Posts Tagged ‘Mary Hocking’

The 1965 club begins today, and I really had an embarrassment of riches to choose from: Emergency in the Pyrenees by Ann Bridge, Cork Street Next to the Hatters by Pamela Hansford Johnson, The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne Du Maurier, The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith, The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark and The Young Spaniard by Mary Hocking. Two of those books; the Ann Bridge and the Pamela Hansford Johnson, are part of series that I don’t want to read out of order – so I sat down and contemplated the other four. I decided to start with the Mary Hocking.

Before I get to the novel – a word about Mary Hocking – especially for newer followers. I discovered her back in 2013 – and then in 2015 I managed to persuade Bello books – an imprint of Pan Macmillan to reissue all her books on ebook and print on demand. I have managed to collect all but one of her books (one I have only been able to read on kindle) in hardback and paperback editions, several of them signed.

It’s just over a year since I last read a Mary Hocking novel – which I am shocked at myself about. I have now read twenty-two of Mary Hocking’s twenty four novels – with just Daniel Come to Judgement and Ask no Question left. So, while I may not be banging on about Mary Hocking as much as a few years ago I haven’t forgotten about her. When people ask me about her writing I come up against the old problem – Mary Hocking is quite hard to pigeon hole – I’m not sure she is like anyone really. The jackets of a few Hocking novels liken her to Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor – but that is very misleading – one or two of her novels would be enjoyed by readers of those writers – but she isn’t really like them except that she stands at some distance from her characters, casting a cool appraising eye. At least one of her novels felt rather Murdochian to me – and she was being published by Chatto and Windus during the same period as Iris Murdoch. One thing she does do – and which we can see in The Young Spaniard – her fourth published novel – is to explore the psychologies of her characters and their relationships.

Enough of the boring digression – I apologise – on with the novel.

The Young Spaniard is set in Barcelona – where a Scots lawyer James Kerr travels with some reluctance. James has decided to travel to Spain, fully intending to go to Seville – but he is obliged to stop in Barcelona first. An aunt he barely knows has asked James to look into the rumour that his cousin Rose – whom James has never met – has taken up with what she calls ‘a young Spaniard’. James is irritated by the task he has agreed to. Rose has been working for a travel agency – and James imagines she will be a fairly dull proposition to have dinner with before he catches a train to where he really wants to go.

On the train, James meets another young English woman – although they don’t get off to the best of starts – with each of them managing to irritate or misunderstand the other.

Once in Barcelona – James finally meets up with Rose – and she seems as silly and unimportant as he had imagined. However, there is more going on than James first realises. Rose’s boyfriend – Raoul is not so young after all – an enigmatic character, who is almost certainly not all he seems. Raoul seems to be both a haunted man and as it transpires a hunted man, it’s unclear at first what he has done to excite the interest of local police. Ex-civil war fighter Milo is never far away, watchful and mysterious himself – but how exactly does he fit in to the picture?

“It was sultry in Barcelona. The sky was the colour of steel above the leaves of the plane trees. The town sweated an odour compounded of drains, oil fat and garlic. In the bar at the new hotel in the Ramblas, Milo Pacheco ordered another drink and lit a cigarette. His hand trembled slightly and the blue eyes, narrowed over the flame, were vacant.”

Unwillingly James finds himself embroiled into the mystery of these two men – he finds himself staying in Barcelona – which is made a little more attractive as he finds himself more and more drawn to the young woman from the train. Frangcon, who is Rose’s friend; a schoolmistress on holiday.

Mysteries abound and gradually become more sinister – as Frangcon finds a passport hidden in Rose’s room – containing a photo of someone who looks a little like Raoul.  James suffers very painfully at the hands of Milo’s police friends. Mary Hocking explores the relationships between her characters with some precision as the tension surrounding Raoul increases.  

“There was a growing friction between them. They strolled across to the bench and sat beneath the plane tree, not speaking, watching as lights went on in the front rooms of the hotel. James remembered that only a few hours ago he had told himself that he could leave Barcelona with an easy conscience. He had not met Raoul then. The light from a street lamp slanted across the thin face of the man beside him and James noticed for the first time the faint white scar that ran from cheekbone to jaw. Was it the scar or the effect of the lamplight, yellow and unhealthy, that roused uneasy fancies, that made his face, neither young nor old, seem as though a blight had fallen on it, destroying youth while denying maturity?”

I enjoyed this early Hocking novel which has a good sense of place and slowly increasing sense of things not being quite right. It reminded me most of her first novel A Winter City.

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The Bright Day Mary Hocking’s 1975 novel does have a very seventies feel to it. The sense of time and place is always strong in a Mary Hocking novel, and I so enjoy a seaside setting!

“…the bright day is done
And we are for the dark”

The place is Scotney – the fictional seaside town in the South East of England, a typical seaside town ripe for redevelopment that butts up against marshes and the Sussex Downs.

