has been made aware of his wife’s first love. Michael is also aware that his wife’s feelings for him are more muted than he might like, and sadly accepts the fact. Fleur wastes little time in letting Jon know that her feelings for him have never changed, Jon is torn between his wife Ann who he genuinely loves and Fleur who he finds himself unable to completely leave behind. Fleur knows what she wants and she goes all out to get it. As she plays the good loyal wife, a gracious hostess who spends her days setting up a rest house for disadvantaged young working class women Fleur plans committing adultery.

“To-morrow at this hour she would claim her own. The knowledge that there must be two parties to any contact did not trouble her. She had the faith of a pretty woman in love. What she willed would be accomplished, but none should know of it! And, handing her cups, she smiled, pitying the ignorance of these wise old men.”

Jon Forsyte is disappointingly weak and a bit pathetic – and I lost all respect for him – maybe that’s just me, I have little time for men of his sort. I never did like Fleur – however she is a brilliant character, in her Galsworthy has created a character readers might not like very much, but can’t help but be fascinated by. She is the epitome of spoiled brat – and poor Soames can‘t stop spoiling her – he can see the danger his treatment of her has created but she is the great love of his life – the one he replaced Irene with.

Meanwhile Michael Mont, still in parliament, has put the humiliation of Foggartism behind him and instead begins to consider the question of slums and the dire need of improving the living conditions of the people living in them. With his uncle Hilary – a clergyman, and other notable figures Michael forms a committee to tackle the problem.

There is great drama at the end of this novel, the consequences of Fleur’s selfishness, more devastating than she could ever have anticipated – I won’t say any more as my fellow Forsyte readers may not have read it yet. By the end of A Modern Comedy Soames – the man we loathed so much in A Man of Property is a character the reader is fully sympathetic with – he is mellower and more humane – I have found myself liking him more with each book. The last few lines of the book – perfectly lovely and rather poignant.

You can read Liz’s thoughts on Swan Song here, and I know Bridget will be reviewing soon too.

john galsworthy

the rising tide

It’s been a slow reading (an virtually none blogging) week, this week for me, and The Rising Tide was the book which kept me company during what often felt like the longest week of the year.

I think one does kind of know what to expect from Molly Keane (often previously published as M J Farrell), who wrote about the world she knew so well. Large Irish country houses, complicated families, horsey types and Anglo-Irish aristocracy, she re-creates this world with breath-taking honesty, warts and all, there is a wonderful exactness in the daily minutiae of a world lost forever. Molly Keane explores the depths of human psychology – here, particularly in the character of Cynthia; Keane shows us the toll that life takes.

In The Rising Tide, Molly Keane contrasts brilliantly the Edwardian era with its strict rules of propriety, fussy clothing and the kind of rigid conventions that so often imprisoned unmarried women in dull lives at home, with the freer, party years of the 1920’s. The title reflects the rise of Cynthia, but also those tidal like waves of time, the years pass, and one generation is replaced by the next, the conflicts of one mirrored in the next – time after time.

“Lady Charlotte rang for her maid. She then washed her hands in buttermilk soap, folded the neck of her combinations down towards the top of her corsets (those corsets which propped so conscientiously the bosoms like vast half-filled hot water bottles) and thus prepared stood while her evening dress was put upon her and sat while her hair was fiddled and redone. Her hair was never washed but it did not smell of anything but hair. The switches and curls of false hair were drier and frizzier in texture than her own.”

The novel opens in 1900 at Garonlea, a large gothic style house in Ireland, the home of Lady Charlotte French-McGrath and her family. Wife to Ambrose, Lady Charlotte rules her family of four daughters and one son with a rod of iron. Little does Lady Charlotte know how close her carefully controlled world is to coming to its natural end; two events however several years apart, come to seal the fate of Garonlea and to some extent the people who live there. The first is her son Desmond’s marriage to the beautiful Cynthia, a woman to whom so many – like Diana, the youngest daughter – are irresistibly drawn – but who repels Lady Charlotte. The second is the First World War, a conflict that changes so much across Europe, bringing inevitably, loss to Garonlea.

In 1900 the future for Lady Charlotte’s daughters; Muriel, Enid, Violet and Diana seemed predictable, but Enid’s error leads to a hasty marriage, and after Violet’s marriage to a suitable but older man, Muriel and Diana remaining embarrassingly unmarried are left at the beck and call of their dictatorial mother, still treated like young girls well into their thirties. Diana is the rebellious one, she tries to challenge her mother’s exacting ways with little success, and she is captivated by Cynthia, and the changing world she seems to represent.

