Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell

I often say this, but I can't believe it has taken me so long to get around to reading Gerald Durrell's memoir of his childhood in Corfu, My Family and Other Animals. It's been on my tbr shelves for a long time & I eventually listened to it as an audio book, so beautifully read by Nigel Davenport. It was actually Nigel Davenport who led me to the book. I'd watched the 1970s TV series, South Riding, in which he played Robert Carne. I loved it but I especially loved Davenport's voice & wondered if he's narrated any audio books. When I saw that he had read this one, I knew what I would be listening to next. So, I've spent the last few weeks listening to the adventures of the Durrell family as I drove to work, cooked & ironed.

The Durrells - Mother, Larry, Leslie, Margo & 10 year old Gerry - are suffering through a miserable winter when Larry decides that they should move to Corfu to get away from the awful English climate. The decision is no sooner made than they set off through Europe, eventually arriving on Corfu with a mountain of luggage & Gerry's dog, Roger. They are taken over almost immediately by Spiro, a giant of a man who thinks he speaks perfect English & who protects the Durrells from being robbed or taken advantage of during their stay on the island. They find a strawberry-pink villa with a bathroom (Mother's main requirement) & settle in. Larry is a writer & fills his room with books. Leslie is gun-mad, hunting anything that moves while Margo spends her time sunbathing & reading fashion magazines.

Gerry is mad on natural history & he & Roger explore the island observing & collecting the animals, mainly insects, that they come across. Unfortunately the rest of the family aren't as excited about scorpions in matchboxes as Gerry is & there are regular eruptions when his latest specimen is discovered in the fridge or the bathtub. Every so often, Mother becomes concerned about Gerry's education & employs a tutor for him, all of them lovable in varying degrees but none of them very useful as tutors. Gerry's best friend on the island is Theodore, a lovable man who is just as absorbed by natural history as he is. Every Thursday, Gerry has tea with Theo & they discuss Gerry's latest acquisitions or go on expeditions themselves to look for new animals to observe.Gerry's animals & his observations of the natural world are one of the many delights of the book. The adventures of Achilles & Cyclops the tortoises, Ulysses the owl, & especially the Magenpies (Spiro's mispronunciation of magpies) are very funny. As well as the mad adventures, there are also the quiet moments when the island truly seems a paradise.

Though I spent many days voyaging in the Bootle-Bumtrinket, and had many adventures, there was nothing to compare with that first voyage. The sea seemed bluer, more limpid and transparent, the islands seemed more remote, sun-drenched, and enchanting than ever before, and it seemed as though the life of the sea had congregated in the little bays and channels to greet me and my new boat. A hundred feet or so from an islet I shipped the oars and scrambled up to the bows, where I lay side by side with Roger, peering down through a fathom of crystal water at the sea bottom while the Bootle-Bumtrinket floated towards the shore with the placid buoyancy of a celluloid duck. As the boat's turtle-shaped shadow edged across the sea-bed, the multi-coloured, ever-moving tapestry of sea life was unfolded.

The Durrells moves from the strawberry-pink villa to a daffodil-yellow villa when Larry invites hoards of people to stay without considering where they're to stay then, later, to a snow-white villa to avoid a visit from a miserable old aunt. Mother just calmly tries to keep the peace as all she wants is for everyone to be happy. She's remarkably calm when Gerry brings yet another creature into the house or Larry, in his superior, sarcastic way, invites his literary friends to stay for indefinite periods. She calmly goes along to chaperone Margo on a date with a very unsuitable young man & seems able to cater for a large party at a moment's notice. Eventually, after five years, the family reluctantly decide to return to England for the sake of Gerry's education, & their final farewell to Corfu is incredibly poignant as the boat takes them away from this little paradise.

The success of the book is partly due to the picture of Corfu before tourism made the Greek islands so popular. To a child like Gerry, it seemed to be a paradise where he could spend whole days wandering through the olive groves & on the seashore exploring & observing. The descriptions of the natural history are fascinating but really, it's the eccentricities of the Durrell family that make it so very funny. I laughed out loud many times as I listened to stories of Larry's pomposity being squashed by the puppies Widdle & Puke destroying his room, or Margo's forlorn lovesickness over one of Gerry's tutors leading to her taking the puppies out on a boat trip that nearly ends in tears. Every time Leslie appeared with a gun, I laughed over his complete obsession with firearms over everything else. To Leslie, Corfu was just somewhere to hunt, he couldn't see the natural beauty of the place at all.

Apparently the book takes some liberties with the facts (Larry was married & living in another part of Corfu & the Durrells left because of the outbreak of war rather than for Gerry's education) but it seems the essential truth of the book was recognized, even by Larry (the writer Lawrence Durrell) who later said "This is a very wicked, very funny, and I'm afraid rather truthful book – the best argument I know for keeping thirteen-year-olds at boarding-schools and not letting them hang about the house listening in to conversations of their elders and betters." I just think it's one of the funniest books I've read in a very long time.

Naturally I'm going to find myself collecting copies of this book as I seem to collect copies of all my favourite books. I already own one paper copy & the audio book & next month, I'll have another copy as My Family and Other Animals is the new Slightly Foxed Edition & I collect those too.
There are also secondhand copies available from Anglophile Books.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

One of the most exciting recent publishing ventures for lovers of the Golden Age of crime fiction has been the British Library Crime Classics series of reprints.It's been so popular that titles are being published ahead of schedule. My copy of John Bude's Sussex Downs Mystery arrived last week although it wasn't due to be published until early next year. If I were being frivolous, I'd say it was the beautifully nostalgic cover art that's selling the series but that wouldn't be enough on its own. On the strength of the books I've read so far, it has just as much to do with the content which is a real treat for anyone who's looking for a new Golden Age mystery author.

The Cornish Coast Murder was the first of 30 books by John Bude (the pseudonym of Ernest Carpenter Elmore). It's a traditionally plotted mystery enhanced by the evocative setting & the mix of amateur & professional detectives. The story begins with the Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St Michael's-on-the-cliff, Boscawen, sitting by the fire waiting for his friend, Doctor Pendrill, to arrive for their traditional weekly dinner. Every Monday night, the two friends divide the contents of a box of library books, every one of them mysteries. On this evening, though, a phone call for Doctor Pendrill interrupts the evening. Julius Tregarthan has been found shot dead in his study.

Tregarthan's house, Greylings, is only a short distance away & the doctor & Reverend Dodd arrive on the scene to find Tregarthen's niece, Ruth, who found the body, shocked & upset. Mr & Mrs Cowper, housekeeper & odd job man, are the only servants. None of them seem to have heard anything but a thunderstorm overhead may have masked the sound of the shot or shots as three bullets have been fired, as it seems, from the cliff path outside the study window. Local constable Grouch arrives soon after followed by Inspector Bigswell from the County Police. Tregarthan seemed to have no enemies although he was a secretive man. He didn't get on well with his niece as it seemed he disapproved of her friendship with local writer & war veteran, Ronald Hardy. On the night of the murder, they had quarrelled at dinner & Ruth had left the house, returning some time later to find her uncle dead. Ruth's behaviour since the murder is evasive & suspicious but is she trying to hide something that incriminates herself or is she trying to protect someone else? When Ronald Hardy & his revolver go missing on the very same night & it emerges that Tregarthan had just confronted him about his relationship with Ruth, he becomes the number one suspect. Then there's Ned Salter, local "black sheep", who was seen arguing with Tregarthen on the day of the murder about the eviction of his family while he was in jail.

The Inspector whistled. He couldn't see the wood for the trees. Ruth Tregarthen? Ronald Hardy? Ned Salter? Which? they were all under suspicion. They all had a motive for the murder. They had all quarrelled with Tregarthan a few hours before his death. The puzzle was assuming gargantuan proportions. No sooner had the Inspector assembled a few bits to his satisfaction, when the puzzle altered shape, with all the startling inconsequence of a landscape in Alice in Wonderland.

I loved The Cornish Coast Murder. The Cornish village setting is beautifully drawn &, as it turns out, integral to the solution of the mystery. Reverend Dodd is a clever, intuitive detective who comes up with some vital insights with his practical knowledge as well as his insights into the hearts of his parishioners. I'm not sure a Police Inspector would have taken a parish priest into his confidence quite as readily as Inspector Bigswell does here but it's very well done & he certainly wouldn't have come up with the solution without him. There's plenty of routine police work too which I always enjoy reading about.

Martin Edwards has written an informative Introduction for this edition which gives some background on the writer. A series of mysteries set in the English countryside was very unusual for the 1930s when London was the setting used by most writers. We're used to mysteries set in cities, towns & villages all over the United Kingdom from Ann Cleeves' Shetlands to Edwards's own Lake District series &, of course, the murder capital of England, Midsomer, but it wasn't so common during the Golden Age. I'm so pleased to have had a chance to read John Bude & I have two more of his books on the tbr shelves.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Emily Dickinson

Back with Emily Dickinson again this week. Another spectacular poem, with its almost metaphysical imagery of the blacksmith & the forge.

