Friday, 4 September 2015

Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh

published 1938

The ball given by Lady Carrados for her daughter Bridget O’Brien was an unqualified success. That is to say that from half-past ten when Sir Herbert and Lady Carrados took up their stand at the head of the double staircase and shook hands with the first guests until half-past three the next morning when the band, white about the gills and faintly glistening, played the National Anthem, there was not a moment when it was not difficult for a young man to find the debutantes with whom he wished to dance and easy for him to avoid those by whom he was not attracted. There was no ominous aftermath when the guests began to slide away to other parties, to slip through the doors with the uncontrollable heartlessness of the unamused….

Outside the house it was unseasonably chilly. The mist made by the breathing of the watchers mingled with drifts of light fog. As the guests walked up the strip of red carpet from their cars to the great door they passed between two wavering masses of dim faces. And while the warmth and festive smell of flowers and expensive scents reached the noses of the watchers, thought the great doors was driven the smell of mist so that footmen in the hall told each other from time to time that for June it was an uncommonly thickish night outside.

observations: The atmosphere of the 1930s rises out of this book beautifully, along with the mist – a very specific version of course, the world of rich, well-born people in London, along with those who serve them. There is blackmail going on, with money changing hands during the big parties. Inspector Alleyn looks for help from a Lord who is part of the milieu, and he is also pursuing his romance with Troy, who is at the edges of the case. Someone is murdered in a taxi, with the driver in front, and with the murderer then impersonating the dead man – all of which seems quite unbelievable.

For once I paid attention to Marsh’s endless ‘who exactly was in the room at this point? And where did you go next?’ and as a result solved the murder relatively early on. But of course the joy of these Marsh books isn’t the investigation, it’s the setting and the characters. Sadly, Death in a White Tie wasn’t as funny as some of her others, she seemed to be holding back in that direction. There is a very brief but hilarious scene where a novice policeman dresses up as a chair-mender in order to watch a suspect – “Why are you presenting the Cries of London to an astonished world?” Alleyn says, as the man completely fails to do his job (while perhaps quite competently mending a chair). This reminded me of how funny Marsh can be when she puts her mind to it - could have done with more of that, and less of the tragedy of very rich women who are exhausted from planning social events and full of fear that their past is going to come out, and they may have to pay twice the secretary’s annual wage in blackmail. (Sorry, I think she mentions the Bolsheviks again, and it must have had an effect on me.)

The picture shows debutantes going to a ball in 1937.

Plenty more Ngaio Marsh to be found on the blog – click on the label below to pull them up.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Thursday list: Jane Duncan

My Friend Marthas Aunt

I can’t really explain my fascination with Jane Duncan. She’s a Scottish author who made publishing history in 1959 when Macmillan announced they’d be publishing seven of her books. Eventually this series - which is very autobiographical and features a character called Janet – ran to 19 books. I read most of them when I was in my teens (as I’m always saying, they didn’t have proper YA books then): a friend of my parents lent me a couple of them when I was laid up with a broken foot, and then I hunted the rest down in public libraries while never, I think owning any. I read them very much out of order.

A couple of years ago I got a sudden hankering to read her again, and to find out more about the author’s background. There is a helpful wiki entry here, and another article about her which appeared in The Scotsman a few years back. Is it just me or does this absolutely riveting piece seem to be shamefully unattributed to any writer?

My Friend Monica

I managed to get hold of most of the books in cheap(ish) secondhand paperbacks (hooray for the internet), but some of them are hard to find. So I was absolutely delighted to find that Bello Books – who are doing so much to bring back lost favourite authors in ebooks and paperbacks – are republishing Jane Duncan’s books. I do hope there will be a resurgence of interest in them.

My Friends the Miss Boyds

I think there are a lot of bloggers – you know who you are, the fans of Persephone, of those mid-20th-century books, of those neglected women authors – who should most definitely be giving these a try. You may dislike them: I have a love-hate relationship with Janet, and some of the blog entries listed below contain my mean-minded criticisms. But they are a record of a lost world and a lost time: many of the books combine a description of living in the West Indies in the 1950s with memories of the Scottish Highlands in the 1920s. It’s hard to say which is the more intriguing background. And I'm always surprised by how little there is on blogs and on the rest of the internet about her, when so many authors have been rediscovered.

