Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction reading’


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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Chosen by my very small book group as our January read, A History of Britain in 21 Women did seem very appropriate as the first book for a feminist book group to read at the start of 2018. The year which sees the centenary of some women getting the vote. We met to discuss it on Wednesday evening (there were a jaw dropping seven of us – almost a crowd) – but more of that later.

It is worth pointing out, author Jenni Murray is clear, that this is a very personal selection. I think if you asked any group of people who would make their list they would all look very different. I fully admit I raised an eye brow at the inclusion of one or two and wondered at the exclusion of others. In reality, the book is twenty-one chapters of short biographies, there is very little from one chapter that feeds into another. Still, it does provide some fascinating information, the stories of many of these women are quite extraordinary.

The book begins with Boadicea (she insists on Boadicea rather than the more accepted Boudicca) and ends with Nicola Sturgeon. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would be writing about a book. In between we have; Elizabeth I, Aphra Behn, Caroline Herschel, Fanny Burney, Mary Wollstoncraft, Jane Austen, Mary Somerville, Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth, Constance Markievicz, Gwen John, Nancy Astor, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher and Mary Quant. There were a few names there completely new to me – others who I had fully expected to be included in a book of this kind.

There is quite a lot to like in this book, which is remarkably readable. Two of my favourite chapters were the Fanny Burney and Mary Quant chapters, which were possibly not the chapters I had expected to like most. Fanny Burney who lived to her late nineties, despite having had to endure a mastectomy for breast cancer – without anaesthetic when she was in her late fifties. Extracts from Burney’s letters to her sister about the experience are produced and make for jaw dropping reading – not for the faint hearted. I already loved Fanny Burney as a writer but to have come through that horrific, traumatising experience and live a further forty years is surely testament to her strength as a woman. Fanny, I take my metaphorical hat off to you.

“Burney’s is the first example I have come across of a woman writing so intimate an event as a diagnosis of breast cancer and mastectomy.”

Mary Quant – not someone I had considered very much before – really gave women their freedom in clothes. Suddenly, it was ok to have fun with fashion, look good and feel good, she gave women the freedom of movement. She even had a massive effect on the cosmetic industry.

“Her impact on the cosmetic industry was huge, but men working in the industry often had difficulty in following her thinking. Why, they would ask, would women need a waterproof mascara? It seems so obvious, but it was Mary who told them that women swim and sometimes they cry.”

I also loved the chapters about Aphra Behn and the suffragists Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst – women whose influence is surely still felt today.

Margaret Thatcher – love or loathe her (I do still loathe her even though she is dead) had to be included – I would have been shocked had she not had a chapter. As one of the book group members said on Wednesday night – she is a pretty hard sell. However, Jenni Murray does a good job with Maggie – and it is very obvious in several places where Murray sits politically and it’s nowhere near Thatcherism. As a journalist, Murray met Thatcher a couple of times and it is from this position that she writes about her – and the chapter is short.

“At one point in the late afternoon the crowd trying to get close to her was so pressing she was surrounded by half a dozen huge, burly policeman. I had lost my cameraman and sound recordist in the melee, but I’d managed to stay close to the leading lady. I found myself being squeezed painfully between her fans and her police protectors. A hand popped out from behind the coppers. It grabbed mine and pulled me into the circle.
‘Come along, dear,’ she smiled ‘Stay by me. We don’t want a talented young journalist to be squashed to death, do we?’

So far so good, however, I did have a few small quibbles with the book that went beyond who was in and who was out. Firstly, there is no index, and in the Elizabeth I chapter, Murray makes reference to historical novels – particularly those of Philippa Gregory, I found that rather hard to forgive. In a world of well known, popular historians, I think referencing historical novels a bit lazy. The title is perhaps a little mis-leading, perhaps a better one as my book group discussed – would have been, a history of Jenni Murray’s Britain in 21 women.

This made for a great book group discussion. As a group of seven women – we certainly couldn’t have come up with a definitive list of who should or shouldn’t have been included. We all accepted that this is a very personal selection. Overall, we each enjoyed the book on some level – and I think we were all impressed by Fanny Burney. One member was particularly excited by the scientists who were included, for her the book really got going when she got to Ada Lovelace. Writers, scientists, artists and politicians, whatever your special interest there is probably a chapter in A History of Britain in 21 Women that you would find interesting.

jenni murray

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The first of three books from the end of 2017 I still have to review – please bear with me while I catch up with myself.