“The river twisted through a flat valley with the Downs rising on either side. The valley was treeless and rather drab with pylons striding across it. There were one or two herds of cattle. The only sign of human occupation was an old cottage standing beside what had once been a railway halt. It was a melancholy place, a half-way house between dream and nightmare; it had an attraction for Hannah which she could not define, except to say ‘it speaks to my subconscious.’ Whenever she came to Picton’s Quay, she made a point of visiting the cottage; it was more than a habit, it was a ritual and if she didn’t perform it she felt uneasy.”

A local election has returned Neil Moray as an independent member of Parliament for Scotney. On the night of the election, William Lomax; editor of the town’s newspaper receives a visit from the estranged wife of Moray’s main opponent. She has a tale to tell about Moray’s campaign manager Rodney Cope – which is suggestive of underhand dealings. Mrs Ormerod is known to drink rather heavily, suspected of being rather irrational – Lomax treats her story with little interest initially. However, Lomax’s journalistic interest has been spiked. He starts to wonder.

A great deal has been made of Neil Moray’s personal integrity – his determination to clean up Scotney – and Lomax can’t help but sense there is a story there somewhere. The West Front re-development is a big talking point in Scotney and naturally formed a big part of both Ormerod and Moray’s campaigns. Two very different businessmen have plans for the development, neither of them exactly squeaky clean. One of these men, Mario Vicente is a larger than life Italian, owner of several local restaurants, but who wants to retain the character of the development of the town. The other man, Heffernan sits at the helm of a big company, his plans for the town will change it out of all proportion. So, while Neil worries he may have shown too much bias toward Heffernan over Mario – Lomax wonders whether Rodney Cope could have been just a little too self-serving in his dealings before the election.

Hannah is Neil Moray’s secretary – he takes her for granted – and the scales have started to fall from Hannah’s eyes already. Hannah takes walks past an old abandoned cottage on the marshes outside the town, one day spotting two people who really shouldn’t be there. She spends time ruminating on her family’s disapproval of the choices she has made. They don’t think much of Scotney, would prefer Hannah to just get married. Hannah thinks Scotney has life – and has thrown her lot in with Moray to prove it – living in a small flat above a lock up garage near to the seafront. Now with the election over and won, the only thanks she gets from Neil is a half-hearted bunch of flowers – bought at the last minute – it really doesn’t feel like quite enough to Hannah.

Then, Mrs Ormerod is found dead. Rodney Cope – a nasty, self-serving man if ever there was one – continues along his own path, shrugging off any suggestion of scandal or corruption. Seemingly able to charm everyone around him, with his peculiar fascination. Hannah and Neil begin to look at Cope anew – exhausted after an election campaign but with so much still to do – they begin to recognise there is an enemy much closer to home. Neil begins to see there are more challenges ahead for him than perhaps he had first realised. Distracted, uncomfortable about his campaign manager and the promises his campaign might have made about the development, Neil seems ill-equipped to meet them.

“This disorientated feeling had been even worse this morning. The heat didn’t agree with him. It was still very warm now. Everywhere, windows were open and music blared into the streets; people spilled out of pubs and stood drinking and laughing on the pavements. A young couple strolled in front of him, the tips of their fingers touching; this roused more erotic sensations in him than if they had been mauling each other. The girl wore a long brown dress which looked dowdy and old fashioned. Moray didn’t like brown.”

Lomax steps up his investigation into Cope’s affiliations, putting himself into unexpected danger.

As the summer season gets under way and the weather hots up, holiday makers queue for donkey rides and troupe down to the beach. Meanwhile the scene is set for a dramatic standoff, police sharp shooters gather in a street outside a first-floor office, with TV cameras ready to capture every move.

This isn’t the first Hocking novel I have read that has such a dramatic ending – proving once again that she is a really versatile writer. Where Hocking’s strength lies for me has always been in her exploration of her characters’ psychologies – here beautifully capturing both naïve, and self-serving personalities. She is also adept at making the absurd both plausible and realistic. In The Bright Day small seaside town politics, corruption and journalism make for a compelling story.

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It does seem to be a while since I read anything by Mary Hocking, (I read He Who Plays the King in February – but this novel is very different to that). This book is one of two or three editions I have, that appear to have been signed by the author – this 1975 hardback edition inscribed to Brian and Judith with my love Mary June 1975. I can’t help but wonder who Brian and Judith were? And upon what occasion were they presented with the book. I’m nosy – when it comes to things like that – I’m imagining a 1970s dinner party complete with fondue.


There are several conflicts at the centre of Mary Hocking’s 1964 novel The Sparrow. Conflicts of family, community, and the personal conflict that sometimes exists between the devotion to a cause and personal obligations. Mary Hocking is very good at weaving together the complexities of lives lived by fairly ordinary people.


“He was not in jail. The thought gave him no satisfaction as he mounted the chancel steps and turned to face the congregation. In fact, he felt rather more martyred here in St. Gabriel’s than he would have done had he been condemned to spend the morning at Cannon Row police station.”