My Friend Annie

The pictures are all ones I chose to illustrate the various blog entries, and if none of them appeals to you, if not one of these pics makes you think ‘what on earth kind of book can this have been?’ (even if you still have no desire to read it) then you are stone dead inside….

The entries below, with links for most of them, are in order. Right now there are four of the books that haven't had a blogpost: I will update this list as I blog on any more of them.)

My Friend Sandy jester

Duncan, Jane My Friends the Miss Boyds 1959
Duncan, Jane My Friend Muriel 1959
Duncan, Jane  My Friend Monica 1960
Duncan, Jane My Friend Annie 1961
Duncan, Jane  My Friend Sandy 1961
Duncan, Jane  My Friend Martha's Aunt 1962
Duncan, Jane My Friend Flora 1962
Duncan, Jane My Friend Madame Zora  Madame Zora 2 1963
Duncan, Jane  My Friend Rose 1964
Duncan, Jane My Friend Cousin Emmie 1964
Duncan, Jane  My Friends the Mrs Millers 1965
Duncan, Jane My Friends from Cairnton 1966
Duncan, Jane My Friend My Father 1966
Duncan, Jane My Friends the MacLeans 1967
Duncan, Jane My Friends the Hungry Generation 1968
Duncan, Jane My Friend the Swallow 1970
Duncan, Jane My Friend Sashie 1972
Duncan, Jane My Friends the Misses Kindness 1974
Duncan, Jane My Friends George and Tom 1976

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Blue Guitar by John Banville

published 2015

Blue Guitar

[The narrator, an artist, recalls how he met Polly when he went into her husband’s shop in his small home-town in Ireland]

I had come in with a watch for Marcus to repair. I can’t have been back in town for more than a week or two, she said. She was at her desk in the dim rear of the workshop, doing the books, and I glanced in her direction and smiled. I was wearing, she remembered, or claimed to remember, a white shirt with the floppy collar open and an old pair of corduroy trousers and shoes without laces and no socks. She noticed how tanned my insteps were, and straight away she pictured the resplendent south, a bay like a bowl of broken amethysts strewn with flecks of molten silver and a white sail aslant to the horizon and a lavender-blue shutter standing open on it all – yes, yes, your’re right, I’ve added a few touches of colour to her largely monochrome and probably far more accurate sketch.
observations: John Banville is everyone’s idea of an Irish writer: flamboyant in his words, sometimes grumpy and willing to pick a fight in real life, and in his books endlessly picking away at Irish life of the past 50 years, big Irish houses and small gatehouses and lodges well to the fore.

Some of his books are wonderful – The Newton Letter and The Untouchable are my favourites – and others less so. I was surprised and disappointed by his Booker-Prize-winning The Sea. And I don’t like his detective stories (written under the name Benjamin Black) at all – even though I’m a huge crime fan. And, as I said in an entry on The Newton Letter, ‘you can see why he turned to detective fiction later in life - he plants clues like the mistresses of crime, and even if you spot a clue you are likely to interpret it wrongly’. But his dreary Dublin copper doesn’t do it for me.

I like Oliver Otway Orme, the narrator of this book (his latest, out this week), much more. He is a classic Banville type – unreliable, untrustworthy, anxious to explain his endless awful wrong-doing. The author does these chaps so well, and makes you understand how they live on a certain kind of charm, and manage to go through life without being subject to justifiable homicide.

Oliver is telling the story to us, or some imaginary audience anyway:
The scene of the crime was Geppetto’s toyshop up a narrow lane off Saint Swithin Street – yes, these names, I know, I’m making them up as I go along….
He is rather endearing with his obscure dictionary words and his made-up aphorisms and names.

It’s a story of love and marriage and affairs and betrayal and children, and Oliver has removed himself from the scene because he doesn’t know what to do next. The time scheme of the book skips about, and is very hard to follow, but you just have to go with the flow. The writing is beautiful, his descriptions and word-choices just perfect. He never says exactly where the book is set, just a small town in Ireland – but it might be Clonmel, from a reference to Oliver Cromwell. I love the casual mention of wolves in the area, and the fact that the cafĂ© was called The Fisher King.

The book is funny and absurd and hugely clever and rather melancholy. I enjoyed it enormously.