I don’t read much non-fiction, I think that much is quite apparent, but Long Live Great Bardfield is the kind of non-fiction book I am most likely to read. An autobiography written in a very accessible chatty style, depicting the lives of writers (or in this case artists) living in the first half of the last century.

tG artI’ll be honest, I didn’t know the name Tirzah Garwood (though I certainly recognised her work) until Persephone books brought out this title last year. I had vaguely heard the name Eric Ravilious but couldn’t have told you anything about him, nor had I heard of the Great Bardfield artists colony. However, if you haven’t heard the name Tirzah Garwood, and you’re a Persephone fan, who has been enjoying the Persephone Quarterlies and now Biannually, you will, as I did, recognise her work. Many of the illustrations used in the Persephone magazine over several years are from the work of Tirzah Garwood. How fitting that they are now publishing her autobiography.

So, with the Christmas holidays giving me plenty of reading time – I settled in with this almost five-hundred-page autobiography and entered into the bohemian world of Tirzah Garwood and Eric Ravilious.

Born into a family of five children, Tirzah (born Eileen Lucy – Tirzah was a nickname) and her siblings were obliged to move around quite a bit with their parents. Living in Glasgow, Croydon and Eastbourne Tirzah seems to have been surrounded by a lively, loving family who supported her artistic abilities.

When she was eighteen, Tirzah went to art college in Eastbourne, where she was taught by Eric Ravilious. Over the next few years, Tirzah produced dozens of remarkable woodcuts, many of which were highly praised and displayed at the Society of wood engravers. The work she has left behind her, is I think beautiful, so intricate, yet so bold.

“I had sent some of my wood engravings to the exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers and they had been liked by the committee of which Eric was a member and The Times had given them a kind mention; this more than anything convinced my parents that they ought to let me go, though they thought my subjects hideous and the Mr Ravilious was perverting a nice girl who used to draw fairies and flowers into a stranger who rounded on them and did drawings that were only too clearly caricatures of themselves.”

All of these wood engravings were completed before she was just twenty-two years old. When she was twenty-two she married Eric Ravilious, another wood engraver, book illustrator and water colourist. Early in their marriage, the Ravilious’ went to live in Great Bardfield – a village in Essex, where a number of Ravilious’s artist friends and associates either lived or frequently visited. I really could have done with an index to help with the all the names of artists, friends and lovers. I ended up doing a lot of googling and in the beginning, struggled to remember who everyone was.

tirzahSadly, from this point Tirzah’s time was taken up with domestic matters, and although she did help Eric with some of his artistic projects (a now lost mural in a Morecombe hotel for one) Tirzah’s own art took a back seat. Being married certainly didn’t stop either Eric or Tirzah from having other love affairs, all of which seemed perfectly normal to the people around them in Great Bardfield.

In 1935 Tirzah had the first of her three children (the youngest of whom has edited this autobiography and written the preface). Those years before the Second World War, were busy for Tirzah, as she struggled with a doomed love affair with another Great Bardfield artist, and cared for her children. Despite their involvement with other people, both Eric and Tirzah were generally devoted as a couple, in their own way. It was unconventional, but it seemed to work for them. During this time Tirzah spent some time designing marbled papers which she found herself able to sell.

Eric decided to volunteer as a war artist, and so in the early years of the war was away quite a lot. Tirzah was diagnosed and operated on for breast cancer – and it was following her recovery that she began to write her autobiography in the evenings while the children were asleep. Yet, it seems that art was never far from her mind.

‘I hope, dear reader, that you may be one of my descendants, but I have only three children, my grandfather had six and as I write a German aeroplane has circled round above my head taking photographs of the damage that yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival. If you are not one of my descendants then all I ask of you is that you love the country as I do, and when you come into a room, discreetly observe its pictures and its furnishings, and sympathise with painters and craftsmen.’

Tirzah emerges as a warm, modest woman, she had a lot to deal with – especially with her health, but her writing was obviously cathartic. Her writing style is particularly engaging and provides a compelling record of an extraordinary, colourful group of artists. Long Live Great Bardfield is a fabulous autobiography, well written and hugely compelling.

tirzah garwood

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alive alive oh

Yesterday was Diana Athill’s birthday – she was one hundred years old – an age which seems quite remarkable to many of us, but which, apparently more of us will be reaching. It was a complete coincidence that I chose to read what is surprisingly not her most recent memoir, just a few days before her big day. Having received her book Stet as part of a secret Santa gift exchange between booky friends I was reminded that I had received Alive, Alive Oh! last Christmas and elected to read that one first.

