I Follow But Myself by Frank Baker #1968Club

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll have heard the words Miss Hargreaves more than you would have believed possible. (And yet people still call it Mrs Hargreaves! I need to work harder.) It’s perhaps my favourite novel, and I’ve read it many times since I was introduced to it in 2003 or thereabouts. And since 2004, I’ve had Frank Baker’s autobiography waiting on my shelves – so when I saw it was published in 1968, I knew that it was finally time to read it.

So, why has it taken me thirteen years to read I Follow But Myself? Partly – as I explained on the latest episode of our ‘Tea or Books?’ podcast – because I save up books I’m excited about reading until The Perfect Moment. Partly because my love of Frank Baker hasn’t fared brilliantly outside of Miss Hargreaves – I’ve read three or four other books by him, and they’ve not been very good. My worry was that I Follow But Myself would follow that trend. So, essentially, I’d built it up into quite a behemoth of a reading experience even before I opened the first page.

Baker organises his autobiography in quite an unusual fashion – told through portraits of nine people who were important in his life. These are mostly people who were not noted outside of the lives of those who knew them, but it does include a couple of famous names – Edward Garnett and Arthur Machen. But the best chapter is certainly, to my my mind, the one where he writes about Amy Carr – an old, kind, helpless lady he knew, forever anxious about others, besotted with Shakespeare, writing poor poetry, and in turmoil over whether or not she could believe in God. His portrait of her is affectionate and true, showing an intimate friendship, and its waning – through to her sad end in increasingly small rented rooms, and her death. It is a beautiful, poignant chapter – and the book is worth the read just for this handful of pages.

Amy Carr unfailingly gave me courage when I most needed it; she made me see the intrinsic value of such uncelebrated lives as hers; she was a pure artist who kept her vision; she was the pure in heart. And if, at the end, above the Atlantic Ocean, falling and restlessly swaying beyond the Cassiterides, she was not given the Light of the Glory of God, then life does not makes sense and our eyes were given us for nothing. But I will believe that she was thus rewarded.

Whoo. *Wipes eyes* *Continues*.

As a thread through these portraits, we also see Baker’s life and career – at least at first. This trajectory becomes a bit looser as the book continues, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the strongest chapters are towards the beginning. And I had to jot down this description of Alfred Rose (topic of the third section, and somebody Baker knew through his religious education):

Looked like the Devil… yes; he did. His big bent nose flared to sensuous nostrils, like the nostrils of one of the darker people in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; a quiff of greying black hair sprang up, Mephistophelean fashion, from his balding pate; hair coiled over his knuckles; his lips were tight and thin, the upper jaw prominent; his black and grey morning clothes with the shining polished black shoes were like a Civil Service camouflage, concealing hooves and little black batlike wings. I often imagined I could see Dionysiac horns prodding out from just behind his ears, which were large. But the most satanic thing about him was his voice: deep and soft, with an insidious sibilance, the unmistakable serpent song. And perhaps it was this which really charmed, for I never liked his appearance, yet charmed I certainly was.

This is not very like Miss Hargreaves, but it is similar to much of his other fiction – though stronger and more successful, somehow, in non-fiction. It gives you a taste of his writing style – whirling, seeing beyond the obvious, slightly obfuscatory. Curiously, for the autobiography of a writer, he never feels quite at ease writing about his writing. He was an actor during WW2, touring with Sybil Thorndike amongst others, and seems much more comfortable writing about this stage – but when it comes to his novels, he only really writes about the first one. I haven’t read The Twisted Tree, though I have it on my shelf (mais naturallement), and we see quite a lot of his drafting and re-drafting it – and one of the most successful chapters is the one focused on Edward Garnett, already famous as a writer and editor who had brought D.H. Lawrence to prominence. Mutual friends had invited Garnett and Baker to stay, and it was important that Baker didn’t let on his own writing ambitions – wanting a friendship to develop naturally, so that Garnett wouldn’t feel that he was being taken advantage of. It’s the funniest section, and paints Garnett as the most realistic sort of grotesque.

Otherwise, in terms of his own writing, there is a list of characters (only given because he is discussing Dickens’ influence on him), and the odd mention that he is working on a particular novel. The process of writing Miss Hargreaves is not described; the novel is only mentioned in passing a couple of times, chiefly as a financial success, and he admits that he is sick of it. A shame, for I would have dearly loved any context to its creation.

