Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction reading’



Translated by Tina Nunnally

I have to admit to not having heard of Tove Ditlevsen until this book came into my life, which happened quite by chance. I was putting together a prize for the bookcrossing event I have just attended. It was a prize of translated works, and a friend passed on a copy of this book which had already been registered on bookcrossing. I decided I wanted to read it myself, and as I wasn’t sure I would finish it in time, I went in search of another copy. I was fortunate to find one, so my original edition went into the prize bundle as intended.

“In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.”

Tove Ditlevsen was a prolific Danish poet and author, writing poetry, novels, short stories and works of memoir. Born in 1917, she grew up in a working-class neighbourhood of Copenhagen and her childhood became very important throughout her work. Early Spring is a memoir of her childhood, and in it we can see the touch of a poet. This volume contains the first two of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, Childhood and Youth, both published in 1967, the third volume Gift (not included here) came out in 1971.

“Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own. It’s there all the time and everyone can see it just as clearly as you can see Pretty Ludvig’s harelip.”

Written in a straight forward, no nonsense style, shot through with beautiful descriptive passages and humour – Early Spring faithfully recreates the sights and sounds of Tove Ditlevsen’s 1930s childhood environment. Her community is a tough, conventional working class one where childhood ends with the confirmation ceremony. After which the adult world beckons, with many girls engaged or married in their late teens. The subject of childhood is a recurring one, Tove thinks about that thing that is her childhood constantly, speaking as if she were still in the midst of those turbulent years – it is easy to forget that she was writing from a distance of some years. Young Tove is confounded by her childhood years but she also treasures her childhood, knowing it to be a privilege and fearing the end of it, and the world which may lay beyond. Tove makes friends with the girl from downstairs, two years younger and with a nicer family, she is a little bit of relief in Tove’s loneliness. Life and death surround her – she witnesses the death of her aunt, begins to see the differences between her family and those of the other children at school. As we all do, Tove begins to understand the world around her.

“I always think that when I’m grown up my mother will finally like me the way she likes Edvin now. Because my childhood irritates her just as much as it irritates me, and we are only happy together whenever she suddenly forgets about its existence.”

Tove grew up in a home where she was a lonely, clumsy child. She had an elder brother – who was the more favoured of the two siblings. The family were poor, and there was little in the way of joy or excitement in Tove’s life. Yet, she had the soul of a poet, a rich imagination, and an unflagging determination to be who she knew she could be and achieve the things she wanted to. In the privacy of her room, young Tove began to write her poetry, scribbling them down in her private poetry album and hiding it away. For Tove, the idea of writing was her one chance to escape the narrow confines of her family and community.

Few of the people in Tove’s life appreciate or understand what she is trying to do, they dismiss or ridicule her poetry writing, but Tove is never swayed. In time, boyfriends begin to rear their heads, and Tove must face the traditional end of childhood. Her mother arranges for her to start work as a mother’s help straight away – but she only lasts a day. All the time she writes, showing her poems to just a trusted few, and hanging on to every word of their praise – clinging to each last bit of hope of future publication.

We watch Tove grow and develop into a young woman who never loses the hope that has slowly built up in her over her first eighteen years of life.

“Istedgade is my childhood street – it’s rhythm will always pound in my blood and its voice will always reach me and be the same as in those distant times when we swore to be true to each other. It’s always warm and light, festive and exciting, and it envelops me completely, as if it were created to satisfy my personal need for self-expression.”

Early Spring is a delightful little memoir full of hope and courage it is poignant and compelling at the same time. We know of course, that Tove Ditlevsen survived the poverty and isolation of her childhood and became the writer she dreamed of. To see where and how it began is quite lovely.


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dear austen

“…I cannot feel what I long to feel: the contentment of you being within reach.”

In May 2002 a passenger train crashed into the station at Potter’s Bar in Hertfordshire. Seven people were killed, and many, many more injured. One of those killed was Austen Kark, the husband of novelist Nina Bawden. The couple; in their seventies, had been on their way to Cambridge for an eightieth birthday party. Having treated themselves to the small indulgence of a first-class ticket, the train left London at 12.45, they were surrounded by newspapers, smiling at one another across the carriage, as the train came off the tracks at Potter’s Bar, Nina never saw Austen again. They had been married for forty-eight years.

