My Books of the Year 2014 – Part Two – The Blog edit

Yesterday I shared my best reads of 2014 as reviewed for Shiny New Books. Today, I turn my attention to titles reviewed here. The links will return you to my full reviews:

Best Retro-Subversive Laugh-Out-Loud Book

scarfolkDiscovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

So nearly my book of the year, Discovering Scarfolk is just hilarious! Stuck firmly in the 1970s world of public information films and Cold War paranoia, every page of this little book which is designed from front to back yields gems of parody and references in its tale of a missing man who got stuck in the unique town of Scarfolk.

There is also an comic twist to each illustration too, which ironically does make you look again to see if you missed anything…

For more information please reread this poster.

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Best Illustrations

sleeper spindle 1The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle 2Gaiman’s reworked fairy tale is fabulous on its own, but with Chris Riddell’s illustrations it reaches a new height.

Inked in black and white with gold highlights, Riddell’s characteristic strong-browed young women, cheerful groteseques and skull-like gargoyles are simply gorgeous.

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Horrorstor_final_300dpiBest Cover Art

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

And whilst we’re on the subject of illustration, I must mention the best cover concept of the year – in this horror spoof of the IKEA catalogue.

The graphic design extends to the inside of the novel too with lots of attention to detail, but the story itself, although entertaining, is standard horror fare.

Best in Translation

my brilliant friendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein)

Like many this year, I too have caught ‘Ferrante Fever’. The first in a sequence of four novels by the elusive Italian author captures growing up in backstreet Naples in the 1950s perfectly for two young girls. Volumes two and three are now available, with the fourth to come. I’m so looking forward to catching up with Elena and Lila’s lives.

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Best Medical Drama

Dirty WorkDirty Work by Gabriel Weston

The second book by Weston, a surgeon herself,  is a novel that looks at one of the toughest things that obs & gynae surgeons may ever have to do – provide abortions.  It was not an easy book given its subject matter, but it was completely compelling to read and gives a profound insight into this difficult area.

 

Best Sequel

echoThe Echo by James Smythe

My book group will disagree with this choice for they hated the first book (The Explorer) in this planned quartet. However, I loved the utter claustrophobia of outer space in these books, and The Echo takes the central premise of the first book and keeps twisting it further with great effect. Roll on the third volume I say.

 

Best Book-Group Choice?

all-quiet-on-the-western-frontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maris Remarque

Arguably, we read some great books this year including Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but the added poignancy of reading this novel of WWI during the centenary month of August was very fitting and moving too. Our discussions were wide-ranging and everyone enjoyed the book, proving you don’t always need a voice of dissent to have a good book group meeting.

Best YA Shocker

BunkerThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

I am glad to have read the controversial Carnegie Medal winner to see for myself what it was all about. I can honestly say it is the bleakest novel I have ever read and it is for younger teens and upwards. If it had been written for adults, we wouldn’t find it so shocking at all, but despite its subject, I wouldn’t stop any child from reading it – I would encourage discussion afterwards though!

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… And Finally, My ‘Blog’ Book of the Year

hangover squareHangover Square
by Patrick Hamilton

I read this back in January it is still, frankly, the best book I’ve read all year.

Set in 1938 pre-war Earls Court in London, this is the story of George Harvey Bone and his unrequited love for the teasing Netta. This tragic novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I shall be reading more Hamilton in 2015.

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So that’s it for my Books of the Year.
Have you read any of these from yesterday or today?
Do share yours too.

Poor but mostly happy …

This Boy by Alan Johnson

this boyPoliticians’ memoirs are not the norm for me to read when I choose non-fiction. Alan Johnson may be a fine politician, (and many think that Labour would be in a much better place if he had stood to become leader) but this volume doesn’t cover his later career, just his childhood, and what a childhood it was.

The book starts by Johnson looking back at the only photograph of his parents on their wedding day – neither look entirely happy. His father in uniform with a hint of swagger, his mother smiling somewhat strainedly beside him, her arm linked around his, almost clinging but also restraining.

Johnson grew up in the slums of Notting Hill – you’d never recognise it now. The buildings were due for demolition and they had just a couple of rooms with a cooker on the landing and outside loo. It can’t have been what his mother Lily, a Liverpudlian, was expecting when she moved to London but she was determined to make it her home. Steve wouldn’t even contemplate moving anywhere else. Alan, who was born in 1950, and his older sister Linda were born into this deprivation and like all children who don’t know anything different did their best to get the most out of this life.

They hadn’t reckoned on their father Steve though. By the end of the first chapter, he’s already had an affair – pretending to be visiting his mother every Sunday morning, instead having it away with the wife of a friend. Linda uncovered some of what was happening and it all came out. Steve left Lily for Elsie – but, as Johnson tells us, ‘Unfortunately, he came back.’