Hocking stands back from her characters with a cool apraising eye – it’s a style not all readers love perhaps, but is one adopted by many exceptional writers like Elizabeth Taylor. I have written quite a lot of posts about Mary Hocking over the last three or four years so I shall resist the urge to go into a lengthy introduction about her – though I am aware that there will some newer readers who do not know who she is. For those wanting to know more there are plenty of old posts that you can explore.

Back to the novel itself.

Ralph Kimberley is a London vicar, an active supporter for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament he has already been on several high profile demonstrations. Now Ralph – and some of his activist friends long to get arrested, as if only that can properly demonstrate their commitment to the cause. Ralph is a good man, though fails to properly realise the effect his political activism is beginning to have on his family and his parish.

“Now he did look at the clock. Just after six. But there was something the clock did not tell him. This was Saturday: the Saturday. The morning sweetness had not been entirely illusory, after all. In the breathless calm of the house he could prepare himself, undisturbed by other claims and demands, for the day’s burden, this enterprise so far removed from the narrow routine of his life; it was more like a promise of fulfilment. He still believed in fulfilment in spite of all the small frustrations.”

At home Ralph’s wife Myra feels neglected and unloved. The couple have no children of their own though Myra’s recently orphaned niece Sarah (around ten) is living with them, and Ralph’s grown up niece Jill – accompanies him on his demonstrations. Naturally, Sarah is feeling unwanted and rather lost – she is not the most appealing child – (though I really liked her) – she is desperately sad in her loneliness. There’s certainly a feeling that the adults don’t have a clue what might be going on in her head.

“Aunt Myra who usually hated doors to be slammed, looked up from the stove but made no complaint. After breakfast, she said to Sarah: ‘Run along and play with Sukie.’
The day when her parents went off in the car, her mother had said: ‘Run along and play with Nancy, there’s a good girl.’
‘I don’t want to play!’ Sarah said vehemently to Aunt Myra, ‘I want to stay here.’”

I found Sarah a brilliant creation, she is sometimes quite unkind, obsessed with the impending death of her friend Joanna – she takes quite violently against Keith Wilson, who comes to stay with Ralph and Myra.

Ralph has taken Keith under his wing, he is a young man recently released from prison – and Ralph is keen to give Keith the opportunity to put his life back together. Keith is rather prone to bitterness, angry with the way society now sees him. Not everyone in the parish knows about Keith’s conviction, and the verger, Spencer is jealous and suspicious of Keith, while the church warden is irritated at his vicar’s distractions. Ralph recklessly puts Keith in charge of the youth club – which inevitably lead to confrontations and recriminations. With Ralph so often absent – Myra feels inappropriately drawn to Keith – but Keith is more interested in Jill. Though there are elements of their relationship I wasn’t especially comfortable with – and I am sure that is intentional.

Ralph needs to acknowledge that obligations to is family and parish must begin to take precedence and the time comes when Ralph must no longer seek the role of martyr but accept a new start for himself as various conflicts are brought to a head.

The Sparrow is an excellent early Hocking, intelligent and at times dramatic, it kept me wonderful company during a very slow reading week. This might now be one of my favourite Hocking novels.

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The more I read of Mary Hocking’s novels, the less I seem able to define her as a writer – there are depths to her writing that go beyond some of her more popular, best known works.

He Who Plays the King was apparently Mary Hocking’s favourite novel, it is also her only fully historical novel. The novel is really rather different from other works, although I could see several familiar themes threaded through her take on the Henry Tudor/Richard III story. Heavily rooted – as Hocking’s novels so often are – in the British countryside, she also explores the psychology of these fascinating historical characters. It has been a while since I read what I think of as a ‘kings and queens novel’ – as this one is quite brilliant, utterly absorbing, it is a historically detailed page turner. It is also beautifully written; the writing could well be amongst Mary Hocking’s best. The opening sentences captivated me immediately.

“A formation of starlings; the first squadron of the evening. Bats flicker under huge elms. The long line of hills, veined with gullies where dark rivers foam, is now reduced to uniform blackness, and the valley is a desolate sea of grass in which there are strange flickerings of light where water lies in patches of bog. A landscape difficult to set in time; this scene can have changed little in hundreds of years: England on a peaceful autumn night.”

The novel opens with the future Richard lll as a young boy, seven years old in a room above the great hall in Ludlow castle, listening to the voices of adults below. Later peering out a window in the company of his brother George (the later Duke of Clarence). Richard witnesses a younger child – little more than a toddler knocked down in the yard by one of the boarhounds, the other child is Henry Tudor. The young Richard has no idea that, that small child will one day seek to take the throne from him in battle.

If you know your English history (as I already did), you will pretty much know what comes next. Knowing the story doesn’t spoil the compelling nature of it, I found myself thinking ‘ooh this is where Henry Vl’… or ‘this is where Clarence…’ etc. I flew through the whole thing. Mary Hocking paints an exquisite portrait of England in the fifteenth century, as well as bringing her gift of superb characterisation and storytelling to a great historical legend.

