Thursday, 30 June 2016

Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe

published 2016

set in 1977

paradise lodge 1

[Lizzie is 15 and has just started a new job in a care home]

The Owner’s Wife spoke to me while she arranged teacups on to trays. She told me that the nurses’ dresses in small sizes were like gold dust,. ‘I should hang on to that one, if it fits well, and put your name in it.’

‘I’ll keep it on and surprise my mum with it,’ I said.

‘Good idea,’ she said…

Normally I would have run home, it being slightly downhill all the way, but it seemed disrespectful – in the nurse’s dress – so I walked really quickly instead and skipped when no cars were in sight…

[A week or so later] Miranda and I walked up to Paradise Lodge together on the Friday. She’d been asked to do an extra shift too and was dreading it. She was in school uniform and furious that I hadn’t phoned her to tell her I’d be in my nurse’s uniform with a snake belt and white cap with bare shaved legs. I was forced to tell her about our phoned being ‘incoming calls only’ and she groaned and made remarks about my family being on the breadline. In self-defence I bragged about my rapport with the Owner’s Wife and Miranda said how repugnant she’d found the Matron…

commentary: I love Nina Stibbe’s writing: her Love, Nina letter collection about her years as a nanny in London instantly became one of my favourite books, and I have re-read it several times since publication in 2014 (I mentioned it in my recent piece on Carla Lane, and have been very much enjoying the BBC TV version of it, softened though it is).

Then came Man at The Helm, a novel, though I don’t think the reader can be blamed for assuming it is largely autobiographical. I wrote about it on the blog in 2014 and I said then ‘The book is simultaneously bleak, jaunty and desolating in a way that I simply have never come across before, but it’s so funny and clever that Nina Stibbe gets away with it. It will be interesting to see what she writes next.’ So – Paradise Lodge is next, and is very much a sequel to Man at the Helm, and presumably at least partly based in fact (?).

Young Lizzie gets a part-time job a nursing home for elderly patients, as an unqualified care assistant. This is meant to fit in with school, but gradually the job takes up more and more time and she just about stops going to school. Most of the book takes place at the home, part of it among her family. It’s easy to forget that she is still of school age.

The description of the staff and residents of the home is wonderfully well done, and wholly engrossing, and despite extreme moments of satire is all too authentic and convincing. The care assistants treated as full nurses and expected to do all kinds of things, the Matron with the doubtful credentials (she ‘could easily have been an over-indulged patient with delusions and a nurse’s outfit’), and the great reproductions of conversations - the dialogue is excellent - and the staff tearoom –
The day nurses were getting ready to go to the pub. It was like watching a Play for Today where the actors are that good you can’t see the acting and though nothing’s actually happening, story-wise, you want to watch. The Crazy Baby tongs were passed from one to the other and newly formed curls sprayed with Harmony hairspray. Tubes of mascara bobbed in a Pyrex jug of boiling water, cigarettes were lit from other cigarettes and the room filled with smoke, eau de cologne and the sound of chatter, laughter and scraping chairs.
Isn’t that a fabulous piece of description?

paradise lodge 2

There’s the authentic sprinkle of Stibbe shockers, reminding you that this is the 1970s, and she’s seeing life in a certain way:
I became expert at baby care quite quickly. I taught myself how to smoke without removing the cigarette from my mouth, for changing Danny’s nappy. 

I knew all about prescription drug-takers, my mother having been hooked for years, and I’d seen her top up with Lemsips, dog aspirins and Fisherman’s Friends, baby medicine, you name it – anything to prolong the feeling of being medicated, rather than face the world. 

At that, Miss Pitt grabbed the decorative cross that marked Rose Wilston’s grave and started hitting me with it. 

I gave her the barest bones and she hit the roof. I mean, she actually punched the roof of the van and screamed at me. 

It was before people really believed that honesty was a good thing in a relationship. No-one said to a newly-wed woman, ‘Tell him you don’t like the necklace, be honest, tell him you’d like to change it for something else.’Paradise Lodge 3

The uniforms feature quite a bit, especially when a new member of staff introduces jade-coloured dripdry twopieces, which sound pretty advanced for the time.
I loved this:
My mother’s world was part sonnet, part Bob Dylan song and part boarding school dormitory.
The story rambles along – one reviewer said it would have suited a letter or diary format, and you can see that, but actually there is a lot more structure than appears at first, some proper plot, a few surprises and a satisfying ending.

Stibbe’s writing just does not resemble anyone else’s: she really does sound like a perhaps-16-year-old relating what happened last year, no hindsight, but without being annoying or self-conscious. The books don’t resemble anyone else’s either – I’m sure creative writing classes or courses would have made her change her ways. So we’re lucky that the happy chance of the Nina letters gave us the chance to read more of her - I certainly will follow her anywhere. These read like books written by someone who doesn’t know what novels are meant to be like (though we know from her story that Nina has read an awful lot of books) and all the better for that.

This is the second book about the care of old people that I have read recently – a Dutch bestseller, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, is coming out in the UK soon, and I will review it nearer to publication date.

