Discovering Barbara Comyns…


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The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

comyns vetsThis is the first novel by Comyns that I’ve read. I chose The Vet’s Daughter as one of two ideal starting points recommended by Simon, (the other was Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead).  I can say that it won’t be the last novel by her that I’ll read – well, I did buy a set of three and thus have Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and Sisters by a River already waiting.  I had no idea what to expect really, despite seeing a lot of love for this novel around the blogosphere …

The story is told by Alice, the daughter of a vet (obviously, I know). It is set in Edwardian times, and she lives with her parents in South London. The household is ruled with a rod of iron by her father.  Alice and her mother are not abused but are treated as mere drudges for the most part, and her father has little to do with either of them, taking all his meals in the front room surgery.

The day was nearly over and it was like most of the days I could remember: all overshadowed by my father and cleaning the cats’ cages and the smell of cabbage and my father’s scent. There were moments of peace, and sometimes sunlight outside. It was like that all the time.

One thing it appears that Alice’s father can’t cope with is death. People bring animals to him to be put down – he sells them on to a vivisectionist. When Alice’s mother becomes ill, he can’t cope with that either and avoids them even more, disappearing up to the pub, or out with a lady friend. When Alice’s mother dies, she is soon replaced by Rosa, a bawdy bar-maid who treats Alice badly. Poor Alice is confused and lonely, and has to get away. She is friendly with a locum vet, Henry Peebles, indeed she has the beginnings of a romantic infatuation with him. When he suggests she becomes a companion for his frail mother in Hampshire, she jumps at the chance, but Henry’s mother is mad and abused by the housekeeper. Alice’s confusion gets worse, and she discovers that she can channel this into psychic energy by levitating. I’m not giving this away as the clue is on the front cover of this edition of the book.

And then in the night it happened again and I was floating, definitely floating. The moonlight was streaming whitely through the window, and I could see the curtains gently flapping in the night wind. I’d left my bed, and except for a sheet, the clothes lay scattered on the floor. I gently floated about the room. Sometimes I went very close to the ceiling, but I wouldn’t touch it in case it made me fall to the ground. …
I don’t know how long I remained in the air like that; I should imagine about seven minutes. Then I can remember a feeling of great exhaustion stealing over me, and a longing for my bed. I willed myself down to it and it happened quite gently: one moment there was nothing beneath me but air, and then I felt my still warm mattress. I lay there almost fainting with tiredness before I could creep out and collect the blankets. Then a deep and dreamless sleep enveloped me.

Henry will turn out not to be ‘the one’, and Alice ends up back in Lambeth with her father, and increasingly troubled…

Given that this novel was first published in 1959, I somehow expected the levitation to be a dream but it was all quite real with Alice channelling her hurt and anger into a meditative state.  Back in the late 19th century, the Victorians thrilled in the supernatural; Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists believed it could be explained by the earth’s magnetic field.  Fake mediums got big business from their elaborate ruses at séances.  Additionally, there have always been accounts of supernatural levitation through the centuries – sometimes seen as a transcendental state, other times caused by demonic posession – Alice’s being the former.

There is the nightmare quality of Alice’s life too. This is a very dark novel, owing much to the 19th century’s Gothic and sensation novels, a domestic story full of high drama. I did struggle to understand Alice’s father a bit. He is never physically abusive to her, but she is neglected, treated like an animal and never shown any signs of love until it is too late. Mind you, there’s not much evidence in the book that he’s much of a vet either, let alone being a nasty father.  We must remember that Alice is a young girl though, and it is her version of events that we are reading. That’s not to say it is wrong, but there is a certain naivety in parts and ironically given its darkness, moments of humour too.

The VMC edition has a foreword by Jane Gardam, as well as the author’s introduction which were both fascinating.  I shall definitely be reading more novels by Comyns – another great discovery thanks to the blogosphere. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Vet’s Daughter: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC) by Barbara Comyns, VMC paperback.

How do you define an expert scientist?


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Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins

are_we_all_scientific_experts_now_harry_collinsHarry Collins is a professor at Cardiff University, where he lectures on the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), and his areas of research include: the Nature of Scientific Knowledge and knowledge in general; public Understanding of Science; and the Nature of Skills and Expertise, amongst other topics.  He is one of our foremost thinkers in this area apparently, and this provocative little book is intended to challenge a lot of thinking about the nature of ‘expertise.’

