Archive for July, 2012

Candy’s Children by Sylvia Murphy ~ 2007. This edition: S.A. Greenland, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-9550512-1-0. Softcover. 316 pages.

My rating: 7/10. Possibly generous, but I liked it on several different levels, and thought its flaws were mostly editorial. It feels rather like a next-to-last draft, still very raw and not quite completely tweaked and perfected, but overall reasonably well done.


Don’t judge a book by its cover. This is a brutal story and this is an ironic cover; the two little girls are symbolic of the superficial sweetness which hides all sorts of dark emotions and human wickedness.

This book made me uncomfortable on a lot of different levels, but I read through regardless; Sylvia Murphy is a natural storyteller, and despite the flaws in this ambitious book (flaws which I feel could have easily been fixed by an interested editor) it held me to the very end, and surprised me often enough that I sat up and paid attention. Murphy does predictable with a twist than can leave you  shocked and appalled but still engaged; though I figuratively turned my eyes away a few times I readily turned them back.

Young Candice Hargreaves has grown up in pre-WW II Palestine, child of British expatriates. While the family is materially well-off, due to her father’s fruit importation business, and life is in the main easy and pleasant, there is a dark cloud forming over their fragile world. The political atmosphere was charged and ready to explode as the pro-Zionist movement which was eventually to see the annexation of Palestinian territory for the creation of Israel gained power. The British civil government of the region was increasingly challenged by grassroots Palestinian protest groups; open violence is a hairbreadth away.

The Hargreaves family, though outwardly normal enough, is deeply dysfunctional on an emotional level. Candice’s youthful troubles find no sympathy from her distant parents; as she reaches adolescence she turns more and more for comfort to her Palestinian nurse Leila, and, inevitably, to Leila’s handsome teenage son, Naseem, who works as the family’s houseboy. Candice and Naseem become infatuated with each other with predictable results; Candice’s passionate assertion that she wants to marry Naseem and settle down in the countryside to raise his babies engenders an unexpectedly violent response.

Candice – Candy – is very much a victim of circumstance for the rest of her life, but she refuses to acknowledge defeat; she’s a survivor. Her life turns and twists and ends up in unlikely places, but I found I readily suspended my disbelief and became fully engaged in seeing where this troubled heroine would end up next.

Not a masterpiece, but definitely a diverting read. I wouldn’t call it “pleasant” – graphic depictions of violence and sex (including rape) keep this from being a complacent read – but the actions fit the times and their inclusion took this tale to the next level. An interesting, seldom used setting. Boundary-pushing topics, including emotional and physical abuse of children and incest (though the incest is not at all what you’d expect, and is delicately handled.) I often found the characters a bit awkward and over-the-top; a good editor could have helped with that. We are “told” rather than “shown” a lot of the time; the novel’s best passages are those in which the author lets events flow without telling us what we should be thinking about them. The plot has enough twists to keep it from being totally predictable; I appreciated the boldness of the author in taking her heroine to the extremes that she did.

This is now the third book I’ve read by this author, the others being The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry (reviewed earlier), and The Life and Times of Barly Beach, and I still hold her in high regard. Her voice is individual, wry, and often savagely funny. She has a lot to say, and I quite enjoy her perspective. I think that with a little backing from her early publishers she could easily have become a bestseller; she seems to have just barely missed a few of the final steps which would take her there, which is a shame, as she has an individual, quirky voice which appeals on numerous levels.

Here is the novel summary from the author’s website, :

A wealthy Palestinian businessman, a middle-aged rock star, an Australian university lecturer, a nun, and an English aristocrat – why are these five ill-assorted people meeting up in a stately home in Yorkshire?

They are the children of Candy Price, one time film star and recently dowager Countess of Penmore. She has been murdered by an assassin’s bomb on a mysterious visit to Tel Aviv and they are gathering for her funeral  – an event that will change all their lives one way or another.  For they all have personal issues to resolve as a result of their mother’s colourful and defiant life. This has stretched from the partition of Palestine, through World War II in England and a miserable marriage to a fighter pilot, to being married to a Hollywood film star in the sixties, to having an affair with the heir to the Penmore title.

The story is told through action before, during and after the funeral. The five offspring have never all been gathered together before, as the Countess was prone to lose custody battles which led to her children being brought up by their different fathers. As we learn more about their disparate lives, it becomes apparent that each of the children has a different perception of their mother as a result of their upbringing.

And here is the author’s note:

Why did I write Candy’s Children?

Candy’s Children is a story that has haunted me for years, ever since, as a growing child, I listened to stories told by my grandparents, my mother and her sister, about events in Palestine before World War II. It was only when I was a grown woman that I realised how closely those events might have affected my life, and saw a way to write the story that was being related to me. This story is based on a true one about a British family of fruit importers who, by chance, had left for their annual leave in England just as the early months of the war began to affect the expatriate communities of the Middle East. These expatriate Europeans lived a comfortable life, either engaged in commerce or in the armed forces, and had very little idea of what was to come with the onset of the World War, and the implementation of the post-1918 agreement to turn Palestine into Israel. It became dangerous to go to parties, or to spend too much time at the lido – the part of the shore they made their own by anchoring two swimming rafts off the beach and installing a well-stocked bar on the landward side. How do I know? I have photographs and cine films of myself and about a dozen other suntanned toddlers laughing in the shallows, watched over by mothers and nurses. It was all fun and laughter until the time came when their cars were wrecked in riots (more photographs); British policemen were kidnapped and flayed alive; Palestinians who associated with Jewish people found their property looted.

Here my imagination takes over. In the midst of this chaos a young British girl, Candice Hargreaves, falls in love and becomes embroiled in events she doesn’t understand. The result is a still-born child, then a horrific war-time sea voyage to Liverpool, arriving in a country where nobody cares about her, or knows who she is. Abandoned by her awful family she learns to make her own way in a world that offers little in the way of comfort or security.

The next part of the story follows Candy through the years of World War II. The events are still picked out of the memories and stories that were told to me years later – sheltering from bombs under the table in Reading Station waiting room, life in the WAAF, a diet of potatoes, sharing lipsticks and nylons, wrecking a parked bomber with a carelessly driven lorry – it’s all true. And the tragedy of how the services dealt with the “welfare” of the girls who became pregnant by pilots who never came back.

Also true is the post-war period when Candy sets about making a fatherless family unit work, only to have it destroyed by the return of the father of her wartime child. There really was a job in a film studio, with all the attendant glamour and excitement, leading to a divorce and a new marriage and a life in Hollywood – okay, I made a lot of that part up, but we did know the film stars and directors personally – I still have their autographed photographs.

I didn’t have to make up London in the sixties, rock bands and music festivals, new styles of clothes, or the increasing muddle and terror in the Middle East that drove refugees like young Naseem Fahy to England. I did make up the identity of a young viscount who fell in love with a film star, but not the type – London was full of them as well – well-meaning, well-educated, dazzled, led astray…

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Miss Bishop by Bess Streeter Aldrich ~ 1933. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1940s. Hardcover. 337 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

This book started with such promise, and I raced through the first chapters happily, but as the story passed the midpoint I found I was losing my enthusiasm; something had changed. Now maybe that is just the author’s “genius”, in changing the mood to follow the life-path of the main character, Ella Bishop, from optimistic youth to dreary old age, but somehow I think that is too generous an assessment. I think rather that it is the author’s fault, in retelling her same old story with a different character. I thought that this book was very reminiscent of both A White Bird Flying, and Spring Comes On Forever, sharing the theme that “it is sad but noble to sacrifice your dreams as long as the sacrifice benefits the future generations”.

