Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Closely Observed TrainsJust a quick post to point you in the direction of my latest blog post for Vulpes Libris: Closely Observed Trains (1965) by Bohumil Hrabal. Go and have a gander here; I’ve ended up reading rather a few Czech writers over the years. And by that I guess I mean three. But, still.

I seem to be in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, actually. Which is a shame, as I have a couple of books to read for the next podcast, and one for book group… well, hopefully blitzing a few episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix will put my mind back into reading. For now, I’ll just keep singing the excellent spoof Face Your Fears. Check it out.


Mrs Harris MP – Paul Gallico

Is it a bird? Is it a ‘plane? No, it’s actually a book review on Stuck-in-a-Book! Sorry that it’s been so long since my last one. Especially since I’m going to talk about a book I finished over six weeks ago…

When I went to the Lake District a while ago, I took a range of books – some that benefited from a long, uninterrupted read on a train, and some that would fill gaps between dashing off on multiple buses to get to a wedding, get on a train, etc. And I turned to Mrs Harris MP (1965) by Paul Gallico when I was tired from the long journey and sitting on a bench waiting for a lift (that eventually didn’t come… but that’s another story).

Anybody familiar with Mrs Harris Goes to Paris (also published as Flowers for Mrs Harris) and Mrs Harris Goes to New York will doubtless already know and love the redoubtable Mrs Harris. A London char, she is a wonderful mix of no-nonsense and fairy tale. Her greatest dream, in the first book, was to own a Paris couture dress; in the second she heads off to New York on a quest, and in the third she wishes – as you may have guessed from the title – to become an MP.

The novel opens with Mrs Harris and John Bayswater the chauffeur disagreeing over a political broadcast. She thinks it’s all two-face hogwash, and that she could do better herself… which isn’t long off happening. ‘Live and Let Live’ is her political mantra, and it is tangled up with an argument about giving working people a chance, not being teddy boys, and above all not lying. She makes, still – perhaps more than ever, quite an appealing prospect in the world of politics. She is not interested in spin and self-promotion; she wants to stand for the little people. And Mrs Harris is so full of vim and character that the bland, careful politicians don’t stand a chance.

Except things are a little more complicated than that. In all his novels, to some extent or other, Gallico seems to offer a sting in his fairy tale. Sometimes that sting is extremely dark (as in the very brilliant Love of Seven Dolls), sometimes it’s fey (Jennie), but it’s always there. In Mrs Harris MP it appears in the machinations of her supposed political ally… and appears perhaps more subtly in the after-effects of Mrs. Harris’ political campaign.

Like the other novels in this series, Mrs Harris MP is light and frothy and completely enjoyable. All of which means that it was probably very difficult to write. Mrs Harris is a wonderful creation – and perhaps equally wonderful, in my eyes, is her timid but loving friend Mrs Butterfield. It’s all quite silly, with (in this one perhaps more than the others) a note of the serious – and if you are sick of deceitful or boring politicians, or of a government that sidelines the poor, then this might provide some much-needed respite.

Relatively Speaking

It seems a bit of a habit with me to see plays somewhere towards the end of their run.  I saw the brilliant All My Sons on its final night, and by the time I blogged about Peter and Alice, it was off the stage.  Well, you’ve got until 31 August to see Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking (1965), and I deeply encourage you to do so if you possibly can!

We had a lovely surprise when we arrived (‘we’ is me and Andrea, my frequent theatre-buddy) at Wyndham’s – our balcony seats were upgraded to brilliant circle seats, right in the middle of the row and tickets which would have cost nearly double what we spent.  Sadly that was because of poor ticket sales (which is absurd on a Saturday night in London, but is encouraging for anybody hoping to grab a bargain on any night) – why people weren’t there, I can’t imagine.  It was the best comedy performance I have ever seen on the stage (All My Sons is still the best play I’ve seen, but nobody could call it a comedy.)