He starts by throwing a few quandaries at us – for instance: ‘The quantum theory is said to be the most accurate theory ever, and it has quite counter-commonsensical consequences, thought absurd by Einstein, that turn out to be true – such as the instant ‘communication’ that happens under quantum entanglement.‘ (had to get that in after Jim Al Khalili talked about it at a talk I went to a couple of weeks ago).

He talks about ‘Climategate’ – the chatty and informal email exchanges between researchers at UEA about climate change which, when leaked, were leapt upon by every climate change sceptic out there.  It’s not until later in the book, that he reveals how they were taken totally out of context.  He refers to the scandal of MMR vaccines and autism that has led to a resurgence in measles, and the fact that a high profile celeb in the US said it made her child autistic, and people believed her, not the experts. Similarly the South African government’s decision not to offer anti-retroviral drugs to pregnant women with HIV.

Having set out these challenges to science, he goes on to explain how his own field SSK developed – there have been three waves.  He says: ‘In the 1950s, with radar, penicillin, nylon and all the rest, it was impossible to doubt the pre-eminence of science as a way of making knowledge. In this kind of atmosphere the job of history, philosophy and sociology of science was clear: explain how the scientific miracle worked.’  In the 1960s, orthodoxy was challenged.  In the 1970s SSK as a discipline began to take hold, and Collins himself was at the forefront. Science and the humanities were not so different after all, and ‘by the middle of the 1980s, there was less and less special about science. For those influenced by these academics – and the influence became stronger after the arts and humanities discovered the literary critique of science – the bar had fallen to the ground and we could all be scientific experts.’

This leads to the major theme of the book – what defines an expert. Well, Collins has his theories, and can categorise types of experts into a whole range of types.  At the bottom all of us are experts by osmosis at living in our own surroundings – he uses the naivety of The Midnight Cowboy arriving in town from the country – this is a ‘ubiquitous expertise’. So too speaking your native language. From then on in, it gets a lot more complicated and dry, if not a little confusing. It certainly confused me about my place in the scientific scheme of things!

I have a degree in materials science and after university worked in the microelectronics materials division of a chemical company for years – becoming quite a technical expert in my little niche – which was about getting the best performance from the particular materials I worked with that the R&D guys developed. Then I broadened my horizons, am now working in a school as a lab technician – where I am an expert in home-made bubble mix and the best slime recipes for science club.  I retain, however, a passion for science – hence embracing the local science festival, and I take an interest in programmes, books, and magazines etc – but would never dream to claim any expertise other than a good basic understanding outside my particular field. I may have been a proper expert once, but am not now – I’m into popular science, but I don’t mind that at all.

Where I got a bit cross with Prof Collins was that he wants to elevate the role of scientist back to that of the boffin in the white coat; for science to regain its respect. It is, perhaps, an admirable aim – however real life is not like that.  We are criminally short of scientists and engineers in this country now. Making science seem too difficult is never going to encourage teenagers into it. We do need the top scientists Collins argues for desperately, but we also need lots more everyday ones to keep the engine running.

Surely, popularising science is a good thing?  Or is a little knowledge just too dangerous a thing, as the cases mentioned above would suggest?  See, I told you I was confused, and this short book raised more questions than it answered for me. (6/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins, pub Feb 2014, Polity Press, 140pp incl notes and indexes, paperback.

Destined to be recycled, but …


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Unless there is someone out there that collects 1960s single volume encyclopedias, this book is destined to go to the book recycling bank at the supermarket. I love the cover though, so I thought I’d give it a brief moment of glory before it goes …


This volume was published in 1965 by Penguin, no R31, and has over 6000 headings, cross-referenced, with a ‘particular emphasis on the second half of the twentieth century’. From existentialism to xerography, abacus to Zulu – it’s packed full of information on 648 pages. The cover design was by Brian Mayers.

Some might say it’s sacrilege, but I might just cut the front cover off and frame it!

Back to Pre-War Berlin …


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The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne

winter garden

Last year, I was thrilled with Black Roses (my review), actress/spy Clara Vine’s first outing in 1930s Berlin, in which she became accepted in the high social circles of the First Reich’s wives. This was the story of how Clara came to Berlin to act in the movies, but got sidetracked into the Reich Fashion Bureau headed by Magda Goebbels and later became a spy.