Miss Ella Bishop is one of the first class of students at the newly established Midwestern College in the growing town of Oak River, in an unspecified mid-western prairie state. The year is 1876, and the mood is of optimism and enthusiasm as progress strides across the prairie, bringing culture and higher education into the hitherto culturally isolated farming communities of the region.

Ella Bishop is that character beloved of novelists, the poor but bright and winsome orphan, or in this case, semi-orphan; Ella’s father has just died, and she and her ineffectual mother are just barely getting by; college fees are, as is the inevitable case in this genre, a challenge to meet. Ella of course does wonderfully well in college and graduates high in her class; she is now well-trained and ready to take on a job as a teacher, the only real choice of profession (other than shop clerk or seamstress) open to a young lady of her generation.

This was the best part of the book, in my opinion. The author captures wonderfully well the heady atmosphere of the new college and its small group of professors and students. The boys and girls attending the school are mostly children of immigrants, proud of their various distinctive heritages while identifying firmly as modern Americans. The glimpses into the homes and lives of the students, and the physical descriptions of the prairie in its state of being transformed into “civilization” are beautifully handled and a joy to read.

But all is not well in Ella Bishop’s world; her youthful optimism is about to take a hit. A bit of a heads-up here: there will be major spoilers in this review. If you are wanting to discover Ella’s trials and tribulations for yourself, it is time to click away. Otherwise, you’re going to get the condensed version of this soap opera of a tale.

Ella graduates and is offered a job teaching grammar at the selfsame college she has just been a student at; gratefully, she accepts; she is now able to support her frail mother, and teaching will do fine as an interesting occupation for the next year or two, until her true vocation comes along.

As well as she liked her teaching, – to have a husband and home and children, – these were better. These were the things for which her healthy young body and warm heart were intended. She knew.

Eventually Ella’s white knight trots into town. She meets young Delbert Thompson, a newly arrived junior partner in the town’s law. All is wonderful; the wedding date is set, the dress is being made, when into Ella’s shiny happy world a small dark shadow comes. An eighteen-year-old cousin has been orphaned and asks to come and stay for a while to get over her grief and plan her next move; young Amy has just found out that she is penniless as well as bereft of her parents. The perfumed note gives us our first inkling of disaster to come; Ella is mildly annoyed at having to give a thought to another body in the house just when she is getting ready to bring a new husband home, but she nobly does the right thing and welcomes Amy with cordiality and grace.

Oh no! Wrong thing to do! Amy is tiny and cute and flirtatious, and soon a circle of other girls’ beaux are attracted like bumbling moths to Amy’s bright little flame. Including Delbert. With the wedding mere weeks away, Amy sets her sights on her cousin’s attractive fiancé. Ella proudly refuses to interfere; the worst happens, and Delbert now “must” marry Amy, as he has fallen into the trap she has set baited with her delectable, willing little body. Off they go, leaving Ella in a state of despair. Going to her mother for comfort, that is denied to her as well, as her self-centered parent is so upset by the situation that Ella ends in burying her own emotions to administer to her mother’s hysteria. Better get used to it, Ella, it’s going to be the pattern of the rest of your sorry life.

Nine months later, in the depths of winter, a foreboding stranger appears, bearing a passionate letter from Delbert. He is on his deathbed; time is short; he begs Ella to come and see him. Off she goes, to find Delbert, as advertised, indeed on his deathbed from some unspecified illness. The highly pregnant Amy is creeping around helplessly; with his dying breath Delbert begs Ella to take Amy home with her and care for her until the child is born. “I’m ever so sorry, Ella, and it was such a mistake, but here we all are, and I’m counting on you…”

And Ella nobly steps up. Amy is rescued once again and brought back into the Bishop fold, where she promptly gives birth to a baby girl before blinking out of life herself a few hours later. And there is Ella, left holding the baby, child of her one true love and her deceptive cousin. What else to do but adopt the child as her own and lavish all her pent-up love on the helpless little thing? She even names the child, ever so predictably, “Hope”.

Ella divides her life into two; in one part she is the dedicated college teacher, loved and respected by students and fellow instructors; in the other she is the devoted surrogate mother to young Hope and the endlessly patient daughter to her increasingly needy mother. Luckily she has picked up a stalwart Danish girl even more selfless than herself to keep the home fires burning and the old lady and young girl cared for while Ella is out working to support them all. Stena has lost her own lover and baby, and is a godsend to the Bishop ménage, so grateful for a roof over her own head that she quickly becomes an indispensable member of the all-female household.

The years roll by, and Ella gets another chance at love when Professor John Stevens arrives to teach English literature. The two hit it off immediately; friendship warms to something much deeper, and all systems are “go” except for one small glitch – the pre-existing Mrs. Stevens, an unattractive, unintellectual, querulous kleptomaniac. Ella and John are tempted to ditch the unlucky Mrs. Stevens and take their true love elsewhere, but both decide to do the right thing, renouncing their passion unrequited. John moves on with his cranky wife, leaving Ella to take comfort in her role as noble teacher:

A flaming torch…meant to light the paths of boys and girls along the rugged way!

I was already teetering a bit about this story but this is where Aldrich finally lost me. The woman is a grammar teacher in a small prairie college. A grammar teacher. Useful enough, and with the power to inspire students to a great degree, but not really of flaming torch importance. Nice that she can embrace her vocation in place of her tragically doomed romantic life, but please. This pushes all of my cynical buttons; I figuratively roll my eyes and wish that Miss Bishop would just hop into bed with the Professor already and get it out of her system. But no, that would betray her pure life and her flaming dedication to her career. (Golly, am I overreacting here? Maybe. I liked Ella so much at the start of the story that I want her to get a bit of fun out of life, I think. But she keeps piling on self-denial after self-denial. She’s getting a bit inhuman in her steadfast nobility.)

The rest of the story I read in a state of “come on, what else can this poor old girl take?” And she does not disappoint.

Hope is duly launched, with several expensive (and ultimately wasted) years of college and a speedy marriage soon after, and Ella feels like she can concentrate on herself at long last. She plans a longed-for trip to Europe with her fellow professors, scrimps and saves, and is ready to go when her already fragile mother finally slips into full-blown dementia. Though the stalwart Stena is perfectly willing to take on full responsibility and encourages Ella to go, Ella decides to abandon her cherished travelling ambition to stay home on the off-chance that her mother will return, even briefly, to a state of lucidity. Doesn’t happen, and Mother Bishop lingers on, to die quietly some years later.

Ella sees one last chance, plans the European trip again, and is poised to go when Hope’s eighteen-year-old daughter Gretchen falls in love with a hopelessly unsuitable older married man. Ella gives over her savings so Gretchen can go to Europe and forget her lover; Gretchen comes back “cured” with an offhand “Thanks, Granny!” and finds a more available man to marry. It is at this point that Ella suddenly realizes that her earning years are coming to an end, and her savings are not what they should be; the expenses of caring for her mother, Stena’s wages, Hope’s college and Gretchen’s trip seemed like worthwhile expenditures at the time but one woman’s resources are decidedly limited.

Another blow falls. A restructuring takes place within the college. The instructors are asked to take a twenty percent pay cut. Ella soldiers on. And then Ella discovers that her bank is in difficulties, and she loses a portion of her meager remaining savings, and finds she will only be able to withdraw twelve percent of the remainder each year. Ella is now seventy, and had hoped to retire in some sort of comfort, but stark reality faces her; she must continue to work to live. “Only three more years,” she tells herself. “I’ll cut back, and scrimp and save, and get by somehow.”

But she won’t even have those three more years. Out-of-the-blue, a note arrives from the college president. Some changes in the faculty are being planned. Just a heads-up, Miss Bishop, that you might want to hand in your resignation before the college board meeting…

Yet again, Ella faces despair.

There was nothing now to look forward to – but death. Death! How little thought she had ever given to it! So full of living, – her hands so filled with duties, – she had existed only day-to-day, doing the hour’s tasks as well as she could.

But wait! – What about the Alumni banquet to close out the school year. Don’t you want to attend one last time, Miss Bishop? Reluctantly Ella decides she will close out her teaching career in style, so off she goes, to be greeted by a packed house and a ceremony of honour to recognize her lifetime of dedication to the college. Suddenly Ella sees her life in whole; the good and the bad laid out together; every sacrifice having its reason in the great scheme of things; her main importance being in furthering the ambitions of the coming generations. Tomorrow she will again be old and poor, but tonight she is being lauded, and that is enough reward…


I found myself getting increasingly cynical, especially as first Hope and then Gretchen acted so selfishly in regards to their foster-mother and grandmother, taking heedlessly what she selflessly offered on the altar of youth’s desires’ (not needs, but desires) coming first. I felt like shaking Miss Bishop – “Be occasionally selfish, you fool!”

This book is lauded as a “salute to dedicated teachers”, and I get that, but by the end my overwhelming emotion was annoyance. And I’m all about “family first” and “sacrificing” for our children, having done my fair share of tamping down of own desires while raising babies and fully embracing the numerous challenges of motherhood, but there is a limit. Miss Bishop went past the reasonable point into martyr territory, and the author lauds her for it. To be fair, Ella herself in her musings at the end of the book recognizes that the larger picture was not evident to her at the time, that she just went on day-to-day, tackling each issue as she needed to, a very realistic assessment of how most of our lives work!

I’ve also heard this story referenced as the “female, American Mr. Chips“. Recently reread that one, too, and cynically thought James Hilton’s opus was a mite overrated, though when I first read it as a teen I mentally filed it as a pleasant enough story. Now, with many more years to my credit, my opinion is that both Mr. Chips and Miss Bishop were a bit too focussed on their school worlds at the expense of their inner lives. The authors excused their protagonists’ narrow lives by lauding their personal sacrifices for their students. Admirable in a way, but excessive, needless sacrifice is cloying in a fictional character after a certain point; the delicate balance between pleasant story and moral tale is compromised.

This is a rather crabby review, but it reflects my feeling in the here and now regarding the book in question. It might well be different at another time in my life! I would like to emphasize that there is much to admire in Aldrich’s writing, and she is highly regarded by many. She’s a great author for capturing the atmosphere of the times she writes about, and I definitely will continue to read her works as they cross my path. However, I think I might need to re-read A Lantern in Her Hand to see if it can restore my cheerfulness in regards to this author’s work. I feel like the über-predictable Miss Bishop rather let me down.

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The Proper Place by O. Douglas (Pseudonym of Anna Buchan) ~ 1926. This edition: Nelson, no date, circa 1940s. Hardcover. 378 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

This has been a week for seeking out “comfort reads”, and who better to provide such than the low-key Scottish writer, Anna Buchan. She wrote under the pseudonym O. Douglas, in order to modestly distance herself from her more prominent brother, the renowned thriller writer (and Governor-General of Canada from 1935 to 1940, when he died in office) John Buchan, a.k.a. Lord Tweedsmuir.

I am therefore dusting off and slightly editing this old post from July of 2012, in which I talk about one of my favourite O. Douglas novels, The Proper Place.

This is my favourite of Anna (writing as O. Douglas) Buchan’s  books which I’ve read to date. The first time I read this, I had already read the sequel, The Day of Small Things, so I knew what had happened to a great extent before the characters did, if that makes sense. But I think it enhanced rather than detracted from my reading experience; I came to the story with a pre-existing knowledge of and fondness for the characters and greatly enjoyed expanding my acquaintance with them.

As the story opens, the sole surviving offspring of the aristocratic Scottish Rutherfurd family, Nicole, is showing the family home to a prospective buyer. Of its twenty bedrooms, “twelve quite large, and eight small”, only three are now occupied; with Nicole’s two brothers perished in the Great War and her father dead soon after, the family now consists only of Nicole, her mother, Lady Jane, and a orphaned cousin, Barbara Burt, who was raised by Lady Jane from childhood.

The three women are finding it impossible to carry on financially, and have reluctantly but sensibly decided that their only option is to sell the Rutherfurd estate and establish themselves in more modest accommodations. Lady Jane has retreated into a gently passive acceptance of her fate; Barbara is resentful but more or less compliant, and Nicole is very much making the best of things and looking hard for a silver lining in their cloud of sorrow and difficult circumstances.

The prospective buyers, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson of Glasgow, having attained great wealth after many years of striving, are ready for the next step in their social advancement, and hope with their purchase of Rutherfurd Hall to establish their son Andy as a “county” gentleman.

This is where the story departs a bit from the expected norm. One would expect the nouveau riche Jacksons to be portrayed as interlopers and figures of mild scorn; instead we find that the author takes us into their world for a bit and gives an insight into their motivations and intentions that puts us fully on their side. Nicole herself, after her initial, well-hidden resentment, finds herself viewing out-spoken Mrs. Jackson first with quiet humour and soon after with sincere affection, with interesting repercussions further along in the story.

The Rutherfurds find a new home in the seaside town of Kirmeikle, and rent the old and stately but much more reasonably sized Harbour House for a year to see if they will adapt to the life of the town dweller, and to give themselves a bit of breathing space to ponder their futures. They are still very well-off, with sizeable incomes coming from their investments, and they enter easily into the upper strata of Kirkmeikle society.

For a story in which not much really happens, the author packs it full of likeable, often amusing characters, and quietly intriguing situations. Though the tone is relentlessly optimistic, somehow this tale escapes being “too sweet” by the pervasive presence of loss, grief and hardship resulting from the war, and by the occasionally pithy observations of many of the characters.

Nicole and Lady Jane are most decidedly our heroines throughout; Barbara is perhaps the least likeable character due to her deep-seated snobbishness and condescending attitude, but we get to know her well enough to understand the basis of her sometimes negative outlook. O. Douglas is a very fair-minded author; she always allows her characters the grace of a deep enough glimpse into their lives and thoughts to allow us to place their words and actions in full context; something I fully appreciated in this story.

I greatly enjoyed this book.

Another, very nicely written, much more detailed review is here, from the I Prefer Reading  blog of Lyn, from Melbourne, Australia. Lyn says everything I wanted to say, and much better!

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Caught in the rain; vignettes in my July garden. Every afternoon a thunderstorm this past week…


The summer storm comes

        Bolting white lightning; it goes

   Muttering thunder.

Rebecca Caudill, 1976

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6 X H – Six Stories by Robert A. Heinlein ~ 1959. Original Title: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. This edition: Pyramid Books, 1975. ISBN: 0-515-03635-0. Paperback. 219 pages.

My rating: 5/10. More or less.

I discovered the vast, strange, swirling ocean of science fiction in high school, and have dabbled happily along the edges of that varied genre ever since. That time being in the 1970s, the prolific Robert A. Heinlein was still front and centre of the revolving sci-fi paperback rack in the school library, and his books were readily available at our town’s rather dingy little secondhand bookstore, located down a precipitous set of stairs in the cramped basement of a main street store.

