Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

silk hats and no breakfast honor tracy 001Silk Hats and No Breakfast: Notes on a Spanish Journey by Honor Tracy ~ 1957. This edition: Penguin, 1962. Paperback. 190 pages.

My rating: 6/10

New to me with this book is this writer, one Honor Lilbush Wingfield Tracy.

Born in England in 1913, Honor Tracy seems to have been involved in the world of the written word from early on, with her first job being in a London publishing house. She went on to work in wartime intelligence for the British government, and then as a newspaper columnist and foreign correspondent, eventually turning out a number of well-received travel memoirs as well as a respectable number of satirical novels.

Honor Tracy, according to the biographical write-up in my vintage Penguin paperback copy of Silk Hats and No Breakfast, generally spent her summers in “a village near Dublin”, and her winters in Spain, making her something of an accepted authority on both countries and a translator of both Irish and Spanish quirks and eccentricities to her English readership. She also wrote a book, Kakemono, about her 8-month stay in Japan in 1948, which piques my interest, for if Silk Hats is any indication of her general technique, Honor Tracy would have written with brutal accuracy her impressions of that war-torn land and the reception she received from its people.

Silk Hats and No Breakfast recounts a summer journey – June till September, 1956 – made into Spain, from Algeciras to Vigo, with numerous side excursions, over something like 1200 miles of road (the author’s rough estimate) travelled by public transport (mostly bus) and hired taxis.

Though well-prepared with an itinerary of what she wished to see, and with abundant prior experience in Spanish travel, Honor Tracy rather gallantly threw herself to the mercies of fate regarding her accommodations and meals. She goes with the first hotel tout she meets at each bus or railway station, and ventures into any number of local (versus for-the-tourist) restaurants, cafes and bars, sometimes with wonderful results and fantastic food, and other times not quite so fortunately.

This sounded like an interesting travel memoir, and I had very high hopes for it, and it met many of my expectations. It is good – very good, really- but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “great”, which is, of course, only a reflection of my own individual likes and dislikes for books of this genre.

Honor Tracy writes with skill and precision, and she is mostly acceptably interesting, though after a while I started to lose track of exactly where we were supposed to be – place names being lavishly provided but with little explanation of context, as if the reader is expected to be as familiar with the intricacies of the Spanish map as the writer obviously was.

There is, however, a continual bitter cynicism to her tone which keeps one from getting too close to her, as it were. The best travel writers have the reader stepping along as a firmly attached shadow; with Honor Tracy I get the feeling that I am very much an audience member, and an uncritical one at that – she can say anything she likes and can indulge in sarcasm and asides, and I am expected to nod and smile and not say anything in return.

That probably doesn’t help you much with deciding if this is your sort of thing, does it? I should probably include a few excerpts, so you can get a taste of this writer’s flavour for yourself.

I’m rather curious about her other works, and am debating tracking down the Japanese memoir, as well as some of her fiction. She’s very readable, as long as one is prepared to be the recipient of some rather brutally opinionated asides, mixed a bit confusing with frequent warm approbation of the people and country she is turning her journalistic X-ray eye upon.

(At the start of the journey, visiting with a friend and fellow writer, Gerald Brenan.) All along the hilly path to the shore we talked about Spain, and when at last we reached Torremolinos we sank into chairs at a café and talked about it further. Gerald Brenan knows the country as well as any Englishman alive and he shares his knowledge with the ignorant in a splendidly open way. When two or three English people are gathered together in the Iberian Peninsula inevitably at some point the question of animals comes up, and it was startling to hear him say that Spaniards love them as we do. They might think it unseemly, obsessed as they are with their own human dignity, to fondle a beast, but their attitude was not the cruel or indifferent one that foreigners supposed. He gave what seemed a curious illustration of the argument: that when domestic creatures are old or sick the owners cannot bear to put them down but will push donkeys and mules over cliffs and leave them, perhaps with broken backs or legs, to die alone; and will turn unwanted dogs and cats loose to fend for themselves among the hundreds and hundreds of strays already starving. This unwillingness to take their lives directly, he thought, came down from the Moors: his wife put it down to stupidity and want of imagination: I wondered if it might be simply the helplessness of uneducated people anywhere. But Gerald Brenan said that the reluctance to tamper with life went through all classes, and gave as example doctors, who will refuse morphia to an agonizing patient if it is likely to bring death any the sooner: adding, wryly, that this attitude disappeared at once the moment passions were aroused, as in the Civil War, when people would be slaughtered to left and right.

Tracy consistently points out examples of animals being routinely abused (by all accepted English standards) – donkeys and mules bearing staggering loads, emaciated draft animals, starving stray cats and dogs haunting street cafes and garbage piles for scraps – and she seems to relate this casual acceptance of animal hardship to the frequently dire physical condition of many of the “common people” she observes. There are descriptions of the many beggars and street people in varying degrees of physical infirmity, which she includes as frequently and as soberly as the accounts of the animals. One wonders what a Spanish observer would have to say about this same situation? – and what the situation regarding animal and human welfare is in a more modern Spain, given that Honor Tracy’s journeyings there occurred well over a half-century ago.

(Tracking down a “great beauty spot” recommended by travel writers and locals, but apparently unreachable by any sort of scheduled public conveyance.) In the morning I hired a taxi at frightful expense and drove to the Lago. The scene deserved all that was said about it: a great expanse of water, clear green and mirror-smooth save where now and again a breeze fretted the surface, enclosed by mountains with fields of pale gold corn all over their lower reaches. I have never seen an inland lake of greater beauty in Switzerland or Yugoslavia or anywhere else; and except for a girl washing clothes at the edge of it it was quite deserted. No bathing cabins, refreshment stalls, or boats for hire, and not a soul in sight: and, better than that, not a sound to be heard but the girl chanting a melancholy little tune to herself or the ripple of a leaping fish. After the eternal brouhaha of Spanish life, this lovely peace was far more than the mere absence of bustle and commotion, and I lay on a rock in the sun almost drunk with it, fervently blessing the tourist officials for their lack of enterprise. Presently I went to swim: the water was warm and not icy-cold as described in the literature, but no doubt the author of this, for want of conveyance, had been unable to make a personal verification. As the morning wore on one or two motor-cars drove up and by lunch-time there were about fifteen people on the sand, among them some enchanting little brown baby boys, each with his peaked cap to protect him from the sun and not a stitch of anything else: with whom their papas constantly played as if they were dolls, unable to leave them. alone for a minute and fussing over them a great deal more than the mothers.

So, Honor Tracy. Is anyone familiar with her? Have you read any of her travel memoirs or novels? Silk Hats and No Breakfast may well not be one of her best works; I’m wondering if I should dig a little deeper…


Read Full Post »

beyond the blue horizon alexander frater 001Beyond the Blue Horizon by Alexander Frater ~ 1986. This edition: Penguin, 1987. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-010065-2. 430 pages.

My rating: 9.75/10

Almost perfect.

The tiniest bit of transitioning muddle here and there lost the 1/4 point. Nothing at all serious, but just frequent enough to very occasionally interrupt the otherwise seamless flow.

