I am the owner of a sort of mixed bag of a vanity project by the estimable (though occasional uneven) J.B. Priestley.

The book, published in 1951, is called Delight, and it is comprised of short vignettes – one hundred and fourteen of them – of things which gave Mr. Priestley deep (and often secret) joy.

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Occasionally, when in need of a reminder of how many such delightful things the most ho-hum life contains, I dip into this book and read about Fountains and Cosy Planning and Orchestras Tuning Up and Waking to Smell Bacon, etc., and rejoice in my turn in those small goodnesses.

Here’s one I know we can all relate to, apropos of nothing in particular, as it isn’t currently storming – though it is a bit chilly outside – and once I venture out one last time to fill the greenhouse woodstove chock full of the biggest logs I can manhandle into it, my warm bed and a good book await me.

I hope your collective evenings contain a similar pleasure.

Enjoy!

Fifty-One

There is a peculiar delight, which I can still experience though I knew it best as a boy, in cosily reading about foul weather when equally foul weather is beating hard against the windows, when one is securely poised between the wind and rain and sleet outside and the wind and rain and sleet that leap from the page into the mind.

The old romancers must have been aware of this odd little bonus of pleasure for the reader, and probably that is why so many of their narratives, to give them a friendly start, began with solitary horsemen, cloaked to the eyebrows, riding through the night on urgent business for the Duke, sustained by nothing more than an occasional and dubious ragout or pasty and a gulp or two of sour wine (always fetched by surly innkeepers or their scowling slatterns), on side-roads deep in mire, with wind, rain, thunder-and-lightning, sleet, hail, snow, all turned on at the full.

With the windows rattling away and hailstones drumming at the paper in the fireplace, snug in bed save for one cold elbow, I have travelled thousands and thousands of mucky miles with these fellows, braving the foulest nights, together crying ‘Bah!’

e-m-channon-little-g-1936-greyladies-cover-2012Little G by E.M. Channon ~ 1936. This edition: Greyladies Press, 2012.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-907503-21-4. 226 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Still playing catch-up with those January-read books. (Not to mention the ones I’ve got stacked up here from February.) Maybe I should try a bit harder to condense my reader’s responses?

Little G, with its rather mysterious title, was, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier round-up post, a whole lot of fun.

It’s a decidedly charming summer-set fluff piece about a misogynistic (and youngish – this is important) Cambridge mathematics don who is sent off to the country by his doctor, with orders to eschew overtaxing his brain, and to get himself into some habits of healthful exercise.

“And you really want to banish me to this beastly village, Cardew?” he inquired, with pathos.

“You can make your own choice, my man. Six months in Challingley, leading the sort of reasonable life that I’ve suggested, or a real genuine breakdown, with a real genuine rest-cure in a nursing home to follow.”

“Good Lord!” said the Mathematician, in blank horror, with a swift vision of himself quite helpless, at the mercy of innumerable designing young hussies in becoming uniforms.

“I can tell you,” said the Doctor, “that I’d be glad enough to change places with you. I’ve spent more than one holiday in Challingley, and always been sorry to come away. Plenty of people would envy you your luck.”

“Rotten luck,” said the Mathematician, uncomforted.

The Doctor, looking round for inspiration, found it suddenly on his companion’s knee.

“You can keep a cat of your own there.”

The Mathematician did not like cats. He adored them.

His gloomy face relaxed a very little.

“Now you’re talking!” he said.

“A dozen cats, if you like,” said the Doctor, encouraged.

“I’m a monocattist,” said the Mathematician.

He stood up suddenly, putting the black kitten down, but with all possible consideration for its feline feelings.

“It’s no use trying to get round me like that, Cardew,” he said. Im not going. ”

Three days later – considerably alarmed by the recurrence of the unpleasant symptoms which had induced him to call in the Doctor – he went.

So there John Furnival is, domestically settled into a picturesque thatched-roof cottage, cared for by a blithely cheerful cook-housekeeper who rather sets his teeth on edge by her unremitting good nature, and her welcoming in of his numerous neighbours making their polite social calls.