“…someone spoke to me from a great distance, the far end of a dark, hollow tunnel. You have been in a train crash. Austen is dead. It was a bad dream. I thought, wake up, you fool, that’ll stop it.”

Dear Austen is the letter Nina wrote to her beloved husband, telling him of everything that happened at the time of the crash – and later. She talks about her painful, long recovery, although she doesn’t dwell for long on her physical problems, one of those stalwart women who don’t feel it necessary to bore others with her stories of ill health. After leaving hospital though, she finds things are changed – a bit nervous in the house, her daughter moves in for a while, and later a Canadian lodger – Nina likes to hear the sounds of another person in the house.

Nina Bawden reflects on her life with Austen, their happy retirement in their apartment in Greece. More than anything she misses him, has so much she wants to tell him, expects him at any moment to walk into the room. She finds herself wondering what he would think about things that had happened in the world since he had died.

“Would you have been part of the of the enormous crowd that marched against the war in Iraq as our middle daughter and your granddaughters were? As I would have had my ankle allowed me to walk that sort of distance. What would you have said, what would you have done? Would you have walked with them?”

She talks to him particularly of the fight the families of the dead and injured had to get Railtrack to accept liability for the crash. She talks about the chilling attitude of the corporate machine, the company chairmen and executives – Snakeheads she calls them – who stand up so calmly and make statements that mean so little. (*disclaimer* I may, from now on adopt the term Snakeheads for all executive/corporate types).

As always with these kinds of disasters there were obvious errors, chances missed to avert the disaster to come. Families, going through the worst moments of their lives are left wondering who is to blame, made to feel guilty if the word compensation is even mentioned – and some told that because a loved one had been elderly and no longer contributing to the economy, their lose is worth less in purely monetary terms. It takes too long for Railtrack to accept liability, and Nina ends her letter in 2005, she couldn’t have known what would come next or how long the legalities would drag on. I found a Telegraph article which sets out the events chronologically, and the list ends in 2011 when Network Rail are fined £3 million. I find that time scale an act of cruelty.

Nina talks movingly of the other families, the people who were killed, and the families they left behind – who she gets to know through various meetings and memorials. There is the mother of the Ph.D. student who was killed, the widow left with four children the families of the Taiwanese girls whose ashes had been returned to their country in an unmarked box.

Nina Bawden reveals the shocking unaccountability of the large corporation. She writes in a deceptively simple style, but quite touchingly beautiful, and her meaning is always clear. She doesn’t descend to shrieking outrage – she is subtler than that – and this book is better and more poignant for it.

“It seems like a dream now, our life together. I try to remember specific occasions: meeting you on Hungerford Bridge in the early days when we were still married to other people, seeing you waving to me from a distance, then breaking into a run.”

Nina Bawden’s sadness is palpable, her sense of wrong done – not just to her, but to all the families is strong. But through it all we see a woman living with her grief.

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the war on women

The War on Women was chosen by my very small book group, as our July read, we met last Wednesday to discuss it.

As one of Britain’s first video journalists Sue Lloyd-Roberts travelled the world telling stories of people from some of the world’s most dangerous and inhospitable locations. In this book she tells the uncompromising stories of many of the women she met. Sue Lloyd-Roberts was clearly a good, dedicated journalist, and this book was a labour of love for her, but sadly, Sue Lloyd-Roberts died of cancer before she could complete the book. Her daughter; Sarah Morris who also writes about her mother in a wonderful introduction – was able to complete the final chapter from notes she left behind.

The result is a searingly honest picture of the lives of women who have no say in their own destinies. It’s a pretty hopeless picture all in all and frequently horrifying. There are a couple of exceptions. The book is subtitled; and the brave ones who fight back – yet there seems few of those – I had expected more stories of women getting out, making a difference. What this book shows, is few women in the situations described, are in a position to fight back. Those that do are rather overwhelmed by the task, and unlikely to succeed in any meaningful way, though any victory however small is still a victory.