Okay, this one came (flew in?) from way out in left field.

Or, to be completely accurate, the slightly ho-hum Nuthatch Books in 100 Mile House, B.C. I sometimes pop in there when passing through in my travels, mostly because it is conveniently located right next to the village’s premier (only?) coffee house, the Chartreuse Moose, which, at two hours driving time from home, is a perfect quick stop for a beverage in a take-out cup to see one on the next few hours of travel when heading for points to the south.

Where was I? Oh yes, Nuthatch Books. The bookstore itself is very average, with mostly new stuff, and a fairish quantity of used. Stiffish prices on the second hand books, and not much in the way of a vintage selection, but I’ve picked up a few interesting things there now and then. Such as this book, which was a complete impulse buy, inspired by the promising title and a lightning-quick random-passage read. In this case, the book hunter’s instinct was rewarded. This was great.

From the back cover:

The romance and breathtaking of the legendary Imperial Airways Eastbound Empire service – the world’s longest and most adventurous scheduled air route – relived fifty years later in one of the most original travel books of the decade.

‘Whether being mown down by stampeding Baghdad-bound passengers in Cairo airport, or battling with Indian Airline staff (and failing) to reconfirm six vital going-on flights from Delhi, or being lured unwittingly into a souvenir shop selling pornographic wood carvings in Lombok, or hitting tropical cyclone Ferdinand in a 748 en route from Sumba to Bali, Frater rises above it all with humour, style and a wonderfully sharp eye’ – Christopher Matthew in the London Standard

The front cover of my Penguin paperback is emblazoned with the overly-familiar Theroux comparison – I quite like most of Theroux’s travel writing, but for goodness sake – can’t we occasionally reference someone else?! – and despite the initial annoyance this triggered, I found myself having to agree. Alexander Frater does share many of the best writerly qualities of Paul Theroux, though Frater’s voice is distinctively his own.

I’m coming at this rather backwards, for no doubt if you’ve made it this far you’re wondering what the heck Beyond the Blue Horizon is actually about.

It’s simple-ish. It’s an attempted recreation of an old commercial flight path from England to Australia, via Northern Africa, the Middle East, India, and South Asia, taking modern commercial flights and touching down at each and every one of the destinations referenced in the flight paths of the venerable Imperial Airways Eastbound Airways Service in its 1920s-30s heyday, when such a journey was referred to, aptly, as a “voyage”, and was more akin to a leisurely ocean journey in a luxury liner than to the sardine-can-squished, as-much-as-possible-non-stop, strictly-transportation experiences of today.

Back in the day, the trip from London to Brisbane by air took two weeks, with something like 35 way stops. Most flying was undertaken in the daylight hours, and passengers and crew slept each night in generally quite posh hotels, many of which were purpose-built to serve the airways trade, much in the way that the great railway hotels of North America were constructed as an adjunct to the leisurely upper-class train travel of a similar period.

Though definitely plotted with a book-in-mind – Frater was a well-respected travel writer and journalist well in successful mid-career when he embarked on this project – Beyond the Blue Horizon doesn’t feel terribly manufactured-for-sale, mostly because Frater is a true airplane enthusiast and a grand people person and an accomplished journalist, and he writes this slightly unlikely journey up in the most engaging way. He did his research first, lined up appropriate people to interview at pertinent points in his journey, and assembled a comprehensive number of long-ago accounts of air travel, which I wish could have been included in a bibliography, because the excerpts we are given are frequently intriguing.

Accounts of Frater’s trip are interspersed with accounts of long-ago flights covering the same bits of territory, and this is where my only complaint comes in. There are so many different references to so many different pilots, travellers, airplanes and airlines that I occasionally got a bit lost among all the reminiscences, and had to back up an reread the passages where Frater connects the now to the then of each particular bit of his journey. But it always came right, and the juxtaposition of experiences absolutely made this book, so it’s a very minor demerit point given to an otherwise excellent bit of travel lit.

Though I admire the concept of airplanes, I am not a comfortable flyer myself, and I read Beyond the Blue Horizon like I read accounts of mountaineering, or of sailing in small boats across the vast wastes of ocean – with admiration and interest but with no desire at all to emulate the experience. Writers who can keep me engaged in something so foreign to my personal comfort zone are quite rare, and greatly appreciated when found. Alexander Frater gets a shiny gold star from me for this one, and I already have a second journey-book by him purring promisingly on my bedside bookshelf: Chasing the Monsoon, 1990, in which Frater leaves rainy England for even more rainy India.

Frater’s writing in Beyond the Blue Horizon is no less than excellent. He combines sober statistics with revealing asides in which his inner keenness comes out all schoolboy enthusiastic and highly likeable, and he wanders off topic just enough to keep things continually engaging.

Frater also has a vast inner knowledge of the sort of esoterica in his chosen area of devotion which one comes across in other fields of interest, such as train buffs and vintage car people and those single-breed dog/cat/horse/you-name-it enthusiasts who occasionally, revealingly, let themselves go a little too far for the audience at hand, causing one to glance furtively about for an exit opportunity to escape the intensity of the one-topic conversationalist.

Frater never goes too far.

Highly recommended.

Read Full Post »

olivia o douglas dj 001Olivia by O. Douglas ~ 1912. Original title: Olivia in India: The Adventures of a Chota Miss Sahib. This edition: Nelson, 1950. Hardcover. 281 pages.

Provenance: Shepherd Books, Victoria B.C., September 2013.

My rating: 7/10

The first published work by Anna Buchan, written under her pen name O. Douglas.

This slight epistolary novel is based on Anna’s own 1907 voyage to India to visit her younger brother William; the characters “Olivia” and “Boggley” are obviously very lightly veiled depictions of Anna and William, and there is even a reference or two to another brother, “John”, who is a highly regarded novelist. John Buchan – of The Thirty-Nine Steps fame – was of course a very real person, and though “Olivia” throughout refers to her family name as “Douglas”, we can’t help but draw the simple conclusion that this is mostly autobiography, presented as fiction.

India in the years of the Raj has been so often and thoroughly documented both in fact and fiction that it exists in our readerly imaginations as a defined time and place with expected characters, settings and situations. Olivia does nothing to further illuminate any of this, merely laying down another layer of sepia-tinted varnish on an already-finished picture.

I found the book enjoyable enough in a mild way; in common with all of the author’s other novels the people are very believable, being a mixture of good and not so good, and the situations are realistically described. It differs from most of O Douglas’s later novels which have a traditional plot structure in that in this one nothing really happens, aside from the expected incidents of domestic adventure and foreign travel.

Olivia journeys about, sightseeing and marking time, all the while writing to an unnamed correspondent back home, whom we are able to identify early on as a person of potentially romantic interest. The nearest thing to a climax occurs at the very end of the book, when the correspondent is given a name, and Olivia commits herself so far as to accept his apparent proposal of an enlargement and formalization of their “friendship” when she returns to England.

