Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood

published 1938

[The young Isherwood becomes fascinated by cinema, and joins a Film Society at Cambridge]

I was, and still am, endlessly interested in the outward appearance of people – their facial expressions, their gestures, their walk, their nervous tricks, their infinitely various ways of eating a sausage, opening a paper parcel, lighting a cigarette. The cinema puts people under a microscope: you can stare at them, you can examine them as though they were insects. True the behaviour you see on the screen isn’t natural behaviour; it is acting, and often very bad acting too. But the acting has always a certain relation to ordinary life; and after a short while, to an habitue like myself, it is as little of an annoyance as Elizabethan handwriting is to the expert in old documents. Viewed from this standpoint, the stupidest film may be full of astonishing revelations about the tempo and dynamics of everyday life: you see how actions look in relation to each other; how much space they occupy and how much time…. If you are a novelist and want to watch your scene taking place visibly before you, it is simplest to project it on to an imaginary screen. A practised cinema-goer will be able to do this quite easily….

[the film club goes to visit the set of a film in London, where they work as extras]

Noise was my chief impression of the day… I had one big moment: together with a dozen others, I was told to descend a flight of steps, drunkenly, my arms round two girls’ necks. This was a close shot: I must have been clearly recognizable. Needless to say it was cut out of the finished picture.

Our day ended at 10 pm. With the others, I limped to the pay-desk and was given 24 shillings. It was the first money I had ever earned in my life, and certainly the last I shall ever earn as a film actor.

observations: Here’s a second book of university memoirs – events taking place 20+ years after The Babe BA, Saturday's book by EF Benson, and about as different a book as it is possible to be. And yet there are points in common….

Isherwood was roughly a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh’s, and it’s interesting to compare his Cambridge years, recorded in this book, with the Oxford of Brideshead Revisited. Lions and Shadows is a fictionalized memoir or autobiography: some parts – where he gives the plots of books he almost wrote, and describes in detail a strange game he played with a friend – are very dull. But it’s well worth it for the patches of brilliance that pop up. I loved this description of why films are important, I thought it was original, incisive and a revelation.

Although he was something of a literary figure, it seems somehow appropriate that what he is most famous for are the stories on which the film Cabaret is based (and also the stage show currently on Broadway, never out of fashion). He also wrote A Single Man, made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Colin Firth in 2009.

And Isherwood – who lived in California for many years - did appear in another film: in the 1981 Rich and Famous, directed by George Cukor, he was ‘Malibu party guest’ – perhaps unpaid? – various other moderately famous people seem to have played themselves at two parties in the film.

The film he appears in – Reveille, directed by George Pearson – is a 1924 silent starring Betty Balfour, and is one of the BFI’s 75 most wanted films – (ie the reels are missing and they would love to find them.) The 24 shillings would be about £35 in today’s money – not a generous amount. Interesting that he’d never worked before.

There’ll be another entry on this book later.

The image of a filmset is from a motion picture trade directory of 1917. The young woman is Betty Balfour, star of the film.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Book of 1915: The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett

published 1915

[12-year-old Marco, not long living in London and lonely, is walking the streets]

Marco heard a clamour of boys' voices, and he wanted to see what they were doing. ..Half-way to the street's end there was an arched brick passage. The boys were not playing, but listening to one of their number who was reading to them from a newspaper.

Marco listened also, standing in the dark arched outlet at its end and watching the boy who read. He was a strange little creature with a big forehead, and deep eyes which were curiously sharp. Near him were a number of sticks stacked together as if they were rifles. One of the first things that Marco noticed was that he had a savage little face marked with lines as if he had been angry all his life...

[later the boys are drilling] "Form in line!" ordered The Rat.

They did it at once, and held their backs and legs straight and their heads up amazingly well. Each had seized one of the stick guns.

The Rat himself sat up straight on his platform. There was actually something military in the bearing of his lean body. His voice lost its squeak and its sharpness became commanding.

He put the dozen lads through the drill as if he had been a smart young officer. And the drill itself was prompt and smart enough to have done credit to practised soldiers in barracks. It made Marco involuntarily stand very straight himself, and watch with surprised interest.

observations: Rich Westwood at the Past Offences blog chose 1915 for this month’s meme – see all the details here. Crime novels weren’t nearly as common then, and I was casting around for something to read when I came across this book, which was a childhood favourite. It’s not crime, but it is certainly a good strong adventure thriller, in the tradition of John Buchan’s 39 Steps (also 1915) or Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda. There is a mystery or a secret at the heart, but if anyone (including the children at whom it is aimed) doesn’t guess it by about page 50 I’d be surprised.