After Cynthia is left widowed with two children; Simon and Susan, Diana who has always been especially attached to Cynthia takes the opportunity to move into Rathglass, the house across the river where Cynthia had lived with Desmond after their marriage. To live peacefully at Rathglass is all Diana really wants, she accepts Cynthia as she is, protects her and in turn Diana enjoys Cynthia’s sympathy and understanding. It is Cynthia who is very much at the heart of this novel, her rise – and eventual decline what drives the narrative. Cynthia must battle her mother-in-law first, then later her own children, and the rapidly passing years, as she indulges in her passion for hunting, inherits Garonlea for her son, and works her way through a series of lovers. The family move back to Garonlea, and Cynthia sets about improving the old place, in readiness for her son’s coming of age.

“She did not love her children but she was determined not to be ashamed of them. You had to feel ashamed and embarrassed if your children did not take to blood sports, so they must be forced into them. It was right. It was only fair to them. You could not bring a boy up properly unless he rode and fished and shot. What sort of boy was he? What sort of friends would he have?”

Cynthia is a brilliantly drawn character, selfish, insatiable and a little unscrupulous, she drinks more and more, and refuses to either acknowledge or understand her children’s dislike of hunting – which is such an enormous part of her own life. Just as Lady Charlotte had once held sway over the family at Garonlea, so does Cynthia direct her children, in this case by insisting they hunt, refusing to see their obvious almost paralysing terror. Her relationship with Simon and Susan is not an especially good one. Cynthia loves her hunting, she loves being in control, being admired but she doesn’t really love her offspring.

The Rising Tide is really a very good novel, psychologically astute, the portraits painted of Cynthia and Lady Charlotte in particular are enthralling. Surely these must be characters taken from life? – and I can’t help but wonder who inspired their creation.

mollykeane1

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Some new book discoveries are so exciting that you can’t help but want to tell everyone about them, I think that might be a little how Simon felt when he wrote about Cornelia Otis Skinner. Certainly it was his enthusiasm that had me rushing off to buy not one but three Cornelia Otis Skinner books and begin to read one right away. I was quite delighted in the editions that arrived too, this one such a sweet little vintage copy from the mid 1940’s with wonderful little illustrations.

Cornelia Otis Skinner, an American actress, writer and screenwriter co-wrote Our Hearts were Young and Gay with her good friend Emily Kimbrough, a memoir about their travels in Europe in the 1920’s. It is difficult to see where Kimbrough’s collaboration is exactly as the book is written in Skinner’s first person narrative. None of that seems important however as the book is full of charm and humour, and both women come across quite hilariously full of adorably lovable quirks and eccentricities.

2015-07-13_21.14.41Having finished college Cornelia and Emily embark on a European tour which they have planned for some time. There is much excitement, at their first independent adventure and not a little horror over the peculiar safety pocket both girls had been made to wear beneath their clothes by anxious parents. They set sail for England on board the Montcalm, their relatively cheap ticket meaning their cabin is well below decks. Barely do the two get themselves settled than they are uprooted again. The ship becomes stuck, run aground and starting to tip, thankfully still just in sight of shore. When the ship is finally freed they limp on to Canada where the girls spend a week with an Aunt of Cornelia’s before finally setting off once more on another ship. Aboard the Empress of France Cornelia and Emily can finally enter in to life aboard an Atlantic going vessel. Their often hapless shipboard life is recounted with the sort of gentle humour which is reminiscent of E M Delafield’s A Provincial Lady. There is deck tennis to be negotiated, and blushed over, a concert to take part in, and ‘nice women’ to try and befriend. Then Cornelia falls victim to measles. Waiting to meet the girls in London are Cornelia’s parents, who with Emily’s help must smuggle poor Cornelia – who has plastered herself with makeup to hide the beginnings of a rash – past the health inspector.

In London the two friends’ new found independence is somewhat diluted by the comforting presence of Cornelia’s parents nearby, who provide them with a good meal or two. In England the two American young ladies are introduced to all manner of new experiences including English rain, Hampton Court, encounter H G Wells, a potentially exploding hot water geyser and particularly inexplicable to Emily – British currency. 2015-07-13_21.13.00

“It was in vain that I tried to show her the difference between a half-crown and two shilling piece. She refused to admit they were anything but two versions of fifty cents and persisted in being so stubbornly obtuse about it I finally told her if she’d just bring herself to read what was written on them she’d know. This didn’t work out so well either, because she’d keep taxi drivers waiting interminably while she’d scan the reading matter of each coin, turning it round and round, sometimes breathing on it and rubbing it clear. When I suggested that people might think her awfully queer she said not at all, they’d merely mistake her for a coin collector. I tried explaining to her that “one florin” meant two shillings but that made her madder. The day we received a bill made out in guineas, and I told her there was no such thing as a guinea, it was a pound and one shilling, only the swanker shops charged you guineas, and you paid in pounds and shillings, but you called it guineas although, as I had said, there really was no such thing, she slapped me”

Leaving Cornelia’s parents in England, the two friends continue their travels to France. In Normandy they stay in a small French pension and in Rouen a house of ill-repute which the two innocents mistake for a guest house – much to the bemusement of the inhabitants.