The picture is from my go-to source for illos of artists: The Smithsonian Institute Archive of American Art. This is a sculptor called R Hinton Perry, who is remembered for refusing to pay alimony to his wife, and going to jail as a result.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

published 2007

Mistress of the Art of Death

[1171: Adelia is a doctor from Salerno, visiting England and investigating a series of crimes]

It was the custom in Cambridge for those who had been on pilgrimage to hold a feast after their return… it was the turn of the Prioress of St Radegund to host the feast… It was not until the morning of the day itself that a Grantchester servant arrived with an invitation for the three foreigners in Jesus Lane.

Left to herself, Adelia would have put on her grey overdress in order to tone down the brightness of her best saffron silk underdress, which would then only have shown at bosom and sleeves. ‘I don’t want to attract attention.’

The [maids] however, plumped for the only other item of note in her wardrobe, a brocade with the colours of an autumn tapestry, and Gyltha, after a short waver, agreed with them. It was slid carefully over Adelia’s coiffure. The pointed slippers Margaret had embroidered with silver thread went on with new white stockings.

The three arbiters stood back to consider the result.
observations: Historical fiction is a funny thing: I don’t like much of it, but the authors I do like, I really love. Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, and CJ Sansom are my favourites. I remember picking up the The Other Boleyn Girl, by Gregory, and being jolted by its unusual take on women, its frankness and straightforwardness, its wonderful female characters. For me, she changed the face of historical fiction.

I have tried many pre-20th -century historical crime series in my day, and only Sansom has really kept me reading with his Shardlake books. After finishing some of the try-out volumes, I thought ‘well that was OK, but I don’t need to read any more.’ Others of them I flung across the room. These days it takes quite a lot to make me try a new one, but a passing mention by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading (a reviewer I revere) made me think I should try this one. And although it contained many features that I would expect to dislike, I enjoyed the book hugely: full marks Bernadette.

Ariana Franklin (1st strike: I get confused between the author name and the heroine) says that Adelia Aguilar could have existed and been trained as an anatomist and medical doctor in Salerno in Italy in the 12th century. I bow to her knowledge, though it seems unlikely Adelia would have been quite as modern as she is portrayed. The two things I hate in low-grade historical fiction are 1) people with progressive, pleasantly right-on attitudes that they surely would not have had back then and 2) adoring, deeply loyal retainers with a twinkle in their eyes. Franklin is guilty of both these things, but somehow gets away with it: her heroine is funny, and would be totally believable as a 20th/21st century woman, and I decided just to enjoy it and go along for the ride.

She has been sent to Cambridge to try to look at the murder of some children (don’t even bother asking why – the author has to get her heroine a medical education AND into a local setting, so she was forced to make something up.) The local Jews have been blamed, and are suffering persecution as a result. Naturally Adelia isn’t bigoted at all, and has Jewish friends, so can start off with the assumption that they are not guilty. So – she solves the crime, and it is an exciting and tense investigation, with a lot of detail of 12th century life, and great characters. King Henry II makes a cameo appearance, and there is mention of the whole Thomas Becket affair – there were a couple of blog entries in 2013 on Becket and on TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

Ariana Franklin was the pen-name of Diana Norman, who was married to Barry Norman, probably the UK’s most famous film critic in his day. She died in 2011.

I didn’t read Bernadette’s actual review of the book till after I’d finished it: it is here.

Bernadette mentions that the author also wrote a non-fiction book called Terrible Beauty: Life of Constance Markievicz, 1868-1927. Happily I can inform her that Terrible Beauty is a quote from WB Yeats (on the aftermath of the Irish 1916 uprising, not on any woman) and that Con Markievicz was an extraordinary and fascinating woman: a revolutionary, and the first woman to be elected to the British Parliament (though she never took her seat). In fact I visited her childhood home while on holiday in Ireland a couple of weeks ago – blog post here, and more on Markievicz and her sister in this entry.

The picture is ‘12th century woman’, from a 1906 book of theatrical costumes.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Carnival: NW by Zadie Smith

published 2012

August Carnival NW 1August Carnival NW 2August Carnival NW 3August Carnival NW 4Notting Hill  79  Moira  4Notting Hill  79  Moira 2Notting Hill  79  Moira 3Notting Hill  79 Moira

August comes.

  August comes.

Carnival! Girls from work, boys from the salon, old school friends, Michel’s cousins from south London, all walk the streets with a million others. Seeking out the good sound systems, winding their bodies close to complete strangers and each other, eating jerk, ending up in Meanwhile Gardens, stoned in the grass. Usually. Not this year. This year they finally accept Frank’s annual invitation to a friend of a friend’s with ‘an amazing carnival pad.’ They turn up early on the Sunday morning, as advised, to get there before the street is closed off…

Leah accept a rum and Coke and sits in a corner chair, looking out the window, watching the police lining up along the barricades….