Early in the book we meet Maimouna from The Gambia, tradition dictates that she is the woman responsible for female circumcision in her village. The village rely on her for what, to them, is a vitally important ritual. However, having taken over the role from her mother, Maimouna becomes convinced that what she is doing is wrong. She leaves The Gambia for England, so she doesn’t have to perform the circumcisions any longer. She represents a small change – a change which might take generations, but it is a change.

In Argentina, Sue Lloyd-Roberts met the Grandmothers of the Plazo de Mayo, the mothers of the disappeared. Women who lost their children to the regime, young men and women and their spouses rounded up by the authorities and never seen again. Many of these young women were pregnant, kept alive until their babies were born, later the babies sold to wealthy government officials. The grandmothers fight to find those missing grandchildren, they work together, celebrate every success and fully support one another. Some may never find their missing grandchildren – but while they have breath they continue. They were my unexpected heroines.

In other chapters the view is less hopeful, in fact it is generally downright depressing. Sue Lloyd-Roberts gives voice to the women swallowed up by the vile Irish laundries, their stories are of years of incarceration, slave labour and mistreatment, sexual abuse by priests, the resulting pregnancy, punished again. It is a horrific cycle – and one that was allowed to continue for generations. Of the nuns in these places she asks:

“What is it about such women who have apparently rejected close contact with men in their private lives but who are nonetheless desperate for their approval? They carry out the orders to obey religious rules laid down by men and to punish other women into submission with unquestioning zeal. Denied real power themselves, they abuse the women under their control in a desperate attempt to win praise from the men who in turn control them.”

She ventured into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where (at the time she was writing) women couldn’t drive or earn their living. She calls Saudi Arabia the world’s largest women’s prison, and it is easy to see why. Women have no right to be independent, they rely on the male members of their family for everything. Poor women trapped in their homes, wealthier women allowed to employ drivers (usually from abroad so they don’t count as men in the same way) they are driven to the huge malls, the only place outside their homes they can spend time.

In a chapter which is frequently hard to read Sue Lloyd-Roberts calls India the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Strong words. The instances of rape and murder against girls and women – most particularly in rural areas is unimaginable – the sheer scale took my breath away. Of course – I had been made aware of the problem through a couple of high profile cases, but I had, had no idea of the scale of it. In other chapters, highlighting the problem of forced marriage and honour killings, Sue Lloyd-Roberts reminds us how cultural traditions, so ingrained in some communities are still putting women’s lives at risk. The men who carry out these horrific murders, for instance, are unapologetic they are absolutely certain of their duty to carry out the unimaginable.

“Premeditated murder in Jordan carries the death penalty, except for men who kill female members of their family who have committed adultery or behaved in a way the male members of her family deem morally unacceptable.”

We meet the trafficked sex workers from Lithuania – a country whose separation from the old USSR has meant crippling poverty, with no state care, few jobs and young people desperate to get out and earn money to send home. Others are willing to manipulate that desperation, and young unworldly girls find themselves duped, enslaved and far from home. It is a desperate picture. So many things shocked me, but I really hadn’t considered how the UN peacekeeping forces in places like Bosnia had been largely responsible for the continuation of this horrendous trade.

“Where there are UN peacekeepers there are traffickers.”

Which left me wondering – who the hell are the good guys then?

This really isn’t an easy book to read. The stories are stories which really did need to be told, and here they are told with compassion and intelligence. I really can’t say I enjoyed the book, though I was compelled to read it – I was horrified much of the time I was reading.

I understand why Sue Lloyd-Roberts was so desperate to get this book written – to tell these stories and give voice to women with no voice. She has done them proud, so perhaps, the least we, who are so privileged can do, is read their stories and repeat them, but it’s tough going.

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The Persephone mini readathon seems a long time ago already, the second book I read during my own slightly longer Persephone readathon was The Carlyles at Home. This is an earlier Persephone book that I had managed to completely overlook until recently.