It’s difficult to write much about Relatively Speaking without giving away elements of the plot (which I’d accidentally spoilt for myself the day before seeing the play, by starting Ayckbourn’s The Crafty Art of Playmaking) but suffice to that the whole thing is a delightful, perfectly executed example of crossed wires, dramatic irony, and conversations at cross purposes.  The first scene opens in Ginny’s (Eastender’s Kara Tointon) flat with a semi-clad Greg (Max Bennett) wandering around the place.  There are mysterious phone calls and unexplained packages (“It’s a book! From the book people!”) and poor Greg is getting suspicious of Ginny (a pair of slippers under the bed need some explaining) – yet also getting increasingly in love with her.  They exchange wonderfully witty dialogue, affectionate but with a layer of one-upmanship, while she avoids anything definite and he proposes in the most adorably inept and heartfelt manner.  Both characters are a little rough-and-ready, with hearts in the right place, and the audience is certainly drawn into wanting the best for them… but Ginny is off to visit her parents. (Or is she?)

The next scene sees Sheila (Felicity Kendal – YES, FELICITY KENDAL) and her husband Philip (Jonathan Coy) on the patio of the lovely Buckinghamshire house, engaged in a marital dynamic which seems to be of long standing.  Sheila is a slightly downtrodden wife, but one who could never be entirely trodden down, one feels.  Jonathan Coy is given the only unsympathetic character of the foursome, as a slightly self-important, blustering businessman.  He goes off to find a hoe to do some vigorous gardening, and, through the sidegate of the excellent set, Greg arrives… He wants to come and ask Ginny’s dad for her hand in marriage, and has somehow caught the train that Ginny missed.

And this is where the fun starts.  For reasons which might already have become clear, but which I shan’t spoil just in case, nobody is quite on the same page as each other.  Least in the know is poor Sheila, and Felicity Kendal is absolutely perfect at her dialogue – her replies show that she has no clue why she has got embroiled in these conversations, and yet is willing to go along with it all, out of sheer kindness.  Kendal was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped and expected.

But she had a match!  Max Bennett is sublime as Greg.  I saw him in Luise Miller a while ago, and remember being impressed by him, but he excels at comedy.  Everyone’s comic timing is exceptionally good, with quickfire back-and-forth conversation delivered beautifully, but Bennett manages to make his character entirely lovable.  He is decent and proper, but also quick-witted, witty, and down-to-earth.  It’s rare that a play has a character whom you love and appreciate entirely, but Relatively Speaking manages to have two – which is, indeed, half the cast.  Philip was never intended to be sympathetic, so he’s out, and Kara Tointon – though very good – never seems quite to grasp which direction she wants to take her character in, and she sort of fell between two stools.

But the real star of the piece is Alan Ayckbourn.  His writing is perfect.  It is, of course, a standard of farce and comedy to have characters misunderstanding each other, but Relatively Speaking is crafted so brilliantly, with layer after layer of different crossed wires between different characters,  Even better, the responses characters give are believable, and it is also always credible that other characters wouldn’t realise they were on different pages.  So difficult to engineer, and so slickly done.

If you want to laugh for two flying-at-the-speed-of-light hours, and have the chance to go before the end of August, PLEASE give yourself a treat and see this utterly delightful play.  I quite want to go straight back and watch it again…

How The Heather Looks

This delightful book was part of my Reading Presently project, where I read books I’ve been given as presents, but… nobody knows who gave this to me!  I was sure it was my friend Clare, but she denies all knowledge… I know it was *somebody*, because it appears in my birthday present post here… so, if it was you, let me know!  Because I’ve read it now, and I love it.

The full title, which does the job of summarising the book for me, is How The Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books (1965) by Joan Bodger.  Even if the book had nothing else going for it, I was sold by the inclusion of ‘joyous’ in a subtitle.  Well done, Joan Bodger, you win my approval – and, when we look at the words surrounding it, thinks just keep improving. The title itself is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart was given.
What Bodger (excellent name) means by this is that, although she and her family have not visited the sites of these children’s books, they are already deeply familiar with them through reading and re-reading, and loving, books steeped in the British countryside. And the book documents how they do visit them, coming all the way from America to do so.

How The Heather Looks, really, rests on a false premise: that the settings, houses, and landscapes of children’s books must be based on actual places.  I’m a big advocate of the fiction-is-fiction line of thought, and feel rather disappointed if I find that an author has not been as inventive as I’d hoped – particularly with characters-based-on-people.  I’m much more willing to allow a building or tree copied from life, but I don’t expect it in the way that Bodger and her family do.