Marco is 12: he and his father Stefan have been wandering round Europe for as long as he can remember. He knows that they are actually Samavian, but cannot return there because of the political situation and warring factions. Samavia is an invented Ruritanian/Balkan state, as much loved in books of the first half of the 20th century. (Agatha Christie invented one for her early thrillers and then kept changing – or, one suspects, forgetting – its name). Marco and his Dad are patriots and have ‘warm Southern blood’. Eventually Marco realizes that his father is working towards a better future for Samavia – if only the Lost Prince could be found to take over the throne! Meanwhile Marco and his new friend The Rat play war games and ‘practise’ for a role they might play in the rescue of the country.

Then a message needs to go out, and Marco and The Rat set off: they will be unnoticed as poor children in rags, and can go to the great cities of Europe, and in each place seek out a local Samavian supporter (who might be anything from a shop-keeper to the Chancellor), a member of the Secret Party, and pass on the message: ‘The Lamp is Lighted’, to start the revolution. Quite honestly, if that plot doesn’t thrill you to the marrow, then you are not worthy of this book – I loved the idea when I was 10, and I love it now. It’s like a cross between John le Carre and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.

It is by no means a perfect book – I could have done with a lot less of the unquestioned social stratification and the grovelling of the lower classes to the toffs. I quite hoped for a workers’ revolution in Samavia, but that was never going to happen.

At the end Marco is provided with ‘a richly decorated Samavian uniform’ – I hope this is not a spoiler – ‘which had a touch of the Orient in its picturesque splendor. A short fur-bordered mantle hung by a jeweled chain from the shoulders, and there was much magnificent embroidery of color and gold.’

As a 1915 book for Rich’s meme it shouts out (as no doubt many will) as a book that was published then but had been written before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914: as I say above, it was quite unquestioning about life, and the future, and politics, and the excitement of war.

1910 newsboys from the Library of Congress.

Prince Lois Ferdinand d’Orleans, also from Library of Congress.

Plenty more Francis Hodgson Burnett on the blog – click on the label below.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Dress Down Sunday: A Running Duck by Paula Gosling

published 1978 in the UK


[Clare and Malchek are on the run, pretending to be a couple and hiding out along the way]

The double-bed in the first motel was a problem. To toss a coin and stick one of them with a chair or the floor seemed juvenile. In the end they both got ready for bed, went to bed, and lay on the bed, wrapped in more than blankets.

He was very aware of her nakedness under the white pyjamas she had chosen in an effort to appear sexless. In fact, all they did was outline her body even more emphatically than a nightgown would have done.

Normally he simply slept in his skin, but had borrowed some pyjamas for the trip. They constricted him and he felt strange, finally tossing the top back into the suitcase.

observations: Rich Westwood at Past Offences rediscovered this book a while back, and so I picked up a cheap copy in the hope of some splendid 1970s fashions for a blog entry. I had read a couple of later Paula Gosling books, but this one was very different: a tough, hard-boiled kind of book – as proved by the astonishing fact that it was turned into a Sylvester Stallone film, Cobra. The heroine is an executive at an ad agency in San Francisco: I’d envisaged nice scenes among the account managers, as in books by Dorothy L Sayers (Murder Must Advertize) and CS Forester (Plain Murder) featured in a short Ad Agency meme on the blog in 2013. (I was prepared to include this new one in my ranking of the best agencies to work at.)

But no: Clare is the only witness to the aftermath of a murder, and could identify the hitman, so she is in danger. A rough tough cop, Malchek, is desperate to catch the hitman – in fact he is more interested in that than in protecting the witness. Well, at first anyway. They end up racing around northern California, visiting small towns, almost catching the enemy, almost being caught. (I really enjoyed their travels through the redwood forests – having visited them myself under less fraught circumstances I know how beautiful and restful they are.)