Though it sounds as if I were damning this quiet book with faint praise, it wasn’t actually all that bad. The scenes throughout are engagingly described and occasional vignettes stand out, as when Olivia sees the Himalayas for the first time, after a less-than-comfortable train journey.

Here is a snippet from that journey, with these pages being representative of the style of narrative of the whole. (Click on image to enlarge.)

olivia o douglas excerpt 001

And there are enough references to the political situation and dreadful things going on all about – the poverty of much of the native population and certain of the lower class Europeans and Eurasians, the constant occurrence of sudden death from misadventure and virulent tropical diseases, the occasional “throwing of bombs” by radical demonstrators – to keep the tone from being at all saccharine.

Olivia herself has a rather snobbish attitude to anyone not of her class, race and religion – these being upper, Scottish, and Presbyterian – but she does recognize this tendency in herself and occasionally puts herself out to overcome her prejudices, though to the end of her travels she remains fastidiously suspicious of the natives of the country.

Very much a first book, but, to be fair, quite a good one. It held my interest throughout, though I am sure most of it will fade away quite quickly to join the rest of the era’s Anglo-Indian accounts of chirpy young Great Britain-ites off to visit the exotic Colonial Outposts, before it all fell apart.


Read Full Post »

Pine cone, exact species unknown. UBC Botanical Garden, February 26, 2014.

Pine cone, exact species unknown. UBC Botanical Garden, February 26, 2014.


The next three books in my series of Round-Up posts all involve some sort of autobiographical experiences, though they are presented in different ways. Gavin Maxwell’s Harpoon Venture is self-critical and hyper-realistic; Rosemary Taylor’s Harem Scare’m goes for the gently self-mocking humorous approach, while W.H. Davies’ The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp is in the nature of a unemotionally-documented saga, told in the plainest of language by a man looking backwards down the years at his unconventional and occasionally dramatic vagabond (quite literally) days.


harpoon venture lyons press gavin maxwellHarpoon Venture by Gavin Maxwell ~1952. This edition: Lyons Press, 1996. Introduction by Stephen J. Bodio. Softcover. ISBN: 1-58574-370-4. 304 pages.

My rating: 8/10

If you have read Gavin Maxwell’s memoirs of his life with pet otters and other various creatures, Ring of Bright Water, Raven Seek Thy Brother, and The House of Elrig, you will recall his passing references to his several immediately post-WW II years spent hunting basking sharks off the Isle of Soay, in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, close to the Isle of Skye.

This book, Maxwell’s first, details the doomed venture from its first conception during a bombing raid in the 1940 Battle of Britain blitz, when Gavin Maxwell determined that if he survived the war, he would

“…buy an island in the Hebrides and retire there for life; no airplanes, no bombs, no commanding officers, no rusty dannert wire…”

Two years later Gavin Maxwell was serving with Special Forces and stationed in northwest Scotland, when he joined a friend for a yacht trip during their leave and first came across the small, steep-hilled Isle of Soay. After spending two hours roaming the island, Maxwell had determined to make his dream a reality; he would buy it, establish a local industry, and spend his days in peaceful usefulness, looked up to as a local benefactor, the “laird”, in fact.

Needless to say, such utopian dreams were to prove to be too good to be true. The industry Maxwell decided upon was the establishment of a basking shark fishery, to chase down, harpoon and render into useful products the massive, plankton-eating basking sharks, which can reach weights of over 5 tons. These sharks contain huge livers which were at the time in great demand for their oil content, but Maxwell’s scheme involved a factory which would process all of the parts of the fish – skin which could be turned to leather, flesh which could be marketed as “sail-fish”, fins to be dried and sent to China as aphrodisiacs, cartilage and bones to be used to produce glue – the list of possibilities was endless.

It took almost four years for Maxwell’s enterprise to bankrupt itself; he never really recovered from the loss of his personal fortune which he had sunk into the project; he lost Soay and embarked upon a vagabond lifestyle of travelling and writing, which resulted in the acquisition while in the marshes of Iraq of the first of the famous otters.

But this was before that, and fascinating it is all on its own merits, though the brutal details of the process of hunting, harpooning and killing the basking sharks may be queasy-making to those readers of delicate sensibilities. Somehow the narrative manages to transcend the sordid details, leaving one with a portrait of a brilliantly intelligent, highly observant and sensitive yet deeply self-destructive man, who frequently made some very bad decisions, and only sometimes took responsibility for them. My final impression is of a book of intense experiences delicately observed and lyrically depicted.

A wonderful review of the book is here: Desperate Reader: Gavin Maxwell’s Harpoon at a Venture

One hint: Avoid the Lyons Press edition, pictured above. For some odd reason it leaves out all of the photographs – over seventy in number – which are referenced throughout the text, giving a rather surreal experience to the reader as Maxwell has continually linked his written narrative to the photos, and without them one is left completely at a loss as to what is being referred to.

Second-hand copies of  earlier editions of this book are readily available, generally titled Harpoon at a Venture, so go for one of those instead of the 1996 Lyons reprint.

harem scare'm rosemary taylor 001Harem Scare’m by Rosemary Taylor ~ 1951. This edition: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1951. Illustrations by Paul Galdone. Hardcover. 246 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

This was another one of those happy-chance stumble-upon books. I had read and written about Rosemary Taylor’s Arizona childhood memoir Chicken Every Sunday back in 2012, and then, just recently in March 2014 had received a comment on my post, which brought Taylor to mind again. Only a day or two later what should I notice among the tattered hodge-podge of old cookbooks and automotive repair manuals at a local antiques emporium, but “Rosemary Taylor” on the spine of a book. And here it is. Isn’t random promising-book-discovery a wonderful thing?!

Written in the early 1950s, Harem Scare’m is Rosemary’s account of her time as a young, aspiring writer in the early 1920s, when she was travelling with a friend in Europe on a break from her first job as an assistant dean of women at Stanford University.

In the process of “getting cultured”, Rosemary temporarily parts with her travelling companion and journeys solo to Madrid, with a week among the pictures in the Prado her goal. The train trip starts out well, but is soon to go sideways…

So there I sat, the future dean of women, dressed in the brown coat and tight-fitting white felt hat I’d bought at such a bargain in a little shop in Paris, wearing no make-up – I didn’t approve of make-up – my legs encased in lisle stockings, my shoes stout and sensible, and on my nose big horn-rimmed glasses, for I was, and am, very near-sighted. A prim and proper young lady, attending strictly to her own business, definitely not provocative, definitely not the type to invite any attention, welcome or unwelcome. Or so I thought.

An optimistic Spanish porter appears to think that Miss Taylor is very provocative, and as she fights him off with determination she is vastly relieved by the entry into her compartment of a one-eyed man, who turns out to be a fellow American, one Floyd Gibbons. The name sounds vaguely familiar to Rosemary, and she is grateful for Mr. Gibbons’ large and protective presence for the remainder of her trip. Floyd, who is of course the Floyd Gibbons, intrepid and well-known war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is on his way to Morocco, to cover the events of the Second Moroccan War, the long drawn out series of clashes between the Spanish and French forces with the Moroccans, also known as the Rif War.