Johnson is unsparing in his depiction of his father:

There are no surrogate fathers in this story. The lack of any meaningful relationship with Steve did not spur me to see an alternative father figure. In fact it had the opposite effect: it made me mistrustful of men in general and uncomfortable in their presence. I much preferred being with women. But if I had been inclined to fantasize about the ideal father, as Linda was (she idolized her teacher at Bevington, Mr Freeman, and often voiced her wish that he was our dad), Albert Cox [father of his best friend Tony] would have been my choice.

Steve was a charmer who got most of his money from playing the piano in pubs, or occasionally getting lucky on the horses. He drank and gambled most of it away, and it was difficult for Lily to get any housekeeping out of him even before he eventually left, when that became nigh-on impossible. Lily always had to work to put food on the table, and her health suffered. There were many spells in hospital and she died when Alan was 12. Linda was just turning sixteen, and having brought up Alan all those times her mother was ill, was able to persuade the Council that they could survive on their own. They finally got a flat to share south of the river with that indoor bathroom they’d always craved.

The post-war poverty was appalling, yet Johnson is rarely maudlin about it. Luckily he was bright and caught the reading bug at a young age, later getting to Grammar school. Amongst the few treasured family possessions were his guitar and Linda’s Dansette record player, bought when Lily had a small win on the football pools one week. Books, football and music were his passions, but unfulfilled at school, he left at 15, ending up as a postman at 18 via shelf-stacking at Tesco; a good guitarist by then, he was also in a couple of bands. That is where this memoir ends (the second volume, Please, Mr Postman is now out, chronicling his pre-parliament working years).

There were many good times in Johnson’s childhood, usually short-lived, which he recounts with wit and a candour that is present throughout. Only once or twice does he ever credit his father with any visible parenting – one time when his father actually played trains with him is fondly remembered, but little else.

Alan Linda, and Lily when she was well, just got on with life. The real heroine of this story is Linda, the big sister who always looked out for the family. She was a remarkable young woman and thoroughly deserves our praise.

There is little sign in this volume of the politician that Johnson would eventually become except perhaps in his tolerance of things. Notting Hill was an area that would change rapidly with the influx of immigrant workers in the 1950s, one of Johnson’s best friends was a black lad, but Johnson doesn’t stray away from telling just his own story.

Despite not being a political memoir in the true sense, This Boy won the Orwell Prize (for political writing) and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, both in 2014. The Ondaatje prize is given for a book that evokes the “spirit of a place” and post-war Notting Hill certainly leaps off the pages.

Johnson’s childhood was terribly poor and marred by tragedy – you can’t help but be deeply moved by his account yet, it is also funny and equally uplifting. Johnson tells it how it was but remains chipper throughout, and staunch in his belief in his wonderful sister Linda. He has done his best to hide the misery which must lie underneath this marvellous book.  I’m so glad I read it. (10/10)

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This Boy by Alan Johnson. Corgi books 2013, paperback, 304 pages.
Please, Mister Postman by Alan Johnson. Bantam 2014, hardback.

The first in an Italian trilogy…

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein

my brilliant friendI came to reading this book, the first volume in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Trilogy, with more than a little trepidation. Firstly I have only heard good things about it, so I was hoping that it would live up to its reputation.

Secondly, my only previous experience of Ferrante’s work – her early novel, Troubling Love, which I read back in the early days of this blog, was not entirely a success, particularly as I was thrown by the first sentence: “My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.” May 23rd was my wedding anniversary, and a new relative by marriage died of a heart attack on my wedding night. (I hasten to add that he was already in hospital, not at the wedding and it was his third heart attack, so while terribly sad, it was not sudden nor unexpected.) In fact, having read this book, I’m beginning to wonder if I have a psychic connection with Ferrante, because the major event which takes place at the end of My Brilliant Friend happens on my late mum’s birthday – it’s a happier date in both cases this time.

So, to the books … The Neapolitan Trilogy is the story of childhood friends, Elena and Lila. The first volume opens in the 1950s and follows the story of the girls up until Lila’s marriage while still a teenager. The second sees them mature into young women, and the third volume, which will be published in September, carries on their story.

The prologue to My Brilliant Friend is narrated by Elena, now in her mid-sixties. She is contacted by Lila’s son worried about his mother who appears to have done a disappearing act.

It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. […] she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world. […]

I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

We can immediately sense a rivalry between the two women, and that Elena is not necessarily the top dog in their relationship. Let’s go back to the start in the 1950s – and here I can’t help but think of the song Where do you go to (my lovely)? by Peter Sarstedt from 1969, which towards the end includes the lyric…

I remember the back streets of Naples,
Two children begging in rags,
Both touched with a burning ambition,
To shake off their lowly born tags, they tried.

A rough and tough neighbourhood in Naples is the scene. Everyone fights; including the women who fight between themselves. ‘Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.’ Don Achille is feared by all, and the tentative friendship between Elena and Lila is cemented by a series of dares, the most scary of which is to sneak up the back stairs into Don Achille’s house and the little girls hold hands to go together.

Lila’s family run a shoe-repair business. Her older brother aspires to craft handmade shoes rather than only repair them. They are poorer than Elena’s family, her father is a porter at the city hall. Both girls start school and both are clever. The teachers are amazed that Lila has already taught herself to read and write, but Elena soon catches up and the girls study together. Both could get into the senior school, but Lila’s family can’t afford it. This is the first point at which the girls’ lives could split, but Lila has an urge to keep learning – and after she finishes her work in the shop, she continues to study with Elena.

Becoming teenagers, their lives outside school and work begin to take a different emphasis. The arrival of puberty and their periods, Elena before Lila for once, brings boys to the forefront. Getting a good match is the key to elevation in Neapolitan society, and while the girls will get to know most of the boys of most of the local families, their paths are still set by circumstance. Elena, doing well at school, can’t now marry someone uneducated, and Lila has always had her eyes set on the son of Don Achille.

Ferrante brings this story of working class Neapolitans to life with an incredible eye for detail. We really get to see what life is like for these families in 1950s Naples. One eye-opening aspect that would never have occurred to me was that they don’t speak Italian as their first language, using a Neapolitan dialect instead. It soon starts to become a barrier for Elena as some childhood friends who don’t go on to the senior school can’t speak Italian, let alone read Latin as she will. This is one reason why Lila continues to teach herself and study with Elena.

They live in a close-knit community, full of feuds, the haves and the have-nots with a hierarchy of families. Every so often events will happen to shake things up a little – Lila will often be involved somewhere, yet as her wedding approaches, she begins to have occasional strange turns (are they symptoms of petit mal? I don’t know). It ends with Lila’s wedding – a mostly happy event, but for the cliff-hanger ending…

In making Elena her narrator writing from memory, Ferrante very cleverly builds the two girls’ characters, with Elena usually looking to Lila to take the lead, yet relishing those occasions when she came in first. We come to realise that Lila does need Elena as much as Elena needs Lila, yet there will be falling-outs aplenty along the way. As I found in Troubling Love, Ferrante is an author very concerned with the physiology of womanhood, there is a power in the coming of monthly blood, here it wasn’t overpowering – it just marked the transition.

Ferrante is famed for her elusiveness – yet in sharing her name with one of the characters, we do wonder how much the Elena on the page is based on Elena herself, or is there more of Lila in her?  We’ll probably never know, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the other volumes as soon as I can. (9/10)

I read this book for Women in Translation month. Finally, having mentioned it up the page, I shall leave you with Peter Sarstedt…

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Published by Europa editions, 2012. Paperback original 336 pages.
The Story of a New Name – Volume 2
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Volume 3, pub Sept 11.

Panto season … 1951

Looking through some really old theatre programmes again, my eye was caught by the advertisement below on the back of one.  Dating from 1951, the ad is for a pantomime – Aladdin – put on my impressario Emile Littler at the London Casino.  Cast your eyes down to the bottom left and see who is playing the principal girl …

Aladdin 1951

Yes, it’s a young Julie Andrews. Already a star, at the age of thirteen she’d been the youngest ever solo performer at a Royal Variety Performance in front of George VI; in 1951, now aged sixteen she starred as Princess Balroulbadour in this lavish panto.

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie AndrewsThe following extract is from her memoir Home, which I reviewed here

That Christmas of 1951 I was invited to play the role of Princess Balroulbadour – the principal girl – in Emile Littler’s holiday pantomime Aladdin back at the London Casino. Jean Carson was to play the title role.

Aladdin was an elaborate production. The Genie’s cave at the end of the first act was dazzling to behold and there was a huge ballet, beautifully designed and executed, in the second act.

I wore exotic, sparkling headdresses, which I loved, and a lot of satin kimono-style robes with long, draped arms. The setting was Middle Eastern, but I looked more Japanese than Persian. I also wore ballet slippers, to keep my height down and make Jean Carson look taller than me.

The cast included a Danish acrobatic troupe, the Olanders – five lads who, clad in silk pantaloons and waistcoats, performed death-defying gymnastics: springboards, leaps, balancing acts. Every time they were onstage I had to come down to watch – they were that good: a special combination of bravura and muscular strength, with lean beautiful bodies.

One of the acrobats – the best – was a young man called Fred who executed something like twelve amazing butterfly leaps round the stage. He was attractive, fit (obviously), and very gentle and dear. My mother knew that I was fond of him and she said, wisely, ‘Bring him down to The Meuse for a weekend.’ Later she joked that he never stopped swinging from our chandeliers (we didn’t have any).

My mother was ever present. Fred and I would sit on the couch, bodies pressed together, and there was a lot of hugging and kissing, Mum plied her sewing machine across the room, her back to us but rigidly alert.

I was heartbroken when the run of the show ended.

Old heads on young shoulders, and yet …

Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

absolute beginners

Narrated by an eighteen year old photographer, MacInnes’ novel captures the essence of what it was like to be a teenager in London in the late 1950s …

Mr Wiz continued, masticating his salmon sandwich for anyone to see, ‘It’s been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? “Teenager” ‘s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.’
I smiled at Mr W. ‘Well, take it easy, son,’ I said, ‘because a sixteen year old sperm like you has got a lot of teenage living still to do. As for me, eighteen summers, rising nineteen, I’ll very soon be out there among the oldies.

Ah – the arrogance of youth, to be considered old at twenty!

The novel follows our unnamed narrator through the summer of 1958, and we gradually meet all his friends like Mr Wiz above and neighbours, plus the love of his life Suzette.

Suze is a problem – she says loves him, but she also loves money and the trappings it can buy. She is tempted to marry an older homosexual chap to give him cover and her money. She dangles the narrator on her little finger yet carries on having flings.

The narrator has a small flat in a vibrant and Bohemian area of West London, which he finances through his photographic work – mostly selling pornographic pictures at this time, although he does have artistic ambitions. Downstairs lives Cool, a black man, whose white half-brother has just come to warn him of impending unrest…

‘…he gets round the area and knows the scene, and he says there’s trouble coming for the coloureds.’
I laughed out loud, but a bit nervously. ‘Oh Cool, you know, they’ve been saying that for years, and nothing’s happened. Well, haven’t they? I know in this country we treat the coloureds all like you-know-what, but we English are too lazy, son, to be violent. Anyway, you’re one of us, big boy, I mean home-grown, as much a native London kid as any of the millions, and much more so than hundreds of pure pink numbers from Ireland and abroad who’ve latched on to the Welfare thing, but don’t belong here like you do.’
My speech made no impression on Mr Cool. ‘I’m just telling you what Wilf says,’ he answered. ‘And all I know is, he likes coming here so little it must be something that makes him feel he ought to.’

As the summer heats up, so brews the tension. This is the era of Vespa scooters, Mods and Teds, rock’n’roll, and it will end in the Notting Hill race-riots.

If exploring youth culture and the social make-up of young London is the most serious theme of this novel, the lighter side is seeing what your average London teenager wears, and what they listen to.  The narrator is unusual for one who left school at fifteen in that he’s a reader.  He was lucky to have an inspirational teacher.

… he made me kinky about books: he managed to teach me – to this day, I don’t know how – that books were not just a thing like that – I mean, just books – but somebody else’s mind opened up for me to look into, and he taught me the habit, later on, of actually buying then! Yes – I mean real books, like the serious paperbacks, which must have been unknown among the kids up in the Harrow Road those days, who thought a book’s an SF or a Western, if they thought it’s anything.

Good chap!  But books aren’t his only love. Also very important, more important even, to most teenagers of the time (and now still?) is the music they listened to.  In the late 1950s, it wasn’t so unusual for teens to be into jazz…

…the great thing about the jazz world, and all the kids that enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is or what your race is, or what your income, so if you’re boy, or girl, or bent, or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door.

absolute beginners penguin first edition

Contrasting against the non-stop activities of the teenagers is the different kind of relationship he has with his parents. He only really visits them in Pimlico where his mother runs a boarding house for unsavory types to use his old dark-room. There’s no love lost between the narrator and his mother, but he is determined to give his poor hen-pecked and ailing father a bit of fun this summer – they go off for a day cruising up the river.

Then it reaches September and the end of the summer. The tensions which had been simmering now begin to boil over. Our narrator turns nineteen, and it’s as if a switch is flipped in him – he does indeed have an old head on young shoulders.

Published in 1959, MacInnes (whom I discovered is Angela Thirkell’s son), was in his mid forties when he wrote it. His narrator uses a rich and complex vocabulary that seems older than his years – not quite Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange which would follow in 1962, more like the verbal flourishes that Russell Brand uses.  No-one is known by their real names either, it’s nicknames all the way – just like today’s teens.

What is scary is that in those days, the majority of teenagers were released from the shackles of school out into the big wide world at the age of fifteen.  I was scared stiff to leave school at eighteen twenty years later!  Through MacInnes’s eyes, these teenagers seem so worldly and happy-go-lucky as they dive into London life with real gusto.

absolute beginners film tie-in editionSome of you may recall the 1986 film adaptation starring Patsy Kensit as a rather toned down Suzette and theme tune by David Bowie. Bowie also acted in it, alongside Ray Davies as the father.

Those are the names I remember, but also in the film were James Fox, Mandy Rice-Davies, Steven Berkoff, Lionel Blair, and Edward Tudor-Pole, plus Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman no less!

absolute beginners single david bowie

I remember seeing the film on the big screen and really enjoying it – but it was a big flop for the British film company that financed it. In particular, the critics didn’t like a 1950s film with a 1980s soundtrack – Sade and The Style Council contributed; authenticity was added by veteran jazzman Gil Evans, but that wasn’t enough.  I bought the 12″ single though…

I’m currently very drawn to British books set in this pre-Beatles era.  Absolute Beginners is the middle novel of a trilogy of standalone novels by MacInnes – together known as his London Trilogy.  The others are City of Spades and Mr Love and Justice and I would definitely like to read them. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Absolute Beginners (Allison & Busby Classics), paperback, 350 pages.
City of Spades, Mr Love And Justice

What a cast!

A vintage theatrical diversion for you today… Sorting through a pile of assorted clippings, programmes etc of my late mum’s I found this theatre programme … and my first thought was ‘What a cast!’  You can see for yourself …

CCF08102013_00000 (1024x760)

The Way of the World is one of the very best Restoration comedies, first performed in 1700. The action is centred around two lovers, Mirabell and Millamant, who need the permission of Lady Wishfort to marry to get a full dowry. Lady Wishfort, however, would prefer her nephew Sir Wilfull to marry Mirabell.

Gielgud not only starred in and directed this production, but assembled an all-star cast: Eric Porter, Paul Schofield, Peter Sallis (Cracking cheese, Gromit), two young female stars in Pamela Brown and Eileen Herlie, Margaret Rutherford, and at the bottom – Catweazle himself Geoffrey Bayldon.

I was able to find a review of this production from The Spectator archive of theatre reviews from Feb 27th, 1953, selected quotes follow:

THE more faultless a play, perhaps, the more difficult a job there is for the producer. The Way of the World is a very nearly perfect comedy; against the original felicities of Congreve John Gielgud’s presentation—the latest period-piece at the Hammersmith Lyric, a kind of salty hors d’oeuvre before the tremendous meal of Otway- shows flaws which have caused it to be roughly handled. But, if these cannot be ignored, they are far less important than the style, judgement, and elegance of the whole; …
There are, certainly, some odd quirks of casting. Pamela Brown is a very queer Millamant, whom the effort of outrageous affectation seems to leave perpetually out of breath. … Margaret Rutherford, rolling and heaving her way, like the White Queen feeling an improbable access of desire, through the predicaments of Lady Wishfort, is even further from her ordinary territory, but she conquers the ground for herself. She is stupendously out of place and time, but she is stupendous; it does not really matter how Lady Wishfort is funny so long as she is as funny as that.
Beside this rollicking performance Mr. Gielgud’s Mirabell is hardly noticeable, retiring with admirable stage-manners to his proper place. This remains, however, the unobtrusive centre of the comedy, and Mr. Gielgud does not forget it ; around his debonair, cultivated, and elegant figure—such legs must have been the envy of all the beaux in St. James’s—the entire heartless, good-humoured, polite machinery revolves. … the most polished talk in the world spoken for the most part with spirit and intelligence—it would be possible to ask more, but it might be thought, rather greedy.’ C. S.

I love the critic’s description of Margaret Rutherford – stupendous!

Brown, Gielgud and Rutherford in Way of the World, Lyric Theatre 1953, photo by Zoe Dominic from Plays and Players magazine.

Brown, Gielgud and Rutherford in Way of the World, Lyric Theatre 1953, photo by Zoe Dominic from Plays and Players magazine.

Caryl Brahms, writing for Plays and Players magazine in 1953, was also not a fan of Pamela Brown, describing her voice as “part turtle-dove’s roo-coo, part nutmeg grater” and bemoans the fact that “Miss Brown seems only to have up her sleeve Miss Brown – her ace of aces. But what a self Miss Brown has! … The Gods forfend that we should have Miss Brown act a character instead of her fascinating self…

I’m overjoyed that I’ve been able to refer to “Plays and Players”: 1953-68 v. 1: Thirty Years of British Theatre (link to Amazon UK) to provide the photo and more information. I picked this volume up at a book sale, and it has sat there on the shelf for ages.  I have few of my mum’s theatre programmes left now, but I do have a diary of all the plays, ballets and operas she went to see from 1950 onwards – this could inspire more posts!

 

“Echoed voices in the night she’s a restless spirit on an endless flight”

Babayagaby Toby Barlow

babayaga

Toby Barlow’s debut, Sharp Teeth, which I capsule-reviewed back in the early days of this blog should have really appeared in my Top novels I’ve read by men post from a couple of days ago. His Sopranos-style story of gang warfare amongst the werewolves in LA, written in the form of a prose poem has stayed with me ever since I read it, however back then I only gave it 9/10 and it didn’t make the cut for that list.

When I read he’d written a new novel, I couldn’t wait for the UK publication and ordered a copy of the American hardback, and for the past few days I’ve been totally absorbed in reading Babayaga.

The Baba Yaga of Eastern European folklore were supernatural and ferocious women, said to live in a hut on chicken legs, typified as a sorceress/mid-wife/fortune-teller style character with a large pestle and mortar, who had a close relationship with nature and could be benevolent – or more often not.

The Babayagas of Barlow’s new novel are definitely sorceresses. The setting is Paris in 1959. The book starts with Zoya, a beautiful young woman of Russian extraction, who has realised that Leon, her lover of fifteen years, is starting to question why she’s not looking any older.  Time to get rid of him – she didn’t quite mean to impale him on a railing though.

Meanwhile, Will Van Wyck, an American working in the Parisian branch of an advertising agency, is despairing over the big ideas of his last remaining client, and wishing that he didn’t have to put together those company profiles for Mr Brandon who would appear to be linked to the CIA. Two years in Paris, and he still doesn’t really understand the city and its inhabitants, but neither does he want to go home to Detroit.

Zoya turns to Elga, an older woman, a more traditional wicked old witch (although she wasn’t always thus as we eventually find out). These two have been working their way around Europe for centuries, always moving on when trouble looms. Elga is fed up of Zoya’s misfortunes with men though, and when Zoya unwittingly puts Elga in the frame for Leon’s murder, the old crone starts to dream of vengeance.

As for Inspector Vidot, he gets the case – and following the trail Zoya leads to Elga nearly meets his own end, instead being transformed into a flea.  Hopping from host to host, he will continue to try to unravel this mystery in true Kafkaesque style.

Soon Will meets Zoya, and it is love at first sight, but Will also gets mixed up with Oliver, another American under Brandon’s umbrella. Oliver is Gatsby to Will’s Nick, and leads him a merry dance through Parisian high-living and lowlife contacts. At last together, Will and Zoya get to know each other a little better. She encourages him to talk about his work in advertising…

‘What do you think works?’
Even though Will had answered this in presentations to clients a hundred times before, it made him blush to answer the question now. ‘Seduction.’
‘You seduce them?’ Zoya thought about it for a second and then her eyes brightened. ‘Yes, I see, so this client of yours believes it is a kind of war, but you think you can win with love. Maybe you’re both right. People can be conquered, certainly, but your idea is more like those pretty women I hear they have put to work in the airplanes now.’
‘The stewardesses?’
‘Yes,’ Zoya said. ‘You see, it’s not enough of a miracle to be flying high up in the air, even all the way across the entire ocean, that magic isn’t enough, so they put someone pretty and seductive on the plane, now there’s a possibility of sex or romance, a temptation to lure you in. It’s right out of a folktale, a beautiful girl with a fool in a flying ship.’
‘Well, I don’t – it’s a little more simple than that.’ Will stammered, her mention of sex making his heart skip a beat. ‘You really only have to show them a bit of life they admire or desire, a story they want to be a part of, paint them a picture and then invite them into it.’
‘Ah, I understand.’ She smiled, almost to herself. ‘So it’s not love, it’s merely a spell. So, then what? Tell me, what happens after these victims of yours buy your product and the spell is broken? When they awaken to find their life is as empty and sad as it was before, only now a little poorer too?’

Isn’t advertising spin ‘magic’!

We’re all set up for a fantastic, in all sense of the word, multi-stranded adventure combining witches, spies, gangsters, murder, sorcery and romance. It is complicated, and in a few places, a little slow paced, but that’s a small price to pay for finding out how it all comes together.

Ruby-Tandoh-5Will is such a sweet character – an innocent abroad, and a little wet. This adventure arrives at the right time for him, but he is put into so many tricky situations, you can’t help but feel for him. Zoya can be rather irritating though – I was watching The Great British Bake Off  just before finishing the book the other night, and I couldn’t help identifying her with Ruby of the puppy dog eyes! But then as she’s survived all that time (Zoya that is), it’s not surprising that she’s a bit self-centred! Elga is a proper witch, ancient and so cunning, a formidable opponent to anyone who crosses her. I really loved Inspector Vidot though, who has to employ all his resources to stay alive and solve the case.

Although ostensibly set in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, this novel felt as if it was much earlier – the twenties, or even a little earlier. Artefacts and events to anchor the book to the late 1950s were few and far between – and indeed much of the Paris described would have been there already in previous decades.

Most essentially in this novel, the magic works. The way the women make their spells is quite realistic and combines, like British magician and mentalist Derren Brown, “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. Their magic, however, isn’t the stage kind, and there is a physical cost involved keeping it real, which is so important to help you suspend your disbelief.

One nice touch linking back to Sharp Teeth, was the inclusion of some prose poems between the chapters in the form of witches songs.

Ghosts, they say, stay for three simple reasons:
they love life too wholly to leave,
they love some other too deeply to part,
or they need to linger on for a bit,
to coax a distant knife
toward its fated throat.

This novel is funny and fun, always quirky, yet dark and romantic too. A perfect autumnal read – I loved it. (9.5/10)

I shall leave you with the source of the quote at the top of the post. It’s from Witchy Woman by The Eagles.

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Source: Own copy. to explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Babayaga by Toby Barlow, pub August 2013 by Farrar Straus Giroux (US), hardback 383 pages.
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, paperback

Rule Britannia …

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

I’ve long been a fan of Jonathan Coe, enjoying all of the books of his that I’ve read so far, from the broad comedy of What a carve up, to the heartbreak of The Rain Before it Falls, via the 1970s revisited in The Rotter’s Club. I was lucky enough to hear him read extracts of his latest novel at the Penguin Bloggers Night earlier this year, and he was kind enough to sign my review copy.

expo 58I may have been predisposed to enjoy Expo 58 as a result, but frankly, what’s not to like? Coe has given us a glorious and light-hearted novel filled with romance, intrigue and 1950s optimism, but tinged with enough melancholy to make it a really enjoyable book to read. His lightness of touch and impeccable research bring the era and its characters vividly to life. Let me tell you a little about it…

Thomas Foley is a mild-mannered civil servant working in the backrooms at the Central Office of Information (COI) producing leaflets promoting Britain abroad. Thomas is at first irritated when he is picked to be the COI’s eyes and ears at the Britannia Pub, at the heart of the British pavillion at Expo ’58 – the world fair to be held in Brussels.  The suits are still debating what should go into the British exhibit.  Sykes is proposing a history of the British water closet, and Gardner, the architect is supporting him…

…’Sykes has put his finger on it. We all do them Sir John. Even you! We all do number twos. We may not like to talk about them, we may not even like to think about them, but years ago, somebody did think about them, he thought about them long and hard – if you’ll pardon the expression – and the result was that we can now all do our number twos cleanly, and without embarrassment, and the whole nation – the whole world! – is a better place as a consequence. So why shouldn’t we celebrate that fact? Why shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that, besides conquering half of the globe, Britons have also fought a historic battle against their number twos, and emerged victorious?’
He sat down again. Sir John stared across the table at him coolly.
‘Have you quite finished, Gardner?’ Taking his silence as consent, he added: ‘Might I remind you that at the entrance to this pavilion, which you propose to deface with this obscene display, visitors will find a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen?’
Gardner leaned forward. ‘And might I remind you, Sir John, that even her Majesty 0 even her Majesty…’

This assignment will mean six months away for Thomas, away from his wife Sylvia and young baby Gill, and understandably he’s a little scared of telling her. He’s also not sure for himself either, but decides to wait until after a first visit to the site.

expo 58 star logo

From the moment he is met at the airport by one of the Expo hostesses, Anneke in her smart uniform, his mind begins to change. By the time he’s seen the Atomium, the gleaming construction representing the crystal structure of iron, at the Park’s entrance, let alone the Britannia Pub itself, which has been designed to emulate a yacht club rather than an olde worlde pub, he is won over.

The British pavilion will also highlight the country’s eminence in nuclear physics with a replica exhibit of the ZETA machine, which, it is hoped, will provide all of Britain’s future energy needs by harnessing nuclear fusion.  Due to the sensitive nature of this, the spooks pay Thomas a visit to get him to keep his eyes and ears open for them too.

Thomas finds himself torn between duty at home, and excitement in Belgium, and it’ll take the rest of the novel to all these things out.  The nearest parallel I can draw to this novel is Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (my review here), which also has an innocent abroad, needing that new experience to ultimately show the truth in his relationships back home.

Expo 58 provides a wonderful backdrop to Thomas’s self-exploration. The research that Coe has done made it seem totally real – for Expo 58 really happened, the Atomium exists, as did the ZETA machine… and the Britannia Pub.

Britannia Pub

I would have loved to have shown you the Atomium – which inspired Coe to write this novel, but I never took a photo when I passed through Brussels on business in the 1990s, and they’re rather funny about copyright of its image apparently.  It is a magnificent structure though, now restored – see the website here.

Although the Cold War was well under way, like the Festival of Britain before it, Expo 58 seems suffused with a spirit of optimism – although not everything turns out well. In Coe’s novel it is fun to see all the different nationalities having fun together in the name of international friendship, masking all the information gathering about each other and spying going on in the background – that also felt very true.

Thomas is such a gentleman. Stifled in his marriage at home, you hope that he will manage to let go a bit. Will he, won’t he be tempted by the sweet Anneke, who is a total opposite to his wife? This is one of the central more serious themes of the novel, and you can’t help but feel for him.  Thomas and Anneke are surrounded by more comic characters, from the two MI6 chaps who reminded me of Thompson and Thompson from Tintin, the larger than life Russian Chersky, and not forgetting the drunken bar manager Rossiter, who used to have a pub in Abingdon (where I live, Rossiter’s pub is fictional though).

This book was a blast to read, perfect in its evocation of the age and sense of place, chucklesome through and through yet able to bring you back down to earth when needed.  I loved it – a lot.  (9/10)

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Source: ARC from the publisher. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe, pub Sept 5th by Viking, Hardback 288 pages.

Cook Quick tips from the 1950s

P1010820 (557x800)There’s something fascinating about period cookery books – I posted about my late mum’s Fanny Craddock books before, but whilst playing with my books the other day, I found another old cookbook – The Daily Telegraph Prize-winning Readers’ Recipes (with cook quick illustrations).

There’s no date of publication, but it contains ‘Cook Quick’ methods from the newspaper which appeared from 1949. Also it has my mum’s maiden name in so must be pre-1954.