It’s all very much of its time, and very typical of a certain kind of crime book by a woman which seems to be setting out to show the author can be as tough as any man, including a particularly weird moment early on concerning semen - which nowadays would be a source of DNA and a means of id-ing the shooter. There’s this wince-making sentence: ‘The receptionist was an ardent feminist, in between boyfriends’ – which I would have objected to just as much in 1978 as I do now. At the same time, when Clare tells the cops she works at an ad agency, they say ‘What do you do there? Secretary?’ It all reminded me rather of the Mary Tyler Moore Show of blessed memory, and I would have enjoyed more of the single-girl-setting – but she must away to the woods with the strong silent Malchek…

Mostly historical interest then. A Running Duck presumably means ‘as opposed to sitting duck’ and seems a particularly stupid title – worse even than Cobra. The book was called Fair Game in the USA.

Click on the labels for more pyjamas of various kinds. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Babe BA by EF Benson

published 1897

The Babe was beautifully dressed in white flannels, yellow boots and a straw hat with a new riband….

Behind the railings the garden lay deliciously fresh and green. Long level plains of grass were spread about between the flower-beds, and the whole place had an air of academic and cultivated repose. On one of these stretches of lawn a game of tennis was in progress; the performance was not of a very high class, but the players seemed to be enjoying themselves….


“To think that a mere game of football should lead to such disastrous consequences” [Reggie] remarked…

“That pig of a half-back caught me a frightful hack on the shin” [Ealing] said…

Ealing and Reggie were both in change, they both wore villainously muddy flannel knickerbockers, short enough to disclose villainously muddy knees, old blazers, and strong useful football boots with bars.

The frost continued, black and clean, and the Babe, like the Polar Bear, thought it would be nice to practise skating. He bought himself a pair of Dowler blades with Mount Charles fittings, which he was assured by an enthusiastic friend were the only skates with which it was possible to preserve one’s self-respect, and fondly hoped that self-respect was a synonym for balance… The Babe wobbled industriously about, trying to skate large… About the third day the Babe was hopelessly down with the skating fever…

observations: The first disappointment was that I thought The Babe BA would be a woman – rather like those sexy PhD costumes on sale around Halloween – and that this would be a book about women going to college: an early version of the beloved Legally Blonde. Far from it. The undergraduates in this book are staunchly male, and The Babe is a man. (The book is set at Cambridge University.)

The second disappointment was that it was terrible. After looking at Benson's Mapp and Lucia (recent entry, BBC TV series) I thought I’d read one of his standalones - which I also thought might be a Book of the Century (blog challenge explained here), but it was 1897, so no good for that and yet another disappointment.

Imagine the dullest person you know describing his university years, which he thinks are unique and interesting, but really were nothing special. Plenty of injokes, and would-be witty repartee, and allegedly hilarious pranks and adventures. That’s what this book is – and there’s really no excuse because Benson was thirty when it was published, and it was far from being his first novel. It tells the story of a talented wonderful young man who floats his way through his undergraduate years. He’s very good at sports, and is very popular, and terribly nice, and he keeps a dog called Sykes. (I kept forgetting Sykes was a dog, and thought he was another student friend.) The Babe’s ‘particular forte was dinner parties for six, skirt dancing and acting, and the performances of the duties of half-back at Rugby football.’

The business of skirt dancing is intriguing, and never fully explained: This is what Wikipedia says:
A skirt dance is a form of dance popular in Europe and America, particularly in burlesque and vaudeville theater of the 1890s, in which women dancers would manipulate long, layered skirts with their arms to create a motion of flowing fabric, often in a darkened theater with colored light projectors highlighting the patterns of their skirts.
In Babe’s case is seems to mean dressing up as a woman for fun and then dancing around for the entertainment of your friends. The Babe also plays Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, in Greek, to perfection.

The book is embarrassingly arch and deeply unfunny. Also there are the usual twisted notions of honour and shame: someone is suspected of cheating at cards - almost involuntarily as he cannot help but see the cards - and this is a dreadful thing which should lead to complete social ostracism. Only the Babe’s magnanimity and generosity turn the business round. But his own behaviour is fairly shocking: he deliberately creates ice outside his room (because he loves skating, above), and his cleaner trips over and hurts herself and breaks a lot of crockery ‘happily not his’. The blooming dog goes round biting people and being destructive of others’ property all over the place, but that is seen as just funny. Babe and his friends go carol-singing, collecting money for charity, and he appears to steal the proceeds for himself - it’s just possible that you are meant to assume this is a joke, but there is no direct indication.