Floyd takes quite a liking to the naïve young Rosemary, especially when he learns that she is corresponding with her hometown newspaper, the Tucson Citizen, and has just received a princely $5 for a recent article. Why not come with me to Morocco, he asks her teasingly? You can get the woman’s-eye view of things there, maybe get an interview in the local sultan’s harem…

Well, as things turned out, Rosemary did go to Morocco with Floyd, joining a bevy of other war correspondents, and she did get an interview in a harem, which she wrote up for the Citizen. She also found herself in many unexpected places, which she writes about with self-effacing good humour and occasional passionate poignancy.

Rosemary tries very hard to keep the tone light throughout, and though this makes for a not-very-deep but entertaining read, one sometimes feels like she is leaving a lot of interesting stuff out, by deciding to go for the laugh every time, which is why I couldn’t in good conscience rate it much higher.

Rather fascinating stuff, though, with much scope for further investigation. I’ll certainly be paying attention the next time I come across Floyd Gibbons’ name; he sounds like a very interesting personality indeed, and Rosemary Taylor’s depiction of him in Harem Scare’m is affectionate and appealing.

the autobiography of a super-tramp w h davies other

Not my personal copy, but a much later edition with an apt cover photo.

The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies ~ 1908. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1933. Introduction by George Bernard Shaw. Hardcover. 304 pages.

My rating: 9/10

There’s a lot in this book, reminiscences of a long and event-filled life, by a sometimes less-than-sympathetic narrator, whose deadpan delivery takes some getting used to, but is worth putting up with for the vivid picture the book gives of a very unconventional attitude and way of living.

I suspect this is the most well-known of the three books in this grouping, being still in print over a century after its first publication, so I won’t go into too much detail.

Born in Wales in 1871, William Henry Davies was raised by his maternal grandparents, and from childhood showed a reluctance to follow in the expected path of others of his class and circumstance. Unable to settle into steady work, Davies abandoned his apprenticeship with a picture-frame maker and instead took to the roads, living on income derived from temporary work, a small income from a legacy, and eventually outright begging.

Davies was fascinated with North America, and eventually made it to the United States, where he joined a loosely connected tribe of “professional” hoboes who travelled the country by stealing rides in and on top of boxcars. They fed themselves on the charity of housewives and by taking on odd jobs, picking fruit, working as seasonal laborers and such. Davies was able to extensively travel throughout the States, and he crossed the Atlantic to and from England numerous times by working of his passage on cattle boats. His foray into Canada on the way to the Klondike gold rush ended horribly when he slipped while attempting to jump a train in Ontario, losing his foot and crushing his right leg, which was eventually amputated at the knee.

Returning to England sporting a wooden peg leg, Davies turned his attention to writing poetry, as he had always been a great reader and secret writer through his vagabond years. Living in charity rooms and living off of his grandmother’s legacy, Davies wrote and wrote and wrote, eventually paying to have his verses printed and attempting to sell them door to door. He met with small success, but kept on, until a series of lucky coincidences brought his poetry into the public eye, where it was received with enthusiasm for its universal themes and sincere tone.

George Bernard Shaw was shown the manuscript of this book, and by his patronage secured Davies a very favourable publishing deal, and the rest is history. Davies ended his days in England hobnobbing with the literary aristocracy of the time, a far cry from the days of stealing garments off of backyard clotheslines and dodging railroad cops.

This memoir is stunning in the scope of its content, and in its unapologetic tone. Davies makes few excuses for his choice of lifestyle and where it took him; he was a keen observer of his companions of the road and the book is full of fascinating portraits of unconventional people and the even stranger events they were involved in.

The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp is written in a very calm, almost overly flat style, and can occasionally be rather hard going as climax after climax is related matter-of-factly in Davies’ sober voice, but his musings on why he is like he is and how he relates to the others he meets in his journeyings and his pithy commentary on social peculiarities make it compelling reading.






Read Full Post »

the moon-spinners pb cover mary stewartThe Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart ~ 1962. This edition: Hodder, 1964. Paperback. 264 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I don’t know what it is – perhaps the snowy weather and the early dark evenings – but this book completely hit the spot with me a few nights ago, following through to the next day as I surreptitiously raced to finish it off in between my proper occupations.

Maybe the appeal comes from the sunny setting – the Isle of Crete at Easter, mountains alive with wildflowers – or possibly just the perfectly adorable love interest of our intelligent heroine – he’s slightly mysterious, rather handsome, charming even on his bed of pain, plus he throws himself wholeheartedly into the fray-of-the-moment, particularly if it’s to avenge damage done to his lady-love.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that The Moon-Spinners is quite beautifully written for its genre, in what I’ve come to realize is Mary Stewart’s trademark detailed travelogue style. It assumes a certain degree of intellectual and general knowledge among its readers, and refuses (for example) to reference in-text literary allusions, assuming our familiarity with them, something I always appreciate when done in an appropriate fashion, as a natural part of the narrator’s voice.

The action scenes were relatively short, though no more believable than any of Stewart’s other escapades, and I found I managed to get through them with only a raised eyebrow, not an outright snort of indignation. Let’s see, now. The heroine is attacked once with a knife and once with a fish spear (the spear episode is while in the water, of course, with the heroine scantily attired in her underthings), and she is present while bullets fly about willy-nilly but ultimately harmlessly, and she manages to bring the chief villain to grief at the very end with a spur of the moment intervention. There are two successful murders (well, perhaps more of the lost-my-temper manslaughter-type murders versus deliberate planning) plus at least one attempted murder, all in just the first few days of what was supposed to be a restful botanizing vacation.

Stewart gets the flowers right, and includes a clever Linnaean word-joke or two which I greatly appreciated, being of the horticultural persuasion myself. The whole novel is packed full of heart-racing action and instant romance, which keeps things clipping right along. The side characters – the heroine’s older cousin, the hero’s local-boy sidekick and charming younger brother – are a fabulous addition to the story, and allow for an abundance of humorous repartee. Even the surviving villains are quite a lot of fun, if you’ll forgive my using “fun” in the same breath as “murderous villain”. One is prone to violent loss of temper, the other tiptoes around anything messy with faint disdain – “Well, I’d hate to have to kill you, but you leave me no choice. Oh, better yet, I’ll leave it up to my brutish sidekick here to deal with you. I just don’t want to know!”  Together they make a diverting team, in every sense of the word. The murderees themselves are unlikable thug types, so we don’t shed too many tears at their demise.

What else can I say? Loved it. The best Mary Stewart I’ve read yet, though My Brother Michael comes close. (Must also post some thoughts on that one, some day.)

So, the story.

It was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove, that started it. I won’t pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairy-tale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers, and loses him in the forest where danger threatens with the dusk. But, when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon-flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it. What else is there to do when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the White Mountains of Crete; when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead, flicker in and out of deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon-blossom?