“To those who worked long hours on their lord’s fields, the idea that a change of king should bring any change in their lives would have been greeted with scorn, had any such idea reached them. But they had no time for ideas. They worked, bore children who, it seemed, one day cried on their mothers’ laps and the next were working beside them in the fields. They worked during the hours of light, in all weathers, were aware of changes of season and little else. Of the world beyond their fields, drifted away from the land and took service with one of the great lords. His world became their world, his writ was law. What the king wished or did not wish was of no account. And so it was over most of the country.”

I am not going to rehash the whole story it’s quite long, involved and complicated. Many of you may already know the story in some form – though  if you don’t, read this novel which brilliantly re-tells one of the most jaw-dropping periods in English history. It concerns a king declared mad, royal protectors a kingmaker and the machinations which follow to put Richard and George’s elder brother Edward on the throne. That of course is just the beginning – Edward becomes kind right enough and marries the young widow Elizabeth Woodville, (though the question of a pre-contract will rear its ugly head years later). Edward lV and Elizabeth become the parents of Elizabeth of York, and of course Edward V and the young duke of York, commonly called the princes in the tower. George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of York, the young King’s brothers are deeply ambitious and manipulative, their plots are breath-takingly audacious, there is always the breath of treason and betrayal on the air, family really counted for very little.

henry-tudorInterspersed with the story of Richard, is the story of Henry Tudor – who became Henry Vll – father to Henry Vlll. Henry was taken into the care of his uncle Jasper Tudor. He was of Welsh heritage, and his claim to the English throne was tenuous at best – coming through his mother – great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt. We meet him as a young boy, on a gruelling journey back to Wales, the men who have responsibility for conducting him to Pembroke Castle care little for him.

“He set out in the morning with a few trusted retainers. The Yorkist army was known to be not many miles away, so the small fugitive band kept to the hills. There was little to distinguish the four men and the child from others who straggled along the hill tracks, seeking shelter in that part of the country still held by Lancastrians. The ground was rough and at times they had to dismount and lead their horses. It was a hard journey for a grown man, severe for a child of four. He got very dirty and wet, was often hungry and always uncomfortable; but he accepted this without making undue fuss. Henry Tydder had already learnt to expect little of life.”

He meets a stranger who gives him a small stone as a gift. Henry carries it with him for many years, a kind of good luck charm. Henry spent years in exile in Brittany – before returning to England, where eventually, with conspirators to the right and the left of him, he sought to take the throne from Richard.

As for Richard and the princes in the tower (one of them was actually king though), who was it that did the dastardly deed? A novelist telling this story naturally has to come down on one side or the other, was it Richard lll? The Duke of Buckingham? Or someone else? I won’t spoil it, by telling you which theory Mary Hocking comes down on the side of, but it makes for a wonderfully tense piece of storytelling. Naturally almost everyone interested in this story has their own opinion, so you will either like Hocking’s fictional account of the murder of the Royal brothers or you won’t.

I really think this is one of Mary Hocking’s best novels. On the face of it, He Who Plays the King does seem very different to many of her novels, and yet here too she examines human behaviour, the lies we tell our self and the motivations which drive people to act as they do.

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In several Mary Hocking novels that I have read, Hocking’s concerns seem to be to explore the issue of mental health, it is one of her more serious concerns that her popular novels like the Fairly family trilogy are less representative of. The Mind Has Mountains is certainly one of Hocking’s more serious and ambitious works, set against the backdrop of extreme weather conditions and the uncertainty of county council restructuring.

Tom Norris and his wife Isobel live in a large house in a small Sussex village, Isobel stays in the village with her charity work, the WI and her garden while Tom leaves each day to do battle in the County Hall of South Sussex.

“Although it was only late September there was a rasp in the air this evening that was not entirely due to woodsmoke rising from a bonfire. Tom Norris, who had intended to go for a walk by the river, turned back at the end of the village street. There were only a few cottages in the street, most of the larger houses stood farther back at the end of cart tracks which their owners, who were not hospitable folk, had made no attempt to surface. There was no one about in the street. The bus service had been cut off several years ago and since then the village had reverted to the isolation it had known most of the years since Doomsday.”

Tom is the Assistant Education Officer for South Sussex, but now as well the usual office politics, the stresses and strains of life in local government, Tom and his colleagues are threatened by the boundaries commission, who are seeking to get rid of South Sussex county council parcelling up its various parts between the East and West Sussex.

In his spare time, Tom is a writer of children’s books, and his imagination is fuelled by the landscape around him, and the tantalising idea that the wolf could return to the hills.

In late autumn, the weather takes a turn, and soon the country is hit by some of the worst snow blizzards in living memory. Some days people can’t get to work, other days they are practically stranded. Hocking’s descriptions of landscape are always brilliant, her novels are strongly rooted in the England that she knew – whether that was War time London or the Sussex countryside of the 1990’s or county council offices of the 1970s – her world is wonderfully recognisable. She fills her canvas with some pretty odd characters, putting them in often bizarre situations – I’ve noticed this in one or two other Hocking novels – though it isn’t common to all. The Mind has Mountains in another novel which at times is slightly reminiscent of Iris Murdoch.