The top picture is an advert for nurses from a fashion magazine of the time – hard to believe that this was the picture thought to lure the young women in to this career, it looks awkward and faked. In a crime story she would be about to inject the patient with poison.

The other page of photos is from the same magazine and shows the range of styles that young women were wearing at that time… so unlucky for those of us who had our primes just then. I used a couple of the small pics in Tuesday’s entry, representing 70s fashion there too.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Tuesday Night Club: An Academic Miscellany

Our Tuesday Night group of fiction fans has chosen schools and universities as our theme for June. 

Thanks to
Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo. She has also kindly offered to collect the links for the various pieces.

Academic logo
Here are the week 1 links.
And here are week 2 links.
And the week 3 links.

If anyone wants to join in, just send a link to one of us or post it in the comments below.

I'm looking at a couple of different aspects of academic mysteries this week.... 

1) After last week’s Nicholas Blake, I thought I’d look at another obscure academic mystery: Robert Robinson’s Landscape with Dead Dons, first published 1956, thinking it would give me another full, single-book entry.

Robert Robinson is better known (remembered – he died in 2011) in the UK as a twinkly-eyed, satirical, witty and sometimes caustic broadcaster. He presented all kinds of TV and radio shows, including many quiz shows, and might be thought of as an early Stephen Fry. He was in his late 20s when the book was published, and was already working at the BBC, and may have thought this would be a nice sideline – but it was his only crime novel.

Although I was glad to reread it, it’s not that great. It’s full of very broad satire of Oxford ways - the characters all have silly names – and makes you see that Edmund Crispin was really rather restrained in this area. He makes a nice point of having an Oxford College of the day being a closed circle – because of the porter, and the secure gates and walls, no-one could have got in or out unnoticed, so there is a limited group of suspects. The reports of the academics’ conversations did not entertain, or even feel that real. The treatment of women was stupid and tiresome.

However, there was one aspect of the book which was both clever and original, but can’t mention without spoilering… You’d have to read it.

dorm room

2) Student rooms. There was one described in the Robinson book:
Autumn found himself in a room similar to a hundred other such rooms in the University. The wallpaper was yellow, there were two old-fashioned armchairs which had been reupholstered in a rather stern shade of maroon, and a sofa the same. There were a dark brown sideboard, two stained tables (one round, one square), and a huge deal bookcase not quite full of books/ Dirty teacups from the previous day were crowded into the fireplace, and on a plate sat the remains of several Eccles cakes. Membership cards of various University clubs stood on the mantelpiece and disposed amongst them were a quart pot, a photograph of a girl, some pipes, a small plaque which read DEFENSE DE SE PENCHER AU DEHORS, and apiece of 18th century porcelain. On the walls were three or four pictures.

student room

And it was nice to compare with this description from last week’s book of a female student’s room – this time in the USA:
The sitting room presented the chaotic appearance of many students’ apartments: books, pamphlets and cushions on the floor, the table hastily cleared for a meal, tattered curtains which had once been scarlet. In this shabby, slovenly nest, Sukie stood out with almost preternatural clarity of definition: a dark-blue jersey and fawn skirt set off the lines of her small, trim body; her face, for all the uncertain look on it, was vivid as a camellia. Artemis, he thought; no, Vergil’s warrior maiden, Camilla. “Would you like some Dubonnet?” “That would be nice.” She took a sticky bottle and two glasses from a cupboard.

3) Remembering a real favourite academic novel – and probably the only such I have read with an Australian setting. I blogged on it when Barnard died a few years back, so have dug out part of my post from then:

Death of an Old Goat by Robert Barnard

published 1977  

[The book is set in a remote Australian university town: Alice is a guest at a party given by the Wickhams for a visiting academic]

At this moment Lucy Wickham caught out of the corner of her eye the figure of Alice O’Brien, heading for the drinks corner, and maliciously decided to frustrate her. ‘Alice’ she said, gazing at her loud scarlet and orange frock of unfashionable length, and her peeling face with the too blatant make-up.

‘So glad you could come. How nice you look tonight. But then you always look so nice, of course.’

Alice gritted her teeth and wondered whether to hand Lucy the empty glass and demand a refill. No. Perhaps later. Or perhaps when she became permanent.


commentary: Robert Barnard wrote a large number of popular crime novels, and this was one of the first (the chronology is vague - in some sources this one is dated to 1974, but the copyright page gives 1977). It is a hilarious academic mystery, with sustained satirical passages that make you surprised it isn’t better known – Barnard mentions Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (on the blog here and here), and this book is at that level, while Alice, above, is a nicer version of Jim's Margaret.

Some of the humour is broad and not at all politically correct: characters are shown as snobbish, misogynist and elitist, and quite horrendously racist – but you couldn’t doubt that it is intended as fierce satire. You also couldn’t doubt that Barnard worked in academia: his vicious descriptions of academic infighting, the canapés at the party above, and the contents of an English lecturer’s bookshelves, all suggest straight transcriptions from life. You would guess he had a great time writing it, with its Macbeth moments, with the studies of ‘the poetry of George Eliot and the plays of Dickens’ and, above all, with the visiting academic who clearly remembers meeting Jane Austen (“charming woman… most witty”) before she died, although she was very ill.