Lovely young Nicola comes on holiday to a remote village in Crete. Arriving a day early for a planned rendezvous with her cousin, she wanders into the hills and is assaulted by a knife-wielding Greek; he then takes her to a hut in which she finds a wounded Englishman, Mark. Much swearing to secrecy results; the hiding-out is because Mark’s fifteen-year-old brother has been kidnapped by a gang of thugs, one of whom shot Mark and left him for dead; Mark and Greek pal (Lambis) have realized that killer is now out searching for the not-quite-as-dead-as-thought Mark, to finish him off. A deadly game of cat-and-mouse keeps tension high as the various characters dash (or limp) from nook to cranny to shepherd’s bothy to niche-in-rock-cliff to ancient temple.

After spending the night nursing Mark, Nicola reluctantly goes off down to the village, plays all innocent, and sleuths away like mad. The small hotel where she is booked to stay is run by an oddly assorted partnership. One is a local man, Stratos, returned from years away in England with a nest egg which he is investing in the hotel; the other is his English partner, Tony, a fabulous cook , darling – and also bar-man and waiter and general manager. Tony is much given to gushing extravagances of speech; his dialogue is well-peppered with italics. I wonder rather if Mary Stewart is trying to portray something more than personal eccentricity here; if this novel were a few decades older Tony would be the quintessential “catty gay guy” we see so frequently in contemporary chick lit. As it is there are one or two possibly double entendre references to Tony not being the heroine’s type, and her older cousin Frances, a sophisticated type herself, is quite catty in regards to Tony, calling him “Cedric” after the literary Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Anyway, Nicola snoops about, discovers that all is not as it seems in this peaceful little village, identifies the villains, discovers the fate of the kidnapped boy, foils the nefarious plottings of the gang of villains, and finds true love. This takes several hundred pages, but they are filled with incident and description and clever conversation and in general are a pleasure to read. A good read indeed, completely effortless and a fabulous diversion from the onset of the Canadian winter.

Oh, and the “moon-spinners” of the title. I thought at first this was a reference to the Cretan windmills, as these are a feature of almost every one of this novel’s cover illustrations I’ve seen. You know, round, like the moon; spinning, because they’re windmills. But though a windmill features importantly in the narrative – hence the illustrations – the moon-spinners referred to are something quite different. Here is Nicola, telling their story:

They’re naiads – water nymphs. Sometimes, when you’re deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning. They each have a spindle, and onto these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight. In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself, which is why they don’t carry a distaff. They’re not Fates, or anything terrible; they don’t affect the lives of men; all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky. Night after night, you can see the moon getting less and less, the ball of light waning, while it grows on the spindles of the maidens. Then, at length, the moon is gone, and the world has darkness, and rest, and the creatures of the hillsides are safe from the hunter, and the tides are still . . .

Then, on the darkest night, the maidens take their spindles down to the sea, to wash their wool. And the wool slips from the spindles into the water, and unravels in long ripples of light from the shore to the horizon, and there is the moon again, rising above the sea, just a thin curved thread, re-appearing in the sky. Only when all the wool is washed, and wound again into a white ball in the sky, can the moon-spinners start their work once more, to make the night safe for hunted things . .

Worth reading the book, just for the bits like that. I’m liking Mary Stewart more and more!

One more note. Disney made a 1964 movie based on this novel, starring Hayley Mills. It sounds like “loosely based” is more accurate; descriptions of the Disney production show that the plot diverges widely from Mary Stewart’s crisp thriller. Apparently no expense was spared in the making of the film, which was filmed on location in Crete, with Disney rebuilding a war-damaged village and engaging local people as background players. I’ve not seen it myself, and from the sounds of the plot changes, would not find the Disneyfied version of the story terribly appealing, but I would like to see the physical setting. Has anyone both read the book and seen the film? If so, would love to hear your thoughts!

Read Full Post »

land below the wind agnes newton keith

The edition pictured is the more recent reissue of the book. My own paperback copy is too tattered to share; I do need to replace it, as it’s one to keep and re-read.

Land Below the Wind by Agnes Newton Keith ~ 1939. This edition: MacFadden, 1964. Paperback. 270 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I do enjoy an interesting memoir, and, having read several of Agnes Newton Keith’s later accounts of an eventful life, namely Three Came Home (a description of Agnes Keith’s three years in a Japanese prison camp in Borneo with her husband and young son, 1942-45) and Bare Feet in the Palace (everyday and political doings in the Philippines, where her husband worked for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 1953-56), I have long been on the lookout for her first literary accomplishment, this worldwide bestseller, Land Below the Wind.

I was particularly interested in this memoir because Agnes Keith credits it with helping save her son’s life while in the prison camp in Borneo. The book had been translated into Japanese prior to the war, and the commandant of the camp had read it and greatly enjoyed it, apparently appreciating Agnes Keith’s favourable descriptions of the Asian world. He would occasionally call Agnes into his office and chat with her on things literary, rewarding her with treats for young George – a biscuit, a banana, and on at least one occasion medical supplies normally unavailable to the internees. For this she was labelled a “collaborator” by some of her fellow internees; In Three Came Home, Keith justifies her conciliatory attitude to the Japanese officers as doing the best she could to ensure the survival of her child. So I was rather curious as to what the appeal of Land Below the Wind was, to see what chord it might have struck which was strong enough to influence a prison camp overseer some years later.

Land Below the Wind is indeed a most readable and a happily positive book, a description of Agnes’ introduction to life as the wife of a British civil servant in then-North Borneo (now known as Sabah) in the 1930s, when that country, “seven days by steamer from Singapore and Hong Kong”, was a British Protectorate, and Harry Keith its Conservator of Forests and Director of Agriculture, a position he had already held for ten years when he brought his new American wife out to the tropics with him. After four years living and travelling in North Borneo, one of only twenty or so European women attached to the seventy or so European men in the North Borneo Civil Service (men were not permitted to marry until they had served eight years in their posting, which accounts for the disparity in numbers of the sexes) Agnes published this book, and it became an immediate bestseller, after winning the coveted Atlantic Monthly $5000 Prize for Best Non-Fiction book published in 1939.

The book is entrancing, certainly because of the descriptions of the local residents, the tropical surroundings, the native flora and fauna, and also for its gentle mocking of the delicate social structure built up around the Protectorate bureaucrats and their spouses and unspoken rules of etiquette.

In Sandakan there is a game played with visiting cards. Every married woman has a small card box with her name lettered on it, planted at the entrance to her garden path. Spiders and lizards live in this box and in the wet season a very small snake, so care must be taken in opening the door not to snap off the end of the lizard’s tail or flatten the snake in the hinge. At intervals, among the lizard’s droppings, if you remember to open the box, various cards will appear. These you scrutinize, forget about, and some days later find under the ash tray. You then disinter your own and husband’s cards, stealthily approach the friend’s card box, and offer a return sacrifice to his lizards. The rule as to who drops the first card is as mystifying and inexplicable as the use of a subjunctive clause, and I have never really understood either of them. The rule has something to do with the sex, length of domicile, and matrimonial alliances of the parties involved, but the whole thing is best enjoyed if regarded as a game. The really important rule is to remember that when calling on the person you should not meet him in the flesh.

