Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols

My friends Kirsty and Paul bought me a pile of books for my birthday which were PERFECTLY chosen, which says what good friends they are (and how loudly I talk about the things I like) – one of which was Beverley Nichols’ novel Crazy Pavements (1927). This has undoubtedly been the Year of Beverley for me, but I had yet to read any of his novels – indeed, I don’t think I own any, though I did almost accidentally spend about £60 on one earlier in the year, under the impression that it was £2.

This was Nichols’ fourth novel, written before any of the gardening books, and it is quintessentially 1920s in many ways. Brian – an unusual name for a hero, but we’ll let it slide – is a handsome young gossip columnist, writing anonymously about the day-to-day doings of the rich and famous, but living in not-so-well-to-do situations himself. How does he know so much about the habits and sins of the titled people of London? The long and short of it: he makes it up.

This section of the novel was Nichols at his most irrepressible; his most effervescent. I loved it, and laughed a lot. It’s everything I want from the slightly (but only slightly) cynical voyeur of the Bright Young Things. Or at least the titled classes, for it is the sort of gossip column more interested in Lord and Lady Such-and-Such than in film stars. And his editor is a glorious creation: she is constantly trying to misinterpret his innocent words (or, indeed, innocent silences) as the most outrageous innuendos, so that she can look shocked and chew her pen and say ‘oh, you are wicked‘, to his horror and embarrassment.

I enjoyed the whole novel, but it was certainly the first few chapters that I truly loved. But such things cannot be stretched to 80,000 words – I do beg your pardon, Michael Arlen – and so we must move to the next scene. Most people do not question Brian’s fabrications, either because they are on long sea voyages (he notes these, as being the best subjects to choose) or because the lies are more flattering than the truth. But Julia is different. She demands a retraction and an apology.

When an awkward Brian turns up at her house, he – would you believe it – falls instantly in love with Julia. In turn, she is surprised that he is so handsome and gauche. The former attracts; the latter is an amusing challenge. She thrusts him into her echelons of 1920s chatter and glamour.

He was already beginning to understand the technique of these people’s conversation. The chief knack seemed to be in a stupendous exaggeration of everyday statements. If, for instance, the waiter forgot to give one a wooden ‘spinner’, with which to take the fizz out of one’s champagne, the right phrase was, ‘this is more than I can bear’, or ‘this is agony‘. ‘Divine’, ‘amazing’, ‘shattering’, ‘monstrous’, were all employed for the most ordinary feelings and facts. He found himself wondering what language they would have to speak if anything really awful did happen. They would either have to relapse into Russian, or else express themselves in dumb-show.

Nichols keeps his wit about him, if you’ll pardon the pun, but the mantle of a Serious Novel About Love gets a bit in the way at times. The story takes us on a fish-out-of-water journey, in which Julia and Brian learn that their different backgrounds are more of an impediment than they realised – as is Julia’s insouciant refusal to commit to a single person. As usual, the romantic elements of the plot didn’t hugely interest me, and I got the feeling that they didn’t enormously interest Nichols either (he seems much more authentic when describing the fall out between Brian and his kind housemate Walter) – but there is enough of humour to more than make up for it.

As a grand love story against the odds, this is a bit novel-by-rote. But as a comic novel showcasing Nichols’ witty and very 1920s view of the world, it’s a total delight. The Year of Beverley closes out successfully.

 

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron

When I was staying in Toronto, Darlene (of Cosy Books) very kindly gave me a couple of books – one of which was Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron (2012). The book rang a bell from her blog and from Thomas/Hogglestock’s, and it sounded like it should be up my street – though there was always the danger that (being a modern novel written by an American about 1950s England) it might wander into the sort of England only seen on BBC America. That is, would it be too Downton for its own good?

Well, luckily, I really enjoyed it. That is more to do with Cameron’s writing and subtle, gradual depiction of character than about his version of 1950s England – which is, indeed, rather like a picture postcard (though there is the threat of new semi-detached houses encroaching in the environs of the colossal house that the hero, naturally, lives in).