This volume is a relic of that era. Definitely not built to last, the pages are yellowing and loose in the binding, the glue having long since reached its expiry date. The smell of the dusty pages takes me instantly back to those high school days. Newly employed at a part-time job waiting tables at our town’s Chinese restaurant, I had money of my own for the first time in my life, and after putting aside most of it into a savings fund targeted for buying my own car, I splurged my tips on books, books, books –  a few new, but most secondhand; you could get more for your money that way, and the selection, then as now, was vastly superior.

That first car, a bright red ’72 Mustang, was purchased the summer I turned 15, for $800 cash, from a quiet young man with a highly pregnant wife (looking back over the years, I suddenly realize the significance of that situation, and my heart bleeds a bit for both of them, but at the time all I felt was sheer selfish desire, no room for empathy in my egotistical teenage heart) – and, oh! – how many hours of sore feet and cigarette smoke and ever-greasy uniforms – remember the hideous waitress garb of the time? – none of this “wear your own clothes” stuff that today’s “servers” get away with – how many early morning and late night hours at $2.65 an hour (before deductions) did this translate to?! – always doing homework frantically during a much-too-short meal break…

My father co-signed the papers for me (I was underage for a legal transaction) against my mother’s most strenuous objections, and after that most of my money went for gas, for despite not yet having a driver’s license I managed to put a lot of miles on that beautiful beast. Different times, different times…

My sweet first ride is sadly long gone, but many of the books of those halcyon teenage summers remain in my now-massive book collection, triggering little episodes of nostalgia which I savour for a moment before turning back to my present-day world. (Which happens to include this book blog, so here I go, digression over,  with my review.)

This is an odd collection even for all-over-the-map Heinlein, and it’s probably been a good thirty years since I read it; I had no memory of most of the stories and it’s definitely not in the favourites pile. Sorting out the last few boxes of my old possessions from my mom’s attic, I found this and immediately put it aside, thinking my sci-fi buff teenage son might like it; he read it and passed it back to me with that current expression signifying mild disinterest – “Meh!”

“No way, it’s Heinlein, must be something good in there!” I declared, and promptly read it myself. And, sorry to say, I guess this time he was more or less right. As he usually is. Quite a lot of fun, actually, having a teen sharing some of my reading tastes. Great excuse to pick up yet more books, equipping the kid with his own library, for when he moves out, you know… For what it’s worth, he’s already on his second car. Nowhere near as cool (hot?) as his mom’s first one, though.

Okay – FOCUS.

Six short stories, more fantasy than science fiction.

  • The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. At 120 pages, more of a novella than a short story. Originally published in the pulp magazine Unknown Worlds, in October of 1942, under one of Heinlein’s pseudonyms, John Riverside.

It starts promisingly enough:

“Is it blood, doctor?” Jonathan Hoag moistened his lips with his tongue and leaned forward in the chair, trying to see what was written on the slip of paper the medico held.

Dr. Potbury brought the slip of paper closer to his vest and looked at Hoag over his spectacles. “Any particular reason,” he asked, “why you should find blood under your fingernails?”

“No. That is to say – Well, no – there isn’t. But it is blood – isn’t it?”

“No,” Potbury said heavily. “No, it isn’t blood.”

Hoag knew that he should have felt relieved. But he was not. He knew in that moment that he had clung to the notion that the brown grime under his fingernails was dry blood rather than let himself dwell on other, less tolerable, ideas.

The fastidious Mr. Hoag has a problem. His evenings, nights and mornings are normal enough; he arrives home from work, socializes normally enough, goes to bed, sleeps and risess – but he has absolutely no memory of how he spends his days; no idea what his profession is; the only clue is the brownish-red residue under his fingernails, and a deep sense of foreboding that he is involved in something terrible.

After being turned away with no satisfactory answer by the brusque Dr. Potbury, Mr. Hoag decides to have himself followed. He contacts the firm of Randall & Craig, Confidential Investigators, who turn out to be a husband and wife team working out of their home. Edward and Cynthia (Craig) Randall are well experienced in everyday investigations; after some debate they agree to take on Mr. Hoag’s case, and the plot immediately thickens.

Up to this point the story is engaging and very nicely written; the mood is very 1940’s noir; we’ve all been there before, and we look forward with anticipation to the next logical step. And this is where Heinlein mixes things up. A straightforward “tailing” apparently is successful but goes strangely awry; Edward easily follows Jonathan Hoag to his workplace, a commercial jeweler’s workshop on the 13th floor of a city office building, and talks to Mr. Hoag’s employer. The mysterious red powder turns out to be jeweler’s rouge; Mr Hoag polishes gemstones. Case closed.

But hang on… why did Cynthia see Edward stop and talk to Jonathan, and why does Edward insist they never made contact? Why, when they both retrace Edward’s steps, do they find that there is no 13th floor in the building, and no record of a jeweler’s workshop? And why do none of Jonathan’s contacts and references seem to exist, and why doesn’t he have fingerprints?

Not content to those questions unanswered, to give Mr. Hoag the easy and plausible explanation of the jewel polishing job, and take his hefty fee, Cynthia and Edward decide to push further. And this is where things get really odd. Suddenly things are far from normal in the Randall & Craig world. Mirrors become portals into another reality; strange men with other-worldly powers enter and leave and drag Edward and Cynthia along. The threatening “Sons of the Bird” warn them to drop Mr. Hoag’s case and forget they ever heard about him, or face dire consequences.

After much hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo, Edward and Cynthia more or less get to the bottom of the strange situation, which is more than this reader ever really did. I had to go back and reread the last half of the story, and I was still confused. Something about alternative worlds improperly erased, with Mr. Hoag as a sort of unwitting Nemesis controlling rogue members of a previous world. I think.

Some great writing in this story; Heinlein struts his storyteller’s stuff here, but the plot was crazy-confusing for better than half of it, and the whole thing dragged on way too long. The main characters, aside from the mysterious Mr. Hoag, are Cynthia and Edward, and their close relationship is very well handled; their offhand manner to each other and continual wise cracking hide a deep and abiding love for each other which ultimately allows them to escape from the disaster their meddling has precipitated.

The ending of the story is as mysterious as the beginning, and I won’t really give too much away by sharing it here.

When he goes out to the vegetable patch, or to the fields, she goes along, taking with her such woman’s work as she can carry and do in her lap. If they go to town, they go together, hand in hand – always.

He wears a beard, but it is not so much a peculiarity as a necessity, for there is not a mirror in the entire house. They do have one peculiarity which would mark them as odd in any community, if anyone knew about it, but it is of such a nature that no one else would know.

When they go to bed at night, before he turns out the light, he handcuffs one of his wrists to one of hers.

Good work, front and back of this novella. Some slippage there in the middle, Mr. Heinlein!

I would be interested to hear from anyone else who has their own ideas about this tale.

  • The Man Who Traveled in Elephants. Written in 1948, and published in the magazine Saturn in 1957 under the title The Elephant Circuit.

This is a rather sweet, very nostalgic, Ray Bradbury-ish tale of a retired traveling salesman and his ultimate destination. Something of an ode to the mid-century tradition of local exhibitions and fairs, and all the best things about them. I won’t say too much about this one; there’s not much to it, just a gently sentimental little fantasy. Not a masterpiece, but rather enjoyable in its own small way. There’s an old dog, too. Need I say more? It works.