In a later Q&A with the author, Jane teased about the Mitfords making an appearance in volume two of the planned trilogy.  I couldn’t wait for The Winter Garden

It is now 1937 and sadly, Leo Quinn, the spy who recruited and loved Clara in Black Roses has gone back to England. Clara is living alone and is shortly to start filming her first starring role as the wife of a Luftwaffe pilot at the famous Ufa studios in Berlin. Enough of Clara though for the moment, for The Winter Garden starts with the murder of Anna Hansen at Himmler’s Bride School, set up to train fiancées of SS officers to be perfect Nazi wives.  Shockingly, it really existed – and you couldn’t marry an SS officer without graduating from the two month course.

Today they had been focusing on ‘Cooking Without Butter’ because of the shortage, and very dull it had been too. Though that was no bad thing, Anna thought, because all these regular meals were making her plump. After lunch came Culture, consisting of a talk on fairy tales. All brides needed to learn fairy tales because the German mother was the ‘culture bearer’ to the next generation. Today’s lecturer had explained how in Cinderella it was the prince’s Germanic instincts that led him to reject the step-sisters’ alien blood and search for a maiden who was racially pure.

It turns out that Clara knew Anna, who had been a dancer and artist’s model (which introduces the degenerate art exhibition), before changing tack to become respectable and when Clara’s American journalist friend Mary visits the Bride School, Anna’s room-mate gives her Anna’s little writing case to take back to Anna’s family.  Little do they know what the case contains …

Clara is invited to a party by Magda Goebbels, ostensibly to act as a translator.  I must admit, I was sort of ‘glad’ to see all the first ladies of the Reich reappear in this second volume, they gave a sense of continuity!  However, Magda and the others are merely on the sidelines this time. I did love their little rebellion though, when, on hearing that the Führer wouldn’t be coming to a party, they got out their French couture dresses that he so disapproved of.

Also arriving in Berlin are Edward and Mrs Simpson, and Diana and Unity Mitford are already well entrenched. All the right-wing English notables are being cultivated and encouraged by Hitler. Clara needs to find out about the Mitfords, so she takes Emmy Goering who is pregnant a present …

‘Unity Mitford!’ Emmy Goerring grimaced. ‘That girl with her staring saucer eyes and the Party badge on her heaving bosom. The men call her Mitfahrt – the travelling companion – because she’s always there. She absolutely dogged Hitler’s heels at the rally. She spends every lunchtime at the Osteria Bavaria in the hope of catching Hitler’s eye. She’s dreadfully jealous of Eva Braun, of course, terrified that Eva comes first in Hitler’s affections. I’ve told her, it’s a bit late to worry about that. Eva has her own room in the Reich Chancellery, doesn’t she?’
‘So Unity’s not popular then?’
‘No one can understand why the Führer likes her. Apparently, he loves the fact that her middle name is Valkyrie. Eva says, well, she looks the part, especially the legs. Himmler hates her too. He thinks she might be a spy. He has a tame SS man follow her around, posing as a photographer. But I said to Heinrich, spies don’t go around dressed in a home-made storm-trooper’s uniform, do they? …’

So we already have the murder mystery and all the excitement caused by the Mitfords and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and a third main strand is added to the novel. This involves the Luftwaffe, and here Clara is able to help get information by virtue of her next film role being the wife of a pilot – it’s research.  This is where Clara finds a new lover, and cultivates a Luftwaffe test pilot who of course falls for her – at least slightly.  Everything gets stirred up, and Clara ends up in a precarious situation, as you’d expect of any good spy novel. I won’t elucidate any further.

Jane Thynne has again done her research impeccably – all the details seem perfect.  I was slightly disappointed at first that Leo was out of the picture, but that frees Clara for other relationships. I did feel that there was a lot going on in this volume, and that maybe the Anna story or the Luftwaffe story would have been enough on their own – we could have had a quartet rather than a trilogy. That is a minor quibble, for being immersed in Clara’s world is getting addictive and the stakes are getting higher and higher as war nears. The final part of the trilogy, A War of Flowers, will be published in 2015 – and I’ll be waiting for it!  (9/10)

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Source: The Publisher sent me a lovely signed copy – thank you to them and Jane.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Winter Gardenby Jane Thynne, pub Feb 2014 by Simon & Schuster, hardback 432 pages.
Black Roses by Jane Thynne, paperback.


It’s a ‘twofer’ – today you get 2 milestones for the price of 1


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Firstly – I’ve reached a blogging milestone.

THIS IS MY 1000th POST!!!

I’ve been blogging since September 2008, which means I’ve managed on average 181.818 recurring posts per year, or a post almost every other day. Bloomin’ ‘eck! How did that happen?  But – forget all about that!

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Secondly, today is the first day that I can officially tell you about my new project.  The website SHINY NEW BOOKS will go live at approximately 9am (BST) on Monday 7th April, i.e. in a week’s time.  Please click through NOW and subscribe to our email newsletter, so you don’t miss a thing!  

Together with three of my best blog-friends: Victoria, Simon and Harriet, we are proudly launching SHINY NEW BOOKS - a new online book recommendations magazine.  I hope you’re a little bit curious about how this came about?

Well … Victoria had posted on her blog about her ideal online books magazine. I’d been commenting elsewhere about the lack of trusted reviews in the press these days and that most of the reviews seemed to be non-fiction, and that I thought there was room for a blogger-led review magazine. Victoria spotted this, and bless her, contacted me (thank you :)  ). We thought we’d give it a go and see what happened.  One of the first things we realised was that we needed more people on the editorial team. We said ‘Simon T’ simultaneously and luckily for us he said, ‘Yes’.  Then the three of us said, we need a fourth editor – and we all said ‘Harriet’ and she said yes too!   A couple of Skype calls later, and Shiny New Books was born.

Our intent from the start has been to harness the expertise of our blogging contacts to bring you well-written reviews of a great selection of books you might want to read, be it fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or reprinted.  A lot of wonderful UK bloggers have contributed towards our first issue, and we thank them sincerely – we couldn’t do it without them.

The main thrust of SNB will be quarterly, following UK publishers’ catalogues, so the first issue features reviews of books published from Jan 2014 through to early April. However, we’ll have a mini-issue in May with additional reviews, and the email newsletter will be monthly-ish and with competitions and discussion threads and links to additional reviews.

One of the areas that we are proudest of is our ‘BookBuzz‘ section. We’ve been talking to authors, publishers and other specialists and commissioning a whole load of articles about authors’ processes, influences and stories; how books come about; and background articles and information to books featured in our main review sections.

The four of us are, of course, terribly excited about Shiny New Books and we hope we can rely on you to visit, join in, and spread the word.

Please also visit our facebook page: and twitter: and follow/like us.



Daughters of Time with The History Girls at the Oxford Literary Festival

20140330_132906_resizedSo back to the Oxford Literary Festival for one last time to hear some of The History Girls talk about their new anthology of historical short stories Daughters of Time. The History Girls is a collective blog that was the brainchild of Mary Hoffman, and now has 28 women writers of historical fiction (both adult and children’s/teen) and non-fiction regularly contributing, (they have an assigned day per month each).

The talk was in a small room off the main quad of Christchurch College – a very ‘keep off the grass’ type place, policed by wardens (formerly known as ‘Bulldogs’) in bowler hats. As always, I was early, and was directed to their little cafe but had a little wander through to the back gate instead, and stuck my head into the Cathedral – it’s a whole other ‘Bridesheady’ world still.

Back to the talk.  The four authors at the table were Mary Hoffman, Penny Dolan, Celia Rees and Leslie Wilson.  Although I’ve only read the excellent novel Witch Child by Celia Rees, I’ve had books for teens by Hoffman and Wilson on my shelves for some while. Penny Dolan writes for a younger audience. Mary introduced the foursome, and then two more of the History Girls in the room - Sue Perkiss and Katherine Langrish. Between them, I think they knew around half of the audience – maybe more!

20140330_140154_resizedDaughters of Time is an anthology of thirteen short stories together with background articles by the individual story authors about important women in English history, and goes from Boudicca to Greenham Common. Each story features a young woman, whether as the main character or an added character and the collection is aimed at older children upwards. Indeed, I hadn’t heard of some of the women featured, so it will be an education for me too to read.

Penny Dolan chose Mary Wollstonecraft – the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft led a fascinating life and sounds a formidable woman. Dolan’s story is from the PoV of a girl who met her during her travels.

Celia Rees, was stuck on who to choose until a conversation with her daughter led her to choose Emily Wilding Davison – the suffragette who fell under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. The story starts at Victoria station where Davison buys a return ticket to Epsom, and befriends a young woman behind her in the ticket queue. Davison was a radical suffragette – the question is did she intend to use the return part or not?  One interesting fact about her was that on the night of the 1911 census, she contrived to lock herself in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament so she could put it down on the census – apparently Tony Benn arranged for a plaque to be put in the broom cupboard to celebrate this). All the authors urged us to always use our votes.

Daughters-of-Time-coverLeslie Wilson chose the Greenham Common women – she was one of them. Although she didn’t camp out with them, she lived nearby and helped out and got to know a group of women well.  She proudly wore her badges.  She remembers getting the call to go out at 2am on the night the cruise missiles arrived. Her story is told from the PoV of a teenager who runs away to join the women.  Leslie was, and is proud of what they did – she even confessed that she has a police record herself from the time, but this grass roots movement did make an important difference – Leslie was almost moved to tears thinking of how close we came to nuclear war during those days.

Back to Mary Hoffman – whose own story is about Lady Jane Grey, the sixteen year old girl who became Queen for just 9 days.  Mary was proud to say she has a family connection through her grandson, as her grandson’s father is a descendant of Catherine Gray, Jane’s younger sister.

There was just time for the other two History Girls in the audience to briefly introduce their chosen own daughters of time in the anthology. Katherine Langrish (who blogs at the excellent Seven Miles of Steel Thistles has written about Lady Julian of Norwich – the first woman known to have written a book in English, and Sue Perkiss – Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians and King Alfred’s eldest child.

The History Girls obviously all get on wonderfully together, and it was lovely to hear some of them talk.  All six signed books at the end which was lovely – each signing on the title page of their own story in the volume.  Celia Rees added ‘Vote!’ to her inscription. The History Girls is a wonderful blog – do go and visit it.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Daughters of Timeedited by Mary Hoffman published March 1st by Templar Books, paperback

‘An Ark, a flood and a man called Noah’


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noah-movie-posterMost Sunday mornings I listen to ‘Sunday’ on BBC Radio 4.  I’m not religious, but this programme which features the religious and ethical news of the week, presented by the lovely-voiced Edward Stourton is always fascinating.  This week, they talked about Russell Crowe’s new film ‘Noah’. Ed asked the reviewer how the film compared to the bible. She replied – they share three things – ‘An ark, a flood and a man called Noah.‘ – I fell about laughing.  I’m sorry, I can’t remember the lady’s name.  After seeing the trailer the other week, I have no desire whatsoever to see the film at the cinema, however epic they make it!

But I did go straight to my bookcase, and found a gem that I’ve obviously been saving for the occasion … The Flood by David Maine, pub back in 2004.  I want to share the first paragraph with you, because I think this book is going to be an absolute hoot:

floodNoe glances toward the heavens, something he does a lot these days. Scanning for clouds. None visible amid the stars, so he finishes urinating, shakes himself dry and makes his way back to the house. Inside, the wife pokes desultorily at a pot of stew hanging over a fire. It is late for supper: the others have eaten already and retired to the sleeping room. Noe squats against one of the rough lime-washed walls and points at a terracotta bowl. He’s roughly six hundred years old: words are unnecessary.

Noe goes on to tell his wife about his vision.  When she asks how they’ll be taking this ship to the sea. Noe replies, “We’ll not be going to the sea. The sea will be coming to us.” She pauses, and quietly accepts things, and carries on.

Love that cover. The new edition, coincidentally published this week, is sadly rather more obvious and a cash-in on the look of the film.  (BTW, this book was originally called ‘The Preservationist’ in the US). I should be reading other things, but you gotta go with your whims sometimes…


Natalie Haynes at the Oxford Literary Festival


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amber furyOne of the best new novels I’ve read so far this year has been The Amber Fury by Natalie Hayes (my review here).

I returned to the Oxford Literary Festival today to the confines of a lovely oak panelled room in Corpus Christi College to hear her in conversation with Peter Stothard.  The room held maybe sixty people in total, so we were up close and personal from the off.  Natalie and Stothard ambled in a few minutes late, apologising for their shambolic entry – they’d gone to the wrong venue!  They apologised for not having really prepared in advance to talk about Natalie’s novel – but it didn’t matter a jot.  Stothard (editor of the TLS), although prone to liking to hear his own views slightly too much, knows his classics OK, and Natalie as a classicist and former stand-up comedian can talk about anything, so it made for a great hour of chat.