It is a short, very clever book: in the last page or two you wonder how he can end it: and then the final sentence rounds it off with sudden brilliance.

As if Old Goat  and the other novels weren’t enough, Robert Barnard also wrote one of the very best studies of Agatha Christie’s work: the 1980 A Talent to Deceive, a book that any true Christie fan can return to again and again – it is clever, funny and perceptive, and it is unlikely ever to be bettered.


The party-ready, on-trend women are from fashion magazines of 1977.

The first student room is from a Bell Telephone advert for phones in dorm rooms - it’s listed as 1922, but plainly isn’t – other evidence suggests around 1966. (Phones in rooms SO much something you wouldn’t be having in a UK room for a long time later than that - in most places they were probably about to arrive when they were overtaken by mobiles).

The other room is a 1981 student room from the well-loved LSE library archive, which I said last week is a great resource for pictures of how students actually looked in the past.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Guest Blog: Hunting for Heroines and finding Sadie…

Today’s entry is a guest post from the website Hunting for Heroines, which is a blog looking for great female characters in children’s picture books. Anyone interested in either children’s books or heroines should take a look – and the proprietor is always looking for recommendations for good books. Here’s your chance to influence the next generation of children. (A link to the blog is also in my blogroll, to the right.)

I am proud to say that Clothes in Books Hunting for Heroines 2recommended this particular book to Hunting for Heroines: it is by longtime blogfriend Sara O’Leary – who was one of my blog’s earliest, nicest and most helpful supporters.

I’ll leave it to the guest blogger to explain why the book is so good.


the book: This is Sadie by Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad

published 2015

Hunting for Heroines

Sadie is a paean to the life of the imagination. It reminds the reader of the importance of stories to enrich and inspire our children.

'Sadie's perfect day is spent with friends. Some of them live on her street, and some live in the pages of books.' Her life is never mundane because she constantly has a parallel reality existing in her head - one full of stories and adventure. Littered throughout Sadie are allusions to heroines from throughout the ages: Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Goldilocks, Alice, The Little Mermaid, Maid Marian.

Sadie is the kind of child that I'm sure a lot of readers of this blog can identify with. I always loved reading as a kid and the characters were just as real to me as my surroundings. If not more real. Whereas 'real life' is always in flux (new schools, new friends, new teachers) the characters in a book remain constant, in exactly the same position as when you left them and always there for you at a turn of a page. Sometimes I used to finish a book and immediately turn back to the beginning because I wanted to spend more time with the characters.

Everything Sadie encounters is brought to life  - including clothes. When she chooses a dress to wear she whispers to it '"Don't tell the others... but you are my favourite."' I think the other dresses might suspect that this one would be the favourite because it is the perfect outfit for make-believe. The dress is medieval in style with a full green skirt and a red lace-up bodice; just right for riding a horse, diving into a swimming pool, flying over houses. Sadie reminded me how magical clothes can be to children, how a certain outfit can be enchanted with power. (I had a panda sweatshirt which I was adamant brought me good luck because I had been wearing it on the day my parents took us on a surprise trip to the cinema.)
Sadie is an active and fun book to read aloud due to the narrator constantly interacting with the reader - asking us to check to see if we have wings, questioning if we can hear Sadie. It is noteworthy that in a book which celebrates the world of the imagination the author employs metafiction - addressing the audience directly - thereby repeatedly reminding us that this is a storybook. But that doesn't make it any less real.

Heroine rating: 4/5

The big picture is from a book called Little Maid Marian, by Amy E. Blanchard, available on Project Gutenberg.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Dress Down Sunday: 1929 book & ‘… a very transparent negligee…’


The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie

published 1929 - This is my book of 1929 for Rich Westwood's Crime of the Century meme over at his Past Offences blog



Seven Dials 1929 2

[Excitements in a country house in the middle of the night.]

The Countess's return to consciousness was very different from that of Jimmy Thesiger. It was more prolonged and infinitely more artistic….

“For God's sake, Bill, leave her alone,” said Bundle crossly. “She'll be all right.”And with an expert hand she flipped a good deal of cold water on to the exquisite makeup of the Countess's face.

The Countess flinched and sat up. She …drew the folds of a very transparent negligée closer around her.

“It is coming back to me,” she murmured. “Yes, it is coming back.” She looked at the little crowd grouped around her. Perhaps something in the attentive faces struck her as unsympathetic…

“Have some water,” Bundle said coldly.

The Countess refused water. Jimmy, kindlier to beauty in distress, suggested a cocktail. The Countess reacted favourably to this suggestion. When she had swallowed it, she looked round once more, this time with a livelier eye….