Now the flat fills very quickly. The doorbell rings continuously… People stream into the party like soldiers into triage. It’s hell out there! I thought we weren’t going to make it. Everyone takes turns to stand on the white stucco balconies, dancing, blowing whistles painted in Rastafarian colours at the carnival crowds, far below. Very soon Leah is drunk…. Nat’s coming later. She’s with the kids on one of Marcia’s church floats. Sausage roll?

observations: Today sees the start of this year’s Notting Hill Carnival in London.
The Carnival is a key part of London life in August – a huge street party, one of the largest in the world, with a massive parade with floats, costumes and dancing. Over the two days, culminating in August Bank Holiday Monday, a million people take to the streets in what is usually a rambunctious but peaceful enough event. Every year there are fears and threats, discussions over the police presence, and concerns over public safety. There is plentiful and varied music, food and drugs on offer. Carnival is a terrific celebration of the multi-cultural diversity of modern Britain.

It’s a central part of this book, which is itself a celebration of London life: the Carnival brings together the different strands of the story – see this earlier entry for details of the plot.

The book is very good on the two young women, Nat and Leah, getting older and comparing how they are doing. Just as at school they reached a point where ‘They had only Prince left [in common] and he was wearing thin’ – here Leah doesn’t know Natalie’s friends, while Nat herself is trying to find common ground with her family by going on a float.

Natalie is the high flyer: when she goes to university and meets privileged white young people, she wonders ‘Were these really the people for whom the Blakes had always been on their best behaviour?’ Her strategy for getting on is ‘Do good work. Wait for your good work to be noticed.’ She has a short fascinating encounter with an older black female barrister/judge, who wants to give her good advice.

There is a big variety of voices and styles, most of them very well done. I particularly liked the community activist Phil Barnes, living next door to Felix’s father and talking about the past and his sense of belonging. I liked the rich boy’s parents, who wouldn’t understand ‘downstairs neighbour’ or ‘night bus’ or ‘unpaid internship’.

The top four photos are from Wikimedia Commons, of recent carnivals.

The bottom four photos are ones I took myself at the Notting Hill Carnival back in 1979.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Little Less Than Kind by Charlotte Armstrong

published 1963

Little Less than Kind

Ladd Cunningham drove his Corvette home, too fast for town streets. Displaying his virtuosity, he whipped into the long driveway without slackening speed, and zoomed between the high grey stucco house on his right and the pool enclosure on his left… 

The young people on the pool deck were shouting “Hi” – he didn’t want to answer…. He sidled towards the fence. The Lorimers were in there and Gary Fenwick. He didn’t want to talk to the Lorimers. 

He said, “Hey, Gare?”

“Hey, Ladd?”

“Come on up.”…

Felicia Lorimer sat on the pool coping and lifted her brown legs, let them down, watched the blue and crystal movement of water and light swirling in beauty around her ankles.

Her brother, supine on the diving board, said “His not to reason why”.
observations: Charlotte Armstrong was a very successful thriller writer in her day – she wrote a lot, won awards, and some of her work was made into films. Her books tend to be short, atmospheric and very tense – not big on jokes. I thought I’d remind myself about her, and picked this book at random.

The setting is among wealthy families in the LA area: the young man Ladd, above, is unhappy about the death of his father and his mother’s subsequent remarriage. Is there something suspicious about the death? There are awkward encounters at the swimming party, and at a dinner party later – these prosperous middle-class people see each other all the time, adults and grown-up children socializing and networking together, indulging in a lot of drinking and brittle dialogue. They are doctors, business men and artists.

So I’m going along with this – it’s all very Mad Men in fact – when I suddenly realize that this is actually a re-working of the plot of Hamlet. You could have knocked me down with a feather, I haven’t been so surprised since I first saw the equally-Shakespearean The Lion King.

Luckily this isn’t a spoiler – the book follows the plot of the play at times, when it suits, but you can’t predict anything from that. The other great theme of the book is Freudianism – various characters are trying to work out what is wrong with Ladd, and what can be done about him, in those terms. The discussions on this were surprisingly absorbing.