Norma Rossiter, head of the special schools section is wonderfully eccentric, dressed for a school visit with Tom, in a dunce’s cap and purple cloak. The two end up chasing papers around country lanes and Norma ends up sat in the middle of cows in a field while her confidential documents are scattered to the winds.

“Norma Rossiter was sitting on the bench by the front door when Tom got out of the lift. She was wearing a purple cloak with an enormous long-haired fur collar, a green dunce’s cap with a very high steeple with an orange plume, and boots and gloves of a matching green. It was the sort of outfit Marlene Dietrich could have carried off, and it required impeccable make-up. Norma’s make-up, though generous, had been hastily applied and the line of the mouth was crooked; the whole impression was of an actress who, having made a good attacking start with a part has lost her nerve midway through the action.”

County Hall is a place of grey men, it is hard to distinguish between Chief Education Officer Mather and record keeper Marsden, Phillimore – a war veteran seems stuck in the past. There are several bizarre incidents among the people who work at County Hall – which mirror the turmoil taking place within the minds of several characters – a blackout on the stairs, a peculiar strong room incident – as well as various petty squabbles and tensions.

Naturally there’s an air of uncertainty in the offices of the county council. Among this group of odd, unhappy people – each nursing their own ambitions and anxieties Tom is often seen as a calm, safe pair of hands. Tom, however is entering his own time of crisis – the lines between what is real and what is not becoming blurred and confused. He is looking for his purpose in life, trying to hold things together in meetings – while in private his mind has started to play tricks on him.

Into his office, Tom agrees to take Phoebe Huber, who has made herself mysteriously unpopular among her colleagues in her previous office. Tom’s decision to appoint Phoebe does not go down too well – and the mood at the County Hall worsens. Tom can’t help but be fascinated by Phoebe; a strangely drawn character – she has a peculiar presence and yet remains for us and for Tom oddly enigmatic. He feels sorry for her, and allows himself to get drawn into her slightly peculiar life in the village of Pendlecombe, with her cats and the memory of her aunt. Phoebe appears a meek, lank haired young woman, a little sad, unpopular, a square peg in a round hole, yet she is also oddly subversive. Tom’s world becomes more uncertain and frightening as he spends more time with her.

The Mind has Mountains is a fascinating novel, memorable and thought provoking. Some of the committee meeting sections are a little too realistically dull – though there’s some brilliant set pieces, which liven things up considerably. I have to say though, that I don’t know another writer who writes about the everyday world of local councils and government offices with the authenticity that Mary Hocking does. It was a world she knew well from the inside and it shows.

I have been talking about this book with friends on my Mary Hocking readers Facebook group – which you can find here. Some of us are planning to read He who Plays the King – Mary Hocking’s historical novel at the end of January. I am not doing a big read-a-long thing – steering clear of those – but if any Hocking fans want to join us you would be welcome.

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The latest edition of shiny new books is now available for you to enjoy. I’m sure you’re all aware by now just how good it is. This week has been Mary Hocking reading week – and so it is very appropriate that issue 9 of Shiny New Books – complete with its new look – has some Mary Hocking content too. Many of you will already be aware that Bello re-issued twelve Mary Hocking books to their print on demand and ebook catalogue at the end of February.

I was asked by our lovely friends who put Shiny New Books together to write something about Mary Hocking for their book buzz section – which I did happily. You can find it here.

Additionally I did a little bit of re-working on some of my old Mary Hocking reviews for shiny. Pop over to SNB where you can find reviews of the three books which make up the Fairley family trilogy.









As Mary Hocking week begins to draw to a close – I know lots of friends on Librarything and a Facebook group for Mary Hocking Readers have been enjoying a variety of Mary Hocking novels. Many of these people don’t blog – although I know of some bloggers reading Mary Hocking this week too.

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My second read for Mary Hocking reading week was Checkmate first published in 1969. A novel with fascinating complex characters, mystery and a superb sense of place I was gripped by it immediately. Several of Mary Hocking’s later novels explore issues of mental illness – and in the portrayal of one particularly disturbing character in Checkmate – we see what can result from years of jealously, fear and disappointment.

“The wind raided the French windows. There was something imperious about it, as though someone was demanding entry and would not be long denied. Catherine sat very straight in the middle of the couch; her head was still as though held in a vice, but her eyes looked round the room, expecting something to happen, hoping to forestall it. She looked at the antimacassar on the back of the winged armchair; it was a fine example of tatting and had a swan as centrepiece. She had never examined it carefully before, although it was so familiar; the swan had an exceedingly long neck, she was not sure whether it had always been as long as that. She switched her gaze sharply to the mantelpiece. Sure enough, the heavy serpentine clock had moved nearer to the edge. The wind buffeted the windows in a surge of frustration. Catherine looked at the angel which swirled above the clock, the angel was blowing a trumpet the end of which had been broken off. She was not sure how long the trumpet had been broken. Grit fell in the hearth and a little soot puffed into the room. She clenched her hands; they should have had the chimney bricked up long ago. Then, behind her, something clattered down.”