Dare you see a soul at the white heat?   
  Then crouch within the door.   
Red is the fire’s common tint;   
  But when the vivid ore   
Has sated flame’s conditions,           
  Its quivering substance plays   
Without a color but the light   
  Of unanointed blaze.   
Least village boasts its blacksmith,   
  Whose anvil’s even din          
Stands symbol for the finer forge   
  That soundless tugs within,   
Refining these impatient ores   
  With hammer and with blaze,   
Until the designated light           
  Repudiate the forge.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Fig at the Gate - Kate Llewellyn

Kate Llewellyn is a poet and diarist who is best-known for her poetry & her memoirs of creating gardens in various parts of Australia. The Waterlily is probably her most famous book, about living in the Blue Mountains. I realised when A Fig at the Gate was published that I still had her previous book, Playing with Water, on the tbr shelves. I've pulled it off now though & look forward to reading it soon.

Llewellyn is now in her seventies & has moved back to Adelaide, South Australia, where she grew up. Her siblings are near by as well as friends she's known from her nursing days. She knows this climate well, & prepares to create a new garden in her house by the sea. The book is a diary, written from 2009-2012, moving through the seasons. Adelaide has experienced even hotter, dryer weather than Melbourne over the last few years so I could relate to her struggles with the climate & the failure of plants to thrive in the hot summers. I love this description of the beginning of autumn,

The first cold day and welcome, too, a feeling of zest and a sting in the air with rain in the night. The tank is half full. I knock, knock with my knuckles on the corrugated iron rings of the tank to hear where the water level makes a dull sound. ... A flock of starlings flies up from the newly mown lawn. A willie wagtail hops around in its cheerful way and a Murray magpie flutters down and then up. when pruning the apricot tree a while ago, I found a small bird's nest high up in the tree. I left the branch in case the bird uses the nest again. A sparrow flew into a dense olive tree in the front garden and, thinking it may be nesting there, I have been out to search but, apart from a small crop of green olives, the tree is empty. A flash of green and a lorikeet flew out. Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Apart from the planning & enthusiastic planting of the garden, Llewellyn visits friends & family, tries to make friends with neighbours, starts a garden on the roadside opposite her house, lies on her bed watching the trees through her window. She is very frugal & always on the lookout for some free seedlings or a way to reuse an object that would otherwise be thrown out. She rescues some old pink bricks from a demolished house (carrying them in a green wheelie bin) to create borders around the garden beds &, walking past a house with a load of soil on offer for free, soon has a friend there to help carry away as much as possible in buckets & wheelbarrows.

The garden causes just as much pain & frustration as pleasure. Seeds are sown & fail to come up. A crop of tomatoes at the side of the house, where nothing has probably ever been planted, give so much fruit that it can't all be eaten. Nothing ever grows there so well again so was it just that it was virgin soil? I loved the story of the blood orange tree. Nurtured, fed, mulched, watered, the tree gave no fruit at all. Listening to a gardening show on the radio, Llewellyn hears that blood oranges should be left alone & if neglected, will thrive. Which hers does as soon as she pulls away the mulch & ignores it.

The other major saga is that of the chickens & later, ducks. Llewellyn grew up with chooks & her brother rears them for a living so she is keen to have her own small flock. She begins with six white pullets & all is well until she introduces six red chickens. She calls the result the War of the Roses. She learns from her mistakes about feeding them & caring for them when ill. She even sets up an intensive care unit in her shower for the hens when they're sick, bathing them & anointing their bare red skin with calamine lotion. The story of the chickens becomes as suspenseful as a soap opera. I find I'm racing on to the next entry to see what has happened to the latest patient. Rearing ducks is more successful as the pair she buys soon have nine ducklings, most of which have to be sold as pets as there's not enough room for them.

There are many beautiful quiet moments in this book where Kate Llewellyn meditates on the pleasures & pains of getting older. The aches & pains of her body & a bout of depression are the downside but the advantages, from being able to lie in bed late watching the trees to being eligible for Council help with maintenance around the house, are also celebrated. I enjoyed reading about Kate Llewellyn's garden, her chooks, her clever contrivances, her successes & failures, everything that goes to make up this one woman's life.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Professor - Charlotte Brontë

Novelists should never allow themselves to weary of the study of real Life - if they observed this duty conscientiously, they would give us fewer pictures checquered with vivid contrasts of light and shade; they would seldom elevate their heros and heroines to the heights of rapture - still seldomer sink them to the depths of despair; for if we rarely taste the fulness of joy in this life, we yet more rarely savour the acrid bitterness of hopeless anguish...