I think the cardsharp sounds much nicer.

Best to forget this book altogether and stick to Mapp and Lucia.

And enjoy these nice ancient pictures of sports activities. Tennis from NYPL, Oxford v Cambridge football match from a book on sports of the world, skating from the Library of Congress. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Plotting for Grown-ups by Sue Hepworth

published 2013

[Sally is planning what to wear for a meeting, with the help of her friend Wendy]
“You should wear your indigo jeans and a black polo neck. But maybe not: you’ll be too hot today… Do you think you’d be too warm in that v neck angora jumper in ivory, cos it’d make you look really tactile, and he’ll be in agony. No – the rock chick look – aim for a Marianne Faithful take on it – she’s about your age. Wear the jeans, like I said, and two layered t-shirts, sheer ones, and that black jacket with the sleeves pushed up, and those funky feather earrings Sam gave you. And a bandanna – yes.” 

I did what she said, and put on lots of eye make-up as well.

Then I removed the bandanna and jacket and substituted my scarf with the swallow print, and my coat – the one he liked – but I started to sweat (dammit) so it was back to the jacket and bandanna. Crikey. It’s tough trying to look like Stevie Nicks.

observations: Surely most women would recognize this as the way we actually put together our outfits, as opposed to the manner recommended in the likes of Vogue? I found it very true to life. This is a delightfully entertaining book, following nine months in the life of a 60-ish writer living in the Peak District: it takes a diary form, though what it resembles to me is a broadsheet newspaper column of a certain kind – you could just imagine reading this story week by week. I think 10 or 15 years ago it would have been in a newspaper, but nowadays there isn’t room for this kind of thing: everything has to be more mean and snarky and strange.

The heroine, Sally, has a lot in common with author Hepworth, and as Sally produces her own book during the course of the novel, there are times when it seems as though it is going to collide with itself. We hear about Sally’s attempts to find a publisher, her decision to self-publish, and her on-off romance with her printer. It is like hearing a friend telling you about her life in weekly sessions, and is clever and amusing. Sally’s marriage has ended and she is very funny about the idea that

If I’d known I was going to end up single, I’d have done it a whole lot sooner. Marriage can be such a hard slog, and you have to compromise on so many things, so many things, just to keep the peace. I feel cheated to be ending up alone at this age.

The difficult business of telling your grown-up children that you are dating again is also an issue, for her and for her new love interest. One of her children keeps coming home, and she also has her brother staying, and the lovelife of friend Wendy (above) to keep track of, so there’s plenty happening. I am delighted to say that there are many many good, proper clothes descriptions: Wendy specializes in rather wild charity shop finds, including Union Jack shorts for the Queen's Jubilee year in 2012.

There is excellent use of blogging and tweeting – more so than in most books by much younger and allegedly more social-media-conscious authors.

Sally had the Mary Quant nail varnish Brazen Bronze when she was young – perhaps we all did, but I certainly did too.

This is a gentle, witty read: very enjoyable.

I have provided something of a collection of clothes for Sally: she likes the brand Toast, but can’t afford it, so here’s an extra outfit from the label for her here:

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Thursday List: Emptying the Bookcase 2014


a bookcase on 1st September 2014

Story of a bookcase…

At the moment there is a blog challenge called the TBR Double Dog Dare – more details below. A number 
of my blog friends are interested in doing this, and it resonated with me because --- I more or less did it. In the second half of 2014 I decided something had to be done about my TBR (= To Be Read, in common book-blogger-speak) pile. So I started small, with a row of books held between some very nice bookends (parting present from my lovely American bookgroup when I left in 2002, and I feel some of the books had been there ever since). By 31st August the bookends looked like this:

Inspired, I turned to the major bookcase holding TBRs. On the 1st September It looked like the top picture. So I set myself the task of clearing a shelf a month. And this is how it went:

1st October:

1st November: 

1st December: 

1st January:

During this period, there was supposed to be an embargo on my obtaining new books. That wasn’t leak-proof – as in the dare below, I excluded review copies, book group books, gifts, books I had to read for my Guardian pieces, and a few other categories. So this picture – also taken on 1st January - shows some of the books that have arrived in the house during the course of the campaign:

... and there are more books on my Kindle. 

But that’s all right isn’t it?