  • “-All You Zombies-“. Originally published in the pulp magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction, March, 1959.

Time travel and a sex change operation and some cheeky acronyms – see if you can get the connection between the “service” organizations Women’s Emergency National Corps, Hospitality & Entertainment Section, and Women’s Hospitality Order Refortifying & Encouraging Spacemen. (I know – GROAN. This is why, despite his many flaws, I like Heinlein – he makes me laugh despite my better judgement! The guy sure had a thing for acronyms – he was my introduction to TANSTAAFL, among others.)

A weird little “future tale”; pure Heinlein fantasy. Rather offensive and not as funny as the author obviously thinks it is, but it has a few points. A temporal agent on a recruiting mission with the cover profession of bartender – cute concept. For 1959. This one shows its age. And I’m surprised it wasn’t first published in Playboy. Definitely adult in theme!

  • They. Published in 1941, in the pulp magazine Unknown.

A rather Kafkaesque story concerning a man who is being held in confinement of some sort (mental institution? hospital?) because of his extreme paranoia – he insists that he is surrounded by a conspiracy to deceive him as to the true state of the world, and that his is the only “reality” he can be sure of. But is it paranoia if it’s true? One of Heinlein’s experiments in defining solipsism – the philosophy that one can only be sure of one’s own mind; everything else may only be a creation of that mind.

A bit too deep for me. Well written, with a good twist in the end, but overall – “Meh.”

  • Our Fair City. Published in Weird Tales, 1949.

An odd little urban fantasy. A sentient, apparently feminine whirlwind – yes – the kind of whirlwind that swirls about picking up dust and bits of rubbish – named, of all things, “Kitten” by “her” friend Pappy, an old parking lot attendant, plays a part in bringing corrupt city officials to justice. A playful farce of a story; I’ll grant points in that it’s kind of a fun concept; but my reaction was “read it quick and move on”.

“-And He Built a Crooked House-“. Astounding magazine, February, 1941.

A uncategorizable story (probably closer to sci-fi than fantasy… or vice versa – can’t decide!) about a California architect who designs and builds a three-dimensional house based on a four-dimensional tesseract. The whole concept made my head hurt; math and science geeks will no doubt fully “get” this, though. Anyway, an earthquake shifts the house fully into the fourth dimension, while being toured by the architect and his clients.

Heinlein, a quite brilliant mathematician in his own right, obviously indulged his arcane sense of humour here. Farcical and clever and probably best appreciated by like-minded sorts. I mildly chuckled, but mostly was just happy the book was finally over.


So – final verdict? It was an interesting excursion into the long-ago world of Heinlein’s literary B-sides, but it can safely go back into the box. Maybe in another thirty years it will bring my grownup kid some $$$ as he flogs the excess of my book collection on the future equivalent of eBay!

If you see it cheap cheap cheap in the used book by-the-door bins, go ahead & pick it up. In my opinion, not really worth more than a dollar or two, unless you’re a dedicated Heinlein collector.

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The Backward Shadow by Lynne Reid Banks ~ 1970. This edition: Simon & Shuster, 1970. Hardcover. 246 pages.

This is a failed review; a non-review; an unreview. I have been trying and trying to finish this book, but have found myself at a dead stop in interest level. Maybe during another time in my life? I need to get this off my desk, and off my conscience, so I’m going to shelve it now, along with its prequel, The L-Shaped Room (which I did manage to read and review, hence the presence of the sequel on my to-read list), and with all the sombre Margaret Atwoods et al which I also have trouble getting thrilled about at this point. Life changes; our reading choice ebb and flow and evolve. Someday, perhaps, “Jane Graham’s” tale will be of interest to me, but certainly not now.

It’s not that it’s a “bad” book; there is a certain style and flow to Banks’ writing that is decidedly appealing, and I can see that her heroine might be someone whom the reader could make friends with, if the reader is in that place in their life where they can identify and sympathize with Jane and her endeavours.

In the meantime, here is the flyleaf description, for the record. I fully agree with the facts of this blurb (okay, maybe not the “glowing achievment” bit, but I agree in general), but just can’t get past my personal annoyance at Jane’s irritatingly navel-gazingish personna; I know constant self-examination is a good thing and all, but this gal takes it to a high level. I’m just one person, though – others feel much more enthusiastic! You’ll have to try it for yourself.

Here’s a link to the Goodreads page:

And from the flyleaf:

From the author of the memorable The L-Shaped Room comes this powerful, disturbing, bittersweet sequel – a complete novel by itself, which continues the story of Jane, now living in an English country cottage with her illegitimate child, determined to forge a viable, independent future. She still loves Toby, her past lover but not the father of her child, but she has an obstinate conviction that she must not burden is writing career by saddling him with her situation.

Tough and resilient though Jane is in many respects, the intensity with which she loves her child is not enough to conceal from her the recognition of her essential loneliness in her isolated country life. She resolves to meet the challenges in her own way and, as readers of The L-Shaped Room will remember fondly, Jane’s way is one of honesty, humor, and unsentimental insight.

Rarely in fiction does the sequel to a celebrated novel measure up to its predecessor in impact and originality, but The Backward Shadow is in every way as glowing an achievement as Lynne Reid Bank’s first book…

And here is the Kirkus Reviews take, from 1970:

This is an extension of The L-Shaped Room (better remembered as a film?) in which unwed mother Jane has retired to Surrey with her infant, David, and is still in love with Toby (not his father). Toby comes down from London to see her now and again before he gets attached elsewhere and Jane learns too late that being an independent woman (not in the current sense) has a premium. With Dottie, an old friend, she starts a gift shop which is subsidized by Henry, Dottie’s contact. Before they’re through “the backward shadow” has darkened all their lives: Dottie’s is loneliness; Jane’s is the problem of getting along and bringing up David; Henry’s is “dying well”–which he does, although Jane and Dottie cry a great deal. . . . Essentially it’s a soft-shelled woman’s story–a term which has been discredited rather than the fact. There will be readers.

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Martha, Eric and George by Margery Sharp ~ 1964. This edition: Collins, 1964. First Edition. Hardcover. 160 pages.

My rating: 9/10

From the flyleaf:

‘Why should it always be the woman,’ asked Martha, ‘who’s landed with the little illegit?’

Putting principle into practice, she thus deposited a two-weeks-old infant on the paternal door-step and returned carefree to her proper business of painting masterpieces: vanishing so successfully, indeed, from the lives of both lover and son, that ten years elapsed before the consequences of her misbehaviour caught up with her…

Why, indeed?

Martha strikes a blow for her sex as she neatly turns the tables on her partner in procreation. Her child, result of a brief dalliance with the illicit pleasures of physical passion (and not to be repeated, as, though most enjoyable,  it makes her too tired to get up early and paint) has safely entered the world. Providing him with a layette, a carry-cot and a recipe for formula, Martha proceeds to take her ex-lover Eric at his word – “I want to shoulder all your burdens for you,” Eric has declared in his (scorned) proposal of marriage – and drops this small burden off on the Parisian doorstep of British expatriate Eric and his doting mother.

Eric Taylor, returning home to lunch, after the French fashion, from his morning’s work at the City of London (Paris branch) Bank, paused as usual outside the concierge’s lodge. The flat occupied by himself and his mother was on the fourth floor; tradespeople in a hurry frequently left parcels below – also Mme Leclerc the concierge seldom troubled to carry up a letter unless she suspected it to contain bad news. The pause at the lodge was part of Eric’s routine, his words ritual.