Written in the 1960s, it portrays the home life of writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle and his wife, during the thirty odd years they lived at Cheyne Row in Chelsea. Thea Holme; the author, wrote it while she and her husband were living in the house as custodians. She confines herself to everyday matters in the Carlyles lives, staying well away from the nature of the Carlyles marriage for example, Thomas Carlyle’s work is mentioned almost in passing. Small domestic concerns, problems with servants, home improvements and noise from neighbours. Each of the eleven chapters focus on a different aspect of the Carlyles lives at Cheyne Row.

Of the two Carlyles, it is Jane we get to know best through this book, though even she remains a little enigmatic. The house in Cheyne Row where she and her husband lived emerges as the third character in this lovely little book and those with an interest in houses will love it. The endpapers for this Persephone edition shows a detail from a Chelsea interior by Robert Tait and depicts the largest room on the ground floor of the house with Thomas and Jane in situ.

It was in 1834 that Thomas and Jane Carlyle moved into the house on Cheyne Row in Chelsea, and it wasn’t until after his wife’s death in 1866 that Thomas Carlyle left. The Carlyles had originated from Scotland, and Chelsea, though not quite so fashionable then, as it was to become, had houses that Thomas had declared to be cheap and excellent. We first encounter the couple as they await the Pickfords van, accompanied by their maid Bessie, they are obliged to eat their first meal there off the top of a box lid covered with a towel.

“But after two days of picnicking, with carpenters and bell hangers finishing their work, and pieces of furniture broken on the journey from Scotland being mended, at last the house was cleared of workmen and the floors could be swept; the carpets were laid – nailed down by Jane herself – the heavy curtains from Craigenputtock, altered to fit the London windows, were hung on their brass rods; the books were sorted and housed, and Carlyle was settled into his library on the first floor with his writing table and one of the horsehair dining chairs to start work as soon as he pleased.”

We meet the succession of maids who come to Cheyne Row to work for the Carlyles, they are a colourful bunch, and Jane seemed to have had quite a close relationship with a couple of them. There’s the maid who gives birth in the china closet, the maid who is found passed out drunk on the floor, another becomes a trusted member of the household – almost part of the family. These domestic concerns were more Jane’s remit than Thomas’s, but it seems Jane also took a good deal of responsibility for matters of finance – which must have been a bit unusual during the Victorian period. Jane was also concerned with allowing Thomas the time, space and peace in which to work.

“A cock crowing in the small hours woke him instantly: he would thump his bed in wrath, then jump up and pace the room, waiting furiously for the next crow, which would sometimes drive him out of the house, to walk about the streets till morning.”

Noise was a constant battle – Thomas Carlyle had a mania for quiet and found himself easily disturbed. Cockerels seem to have been popular in Chelsea at this time, and Thomas Carlyle was driven to distraction by their early morning cries, what with them and neighbours’ daughters who practise piano – Jane is forced to write polite notes to their Chelsea neighbours which appear to have been received in good part.


The constant search for quiet prompted at least some of the house renovations that took place during these years. Here too, Jane was generally left to superintend the dreadful upheaval while her husband would take himself off – often to Scotland – to escape the noise. One of the projects undertaken was an attic study – a room that should be completely cut off from all noise.

Aside from all these mini domestic dramas there are lots of period details about money, food and clothing. Jane is forced to go to a ball décolleté and is horrified at the thought of all that flesh on show – though finally she is rather charmed at how good she looks. Even the servants wear bustles which must be accommodated – all of which does get a bit difficult when moving around.

Jane it appears was an extremely good manager of money – she never wasted money on herself – and has to carefully instruct her husband on the mysteries of housekeeping money. Thomas Carlyle comes across as complaining and petty – a difficult man to live with I suspect. Whether this view of Jane Carlyle is a little romanticised or not I couldn’t tell as I knew nothing about her before reading this. She emerges as the stronger more capable of the two.

The Carlyles at Home is a social history of Victorian life in Chelsea but is also a wonderful introduction to an interesting and enigmatic couple, about whom people have long speculated.


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writers as readers3

This gorgeous collection was gifted to me from Virago as part of their #VMC40 celebrations, and very grateful I am to have it. Writers as Readers contains a myriad of fascinating voices, writers talking about other writers.