But it isn’t just Miss Hargreaves who gets very few moments in this book – Baker’s wife and children are scarcely mentioned either. He sometimes dates things by when his marriage took place, and drops in the occasional reference to his children, but he doesn’t describe his courtship or wedding, nor do any of these people seem to be much of a presence in Baker’s life at any point.

Indeed, Baker remains rather an enigma. Sometimes we hear almost uncomfortably personal discussions – he writes a lot about masturbation, unexpectedly, and the guilty it caused him as a teenager; he discusses homosexuality in a way that feels a bit like he is describing his own experiences, but never quite gets there. His views on priests and schoolteachers spending time intimately (though not more than that) with young boys are pretty odd, if not autobiographical. Most unexpectedly, when working as a secretary at a boys’ school, ‘I found myself sacked for a crime I had not only never committed but of whose nature I was totally ignorant. Sodomy’. And then he will turn to another description of somebody he knew, or their way of experiencing the world, and retreats into the shadows.

So, as an autobiography, it is curious – and leaves the reader curious. It was done in exactly the way he wanted it, and not the way anybody else might have asked. He has certainly followed but himself in its crafting. But it is worth it for the chapters on Amy Carr and Edward Garnett alone – I have the feeling I will often return to those. The rest is a bonus.

 

Bloomsbury by Quentin Bell #1968Club

The first book I finished for the 1968 Club was a book that is very much not about the 1960s – Bloomsbury by Quentin Bell, which looks back at the lore of the Bloomsbury Group. And he does this in something under 100 pages, rather bravely. But he is almost uniquely qualified to do so – being Vanessa Bell’s son, and thus Virginia Woolf’s nephew. (Incidentally, I’ve realised that much of my reading for the 1968 Club has been non-fiction looking back at earlier decades of the twentieth century. Whether that says more about me or about 1968, who knows…)

It’s clear that this isn’t an exhaustive biography of all members of the Bloomsbury Group – I’m going to assume you know what that is; in brief, it was the artistic and literary (and, er, economic) elite living in Bloomsbury, many of whom were related or had liaisons. But Quentin Bell quietly rails against the ways in which the group is depicted – which hasn’t really abated since 1968. As he points out, there was never such a thing as a homogeneous Bloomsbury Group – he even draws out a map/diagram of who was in the inner circle at which time. And he isn’t interested in gossip:

I am not required nor am I inclined to act as Clio’s chambermaid, to sniff into commodes or under beds, to open love-letters or to scrutinise diaries. On the present occasion I shall leave Bloomsbury linen, whether clean or dirty, unaired.

He sounds quite defensive, and indeed he is. He argues that Bloomsbury ‘has been criticised from a bewilderingly large number of points of view’, and he spends much of the first chapter defending them against accusations of elitism or taste that was too backward-looking or too biased. As he points out, with some examples, there was no unified taste or point of view from Bloomsbury. Intriguingly, he dwells for a while on what D.H. Lawrence thought of them all, tracing the individual relationships and commentaries that Lawrence made – challenging the idea that he hated them collectively. If it comes from a place of defensiveness, it is nevertheless well collated and argued.

Thus it is rather a surprise to come across, on p.61 of around ninety pages, ‘Nevertheless I think that the mistrust and dislike of Bloomsbury was very understandable.’ As a tangential outsider/insider, he can look back from 1968 and play roles on both sides of the courtroom. He puts it well with a comparison to an aristocratic family from Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day:

The Hilberrys are very sympathetic, despite their virtues, not simply because they have money and privilege but because they assume that they will, in the natural course of things, play a leading role in the cultural life of England. Members of Bloomsbury were accused of arrogance, of intellectual snobbery. But it was worse than that; they did not need to be arrogant; they could afford not to be snobbish.

He notes that his appearance on the scene of the Bloomsbury Group was towards its end, and he briefly describes how it disintegrated – his word – in a section that I wish could have been much longer. Perhaps the ends of such things are always harder to describe than their beginnings, if they do just slowly disintegrate – ending, appropriately enough, not with a bang but a whimper. The way that Bell describes it is the book’s most beautiful sentence:

The nineteen-twenties made it and broke it; it was then that it soared, burst in lazy scintillating splendour and slowly expired in still glowing fragments.