Sometimes newcomers do not understand about this game, or play it with a different set of rules in the outer world from which they come. this creates an impasse in social relations, for not until the first round of cards can people meet in person. The impasse continues until someone quietly hands the newcomer a printed slip containing the laws of the Medes, the Persians, and the Game of Cards.

North Borneo in the 1930s was a very active place, with lots going on, and constant coming and going both throughout the countryside and to the various islands, and frequent contact with the “outside” world, but there was still enough “first contact” type experience within living memory to give the Europeans the thrill of realizing that their immediate predecessors, instead of being matter-of-factly greeted by the natives as just another lot of government officials, might well have perished under mysterious and tragic circumstances. This was, after all, a country where head-hunters had stalked the hills only a generation ago. People still occasionally disappeared without a trace, and there were corners of the jungle not yet penetrated by Europeans, where traditional culture presumably survived in isolated pockets.

Agnes Newton Keith plays down the Noble White Man and Backwards-and-Possibly-Scary Native scenario, except where to make a point about White Man’s attitudes (good and bad) and fundamental dependence on the good nature of their Native co-workers, fellow officials, and yes, servants and jungle guides and local shopkeepers and business owners. For its era, an even-minded account of life in a relatively newly colonized land, of course from the point of view of one of the colonizers.

An enjoyable book, and though I could easily go on, I will stop here. Agnes Newton Keith was an interesting woman and an accomplished writer, and I enjoy reading her for her sense of humour, readiness to criticize herself when she pulls a real bloomer, and for her deep appreciation and vibrant descriptions of the places she finds herself occupying, whether North Borneo government villa or prison camp grass hut. Good stuff.

Read Full Post »

honeymoon in purdah alison wearingHoneymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey by Alison Wearing ~ 2000. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97362-0. 319 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

In 1995, a decade and a half after the revolution which resulted in the deposition of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamist fundamentalist government led by Ayatollah Khomeini, a young Canadian woman and her male partner entered Iran on tourist visas. Their official reason: a honeymoon journey. The not so official reason: for Alison Wearing, the chance to explore a country and culture vilified in the Western world as impossibly backwards and more than slightly dangerous for touristing. For her partner Ian, Iran is a second-choice destination. He really wanted to go to Bulgaria, but a fear of travelling alone and, one suspects, Alison’s more focussed drive and tenacious personality, have resulted in this joint trip.

Before taking this trip together … we would spend hours poring over maps, planning long, arduous treks through desolate corners of the earth or road trips across continents.

The only problem was my strong belief in travel as a solitary pursuit. And Ian’s fear of travelling alone… We settled on Iran because it was the only place I couldn’t imagine going on my own. And for a whole stack of other reasons that had nothing to do with our relationship.

The year before we met, I had made my fifth trip to Yugoslavia. I went, in part, to visit friends trapped in the middle of war, but also because the media’s portrait of the place – full of barbarians and void of humanity – made the world seem unlivable. I refused to believe that such a place of unalloyed evil truly existed, that that was the end of the story. I went because I believed that there had to be more. And because I like to look for saints where there are said to be demons.

Iran became our destination for the same reason.

I’m going to share a major spoiler here, one that comes part way through the book. (I don’t feel particularly bound to keep this a secret; it is something of a “first line” in many of the internet reviews I’ve read.)

I have a confession to make. Ian isn’t my husband. We aren’t even lovers, just friends. We forged a marriage certificate just before leaving Montreal using photocopies of his brother and sister-in-laws document, and that is what we are using to get ourselves into hotels. Most proprietors don’t ask and of those that do, two have scrutinized the paper very seriously while holding it upside down, so we needn’t have worried so much about its appearance of authenticity. The thing we should have worried about, perhaps, is the effect that photocopying and whiting out of names on a marriage certificate might have had. By the time Ian and I had reached Iran, his brother’s marriage had collapsed.

So Ian, my fussy, gay roommate and I are romping around Iran quite illegally. And not altogether happily, if only because our interests are not as parallel as we had grown to believe. He is primarily concerned with dead things (history, buildings, wars), and I primarily with living things. Sometimes I find myself wishing he would evaporate, which isn’t to say I don’t still find him endearing. It’s just that our differences have become painfully obvious under this desert light…

So that is the explanation of the double entendre title of this exceedingly revealing (yet not quite forthcoming) travel memoir. The author has been rattling around the world quite independently for some time already, a seasoned traveller indeed. But this trip called out for a partnership, because of the difficulties inherent in a woman attempting to move about unchaperoned by a male relative in a very strictly policed, Islamic fundamentalist country. It is doubtful that, alone, Alison would ever have been permitted to cross the border, with only “tourist” as her declared motivation. A honeymoon journey, while raising some eyebrows, is accepted as a valid excuse, especially when Alison, whenever necessary, willingly dons full traditional garb: manteau, headscarf, and all-enveloping chaador.A woman in a chador mixed with modern dress underneath.

First of all, there is no such thing as “wearing” a chaador. There is only “managing to keep one on.” And I don’t say this as a frustrated novice, but as an observer of scores of women who have been dressing with it most of their lives.

The chaador is a living, wriggling entity, whose preferred habitat is the floor. Any woman trying to cover herself is not only fighting the true nature of the fabric, but also gravity, which has been in cahoots with the chaador since the beginning of time. The moment the chaador is on, wrapped in just the right way, covering all the right things, it begins its dogged descent, squirming along the sleek surface of the hair, hoping to make a clean leap to the neck, where it can secure a foothold for its plummet off the shoulders. An astonishing portion of the wearer’s energy and concentration goes into minimizing the creature’s progress, herding it back into position around her face, leashing it to her fingers and fists, or clamping its skin between her teeth. It doesn’t enjoy being corralled in this way. Thus the constant wrestling. The creature prefers damp, humid surroundings and feeds on sweat.

The literal translation of chaador is “tent”, but from my own camping experience this seems a poor translation. The sack-shaped coat and scarf I have on right now are the tent. The chaador thrown overtop feels more like the fly.

Alison Wearing fully embraces the experience of going – literally – undercover in Iran. Though she is deliciously sarcastic and witty throughout, she is also good-spirited and gracefully positive, describing her impressions on every aspect of her travels from the clothes to the food to the various characters she encounters to her long-suffering travelling companion Ian, whom, incidentally,  we don’t really get to know, aside from a few brief vignettes here and there. It is rather as if Alison has chosen to shield Ian from examination, focussing instead on her own emotional and physical journey. It would be most interesting to read a parallel account of the Iranian episode from Ian’s point of view; one suspects his inner voice would consist predominantly of one long, high-pitched scream, triggered by Alison’s continuous flittings off and nonchalant eventual returns: Ian seems to (understandably) spend much of his Iranian time in a state of high anxiety. Alison must have been an utterly exhausting partner for their five months “honeymoon” in Iran.