With an introduction by Donna Coonan; Editorial director, Virago Modern Classics, this collection is a glorious anthology of VMC introductions from the past forty years. Forty of them, naturally. Some of these essays I had read before – it was no hardship to read them again, often years after I had first encountered them, others I hadn’t, either I hadn’t read the books they discussed, or I had read earlier or later editions. Shamefully, I didn’t always used to read introductions, I would find them too spoilery, for a number of years now though, I have taken to reading introductions after the novel – a practice I should have undertaken years earlier. In her introduction, Donna Coonan explains how the Virago Modern Classics redrew the literary map, many of these works had been out of print for years, and why giving those women writers a voice was so important.

“A platform that values the female experience as equal to that of the male is crucial; storytelling is central to what it is to be human, and giving a voice to generations of important but neglected women writers benefits everyone. History is incomplete without them, and readers miss out on the pleasure of discovering their female literary heritage.”

This is a rather difficult book to review – there is so much in it that it is difficult to know what to talk about. Here, there is affection, spirited defence, and true admiration from one writer to another – some tell of their first encounters with a particular work, and the impact it had upon them and their own writing. These personal testimonials are wonderfully readable, intelligent and perceptive, as they discuss some of the greatest titles that VMC have reissued over the last forty years.

There are so many pieces I could pick out for special mention. Mark Bostridge discusses Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, how for years she has attempted again and again to write about her experiences as a VAD nurse, and the personal terrible loses she endured. It’s extraordinary success upon publication took the author by surprise. It is an extraordinary work, powerful in it’s descriptions of nursing and war, it also a book about loss, and how that loss affects a life and a writer.

Anita Desai writes with obvious affection about Rumer Godden, primarily about her novella The River – (such a glorious little book) as well as some of her other India set novels. She describes Godden’s life in India, the drab years she spent in England, before going back and shows how these experiences shaped her writing.

“…The River was born: she had discovered how to capture time, space and experience in exquisite miniature, no more than a dewdrop reflecting light.”

Zadie Smith recalls how her mother forced Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God into her fourteen-year-old hands. At fourteen Zadie hadn’t thought she wanted to read it – refusing to choose books for socio-cultural reasons. She had refused to like The Wide Sargasso Sea and The Bluest Eye. She was hooked however from the first paragraph, as I was when I read it – I was a lot older than fourteen though. Zora Neale Hurston ended her life penniless, living in obscurity. Of Hurston Zadie Smith says…

“Better to say, when I’m reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like: she is my sister and I love her.”

Hilary Mantel writes passionately about Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel – I personally only realised its utter brilliance on my second reading of it. Mantel claims that she became dangerously close to writing novels like those of Taylor’s fictional authoress Angelica Deverell. In this novel Mantel asserts, Elizabeth Taylor shows us writers as monsters. She certainly does it is a wonderful character study as well as a brilliantly compelling novel.

Elizabeth Taylor also writes her own piece – about setting the scene as a writer. She describes precisely how she came to write the setting of A View of the Harbour – one of several Taylor novels I want to re-read.

There really are far too many pieces in this collection to talk about individually – and there were so many pieces that stood out to me; Marian Keyes writing about Molly Keane, Elizabeth Bowen on Antonia White, Jilly Cooper joyfully about E M Delafield’s The Provincial Lady. There is a lot to love here – forty exceptional pieces to be precise.

As a reader, if you already know these novels then these essays are wonderful memory joggers for old favourites, reminding us why we loved these books to begin with, perhaps giving us a nudge toward re-reading them. I have also been introduced to a few books that I have yet to read, but I have so far only bought one on the strength of it. This may not be the kind of book to read straight through one piece after another after another, it can be read like that of course. I dipped in and out of it for something like three weeks, until I had read the lot. Either way, this collection becomes a wonderful resource to some of the most important voices in the VMC list.


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whateverhappenedto margo

Like so many readers before me I simply adored Gerald Durrell’s My Family and other Animals (I read it twice) – and loved one of the books that followed, for some reason never managed to get around to the third. The more recent tv series – based very loosely it has to be said on the Corfu Trilogy – has made for delightfully cosy Sunday evening TV. I remember Margo as being a pretty minor character in those wonderful books, but in that TV series she is a wonderfully exuberant character – slightly bonkers, but very warm. While watching that series I had wondered about her, whether she was anything like the young woman portrayed so wonderfully by Daisy Waterstone. So, when I saw a review of this book (first published in 1995) reviewed by Joulesbarham Northern Reader, I couldn’t help but buy it almost immediately. I had been going to add it to my wish list, but oops – and there it was a day or two later.