The Countess's negligée, as previously mentioned, was thin - a mere veil of orange chiffon. Through it Bundle saw distinctly below the right shoulder blade a small black mole.

commentary: This was one of the first Christies I read as a teenager (a long time ago), and I loved it then and love it now. It’s one of what Vicki describes as the flapper adventures, and it contains secret societies, exotic adventuresses, and some very untrustworthy people. It’s silly, fun and entertaining – and one of the clever things about it I can’t mention without spoilering….

As a book of 1929 it is splendid for demonstrating what I think of as the ‘un-Julian-Fellowes’ or ‘un-Downton’ effect. As I’m fond of droning on about helpfully pointing out, Christie is full of contemporary details that no current writer could put into a book about the 1920s, 30s or 40s.

A favourite phrase from the book is a young man asking an older woman, Lady Coote, where she lives:
‘Where are you hanging out now?’
Any modern writer who put that into a 20s drama would be hammered for anachronism.

And here is heroine Eileen/Bundle (leftover from The Secret of Chimneys) She is nice: very contemporary, and has a lovely relationship with her father. She is independent – something her father takes for granted:
“Eileen settles her own affairs. If she came to me tomorrow and said she was going to marry the chauffeur, I shouldn't make any objections. It's the only way nowadays. Your children can make life damned unpleasant if you don't give in to them in every way. I say to Bundle, 'Do as you like, but don't worry me,' and really, on the whole, she is amazingly good about it.”
I’m sure not all young women were as lucky as Bundle, but it just wasn’t a big deal, apparently. She drives her car (very fast), dresses in breeches and jumper for adventure (not a negligee as the lady above) and when she is knocked out, her (cloche?) hat protects her from worse injury.

seven dials breechesseven dials cloche
At one point Jimmy, needing to get Bundle away, enters the drawing-room and says
“I say, will you come and see those etchings now? They’re waiting for you.”
This made me look up the story of the phrase ‘see my etchings’ – highly enjoyable but very inconclusive. This usage suggests that it was a known phrase, but had not reached its double entendre moment, as Jimmy says it in front of the married women who would be seen as Bundle’s chaperones. (Was it the Netflix and Chill invitation of its day?)

And Seven Dials is amusing – I loved this when one of the young chaps is going to pretend an interest in politics in order to get invited on a dangerous weekend trip:
“But you know, Bundle, it's too damned risky.” 

“Stuff,” said Bundle. “If George does find him out, he won't blame you." 
“That's not it at all,” said Bill. “I mean it's too damned risky for Jimmy. Before he knows where he is, he'll be parked down somewhere like Tooting West, pledged to kiss babies and make speeches. You don't know how thorough Codders is and how frightfully energetic.”

When Bundle has been knocked out, she enjoys hearing her companion’s shocked and loving tribute (‘Darling Bundle… I love you… what shall I do?’) so much that she pretends not to have come round, staying still and silent so as to hear some more.

Also there is a blissful list of the secret societies operating in London at that time, provided by Superintendent Battle for Bundle:

The Blood Brothers of St. Sebastian.
The Wolf Hounds.
The Comrades of Peace.
The Comrades Club.
The Friends of Oppression.
The Children of Moscow.
The Red Standard Bearers.
The Herrings.
The Comrades of the Fallen.

Anyone looking for a name for their thriller could do worse… or you could make one of those tables, where you could pick a word from two different columns to make a new secret society name.

TracyK has also chosen this book for her 1929 contribution - see her review over at Bitter Tea and Mystery.

The doughty young women in black and white are from a girls’ adventure annual of 1927.

The negligee is a 1920s one from the NYPL – they have a collection of ‘loungewear’ to gladden the heart, from smoking caps to teagowns to moustachioed fellows in solid robes. We think this generation invented loungewear. Ha.

The second picture down is there because I couldn't do a 1920s Christie and NOT show a lovely evening dress for the fancy dinner party which of course features. 

More Agatha Christie all over the blog, click on the label below.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie: Part 2

published 1937
Dumb witness 4She was nearer fifty than forty, her hair was parted in the middle in Madonna fashion, her eyes were brown and slightly prominent.

She wore a sprigged muslin dress that conveyed an odd suggestion of fancy dress.
Poirot stepped forward and started the conversation in his most flourishing manner…

[Miss Tripp said:] "Sit here, won't you--no, please--really, I always prefer an upright chair myself. Now, are you sure you are comfortable there? Dear Minnie Lawson--oh, here is my sister." More creaking and rustling and we were joined by a second lady, dressed in green gingham that would have been suitable for a girl of sixteen.

"My sister Isabel--Mr.--er--Parrot-- and--er--Dumb Witness 2Captain Hawkins. Isabel dear, these gentlemen are friends of Minnie Law son's." Miss Isabel Tripp was less buxom than her sister. She might indeed have been described as scraggy. She had very fair hair done up into a large quantity of rather messy curls. She cultivated a girlish manner and was easily recognizable as the subject of most of the flower poses in photography. She clasped her hands now in girlish excitement.

"How delightful! Dear Minnie! You have seen her lately?"