Polwithian, Cornwall is the setting for this complex, romantic thriller – a village where strangers stand out a mile. Huddled along a muddy estuary, it is well off the tourist tack. The Jory family have been living on their farm – which stands apart from the rest of the village – for decades. A strange, reserved family – they keep themselves to themselves. Silas Jory isn’t a farmer however – he’s a solicitor’s clerk – and twenty years earlier he had shocked the community when he returned from the war with a Syrian wife.

“In 1948 Melita Jory ran away with a stranger and was not heard of again. Her mother-in-law went into mourning. Rhoda Penryn said that she did this because she liked black; it was certain she had never liked Melita.”

It is eighteen years since Melita went away; leaving her young daughter Anna behind, Anna a young woman now, still lives at the farm, which has no electricity – with her father, grandmother and Catherine, her father’s troubled cousin.
As the novel opens a stranger arrives in Polwithian – with questions about the Jory’s and Melita in particular. His presence serves to rake up old stories, unearthing secrets and rousing passions, jealousies and violence.

checkmateGabriel – the minister’s awkward son is friends with Anna Jory – they walk together while Gabriel tells her about the birds he sees. Gabriel; an unhappy young boy is not impressed with the stranger – his only welcome is to push him into the wall of the jetty, telling him sharply to leave. Gabriel Harkness will later watch jealously as Anna and the stranger begin to draw closer. Who is this man? Richard Oliver – at first he claims to be representing lawyers acting for Melita’s family.
As Richard begins to become a more familiar figure in the village, the locals start to ask questions about what happened to Melita. Did she go away with someone – or did she leave on her own? Rhoda finds it hard to believe that Melita would have left Anna – convinced she would have returned for her child had she been able. Rumour about Mr Harkness – the minister rise to the surface again – he’d been instructing Melita in Christianity at the time she disappeared. Is Richard’s interest in Anna entirely appropriate?

“The birds no longer had the scene to themselves. A girls was sitting on the rock that jutted furthest out; she sat with her legs curled under her body, contemplating the sea, as much in her element as the oystercatcher on the adjacent rock. She came often, probably every morning, he was sure of that; she was so much a part of the scene. He wondered how she had got there. While he was thinking about this he realised that he was in no doubt about her identity. How she had got there might be a mystery, but he was quite certain whence she had come. He found himself unexpectedly moved by this knowledge. She had been so completely overlooked: they had spoked of Silas, of old Mrs Jory and Catherine, reluctantly they had remembered Melita, nut no one had thought to mention Anna Jory.”

Memories of Melita haunt Silas – and Catherine’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic as Richard manages to manoeuvre his way into staying at the Jory farm – where everyone goes to bed at eight o’clock and the nights are very long and dark.

There is tension and mystery in this novel, it reminded me a little of Look stranger – another Mary Hocking novel which portrays a community living somewhat apart from the rest of society. The reader is not certain who to trust in this novel – relationships are complex – often uncomfortable. Mary Hocking reading week

Richard Oliver – the stranger – as often strangers do in literature – brings change to this quiet community. Eighteen years of memories and suspicions are brought to the surface, before the truths are finally revealed. There is both subtlety and tension in this novel which make it a really good page turner.

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Welcome to Mary Hocking week. During the next week I hope some of us can celebrate the work of Mary Hocking who died too soon to see her work being made available again.

Mary Hocking reading weekI am fortunate to own – in a variety of old paperback and hardback editions – all but one of Mary Hocking’s novels. Most of them are ex-library editions, two are first editions, and two are signed. The only one I didn’t have (but will continue to search for) is Visitors to the Crescent. Therefore it was that one I immediately purchased for my kindle upon the release of the first twelve Mary Hocking books to the catalogue of Bello books print on demand and ebooks. ( I have since purchased a few others – in case I decide to read them on kindle instead – other people do this sort of thing too don’t they?).

I have come to realise that not all Mary Hocking novels can be neatly pigeon-holed – although having read a large number there are characteristics I recognise. I am glad about this – a new Mary Hocking is always something of a discovery, thankfully she was fairly prolific. (I still have eight Mary Hocking to look forward to – what will I do when they’ve all been read?).

Visitors to the Crescent is a psychological thriller, and spy story with a difference – though presented with all the deftness of excellent characterisation, that I have come to expect from Mary Hocking. One of the lovely things I always find with Mary Hocking’s writing is that the reader always knows exactly where they are – whether that be Wartime London, the Sussex countryside of the 1990’s or an Iron curtain country during the Cold War. Visitors to the Crescent takes place in a small area of London some years after the Second World War, (I assumed about a decade). Visitors to the Crescent was Mary Hocking’s second published novel – and it seems as if her first two novels and another novel published in 1967 have an espionage theme which many readers might not expect from Mary Hocking.

