By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

By NightfallI read The Hours back in about 2003 and completely loved it – and loved it again when I re-read it maybe ten years later. I’ve read a couple of other Cunningham books (one fiction, one non-fiction) since then, but there are a few others waiting on my shelves, and I’m still trying to build up what I think of him as an author. Was The Hours an amazing aberration, or do I love him? To be honest, By Nightfall (2010) hasn’t completely cleared up that question.

The novel is from the perspective of an art dealer, Peter Harris. It’s not in the first person, but it is thoughts and personality which infuse the narrative – occasionally (as we’ll see) making it unclear whether the opinions are the character’s or the narrator’s. Peter’s career is going well, though he is constantly trying to square commercialism with his own appreciation for art. Is it acceptable to take on artists he doesn’t like, in order to make more money? He’s saddened by the way his daughter is distancing herself from him, having dropped out of college at least temporarily. And he’s feeling a bit static in his marriage to Rebecca, an editor.

It is a character study. And it is one which takes place surrounded by privilege. Peter is well-off, lives on the ‘right’ side of town, and is the sort of person who refers to his furniture by the name of the designer. This privilege is perhaps most pointed when he has to meet with somebody marginally less well off (asterisks my own):

Bette is already seated when he arrives. Peter follows the hostess through the dark red faux Victoriana of JoJo. When Bette sees Peter she offers a nod and an ironic smile (Bette, a serious person, would wave only if she were drowning). The smile is ironic, Peter suspects, because, well, here they are, at her behest, and sure, the food is good but then there’s the fringe and the little bandy-legged tables. It’s a stage set, it’s whimsical, for G*d’s sake; but Bette and her husband, Jack, have had their inherited six-room prewar on York and Eighty-fifth forever, he makes a professor’s salary and she makes mid-range art-dealer money and f*ck anybody who sneers at her for failing to live in downtown in a loft on Mercer Street in a neighborhood where the restaurants are cooler.

We are put into the mindset of somebody who thinks that fringe on tables is a major issue; we must look through the lens of somebody who probably doesn’t have anything from Ikea in his house. Perhaps that’s you too, and this wouldn’t be an obstacle to overcome, but I had to jump from my world of Argos flat-pack into this moneyed existence of self-indulgence. A jump that I can do with ease when it’s also back in time, but which somehow took some effort when it was only across an ocean.

I suppose the bigger obstacle, perhaps, is the name dropping. Peter is an art dealer, so of course we move into a world of artists – and I was constantly confronted by my own ignorance. This is my problem, not Cunningham’s, of course – though it didn’t necessarily help the world building when I didn’t know if the artists were real or fictional, or missed references to their styles which were important to describing a scene. Is it pretentious of Cunningham, or simply the accurate depiction of a type of man? Hard to say.

This aside, it is a beautifully and thoughtfully written novel. I’m not married and I don’t have children – I have no idea about Cunningham’s status on either – but I was firmly convinced by his portrayal of the anxieties of both. There is strain and misunderstanding and moments of connective joy – it feels like a poetic and true depiction. And an already complex scenario is rendered more complex by the arrival of Ethan, Rebecca’s younger brother, known as ‘Mizzy’ – short for Mistake – because he was born so many years after his three older sisters.

From the moment Ethan appears, he is intensely sexualised – even fetishised. Seeing half through Peter’s eyes and half through the objective narrator’s, it still isn’t much of a surprise when Peter starts to feel attracted to Ethan – even with Ethan’s fairly nuanced character, he has clearly been brought to the page to be an object of attraction.

What follows isn’t anything as simple as a love triangle, but it has the complexity and style that I’ve come to expect of Cunningham. The writing is the right side of poetic – so that it feels thoughtful and moving without being showy or obtrusive. Somewhat surprisingly, it is the structure that lets down By Nightfall a bit – I say surprisingly, because structure is what Cunningham used so brilliantly in The Hours. It feels too heavily weighted towards the end, where characters develop rapidly – and then, a little hurriedly, the novel comes to a close. It’s not often that I think a novel should be longer than it is, but I think By Nightfall could have benefited from another 50 pages or so.

Despite all this, it’s a very good novel – if it were the first I’d read by Cunningham, I think I’d be keen to explore more by him; as it’s the third novel I’ve read by him, I can’t help thinking that the other two were a bit better. But I’ll keep exploring the options on my shelves, and build up my understanding of who he is as a writer.