As I’ve mentioned, Bloomsbury is very short – only 89 pages of written text, though also a lot of extra sections of photos. These include some Vanessa Bell cover designs I haven’t seen before (though, frustratingly, in black and white) and his access to archives is certainly enviable.

Altogether, I could have wished Bloomsbury a bit longer, and maybe organised a bit more intuitively – but it’s a valuable part of a large puzzle that we lovers of the 1920s and ’30s are likely to be fascinated with forever.

#1968Club

The 1968 Club is here! I’m looking forward to hearing what everybody has been reading – and will round up (new) reviews from this week here.

Just put a link to your review in the comments – or, if you don’t have a blog/LibraryThing/GoodReads etc, feel free to type out your review in the comments. (If none of this makes any sense, all explanations are here!)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Cafe Society

The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken
Staircase Wit

The Animals in that Country by Margaret Atwood
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge
The Book Trunk
StuckinaBook

I Follow But Myself by Frank Baker
Stuck in a Book

The Grain of Truth by Nina Bawden
Corvux Cornix

A Compass Error by Sybille Bedford
StuckinaBook

Bloomsbury by Quentin Bell
StuckinaBook

The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg
StuckinaBook

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen
Heaven-Ali
Harriet Devine
Book Word

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Mirabile Dictu

At Terror Street and Agony Way by Charles Bukowski
Intermittencies of the Mind

A Dog’s Heart by Mikhail Bulgakov
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie
The Book Jotter
What Me Read
HeavenAli

2001 a Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings (guest post)

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover
1stReading

A Model Kit by Julio Cortazar
Winstonsdad’s Blog

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
JacquiWine’s Journal

Rum Affair by Dorothy Dunnett
She Reads Novels

No Clouds of Glory by Marian Engel
Buried in Print

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley
Mirabile Dictu

Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer
What Me Read
Desperate Reader
Books and Chocolate
Staircase Wit

The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
The Literary Sisters

A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carre
Lizzy’s Literary Life
Pining for the West

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
Finding Time To Write
Cafe Society

His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem
Shoshi’s Book Blog

The Boat by Alistair MacLeod
Consumed By Ink

Colonel Sun by Robert Markham
Annabookbel

Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
StuckinaBook
Adventures in Reading, Writing, and Working from Home

I am Mary Dunne by Brian Moore
Tipping My Fedora
Intermittencies of the Mind

Pax Britannica by Jan Morris
Briefer than Literal Statement

Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro
What Cathy Read Next

Alexa by Andrea Newman
Corvus Cornix

True Grit by Charles Portis
Monica’s Bookish Life
Annabookbel

The Secret House of Death by Ruth Rendell
Briefer than Literal Statement

Tigers Are Better Looking by Jean Rhys
Madame Bibliophile Recommends

Maigret Takes the Waters by Georges Simenon
Harriet Devine

Maigret’s Boyhood Friend by Georges Simenon
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

The Public Image by Muriel Spark
1st Reading

Wind Off the Small Isles by Mary Stewart
Monica’s Bookish Life

The Father Hunt by Rex Stout
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor
The Book Trunk
StuckinaBook
Book Word

Couples by John Updike
Shoshi’s Book Blog

The Boat in the Evening by Tarjei Versaas
1st Reading
Winstonsdad’s Blog

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf
Madame Bibliophile Recommends

Chocky by John Wyndham
Booker Talk
She Reads Novels
Annabookbel

A round up of children’s books
Literasaurus

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

Guess what guys – I’m in Canada! As you read this, I’ll be trying to get over jet lag and, presumably, knee-deep in maple syrup. And/or learning more about Canada so I can drop my maple-syrup-based stereotypes. But I’ve not forgotten you, dear reader, and I thought I’d leave you with a book, a blog post, and a link.

But FIRST *noise of record scratch* I wanted to remind you that the 1968 Club is coming! By the time I’m back from Canada, it’ll be good to go. Exciting!

Bruno Littlemore1.) The book – The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale was recommended to me by my friends Mel and Tom – about a chimp who turns into a man and puts on productions of Shakespeare. Sounds so up my street.

2.) The link – look, sometimes you need to see pictures of people dressed quite similarly to the paintings they’re standing near. If that day is today, then enjoy this link.

3.) The blog post – a few people are reading Margaret Kennedy at the moment. I always end up forgetting almost all the details of a Kennedy novel, but she is still fab. I hadn’t heard of either The Oracles or A Long Time Ago but Ali and Jane have written about them this week. Two blog posts – I’m spoiling you!