"Not for some years," explained Poirot.
commentary: I’m now doing a second entry on this book, despite having described it in a recent entry as nobody’s favourite Christie.

Blogfriend Lucy Fisher got me going on a re-read. Her defence of the book included this:
I like this book for the social comment: the estate agents’ office, the feisty elderly lady who sees through Poirot, the back story of Emily and her sisters, the spiritualist who dresses like a little girl (haven’t we all met at least one of her?)
- And indeed the spiritualist sisters were so awful I did want to do an entry on them. There is an assumption that being mediums means they must also be vegetarians, wear strange clothes, and not have proper plumbing. Poirot and Hastings refuse an invitation to supper, and Hastings says:
“thank goodness, Poirot,” I said with fervour, “you got us out of those raw carrots! What awful women!” 

“Pour nous, un bon bifteck—with the fried potatoes—and a good bottle of wine. What should we have had to drink there, I wonder?" 
“Well water, I should think,” I replied with a shudder. “Or non-alcoholic cider. It was that kind of place! I bet there’s no bath and no sanitation except an earth closet in the garden!”

This all bears a remarkable resemblance to George Orwell’s frequent criticisms of the popular view of socialists – faddy foods and sandals and loose-cut clothes. Spiritualists and socialists don’t always go together.

GA mysteries also suggest that these identifiable women – hand-woven items of clothing are another giveaway – often ran cafes with weird décor and doubtful cakes.

Unexpectedly, Poirot does not dismiss spiritualism out of hand:
“What makes you say that spiritualism is tomfoolery, Hastings?”
I stared at him in astonishment. “My dear Poirot—those appalling women-" 
He smiled. “I quite agree with your estimate of the Misses Tripp. But the mere fact that the Misses Tripp have adopted with enthusiasm Christian Science, vegetarianism, theosophy and spiritualism does not really constitute a damning indictment of those subjects!...I have an open mind on the subject.”

Christie likes to use spiritualism, seances and mediums a lot, but usually as straight tools to sharpen the plot, the way the hocus pocus can hide what is really going on. But she also likes the atmosphere they create, and the hint of a question lingering in the air as to whether there might be something to it…

The top picture is from the NYPL.

The lower one, from Wikimedia Commons, is a medium, Mina Crandon, who was active in the USA in the 1920s: one of those who was investigated by Harry Houdini. There seems no doubt that she was entirely fraudulent, but her Wikipedia entry makes for fascinating reading and is highly recommended.

Earlier entry on this book here, endless Agatha Christie posts all over the blog – click on the label below.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Tuesday Night Club: visiting academics and a venture to America

Our Tuesday Night group of fiction fans has chosen schools and universities as our theme for June.

Thanks to
Bev, as ever, for the excellentAcademic logo logo. She has also kindly offered to collect the links for the various pieces.

Here are the week 1 links.
And here are week 2 links.

If anyone wants to join in, just send a link to one of us or post it in the comments below.

After school mysteries in week 1, and Oxford vs Cambridge last week, I decided to look at a fairly obscure academic mystery – one that has a detective visiting an American University.

The Morning After Death by Nicholas Blake

published 1966

Morning aFter 2

Nigel sat them down for a photograph on the front steps. Peering into the magnifying view finder, he saw the four of them, tiny and sharp, in brilliant color. Reading from left to right: Chester, Mark, Sukie, Charles. Chester, with his small neat face and small neat body, a tentative smile on the one, gray-green English tweeds on the other. Mark, larger, not so tidy, corduroy trousers and a blue sports jacket, smiling broadly out of a round face. The streamlined figure of Sukie, gray eyes, black hair, vivid as a cardinal bird in her scarlet skirt and white sweater.

Charles Reilly, pushing out his sensual lips as if to shape a wisecrack or a line of verse. “A historic photograph,” said Nigel, happily unaware how the future would take up his innocent words.

Morning aFter 3

commentary: This book has always stuck in my mind for an unlikely reason: I have never had the slightest desire for an academic career, but when I first read it I suddenly thought ‘wouldn’t it be nice to be a visiting scholar, and go to an American university in New England somewhere and do some important research into one subject.’ I never did anything about it, and the only other thing I ‘remembered’ about the book (although see also below) was wrong: Nigel Strangeways is forever talking about Emily Dickinson (from whom the title comes), and he visits her home town of Amherst, so I had him down as a Dickinson scholar, but in fact it is mentioned exactly once that he is studying Herrick. He’s a private detective, so why? No idea. And he spends zero time doing research – far too busy solving a murder. And, rather bizarrely, being seduced by a young student. There is a sex scene, nothing too graphic.

One would guess that C Day Lewis (Nicholas Blake was a pseudonym) had done an academic year abroad in his role as a poet, and based the book on the experience.

I don’t think it was as obvious to me when I read it 20+ years ago, but now it seems plain that the crime is taking place at Harvard, in an individual Hall called Hawthorne House. The book culminates in the Harvard/Yale football match, where the murderer is chased to a standstill.