All criticism aside of the self-indulgence of relatively well-heeled Western travellers sightseeing in troubled Eastern countries – and Alison addresses this dichotomy in her narrative numerous times – this book is an excellent example of a modern travel memoir. It opens a window into a very different culture, and it educates and informs as much as it amuses. And it is very amusing. And poignant, and heart-rending, and – this goes without saying – thought provoking. Well done, Alison Wearing.

Many years have passed since Alison took her Iranian journey and wrote about it so wonderfully well. In the meantime she has married, had a son, and pursued numerous other interests, including the successful production and performance of a one-person stage show based on her childhood, adolescence and young womanhood, much of it centered around the situation of her father’s “coming out” as a gay man – albeit one with a wife and three children – in the 1970s, in conservative Peterborough, Ontario. Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is Alison’s second memoir, published just this year, some thirteen years after her first book. I am looking forward to reading it with anticipation; I had thought to add it to my Christmas wish list, but I suspect I will acquire it long before then.

Read Full Post »

zigzag james houstonZigzag: A Life on the Move by James Houston ~ 1998. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1998. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-4208-6. 278 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

When we first visited Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in 1988 to take in the controversial but beautifully presented special exhibition on First Nations art and culture,  The Spirit Sings, we were impressed by the huge mobile, four stories in length, that hangs in the open foyer of the museum. “You should see it when it’s working!” we were told; plagued by continual malfunctions in the sound and lighting system, the mobile was hanging dim and silent. When artist James Houston installed the work in the newly opened Glenbow back in 1976, it was lit by moving lights coordinated to the strains of Debussy’s Snowflakes Are Falling. Though we visited the Glenbow numerous times during our Alberta sojourn, and again in 2005, we were never lucky enough to see the famed Aurora Borealis sculpture in its full glory, but it was a memorable sight nonetheless. (A bit more about the sculpture here. )

'Aurora Borealis', Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

‘Aurora Borealis’, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

Several of the anecdotes in Zigzag concern the design of Aurora Borealis, and Houston and his son John’s personal transportation of the fragile, 5 to 7 foot long acrylic crystal “needles” by U-Haul truck from Rhode Island to Alberta. I will be looking at the sculpture with fresh appreciation on our next visit. (We are hoping to visit sometime this summer, to take in the current M.C. Escher exhibit before its closure in August.)

Joan Givner wrote in B.C. Bookworld, 1998:

James Houston’s second volume of autobiography, Zigzag: A Life On The Move begins as he leaves the Arctic to start a new life as a designer for Steuben Glass in New York. He has just spent 14 years working closely with the Inuit of the Arctic. [Houston is credited with discovering Inuit were producing great art and single-handedly creating a market for it. He also encouraged Inuit to adapt their work for North American buyers.] As he leaves Baffin Island, he receives two gifts from the Inuit: a carving of a walrus and a paper bag containing $33. “You’re going away, everyone says, to try and make more money,” they explain. “If at first you don’t have money in that foreign place, we thought to give some to you.”

The original purpose of Eskimo carvings was to bring luck and protection on hunting expeditions. Houston needs both luck and protection as he leaves a culture unconcerned with monetary gain (the market value of the walrus is $11,000) for one in which it is the be-all and end-all. In Manhattan in the 1960s, Houston at first has trouble adapting to the tyranny of clocks and schedules. Soon he becomes acclimatized and delights in the theatres, art shows, lavish parties and holidays on yachts where kings and presidents and Nelson Rockefeller casually drop by. Houston becomes a successful glass-designer, makes a fortune, teaches art in Harlem, becomes a successful writer, designs National Geographic’s centenary cover and even marries happily.

 It is, however, the Arctic which inspires and nurtures Houston. “I am thrilled by the frosted, Arctic-like appearance of deep engravings on glass,” he says. When the Glenbow Museum in Calgary asks him to design a sculpture, he creates his Aurora Borealis which is four storeys high. It is inspired by his memory of the spectacular ever-changing display of the Northern Lights. Either the protective qualities of the walrus carving or his years with the Inuit prevent him from succumbing completely to the glitzy life. He never confuses technological advances with civilization, nor economic gain with success. 

The final pages of the book describe his life in a cabin on another island, one of the Queen Charlottes now known as the Haida Gwaii, where he now lives part of every year. 

That anecdote about the paper bag filled with crumpled one dollar bills shows up in this collection of memoirs, as well as in the ending pages of Houston’s truncated account of his Arctic years, Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. It obviously moved him deeply at the time; it also made a “good story” and that, in essence, is something that James Houston liked to have under his hat.

Houston’s memoirs skirt extremely closely to the “If you want to know how good he is, just ask him” school of autobiography, but they are saved by his occasional self-effacing comments. He turns the laugh on himself as needed, and his frankness and willingness to comment openly on extremely intimate matters give small but crucial insights into his character. Whether that character comes across as intended is another story altogether; I frequently feel that there is a lot being left out of Houston’s story of himself.

What he does share is quite fascinating. Through Houston’s brief vignettes in both Zigzag and the earlier Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, we get glimpses of the Inuit world from the mid 20th century to the creation of Nunavut in 1999. We also get glimpses of what made this extremely driven and creative man “tick”; his great love for and pride in his two sons, and his lifelong dependence on touching base with the natural world to refuel him for his bouts of big city-based creativity.

He was an iconic figure in more ways than one in the numerous spheres he seems to have effortlessly inhabited. I suspect he might also have been a rather arrogant man to have bumped up against if one did not share his high opinion of himself, but I bet a dinner party with Houston at the table would have been a memorable thing.

Zigzag was a very good read; it lost a point merely because the vignette-style format jumped around an awful lot (to be expected, one supposes, from the very title of the work) and left me frequently wanting more than I was given.

Another volume of memoir, Hideaway, about the author’s cabin on Haida Gwaii, followed Zigzag and Confessions to form a trilogy of sorts. I will be reading this one when I come across it.

A memorable Canadian and a very gifted man; a complex persona in so many ways.

James Houston passed away in 2005. His artistic and literary legacy lives on.

Read Full Post »

Surfacing briefly from the May supreme busy-ness which only escalate in the coming weeks – I’m in the plant nursery business –  to talk a bit about a book. Much as I’d like to maunder on in-depth about everything I’ve been reading recently, there are those pesky time constraints…

A week ago it was below zero (Celsius) and snowing; today, in our region’s typical spring weather extremes fashion, it is forecast to hit the mid-plus-20s. The sun is coming across the valley (we’re nestled at the foot of the east side, tall hills behind us) so until it hits us directly I’m off-duty, as it were, from going out and tinkering with greenhouse ventilation systems. (Well, fans, windows, doors and roll-up hoop house side panels – not very fancy – but “ventilation systems” sounds much more professional, doesn’t it?) 😉

The second Sunday morning cup of tea is at hand – I’ve already consumed the first propped up in bed finishing a re-read of Tom’s Midnight Garden –  and I’ve a short but sweet guilt-free chunk of non-work-related computer time before I need to be really up and moving again. Here we go.

extra virgin annie hawesExtra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted by Annie Hawes – 2001. This edition: Harper Collins, 2001. Hardcover, first American edition. ISBN: 0-06-019850-8. 337 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

I almost didn’t pick this one up, but was intrigued by the (presumably) Elizabeth von Arnim reference in the subtitle. What I found inside this densely written creative autobiography was a better reward than I deserved for my initial hesitation. It’s taken me a good week of hard-won reading breaks to get through it all, but I was never tempted to set it aside in exchange for something shorter and easier. This one was a quiet pleasure from Prologue to reluctantly-turned last page.

