The Birds by Frank Baker

My reading sort-of-resolution – to read more of the books that have been on my shelves for years and years – continues apace with Frank Baker’s 1936 novel The Birds. It was his second novel, and his third was my much-adored Miss Hargreaves – would this finally be the novel that lived up to Miss H, after many swings and misses from Baker’s oeuvre?

Well, no, but it was interesting to read nonetheless. And it’s perhaps most interesting to read in relation to Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. Which was, we are told, based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story ‘The Birds’; she claimed never to have heard of Baker’s novel, and Baker never went through with his threat to sue Hitchcock. (My edition was published in 1964, the year after the film came out, with a woman who looks suspiciously like Tippi Hedren on the cover – and the passive aggressive publishers note ‘Written long before Daphne du Maurier’s short story…’) It’s quite possible she never read it – it only sold a few hundred copies when first published. My edition is apparently ‘revised’, though I don’t know to what extent.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never read du Maurier’s story or seen the film, but I suspect at least some of the premise is similar – birds are attacking and nobody knows why.

About as large as starlings, but different in every other respect, they were neither pink nor purple as the messenger had surmised, but an ambiguous shade of dark jade green. This colour, catching the bright sunlight, sometimes shone blue, sometimes purple. It was an almost fluid colour. Each one had a little ruff of pretty feathers round his neck which stuck out like a hat above his head. The brightest part of their colouring was in the breast, from the throat downwards, where the feathers were smooth and of a glossy sheen which seemed to reflect all colours. Their little beaks were curved, not unlike a parrot; they had sharp, very lively eyes which gave them an inquisitive, impertinent expression.

There are some vivid scenes of the birds attacking – but they do not swoop and attack in crowds from the sky. Rather, they seem to target individuals – swindlers, unkind people – and disappear once their victims have been attacked or killed. But nothing will kill the birds themselves – not fire or bullets or anything.

This central thread of action is drawn well and engagingly, and the reader wants to know the secret behind the birds activities – and there is a secret of sorts, albeit one rather clouded in a bizarre philosophical spiritualism that Baker half-explains eventually, in a cloud of vague writing. But there is a conceit of the novel that palls very quickly – it is all told by the narrator to his granddaughter Anna, after some sort of world-changing event. All the mores and customs of the old world – that is, the 1930s world the reader would recognise – have been wiped completely. And, for some reason, none of them have been brought up until now. It means that Anna apparently doesn’t know anything about politics, religion, machinery, jobs… anything at all, really. And the narrator discourses about them at length – sometimes just explaining what they are; sometimes letting Baker indulge in some cynical satire. It was all rather self-indulgent and distracting.

I love Miss Hargreaves. You know that by now. But every other novel I’ve read by Baker ends up being so stodgy. And I’ve now tried four others – but I’ll keep persisting, on the off-chance that one of them will come close to the novel I love so much.

But the link to Hitchcock’s film, however unintentional, has given this book something of a lease of life – it was republished in 2013 and, if the #frankbaker tag on Instagram is anything to go on, has proven rather popular recently as Os Pássaros. Perhaps it’s a better book in… Portuguese? (According to Google Translate, at least!) Any Portuguese speakers out there, maybe give it a go.

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.


A few little reviews…

It has come to my notice that it is December, and there are only 27 days left this year.  I have almost 20 reviews to write for A Century of Books… oops, didn’t work this out very well, did I?  (Well, I still have 10 books to read – but I have 4 of them on the go already.)  So I’m going to rush through five of them today – books that, for one reason or another, I didn’t want to write whole posts about.  But do still free to comment on them!

Daddy Long-Legs (1912) by Jean Webster
An orphaned girl is given a scholarship by a mysterious, anonymous man – she has only seen his back – and one of the conditions is that she must write updates to him, without getting any replies.  She nicknames him Daddy Long-Legs.  Can you guess what happens?  Well, I shan’t give away the ending.  I was mostly surprised at how modern this children’s book felt, despite being a hundred years old – a lot of it would have been at home in a Jacqueline Wilson story.  I enjoyed it, but did find it a little creepy, and rather repetitive, but these are probably signs of not having read it when I was the target age.

Metamorphosis (1915) by Franz Kafka
Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he is an enormous bug.  Which is going to make his job as a salesman somewhat difficult.  The reason I’m not giving this novella/short story its own review is that I don’t feel I have anything new to say about it.  Kafka is famed for his matter-of-fact approach to the surreality in this story, and rightly so.  What surprised me here was how middlebrow it all felt.  It is definitely comparable to David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox – which actually seems to have greater pretensions to literariness.

Married Love (1918) by Marie Stopes
Another one which surprised me – I’d always heard that Marie Stopes started a sexual revolution in the UK, offering knowledge about sex to the everywoman for the first time.  Turns out she is much more conservative, and less revelatory, than a lot of the other guides written around the same time, and earlier.  I read these guides for my current DPhil chapter, by the way – my favourite so far being the person who argued that sexual intercourse and reproduction were acceptable as separate impulses, because protozoa separated them.  Sure, why not?  (I wonder if I’ve just made all sorts of inappropriate search terms for this blog now…)

Miss Hargreaves: the play (1952) by Frank Hargreaves
This is something of a cheat, since it was never published – but it was performed, with Margaret Rutherford in the lead role.  Tanya tipped me off that copies of all performed plays were in the Lord Chamberlain’s archives in the British Library – so I had the great privilege and pleasure of reading the play, with Baker’s own penned changes.  It’s pretty similar to the novel, only with the action restricted to a few settings.  Such fun!

V. Sackville West (1973) by Michael Stevens
I’m a sucker for a short biography, and I hadn’t read one of VSW before, so I gave this one a whirl.  It’s a critical biography, so Stevens discusses and analyses the work while giving an outline of VSW’s life.  About halfway through I thought, “this feels way too much like a doctoral dissertation.”  Turns out it was a doctoral dissertation.  I think I’ll be turning to a more charismatic writer for my next biography of Vita, as this one was rather prosaic and charmless, although very thoroughly researched.

Right, well that’s five down!  How are the other Century of Bookers getting on?

Mr. Allenby Loses The Way – Frank Baker

This is one of those books I probably wouldn’t blog about if it weren’t for A Century of Books.  Under the terms and conditions of this challenge, I promised (er, sort of) to read a book from every year of the 20th century, and post a review of each one.  I didn’t think that would be the tricky part.  The paltry figure I currently have stated as completed is not quite so paltry as it appears, since there are three or four books which I’ve read but have yet to review.

Sorry, side-tracked.  I wouldn’t normally blog about Mr. Allenby Loses the Way by Frank Baker because it is has the two characteristics of many books I read: it’s incredibly difficult to find affordable copies, and it’s not especially good.  If it were scarce but brilliant, I’d be the first to write about it; if it were readily available and mediocre, I’d write that review too.  But since it’s impossible to find (I read it in the Bodleian) and not really worth finding… oh well, rules is rules, and this is my book for 1946.  Plus it’s nice to think that someone will have written about this book on the interwebs, because otherwise a would-be Googler would find nothing.

The name Frank Baker will doubtless ring a bell – it is he who penned one of my all-time faves, Miss Hargreaves, and I keep persevering with his work, in the hope that I find something else as wonderful.  (Miss H, as I blogged recently, even pops up her head in Mr. Allenby Loses The Way.)  But genius seems only to have wandered by once, and the other Baker books I’ve read are rather more pedestrian.  Actually that’s probably not the right term for Mr. Allenby Loses The Way because, in fact, it baffled me utterly in its strangeness.

Sergius Allenby is a diffident newsagent who lives fairly contentedly with his wife and niece.  He’s not unlike Norman, from Miss Hargreaves, in being an unassuming but imaginative man.  The family dynamics aren’t as amusing as the Huntley family’s, but it all seems fairly normal (albeit amidst the air raid sirens and rationings of the time) until a gentlemen turns up wanting to talk to Mr. Allenby.