Tea or Books? #46: Canadian vs Irish Literature, and My Name Is Lucy Barton vs Anything Is Possible

Elizabeth Strout is our author this episode – and we also dip a toe in the worlds of Canadian and Irish literature. Spoilers: we know a lot less than we should. Suggestions welcomed, please!

 

Tea or Books logoI’m off to Canada shortly, which is why we chose the first topic – and nothing much links Canada and Ireland other than the fact that I’ve thought they’d be interesting nations’ literature to talk about. In the second half, we turn to an American writer – a modern one, no less! – Elizabeth Strout. She’s literally still alive, guys. That modern.

Check out our iTunes page – rate/review through iTunes and all that – let us know which you’d pick in each category, and any other topics or authors you think we should cover in future episodes.

Look out for an inelegant bit where I sub in a clip because I got the title of a Stef Penney novel wrong. #Professional.

Here are the books and authors we mention:

Silas Marner by George Eliot
Ulysses by James Joyce
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell
Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill
Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
Agatha Christie
Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge
Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge
Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge
Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh
I Follow But Myself by Frank Baker
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
Margaret Atwood
Alice Munro
Elizabeth Bowen
Molly Keane / MJ Farrell
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Seamus Heaney
Carol Shields
The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
Over the Footlights by Stephen Leacock
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Translations by Brian Friel
Oscar Wilde
George Bernard Shaw
The Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Anne Tyler
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (who is Canadian!)
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
A Compass Error by Sybille Bedford
A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
Pleasures and Landscapes by Sybille Bedford

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

Jacob's Room is full of booksI was an enormous fan of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – a book all about her year of reading only books from her shelves that morphed into a series of short essays about anything and everything to do with reading. It was bookish, opinionated, and (I thought) an inevitable delight to anybody who loved reading. About that I was wrong – it divided people – but I have re-read and re-loved it, and have been waiting eagerly for the sort-of sequel for as long as I’ve known it might be a thing. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books (2017) was never in doubt as one of my Project 24 books.

I’ve been following the development of the book with interest. Ages ago, I saw Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen listed on Amazon, and asked Susan about it on Twitter – yes, she confirmed, it was sort of a sequel to Howards End is on the Landing, but only about women writers. At one point it became Jacob’s Room is Too Full of Books, with a cover design on Amazon. Who knows when that changed, and when the title was changed, but what we’ve got instead is ‘a year of reading’ – she follows the calendar from January to December, talking about what she’s reading and what she’s thinking about, interspersed with notes on nature and life. The title doesn’t make sense (yes, Jacob’s Room is a novel by Woolf, but where Howards End is on the Landing and, indeed, Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen can describe the place of books in the house – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books doesn’t mean anything, and will confuse anybody who doesn’t know the Woolf novel) – so, yes, it doesn’t make sense. But I don’t care. I still loved this book and raced through it in a handful of days – even while trying to savour it.

Though the calendar year structures the book, Hill darts all over the place. Sometimes for a moment merely – she throws in the thought ‘does Donald Trump ever read books?’ in a line or two – sometimes at greater length. She talks about the authors she loves, from Dickens to Ford Madox Ford to Ladybird Books. She talks about the literary scene – judging book prizes, getting into hot water in columns. She writes about the writer’s life. She writes quite a lot about things that aren’t connected with books, particularly flora and fauna. It’s wonderfully conversational and far-ranging – not as siloed as Howards End is on the Landing, but equally delightful to dip in and out of. Every page will have something to engage with. I couldn’t help picking it up and indulging when I should have been reading something for book group or the podcast. I loved it.

There are definite flaws. Hill repeats herself – the same points come up almost word-for-word at different times about (say) whether or not you can ‘catch’ a writing style – and there are silly errors (88 Charing Cross Road should have been caught – and somebody at the publishers will feel red-faced about putting an apostrophe in Howard’s [sic!] End is on the Landing on the dustjacket). Some of the paragraphs end in with that sort of trite beat that I find so frustrating in fact or fiction. This kind. To prove an argument. Perhaps.

And, yes, Hill is extremely opinionated – which is anybody’s prerogative, of course, though it is refreshing when she admits that she could be wrong about something. I can be very opinionated about books myself, but the only times it annoyed me a little were when Hill seemed to think her opinions were fact – or when she claimed that ‘nobody’ read such-and-such author. On almost every occasion, I had read that author. And this… well, gosh.