Luckily for them, they’re satisfied without conclusive proof – or, indeed, much more than fanciful detail.  A stray cat is, they’re sure, the model for a decades-old children’s book; a certain patch of river cannot be other than Ratty’s favourite place to mess around in boats (there is, actually, a lovely story attached to that expression in How The Heather Looks, which I will leave it for you to discover.)  I suppose, if one has not seen much of the British countryside, then any of it will provide an illuminating backdrop for British rural literature.  And it is almost entirely rural, from Beatrix Potter to C.S. Lewis – via (for Joan Bodger is not averse to the odd nostalgic moment for adult literature) Daphne du Maurier:

Hour after hour we drove through mist or rain under lowering skies.  The children were too tired even for crankiness.  I remember the green hills giving way to great brown sweeps of moor and long stretches of roadside, where we saw almost no evidence of human habitation and only a few sheep, as wild as mountain goats.  Once in a while, when the rain lifted, I would see a high crag or tor in the distance, and sometimes, in the hollows, the gray glint of a tarn.  We were pleased to discover how easily a lifetime of reading ables one to fit the right words to the landscape.  We had climbed to what must have been almost the highest point on the road when I saw an inn, a large, low, rambling building with beetling roof and a board that creaked in the wind.  Glancing back, my heart missed a beat when I read the sign: Jamaica Inn.  The day before we might have stopped, but now we flew past as though a pack of smugglers were at our heels.  At least, I thought, we could not be far from the sea.
Notice how she does not tell you that it’s connected with Daphne du Maurier – she trusts you to know.  That’s a theme of How The Heather Looks, actually; not a lot of background info is explained, because Bodger takes it for granted that we all love and cherish the same books.  This rather threw me in the first chapter, on the unknown-to-me Randolph Caldecott, but after that I think I was fine.  Even her son Ian, 8 years old, seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of British children’s literature, and a photographic memory for it too.

I haven’t mentioned the Bodger family properly, have I?  They’re pretty fab – ‘our family is incapable of passing even a shelf of books without pausing to take a look’.  (My family all enjoy reading, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a whole family of unashamed biblioaddicts!)  There is Ian, who loves soldiers and adventure, and befriends children wherever they go; Lucy, aged 2, who seems (her mother suggests) to believe they have simply hopped into the landscape of one of her stories, and fully expects to meet Mrs. Tiggywinkle – and then there’s husband John, a researcher, who is surprisingly absent from the page.  (This becomes less surprising when you realise that their marriage was ending while Joan Bodger wrote the book; only the tip of the ice-berg for a horrendous period of Bodger’s life, with which I shan’t colour this review.)

For there is nothing tragic about How The Heather Looks.  It truly is joyous.  The Thomas family once had a literary holiday, travelling along the South Coast to see various sites of literary importance (including Jane Austen’s house and the area which inspired Winnie the Pooh) and it was, as I recall, an entirely splendid holiday.  We don’t have the Americans’ scorn of distance, willing to drive from Edinburgh to Cornwall to get a pint of milk, but we managed to cover a fair distance nonetheless – and see some wonderful sites, which stay with me.  I still have the photograph of A.A. Milne’s house on my wall – it was taken illicitly, running down the driveway of a private residence… Not so, the Bodgers.  In (unsurprisingly) my favourite part of the book, they do for tea with Daphne Milne – A.A. Milne’s widow – in his house.  So casually, she throws in that they wrote ahead and got the reply: “I am always happy to meet friends of dear Pooh.”  Can you imagine that happening today?  In the same way, she finds out from affable locals where Arthur Ransome lives, and (although he foreswears interviews) charms him into submission!

How The Heather Looks feels a bit like a glorious dream.  Perhaps that is partly because Joan Bodger is looking with determinedly rose-tinted glasses at a halcyon summer from the vantage of a difficult period, but perhaps it is simply because she is a good writer, and the summer was halcyon.  I could call the book enchanted, I could call it a delight – but I think Joan Bodger picked the best description when she wrote her subtitle.  It really is, above all, joyous.

Now, if only I could remember who gave it to me…