Tea or Books? #44: Monogamous vs Polygamous, and The Village vs To Bed With Grand Music

After a bit of a hiatus, we’re back with an episode about Marghanita Laski and whether we read one book at a time or many books at once. And because that’s a bit of a mouthful, I’m calling it monogamous vs polygamous. Sorry if you’ve come to this podcast hoping for something else – but stay! We have books.


 

Tea or Books logoWe’ve really missed doing the podcast, so it’s great to be back! Do get in touch to let us know which you’d pick in each category, and any topics you’d like us to cover in future episodes. Our iTunes page is here, and we love reviews from those willing to go through the hoops required to leave them!

Here are the books and authors we mention in this episode (fewer than usual, which either means I forgot to write them down while editing the podcast, or we’ve lost our touch!):

Reading the Rocks by Brenda Maddox
Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley
Contested Will by James Shapiro
The Village by Marghanita Laski
The Osbornes by E.F. Benson
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Henry James
The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
Three Fevers by Leo Walmsley
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
The Boat by L.P. Hartley
Marching With April by Hugh Charteris
And Even Now by Max Beerbohm
Secrets of a Woman’s Heart: Later Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Hilary Spurling
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards
Vanity Fair by W.M. Thackeray
To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski
The Village by Marghanita Laski
The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E.M. Delafield
Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh
The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
Love on the Supertax by Marghanita Laski
Richmal Crompton
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
Dorothy Whipple
Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther
The Heir by Vita Sackville-West
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

It’s been quite a busy week, but I’ve managed to read a book that I completely loved – Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller, a non-fic about running a bookshop in Wigtown. It’s hilarious and perfect for booklovers – watch this space for a full review, which will be appearing in due course as one of the Editor at Large slots on Shiny New Books.

On Saturday, I’ll be up in London going to a matinee with Colin – and on Sunday I am doing blissful nothing. Reading, I’d say, if I were a betting man. But, for now, I’ll leave you with a book, a blog post, and a link…

Mansfield and Me1.) The book – is one I saw somebody talk about on Facebook. Scott? John? Somebody. It’s a graphic memoir by Sarah Laing called Mansfield and Me and it parallels Sarah’s story with that of Katherine Mansfield. It looks wonderful and basically I’m going to need somebody to publish it in the UK… because at the moment it’s only available in New Zealand. Lucky New Zealand.

2.) The link – The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff is now available as a Persephone Classic, and at the special offer price of £7.50. A great time to snap up a really beautifully told novel. I can’t think of a way to word this that isn’t hideously promotional, but… it’s great. Read it this September!

3.) The blog post – it’s always fun to see people discover my own favourites and, while Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle isn’t exactly a little-known secret, it’s certainly become much more popular in the years since I started blogging. Back then, particularly, nobody in the UK knew who Jackson was. Anyway, there’s a great new review of it over at BookerTalk – enjoy, and if you’re one of those people who’ve yet to try Jackson, hopefully it’ll twist your arm.

The Truth About ‘Pygmalion’ by Richard Huggett

The Truth About PygmalionI love books about books, books about reading, books about authors, and all the sorts of books that are coming to your mind by those descriptions. Find me a book about books about books please, world. And, alongside that, I love the sort of niche books-about-authors that you can never quite believe anybody thought profitable to publish – whether that be memoirs by authors’ friends, personal essays about reading reflections, or books like Richard Huggett’s 1969 work The Truth About ‘Pygmalion’, which apparently I picked up in London a couple of years ago.

The Pygmalion in question, it probably won’t surprise you to learn, is George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play, rather than the myth after which the play is named. (I think it’s fair to say that the play has outstripped the myth, in terms of popularity?) The title makes it sound like there might be a scandal at the heart of this book, but there is no enormous truth to uncover – rather, it is web of behind the scenes relationships, rivalries, and friendships that Huggett unveils. For Pygmalion brought together three of the biggest names of Edwardian theatre: George Bernard Shaw, Mrs Patrick Campbell, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

I’m not sure how well known this trio are now, so forgive me if I explain what is already widely understood. I’m going to take Shaw’s continuing popularity as read, but the other two were amongst the foremost actors of their generation – neither of them in the first flush of youth at the time of Pygmalion. Indeed, Mrs Patrick Campbell was several decades too old to play a flower girl but this, Huggett tells us, didn’t much matter to the theatre-going public of 1913. She had her adoring fans, and had first come to fame twenty or so years earlier – everything I knew about her related to her famous and mildly scandalous role in The Second Mrs Tanqueray by Arthur Wing Pinero (a role she would continue to revive for much of the rest of her life). Herbert Beerbohm Tree was a much-loved actor-manager, used to directing his own plays as well as producing, starring, and pretty much everything else. As Huggett demonstrates in this enormously entertaining book, Pygmalion was a meeting of three titanic egos.