Despite his crankiness, Furnival is absorbed into the community and finds himself not only going out to tea but hosting others in his turn, playing tennis, going for long country walks, and, yes, adopting a cat.

And to his horror (for he carefully inquired as to the presence of predatory females before agreeing to relocate to the village), he discovers that one of his neighbours is a very attractive young widow, one who is doubtless on the lookout for an unattached male such as himself as her next potential victim!

So focussed is Furnival on this (wholly unfounded) threat to his bachelor freedom, that he fails to realize that the true danger to his single state is approaching from a very different direction…

A cheerful, effortless read; witty throughout and wickedly funny in parts. I enjoyed it immensely.

Ethel Mary Channon wrote quite a number of books in her time (she died in 1951), most of them being “school stories” targetting the girls’ market, as well as mysteries and a number of adult novels of varying degrees of seriousness.

Little G is definitely on the “light” side; it is also said to be one of Channon’s best works, which might be seen as a warning off of sorts for her others, but I’d happily sample her “lesser” novels merely on the strength of this likeable concoction.

Long out of print, Little G was reprinted by Greyladies Press in 2012, but that run appears to be sold out as well, and the book is currently rather elusive in the second-hand lists. Perhaps all of its readers are hanging onto their copies for pleasant revisiting? I know I am.

a-candle-for-st-jude-rumer-goddenA Candle for St. Jude by Rumer Godden ~ 1948. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1948.  Hardcover. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10

This slight novel would be better classified as a novella. But it’s an intricately crafted thing in its own way, and there is much to admire in how the author sketches her characters so deftly, using her polished technique in giving us telling glimpses of each from a variety of perspectives.

There is also plenty of scope in this format to show off a writer’s technical abilities, and Rumer Godden worked hard at her craft and it shows. For all that it is set in a constrained period of time, the author darts all over the place in gathering background details. This is how flashbacks should be written; Godden’s are as smooth as silk.

The book details twenty-four hours in the life of a small dance academy and theatre in London.

Madame Holbein, once a prima ballerina, presides over her tiny but exceptionally well-regarded ballet school with the stalwart assistance of her sister-in-law, the misleadingly named Miss Ilse, who cares for all the domestic and financial details. (Miss Ilse is actually a widowed Mrs; Madame Holbein, never married, should really be a Miss, but such petty details of nomenclature are dismissed by the dramatic Anna Holbein: “Madame” she has self-designated herself and so it shall be!)

Every year Madame Holbein holds a gala recital followed by a short but eagerly awaited and always sold out dance season in the tiny, gem-like theatre attached to the school. Her performers are the best of her current students, acting as corps and secondary leads to guest stars drawn from Madame Holbein’s long roster of successful alumni.

This year those stars are Lion and Caroline*, two of her brightest and best ex-students, now dancing to great acclaim as supporting partners – and presumably romantic partners? – in a famous company.

Along with this year’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of her debut on the stage, Madame Holbein not so secretly intends to designate Caroline as her successor and heir to the leadership of the dance school – though not just yet! – and she squelches down her occasional unease that perhaps Caroline is not quite as good as she thinks she is; things have come very easily to her, and Madame Holbein is a great believer in the value of suffering for one’s art.

As this extra-special gala night approaches, a mere 24 hours to go, it becomes evident that not all is well in Madame Holbein’s tiny fiefdom.

Senior student Hilda, a gifted junior choreographer, given the stressful honour of preparing a piece for the gala show, has just been informed that her work is not suitable after all, and instead of being presented as planned, it will be excerpted. Oh, and Hilda’s own role in her own ballet will be given to Caroline, because Caroline has decided that she doesn’t much like the admiring way Lion has been looking at Hilda, who is showing signs of developing into a dancer with that little bit extra – that certain hunger – which Caroline herself lacks.

A much smaller student is a bundle of nerves because she has been casually informed that a certain famous film producer will be auditioning her for a role just before the gala takes place; it is handy for both him and Madame Holbein, because he will be in attendance at the gala and the few minutes it will take are just the merest inconvenience to the adults, but Lollie is terrified, and no one has time to talk her through her very real fear.