“Anything for me to take up, Mme Leclerc?”

For once, a rare smile curved the thin lips. Employing all her fine Gallic gifts of drama, irony and concision –

“Apparently yes, monsieur,” replied Mme Leclerc; and issuing burdened from her lodge planted in his arms a carry-cot containing a two-weeks-old infant.

Poor Eric! One does feel for him in his sudden comeuppance, though of course he had no idea that his brief dalliance with Martha had had fruitful results; he did inquire as to Martha’s state once the fling was over, and she brushed him off in typical Martha-manner, so I rather think his disgruntled reaction is justified. If we weren’t clear on the farcical nature of this series before, we certainly get the full picture in this last installment. Eric carries the baby up to his mother, who is, quite naturally, completely blindsided.

Out from the covers pushed a tiny, grasping fist like a very small octopus. The nearest object at hand being Mrs. Taylor’s ring-finger, about it the small octopus twined.

Now it was her turn to be struck dumb. For what seemed like an age, while the clock on the mantelshelf ticked, while on the table the liver-and-bacon congealed, mother and son gazed at each other in equal silence, equal consternation, indeed equal incredulity. (Disbelief: the instinctive, protective human reaction before disaster.) But the small octopus-hand insisted. Mrs. Taylor stooped; pulled a lap of blanket aside; and raised a face white as her son’s.

“Eric!” breathed Mrs. Taylor. “Whose is it?” 

Actually the question was superfluous. It is an accepted if inexplicable fact that an infant during the very first weeks of its existence may show a marked resemblance to one or other parent. In this case, the tiny countenance now revealed was an uncanny, crumpled miniature of Eric’s own. It simply looked much older: an image of Eric in toothless senility. – Not that the latter more than glanced: by this time he was … sure.

“It’s mine all right,” agreed Eric Taylor.

Now Mrs. Taylor surprises us by her reaction. Rather than being appalled by this incontrovertible evidence of her son’s amorous activities, she is instead thrilled to the core “Oh, my darling, it’s a boy!” she cries in delight. And, “Gran’s little treasure!” she croons, to Eric’s deep disgust and abiding dismay. Here we get another glimpse of Margery Sharp’s cynical wit.

The moment was far too delightful to spoil by thinking about Martha, so Mrs. Taylor didn’t. This involved no particular feat of will-power, merely a complete if unconscious surrender to wishful thinking. To possess a grandchild without the encumbrance of a daughter-in-law is many a grandmother’s unadmitted dream. “Dear Anne, dear Lucy, dear Susan!” cry the grandmothers – happy to welcome with small bottles of Chanel No. 5 at Christmas each necessary transmitter of a family face; but even happier to water with easy tears a rose-bush on an early grave…

Certainly Mrs. Taylor didn’t hope Martha was dead, even though she’d never really liked the girl. (In any case, as she’d learned from Mme Leclerc, Martha was obviously alive that morning. It would have had to be a very sudden accident.) Mrs. Taylor simply forgot Martha: indeed, so all-absorbing was the sheer physical pleasure of holding a baby again…

So the stage is set. Martha’s baby, quickly named George, is well provided for. His father becomes very much a background figure; in a turning of tables, the unmarried father takes on a role usually reserved for the mother in such a situation. A figure of mildly ribald amusement among his compatriots, Eric faces social ostracism, and, worse yet, is passed over for his expected promotion. He is no longer seen as quite so “above reproach” to qualify for a higher position in the Bank of London (Paris branch), though fortunately for him there is no thought of terminating his employment entirely.

Martha has returned to England, there to hone her artistic skills and single-mindedly  become an accomplished mistress of her art. Still sponsored and nurtured by paternal Mr. Joyce, Martha’s genuine genius blossoms. Ten years of hard, creative work pass by, and at last Martha is deemed ready to risk a solo exhibition in that mecca of the art world, Paris.

The reunion of Martha and Eric, and young George, fully meets our expectations, but there are a few surprises in store. The ending is delicately poignant; Martha redeems herself, emotionally speaking, by showing that she does have a certain sensitivity hidden by her brusque exterior. A most satisfying conclusion, despite the deathbed scene.

I hugely enjoyed this trilogy. (I still think this should be published as an omnibus; too cruel if you can’t get your hands on the complete set!) Highly recommended for the Margery Sharp fan, or anyone desiring a cleverly satirical literary diversion.

Side note: I love the cover illustration of this edition. Jillian Willet captures perfectly a rather mysterious and moody feeling of foreboding; the child in the foreground (young George?) strides sturdily towards the vaguely menacing figures partially obscured by the park’s trees. The geometric shadowing pays homage to Martha’s vision of the world as a series of shapes; the whole is a deeply satisfying composition.

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Here’s another Martin Armstrong poem I remembered when searching out the “Honey” poem. Marked in another one of our rather embarrasssingly large collection of vintage poetry anthologies is this gently humorous narrative poem. Some years ago we “collected” a number of Martin Armstrong poems and read them aloud to each other;  Miss Thompson was a favourite.

The time we spent together taking turns reading aloud is one of my favourite memories and one of the greatest joys of our homeschooling time. As everyone is now very much going their separate ways, read-aloud times are a thing of the past; I will need to wait for grandchildren now, I suppose… Hopefully some years in the future, but I find myself pleasantly anticipating a new audience of small rapt listeners, begging for “one more chapter!” Until then, I’m still adding to the story and poetry collections. But I think I may track down a family member or two and see if they would like to indulge in a nostalgic read-aloud session, just to humour their sentimental mom…


Miss Thompson at Home

In her lone cottage on the downs,
With winds and blizzards and great crowns
Of shining cloud, with wheeling plover
And short grass sweet with the small white clover,
Miss Thompson lived, correct and meek,
A lonely spinster, and every week
On market-day she used to go
Into the little town below,
Tucked in the great downs’ hollow bowl
Like pebbles gathered in a shoal.

She goes a-Marketing

So, having washed her plates and cup
And banked the kitchen-fire up,
Miss Thompson slipped upstairs and dressed,
Put on her black (her second best),
The bonnet trimmed with rusty plush,
Peeped in the glass with simpering blush,
From camphor-smelling cupboard took
Her thicker jacket off the hook
Because the day might turn to cold.
Then, ready, slipped downstairs and rolled
The hearthrug back; then searched about,
Found her basket, ventured out,
Snecked the door and paused to lock it
And plunge the key in some deep pocket.
Then as she tripped demurely down
The steep descent, the little town
Spread wider till its sprawling street
Enclosed her and her footfalls beat
On hard stone pavement, and she felt
Those throbbing ecstasies that melt
Through heart and mind, as, happy, free,
Her small, prim personality
Merged into the seething strife
Of auction-marts and city life.

She visits the Boot-maker.

Serenely down the busy stream
Miss Thompson floated in a dream.
Now, hovering bee-like, she would stop
Entranced before some tempting shop,
Getting in people’s way and prying
At things she never thought of buying:
Now wafted on without an aim,
Until in course of time she came
To Watson’s bootshop. Long she pries
At boots and shoes of every size —
Brown football-boots with bar and stud
For boys that scuffle in the mud,
And dancing-pumps with pointed toes
Glossy as jet, and dull black bows;
Slim ladies’ shoes with two-inch heel
And sprinkled beads of gold and steel —
‘How anyone can wear such things!’
On either side the doorway springs
(As in a tropic jungle loom
Masses of strange thick-petalled bloom
And fruits mis-shapen) fold on fold
A growth of sand-shoes rubber-soled,
Clambering the door-posts, branching, spawning
Their barbarous bunches like an awning
Over the windows and the doors.
But, framed among the other stores,
Something has caught Miss Thompson’s eye
(O worldliness! O vanity!),
A pair of slippers — scarlet plush.
Miss Thompson feels a conscious blush
Suffuse her face, as though her thought
Had ventured further than it ought.
But O that colour’s rapturous singing
And the answer in her lone heart ringing!
She turns (O Guardian Angels, stop her
From doing anything improper!)
She turns; and see, she stoops and bungles
In through the sand-shoes’ hanging jungles,
Away from light and common sense,
Into the shop dim-lit and dense
With smells of polish and tanned hide.