“Some of the doors were open, and we caught glimpses of the other guests who seemed quite surprised to see us and we were indeed surprised to see them. They all appeared to be young women in very striking evening dresses. This was certainly unusual, but we concluded they must all be waiting to go out to a dinner party. It never once occurred to us that we weren’t exactly in keeping with the ton of the place, I, in mu Buster Brown panama and Emily in her pepper and salt tweeds.
Madame led us up several flights of stairs and allotted us a modest room quite removed from the more elaborate ones below. She explained we’d be tranquille there. Then in a faint, far-away voice, she asked how we’d happened to come to her place.”

After Normandy the girls finally get to Paris, they see the Eiffel Tower, encounter bed- bugs, visit the Ritz bar and catch up again with Cornelia’s parents who have now arrived in Paris too. Cornelia even manages to take a few acting lessons with an acting hero. Soon it is time to leave, the adventure at an end. While Emily heads off with friends on a motor trip, Cornelia heads home to the states.

This hugely entertaining memoir with its hilarious illustrations is deliciously infectious and has quite definitely whetted my appetite for the two essay collections Nuts in May and Popcorn that I have waiting.

corneliaotisskinner

Vintage book buying

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More books have come into my life most of them of a vintage kind (in one way or another) – and although I am as ever celebrating my shiny acquisitions I can’t help but be a little terrified at the size of my tbr and my ever increasing mania for book buying.

2015-07-05_12.09.46Last weekend I had the most glorious weekend with friends in Cornwall, (hence the non book pictures) it might seem a tad crazy to go all the way from Birmingham to Truro/Portscatho for just one night but it was worth the journey. Having had a wonderful Saturday afternoon/evening with friends in Portscatho a village a short drive from Truro where we were staying – two friends and I had a couple of hours to potter around Truro on Sunday morning. We immediately noticed there was a Waterstone’s shop with its doors wide open. Now, we live in a city with two large branches of Waterstone’s in its centre – and I think we each said we had book tokens at home unspent – and yet in we bustled – telling each other brightly that we would just look for what we would spend our vouchers on when we got home. Ha! Well that was never going to happen was it? I like to think I was quite restrained, although I did actually buy three books – I very nearly bought six – feeling all grown up and sensible for putting some back.

I absolutely love Vintage Classics editions – they do after all publish exactly the kinds of things I like. All the books I bought (and the ones I nearly bought) were Vintage – Truro Waterstone’s seemed a veritable treasure trove of red spines.

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I bought:
Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley – prompted by the memory of Kaggsy’s brilliant review.
The Blackbirder by Dorothy B Hughes – a book I had never heard of – it seems to be a piece of vintage noir – and just sounds so good!
The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen – I love Elizabeth Bowen, and have heard from several sources how good her short stories are. This is a huge tome, so I expect I shall dip in and out of it – at some point.

2015-07-11_20.53.24These three Vintage Classics followed hard on the heels of a couple more I bought about two weeks ago:
So Long See you Tomorrow and They Came Like Swallows (what a great title) both by William Maxwell – who as yet I have never read.

Just over a week ago I received an email offering me a review copy of a book I found impossible to turn down. Renishaw Hall: The story of the Sitwells by Desmond Seward. A beautiful finished copy arrived a few days later and it looks fascinating, with lots of gorgeous colour photographs. I will probably have to take a break from #20booksofsummer pile to read it in the next few weeks. reinshawhall

Then some really vintage books – in the true sense of the word – came my way. Last week I read the second of two pieces by Simon – Stuck in a book – rhapsodising about an American writer who I previously never heard; Cornelia Otis Skinner. Cornelia Otis Skinner an actress, writer and screenwriter was the daughter of an actor Otis Skinner and his wife Maud Durbin. Skinner wrote a series of biographies and essay compilations, including Our Hearts were Young and Gay – a biography she co-wrote with Emily Kimbrough which is a deliciously light-hearted description of the European tour the two of them took in the 1920’s.

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I must have been in a somewhat weakened frame of mind – as I leapt almost immediately onto Abebooks and bought three! The aforementioned Our Hearts were Young and Gay (currently reading as it arrived so quickly), Popcorn and Nuts in May, both essay collections – a flick through when they arrived yesterday convinces me they will be just as engaging.