There was something remarkable about him, thought Sergius, yet he could not easily have described him except to say he was tall, lean-figured, dressed in good but unmemorable dark clothes, with graceful, cat-like movements of the arms.  His dim eyes, blurred by heavy horn spectacles, stared down at his brilliantly polished black shoes as though within those orbs stirred some oracle who guided him.  He was like a shadow, without substance or personality.  When he opened his mouth to speak Sergius expected some extraordinary remark to issue from him.  “There is a basilisk sitting on your right shoulder.”  But he only said, in a persuasive and delicate voice, “You are Mr. Allenby, I believe?”

It turns out that the gentlemen is not, in fact, a gentlemen – but a fairy usurping the body of one.  Sergius is asked whether or not he believes in fairies, and somewhat nervously conceded that he always has done – based on the mysterious and imprecise events surrounding his own birth, abandonment by his mother, and subsequent adoption.  This confession is all that is needed for the fairy-man to grant Sergius five wishes – a transaction done with a businesslike demeanour unbefitting a fairy.

Sergius sat, drumming his fingers on the table-cloth and staring dreamily into space.  The strange referred again to his note-book.  “Hm. Yes,” he murmured, “Sergius Allenby.  To be allowed five wishes with the usual reservations.  Period, one month.  Casual wishes not operative.  No other person to assist.  Allow me to congratulate you, Mr. Allenby.  I might tell you, in confidence, that you are the only person in this area to be granted five wishes.”
“It does seem a lot.” Sergius coughed apologetically.  “It always used to be three in the old tales.”
“Frankly, there’s not much one can do with three; and first wishes are invariably wasted.”

And it is after this that the novel becomes strange.

I imagine quite a lot of you would have stopped listening when I used the word ‘fairy’.  I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect myself.  Even with my love of slightly strange novels, which dabble in the fantastic (like a certain Miss Hargreaves, don’t know if you’ve heard of it) I shudder at the thought of fairies and suchlike appearing in a novel.

Well, you’re in luck.  Turns out he might not be a fairy after all.  Humphrey Nanson occupies the other narrative thread – he is a strange sort of psychologist, who muses a lot on the nature of morality, works in an underground room filled with erotica and children’s books, and seems to be able to possess people.  Told you it became strange.  But he also enjoys toying with other people’s lives, and wielding power over them.

“There is the simple expedient of the telephone directory.  Don’t you
adore the pin of fate?  As for the joke – I would aim merely at the
baffling and bewildering of the chosen victim.  For example, Harold
Finching, warehouse clerk, receives, every Tuesday morning, through the
post, a parcel of boiled cod and bootlaces.  Miss Pennyprim, of Mon
Abri, discovers, every Sunday morning, a pair of bright scarlet bloomers
hanging from her line.  Mr. Allenby, newsagent, is visited by a
business-like fairy and told he may have five wishes.”
Curiouser and curiouser.  Even curiouserer is that Mr. Allenby’s wishes seem to be coming true…

There are some fantastic ideas in this novel.  My favourite conceit within it (which is more or less incidental to the plot) is that of an artist so absorbed in painting the sea scene in front of him that it is not until the picture is completed that he realises he has included a woman drowning herself… as indeed she has.  But good ideas do not a novel make.  Where Miss Hargreaves was insouciant and joyful with an undercurrent of the sinister, Mr. Allenby Loses The Way rather loses the joy.  Instead we have a lot of meanderings about philosophy and morality and psychology which do little other than baffle and skip round in circles.  In the meantime, the plot arcs and interweavings don’t seem to make much sense or maintain much continuity.

Perhaps most importantly, there is no character with the life of Miss Hargreaves.   She is a true one-off, a brilliant invention; I could read her dialogue with delight for months.  There is a vitality in her which spreads through her novel.  Mr. Allenby Loses The Way has no such character; everything is slightly leaden.  The writing is not bad, in and of itself, but neither is it sprightly.  The odd amusing turn of phrase reminds me of Baker at his peak, but only for a moment or two.

After I read Miss Hargreaves I had hoped I had been introduced to a wonderful writer, and could spend many happy years tracking down and loving his novels.  Instead, I am left rather desolate that Miss Hargreaves was the one bright light amidst mediocrity.  But I’ll keep trying his books.  If any of them are half as wonderful as Miss Hargreaves, it’ll have been worth the search.