An enticing, though brief preface by her brother Gerald Durrell – informs us that …

“Margo displayed an appreciation of the comic side of life and an ability to observe the foibles of people and places. Like us, she is sometimes prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy, but I think this is no bad thing when it comes to telling one’s stories in an entertaining way.”
(Gerald Durrell 1994 – in his Preface to Whatever Happened to Margo)

So, yes in Whatever Happened to Margo? there is a sense of things being a little exaggerated in order to entertain, and Margaret Durrell is both charming and entertaining. For those who love Gerald Durrell best – he appears here too – as does Leslie and the long-suffering Mrs Durrell.

It was 1947, Margo a divorcee with two young sons, the Durrell family were living in suburban Bournmouth, and Margo had little idea what she would do next. It was her formidable Aunt Patience who started it all. Her aunt; anxious that Margo should do something both useful and profitable – and ladylike – suggests that Margo open a boarding house. Margo is immediately taken with the idea. The search for a suitable house begins, and ends, oddly enough where it started, at a house across the road from the Durrell family home. Margo begins to prepare her new house to receive lodgers. Aunt Patience’s idea had been a home for genteel spinsters, retired clergymen and respectable colonels – and Margo tries hard to keep in mind the kind of establishment her aunt had envisaged for her.

Needless to say, things don’t quite work out like that. Margo is destined to gather around her a collection of eccentrics and ne’er-do-wells, starting with her first boarder Edward Feather, a painter of nudes.

“My sanctuary was heading straight for trouble, before I was even established.
‘I am sorry, you cannot paint nudes all over the place,’ I was desperately apologetic, feeling that I placed myself in the category of the mundane landlady.
‘Not all over the place,’ Edward Feather assured me soothingly, giving me a fleeting look of amusement from soft hazel eyes, a coaxing gentleness creeping in to battle my feeble defences. ‘Only in one room.’”

Other lodgers soon follow, almost all of whom would be despaired of by Aunt Patience. A very loud husband and his wife – who it soon transpires is heavily pregnant. A woman and her enormous son Nelson, a boy who at first appears hideously obnoxious, but his never diminishing enthusiasm and simple joy for everything means both Margo and the reader become strangely fond of this breeder of mice. A retired nurse, two glamorous young ladies and a couple of jazz musicians move in too, and it isn’t long before the house is almost bursting at the seams. In the midst of this, Margo does find time for a little romance with one of her boarders.

At this time, Margo would have been just twenty-seven, and she shows herself to be endlessly optimistic, warm and energetic, she and her lodgers are pretty well suited to each other. Margot and her sons acquire a huge dog that relieves itself wherever it pleases, and all is nicely set for chaos as rumours that Margo is running a brothel scandalise the neighbours.

Of course, there come the inevitable visits from family, first Gerald who had been working away at a zoo somewhere appears with a python and a box of monkeys. Of course, there is an escape, and much fuss ensues. When the inevitable visit from Aunt Patience happens, Margo spends most of her time hiding the worst of her boarders from her aunt.

“ ‘Being good boys and helping your mother?’ Aunt Patience suggested lovingly. They nodded together shyly, ignoring the open sweet-scented arms waiting to engulf them. ‘And doing well at school?’ she asked brightly, dropping her outstretched arms. Two heads nodded again. Aunt Patience, working on the assumption that children can be bought, took two dim pennies out of her giant handbag and gave them one each. ‘There, darling boys, buy yourselves something nice – but not dangerous, mind,’ she added, playful as a young kitten.
There was a curious glint in both eyes as they took the small offering; I noticed it with increasing alarm.
‘Ma’s got a pansy in the house – so Uncle Leslie said,’ Gerry remarked suddenly, softening towards his aunt, examining the penny carefully for fraud.
‘A pansy, how lovely, my favourite flower,’ Aunt Patience beamed ‘That’s one thing I must say in Leslie’s favour, he’s got green fingers.’ ”

Whatever Happened to Margo is an entertaining, engaging memoir. It lacks the classic brilliance of My Family and Other Animals but is very definitely worth seeking out if you are a Durrell fan suffering withdrawal.