Shaw bluntly refused to entrust his brainchild to the splendid but capricious talents of the great actor-manager, let alone those of his leading lady. He insisted on directing Pygmalion himself. The seeds of discontent were thus planted, preparing the way for a really magnificently explosive situation. The duet of personalities was now a trio, and the music which thundered and screamed round the Dome of the famous theatre was as dramatic and as colourful as the play which inspired it.

It’s hard to categorise The Truth About ‘Pygmalion’. Is it fact or fiction? It certainly can’t be considered absolute fact, for Huggett continually dramatises conversations that nobody could possibly have recorded (and which Huggett makes no claims to have witnessed). Certainly real letters between Shaw and Mrs Pat are used, and used to excellent effect, but we are asked to continue our credulity to detailed, witty, often affectionate antagonism at every rehearsal.

The account is fairly simple, really. After some angst about whether or not she should star in a play about a Cockney flower girl, and even more angst about which man should play opposite her, the rest follows the storms and tempests as they try to rehearse and produce the play. Shaw insists on keeping his version; Mrs Pat and Tree have their iron-cast, often selfish, visions of how the play should be performed.

The main scandal of the time, which is hardly scandalous to us now, was the use of the word bloody. As Shaw pointed out, it appears in Macbeth – but hearing it on the modern stage was apparently a whole different matter. Though it actually passed the censor without any issues, it was the talk of the press – would she say the word (they could not bring themselves to print what it was – except, Huggett mentions delightedly, the Church Times)? And, when she did, was this the sort of filth that the public should be exposed to? It’s a fascinating sidenote to a cultural landmark.

What makes this book more than an intriguing curio – and that would be quite enough for me – is Huggett’s style. His structure is a bit odd, opening with a portrayal of destitute Mrs Pat in her old age that never feels quite justified or relevant to the rest, but after this he is a wonder. The writing is infected by the rhetoric of the period of which he is writing; it feels bombastic, slightly wild. And it works perfectly. The gossip column has solidified into fine writing without sacrificing the intrigue and slight exhilaration that make this sort of thing so exciting to read. It isn’t remotely academic – not a reference or footnote in sight – but it does illuminate many fascinating details concerning an enormously famous play; at the same time, it brings three titans of the theatre completely to life. And I can’t resist ending this review by saying that Huggett, as with the myth of Pygmalion, has created personalities that, though real, could never have been quite as heightened as he forms them – and, yes, along the way both he and we fall in love with them all, monstrous though they can be.

 

The break is over!

I’ve really missed blogging, and I’m delighted to be back now – hopefully not having forgotten all the details of every book unreviewed from the past few weeks. I’ve moved house, and I have the internet now. The world is mine oyster.

New house

After living in house shares for the past ten years, always in houses of four people, it’s a fairly big change to start living on my own. Much as I have loved living with *draws deep breath, and alphabetises* Ben, Charley, Chris, Debs, Ellie, Hannah, Kieran, Kirsty, Laura, Liz, Lois, Mel, Melissa, Nick, Phil, Rachel, Rachel, Rebecca, and Tim, this is something I’ve wanted for ages.

Oxfordshire is a horror for house prices, and buying ‘on your own’ is rather a struggle for those of us on fairly ordinary salaries – particularly those of us who were students until we were 27. I’ve put ‘on your own’ in inverted commas, because my parents and the mortgage company have contributed the lion’s share to my flat purchase – but it has happened, and the paperwork will tell you that I own a beautiful little flat in a tiny village about half an hour west of Oxford.

I’ve been there for a fortnight, but could only get an appointment for TV and Internet on Saturday – and all my books came up from Somerset on Friday. I spent about twelve hours yesterday unboxing and shelving books – including an emergency dash to buy another bookcase before Argos closed. It’s still not finished, but the whole place is coming together. It felt lovely before that, but a room without books can’t really be my room – now it certainly feels like home. I feel very lucky.

I’ll probably do a bit of a tour once it’s finally done and dusted, or you can see some progress photos if you follow me on Instagram. (Oh, and for those who’ve asked – I’ve decided not to recap Great British Bake Off anymore. Now I’ve got TV, I have watched the first episode, and it was… fine. It felt like a school reunion where none of the people you liked best had turned up.)