Back in the early 1980s, a young Englishwoman, recently turned down as a “poor risk” in her attempt to receive bank financing to buy her own home in England, is at loose ends and feeling rather sour about life in general. Her sister convinces her to come along on a working trip to Italy, grafting roses for a small commercial operation in the Ligurian hills, in the region of the “Italian Riviera”.

Annie is a rose-culture neophyte, but her obviously experienced sister coaches her through the first thorny weeks, after which, settled well into their temporary occupation, the two find themselves occasionally with time to explore the surrounding countryside. On one of their off-duty hill walks they come across a derelict stone house in a neglected olive grove, and when the local real estate entrepreneur scents their interest, they find themselves possessed of a rural Italian property for the unbelievably cheap sum of 2000 pounds. The facilities are primitive to the extreme – water is bucketed up from a shallow dug well, and an outdoor shower and “earth closet” are needed for sanitary purposes, but the two settle into their new life with optimistic tenacity.

This is a rather different tale from the usual “we bought a place in a foreign paradise and hired quaint locals to fix it up” lifestyle porn. Written several decades after the purchase, the tone is not at all cutesy and patronizing. The sisters go to and from England and Italy regularly for many years – England for the “real” jobs which earn the funds to return to Italy for the love of the place, and, increasingly, the people.

I’ll tease you by revealing that Annie is not all that forthcoming about personal details, but more than makes up for it in her portraits of others, and in her much too brief comments regarding her own family. As well as the sister of the Ligurian enterprise there are three brothers, several of whom chip in to provide much-needed labour and even fire-fighting assistance during the progressive slow Italian house and olive grove renovations which stretch over the years.

Other reviewers – I briefly scanned the book’s page on Goodreads – had issue with some of the stylistic devices the author used, but I found them to be a non-issue, personally. Extra Virgin is written from the “we” viewpoint throughout, only slipping into “I” near the end. Much ironic use of capitalized terms – the Sulky Bar, the Evil Sister, the Poor Stranger, and so on. Again, for me, not a problem. The Author stayed most consistently true to her Chosen Style.

I did just a bit of research on Hawes after finishing Extra Virgin, and was more than intrigued by what I found – Annie’s back story includes a teenage marriage and a residence in Portugal, a child of that (quickly dissolved) marriage, much travelling and a “real” career as a film editor. Not much of this comes out in the Italian tale, but apparently her succeeding books, Ripe for the Picking and A Journey to the South, are more personally revealing. There’s also a Moroccan memoir, A Handful of Honey.

Annie’s second career as a memoirist is a definite success, at least enough so that, according to an author interview which appeared on the Harper Collins website, she now has indoor plumbing in Liguria.

I enjoyed the author’s voice in Extra Virgin enough that I will be seeking out her other books as soon as I am able to. She writes with a wry, dry humour and a very individual style, just short of “travel writer” parody. In a very good way. Loved it.

Oh – one more point in favour. Annie Hawes can certainly write about food! Amazing descriptions of the wild-crafted, gardening and culinary abundance of Liguria. I absent-mindedly found myself lining out yet another flat of basil seedlings and potting up extra eggplant babies while musing on my ongoing reading of Extra Virgin while out in my own very earth(l)y paradise this past week. This book made me hungry. Again, in a very good way.

Read Full Post »

the roving i eric nicolThe Roving I by Eric Nicol ~ 1950. This edition: Ryerson Press, 1951. Hardcover. 134 pages.

My rating: 7/10, after some inner debate.

I  am rather sad to have to say that much of the humour is groaningly dated in this one, but despite that single failing, I have a strong affection for Eric’s comic tale of his year on The Continent, some phrases of which are ingrained deeply into my memory. The more eloquent passages obviously resonated deeply when I first read this at an impressionable age.

The Roving I won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1951, which is commendable but not necessarily a guarantee of, well, of anything! The bits of Roving I which I am fondest of are the more serious bits, hidden beneath the sometimes-forced playfulness of the narrative.

Do I date myself when I assume that everyone knows who Eric Nicol is? As a middle-aged, mostly lifelong British Columbia resident, Vancouverite Nicol has somehow always been there, always on the edges of my awareness, a cultural constant. Exceedingly prolific throughout his writerly life, which began in college – he famously started his career by writing in the Ubyssey under the pen name of Jabez – Nicol went on to write more than 6000 newspaper columns for The Vancouver Province, as well as 40-odd books and a number of mostly-comic plays. Eric Nicol died in 2011, at the age of ninety-one, writing up until the end, despite battling the onset of Alzheimer’s. His last book, Script Tease, a collection of typically whimsical articles, was published in 2010.

But we’re going to go way back, to the early days, to Eric’s more youthful days as a young man after his WW II military service – three years in a non-combat role in the R.C.A.F. –  when he was taking advantage of an opportunity to pursue post-graduate studies for a year at the Sorbonne.

Here’s a sampling, from Chapter One: Debut of a Vagrant, at the start of the long train journey eastward to the embarkation point for ship travel to Europe.

The train lurches forward heavily, trying to take us all out by the roots at once. Mine hang on. Mine and those of the old couple across the aisle, who never thought of buying a newspaper because the news of the day was their being on the train, with a rope around their world.

Another good jerk does it. The station begins slowly to glide out under a full sail of flapping handkerchiefs. No, it’s us. We’re rolling. I and the fat lady sitting opposite me, reluctant to admit one another to the sudden vacuum of our existence, stare out the window at a grey and indifferent Vancouver. Oh, Vancouver, that I’ve given the best years of my life to, how can you dismiss me as though I were just another can of salmon? Is this how I’m to remember you, this motorist stymied by the crossing gate and glad to see the last of us? Couldn’t that woman stop hanging out her laundry for a minute? Is there no one to wave to us, on behalf of the city of Greater Vancouver?

Yes, by heaven! There she is. A little girl, a delegate at large, patting the air slowly and solemnly, making it last for the whole train. The fat lady and I wave back, and, relinquishing Vancouver, smile at each other, having in common someone we both said goodbye to…

That’s a fair sampling of Nicol’s style. Though occasionally it drops into sheer silliness, it is usually redeemed by clever, often very funny phrasings; the man did have – overused cliché fully applicable here – a way with words.

Eric Nicol’s books are quite easy to come by here in B.C., and are – here’s another cliché – well worth dipping into if you come across them in your travels, though some I find more enjoyable than others. The more hectic ones do seem to be trying a bit too hard, but there are little gems of delicious prose in each and every one. The Roving I is one of my personal favourites, a slight little period piece which captures a moment of time in a fast-moving world and frequently makes us smile at the infinite absurdities of life.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »