9 March 2017

Imagined London by Anna Quindlen

Planning my trip across the pond this summer has pulled my attention towards lots of travel books.  I've also signed out Hermione Lee's biography on Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens' wonderful collection of stories and observations in Sketches by Boz.  For anyone interested in reading something by Dickens without his extreme ability to pad out a sentence, this is an excellent starting point.  And another book that has crossed my path before, but I had forgotten about, is Anna Quindlen's Imagined London.

Published in 2004, Imagined London is a non-fiction piece about Anna's discovery of London, first through the stories she read as a child, then in her forties when she visited the city for the first time.  Her experience felt so familiar to mine that it made me laugh.  Both of us stood in amazement at the tomb of Elizabeth I during our first trip to Westminster Abbey.  It's all the wonder of documentaries, stories, and film, and most importantly the woman herself, right there before you.

Anna's book is only 160 pages long but each page will delight the anglophile or anyone planning a trip across the pond.  In the last few paragraphs, Anna perfectly puts into words my fascination with London....

   'For that you must come down to Earth and wander aimlessly.  Maybe just off Sloane Square, or in Cheval Place, or on Burnsall Street, or Elgin Crescent.  Maybe Notting Hill or South Kensington or Bloomsbury.  Finally you will reach it: a house with a handsome gate or a small garden.   Around it, a street or two away, swirls the clamor of one of the busiest cities on Earth.  Inside is - what?  Did a debutante once wait there for her car?  Did a maid slip out to meet her lover?  Did street peddlers sell ribbons here, or fruit and flowers?  Does it stand on the ruins of an older house, or a cow pasture, or even a Roman fort?  Did the bombs shake its foundation and the modern real estate boom triple its value?  Behind every door in London there are stories, behind every one ghosts.  The greatest writers in the history of the written word have given them substance, given them life.   And so we readers walk, and dream, and imagine, in the city where imagination found it's great home.'

2 March 2017

Bond Street Story by Norman Collins

What a week.  I went home from work Monday with barely any voice and glassy eyes.  Once home and changed into appropriate dress for a consumptive patient, Kip proceeded to be sick...and there's no mistaking the fact he has roundworm.  Ick!  The vet's office closed ten minutes earlier (isn't that the way it goes?).  Well, nothing could be done until the morning so I took a cold pill and tried to sleep.  My fantasy of a sick day at home involved copious amounts of tea, books, my Slightly Foxed magazine but instead I dewormed the dog and was on 'worm watch'.  Then, my coughing turned into wheezing and my face felt slightly puffy.  By Wednesday morning my neck was covered in hives.  A quick look at the box of cold pills and symptoms to watch for said it all.  I've never been allergic to anything before...but there wasn't time to worry about that because Kip was busy outside providing a much-needed sample for the vet.  Drop that off, get back home...the kettle has died.

The bright spot over these past few days of first-world problems has been the companionship of perfect bedside reading material in Norman Collins' Bond Street Story.

Rammell's department store is the epicentre for the characters in this book, published in 1958.  The Second World War is only lightly touched upon and there's little mention of austerity.  In fact, at Rammell's department store, with its staff of over one thousand, and too many departments to mention, it's nothing short of a consumer's paradise.

The patriarch of Rammell's is Sir Harry.  At nearly eighty he is 'somewhere in the teenage of his second childhood' and full of ideas, some of which are ridiculous and raise the ire of his son and heir, Eric.  The junior Mr Rammell lives in Eaton Square with his wife, who in my mind closely parallels Hyacinth Bucket in the social climbing department.  As for her appearance, Collins is unforgiving...

'The door had opened by now, and Mrs Rammell was standing there.  She was undeniably a handsome woman.  Tall, fine-limbed, distinguished looking.  But distinctly unrestful.  Too much of the race-horse about her.  Even in the loose bathrobe that she was wearing there was something in the dark observant eye, the distended nostril, that suggested the starting-gate and photo-finishes.'

Their only son, Tony, is twenty-three years old and showing little interest in the position as the next heir apparent to the Rammell dynasty.

Mr Privett and his family live in a modest home on Fewkes Road in Kentish Town.  Husband and wife met while working in their respective departments, but as this is a story of its time, Mrs Privett left work once she had a husband and home to care for.  Their seventeen year old daughter, Irene, is showing signs of stretching her job search to places other than Rammell's which causes no small amount of upset at home.

And then there is Marcia,  the star model for the department store....

'Wherever you looked, she was there.  Superb.  Serene.  Indisputable.  The steeply arched eye-brows.  The long curve of the cheek.  The deep indecipherable eyes.  The wide gentle mouth.  The face smiled imperturbably on the public from all sides.  From boxes of face powder.  From the shiny pages of expensive magazines.  From Mayfair pageant programmes.  From the walls of the Underground platforms.'

Once the fancy department store clothes and make-up come off, Marcia goes home to her spartan flat.  Mind you, it's off Sloane Square.  It's not quite the life she sees for herself so when Mr Bulping, a chief buyer, shows an interest in her, she is mildly entertained.  But soon she's repulsed by his pawing, slurpy kisses, and sweaty brow.  Who wouldn't be?

Mr Privett from Kentish Town has a longtime friend in Mr Gus Bloot.  Their relationship is a touching one, more so since Gus's wife died and left him quite alone in a rooming house with only his prized budgies for company.  But that's about to change with the appearance of Hetty as he sinks into the sound of her voice....

'...still warm and caressing even when sending casuals and other wartime shop crawlers away from the shop totally unserved.  Or the perfume that she used - a thick musky scent that conjured up visions of palm trees and bright moonlight and scorching sun.  Or her hair - jet black and worn long, wound round the top of her head in a braid as thick as a ship's hawser.'

Hetty, from Finsbury Park, is the complete opposite of Gus's dearly departed Emmie and the poor fellow is losing sleep over what to do next.

Norman Collins shines brighter than anyone I can think of when it comes to creating characters and weaving them all together to create a story as closely woven as any fabric.  His dry wit and pin-sharp observations are irresistible and often hilarious....

'The film itself  the wildly popular one - was rather sad, Irene thought.  It was set in the Canabière district of Marseilles.  And it was all about a deaf and dumb girl who murdered her illegitamate baby when it tuned out to be blind like her lover.  But the photography, everyone agreed, was of of this world.  It was shot mostly at night.  Or in the rain.  With only the outlines of things showing.  These, however, were enough.  Rubbish bins, urinoirs, public wash-houses, seweres, horse-abbattoirs - they were all there.  In short, the film had Cannes Festival Award written all over it.'

For anyone who has read London Belongs to Me and wanted the story to go on and on despite its doorstop heft, a treat awaits you in Bond Street Story.  And speaking of treats, a cosy English novel that ticks a plethora of boxes would not be complete without the lusty description of a good tea.

'As soon as the room was to rights again, Mr Privett went through into the scullery and put on the kettle.  Then he arranged the tea tray with the cups and saucers.  And, going over to the cupboard he took out the large circular cake tin with the portrait of Queen Mary on the lid.  It was the remains of a chocolate cake that was inside.  Thick chocolate on top.  Then broad veins of brown sponge with white cream running thickly across it.  It looked rich and geologic.  Mr Privett cut two generous slices and put them on a plate beside the empty teapot.  Even so he was sorry that it was chocolate.  Fruit cake, he knew, was what Mr Bloot preferred.  Cut from the solid block.  The dark kind with preserved cherries in it.  Marzipan icing on the top if you like.  Even shredded coconut.  But definitely fruit.  And preferably cherry.'

Absolutely wonderful!

23 February 2017

Edward Bawden's London by Peyton Skipwith & Brian Webb

The world of Tirzah Garwood and the artists of Great Bardfield have stayed with me since finishing her compelling autobiography Long Live Great Bardfield.  As luck would have it, I own a book featuring some of Edward Bawden's work so off the shelves it came.

'It is unlikely that Bawden's parents ever took him to London, so he had had little or no experience of city life when he enrolled, as a distinctly gauche student, at the Royal College of Art in September 22.  On his first day he met and formed an enduring friendship with another 19-year-old, Eric Ravilious.  Like Bawden, Ravilious, who was also destined for the Design School, was a scholarship boy, having won a bursary from Eastbourne School of Art.  The two young men were diametrically different in character: Bawden was taciturn, monosyllabic and unsociable, while Ravilious was gregarious, fun-loving and outgoing - an attraction of opposites.'

This biography and collection of sketches, posters and paintings make a very nice companion piece to Tirzah's book.

 Painting of Bawden in his studio by Eric Ravilious

With a trip to London on the horizon, I looked on my shelves for a book that drops me right onto Piccadilly...minus the diesel fumes.  Bond Street Story by Norman Collins is fitting the bill nicely.  It has all the depth and richness of London Belongs to Me but instead of a boarding house as the central location, this book features Rammell's, a bustling department store.  It's wonderful, but a bit of a struggle not to visualize scenes from Are You Being Served?.  

15 February 2017

Terms & Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

As a Canadian, the English school system remains something of a mystery despite daily doses of the BBC, Woman's Hour, English novels, and The Archers.  During my last trip to London I asked Rachel (Book Snob) to explain O levels, A levels and GCSEs .  One morning, during breakfast at my B&B, a guest mentioned his gentleman's third degree followed by me asking what that meant.  In simple terms his education was heavy on fun and light on studying into the wee hours.  But girls' boarding schools, set in the countryside, well that sounds like a bit of heaven on earth, doesn't it.  Oh dear....

'For a start, entrance was through the back door, not the front door.  One of the first things my interviewees learned, on arrival at the actual school and as soon as their parents drive away, was that no pupil went up the main stairs.  The beautiful, beckoning, curvy-banistered staircase in the pot-pourri-scented hall of the main house, with its deep-ticking grandfather clock - this was not only out of bounds but rarely even glimpsed.'

Ysenda Maxtone Graham interviewed scores of women who stayed at boarding schools during the years between 1939 and 1979.  In a time ages before internet reviews, the decision to send your daughter to a certain school was often laughably esoteric.  In one case it mentioned that a father (and it was often the father who made the final decision) wanted his daughter to go to a school where the girls all seemed to be so pretty.  In some cases a well-toasted teacake was reason enough to sign up your children.  Another factor was the all-important matter of who your daughter would be friends with, and taking it one step further...did those girls have brothers.  Because while these girls were being educated in the gentler arts, their brothers were sent to academic institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.  These young men would make perfect husbands and connect families.  If a title came with the package then so much the better.

Rigid rules such as carrying book bags on one shoulder on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays then the opposite shoulder on alternate days in the name of deportment remained with some ladies long after leaving school.  The residual effects of cringe-worthy head teachers stroking the hands of girls in the evening or asserting control by mandatory line-ups to say good-night most likely caused a shiver or two later in life.  One of the cruelest comments dreaded by most young ladies began with the words 'We've all been discussing....'  As a woman who wore glasses and braces in high school when the 'it' girls looked like Farrah Fawcett, I was instantly reminded of a time when confidence was in short supply.  At a boarding school there was no escape from demeaning comments and some students' parents were off in another country.

So, is it unusual to want your daughter to have socially well-rounded friends?  No.  Is it realistic to accept that some forms of bullying will always exist in society?  Yes.  But something that frustrates me is the void when it comes to stories of teachers taking young women aside who clearly showed an interest in academics.  I like to think there were teachers sprinkled here and there who fostered the notion of higher learning and a career.  At the very least, an independent life before deciding the course of your future.  I'm heartened to say there were a few girls whose parents were progressive enough to entertain the idea of higher learning but this wasn't the norm.

There were stories that did make me laugh such as the horror of fish night on Fridays when myth was that mackerel fed on the bodies of dead sailors.  And in highlighting the virtue of remaining a virgin until marriage an interesting metaphor was used...nice clean new books are so much better than the second-hand sort.  Bouts of boredom led to long sessions of reading, and lofty material at that, which may explain why there's such a wealth of sublime women writers from the twentieth century.

For me, the most touching paragraph of Terms & Conditions was near the end of the book...

'What struck me, after I had met all these women who went to girls' boarding-schools in the mid-twentieth century, was this: never had I met such a lot of well-educated under-educated women.  Especially the older ones.  Their book-filled houses, their radios tuned to Radio 4, their kitchen tables piled with old concert programmes and dog-eared copies of the Times Literary Supplement, their grand pianos with open music on the stand.....'

These life-long learners may have been shortchanged in their youth but they're making up for it in any way they can.  These are fabulous women!  Also, as a reminder that beneath the exterior of an aged person still lies the sentiments of youth, some former boarding school girls see an icy cold rain and feel glad they don't have to venture outside for afternoon sports.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its exposure of life in an English boarding school in the twentieth century, but it wasn't the book I was expecting.  Terms & Conditions certainly isn't the funniest book I'll read all year, as claimed on the cover, but it may well be the most thought-provoking.

Students from Howell's School for Girls
Summer of 1941