“We were on a break!”

This Friends quote is brought to you to tell you that I’m going on a little summer blogging break for a few weeks – not sure exactly how long it will be, because I’m moving house and who knows how long it takes for internet to be set up. More about the move and everything when I’m back!

This also means that ‘Tea or Books?’ is on hiatus for a little while too, I’m afraid. Hope you’re all reading something wonderful – let me know in the comments if there’s anything particularly great I should be keeping an eye out for.

3 films I’ve seen recently

In 2016, I saw three films at the cinema. Somehow, I’ve seen the same number in the past week – all of which have been great, albeit very different. Here is a quick round up, in the order I saw them…

Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Probably the one that’s going to get the most accolades, but maybe my least favourite of these three – even though I still really liked it. I wasn’t sure I would. War films bore me, and Christopher Nolan is a very bombastic director – but somehow I was swept away. On paper, it shouldn’t work for the discerning cinema-goer: there’s no character development, no plot, and basically the whole thing is “people escape Dunkirk”. Which obviously is what happened, but there’s nothing more in the way of development. But it’s somehow great nonetheless. Harry Styles is much better than we had any right to expect, and it’s got the most shameless use of Elgar ever.

Kedi

Kedi

Guys, this film is about CATS. It’s a documentary in Turkish (yes, I watched subtitles) about the stray cats in Istanbul. I went because I love cats so much, but it’s also a gentle, interesting story about the people who feed the stray cats – looking at those who find it restorative, or grudgingly enjoyable, or simply something that just seemed to happen to them. It’s also, in the background, about the changing landscape and lifestyle of Istanbul, as markets are torn down for tower blocks. But mostly it’s cats being their beautiful, characterful selves; I saw it in an independent cinema full of Cat People, and we awwwed and ahhhed together.

The Big Sick

The Big Sick

A truly awful title – particularly for British audiences – but a really excellent film; my favourite of the three. It stars Kumail Nanjiani in a loosely altered version of himself (called, yes, Kumail) – he wrote it with his wife Emily Gordon, and it’s about their relationship. Kumail (both character and actor) is a Pakistani stand-up comedian, born in Pakistan and now living in America. He falls in love with Emily, a white American, while his parents continue to try to find a suitable Pakistani Muslim girl to be his arranged bride. Everything changes when Emily gets sick, and Kumail must convince her parents that he should stay in the picture. The film is very funny, very moving, and entirely successful at combining the two. Romcoms have a bad name now, and hardly any seem to be released anymore, but this is one not to miss.

 

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested WillIf I had to pick my favourite book title, there is a strong chance that it might be Contested Will (2010). I’m a sucker for a clever play on words, and Shakespeare helpfully lends his first name to plenty of them – though they were puns that he made himself in the Sonnets, so we can hardly assume he’d be hurt. James Shapiro’s book doesn’t end its cleverness there, though – Contested Will has the subtitle ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’, but it’s really a study of how different theories came about, and the evidence acquired for them.

I read a little around the ‘authorship question’ when I was researching to write the notes accompanying a DVD of Shakespeare’s plays. That was a funny little job that I got to do while working in the Bodleian Rare Books department, and I never saw the end result (or even know if it came to fruition), but I do know that my first draft of Shakespeare’s biography was rejected as “having too many facts”. Anyway, I dipped one toe into the waters, and even put forward Jane Austen as a candidate, sort of. Last time I approached the ‘who wrote Shakespeare’ question, I got quite a lot of lengthy, impassioned comments – so I look forward to doing the same this time!

Contested Will looks at three candidates for the authorship – one of them being Shakespeare himself (I’m not going to bow to the style of some who write ‘Shakspere’ or ‘the Stratford man’; the former misses the point about not having standardised spelling at the time and the latter is too cumbersome). The other two are Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford – though, as Shapiro acknowledges, there are almost as many candidates as there are people arguing about it. These three are the mainstays – or at least held sway for the largest number of people.

The keynote of Shapiro’s book is calm thoroughness. He says early on that he is persuaded that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare (and – nailing my colours to the mast – so am I), but he is not bombastic or insulting. Nor, to be honest, is he the ‘devastatingly funny’ that John Carey’s puff on the back cover promised me, though he is occasionally enjoyably wry. No, he is professional and engaging – as interested in the psychology of those who passionately argued the case of Bacon, Oxford, or others as he is in the question itself.