The Olivia Manning trilogies have grown in stature since they were first published – as some books do. They have already stood the test of time and I am sure they will go on doing so, while novels by many of her female contemporaries have all sunk without trace. Ivy Compton-Burnett, anyone? Kay Dick?

What a bizarre thing to say about Ivy Compton-Burnett! Not only is she (to my mind) one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, she is also in print with NYRB Classics. No mean feat, so many decades after she wrote – and hardly sinking without trace.

But this is, really, one of the things I find so beguiling and enjoyable about Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. Hill may be a little more strident than I can bring myself to be, but it’s still wonderful to hear from somebody who cares so passionately about books, who has read avidly for so long, and (incidentally – but truly incidentally) has met so many of the people she’s talking about. Some people complained that Howards End is on the Landing felt name-droppy. It didn’t to me, and this doesn’t, but perhaps others would find it so? Anyway – Hill and I do not share a taste at all, though there are overlaps. We both love Dickens and Woolf, for example. Our experiences with To The Lighthouse are so similar that I wrote ‘yes! yes! yes!’ in the margin. But there are definite divergences. She writes so enticingly about The Masters by C.P. Snow that I almost wanted to go and hunt it out – despite having read it earlier in the year and finding it one of the most boring, pointless books I’ve read in years. She – as mentioned – does not properly appreciate the genius of Ivy Compton-Burnett.

But disagreement makes bookish discussion all the more engaging. Obviously it’s not a duologue – though I suppose I could reply on Twitter or something – but it feels like a deep, thorough natter about books. I could have done with more about reading, more specifics about books, and perhaps a bit less about birds and whatnot (though plenty will welcome those seasonal variations) – but I loved what I got. Susan Hill has a strong personality, or at least a strong persona, and this book couldn’t be written by anybody else – but I hope she writes at least one more in this series. For now, I’m thrilled to be able to put this one next to Howards End is on the Landing on my books-about-books shelf.

 

Something on Sunday: Shania Twain

Jenny over at Reading the End has come up with a concept – Something on Sunday. What is it? Well, her intro post gives you all the deets, but here’s a snippet of the sort of thing that it entails:

The only guidelines are that you write about something that kept you on your feet that week, whether that’s a person that inspired you, an action you took that you’re proud of, a book or movie or TV show that nourished your heart, a self-care strategy that worked for you, a goofy event or moment that brought you joy.

The idea was set up to be a bright corner in a fairly dark time for many people in the world. Now, Stuck in a Book is a fairly cheerful place all the time (I think), and I face a lot less difficulty and oppression than most – and, perhaps most importantly right now, Donald ‘Total Disaster’ Trump is not my President. I’m no lover of the political situation in the UK right now, but everything is relative.

Come On OverEnough caveats. It’s a good excuse to talk about things that bring joy. I’ve decided I might use it to do little posts about things I love that aren’t to do with books – not necessarily related to the past week, but just personal posts about things big and small in my life. And, yes, I’m starting with Shania Twain. Not really about her music, but about what it has meant to me over the years.

When I was about 12, I had vouchers or birthday money or something, and I had enough to buy two albums. Pop music was something I was very into at the time, and I bought and avidly read Smash Hits and Top of the Pops magazines. Because yes, of course, whatever I was into I wanted stuff to READ. But I think I was mostly motivated by the tastes of my best friend at the time, a boy called Tom who had recently moved to the area and joined the school. I was pretty unpopular and uncool; he was pretty cool but new. I think that made us about equal on the school scale for a moment or two. And I’m pretty sure he encouraged me to buy the two albums I did get – Savage Garden by Savage Garden, and Come On Over by Shania Twain.

I’m far from the only person to have bought that album. It’s one of the bestselling albums of all time. And it remains a total joy – uplifting, touching, unbeatably catchy. Not, I imagine, at all cool. But while younger people today seem only to know ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman’ and perhaps ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ – two upbeat and sassy songs from the album – I was equally in love with ‘When’, ‘Whatever You Do, Don’t’, ‘You’ve Really Got A Way’ – pretty much all of them. By this point I owned perhaps five albums – so Come On Over was on repeat.