This is the beginning of Chapter XIX of Charlotte Brontë's first novel, The Professor. As she wrote in a later novel, Shirley, she was determined to give her readers a plain story, "Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning". Maybe the very plainness & lack of excitement in The Professor is the reason that it was never published in her lifetime. It was edited by her widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls, & first published in 1857, two years after her death. It does have a special place in the story of the Brontës though. Charlotte sent the manuscript of The Professor to Smith, Elder (after it was rejected by six other publishers) & it was the kind letter she received in return from William Smith Williams that encouraged her to send them the manuscript of Jane Eyre. It's also fascinating to see Charlotte trying out in The Professor many of the elements that make Jane Eyre & Villette such remarkable novels.

The Professor is the story of William Crimsworth. William has been brought up by his mother's aristocratic family to go into the Church. When he rejects his uncle's offer of a comfortable living & one of his cousins as a wife, William decides to visit his brother, Edward, a mill owner in the North of England. The two brothers barely know each other & Edward is suspicious of William with his rich relations & Southern education & accomplishments. He grudgingly agrees to give William a job as a clerk in his mill but declines to have anything else to do with him. William soon tires of this dismal existence. His employment is uncongenial & he dislikes his brother, who goes out of his way to humiliate him in the office & ignores him socially. William's one friend is Yorke Hunsden, a mill owner like Edward but a man with more liberal principles.

Hunsden gives William a letter of introduction to a friend of his in Brussels & suggests that William might find work as an English teacher there. William has burned his boats with his brother after resigning in a fit of temper & decides to try his luck in Brussels. When he arrives there, he finds a position as tutor in a boys school run by M Pelet. He is permitted to take on additional teaching in his spare time & begins to teach next door at the girls school run by Mdlle Zoraïde Reuter.

William becomes infatuated with Mdlle Reuter who is a few years older than himself but pretty, accomplished & runs her school in a very respectable manner. He also meets Frances Henri, a young Swiss-English woman who teaches needlework in Mdlle Reuter's school. Frances attends William's English lessons so as to improve her English, which she learnt from her English mother. Frances is not pretty but is very neat, modest & an excellent pupil. She lives with her aunt in very reduced circumstances. William's infatuation with Zoraïde comes to an abrupt end when he discovers that she is secretly meeting M Pelet & plans to marry him. He also hears them laughing about his own infatuation with Zoraïde & his presumption in thinking he could marry her. William's attitude to Zoraïde becomes cold & distant & perversely, she now pursues him. When Zoraïde realises that William has become fond of Frances, she dismisses her. William resigns from both his teaching posts &, with the help of the father of a grateful pupil, he finds another job & begins to save. He searches Brussels for Frances, determined to begin a new life with her if she can accept him.

In The Professor Charlotte Brontë tries out her theories of what a novel should be. She was not a novice as she had been writing tales & stories herself & with her brother, Branwell, for many years. These stories of an imaginary land called Angria, were full of sensation, romance & excitement. Charlotte decided that she must calm down her writing to be taken seriously & so she wrote this very quiet, unromantic story. She used Brussels as a location because she had recently returned from teaching there. Her employer, Mde Heger, had grown cool towards Charlotte when she realised that Charlotte had fallen in love with her husband & Charlotte left Brussels hating Madame Heger. Mde Heger is the model for Zoraïde Reuter. A much more well-developed & nuanced portrait of Brussels & Mde Heger appears in Villette.

Frances Henri is an early version of Jane Eyre, even down to the way her clothes are described - plain, quiet, clean & respectable. Frances herself is Jane observed from the outside, with none of the passion & fire within. There's just an echo of the passionate letters Charlotte wrote to M Heger in the letter Frances writes to William when she fears that she will never see him again, "... I am oppressed when I see and feel to what a reverse fate has condemned me; you were kind to me Monsieur, - very kind - I am afflicted - I am heart-broken to be quite separated from you - soon I shall have no friend on earth - but it is useless troubling you with my distresses."

Yorke Hunsdon was based on Mr Taylor, the father of Charlotte's great friend, Mary. The Taylor family appear as the Yorkes in Shirley. William himself is an odd hero. Charlotte never seems comfortable writing from a male perspective & William never convinces. He is proud, always standing on his dignity, yet curiously boastful & overly emotional. All Charlotte's prejudices are on show here - about foreigners but especially about the Catholic Church. She is scathing about Rome & its iniquities. Once William's infatuation with Zoraïde is over, she becomes, for him, everything that is duplicitous & wicked about foreign women.