It’s a quick and very entertaining read – you never know where the plot is going next, or whose side you are meant to be on, who’s good and who’s bad. (Impressive, given the Hamlet structure.) The only thing I didn’t like was that the women characters are very flimsy compared with the men: Felicia, above, is Ophelia, while Ladd’s mother is standing in for Gertrude, but a 16th century man did a better job at creating women characters than the 20th century Armstrong. If I’d read the book blind I would have been convinced it was by a man, because male feelings and ideas are given so much more importance than female ones.

But the book certainly left me with an appetite to read more of Armstrong.

The photo is of a swimming pool in Florida in the 1950s.

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann – Part 2

published 1944

Ballad and the Source 2

One day my mother told me that Mrs Jardine had asked us to pick primroses on her hill, and then, when we had picked as many as we wanted, to come in and have tea with her….

Next Thursday was fine. We wore our sailor blouses and skirts… and set off after lunch accompanied by Mademoiselle. She wore her best off-mustard flannel skirt, cream satin blouse with tucks, net yoke and whaleboned neck

As we crossed the lawn, a french window in the front of the long, low, creeper-covered house opened, and a woman’s figure appeared. She waved. She gave the impression of arms outstretched, so welcomingly did she surge forward to meet ups. 

She was dressed in a long gown… she had a white fleecy wrap round her shoulders and on her head, with its pile of fringed puffed, curled hair, a large Panama hat trimmed with a blue liberty scarf artistically knotted, the ends hanging down behind.

observations: Should be read in conjunction with the first entry on this book.

The edited extract above is from the opening pages of The Ballad and the Source, and to me is an enticing and very promising setup.

It is set around 1910-12: Mrs Jardine meets the narrator, 10-year-old Rebecca, daughter of a family Mrs J feels close to - though Rebecca’s father doesn’t feel close to Mrs J at all: there is obviously scandal rolling around in the background, and he discourages the relationship. Mrs Jardine makes Rebecca the recipient of a long involved recounting of her family history, full of troubles. Rebecca is clearly too young for most of this (and leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions quite often), and spends hilarious amounts of time seizing the opportunity to eat as much as possible of whatever is on offer – this is a continuing theme. The book is, perhaps surprisingly, very funny, full of a deep sense of the absurd.

Sometimes Rebecca is trying to learn. When Mrs J makes sweeping comments on Frenchwomen and how they ‘put a natural value on themselves as women’ she thinks about the French governess above:
Perhaps, I thought, that accounted for her. Perhaps I ought to view her in a more reverent light.
Rebecca’s sister Jess dislikes Mademoiselle very much, forming the theme of another running joke, with an admirably heartless ending with the governess caught in Belgium at the start of WW1.

I recently re-read this book after a gap of many years, and here are some of the books & writers it made me think of:
Sybille Bedford (very much)
Ford Madox Ford
Henry James
Wuthering Heights
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
 Occasionally in Ballad there is a quite unexpected and intriguing throwaway remark, as this one about a woman whose life goes badly wrong:
She sounded rather proud of it all. I think it’s only in books that women are ashamed of being prostitutes. Her idea was to make herself interesting [to a man] - dramatic, important.
--- and it is this kind of almost-incidental upsetting of the moral norm that reminded me of the other authors.

The Ballad and the Source is delightfully full of clothes and clothes descriptions. Take the statuesque Mrs Jardine in her cloaks, for example, wearing:
A dove-grey cloak lined with lilac silk, long grey gloves and a shallow wide-brimmed silvery straw hat girdled with blue and mauve ostrich feathers.
While Tilly the trusted retainer and sewing woman has her dolman cape – Mrs J sees it as ‘singular’ where the reader sees that the two women are two of a kind, at opposite ends of the social scale.

Rebecca and her sister Jess have ‘our long-sleeved velvets…cut by local Miss Midgley with more optimism, fitted and finished with more complacency than the results warranted.’

There is a woman in an Indian-based outfit, perhaps made from a sari:
a queer dress: a dark yellow bodice and a long, bright-coloured skirt, sort of magenta, not an English colour, and edged with a gold band.
The colours of the picture above do not match up exactly with Lehmann’s descriptions (‘off-mustard’! how I wish I had been able to find something that fitted that description…), but the image still seemed to perfectly represent the occasion. It is from a lovely collection of illustrations from fashion mag Gazette du Bon Ton – this one from 1913, and called Le gouter au Jardin.

Rosamond Lehmann’s wonderful The Echoing Grove has also featured on the blog.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.