Mrs. Watson

Soon from a dark recess inside
Fat Mrs. Watson comes slip-slop
To mind the business of the shop.
She walks flat-footed with a roll —
A serviceable, homely soul,
With kindly, ugly face like dough,
Hair dull and colourless as tow.
A huge Scotch pebble fills the space
Between her bosom and her face.
One sees her making beds all day.
Miss Thompson lets her say her say:
‘So chilly for the time of year.
It’s ages since we saw you here.’
Then, heart a-flutter, speech precise,
Describes the shoes and asks the price.
‘Them, Miss? Ah, them is six-and-nine.’
Miss Thompson shudders down the spine
(Dream of impossible romance).
She eyes them with a wistful glance,
Torn between good and evil. Yes,
Wrestles with a Temptation;

For half-a-minute and no less
Miss Thompson strives with seven devils,
Then, soaring over earthly levels

And is Saved

Turns from the shoes with lingering touch —
‘Ah, six-and-nine is far too much.
Sorry to trouble you. Good day!’

She visits the Fish-monger

A little further down the way
Stands Miles’s fish-shop, whence is shed
So strong a smell of fishes dead
That people of a subtler sense
Hold their breath and hurry thence.
Miss Thompson hovers there and gazes:
Her housewife’s knowing eye appraises
Salt and fresh, severely cons
Kippers bright as tarnished bronze:
Great cods disposed upon the sill,
Chilly and wet, with gaping gill,
Flat head, glazed eye, and mute, uncouth,
Shapeless, wan, old-woman’s mouth.
Next a row of soles and plaice
With querulous and twisted face,
And red-eyed bloaters, golden-grey;
Smoked haddocks ranked in neat array;
A group of smelts that take the light
Like slips of rainbow, pearly bright;
Silver trout with rosy spots,
And coral shrimps with keen black dots
For eyes, and hard and jointed sheath
And crisp tails curving underneath.
But there upon the sanded floor,
More wonderful in all that store
Than anything on slab or shelf,
Stood Miles, the fishmonger, himself.

Mr. Miles

Four-square he stood and filled the place.
His huge hands and his jolly face
Were red. He had a mouth to quaff
Pint after pint: a sounding laugh,
But wheezy at the end, and oft
His eyes bulged outwards and he coughed.
Aproned he stood from chin to toe.
The apron’s vertical long flow
Warped grandly outwards to display
His hale, round belly hung midway,
Whose apex was securely bound
With apron-strings wrapped round and round.
Outside, Miss Thompson, small and staid,
Felt, as she always felt, afraid
Of this huge man who laughed so loud
And drew the notice of the crowd.
Awhile she paused in timid thought,
Then promptly hurried in and bought
‘Two kippers, please. Yes, lovely weather.’
‘Two kippers? Sixpence altogether:’
And in her basket laid the pair
Wrapped face to face in newspaper.

Relapses into Temptation

Then on she went, as one half blind,
For things were stirring in her mind;
Then turned about with fixed intent
And, heading for the bootshop, went
And Falls.
Straight in and bought the scarlet slippers
And popped them in beside the kippers.

She visits the Chemist

So much for that. From there she tacked,
Still flushed by this decisive act,
Westward, and came without a stop
To Mr. Wren the chemist’s shop,
And stood awhile outside to see
The tall, big-bellied bottles three —
Red, blue, and emerald, richly bright
Each with its burning core of light.
The bell chimed as she pushed the door.
Spotless the oilcloth on the floor,
Limpid as water each glass case,
Each thing precisely in its place.
Rows of small drawers, black-lettered each
With curious words of foreign speech,
Ranked high above the other ware.
The old strange fragrance filled the air,
A fragrance like the garden pink,
But tinged with vague medicinal stink
Of camphor, soap, new sponges, blent
With chloroform and violet scent.

Mr. Wren.

And Wren the chemist, tall and spare,
Stood gaunt behind his counter there.
Quiet and very wise he seemed,
With skull-like face, bald head that gleamed;
Through spectacles his eyes looked kind.
He wore a pencil tucked behind
His ear. And never he mistakes
The wildest signs the doctor makes
Prescribing drugs. Brown paper, string,
He will not use for any thing,
But all in neat white parcels packs
And sticks them up with sealing-wax.
Miss Thompson bowed and blushed, and then
Undoubting bought of Mr. Wren,
Being free from modern scepticism,
A bottle for her rheumatism;
Also some peppermints to take
In case of wind; an oval cake
Of scented soap; a penny square
Of pungent naphthaline to scare
The moth. And after Wren had wrapped
And sealed the lot, Miss Thompson clapped
Them in beside the fish and shoes;
‘Good day,’ she says, and off she goes.
Is Led away to the Pleasure of the Town,
Beelike Miss Thompson, whither next?
Outside, you pause awhile, perplext,
Your bearings lost. Then all comes back
Such as Groceries and Millinery,
And round she wheels, hot on the track
Of Giles the grocer, and from there
To Emilie the milliner,
There to be tempted by the sight
Of hats and blouses fiercely bright.
(O guard Miss Thompson, Powers that Be,
From Crudeness and Vulgarity.)

And other Allurements

Still on from shop to shop she goes
With sharp bird’s-eye, enquiring nose,
Prying and peering, entering some,
Oblivious of the thought of home.
The town brimmed up with deep-blue haze,
But still she stayed to flit and gaze,
Her eyes ablur with rapturous sights,
Her small soul full of small delights,
Empty her purse, her basket filled.

But at length is Convinced of Indiscretion
The traffic in the town was stilled.
The clock struck six. Men thronged the inns.
Dear, dear, she should be home long since.

And Returns Home

Then as she climbed the misty downs
The lamps were lighted in the town’s
Small streets. She saw them star by star
Multiplying from afar;
Till, mapped beneath her, she could trace
Each street, and the wide square market-place
Sunk deeper and deeper as she went
Higher up the steep ascent.
And all that soul-uplifting stir
Step by step fell back from her,
The glory gone, the blossoming
Shrivelled, and she, a small, frail thing,
Carrying her laden basket. Till
Darkness and silence of the hill
Received her in their restful care
And stars came dropping through the air.

But loudly, sweetly sang the slippers
In the basket with the kippers;
And loud and sweet the answering thrills
From her lone heart on the hills.

Martin Armstrong, 1921

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Late in March, when the days are growing longer
And sight of early green
Tells of the coming spring and suns grow stronger,
Round the pale willow-catkins there are seen
The year’s first honey-bees
Stealing the nectar: and bee-masters know
This for the first sign of the honey-flow.

Then in the dark hillsides the Cherry-trees
Gleam white with loads of blossom where the gleams
Of piled snow lately hung, and richer streams
The honey. Now, if chilly April days
Delay the Apple-blossom, and the May’s
First week come in with sudden summer weather,
The Apple and the Hawthorn bloom together,
And all day long the plundering hordes go round
And every overweighted blossom nods.
But from that gathered essence they compound
Honey more sweet than nectar of the gods.