But I am getting ahead of myself. Here are the opening paragraphs of the novel:

That spring – the spring of 1950 – had been particularly wet.

An area at the bottom of the garden at Hart House flooded, creating a shallow pool through which the crocuses gamely raised their little flounced heads, like cold shivering children in a swimming class. The blond gravel on the garden paths had turned green, each pebble wrapped in a moist transparent blanket of slime, and one could not sit on either of the two cement beaches that flanked the river gate without first unhinging the snails and slugs adhered to them.

The excessive moistness of the garden was of no concern to anyone at Hart House except for the new nurse, who had arrived on Thursday, and had attempted, on the two afternoons that were somewhat mild, to sit outside for a moment, away from the sickness and strain in the house. But she found the garden inhospitable, and so had resolved to stay indoors.

The new nurse (as you might have started to suspect) is Coral Glynn – she is there to care for the old lady of the household, who has a terminal illness. She is greeted by the taciturn son and heir, (Major) Clement Hart, and the ill-tempered, suspicious housekeeper. In rather an unexpected manner, Coral becomes key to the household – though local tragedy causes disruption here. And with those coy words I shall say no more about the plot.

Despite being light and endearing, there is a sensitive portrait of loneliness and uncertainty at the centre of the novel. Coral is brave and headstrong in some ways, but is orphaned and alone, and unaccustomed to friendship. Besides the Major are his married friends Dolly and Robin – Dolly is a vivacious type who immediately becomes bosom buddies with Coral (or tries to) while Robin is affable but has his own burdens to bear. We soon learn, in a touching aside-scene, that Robin and Clement had once been in love. It adds further dimension to the novel, but it does throw the novel a bit, since scenes between Robin and Clement are the only ones which aren’t focused through Coral’s perspective, so far as I can recall.

The plot rolls on, and Cameron combines the nuance of the characters’ relationships (and, particularly, Coral’s attempts to understand the world she finds herself in – and develop a personality that she feels comfortable with) with an intriguing story. The latter rather collapses, and I wasn’t convinced by the ending, but the journey was rather wonderful – it feels nostalgic without being too fey, and Cameron is a really good storyteller. It’s rare that I prefer a book set in the 1950s to one written in the 1950s – the same goes for any decade, not just the ’50s – but I did rather love reading this one. I’d be interested to see how Cameron writes when he’s not looking across an ocean and into the past, but if his understanding of character is maintained, then I’d like to read him writing about 21st-century America. If he has done?

Swans on an Autumn River by Sylvia Townsend Warner

One of the reasons I never make ‘end of year’ lists of best books until the last possible moment (more or less – I don’t spend New Year’s Eve parties typing away) is because sometimes I read something brilliant in the last few days of the year. And picking up Swans on an Autumn River (1966) by Sylvia Townsend Warner, I’m glad I’ve waited. (It was published as A Stranger with a Bag in the UK, but I’ve gone with the title of the edition I have.)

This is my second collection of short stories by Warner, and it’s just as brilliant as the first one I read (The Museum of Cheats). The more I read by her, the more I think – with the possible exception of the brilliant Lolly Willowes – that short stories were truly her metier, rather than novels. She somehow puts humanity powerfully into these curious, wise, and very adeptly controlled short pieces.

Warner is exceptionally good at first lines. They aren’t the pithy, quotable sort that are laboriously placed as some sort of diving board, after which the tone of the story becomes much more natural – we all know that variety, and they are indeed fun to quote, but don’t always sit well with the rest of the narrative. Warner captures your attention, but there is no jolt as we move from the first sentence to the second. Here are a few of them:

We had divorced in amity; when we met again after the statutory six months we found each other such good company that we agreed to go on meeting from time to time. (‘A Jump Ahead’)

From that morning when he woke to the sound of the first autumnal gale lashing like a caged tiger against the house fronts and knew with physical infallibility that after all he was going to recover, Guy Stoat burned with impatience to get out of the County Hospital and go home. (‘The View of Rome’)

As he quitted the Aer Lingus plane from Liverpool and set foot for the first time in his life on Irish soil, he was already a disappointed man. (‘Swans on an Autumn River’)

My favourite story of the collection is the first one, ‘A Stranger with a Bag’. In it, a travelling salesman notices a rickety old house out of his train window for the first time, and – on an uncharacteristic impulse – decides to go and see it. Warner weaves together his imaginative journey with the one he actually takes, putting both into simple sentences, so the reader is (for a while) unsure whether things like ‘he walked towards the house’ are actually happening or not. The scene he finds is unexpected, to him and to the reader, and the title shows Warner’s tilts of perspective – as he realises that, to the household, he is just a stranger with a bag.

I like it so much because it mixes elements of fairy tale with the unshakably mundane. Warner is very good at scene-setting and buildings – she shows us the house from a distance and then close-up, knowing that a house is very different from these perspectives, and somehow conveying it in her writing.

Other topics she looks at are the visit of a young relative to his grandmother and great-aunt, and the clash of his recollections of them with the real experience; a new wife and an old wife collaborating unexpectedly; a disturbing picnic. Many more. In perhaps her most famous short story, ‘A Love Match’, a brother and sister quietly become a couple.

A few of the stories feel a little too dramatic at their climax – the title story, ‘Swans on an Autumn River’, perhaps falls into that category – but, at her finest, she is brilliant at undercutting a reader’s expectations and, in doing so, showing a truer, brighter light on human nature. And that doesn’t mean that she always sees the worst – she sees past either cynicism or pollyannaism into the heart of what makes people who they are.

Project 24: the books (and a few stats)

I bought my final book of 2017 a couple of weeks ago and, barring an accidental purchase in the next fortnight, I have successfully only bought 24 books for myself in 2017! It’s been difficult to restrain myself, and I’ve definitely missed going and browsing and picking up handfuls, but it’s also been nice to know that I’ve read more from my tbr pile than I’ve added to it. In 2018, I’m not doing any fixed restrictions for the books I buy, but I’m going to Try To Be Sensible. Not least because my little flat doesn’t really have room for any more books.

Anyway, here are the 24 books that made the grade this year, and why I chose them. They’re in approximate order – i.e. when I remembered to write the in the list in my diary.

1. Dearest Andrew by Vita Sackville-West
I did really enjoy this collection of letters but, tbh, the reason I bought them was that I’d gone several weeks of the new year without buying any books and I cracked.

2. Norman Douglas by H. Tomlinson
I collect Dolphin books when I come across them, as they’re beautiful little editions – and mostly authors writing about other authors, which is a genre I v much appreciate.

3. The Runaway by Claire Wong
Claire is a friend of mine – we used to go to the same church in Oxford – so I was definitely going to be buying her (very good) novel when it came out, Project 24 or no Project 24.

4. The Pleasures of Reading: a Booklovers’ Alphabet by Catherine Ross
Yes, I was doing some vanity searching for this blog, and discovered that I’d been quoted in this book – so naturally wanted a copy.

5. A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair
Rachel and I were discussing this in an episode of our podcast, and the local library didn’t have it. (I think I might be buying quite a few Dean Street Press editions when Project 24 restrictions are lifted…)

6. Sunlight in the Garden by Beverley Nichols
I’d joyously rushed through the first two books in this trilogy, and couldn’t wait to get to the third. Je ne regrette rien.

7. The Pelicans by E.M. Delafield
One of my finds of the year – can’t believe this obscure EMD title was on the shelf in a bookshop I went into. Sure, it wasn’t her best novel, but the excitement of finding it was precious!

8. Country Notes by Vita Sackville-West
On the same trip, I went a bit mad and got this one too. Book fever.

9. All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim
This is the obligatory oops-I-actually-already-owned-it purchase of the year. At least the new edition was much nicer.

10. Catchwords and Claptrap by Rose Macaulay
A beautiful Hogarth Press edition of a little Macaulay work – snapped up in an antiques shop in Ludlow.

11. The ABC of Authorship by Ursula Bloom
A fun, quirky find from the 1930s, advising how to make money from writing. Memorable for suggesting rhyming couplets of household tips would ‘always have a market’.

12. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill
I was never going to leave the sequel to Howards End is on the Landing until 2018, was I?

13. Insomniac City by Bill Hayes
A new book by the late Oliver Sacks’ partner – a beautiful ode to New York and to Sacks.

14. Letters From Klara by Tove Jansson
A newly-translated collection of Jansson stories is always an event on my calendar. These didn’t quite live up to my hopes, but still very grateful to have them available in English.

15. ABC of Cats by Beverley Nichols
My Nichols obsession continues apace – as does, apparently, my penchant for books with ‘ABC’ in the title.

16. Stephen Leacock by Margaret McMillan
I bought this as a souvenir of visiting Leacock’s house – still can’t believe I actually got to see it.

17. My Remarkable Uncle by Stephen Leacock
And one of my Canadian purchases had to be a Leacock, of course.

18. Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson
19. The Equations of Love by Ethel Wilson
A beautiful brace of novels by this Canadian author, whom I know through her Persephone book.

20. A Journey Round My Skull by Frigyes Karinthy
A beautiful NYRB Classics edition of a book that Sacks writes a lot about – also bought in Canada.

21. Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman
My final Canadian purchase on this list – though actually the first book I bought while in Canada.

22. David of Kings by E.F. Benson
I had to add this nice edition of a Benson novel I’d not heard of before to my teetering Benson stacks.

23. Aspects of E.M. Forster by Rose Macaulay
And another Hogarth Press Rose Macaulay book!

24. E.M. Delafield by Maurice McCullen
I didn’t know this study of EMD existed until it was mentioned to me a couple of weeks ago – so I went online and found a copy. It’s part of an American series on English authors – from which, amusingly, I bought a study of A.A. Milne that last time I did Project 24, I think.

So, there you go. Shall we have a few stats? Well, why not.

8 fiction / 16 non-fiction – a bit surprisingly, I buy more non-fiction when up against it. Perhaps I’m more willing to buy fiction speculatively, whereas when I need to know that I’ll enjoy the books, I tread the safer ground of books-about-things-I-like?

8 by men / 16 by women – hands up who’s surprised?

5 by Canadians / 3 by Americans / 1 by a Hungarian / 1 by a Finn / 14 by Brits – again, not the biggest surprise; probably more or less reflects by usual ratios, albeit with Canadians a little more represented than usual.

4 were published in 2017 – including the translated book. Not many, but still more than I was expecting.

4 authors appeared twice – Rose Macaulay, Beverley Nichols, Ethel Wilson, Vita Sackville-West.

10 read / 14 unread – quite a few only arrived on my shelves in the final three months of the year, but I do have a few I should get to sooner rather than later.

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

I’ve finished work for Christmas (sorry to people who haven’t!) and I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks of reading and relaxing – or trying to, and then ending up going to a zillion carol concerts and the like. But Christmas is my favourite time of year – because I get to spend it with family, and realising afresh the enormity of what God did for the world, and food. Those three things aren’t necessarily in the correct order there, but they are all wonderful. As are the usual trio of book, blog post, and link in my Weekend Miscellany!

1.) The link – I’m so proud of my brother Colin, who is now a crossword setter for The Times! And not just any crossword but The Listener crossword, the sort that is so fiendish that I don’t even understand the rules usually. His crossword is called ‘Jury’, and his pseudonym is ‘Twin’ – if you subscribe to The Times, you can see it here; if not, rush out to a newsagent and buy a copy.

2.) The blog post – Ali is planning a Muriel Spark year-long readalong in 2018. As with the Woolfalong, you can join in whenever you like. I’ve read lots (maybe most?) of Spark’s prolific output, but there are still a fair few on my shelves waiting for me.

3.) The book – I know nothing at all about Miss Jane by Brad Watson. But look at that coverrrr.

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

No braggies, but I’m spending my weekend in a castle. Five friends and I have booked one in Dorset, and I’ll give full reports when I’m back. I’m SUPER excited. But, don’t worry, I shan’t neglect you completely – you get a book, a link, and a blog post.

1.) The blog post – is a Shiny New Books round up of the books to buy for Christmas. They asked all their contributors to suggest the best book to give this festive season (including me). Find out what everybody chose!

2.) The book – this is another one I saw somebody mention on Twitter. I hadn’t heard of it before, though it is from 2010 – Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud by Martin Gayford. It seems to do exactly that – painting a verbal portrait of Freud at work. Sounds fascinating to me.

3.) The link – is a festive piece of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I for those of us who have anything to do with publishing content for the public to read.

Tea or Books? Ask us anything

Those who listen to my podcast with Rachel, Tea or Books?, may have heard that we’re doing a Q&A episode for our (gasp!) 50th. We’re actually recording episode 49 next Monday, but I wanted to give a bit of time to people who might want to ask questions. We’ve had some fantastic ones in via email, but I thought I’d do a blog post so you can ask questions here, should you so wish.

Ask us anything – about making the podcast, about books, about our other interests. Go wild! I imagine we’ll answer all of them, unless there is an unexpected deluge.

Guard Your Daughters: now a Persephone!

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few weeks, so please don’t take delay as a sign of lack of excitement – because Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton has been reprinted by Persephone – and I’ve been quoted in it!!

I’ve suggested a lot of books to Persephone over the years, and I think that they’re happy to hear reader thoughts. They’ve almost all been turned down on various grounds – unsurprising, given how selective they are – but I’ve also had the joy of seeing them published by other companies instead: Miss HargreavesThe Lark, and the various books that Bello have published. I’m always slightly suspicious (but in a delighted way) that they read my blog when looking for recommendations, having brought Edith Olivier, Richmal Crompton, E.M. Delafield, Vita Sackville-West, and more back to life. AND A.A. Milne’s Mr Pim Passes By, as Meredith kindly pointed out in the comments to my previous post.

Anyway, the same looked to be happening with Guard Your Daughters – which Persephone weren’t sure about, and which briefly looked like it might be snapped up by another reprint publisher. Fast forward a year or two and it is – oh joy! oh bliss! – between dove grey covers. It’s such a perfect Persephone, and I’m thrilled.

If you don’t know about it – let me direct you to my review and the podcast episode we did partly on it. It’s a funny, warm, and surprisingly haunting novel – almost within a page I knew it would be a lifelong favourite. I have my friend Curzon to thank for recommending it to me – thank you Curzon!

AND in this Persephone edition, they decided to put together contemporary and modern reviews (positive and negative) instead of an introduction. Lots of my favourite bloggers make appearances, and kicking them all off… it’s me! One of the things I’ve always wanted to achieve, but never really thought likely, was writing a Persephone introduction. I reckon this is just as exciting. I’ve been reading them since 2003 or ’04, my entire adult life really, and this is a dream come true.

If you haven’t read Guard Your Daughters yet – please get a copy. If you haven’t bought stocking fillers for the bookish people in your life – ditto.

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

It’s a cold and wet day here in my little village, but one of the things I love about the countryside is that every weather is beautiful, in its own way. A city is grey and bleak on this sort of day – but the countryside is atmospheric and somehow alive in the grey and the rain and the wind. Basically, I love being in a village. It’s just as lovely as I was hoping! Anyway, I hope you’re having a good first weekend of December – and here is a link, a book, and a blog post to enjoy as you do.

1.) The book – is another book about books. As long as they keep publishing them, I’ll keep telling y’all about them. It’s called Dear Farenheit 451 by Annie Spence, and I don’t have a copy (yet!) – it’s a librarian writing letters to various books that have affected her over the years. Anybody wondering what I’d like for Christmas…

2.) The blog post – is also sort of a book; the wonderful news (posted by Mirabile Dictu) that Penguin will be reprinting E. Nesbit’s The Lark! It’s already been reprinted by Dean Street Press recently, but it’s lovely that even more people will have a chance to read this delightful novel. It’s chosen by Penelope Lively in a new initiative they’re running. (Whenever I recommend a novel to Persephone to publish, somebody else seems to do it – fingers crossed that somebody picks up A.A. Milne’s brilliant novel Mr Pim Passes By.) Click through to the link above to see the lovely covers the series is getting, since I can only really fit one image in this post.

3.) The link – if you were thrilled about all my chat about The Room recently and want more… here’s an ‘honest trailer’ for it. And I’ll stop soon, promise, because I realise that the overlap of people who love cringey bad movies and people who love middlebrow interwar fiction might just be me.

Bits and pieces

This is going to be a little ramble through various things that come to mind. Because sometimes a bit of variety among the book reviews is… well, different anyway.

I’ve bought my final book for 2017, everyone. It’s shipping from the US, so may not come for quite a while – but it’s a study of E.M. Delafield published a few decades ago, but which I either didn’t know or (more likely) had forgotten existed. As soon as I heard about it, I thought that was worth of being my last choice – I wanted to go out with a bang – but now I have to wait for a month before buying any more. (I’ll post my whole list of 24 at some point before the end of 2017.)

I don’t think I’ll be able to go crazy buying books in 2018, though. I toyed with doing Project 24 again, but have decided that would just be too painful – but I have very little room left for books in my little flat. And I sent 350 to various homes, charity shops etc when I was preparing to move house, so I’m down to BARE BONES (if bare bones is approximately 3000 books, of course. Which it is.) I might be able to squeeze in another bookcase if I don’t want to open the living room door fully ever again.

I’m trying to write my sketch for the village show. The Thomases have usually submitted a sketch to the show since we moved to Somerset in 2005, though I’ve missed a couple years. In that time I’ve played a Sound of Music obsessive, a Scottish cardinal, a Yorkshire vicar, half of Jedward, myself (in a postmodern sketch), a time traveller, a BBC news reader, a Victorian cameraman, and another BBC representative. We take it in turns to write, and I haven’t done one for four or five years, and I’ve discovered that ‘just start writing and see what happens’ might not be an inevitable winner. But it’s my only tactic – it’s going to be a spin on David Attenborough (played, though he hasn’t agreed yet, by Dad) and I haven’t named any of the other characters. Wish us luck.

I’m in London as I write this, preparing for the first of three days of playgoing – first up is the Sondheim musical Follies, with the divine Imelda Staunton – marking the fourth time I’ll have seen her on stage. Thinking about it, there are a few cultural events I’d recommend from recent trips. The film ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is absolutely brilliant – you won’t see better performances than Annette Bening’s and Jamie Bell’s this year, and they’d better get Oscar nods. (Also interesting to hear the sort of accent I might have had if I hadn’t moved away from Merseyside aged 6.) Do go and see it if you get the chance – but take tissues. Less readily available is Sofie Hagan’s stand-up – but head to see ‘Dead Baby Frog’ if you live near one of the places on the remainder of her UK tour. I saw it in Oxford the other day, at the theatre where I volunteer as an usher, and laughed my head off (though it’s also very moving – don’t worry, I laughed in the right places).

People keep talking about doing their Christmas shopping. I haven’t even thought about it yet. Maybe I should use London as a good opportunity to do some… but, instead, I’ll just do it all in a rush at the last minute, I’m sure. But I am in three separate bookish Secret Santas, and I have done the buying for those – partly because they come early, and partly because it’s easily the most fun sort of shopping to do. Yes, I’ll inevitably buy some books as gifts too, for other people, but for the Secret Santas it feels less like a “oh, Simon bought books, quelle surprise” cop out.

That’s enough of a ramble for now, and will hopefully tide StuckinaBook over until I write something about books again. Will I finish The Women in White by the time I’m supposed to be discussing it on the podcast next week, with 400 pages to go? Who can say. But seldom has a book mention of mine got so many “Oo, I love that!” replies on Instagram – encouraging. So far I am also enjoying it, though may have read too many Victorian books of late (by which I mean this is the fourth). So. Many. Words.