Diana Athill is best known now for her memoirs and short stories, though she began her career in publishing. Working as an editor with Andre Deutsch – one of the founders of the company, through a fifty-year career she worked with some of the biggest names in literature. Her book Stet – which I received recently, is the memoir about that work, and the people she met and worked with. I am looking forward to reading that.

“My two valuable lessons are: avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness.”

Alive, Alive Oh! was published in Diana Athill’s ninety eighth year, and in this work while dipping into the past as she does in all her books, she also considers what it is like to grow old. She reflects on what it is that stays with one in memory, having already lived a very long life. Surprisingly it isn’t the things you might imagine. She has found herself recalling places visited, things once experienced are remembered with great fondness. She remembers the grounds of the family home. In beautifully descriptive prose she recalls a grandmother’s garden, a memory of place which increasingly sustains her.

(Incidentally, it is worth pointing out to anyone who has yet to read anything by Dina Athill, that her memoirs are neither written or published chronologically, so it is perfectly possible to start anywhere).

“The terrace felt more like house than garden because one stepped out onto it so easily, and after breakfast Gran used to sit on its stone steps while she brushed Lola, her poodle. It was a place for civilised behaviour, where we interacted with our grown-ups more than in most places. The urns that stood at intervals on its wall has been brought back from Italy by Gramps, and small pink roses, with a lot of heavily scented honeysuckle, clambered over the walls – on summer evenings, through the bedroom windows overlooking the terrace there used to come delicious waves of honeysuckle.”

Recalling her visits to Europe and Tobago, the friends she made – and experiences as a traveller.

In the title chapter, Diana talks honestly and quite harrowingly about the miscarriage she suffered when she was in her forties. Having decided years before that she didn’t want children – she considered a termination, she had done it before – but something changed. She describes so poignantly the enormous happiness that she experienced once she decided she would have the child. The child was the result of her affair with Jamaican poet Barry Reckford – their relationship was anything but conventional.

“Those weeks of April and May were the only ones in my life when spring was wholly, fully beautiful. All other springs carried with them regret at their passing. If I thought, ‘Today the white double cherries are at their most perfect,’ it summoned up the simultaneous awareness: ‘Tomorrow the edges of their petals will begin to turn brown.’ This time a particularly ebullient, sun-drenched spring simply existed for me. It was as though, instead of being a stationary object past which a current was flowing, I was flowing with it, in it at the same rate. It was a happiness new to me, but it felt very ancient, and complete.”

However, Diana tragically miscarried the child – described here with gut wrenching honesty, it was an event which very nearly killed her too. Finding herself alive at the end of this traumatic event, Diana realised just how much she loved being alive, how pleased she was at still being so.

In her ninety seventh year, Diana made the decision to go into a retirement home in Highgate in London. She adjusts to her new surroundings remarkably quickly. She discovers a wonderful freedom in this existence, released from the daily worries of managing her own home. She describes some gardening in the company of two nonagenarian friends, what wonderful spirit. I wish I had half their energy.

“Only three of us turned up. Elva had a hospital appointment that day and the others simply forgot, something only too likely to happen at any event in a home for old people. No one was there but nearly blind Vera, aged ninety-four, Pamela, also ninety-four, and me, three weeks before my ninety-seventh birthday…which really amounted to being just Pamela, because although she is the same age as Vera, she is slim and amazingly nimble for her age. It was Vera who said, ‘Let’s try to get one of them in, at least,’ but it could only be Pamela who got down on her knees – squelch, squelch in that sodden clay – to spread out the rose’s roots at the bottom of the hole. I then did the sprinkling of nourishing rose food, Vera did the tipping of compost out of a bucket, and Vera and I then jointly scraped clay back into the hole before hoisting Pamela to her feet (no one in this place can get up once down) so that she could tread the plant in.”

I must say the place where she lives does sound wonderful – probably a little outside the price bracket of most of us- it is lovely to think of her there, happy, cared for and I suspect still writing.

Diana Athill’s most recent book is A Florence Diary – a very slight volume in which she describes a trip to Florence by train with a friend in 1947 – it is high on my wishlist.


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