But it proved popular across the family, at least to an extent. Dad likes a few bands and singers, and listens to them occasionally; Mum never really listens to pop music. The music in our house growing up was almost always classical, but we’ve never been the sort of house that put a CD on in the background – when people talk about their musical upbringing, or how they inherited a love of soul or punk or jazz or whatever from their parents, I can’t really relate. I inherited a love of books, baking, the countryside, all sorts of things – but not that. So I find it quite touching and lovely that it was sort of the other way around with ‘You’re Still the One’ – which my parents heard me playing, and which became ‘their song’. They hadn’t had one before, and the lyrics Shania sings – ‘You’re still the one I run to, the one that I belong to, you’re still the one I want for life’ – are simple, but rather a good song to choose for a couple decades into a marriage.

Simple lyrics worked again when I was in my late teens and feeling rather low. It might sound silly, but the song ‘Up!’ was the only thing that really worked at that time – ‘Up, up, up, can only go up from here’. Never underestimate the power of simplicity. And cliches can be profound when they’re needed.

By now – say, 17 – I’d got all of her past albums too, and listened to them inside out. I still do. And it was one of the things that really helped at university – this time because it helped me bond with a new friend. I made lots of fantastic friends at uni (people who liked reading! finally!) but, on day one, Andrea was a Godsend in every sense of the word. I absolutely didn’t want to go clubbing or get drunk. I have never done either in my life, and have not the slightest temptation to – they both sound like horrible experiences to me, but each to their own. On my corridor of new people, only one person preferred to make a hot chocolate and chatter that evening – thank goodness for Andrea. I don’t know if it was in that conversation or later that we discovered that we both knew all the words to all of Shania’s songs. I do know that we once spent a silly and happy afternoon being punted around Oxford (by our friend Michael) while we bellowed out word-perfect versions of ‘Who’s Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?’, ‘Raining On Our Love’, ‘Any Man of Mine’, and more. Michael was embarrassed but tolerant.

Thirteen years after we met, we’ve finally managed to get tickets to see Shania Twain – next year in London – and it feels like a nostalgic moment that brings together many threads of my life. My affection for Shania Twain has certainly lasted longer than any of my friendships, since I’m not regularly in touch with anybody from school (er, except my brother). She might be a distant memory for most people my age now, and a little bit the butt of a joke, but I still love her – not just for her infectious and uplifting music, but because of the happiness she has brought me, in different ways, for about twenty years.

Are They The Same at Home? by Beverley Nichols

Are They The Same At Home

The Year of Beverley continues! I actually read Are They The Same at Home? (1927) steadily over a few months, dipping in and out of it, and finished it during my hinterland in the internetless years. (It felt like years; it was not.) I bought it back in 2010, and it’s a collection of his encounters with… well, with more or less everyone you can imagine from the cultural world of the 1920s.

Indeed, this isn’t going to be a review so much as a list – at least at the bottom – because I think this could be a wonderful little resource for fans of any of these people, and you probably wouldn’t stumble across it by accident. Each chapter describes his interview or friendship – and I say ‘describes’ because almost none of these are set out like discussions; instead, he gives his impressions, he darts around the topic or the room or the theatre, he throws in a few choice words from the subject – and the matter is closed. It is fanciful, fey, and entirely Nichols. It tells us very little in hard fact, and everything in impression. I came away knowing not what these people were like, but what Nichols thought of them.

Each essay is like an impressionist painting, giving us the outline and the character, if not the exact portrait. When he writes about Rose Macaulay, for instance, he spends half the time talking about whether or not people need to wipe their glasses when they cry – Macaulay says no; American friends of his say yes. No biography of Macaulay would use this as a keynote, but he is able to extrapolate much about her lack of romantic imagination – linking in, neatly, her most recent (and, of hers, my favourite) novel Crewe Train. Only Nichols could put together feats like this with such bravado and such delightful inconsequence. They are nothings, but delightful, almost accidentally insightful, nothings. Any lover of the 1920s world should have this on their shelves.

And who were they? Well, they came mostly from the arts, but with some sportspeople and politicians thrown in. While I knew who all the authors were, and have read most of them, there were plenty of names from other spheres which meant nothing to me. An impressive variety. And here they are, all 61 of them. In alphabetical order, as in the book, with one out of order at the end. Why? Who knows.