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Way back sometime in the 1970s – when I was a very little girl, but already in love with books I read a book called The Tree that Sat Down by Beverley Nichols. I loved every word of that little book and have remembered it ever since. I even remembered the author (as a child I thought Beverley Nichols was a woman, and it was many years before I discovered my mistake). I think we carry the books we loved as children with us somewhere – though I’m hopeless at remembering the titles of many of them now. That was pretty much my only experience of Beverley Nichols – until many years later – a few blogging friends began sharing their love of his adult books, their enthusiasm ensuring that I soon acquired some for myself.

Beverley Nichols was an enormously prolific writer – journalism, politics, autobiography and novels. Though some of his most popular works seem to have been his books of gardening and house restoration. Down the Garden Path is the first book in one of the two gardening trilogies that Nichols produced. A book about gardening restoration is not something I would usually read, but there was something very appealing about this trilogy. Having heard such wonderful things about Nichol’s warm witty writing from other readers, it seemed a good place to start. However, I think I probably have the best books still to read, as it seems some people believe the other gardening trilogy starting with Merry Hall is better than this one. Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

“I bought my cottage by sending a wireless to Timbuctoo from the Mauretania, at midnight, with a fierce storm lashing the decks.
It sounds rather vulgar, but it is true.”

In the early 1930’s Beverley Nichols was already a well-known writer – still quite a young man, he also had a passion for gardens, and it would seem, enough money to buy a cottage with large gardens in the country. This book tells the story of the garden (and cottage) he bought in Cambridgeshire. It and the two sequels which follow were illustrated by Rex Whistler – and were a huge success.

Having quite rashly bought his cottage – because of the gardens he knew came with it –Beverley hurried down to view his new house, hardly able to wait to see the garden. He is met by Arthur – a strange, oddly behaved servant who provides him with uneatable food and stays in bed all morning. The garden however, which Beverley remembered so well has been sadly neglected, and is nothing like it had been. He is devastated, but the immediately starts putting it to rights, planning how it will look, researching in detail winter flowers, so that there is always flowers in his garden. It is a labour of love.

“It was not till I experimented with seeds plucked straight from a growing plant that I had my first success…the first thrill of creation…the first taste of blood. This, surely, must be akin to the pride of paternity…indeed, many soured bachelors would wager that it must be almost as wonderful to see the first tiny crinkled leaves of one’s first plant as to see the tiny crinkled face of one’s first child.”


Nichols writes deliciously about his garden, his descriptions are glorious, his passion for his flowers is infectious. Despite not being a gardener – or even all that knowledgeable about flowers I found myself quite happily caught up in Nichol’s enthusiasm and as someone who has been known to push a few daff bulbs into my garden soil and sit in my zero-gravity chair with a cup of tea and book on a sunny day I found myself oddly able to fully appreciate the glory in the appearance of little garden miracles. Though even while he is describing the glories of nature and his simple, never ending joy in the miracle of mother-nature – he can’t resist a little cheeky humour on the side.

“The seed of a blue lupin will usually produce a blue lupin. But the seed of a blue-eyed man may produce a brown-eyed bore…especially if his wife has a taste for gigolos.”

However probably the best parts of this book are Nichol’s mischievous portraits of some of his neighbours. We never get to know these people as well as I would have liked but, he is rather funny about them all – Mrs M, Miss W, Miss X (we never learn their full names either). One of his visitor; hilariously described, an affected woman, who makes much of her apparent tininess and feminine weakness. Another neighbour, Mrs M becomes Nichols’s rival and nagging thorn in his side. She finds something to criticise in everything he does, and Beverley presumably makes himself feel better by writing about her with such scathingly sharp wit. We even meet his parents who visit him in his country home.

It is Beverley Nichols simple joy for life that is so adorable here. I am really looking forward to reading a lot by him now.

BN allways garden

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