Even though The Professor is too quiet & sober to be a completely successful novel, I enjoyed reading it again because there's so much of Charlotte's own voice there. It was fascinating to pick out the ideas, even sometimes the very phrases, that Charlotte used in her later, more accomplished novels.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Remembrance Day

With Remembrance Day on Tuesday, I've had to replace Emily Dickinson with a poem by another of my favourite poets, Wilfred Owen. Anthem for Doomed Youth is so poignant & I especially love the second stanza with the image of the sadness of the women at home, living on with that sadness through all the years afterwards.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds

Another poem that evokes a similar feeling of looking back to another time was written fifty years later. MCMXIV by Philip Larkin. Looking back at an England that didn't survive the Great War, the innocence that was lost along with the open pubs & the cheery photos of young men joining up for a great adventure.

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Death is a Word - Hazel Holt

The Sheila Malory series by Hazel Holt has always been one of my favourites & Death is a Word is the final book in the series. Set in the fictional town of Taviscombe in Dorset, my interest has always been just as much in Sheila's life, interests & friends as it has been in the various murder mysteries she's found herself involved in.

In this final book, Sheila's friend Rosemary's cousin Eva Jackson has moved back to the area after the death of her husband, Alan. Alan had been a journalist, a foreign correspondent, but instead of being killed in some overseas conflict, he died in London of kidney failure. Eva has a garage full of Alan's papers & Rosemary is keen to help her settle in to her new life, encouraging her to sort through the papers so they can be edited for publication. Sheila is less keen. A widow herself, she knows how raw emotions can be & tries to rein Rosemary in a little. Eva's son, Dan, lives in London & works for a foodie magazine. His relations with his mother are affectionate but a little remote. Both very private people, they've never been very close although he does visit her in Taviscombe & meets Sheila, Rosemary & Rosemary's formidable mother, Mrs Dudley.

Sheila's bossy friend Anthea, who runs local cultural centre Brunswick Lodge, is keen to get Eva involved in her many plans for talks & events. Luckily her attention is soon taken by another new arrival to the area, Donald Webster. Donald has recently retired from working in South America for a pharmaceutical company & seems happy to go along with Anthea's plans. He seems helpful, polite & enthusiastic but Sheila can't help feeling that there's something odd about a successful businessman choosing to retire to sleepy Taviscombe where he has no ties or family associations. Eva becomes interested in researching her family history & Rosemary is pleased that she's moving on from Alan's death. However, she's a little put out when Eva & Donald Webster begin going out together.

Sheila & Rosemary are shocked when Eva dies suddenly. She had been suffering from a virus & the coroner concludes that she must have felt so ill that she forgot to take the insulin for her diabetes. Eva's son, Dan, & his partner Patrick come down for the funeral & decide to stay on in Eva's cottage while Dan decides what to do next. He decides to continue the genealogical research his mother had started. Dan & Patrick seem content to stay at the cottage & Dan becomes very fond of Mrs Dudley, visiting her to ask about the family & looking through her photo albums. One morning, Dan is knocked down by a car & killed while on his usual morning run. Sheila begins to suspect that Dan's death wasn't an accident or a random hit & run. If Dan's death wasn't accidental, could there be more to Eva's death? Was there something in Alan's papers (there was that suspicious fire in the shed where they were stored) or could Eva's genealogical research have disturbed family secrets? Sheila talks to everyone, comes up with several incorrect theories but eventually realises that there can only be one solution, however unlikely it seems.

This is a very satisfying mystery with everything I enjoy about English small town (or village) stories. Sheila is a widow, with a married son, a dog, Tris & cat, Foss, who rule her life in a very believable way! I'm also very fond of Mrs Dudley, who dominates Rosemary's life but is really quite vulnerable & a little lonely. The small town atmosphere of walks by the shore, morning coffee & visits to the theatre in Bath is very inviting, everything a cosy mystery should be, really. It's a shame that there will be no more books in the series but also reassuring that Hazel Holt didn't feel the need to kill off anyone apart from the designated victims. Hazel Holt's books have been brought back into print in recent years by Coffeetown Press & her books about her friend, Barbara Pym, the biography, A Lot To Ask & the edited diaries & letters, A Very Private Eye, are now available as ebooks or POD paperbacks from Bello.