I’m very happy with the end results, and strongly recommend to anyone doing the Double Dare to stick with it (even if there is the odd slip-up) because you will be really pleased with yourself at the end….

Many of the books in the bookcase have been featured in blogposts, but not quite all. Some reviews haven't appeared yet. Email me if you want to know more about any of them. 


Here are the details of the blog challenge, from the blog James Reads Books:

James says: Is your TBR list getting you down?  Do you own more books than you can read in one lifetime?  Are there so many books on your nightstand that you have no place to set your coffee mug down in the morning? The TBR Double Dog Dare is here to save the day! The TBR Double Dog Dare is not a reading challenge; it’s a dare. This means that people who do not participate in reading challenges are allowed to participate. I’m not challenging you; I’m double-daring you. All you have to do to win the TBR Double Dog Dare is to read only from your TBR pile between January 1 and April 1. You can still buy books, you just can’t read them until the TBR Double Dog Dare is over. (You can make exceptions for books clubs, arcs, and other things you really want to make exceptions for. The TBR Double Dog Dare is all about having fun. So if you join in for a week or a month, no worries.) Are you brave enough to take the dare?  

It is by no means too late to join in - go over to James Reads Books to sign up.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Mrs Harris goes to New York by Paul Gallico

published 1960

‘Oh dear,’ said Henrietta Schreiber suddenly, ‘I wonder if I’ve done the right thing?’ She was sitting in front of her mirror in her cabin, putting the final touches to her face. Beside her lay an engraved card of invitation which stated that Pierre RenĂ© Dubois, Captain of the s.s. Ville de Paris, would be honoured by the company of Mr and Mrs Joel Schreiber for cocktails in his cabin at seven-thirty that evening.

They emerged from their cabin, where their steward waited to guide them. He took them as far as the private stairway leading to the Captain’s quarters, which they mounted, to be received by another steward who asked their names and then led them to the door of the huge cabin from which emerged that distinctive babble of sounds that denotes a cocktail party in full swing.

The Captain, a handsome man in dress uniform with gold braid, said, ‘Ah, Mr and Mrs Schreiber. So delighted you could come,’ and then with practised hand swung the circle of introductions - names that Mrs Schreiber only half heard until he came to the last two, and no mistake about those: ‘ - His Excellency the Marquis Hypolite de Chassagne, the new French Ambassador to your country, and Madame Harris.’

observations: This is the follow-up to Mrs Harris goes to Paris, and it’s not quite as good as that simple fairytale. Mrs Harris and her friend Vi cross the Atlantic with the Schreibers, whom they worked for in London, to help them as they move to what Vi thinks of as ‘Soda and Gomorrow’. (There is an interesting description of Mrs Schreiber not wanting Eastern Europeans to work for her – these days in London the East Europeans would be the star employees.)

Mrs Harris lives next door to a family with a foster-child, and this child, Henry, is being badly-treated, after being apparently abandoned by first his GI father and then his mother. Mrs H knows that the father went back to the USA. So (this is not a realistic book) she smuggles the boy on board ship with them, takes him to New York, then tries to find his father. If you can’t see the exact form of the happy ending coming a mile off, you probably haven’t ready many books before.

They are both very jolly books, adding to the sum of human happiness, but if I were an Amazon reviewer I would be saying in that snooty way they like so much: ‘Did Paul Gallico never do creative writing 101? We were always told SHOW NOT TELL.’ Gallico rarely shows, always tells: he is oppressively, unrelentingly keen on telling you what to think about every character, he never leaves anything to chance, or to the reader’s imagination.

In the section above, Mrs Schreiber – in first class – is worried about Mrs H in Tourist, and then finds her at the cocktail party, wearing one of her own cast-off dresses (not the famous Dior dress from the first book…), and accompanied by His Excellency the Marquis, who has popped in from the other book.

Mrs Harris mentions in passing that the villainous family next door were like the Jukes family – a reference that meant nothing to me, so I looked it up, and I highly recommend that everyone should do so – it’s a fascinating, mind-bending, real-life story about sociological research, nature vs nurture, genetics, and eugenics.

The description of the voyage reminded me of the Atlantic crossing in the 1981 TV version of Brideshead Revisited: so these are screenshots of Celia Ryder, played by Jane Asher, her cabin, and a cocktail party on board. I wrote about Brideshead in the Guardian and on the blog over Xmas.