“It was on a rather tremulous spring evening in April that the visitors first appeared in Cedar Crescent. Park Road East was a hustle of late-night shoppers, stamping cabbage leaves and brown paper into grimy pavements, trailing sawdust from butchers’ shops. Impatient drivers thumped horns in protest at the sluggish progress to the main Holland Park Avenue. Outside the cluttered antique shop, a man was dismantling a fruit stall, watched by an expectant dog and a couple of small children who were waiting an opportunity to steal apples. Park Road East was stridently alive; it would not be surprised at anything that might happen to it.

But Cedar Crescent was a different matter altogether. Here, life had stopped a long time ago. The road tunnelled off Park Road East, dark, quiet, stretching dustily and unromantically into another century. In spite of its name, it was quite straight and there were no trees, only the squat electric lamps which were of a very old design and gave a dim yellow light which created a permanent impression of fog. The tall, terraced houses had lost even the memory of their dignity; flights of stone steps led to open doors revealing halls with flaking wallpaper and giving out an odour suggestive of damp and decay. Many of the windows were uncurtained”

On the corner of Cedar Crescent close to Holland Park Road, a small antique shop is burgled. The burglary brings a surprising amount of police attention to the owners of the shop, Edward Saneck and George Vickers. Two senior policemen arrive in the crescent asking questions about Saneck (a Polish refugee) and his partner, they quickly link the burglary to a late night hit and run accident not far away. Only, what are two senior policemen from Scotland Yard doing concerning themselves with two such routine incidents? Both Saneck and Vickers seem wary of the police interest in them and their business.”

In the flat above the antique shop two very different women, inevitably become drawn into events surrounding the burglary. Jessica Holt is a shy children’s author, still recovering from having nursed her dying father. Jessica is conducting a relationship with Saneck, a man who left his wife and child behind him in his flight from Europe. Troublesome Paddy – younger, irreverent, suspicious of authority rents a room from Jessica, she spends her time with a bunch of unpleasant characters – one of whom is George Vickers. Jessica’s relationship with Saneck is fragile, each them seem lonely in need of the other, although we see little real affection between them. The relationships between Hocking’s characters – in all her novels – are generally complex – here Paddy seems destined for self-destruction, while Jessica seems lost.

When Jessica decides to have a little snoop around the antique shop – she scares herself silly blundering around the shop in the dark, but before leaving she does witness George Vickers hidden in the back – and what she sees frightens her even more. Jessica is one of several characters who need to work out where their loyalties and responsibilities lie. Jessica’s solicitor brother – a cold fish if ever there was – is horrified at his sister’s involvement with a case being investigated by Scotland Yard – he thinks she should disappear on holiday until it’s all over.

“As she stood in the dark, shrouded hall she could hear the noise of the party. She had never realized before how alien these people were to her. Vickers and Ames, in particular, jarred on her nerves. They must carry on their grotesque charade without her. She went to the front door and opened it. The night air flicked her face. She sat down on the step, leant against the door-post, and closed her eyes. She could hear the sounds of the city very clearly: a late-night bus cruising leisurely and unhindered down Park Road East, the pneumatic barrage of a scooter, jazz music played very loud in a house somewhere at the back, the rumble of an underground train away in the Shepherd’s Bush direction, hidden laughter nearby followed by the soft scamper of feet and a gently scolding West Indian voice calling to a child to come in. She was aware, as she had not been aware for a very long time, of the sounds of London all around her. She wondered why she had ever thought the Crescent so peaceful.”

Although I don’t think this is Mary Hocking’s best novel – it is still very good, definitely worth reading and with a lot to recommend it and as well written as ever. What Mary Hocking does do particularly well in this novel is to evoke an atmosphere of threat, the fear and uncertainty is palpable. I also like how Hocking seems to acknowledge the grey areas that exist in life – people aren’t always just good or bad – even when they do bad things – life, and the motivations of all people are more complex than that.

Mary hocking typing

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Virginia woolf2We do love our challenges don’t we – but it simply isn’t possible to join in everything. My #Woolfalong will continue all year of course with people dropping in and out as suits them. The first phase has a couple of weeks to go – and I have enjoyed it enormously. Lots of people using the hashtag and joining in the conversation on Twitter – long may it continue. I have a separate page on my blog with details of the schedule – and will post a short round up/discussion post toward the end of each two month period.

There are though, a couple of other reading events coming up that I really want to join in with – most of you will probably know about them already.