The murder isn’t that interesting – the circle of suspects is so small, no surprise is really possible. But the picture of life I did find interesting. It’s set in 1964 and some of the students are involved in the Civil Rights movement. Blake should really have missed out the student who disguises himself as a black man in order to evade the police, and there is an of-its-time but inexcusable attitude to an attempted rape. Strangeways observes that ‘academic Americans tended to fight shy of the kind of extramural gossip that was meat and drink to Oxford dons’, which seems surprising. Surely everyone likes gossip… There is quite a discussion of plagiarism, and about students and their supervisors and the questions over shared attribution of ideas.

There’s talk of the rise of business studies, and that computers are increasingly taking over work. A missing passport is treated very lightly, because ‘it’s no use to anyone else’ so not worth stealing. Nigel watches a man with a leaf-blowing apparatus in the quad – I’d have assumed that was a much more modern piece of kit. The speed limit outside the city is 50mph. And I discovered that I did have another memory of the book. This:
He had discovered on a previous visit [to a restaurant] that a chocolate ice, consumed with Bardolino [wine], imparted to the latter a delicious flavor of wild strawberries.
- which I thought the acme of sophistication when I first read it, and did try out.

One thing I wouldn’t have known back then is concerned with one of Strangeways’ remarks:

“‘ Love is proved in the letting go’— that’s what an English poet wrote.”

I now know this to be a line by Cecil Day Lewis himself - from a beautiful, heart-wrenching poem called Walking Away about leaving your child at school.

Blake describes the phenomenon of the Food Man, which surely must have been based on reality:
Suddenly there was the sound of footsteps beneath, and a yelling, bawling voice shattered the calm. “Food Man! FOOD MAN! Hot dogs! Coke! Coffee! . . .” Nigel still, after a week of it, leaped nervously in his chair every time he heard the appalling racket. Punctually at 10: 15 P.M. every night the Food Man cried his wares at Nigel’s entrance. Students, who had dined at 6: 30, rushed to fortify themselves against another hour of work. The Food Man was himself a student, who at the start of term had bid highest for the job and the modest profits it brought in— an example of private enterprise which would have shocked Oxbridge dons to the marrow. His bawlings could now be heard diminuendo as he went from entrance to entrance toward the far end of the court.
So there was plenty of sociological detail to enjoy in the book, and the look at academia was fascinating.

Other Nicholas Blake books have featured on the blog – End of Chapter and There’s Trouble Brewing. C Day Lewis had a long affair with blog favourite Rosamond Lehmann.

The pictures of students are from the LSE library in London – wrong side of the ocean, but this is always a wonderful resource for pictures of how studious young people actually looked in the past. 

Monday, 20 June 2016

Quantum of Solace – don’t be expecting the film

James Bond Book 8 is

For Your Eyes Only

 a short story collection published 1960 containing:

From a View to a Kill, 
For Your Eyes Only, 
Quantum of Solace, 
The Hildebrand Rarity
Quantum of Solace

[The story of a young married couple in Bermuda]

He cast about desperately for something that would occupy her and make her happy, and finally, of all things, he settled – or rather they settled together – on golf. Golf is very much the thing in Bermuda. There are several fine links – including the famous Mid-Ocean Club where all the quality play and get together at the club afterwards for gossip and drinks…

She took to spending all day at the Mid-Ocean. She worked hard at her lessons and got a handicap and met people through the little competitions and the monthly medals, and in six months she was not only playing a respectable game but had become quite the darling of the men members. I wasn’t surprised. I remember seeing her there from time to time, a delicious, sun-burned little figure in the shortest of shorts with a white eyeshade with a green lining, and a trim compact swing that flattered her figure, and I can tell you,’ the Governor twinkled briefly, ‘she was the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course. Of course the next step didn’t take long. There was a mixed-foursome competition. She was partnered with the oldest Tattersall boy – they’re the leading Hamilton merchants and more or less the ruling clique in Bermudan society…’

commentary: I’d always assumed that the title Quantum of Solace’ was made-up for the 2008 Bond film – it sounded so very modern and uptodate. It turns out that the title wasn’t, but the entire plot was. Quantum of Solace is a story in this collection, and bears no relation whatsoever to the film, which is a sequel to Casino Royale (my Bond film knowledge is very poor, though I have now finally watched these two films – CR and QofS ).