Senorita de Alvarez
Michael Arlen
Lilian Baylis
Thomas Beecham
Hilaire Belloc
Arnold Bennett
E.F. Benson
Lord Berners
Edna Best
John Bland-Sutton
Andre Charlot
Alan Cobham
C.B. Cochran
Duff Cooper
Noel Coward
Arthur Conan Doyle
Alice Delysia
Sergei Diaghileff
Gerald du Maurier
Jacob Epstein
George Gershwin
Eugene Goossens
Philip Guedalla
Sacha Guitry
Seymour Hicks
Anthony Hope
Aldous Huxley
Margaret Kennedy
Theodore Komisarjevsky
Ronald Knox
Philip de Laszlo
John Lavery
Suzanne Lenglen
David Lloyd George
W.J. Locke
Frederick Lonsdale
Edwin Lutyens
Rose Macaulay
John McCormack
Eddie Marsh
Cyril Maude
W. Somerset Maugham
Nellie Melba
Florence Mills
George Moore
Beverley Nichols
Cyril Norwood
Sean O’Casey
William Orpen
Arthur Pinero
Landon Ronald
Osbert Sitwell
Marie Tempest
Edgar Wallace
Hugh Walpole
H.G. Wells
Rebecca West
Jimmie White
Ellen Wilkinson
P.G. Wodehouse
Georges Carpentier

 

 

Goodbye, Christopher Robin

I’ve written before about my love of A.A. Milne’s books, and how significant they were in my development as a reader and book collector (of sorts) – I still read him relatively often, and it was with eagerness that I awaited the release of the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Mostly because I wasn’t sure how accurate it would be, and I was ANXIOUS, y’all. The anxiety was not helped by the release of the trailer…

Thankfully for me – though perhaps disquietingly for those expecting something else – the film was nothing like as twee as this trailer made it seem. Yes, it includes the development of the children’s books that we all associate with A.A. Milne, but they aren’t a panacea for the world’s ills, and this isn’t a fairytale.

The film shows the period between A.A. Milne leaving WW1 and Christopher Robin fighting in WW2. Domhall Gleeson looks remarkably like Milne, and there is a plausible narrative about PTSD being one of the reasons that he needs to move to the countryside, and affecting his relationship with his young son – Christopher Robin, known to the family as Billy Moon. Whether or not he had PTSD, I don’t remember – and I don’t imagine anything like it would have been diagnosed as such in the 1920s. But it gives the film a gritty coherence. Gleeson handles it very well, although the script is a little unsubtle about it at times; it is also more or less the only plotline, other than the simple movement through time, as Christopher Robin et al grow more and more famous.

The nanny (Kelly Macdonald) is also focal, with some of the more twee and/or impassioned scenes – and an extremely moving moment towards the end – and she, as with all the cast, works well with the exceptional Will Tilston, who plays the young Christopher. He is cherubic and wide-eyed, which the role calls for, but also gets the emotion of more difficult scenes.

Margot Robbie plays Daphne, Milne’s wife, and it was exciting for me to see somebody from my much-loved Neighbours who has made good. I know she’s a big star now, but this is the first film I’ve seen her in (except for a few scenes in About Time, also with Gleeson). Their marriage is a bit of a mystery, but the film is probably accurate in showing the cracks as they want very different things. Ann Thwaite wrote that Daphne was like AAM’s whimsical characters – the problem being that he wasn’t.

Ann Thwaite looms large in this adaptation, I am thrilled to say. She was historical advisor, and it is clear throughout that her biography of Milne was a great resource for the scriptwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan. Time and again, I recognised moments that could only have come from there, complemented (I imagine) by Christopher Milne’s excellent autobiographical series and A.A. Milne’s It’s Too Late Now.

I went expecting inaccuracies, but I only noticed a few (Tigger turns up too early; he was bought between the books. Christopher’s bear wasn’t actually the model for E.H. Shepard’s illustrations – those were Shepard’s own son’s bear; Peace With Honour is mentioned a long time before it existed) and a few misleading omissions (Peace With Honour flashes up at the end, but War With Honour – Milne’s corrective, as it were – isn’t mentioned; the four children’s books are more or less whipped into one, without any sense that Milne became a famous children’s writer before the Winnie the Pooh stories). Etc. etc. But it is only one film, and I couldn’t have expected them to do a roll call of all I know about Milne.

It’s a beautifully shot film, and it’s definitely a tearjerker. And I feel like I can brief a sigh of relief that, after all, AAM has been well served by Goodbye Christopher Robin.