In March Cathy at 742 books is co-hosting Reading Ireland Month,( also known as #Begorrathon16) when I stopped to think about it – I have two Anne Enright, a William Trevor two Elizabeth Bowen and several Molly Keane books tbr – whether or not I manage to read more than one remains to be seen. You can read more about the event over on Cathy’s blog and that of her co-host Raging Fluff. readingirelandmonth

Last year Simon and Karen brought us the 1924 club – what a fabulous idea – to have people reading a variety of books all first published in 1924. In April this year we will have the 1938 club. I know I have at least two books from that year tbr – as well as a number of books from 1938 I could re-read. The 1938 club will take place from 11th – 17th April – the week following my own next reading event.1938club

At the risk of boring you all senseless about Mary Hocking, having posted a Mary Hocking review just a couple of days ago – I wanted to give you a bit of warning about the next Mary Hocking reading week. For the last two years, my Mary Hocking reading event was in June, June had no significance at all it was just a month I plumped for. However I didn’t feel June was the best fit this year – Bello are bringing out twelve Mary Hocking books in a couple of weeks’ time, and Mary’s birthday was April 8th.

Mary Hocking reading week

So I have decided to have Mary Hocking reading week April 3rd – 9th. Now for those of you joining in Karen and Simon’s 1938 (April 11th-17th) it might be a bit of a squeeze – but I know lots of you voracious readers out there will manage both – I certainly intend to. Perhaps those of you who haven’t been able to join in with reading Mary Hocking week in the past will be able to take advantage of the lovely new Bello editions available as print on demand editions or as ebooks, the ebooks especially good value.

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First published in 1961 The Winter City was Mary Hocking’s first novel. This will be one of the novels available from Bello books at the end of February.

Set in an unnamed Iron Curtain country the action taking place in the week leading up to the outbreak of revolution against the communist government. As I have come to expect from Mary Hocking this novel – like those she wrote later – is very much rooted in time and place. The atmosphere of a grey, bitter chill with a gradually rising tension among the British and foreign community living in the capital city, those attached to the embassy and the journalists who are meant to be reporting on the situation for their newspapers.

“On the east side of the river, narrow cobbled streets ran up towards the centre of the city. It was still, as though the pulse of the city had been crushed. Scraps of washing hanging along the stone walls were hard as iron, and a jagged crust of ice stood out like broken glass around the rim of a pump. In Government Square, the flag above the City Hall was furled in stiff folds, and along the broad avenues the trees stood stark and brittle, rigid in the grip of a frost that had killed their roots.”

Thirty five year old widow Helen Jenner works alongside and shares a flat with twenty year old Canadian Kate Blanchard. Kate has become infatuated with Doyle Lawrence, an Irish Journalist. Doyle is secretive, unreliable and irresponsible, boastful of past adventures, hard drinking; he doesn’t appear to be writing much at the moment. Having become secretly involved with the revolutionary movement – he has been indiscreet enough to hint at his activities to Kate. Helen has concerns – as she sees Kate skipping happily around their apartment trying to squeeze herself into a sophisticated black dress to impress Doyle, she tentatively tries to warn the younger girl. Doyle meanwhile is making late night visits to a farmhouse, where revolutionaries Karel and his wife live.

Paul Daniels; another journalist has been drawing closer to Helen; he is a friend of Doyle’s though someone far more responsible, carefully watching the hourly changing situation. Paul knew the country years earlier, since when he has studied it, written about it and now is anxious to help – in whichever way he can.

“ ’But what can you do? Already her control was beginning to slip. ‘What can any of us do? We are helpless surely?’
‘But doesn’t the man who stands by, equally helpless, at a lynching make the same plea? Yet he still cannot escape the consequence, which is that his own freedom has been impaired.’
‘But that is something which happens in his own country, among his own people,’ she cried. ‘This is not your country, you have no responsibility here,’
‘No, No, no!’ They were shouting at one another now. ‘It’s not as simple as that. I am, after all, of the human race and I can’t stand by and watch a major convulsion without being touched, simply shrugging my shoulders and saying “It’s all very sad, but I am not responsible.” You ask me why I am moved by events here; but what astonishes me is that anyone should be unmoved.’ “

Lady Rosamund Hilton her husband Sir Edward and Marshall Pickard are three of the key figures of the foreign community, along with Jean Dulac a French journalist and Dr. Van Hals – who lives in the apartment above Helen and Kate. Pickard idolises Lady Hilton, she a graceful English beauty, married to a man she doesn’t love. In the past Rosamund had an affair with Doyle, it’s the worst kept secret in the city. Kate’s youthful certainty doesn’t see Rosamund as a threat – more as ancient history – but perhaps all is not entirely over between them. As much as he adores Rosamund, Pickard despises Doyle, and so when he witnesses a tender moment between the two, Pickard can’t help but want his revenge.

Over the course of the week the political situation worsens, revolution is in the air – and on the street corners and in the cafes people whisper the name Matthias. When revolution finally comes to the city – both Paul and Doyle drawing on what courage they have, must make some difficult decisions.

Mary Hocking concerns herself with those age old conflicts between our personal responsibility to others in our lives – and concerns and responsibilities for wider, social issues. As always Mary Hocking portrays complexities and fragilities in human relationships which exist for people, no matter what wider circumstances they find themselves in.

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