As I trundle through the Ian Fleming books, I find Kingsley Amis’s James Bond Dossier to be invaluable: his description of Quantum of Solace is:
A Maugham-ish anecdote recounted to Bond. Not a secret-service story.
-which is a very fair description. (A character in the story has a fox-fur tippet, which I feel is a very un-Bond accessory, much more Maugham.**) It is melodramatic and unlikely, but genuinely interesting and unpredictable, you really want to know what is going to happen in this story of a doomed marriage. Bond triggers the story (after a semi-official dinner party in the colonies) by a casual comment on the marriageability of air stewardesses- although in fact:
Bond had no intention of marrying anyone. If he did, it would certainly not be an insipid slave. He only hoped to amuse or outrage the Governor into a discussion of some human topic.
And sure enough the Colonial Governor concerned launches into a story about a man who married an air hostess. This person has similarities with Bond in his history (ie the history that will later be revealed for Bond) so perhaps Fleming was experimenting. Rather sweetly, the romance begins because the lady concerned helps him with the great difficulties involved in flying – this man is a well-educated diplomat, but apparently has difficulties when mealtime comes:
She showed him how to deal with the complicated little cellophane packages, how to get the plastic lid off the salad dressing.
Those were the glamour days, eh? Anyway, no spying but I thought a pretty good story. Air hostesses do feature in Fleming: see entry on Goldfinger for a good illustration.

The other tales in the book entertained me less. From a View to a Kill has Bond on a motorbike, and a weird teenage wish-fulfilment of a beautiful woman scooping Bond up (she’s left her car double-parked, engine running) from a Parisian pavement café. According to the wonderful collection of Fleming’s letters, The Man with the Golden Typewriter, when he sent this to his editor at publishers Jonathan Cape the response – while very enthusiastic - included ‘quibbles about erroneous descriptions of flowers’ and the gentle correction ‘brown squirrels are generally, I think, called red squirrels’.

For Your Eyes Only has a woman with a bow and arrow, coming over all Katniss Everdene. Amis’s irresistible summing-up says it contains ‘M at his most unspeakable’ and that the motive for the crime in the book is ‘just luxuriating in villainy, really’.

Risico has a very weird and unnerving beach scene. TheQuantum of Solace 2 Hildebrand Rarity is about a very nasty man indeed, and reminded me of the recent TV adaptation of John Le Carre’s Night Manager. Both stories involve women showing themselves off in bikinis. This picture, right, (an advertising image from 1997) looks much more like something from the films, but Fleming does stress the smallness of the bikinis.

In the end the stories were not as satisfying as the novels – I’m looking forward to pushing on through to Thunderball now.

The golfing picture is from the wonderful Sam Hood collection at the State Library of New South Wales - a set of photos of everyday life that I have raided often for the blog, and can look at endlessly. Surely very much in the spirit of the description.

** Maugham and Fleming knew each other well, were on very friendly terms, and to some extent admired each other's work.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie


published 1937

Dumb Witness

She came to the head of the stairs, stretched out one hand to the banister rail and then, unaccountably, she stumbled, tried to recover her balance, failed and went headlong down the stairs.

The sound of her fall, the cry she gave, stirred the sleeping house to wakefulness. Doors opened, lights flashed on.

Miss Lawson popped out of her room at the head of the staircase.
Uttering little cries of distress, she pattered down the stairs. One by one the others arrived - Charles, yawning, in a resplendent dressing gown. Theresa, wrapped in dark silk. Bella in a navy-blue kimono, her hair bristling with combs to “set the wave.”

Dazed and confused, Emily Arundell lay in a crushed heap. Her shoulder hurt her and her ankle - her whole body was a confused mass of pain. She was conscious of people standing over her, of that fool Minnie Lawson crying and making ineffectual gestures with her hands, of Theresa with a startled look in her dark eyes, of Bella standing with her mouth open looking expectant, of the voice of Charles saying from somewhere - very far away so it seemed:

“It's that damned dog's ball! He must have left it here and she tripped over it. See? Here it is!”
commentary: Is this one nobody’s favourite Christie? It’s competent and a reasonable puzzle – although the pool of suspects is very small, so it’s not going to be a big surprise at the end.

Blogfriend (and fellow Tuesday-Nighter) Brad Friedman recently did a highly recommended and amusing takedown of the book, ‘Deconstructing Second Rate Christie’ – and his piece and others’ comments on it made me feel I needed to re-read it.

It was slightly better than I remembered: but very much the stock selection of characters and arrangements – it is hard to think of any type or situation that isn’t done (probably better) in a different book, with the sole exception of the dog. And the dog is awful, wince-making, all that anthropomorphizing! (Yes I have a stony heart and am not a dog lover.) The characters are moved around like chess pieces (to use a clichéd view) – the elderly but sharp lady, the foolish spinsters, the fashionable and bored young woman – and there is no involvement for the reader, except a feeling of admiration for some of the plot devices.

Blogfriend Lucy Fisher said
I like this book for the social comment: the estate agents’ office, the feisty elderly lady who sees through Poirot, the back story of Emily and her sisters, the spiritualist who dresses like a little girl (haven’t we all met at least one of her?)
So I decided to read it again with that in mind.And these are the main points that arose:

1) Some good dialogue – this is a witness questioning Hastings:
“Can you write decent English?”
“I hope so.”
“H’m – where did you go to school?”
“Then you can’t.”

2) And this:
“After all, this is a free country -”
“English people seem to labour under that misapprehension,” murmured Poirot.
3) Late on in the book, Poirot names the murderers from four earlier Christie books – he is making the point that murderers can seem pleasant enough. This always seems quite shocking, though to be fair it would probably only be a serious spoiler if you were reading another of the books simultaneously. Or have a very good memory for names.