The first of the Greek tragedies in the book that Alex uses to teach the PRU pupils is that of Oedipus.  Natalie said, “If you’re going to win over teenagers, definitely start with illicit incestuous sex.”  She explained (for structure nerds) how she structured the novel on Aristotleian principles – every scene should reveal character and advance the plot.  Also the book is in five acts, like the plays of Sophocles.  The over-riding theme is of freewill vs determinism – the essential Oedipal quandary.

NatalieHaynes_tagtmlHowever, we found out that Haynes’s own favourite Greek tragedy is that of Medea – the one who, spurned by Jason, killed all their children (according to Euripedes). It didn’t fit the book, however, the story of Alcestis which is essentially that of sacrifice did, and is also an essential part of the plot.

One other thing she said that stayed with me is, that you should read Catullus as a teenager, but Horace as a grown-up.  I did Catullus for O-level – our translations were rather tame as I discovered a few years later when I bought a proper edition of his poems as a student; I did love them then.  I’ve not looked at them for years – but then I’ve not read Horace – maybe his time is nigh.

Most of the audience appeared not to have read the novel!  I really recommend it – and I can claim bragging rights too. Natalie signed my ARC at the end, and was impressed that I had the ARC - ‘I only got given one of those’ she said.

She was a great speaker, erudite and funny of course, but when she read the first page and a half of her novel, (which immediately gets you hooked with suspense) - she was seriously good at that too.  The Amber Fury is a brilliant read, and you’ll definitely want to explore the Greek tragedies after reading it.





A Childhood Rediscovery …



The Martin Pippin books by Eleanor Farjeon

Coincidence is a funny thing. I moved a pile of my old children’s paperbacks, and at the top of the stack I left was this book. Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Field by Eleanor Farjeon. It sort of looked familiar, and when I opened it up and saw the coloured in pictures (I always added to the illustrations when I was a child!), it got a bit less vague. Then I read a little, and it took me back…


Martin Pippin is a wondering minstrel, and one day he encounters six young girls who beg him to tell them stories…

Two were standing, two were stooping, two were sitting at their chain-making; and as they strung the daisy heads, they sang scraps and snatches of songs, no longer than a daisy-stalk…
Overhead the sky was going green, and the stars were making pin-pricks where the green was deepest, and the moon a yellow hole where it was palest, along the shoulder of Rackham Hill, and the dome of Amberley Mount. It was high time that the six little girls were in bed.
Martin thought so. And though he was afraid of nothing so much in the world as girls big and little, he made two strides across the boundless river, and stood in the daisy-field.

Martin Pippin 1SALLY: It’s him!
SYLVIA: What’s he come for?
SUE: To send us to bed, you know.
STELLA: I shan’t go.
SALLY: Let’s shut our eyes tight, so he’ll think we can’t hear him.
SOPHIE: I shall put my fingers in my ears.
STELLA: I shan’t. I just won’t go.
SELINA: I wonder why it’s so horrid going to bed, when it’s so nice being there.
SOPHIE: Oh it isn’t, S’lina. There’s nothing to do in bed, except go to sleep. …

They bicker some more until they realise Martin has come amongst them, whereupon they ‘shut their eyes tight, and put their fingers in their ears‘. They chat and Martin agrees to tell Sophie a story…  He tells each girl a story in turn – from the tale of Elsie Piddock who Skips in her Sleep, to the Mermaid of Rye who was born in a winkle.

Between each story is an interlude where he and the girls talk – sometimes in normal prose, sometimes as a script – just like above. The book is set in Sussex in and around the Long Man of Wilmington chalk hillside figure, who makes an appearance in one of them.  It is utterly charming – how could I have forgotten about this book? which I got or was given in 1969 - (I know that, I put the date on the inside cover, along with my full address – the one with the solar system etc.).  I shall have to make time to read the stories once again.

Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Field was first published in 1937, some 26 years after Farjeon’s first book featuring the story-telling minstrel – Martin Pippin in the Apple-Orchard.  The first book of stories was not written for children, but a young soldier who had been a friend of Edward Thomas, like Farjeon herself.