I do so love old books like these. Another old book came my way a couple of weekends ago at a National Trust book shop. I found a book called Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton. Helen Ashton wrote Bricks and Mortar a Persephone books title which I really enjoyed. At the same time I picked up The Goshawk by T H White (written about by Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk) – which I may be a bit nervous about reading due to the potential animal cruelty stuff. 2015-07-11_20.58.34

After all that I went back to being all good and sensible. Having read and enjoyed Holiday by Stanley Middleton which I reviewed on Friday I very nearly went off and bought several of the other editions still available from those re-issued by Windmill last year. I resisted, although of course I do have that collection of book tokens I keep forgetting to use.

holiday

In 1974 the Booker Prize was shared between Nadine Gordimer for The Conservationist (still on my tbr after several years) and Stanley Middleton for Holiday. I hadn’t read any Middleton before and really didn’t know what to expect. It would seem that Windmill Books re-issued a number of Middleton books last year – which is great, I was surprised at just how many novels Middleton wrote, there’s a very long list of them inside my copy.

Not knowing a thing about Middleton, I had to look him up to find out more. Stanley Middleton was born in Nottinghamshire in 1919, as well as a prolific writer he was an English teacher at a grammar school. His first novel was published in 1958 his final novel published posthumously. Having won the Booker Prize with Gordimer in 1974, in 1979 Middleton turned down an OBE. He died in a nursing home in 2009 just before his ninetieth birthday.

I very much enjoyed reading Holiday, although I don’t think it could be described as easy, I settled in to Middleton’s prose quickly enough, but the overall book makes for a degree of fairly slow reading. Middleton’s world is a very recognisable one, his observations spot on.

seasieHaving recently separated from his wife Meg, school master Edwin Fisher decides to spend a week in an English seaside holiday resort. Bealthorp is a place Edwin knows well, a place he holidayed with his parents when he was a child. Now, in his thirties, his marriage in trouble, following the devastating loss of their son, Fisher has a lot to come to terms with. Fisher’s thoughts frequently return to the past, to the holidays of his childhood, and his relationship with Meg. Through his reminiscences we gradually come to understand the intricacies of the Fisher’s marriage and the trauma they suffered when their son died. Fisher spends the first couple of days of his holiday indulging in old routines. Walks along the sea front the purchase of a newspaper and back to the hotel for a meal, Edwin seems to be merely killing time.

In the dining-room this evening, silence blossomed once the families began to eat. Fisher enjoyed the activity, the tucking of bibs, the wiping of mouths, the tipping of plates for the last spoonful, the pause between courses where one put on a small show for the other tables or angled for the correct snippet of conversation which would set the rest to chatter or laughing. These people worked hard, holding their fingers correctly, not marking the tablecloths and this ceremony pleased him. In this room decorated with dolls and paper flowers it was proper to act the gentleman, ape the lady. When the standard was judged, by Monday evening at the latest, there’d be a relaxation, a few aitches would topple, salacious asides allowed, confidences would be exchanged, but at this the first dinner after a complete day’s holiday matters were formal.

The Vernons; Fisher’s in-laws, are also staying in Bealthorpe, although at a different hotel, and they waste little time in interfering. The Vernons want Meg to reconcile with her husband, and Fisher is subjected to marital advice from David Vernon. A meal is arranged, David Vernon has arranged for his daughter to come to the hotel to see Edwin. The appointed time comes and goes but Meg never appears.

During the week at Bealthorpe Fisher begins to socialise with his fellow holiday makers, particularly the Smiths and the Hollies. Edwin indulges in a little flirtation, pleased to find himself desirable in the eyes of another woman, even if it is just a mad holiday moment.

As anyone who has holidayed by the seaside in England will know, holiday weeks run Saturday to Saturday, and by the Thursday of your week away, you always feel rather on borrowed time. Edwin feels this too.

“Thursday, now he strolled towards the Methodist church where the iron gates were padlocked, and posters of scrag-ribbed refugees faded in the sunshine. Thursday.
When he was on holiday as a boy the first three days had passed slowly, but by Thursday time flew. Friday flashed a nothing. One bought presents; one ventured into the sea, but home, wash-day, errands re-established themselves in the mind”

With the holiday finally over, Fisher heads back to the flat he shares with a colleague and sets about (following the necessary interference from the in-laws) re-establishing communication with Meg.
The Wikipedia page for Stanley Middleton tells of a journalistic stunt a few years ago; where someone sent the opening chapter of Holiday to a number of publishers and literary agents – and all but one rejected it. If that is true, I’m not certain what if anything that proves, or what the journalist was trying to prove. Tastes and fashions in literature change I suppose, but I can’t help but see it as a little bit spiteful, Middleton was still alive at the time.

I liked the way Middleton writes, his vision of the world and his eye for detail is sharp, very precise and beautifully rendered. Middleton gets underneath the skin of his characters in a very quiet but very real way, their hopes, fears and all that they are trying to escape are laid bare. Here Edwin is a man still grieving for his child, his emotions are numbed. Holiday is an excellent novel, a worthy Booker winner.

I think I began to see Middleton as a kind of male Brookner – one novel probably not enough to make that judgement, but I definitely want to read more.

stanleymiddleton

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