Have you had that experience with any author – one brilliant book, but only one?  If so, let me know…

Baker, Baker…

Since we’ve had three posts about short stories this week, let’s have another! I didn’t plan to do any sort of themed week, and I rather suspect the theme will screech to a halt after this review, but for today… step forward Frank Baker and Stories of the Strange and Sinister.

I’ve mentioned a few times before that, although Frank Baker wrote one of my very favourite novels (Miss Hargreaves) I have only read one other of his books. It was Before I Go Hence, which I quite enjoyed – but it was nowhere near the standard of Miss H., and I worried that I’d like his work steadily less and less… so stopped. But it’s been three years since I read that, and short stories is moving the goalposts a little, so I tried again, with more reasonable expectations.

Stories of the Strange and Sinister was published over forty years after Miss Hargreaves, in 1983, the year Baker died. It was also his first work of fiction for twenty-two years, although including stories written between 1947 and 1983. The stories – as the title suggests – all touch upon the strange and sinister, but I don’t think any of them were intensely frightening. Which is good for me; I’d rather read strange stories than horror stories – which is why M.R. James has remained on the shelf for now.

Intense repugnance. That is one definition of horror to be found in the dictionary. Or, power of exciting such feeling. I think it is more. It is also what is totally unexpected: the long sunlit lane that has only a brick wall at the end, the worm in the rose, the sudden ravaged image of one’s own tormented face in a window pane. That which has sudden power to corrupt and defile. A stench where sweetness should be; darkness where light should be; a grin where a smile should be; a scream searing into a night where silence should be. An old withered hand where a young hand should be… And no escape from whatever it may be that has suddenly come upon the visitant. No escape.

This is the beginning to perhaps the creepiest story in the collection, ‘The Chocolate Box’, about a man who finds a severed hand in – you guessed it – a chocolate box. But, thankfully, it is a definition Baker doesn’t keep to. Even in his darkest moments, he can’t help introducing a touch of that whimsy which makes Miss Hargreaves so irresistible. For instance, in the middle of my favourite story in the book – ‘The Green Steps’ – the narrator refers to the disturbingly insane character as ‘about as talkative as a Trappist monk in Holy Week.’

In ‘The Chocolate Box’ the narrator writes:
But this is not a story about music. I must keep it out, otherwise it will flood the pages and consume me.
Baker suffers from the same predicament. He is obviously too great a music lover to allow it far from his mind. There is a story about warring partners in a music shop; one about a singer who morphs into a bird; a haunted piano…

But there are moments of terror too – the sack which follows its victim around the house; the presentiment of a steam-room murder… In Baker’s hand, we never wander too far into Gothic territory – but the sinister undertones to Miss Hargreaves have become much more alarming, and much less balanced out by humour. The whimsy still – as I said – hides in the corners, but there remains much to chill, even if not give nightmares.

As always with short story collections, I find it impossible to outline many of the stories, or give a proper feel for the collection as a whole – but I think Stories of the Strange and Sinister has convinced me not to abandon Baker just yet. It’s pretty expensive to track down, and probably isn’t really worth the £20 or £30 that various online sellers are requesting, but there are some interesting and original ideas and thoughtful writing – especially in that first story, ‘The Green Steps’. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from early in that story, which is both evocative of Baker’s atmospheric tone, and so many coastal villages in Cornwall (a county Baker loved) with their mysterious, historic and ambling paths:
I had observed him often and I had good reason to know where he lived, for it was very close to our cottage, up the cliff path, that bends sharply uphill over the harbour and the boatmasts that swing and sway in the gales; a path too narrow for any traffic, with rows of cottages, different sizes, shapes and colours, on one side. From the windows of our living-room which overlooks an area – a waste bit of land where kids keep rabbits in hutches and women dry clothes and men saw wood in winter – I would often, and still often see, the Scavenger. Above the area there are steps, the Green Steps they are called, worn away dangerously, all uneven, ground by the feet of many generations, the stone crumbling, little weeds growing from the cracks. I’d always had a curious familiar feeling about the Green Steps; they brought back a hint of the past to me, a paragraph of my boyhood, as though I’d been there years ago; and I knew I hadn’t.

“I abominate fuss…” Miss Hargreaves and Me

I’ve already written about Miss Hargreaves before on Stuck-in-a-Book, but I felt that a new edition warranted a new review. I’ve just finished reading the novel for the fifth time since 2003… and I love it all over again.

Just to say at the beginning – this review doubles as a prize draw. I have two copies of Miss Hargreaves to give away, and a set of Bloomsbury bookmarks for a runner up. Of course, if you already have a copy of Miss H and would prefer the bookmarks, just say that in the comments.

I usually try to put a positive spin on the books I read, so there is a real danger that I’m going to go wildly overboard with superlatives on Miss H, because – along with Diary of a Provincial Lady and Pride and Prejudice – it is the novel I could happily read over and over again, starting as soon as I’d finished.

Norman Huntley and his friend Henry are on holiday in Ireland, when they wander into a hideous church, led by a sexton with a squint.

I turned to the chancel, hoping to find something – however slight – that I could praise. But it was worse up there. Seaweed green altar frontal; dead flowers; lichenous-looking brass candlesticks; pitch-pine organ with a pyramid of dumb pipes soaring over a candle-greased console; ‘Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,’ splashed in chrome Gothic lettering over the choir walls; mural cherubim reminding you of cotton-wool chicks from Easter eggs; very stained glass; tattered hymn books, tattered hassocks – it was a horrible church. But there were, mercifully, two redeeming features; those were the dust sheets spread over lectern and pulpit. Somehow you felt a little safer with those dust sheets.
Meanwhile, Squint was rhapsodizing.
“I beg you to observe the beautiful lettering and decoration on the chancel wall. ‘I saw the Lord sitting upon a Throne.’ You like it?”

He had a habit of hissing like a goose, particularly when he was eager about something.

“Very pretty indeed,” I said.
“Original,” said Henry.
“Unusual, in a sense.”
“Full of feeling.”
“Filthy,” I said.

The awkwardness of the subsequent conversation forces Norman, on the Spur of the Moment, to make up a mutual acquaintance with a previous clergyman – that acquaintance is Miss Hargreaves.

‘And this lady, this Miss Hargreaves, she is still alive?’

‘Ten minutes old, precisely,’ said Henry.

I trod on his toe brutally.

‘The soul of youth,’ I said. ‘She is a poet,’ I added dreamily.

‘She would be an old lady,’ said Squint. ‘Over eighty.’

‘Nearer ninety,’ said Henry.

‘A touch of rheumatoid arthritis,’ I said, ‘but no more than a touch.’

Having left the church, Norman and Henry continue to embellish Miss Hargreaves’ character. A keen musician, she is the niece of the Duke of Grovesnor, has a cockatoo called Dr. Pepusch and a dog called Sarah. Perhaps most wonderful of all, she travels with her own hip bath. Proud of their creation, they continue the joke by sending her a letter, inviting her to visit Cornford…

… and she does.

A telegram arrives, telling them to expect her. Disbelievingly, they wait at the train station:

Limping slowly along the platform and chatting amiably to the porter, came – well, Miss Hargreaves. Quite obviously it couldn’t be anyone else.

‘At Oakham station,’ we heard her saying, ‘we have exquisitely pretty flowers. The station-master is quite an expert horticulturist. Oh, yes, indeed!’

‘Shall I have all your luggage put on a taxi, Mum?’

‘Just wait! Kindly stay! A moment. Accept this shilling, I beg of you. I am a trifle short-sighted, porter – oh, did I give you a halfpenny? Here you are, then. Can you see a young gentleman anywhere about? If so, no doubt but it would be my friend Mr. Norman Huntley.’

I flopped weakly on to a chair.

‘Can’t see no one, Mum,’ I could hear the porter saying.

‘Then let us wait! Do not go. What a handsome train – what a most handsome train! I wrote a sonnet to a railway train once. In my lighter moments, porter; in my more exuberant moments. My Uncle Grovesnor was good enough to say it recalled Wordsworth to him. Do you read at all, porter? Tell me. Tell me frankly.’

Isn’t she simply wonderful? Frank Baker has given her a voice so unmistakably hers, she is a unique creation and every word she says is a pleasure to read. To have seen Margaret Rutherford play her on stage and screen! I have hopes of the 1960 film turning up one day. Or Maggie Smith to play her now – she would be perfect. And, oh, Miss Hargreaves’ poetry! It is as strange and unique as she is, yet has undeniable panache.

Oh why must I go with my green tender grace
To lay all my eggs in one basket?
If I were a mayor I could carry a mace;
My card and address in a casket.


All this goeth on and my mind is a blank,
A capriciously prodigal hostage.
What care I when comforters tell me the Bank
Will pay death-duties, homage and postage?

But Miss Hargreaves is not all frothy excitement and delight – she “abominates fuss”, wants things to be just-so, and is unlikely to let decorum of convention prevent her from carrying out her good intentions. ‘She had the gift of being able to do unconventional things in the most casual manner, never losing her dignity thereby.’ As the novel progresses, while she may retain her dignity, Miss H manages to cause all sorts of trouble for Norman, with his family, his girlfriend, and his colleagues and acquaintances at the Cathedral where he plays the organ. (Music is a hugely important element of the novel – anybody who loves the organ, harp, or violin will find plenty to enjoy here.) She becomes something of a Frankenstein’s monster – as Norman’s mother says, ‘I think one would get quite fond of her, and yet never want to set eyes on her again.’

Miss Hargreaves may be the most extraordinary inhabitant of Cornford, but the others are by no means normal. Frank Baker is not satisfied with the creation of one exceptional character – he has made another, in the form of Norman’s father. Constantly talking at cross-purposes to everyone around him, and utterly absent-minded, he throws the most deliciously irrelevant things into conversation: ‘”Parrots are intelligent birds,” said father. “Knew one once that could recite a Shakespeare sonnet. All except for the last line.”‘ He gets irrationally worked-up about a new teapot, uses Browning as firewood in the bookshop he erratically runs, but is also the only person in Cornford who really believe Norman’s tales, and, in his own bizarre way, comforts him. ‘”Get it off your chest, boy. I may not listen, but I shall gather the trend of it.”‘

I have probably written far too much, and quoted at length, but I just love this novel so, so much. My quotation on the back of the Bloomsbury edition says ‘Witty, joyful, and moving but above all an extraordinary work of the imagination’ – and indeed it is. Endlessly surprising and captivating, Baker keeps the novel pacy all the way through. The idea could have grown stale, but there are enough twists and turns to keep you hooked. Sometimes sinister, sometimes sad, sometimes hilariously funny – Miss Hargreaves covers more or less all the bases, always written in the sort of delicious writing which is hardly found anymore. Miss H is one of the best characters of the twentieth century, in my opinion, and I really cannot encourage you enough to find this extraordinary book.

Don’t forget, for a copy of this wonderful novel – pop your name in the comments. Two winners will be announced later in the week, and a runner-up will get the bookmarks. If you’d prefer the bookmarks to the novel, just say.

Links to other reviews of Miss Hargreaves:
Random Jottings (warning: a lovely review, but gives away quite a lot)
Oxford Reader
Harriet Devine
Fancy Day

Second Book Syndrome

We’ve all heard about the difficulties authors have with their second books – especially if these authors have had phenomenal success with their first books. The press, the pressures, the awaiting backlash…
…but this is not the kind of Second Book Syndrome I’m chatting about today, though it is of a quite similar variety. Rather than the second book written, I’m referring to the second book read. These might well coincide, if you’re buying up the work of a live-and-writing author, but often this won’t be the case.