The first section looks at the history of hunting out Shakespeare’s papers, and the near-desperation that people had over several centuries to find out more about his life. Not until some years after he died, sadly, and nobody troubled to interview his surviving relatives – so the papers were all. Along with the discoveries you may have heard about (paperwork about poaching and a loan), Shapiro details forgeries that fooled some across the years – and, alongside, rebuffs some of the “gosh, it can’t be him” claims. Worried that a rural lad could know Latin? The education at Warwickshire grammar schools was about equal to a contemporary Classics degree. Concerned that no books are mentioned in Shakespeare’s will? It was very common for wills to be accompanied by inventories that detailed things like books, and Shakespeare’s has been lost. Anxious that his family kept grain? So did everybody else with any money in the area.

From here, we move onto Bacon, and the earliest stirrings that something was amiss – though Shapiro also reveals that some of these early murmurings were, in fact, latterday forgeries. Much of the ethos of Bacon’s authorship seems to have been involved with strange code-hunting practices, believing (like so many conspiracy theories) that those who are desperate to hide the truth will also, for no clear reason, leave clues to the truth. Baconians dominated the early 20th century, when less was known about the way plays were produced in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, or how the First Folio was printed, and much of this code-breaking was based on misunderstandings. And yet luminaries were involved in these theories – Mark Twain devoted the last years of his career to the authorship debate, and Freud was also preoccupied with it – ditto Henry James, Helen Keller, and right up to Mark Rylance (albeit these people don’t all favour Bacon).

I’m racing through, because there is so much richness in Shapiro’s book and this review is getting too long, and we move on to the man of the moment (for now, at least): the Earl of Oxford. Yes, he died before many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces were written, but that’s one of the things carefully tidied away by Oxfordians. He remains very much a popular choice for Shakespeare’s writings, but he did almost die out as a candidate – through lack of interest, rather than anything else. Shapiro writes very interestingly about his unexpected survival, and how it came about.

Oxford’s claims mostly come from the idea that the plays and poetry must be autobiographical – a theory I find as frustrating as Shapiro clearly does, though he manages to write about it with the same calm he demonstrates throughout. It intensely annoys me that anybody would think a genius would have to reflect his contemporary thoughts and feelings into his work rather than, y’know, being creative and making things up. And the idea that anybody might discover anything through research is anathema to some people of this school. You can’t possibly write about Italy unless you’ve been to Italy; you can’t write about being an earl unless you’re an earl. I suppose they haven’t spotted the irony of writing about Jacobean playwrights when you aren’t a Jacobean playwright.

Shapiro is more polite than I am, and doesn’t let himself get carried away – instead, he steadily tells us about Oxford’s time in the sun (including a court case in the Supreme Court about the authorship, no less; Shakespeare won) and points out times where the anti-Stratfordian arguments are based on unintentional or intentional errors, or explain away anything contrary to their views. Here, Shapiro refers to a story written by James Lardner in the New Yorker, which in turn quotes Professor James Boyle:

“The Oxfordians have constructed an interpretive framework that has an infinite capacity to explain away information”/: “all the evidence that fits the theory is accepted, and the rest rejected”. When Boyle added that it was impossible “to imagine a piece of evidence that could disprove the theory to its adherents”, Lardner asked, “What about a letter in Oxford’s hand… congratulating William Shakespeare of Stratford on his achievements as a playwright?” Boyle didn’t skip a beat, mimicking an Oxfordian response: “What an unlikely communication between an earl and a common player!… Obviously, something designed to carry on the conspiracy of concealment. The very fact that he wrote such a letter presents the strongest proof we could possibly have!”

But the essential chapter is the last, where we are back to Shakespeare. In it, Shapiro (again, very calmly) outlines all the reasons that he has been convinced that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare – based on everything from contemporary printing practices to the diaries of fellow playwrights, and countless other points that he expertly explains. Long story short, being an expert in the period and in theatre history, Shapiro is able to help a 21st-century reader understand the reasons behind things that look like anomalies today, or show how many of the anti-Stratfordian arguments have been based on misunderstandings. The chapter should be handed to anybody interested in the authorship question, and no advocate of any other author should be able to continue without coming up with good replies to all the points made (as Shapiro has, in turn, come up with good replies to the Bacon and Oxford arguments).