The coincidence came when I looked up the books on Amazon to see if they are still available – and lo and behold, a new paperback edition is due out next week!  Better news still, Martin Pippin in the Apple-Orchard is available for download on Project Gutenberg (no illustrations though).

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Fieldby Eleanor Farjeon, re-pub 31st March by Red Fox books, paperback
Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchardby Eleanor Farjeon, re-pub 31st March by Red Fox books, paperback

Ian McEwan at the Oxford Literary Festival


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I come to you hotfoot from the Oxford Literary Festival where, in the domed confines of the Sheldonian Theatre, Ian McEwan was presented the Bodley Medal by Richard Ovenden the current Librarian of the Bodleian Library.  Before the presentation of the medal (which is made from copper from the old roof of the Bodleian, and has been awarded to around a dozen people so far including Hilary Mantel last year), the two sat in conversation.  McEwan was both witty and erudite, as was Ovenden and it made for a great event…


Ovenden started off by asking McEwan about his writing process… firstly – the physicality of it.  McEwan said he was an early adopter of word processors – he likes the way they allow a ‘dynamic of constant revision’.  He sometimes writes trial paragraphs longhand and then tries them on the screen.

When quizzed about his writing environment and sharing his house with another writer, his wife, it’s one upstairs, one downstairs – but I can’t remember which way round.  He told us he had a marvellous piece of software called ‘Freedom’ – you set a time, and it blocks the internet for you!

Talking about the development of his novels, and the research that goes into them. McEwan said he has a ‘duty to some kind of truth’, to do the research properly.  For instance for Saturday, his most-researched novel, he shadowed a neurosurgeon for two years and got mistaken for a proper doctor by some students, so at home was he with the subject.

Going back, Ovenden asked him what got him on the literary path towards being a writer.  McEwan said it was whilst he was at Sussex university when he was about 20 that he discovered Kafka and Polish author Bruno Schulz. They seemed ‘off the planet’ and excited him enormously when he realised that literature was a conversation that anyone could join in.

The conversation moved on to screenplays – McEwan said they are ‘very much like novellas’ in the need to establish characters quickly, and having few sub-plots as they will only be around 100 pages long.  He described some of the ‘pleasure and anguish’ of working with others, and within the Hollywood system.  The screenwriter is very much a lowly position, the director has long been the auteur. He’s glad that there is much writer-led TV now, especially coming from Scandinavia.  Ovenden asked about Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Atonement.  McEwan felt he’d done an excellent job getting into his mind.  He praised Hampton and director Joe Wright, and the casting of Saoirse Ronan as Briony in particular.

Then we got onto the subject of McEwan’s new book, which he finished this week!  The Children Act – is a novel about a judge who is undergoing tough personal times, and the effects that a particular case is having on her.  Fiona, 59, is a judge in the family court and had to rule on a case involving the separation of Siamese twins.  To save one, the doctors had to kill the other, else they would both die within a few months. She overrules the family’s wishes to leave it to God, and rules for separation being the choice of the lesser evil, but as her own marriage is failing, she obsesses over the decision – the legal vs the moral vs the religious.

McEwan read a couple of passages from his manuscript – we were the first audience to hear any of it.  It sounds like vintage McEwan tackling big issues, with some visceral language highlighting the plight of the child in bad family break-ups, and then a passage about the twins.  Can’t wait for the book!

Then a few audience questions before the presentation.  The first questioner almost accused him of schadenfreude – being rather ‘chirpy’ when he read the extracts from his new novel – he was hamming them up a bit to inject some drama – this did make the book sound irresistible when it comes out. McEwan replied seriously, there was no intention of being chirpy!

Another question was about McEwan’s predilection for explosive plot devices, (which don’t happen in all his novels).  He replied ‘I quite like novels where something happens.’ He sometimes feels the need to put his characters through something extreme to see what happens to them,exploring  their different viewpoints and memories.  He has a strong belief in character.

After the presentation, McEwan moved over to the festival tent outside to sign books, but in the end I decided not to indulge – I own copies of most of his novels already, but it was also wet, and just about the Oxford rush-hour, so I opted to go straight home instead. He was an entertaining speaker, although this was one of the more expensive events at the festival, it was interesting to hear what makes one of the best modern British authors tick – I really should read more of those books!



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