Madame Holbein is finding that all of her carefully organized plans for her celebratory gala are being endangered by the seething emotions of those whom she thought were well under her rather arrogant thumb; she must come to terms with her own strong personality, and the way it has affected those she loves the most, and demands the most from.

From none has been demanded so much extra as from Miss Ilse, quietly unsung co-heroine of the assembly, whose strong Catholic faith has sustained her in the past when life’s unfairness seems too much to bear. It is Miss Ilse’s habit, when things get too dark, to duck away to the church nearby to light a candle to St. Jude, patron saint of hope and impossible causes, and she does so now, as Madame Holbein’s carefully constructed world seems to be poised on the verge of irrevocable collapse…

Rumer Godden knew the dance world of her time very well indeed. She and her sister Jon opened their own multi-racial ballet school in Calcutta in 1925, and successfully ran it for twenty years; she remained a dedicated balletomane all of her life, and her dance-related episodes in full length novels such as Thursday’s Children read true.

A Candle for St. Jude is a minor book in Godden’s larger oeuvre, but it is one of the best-beloved among many of her readers.

It is not my own personal favourite-of-all of Rummer Godden’s stories – that would instead be China Court, hands down – but there is a lot to like about it.  A Candle for St. Jude is a finely crafted bit of writing; a small and perfectly invented episode which condenses its unseen but masterfully imagined greater background into colourful and immediate clarity.

*Catherine/Caroline – I realized as soon as I hit “publish” that I had written the whole post using the wrong name for Madame Holbein’s guest star. Those of you who receive these posts by email will have received the incorrect version, but I’ve fixed it here. Apologies to sharp-eyed Godden fans who noticed the error! (And I suspect this will be a few of you.)

foolish-immortals-paul-gallicoThe Foolish Immortals by Paul Gallico ~ 1953. This edition: Michael Joseph, Mermaid edition, 1956. Stiff card covers. 223 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

Paul Gallico was an author who loved himself a plotful gimmick – charwoman longs for and acquires a Paris couturier gown in Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris; young boy transforms into a cat in Jennie; a group of disparate (and desperate) characters are trapped inside an upside down luxury liner after it is submerged in the vortex caused by an undersea earthquake in The Poseidon Adventure – just to give a few examples.

In The Foolish Immortals the gimmick is that old quest trope, the search for the Fountain of Youth, or, as Gallico madly invents here, the wholly imaginary “Village of the Patriarchs” in Palestine-recently-turned-Israel (check out the date of writing) where the locals apparently live to fantastic ages, due to their consumption of a fungus which they cultivate in hidden caves.

Our shady hero is one Joe Sears, one-time high school football star of his hometown, Ventura, California, and now a middle-aged failure of a man, down to his last few dollars for the umpteenth time. Joe is what one might call averse to boringly honest work; he’s something of a con artist, if truth be told, always on the lookout for a profitable mark.

Joe twigs to the potential scam-worthiness of an American millionairess, one Hannah Bascombe, 75 years old and not very happy with the rapid march of time. Inspired by his random encounter with an evangelical preacher reciting the immense ages of the Old Testament patriarchs, Joe has an epiphany. How about he spin Mrs. Bascombe a tale of a secret to, if not eternal, then significantly longer life, to be found in the hills of the Holy Land? He’ll mount an expedition to be financed by the Bascombe millions, skimming the dollars as they go along. Joe’s not quite sure how he’ll end the project, but anticipates that he will be able to slip away quietly with well-lined pockets when Mrs Bascombe loses interest in what is bound to be a fruitless expedition.

Joe is aided and abetted by a youthful-looking ex-Commando, one Levi Ben-Isaac (yes, he just might be Jewish, and his heritage is crucial to the tale), who has a tragic wartime back story and a quest of his own. Ben-Isaac agrees to team up with Joe for the wooing of the elderly millionairess, though things are complicated for both men by the watchfulness of a sharp-witted young woman, niece (and potential heiress) to the rather-sharp-herself old lady.

Midway through, The Foolish Immortals turns into a rather decent road trip novel – gratuitous gun battle aside – with Gallico waxing eloquent about the scenic beauties of the bits of Israel they travel through, throwing in oodles of Biblical references and not a little spiritual-religious philosophizing. Both of which – the impressions of the Holy Land on Americans raised on the King James Version of The Bible, plus some thought-provoking debates on the nature of God and personal belief systems – are in all honesty, probably the best elements of what is otherwise a bit of a dud of a book.

Mrs Bascombe finds, if not exactly what she was looking for, an acceptable (or better?) subsitute for it. As do all of the other characters, ragged ends all neatly tied up, emotional issues all salved and soothed by each person’s personal encounters with God (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) while on their trek.

Paul Gallico’s A-list is a nebulous sort of construct at the best of times; I would hesitate to endanger it with the addition of The Foolish Immortals, so I’m going to gently deposit this one on top of the B-list pile.

He comes so very close to being very good indeed, does Paul Gallico. And I keep reading him, hoping he’ll transcend his inevitable banality, his tendency to weak and frequently mawkish endings. So close, but yet so far…

the-slave-of-silence-fred-m-whiteThe Slave of Silence by Fred M. White ~ 1906. This edition: Ward, Lock & Co. Hardcover. 252 pages.

My rating: 3/10

I regret to say that this highly improbable romantic melodrama was, despite its non-stop action, one of the most deeply boring things I’ve come across in recent years. Suitable for shelf adornment, perhaps, but not for actual reading. Just goes to show that some antique books are irredeemably blah, much as we are willing to reconcile old-fashioned, era-expected styling with contemporary interest level.

A beautiful young woman is forced into an appalling marriage with a wealthy scoundrel in order to save her father from disgrace (he’s been speculating financially with other people’s money and has come a major cropper) and the vows are just pronounced when the wedding is interrupted by the announcement that Dear Dad has been found dead.

Is she really married? Or not? It was all a blur – the shock, you know…

And when the paternal body disappears before a postmortem can be performed, things become very convoluted indeed.

Enter a crippled criminal mastermind in a wheelchair, a mysterious Lady in Grey (the Slave of Silence herself, that would be), a couple of interchangeable Scotland Yard/Senior Army Officer investigative chaps, the true lover of our confused heroine wandering about in various disguises, doors conveniently left open while key plot points are being discussed by the bad guys…you name it, this one has it.

I’ll save you reading it. The most villainous of the multiple villains all end up tidily (or messily, in at least one case) dead, and true love prevails.

A disappointing book by a potentially interesting writer, and despite my “Run away!” recommendation for this particular work, I think I may someday look a little further into Fred M. White.

Old-style sci-fi “Doom of London” disaster novels ring any bells? Our Fred was the writer of those, and I must admit my curiosity is piqued. Couldn’t be worse than this one, right? Right?!

shelter-marguerite-steen-1941Shelter by Marguerite Steen ~ 1941. This edition: Sun Dial Press, 1942. Originally published under the pseudonym Jane Nicholson. Hardcover. 241 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I followed my reading of Frances Faviell’s superb London Blitz memoir, A Chelsea Concerto, with this rather unusually structured novel covering the exact same time period, in the same London borough.

It’s an interesting novel, and certainly not a bad novel, but I rather wonder what I would have made of it if it hadn’t been so much related to the Faviell memoir in setting and time period. The writing itself is much more than competent; I would go so far as to call it “fine”, in the highest-praise sense of the term.

This said, I suspect I got more out of Shelter as a companion piece than I would have if it were a stand-alone read, for it is a bit of a jumble, written in what I would term a modestly “experimental” style, sections of straightforward storytelling interspersed with random vignettes, the thoughts of various unnamed characters, glimpses of newsreel dialogue, and what one must assume are the author’s own pithy comments, not directly related to her erstwhile story-plot, that of a troubled marriage which has turned into a delicately balanced ménage à trois.

Highbrow Louise is married to not-highbrow (but not quite lowbrow, either) Jos, and they are reasonably content within their 7-year-old relationship. Or so Louise thinks, until it becomes apparent that Jos has become infatuated with the fragile (and possibly hypochondriac?) Camma, who returns his interest with bells on.

Jos seems to be the kind of chap who hates fuss; he’d like to keep both wife and mistress, and the fact that the two women are well aware of each other, and carry on a brittle sort of almost-friendship, seems to indicate that his delicate balancing act may be succeeding.

But then Louise breaks the news: she’s pregnant. Now what?

Meanwhile the bombs are dropping, and emotions are being wound ever upwards to some future breaking point…

The relationship angle of the plot runs parallel to the wider story of a city, country and way of life in peril, and as dreadful thing succeeds dreadful thing one is left at a loss as to anticipate how – or if! –  the author is going to resolve, if not the major problem of surviving the war, at the very least her teetering love triangle.

By removing one of the principles, as it turns out, in a decidedly final way.

Curious?

Well, the book is readily available in the secondhand trade, and has recently been released as an e-book, so it’s not too hard to come by. My own first awareness of it was when I came across it at a small used book store I occasionally frequent and decided to gamble my $5 that it would be an interesting read.

It is all of that, but I hesitate to recommend it, because despite the writer’s sure hand, Shelter seems to me to be missing that elusive something which turns a perfectly adequate novel into something extra-special.

Forewarned, you are, fellow book hunters. (As Yoda might say.)

For further interest, here’s a look at the dramatic promotional blurb from the American-edition dust jacket, as well as a random scan of one of the vignette sections.

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shelter-marguerite-steen-excerpt

Here’s the story on Marguerite Steen, courtesy Library Thing:

Marguerite Steen was adopted as a child and educated at a private school and at Kendal High School. At age 19, she became a teacher, but abandoned that career after three years and moved to London in an effort to find work in the theater. After failing at that, she became a dance teacher in the Yorkshire schools. This job enabled her to spend long periods travelling in France and Spain.

In 1921, she joined the drama company of Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, based at The Strand Theatre in London, and spent three years touring with them. She was befriended by Fred’s sister Ellen Terry, who suggested that she try to write a novel during a period of unemployment.

Marguerite’s first book, The Gilt Cage, was published in 1927. She went on to become a well-known author of some 40 books, mostly historical novels, having her greatest popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. She wrote biographies of the Terrys and of her friend Hugh Walpole, as well as that of 18th-century writer and actress Mary Robinson. Among her bestsellers were Matador (1934), for which she drew on her love of Spain, and The Sun Is My Undoing (1941). She also produced two volumes of autobiography, Looking Glass (1966) and Pier Glass (1968), which provide insights into the English creative set of the 1920s to 1950s.

She shared a home with artist Sir William Nicholson for about 15 years and wrote his biography as well. In 1951, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

 

 

chelsea-concerto-front-cover-frances-faviellA Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell ~ 1959. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Introduction by Virginia Nicholson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-911413-77-6. 236 pages.

My rating: 11/10

A stunning memoir.

I set this book gently down after my mesmerized reading, feeling emotionally battered, deeply moved, sorrowful and joyful at the same time, the last for what it revealed of abundant grace under extraordinary pressure.

Olivia Frances Faviell (Frances Faviell was her pen name) was a successful portrait artist living in London’s Chelsea District when the Second World War started. She had a pleasant flat in a lovely house, with a good view of the Thames through three long front windows, congenial neighbours in the upstairs apartment, and all amenities – shopping, restaurants, entertainment – within easy walking distance. Friends came in and out at all hours, for Frances kept open house, and her prior world travels had made her many acquaintances from various walks of life, many literary and artistic as she was herself.

No one was more awake to her good fortune as was Frances, particularly as she was also very much aware of the gathering clouds of war. Frances had been living in Shanghai in 1937 when the Japanese army invaded, and the influx of wounded soldiers and civilians and the panicked crowds of refugees seeking passage out of the battle area were still fresh in her mind as now, in 1938, European refugees in their turn crowded into England. Many of them, coming into Frances’ particular circle, were Jewish intellectuals and artists deemed personae non gratae in their homelands by the ever-more-powerful Nazi and Fascist regimes.

A year of “phony war” later, in 1939, everyone was just a bit dismissive of all of the preparatory fuss still being made, of the First Aid training and rehearsals, the rather rickety bomb shelters hastily erected in gardens and public parks, of the rumours of food shortages looming on the horizon. Many of the London children evacuated in panicked hurry into the country in 1938 had quietly returned to their homes as the bombs failed to materialize, and a vaguely ominous “normal” prevailed.

All this changed upon the night of September 7, 1940, when the German “blitzkrieg” – The Blitz – began, a relentless 8-month-long bombing of London carried out mostly at night (at first), and, later, almost 24 hours of the day. Though no region of the city was unscathed, Chelsea and its neighbouring districts were particularly hard hit, perhaps because of their location in the very heart of London, and relatively near the seat of government at Westminster.

Frances Faviell had volunteered for Red Cross duties during the build-up to the war, and she undertook first aid training, hoping to qualify as a Registered Nurse, and, though repeatedly turned down as a full-time nurse trainee because of health issues, she was deeply involved in refugee care, first aid response, and, to her dismay, in being assigned the task of piecing together dismembered bodies so they could be sewn into shrouds before burial. The bits and pieces didn’t necessarily have to belong to each other, but the general instruction was to make reasonably complete packets of what was left after explosions and subsequent building collapses.

Frances relates her experiences in a hyper-detailed, clinically accurate tone, but there is an underlying, very appealing, very human passion to her reminiscences of this concentrated and horrific episode of British wartime history.

As much as it is an unflinching recording of shared community experience – it is, as evidenced by its title, a very Chelsea-centric account – A Chelsea Concerto also gives a vivid portrait of the writer herself, her private thoughts and feelings, and those of the eclectic assortment of people in her wartime life.

Frances married her second husband, Richard Parker, in 1940. Her brief account of their wedding day is both poignant and humorous. Due to a sudden daylight raid, none of the guests nor – more importantly! – neither of the witnesses showed up for the ceremony. Out into the street Frances and Richard went, finding two stalwart taxi drivers, who cheerfully acted as signatories to the marriage documents, and then tossed a coin to see who would be the one to drive the newlyweds through the rubble-littered streets to the club where their wedding breakfast was to be held. The air raid having by then tapered off, most of the guest showed up for that, though some of their wedding finery was a bit battered and dusty from hasty passage through the besieged areas.

At a later point in the book, Frances rather casually mentions that she is now pregnant, though it doesn’t seem to affect her continuous activity much, for, in common with so many of the women of the time in similar circumstances, personal discomfort was stoically borne as more urgent activities took precedence.

This is a compelling book, and, I believe, a tremendously important one, for the detailed descriptions it gives of life under bombardment.

Check your squeamishness at the door, fellow readers, for Frances Faviell is not much for euphemisms, and the blood, guts, stench and filth of being on the receiving end of bombs is described in some detail, though never needlessly so; the author never wallows in the horrors, but as they are increasingly ubiquitous to the time and circumstances, they are a crucial element of this memoir.

If I can leave you with a final thought, it is that though this is a deeply sad book – so many people die, or go through heart-rending extremities of loss – it is also a supremely likeable memoir. Frances Faviell, along with her precise and analytical artist’s eye, possessed a strong if slightly caustic sense of humour, and also a certain understanding kindness of observation of her fellow-man which makes A Chelsea Concerto something a little bit extra in its class.

Very highly recommended.

chelsea-concerto-frances-faviell-back-copy

Back cover, Dean Street Press re-issue. I received this book as a review copy in 2016, and had been waiting to read it for a time when I could give it my full attention. I’m sorry it took me so long. Due to my profound admiration for what I found within A Chelsea Concerto‘s covers, I have just ordered (on my own dime), the other four titles by this author which DSP also released last year.