I should try and be a little clearer. You’ve read one book by an author. You love it. And so you find, and read, another. And this is where Second Book Syndrome hits in…

Regular blog visitors will know that I LOVE Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. It might even be my favourite novel, but, though I’ve read it three or four times, it wasn’t until last week that I’d read any other of Frank Baker’s novels. I’ve had them on my shelf for a while, but they’ve not got any further than that. And now I’ve read Before I Go Hence. Bam! Second Book Syndrome. I knew that Before I Go Hence wouldn’t live up to Miss Hargreaves, how could it, but…

The novel takes place on two time levels – the Reverend Kenner, his daughter Ellen and mentally deficient son Arthur live in an old house ‘Allways’, undisturbed until the mysterious return of his other, long-absent, son Robert. A few years later newly-weds Maurice and Ruth visit ‘Allways’ with some friends. And Reverend Kenner can see them out the window. This initial time-bending isn’t really followed up upon, not particularly. The two narratives are dealt with in separate chapters, and reflect upon each in quite intriguing ways, but… yes, another diagnosis of Second Book Syndrome. Before I Go Hence is too philosophical, too leaden in comparison to the, frankly incomparable, joie de vivre of Miss Hargreaves. And yet there is little intrinsic to Before I Go Hence which makes me dislike it; had it been by a different author, perhaps I’d appreciate it more, but as it is… Second Book Syndrome.

Anyone else suffered from SBS?

“I abominate fuss…” (50 Books…)

4. Miss Hargreaves – Frank Baker

(for my more recent, longer review of this book – click here)
Ok, The Provincial Lady was the most representative of my reading tastes, perhaps – but if you only read one book I recommend, let this one be it. It will change your life – honest. (Only very *slightly* over the top…) I can’t think of a novel which compares; Miss Hargreaves is truly in a class of its own.

Norman and his friend Henry are on holiday in Lusk – on a dull day they wander into a church, and have to make conversation with an even duller verger. On the spur of the moment, Norman says he has a shared acquaintance with the parish’s old vicar – and that acquaintance is one Miss Hargreaves. She’s nearly ninety, carries a hip flask, bath and cockatoo with her everywhere, not to mention Sarah the dog. Continuing the joke, they send a letter to her supposed hotel, asking if she’d like to come and stay. When Miss Constance Hargreaves arrives on a train, Norman has some explaining to do, and the strange occurences are just beginning…

It is a cliche of criticism, but Miss Hargreaves genuinely did make me both laugh and cry – and pretty much every emotion in between. I thought the theme would pall, but Baker keeps the momentum going for every page, and I never wanted it to end. And though this is without doubt Connie’s book, the secondary characters are also wonderful – especially Norman’s bookshop-owning father, Mr. Huntley. As my friend Curzon recently said “what a joyous book! I loved every moment” – in fact, don’t just take our words for it. I have forced – apologies, suggested – this book to so many people, probably two dozen, and only one has not raved. If you’ve liked any of the other books I’ve mentioned, I guarantee you’ll love this. And you’re in hallowed company – Elaine at Random Jottings, Lisa at Blue Stalking, Ruth at Crafty People, and Lynne at dovegreyreader are all fanatics. Check out this post, for dovegreyreader’s mention of the novel, back in May 2006. I’ve very cheekily commented on it again, to thrust it up into the Recent Comments section.

Ok. Here’s the bad news. It’s quite difficult to get a hold of. It is in print – see the picture – but that is a £30 edition from Tartarus Press. I have a copy (though that picture isn’t mine – all three of my editions are tucked away at home), and you may well not be able to resist it – but £30 is quite a lot to gamble. There was a Penguin edition – one of those nice orange-striped ones – so check out sites like for them, but the have just done a group read, and the interweb may have a paucity of them right now. Do keep trying! I would offer mine for loan, but they’re in Somerset at the moment, and a little too close to my heart…
I’ve stolen the second picture (another edition I have) from, a fellow fan, who has some interesting things to say, and a link to the official Frank Baker website. Brian also wrote a rather fun radio adaptation, a cassette of which I managed to persuade an archive site to make for me. I played it too often, and it’s not working very well now… but I still have the novel to keep me company. I’ve read it three times now, and I can’t see any reason why I won’t read it another thirty. Possibly my favourite novel. I do hope I’ll get the legions to come advocate it in the comments!

Hope you like my colouring-in…