I love the red rabbit jelly with chopped lime jelly grass on the front cover. We had one of those jelly-moulds and I remember my mum doing those for our birthday parties in the 1960s.

The recipes themselves are the usual homestyle mix you’d expect from a early 1950s cookbook, but it’s the ‘Cook Quick’ illustrations that fascinated me flicking through this book. They are a wonderful mix of the obvious, the time-savers we no longer need, and just occasionally – that just might come in useful tips,  like this one below:P1010822 (800x640)

It brings to mind that maths puzzle where you have 3 and 5 litre jugs, and have to measure out 4 litres (answer at the bottom).

At the top of some of the pages are further tips.

Have ingredients ready: Weigh Accurately.

Once mixed, put cake in oven quickly.

Those were in the cakes chapter.  Then there was this cook quick tip …

P1010821 (800x600)

This is a tip that Masterchef contestants might find useful to try – they seem to be good at curdling their creme brulées.  I don’t know if it works though.  I’ve always added a splash of warm water and re-beaten to try uncurdling a cake mixture.

I also liked a tip for lifting bottles and jam-jars from a sterilising pan – just put each one into a cotton flour bag – “these bags prevent the bottles touching one another and facilitate their reoval from steriliser.”  If only I had some flour bags!

Finally on the very last page – how you can earn a ‘Cook Quick Guinea’:

Reading about time-saving cooking hints in this book, you may have been reminded of one which you yourself have invented.
If it is accepted as suitable it will be photographed by The Daily Telegraph and published on the Woman’s Page, and you will receive a guinea prize.

I’m afraid I can’t offer a guinea, or any money incentive, but if you have any Cook Quick tips of your own you’d like to share, please do …

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Answer to maths problem: Fill the 5l.   Fill the 3l from the 5l, leaving 2l in the 5l. Discard the contents of 3l.  Pour the 2l from 5l into 3l.   Re-fill the 5l and fill the 3l jug which already has 2l in from it – it’ll take 1l, leaving 4l in the 5l jug.

My Policeman, Your Policeman …

My Policemanby Bethan Roberts

This is a story of two people who love the same man.  Firstly Marion, who fell for Tom, the brother of her best friend, the first time she saw him …

He was leaning in the doorway with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to the elbows, and I noticed the fine lines of muscle in his forearms. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen – barely a year older than me; but his shoulders were already wide and there was a dark hollow at the base of his neck. His chin had a scar on one side – just a small dent, like a fingerprint in plasticine – and he was wearing a sneer, which even then I knew he was doing deliberately, because he though he should, because it made him look like a Ted; but the whole effect of this boy leaning on the door frame and looking at me with his blue eyes – small eyes, set deep – made me blush so hard that I reached down and plunged my fingers back into the dusty fur around Midnight’s ears and focused my eyes on the floor.

The other, later, is Patrick.  As the book opens, Marion is setting down her story, telling it for Patrick who has had a stroke.

It’s Brighton in the 1950s, and Thomas – Tom, has returned from his National Service to become a trainee policeman.  Marion is now a school teacher, and strikes up a friendship with Tom who offers to teach her to swim. They become a couple, but their relationship is not exactly romantic.

One day, Tom takes Marion to the museum to meet a friend of his, Patrick, one of the curators.  Tom has a naive appreciation for art that belies his tough rugged exterior; Marion goes along with it.  Patrick becomes a regular feature of the couple’s lives, and still Marion doesn’t suspect … or does she?

Patrick takes up the story in his diaries, and from him, we get to see how circumspect and brave he has to be to maintain a gay relationship during this time when it was illegal – and with a policeman too.

The narrative alternates between the two, each telling us about their policeman. Tom is sometimes quite difficult to read – he has a strong physical presence, but is very laconic, very self-contained and self-absorbed. Our sympathies lie not with him, but with the two people who love him.  As their lives pan out, and things take on a dramatic turn which I can’t tell you about, I was so caught up in these lives that I found a tear running down my cheek.

This evening I went to hear Bethan talk about the book at Abingdon Library – she’s a local girl and worked in the library for a while before doing a creative writing MA, and moving to Brighton where she’s now based.

Her previous two novels took their inspiration from real stories and people – The Pools from a local murder, and The Good Plain Cook from the life of Peggy Guggenheim. My Policeman also took its inspiration from a real life – that of E M Forster, his posthumously published novel Maurice, and Forster’s relationship with Bob Buckingham, a policeman, whose wife May nursed Forster after he suffered a stroke.

Bethan transposed the bones of that story from the 1930s into the 1950s for the novel. She enjoyed researching the period, getting lots of extra tips from her mother and aunt about growing up in that decade. The attention to detail shows.

Any novel that can move me to tears has to get my recommendation. I loved this book. (10/10)

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I received my copy to review from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Policeman by Bethan Roberts – Vintage Paperback, Aug 2012, 352 pages.
The Pools, The Good Plain Cook – both by Bethan Roberts.
Maurice (Penguin Classics) by E M Forster