I loved reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare, where he has a lot of fun in depicting the inconsistencies of anti-Strafordians; Shapiro is less amusing but better mannered (though even he can’t resist enjoying the psychics who relayed information from Shakespeare and Oxford). Much of what he writes is documenting what happened, and how theories came to popularity – it is still a page-turner, and fascinating, but less of an all-out entertainment. And it really is fascinating – and given me a taste to read more and more about this area. And I’m also excited to see which new candidate might take centre stage in the ‘who wrote Shakespeare’ debate – indeed, perhaps it will be Jane Austen after all?

Down The Garden Path by Beverley Nichols

Down the Garden PathI suppose it was inevitable, if sad, that the shine would have to come off eventually. This has been the Year of Beverley Nichols chez moi, but this is my first venture with him that hasn’t proved quite as runaway a success as the others. Would it have become the YoBN (yes) if this had been my first experience with him? Possibly not. But Down the Garden Path remains entertaining – if overshadowed by his later work.

I don’t know how popular this opinion is. I asked on Twitter a while ago, and those who replied agreed with my preference for the Merry Hall trilogy over the Allways trilogy (albeit I still have two to go). For those not yet in the know – in the 1930s, Nichols wrote three books about his house, Allways, and its garden. Fast forward to the 1950s, and he wrote three about Merry Hall – which I had always assumed was a pun on ‘merry Hell’, but am no longer sure. Based on Down the Garden Path (1932), they cover similar ground – moving to a new house; developing the garden; getting entangled with neighbours good and bad.

The main difference, I think, is tone. While Nichols is still light-hearted in Down the Garden Path, he has yet (to my mind) to develop the easy hilarity of his later books. The jokes hit home, but aren’t developed with the same glee. The neighbours and staff are half-portraits, compared to Oldfield (gardener) and Miss Emily (officious neighbour) in the latter trilogy. In the former, the neighbours don’t even get names – they’re all Mrs W and Mrs X. It’s hard to see what’s different except that the second trilogy is a better version of the first.

Having said that, the highlights in Down the Garden Path were, I found, those anonymous interlopers. If they don’t reach the heights of his jovial nemeses in the Merry Hall trilogy, then they certainly provide amusement. Nichols is at his finest when sassing people – and the visitor who prances through the garden imagining herself to be some sort of muse is only mildly less entertaining to read about than the neighbour who criticises everything she sees in his garden.

Ah, the garden. I read all these books as a fraud – somebody who doesn’t know anything at all about gardening. Occasionally curiosity bites and I google the flower he is mentioning (and find that our tastes don’t match; his favourite flowers look a little twee to me) but generally I read past, waiting for a more gossipy anecdote to take centre stage.

If you are a great expert, with a case of medals from the Horticultural Society on your mantelpiece… if you have written treatises on the Ionopsidium Acaule (which, by the way, is well worth growing)… if you have a huge drooping moustache and a huge drooping head-gardener, then you had better throw this book aside. I am not writing for you.

As you see, he claims that his gardening prowess is rather basic in this one – putting me even more to shame – but perhaps this book was more aimed at gardeners than the others were? Or, at least, Nichols got better at satisfying the ignorant and the knowledgeable at the same time?

I should mention, before I close, those intriguing snippet – ‘Mrs E. M. Delafield, who is the only living writer with whom I should ever dare to take a trip to Cranford, hurled dizzying insults at me in numerous publications.‘ – None are quoted! I want to know so much more!

So, it was an enjoyable read, for sure. But my hopes were a bit high, and I didn’t race through it as I did the other three. I’ll still read the two sequels (which I’ve had for ages) but perhaps not with quite the same alacrity. But, fear not, 2017 is still very much the YoBN.

For sale: Letter From England by Mollie Panter-Downes

I’m actually trying to sell one of the Project 24 books I bought… and I thought I’d try here.

Letter From England

It’s a bit frustrating. I’ve been waiting for a copy of Letter From England by Mollie Panter-Downes for ages, thinking that it was a prequel to London War Notes. One eventually turned up, and I paid an eye-watering £35 for it (which I would never normally do, but Project 24 means I can splurge a bit on pricier books). And then it turned out to be almost entirely the same as the 1939 and 1940 sections of London War Notes… (Which is entirely excellent!)

There are a few entries in this one that aren’t in London War Notes, but not a huge percentage. I recognise that this is entirely for Mollie Panter-Downes completists. But if anybody wants to email simonthomasoxford[at]gmail.com and say that they’ll pay £35 for it, then it’s yours!!