4) A quotation that I have long remembered, but not the source – glad to find it after all this time:
“Turks are frightfully cruel sometimes.”
“Dr Tanios is a Greek.”
“Yes of course – I mean, they’re usually the ones who get massacred by the Turks – or am I thinking of the Armenians?”

5) The fabled clue of the brooch - under discussion regularly since the book was first published, when one of the reviewers mentioned it with disdain. It is slightly unlikely, but it’s not as bad as I remembered – I think we all imagine it took Poirot weeks and hundreds of pages to get the point of what is seen, but that is not so at all. He is a bit slow, but perhaps Christie was giving readers the chance to feel smart.

And would anyone wear a brooch on dressing-gown? Not impossible, though I was ready to say that I have been looking at photos of clothes of every kind, every day for the past four years, including many a kimono, and don’t recall seeing any such thing.

But voila – what should I find but the picture above? Here is a  woman in a very dark-coloured kimono, with a shiny blotch under her left shoulder, a blotch that could easily be a brooch I would say…. The picture is by William Merritt Chase, from the Athenaeum website .

Friday, 17 June 2016

Cross-Blog Reviewing: Francesca Duranti


Happy Ending by Francesca Duranti

published in Italy 1987 as Lieto Fine

this translation by Annapaola Cancogni 1991

villa 1
Lucca 3

Again, a project with writer and blog friend Christine Poulson (her blog is over at Christine Poulson: A Reading Life): sometimes we do lists, and sometimes we read the same book (previously: Tony & Susan by Austin Wright, and Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins). We are publishing our reviews on the same day – I’ll link to Chrissie’s when they are both up, suggest you read mine then go over there to compare notes. *** AND HERE IS HER REVIEW.

I’d never heard of book or author when Chrissie suggested this one: now I am surprised, as it must be the kind of book that is much recommended among friends, the kind of book I read a lot of.

It’s a fairy-tale, and quite schematic, and almost (but not quite) predictable - but still it is enchanting, beautifully written, and completely satisfying.

Lucca 1

We are in Tuscany, in the hills outside Lucca: one family owns three neighbouring grand houses, while opposite lives a single man, one of the narrators of the book. All have known each for years – there are issues, and doomed loves, and small feuds. It is summer, and the air is warm and still and silent, and everyone would like a little more happiness.

Lucca 2

Into this ruffled atmosphere comes a young man called Marco, a friend of the absent 20-something son of the big house. He’s a good-looking, attractive person: is he free-loading, is he over-confident and presumptuous? A cruel egoist? Or is he going to offer something to each person in turn – and will the results be good or bad? It’s a plotline we’ve seen before, and there is a clue in the title, but that didn’t stop me loving the book, and racing through it to see what would happen. And at the same time I wanted to slow down because the writing is so beautiful – and I think the translation must be a particularly good one.

It’s a voluptuous  combination of massive symbolism and a careful formula, along with beautiful details and description, and wholly convincing emotions and very human behaviour.

There are so many sentences I would like to quote. I loved Leopold, mystified by his American wife (‘the cheerleader from Ohio’) and her complaints:
His wife’s grievances [about her life in Italy] had almost always seemed to him both perfectly justified and totally absurd. They were like her hair dryers, her blenders, her toasters, and all the other supermodern gadgets she had brought back from America: wonderful but inoperable on the Italian electric outlets, at least without the intermediary of a transformer.
There’s the woman who is in appearance ‘somewhere between Botticelli’s Primavera and… Betsy Trotwood’ from David Copperfield.

These must surely resonate with anyone who has ever visited this part of Italy:

villa 3

One single note, relentlessly whirred by the cicadas, fills the valley; the scents of the country have all surrendered to the overwhelming fragrance of cut grass; and its colours, radiating as far as the eye can see in that large circle of which the Arnolfina [house] is the centre, have all been blurred and unified by the opaque yellow characteristic of the summer sun around three in the afternoon.

The large plane tree, the majestic curve of the driveway, the rose garden, the maze of hedges, the swimming pool [and the houses]. 

Right below my window, in the shady niche formed by the juncture of the tower and the facade of the house, the gardenias are in bloom.

The book slips down like a beautiful Lucca spritzer in the afternoon – it takes no time to read, but lingers in the memory, and manages to surprise the reader in some of the different ways in which the ending is achieved.

My only sorrow was that I wasn’t on an elegant chair outside a Luccan villa while I read it in the sunshine…

villa 2

The next best thing would be these photographs, which come from my favourite photographer: PerryPhotography. She lives in the area described by the book, and took the villa photos (from the top, 1,5, 6) specially for this entry, with the kind permission of the owners of the house, K & T Wynn. My thanks to them. She also took the photos of the city of Lucca (2,3, & 4). My thanks to her.

I hope Chrissie enjoyed Happy Ending as much as I did - here is her review - I am so grateful to her for suggesting it.