Those blossoms fall ere June, warm June that brings
The small white Clover. Field by scented field,
Round farms like islands in the rolling weald,
It spreads thick-flowering or in wildness springs
Short-stemmed upon the naked downs, to yield
A richer store of honey than the Rose,
The Pink, the Honeysuckle. Thence there flows
Nectar of clearest amber, redolent
Of every flowery scent
That the warm wind upgathers as he goes.

In mid-July be ready for the noise
Of million bees in old Lime-avenues,
As though hot noon had found a droning voice
To ease her soul. Here for those busy crews
Green leaves and pale-stemmed clusters of green strong flowers
Build heavy-perfumed, cool, green-twilight bowers
Whence, load by load, through the long summer days
They fill their glassy cells
With dark green honey, clear as chrysoprase,
Which housewives shun; but the bee-master tells
This brand is more delicious than all else.

In August-time, if moors are near at hand,
Be wise and in the evening-twilight load
Your hives upon a cart, and take the road
By night: that, ere the early dawn shall spring
And all the hills turn rosy with the Ling,
Each waking hive may stand
Established in its new-appointed land
Without harm taken, and the earliest flights
Set out at once to loot the heathery heights.

That vintage of the Heather yields so dense
And glutinous a syrup that it foils
Him who would spare the comb and drain from thence
Its dark, full-flavoured spoils:
For he must squeeze to wreck the beautiful
Frail edifice. Not otherwise he sacks
Those many-chambered palaces of wax.

Then let a choice of every kind be made,
And, labelled, set upon your storehouse racks —
Of Hawthorn-honey that of almond smacks:
The luscious Lime-tree-honey, green as jade:
Pale Willow-honey, hived by the first rover:
That delicate honey culled
From Apple-blossom, that of sunlight tastes:
And sunlight-coloured honey of the Clover.
Then, when the late year wastes,
When night falls early and the noon is dulled
And the last warm days are over,
Unlock the store and to your table bring
Essence of every blossom of the spring.
And if, when wind has never ceased to blow
All night, you wake to roofs and trees becalmed
In level wastes of snow,
Bring out the Lime-tree-honey, the embalmed
Soul of a lost July, or Heather-spiced
Brown-gleaming comb wherein sleeps crystallised
All the hot perfume of the heathery slope.
And, tasting and remembering, live in hope.

Martin Armstrong, 1920

After waiting many years for its maturing enough to finally blossom, the linden tree we planted to commemorate our teenage daughter’s birth is loaded with clusters of intoxicatingly fragrant “lime-flowers”. It is also alive with insects – honey-, bumble- and other wild bees; ants, wasps, and butterflies- a veritable cloud of sound and activity. Today it hit 32°Celsius measured in the shade – very high summer indeed, and all of the honey makers and nectar drinkers are out in full force.

My son works with a local beekeeper, and we are so very fortunate in our ready access to the very freshest and most delectable local honey. Here is a photo they snapped a few weeks ago at the peak of the dandelion nectar flow; I thought it was appropriate to this favourite old poem. An ode to the abiding mystery of honeybees, and the product of their diligent labours!

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The Fields of Noon by Sheila Burnford ~ 1964. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1964. Hardcover. 175 pages.

My rating: 10/10

This quiet, elegant, and often very funny book is one I keep  in my ‘favourites’ collection, and regularly reread with great enjoyment.

The Fields of Noon is a memorable collection of autobiographical essays by Scottish-born Canadian writer Sheila Burnford, better known for her bestselling fictional book The Incredible Journey, a story of two dogs and a Siamese cat who together embark on a 300-mile journey through the northern Ontario wilderness. Disneyfied and popularized, The Incredible Journey might be dismissed without further attention by the discerning reader, but it was intended to be an adult book, was based on actual pets of the Burnford family, and is quite a lovely little piece of work with its own merit. Ignore the sentimental movies, please! (Perhaps I should re-read and review The Incredible Journey as an entry into the 2012-13 Canadian Book Challenge …)

Sheila Burnford, if these highly personal essays are any indication, must have been a fascinating woman to know; her writerly voice is warm and intimate, highly intelligent and self-deprecatingly humorous.

To give you a taste of the tone of this collection, here is an excerpt from the essay Time Out of Mind, concerning Sheila’s interest in archaeology and anthropology, and her subsequent attempts to learn the art of flint-knapping.

The first story I ever remember having read to me was Robinson Crusoe, and later I read and reread it myself, starting again at the beginning the moment it was finished, just like painting the Forth bridge. The Swiss Family Robinson was even better; not the shortened version so often found today but a wonderfully fat volume, profusely illustrated and complete in every last moralization (and every gruesome detail of poor Grizzle’s demise in the folds of the boa constrictor and subsequent mastication; five hours from ear to hoof – Papa Robinson timed it; children were apparently credited with stronger stomachs in those days) and its pages crammed with useful tidbits of information on how to improve one’s lot and live more graciously on desert islands. I used to spend hours daydreaming of starting from scratch on my island utopia and putting all this practical information to the test. Thanks to Mr. Robinson, that bottomless well of How To Do It lore, I knew how to make a Unique Machine for boiling whale blubber; I could construct a sun or sand clock, train ostriches, open oysters and manufacture sago; if a sturgeon had been caught in my coconut fiber fishnet I knew just how to make isinglass windows from its bladder. I could even – and as I write I feel the urge to do so – make waterproof boots (beloved, familiar gumboots), with a clay mold, taken from my sand-filled socks, then painted over with layers of latex tapped from the nearest rubber tree. It would have been a luckless Man Friday who made his imprint on my solitary sands, for I would have been a fearful bore to live with: like Papa Robinson, one innocent question would have released a pedantic torrent of information.

This childhood preoccupation with carving out an existence by my own unaided efforts used to end, invariably, I remember, with that baffled, mind-boggling feeling that used to overcome me – and still does – when staring up at a cloudless blue sky and trying to make my small limited mind grasp that the blue is a void, endless infinity, nothing, not even omega. For, sooner or later, a fearful nagging doubt insinuated itself into every castaway installment of my self-told story: What if one did not have a knife, or a goat, or a gun to start with? Or, worse still, had not read Swiss Family Robinson? How on earth did one go about forging steel for that most necessary knife (what, for that matter, was steel?), substitute for a goat, manufacture a gun, or any kind of weapon?


  • Canadian Spring – a trip with an artist friend to an isolated lakeside cabin during spring ice break-up.
  • Walking: Its Cause, Duration and Effect – reflections on a Scottish childhood spent largely out-of-doors.
  • The Peaceful Pursuit – the joys and occasional pitfalls of wild mushroom hunting.
  • Confessions of a Noisemaker – how to shed one’s vocal inhibitions while accompanied on a solitary expedition by a patient dog and four inflatable duck decoys.
  • Time Out of Mind – the deceptively steep learning curve of the paleolithic flint-knapper.
  • Inclinations to Fish – the consideration of large bodies of water as primarily “fish containers”, and the joys of a lifetime of attempting to bring those fish to shore.
  • Tom – a touching ode to a feral tom cat.
  • With Claud Beneath the Bough… – caring for a solitary canary.
  • Pas Devant le Chien – a sober-minded dog becomes firmly convinced that an electric heater contains a small, living inhabitant.
  • William – the last day of life and the death of a beloved bull terrier.

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