Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

Another post so hot on the heels of “The Harpole Report”? I usually have at least one Thirkell novel open at any one time, and this book follows on from August Folly  a little time ago. I read it a few weeks ago , and did not want it to disappear back onto my (double banked ) shelves.

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This early Thirkell (1937) introduces and develops many of the characters that will continue to entertain, infuriate and interact throughout her Barchestershire series. If this is your first Thirkell, it may take you a while to get into the rhythm of the characters and action; it is a reasonable standalone novel. For those who have already encountered characters like the irrepressible (in every sense) Tony Morland and some others, this continues some of the madness and mayhem that seems to follow him, here paired with the encouraging Swan, whose talent for gently winding up certain teachers is already legendary.

This novel begins with Colin Keith almost accidentally getting a temporary job as a teacher at the boys school where the headmaster, Mr Birkett, is struggling to cope with his challenging daughter, Rose, who gets serially engaged. This story is partly the tale of two families, the Birketts and the Keiths, as they progress through a summer term and holidays. It is also a school based story in parts, which includes the complicated but very funny story of the evening that a chameleon leads to fire and flood, wet feet and a damaged kitchen. Sports days, water adventures and exams afflict the younger members of the cast, while some of the adults reel in dismay. Nothing is too trying, difficulties pass, and overall it is a summery story of romance and misunderstandings.

Of the female leads, the vacant, inconsiderate Rose is stunning in her disregard for feelings of the hapless males she attracts. Kate Keith is a difficult character to modern eyes, as her obsession with mending clothes verges on the annoying. Nevertheless there are funny situations to be enjoyed, as she unwittingly gathers admiration from the eligible males around her. My favourite is Lydia Keith, the strident but touchingly insightful younger sister who leads the riverside games, plans a very grown up trip to the theatre, and shows courage which provides the shove for mixed up situations. Having read later novels in the series, I know what happens to these and many of the other characters, and Rose improves to everyone’s relief. Thirkell is obviously enjoying herself hugely with this novel, and in common with her other early work, this book shows little of the cynicism which would later creep into her writing. Some of her attitudes to female characters are very much of the time, and can be frustrating. Lydia, on the other hand, with her enthusiasms and excitements, is the centre of the novel in many ways, and is obviously Thirkell’s favourite.

I really enjoyed this book, even and perhaps especially on a re read. For some readers Thirkell is a middlebrow, middle class writer without the fireworks and style of someone like a Mitford. This is a comfort read in the best sense, a worthy part of the Barsetshire series, and an enjoyable novel in its own right. This is one of the books reprinted by Virago Modern Classics, and I am glad that it has become much easier to get hold of without internet searching.

The Harpole Report by J.L. Carr and Cogito Books, Hexham

When returning up north for a few days a couple of weeks ago, we were keen to fit in a visit to Cogito Books in Hexham. Now that we are no longer local, we had called ahead to reserve a railway poster book for Northernvicar, and I wanted to find a book for Daughter’s  goddaughter. I knew that they had an excellent selection of children’s books as well as sets of small publishers’ collections. We were not disappointed! I had all the Slightly Foxed books and Quarterlys as well as having a complete collection of Persephones, so I was pleased to find another small publisher represented. The Quince Tree Press exists to publish the work of J.L.Carr, of A Month in the Country  fame, as well as little volumes of poetry. I bought three books by J.L.Carr, including The Harpole Report,  as I experienced many sorts of schools during my time as a supply teacher in three or four counties.

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Do not be put off by the rather dull cover!

This is a quirky little book by the author of the successful “A Month in the Country”. Whereas that book is memorable for its wistful look at times past, this book is a sometimes harsh and often funny journal plus other writings about a couple of terms in the life of a challenging school in the 1950s. George Harpole is an acting Head teacher, and therefore particularly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of an uncooperative education department, strange and assorted teachers, and children whose needs are varied.

The book is in the style of the official school log book, a journal, letters to Harpole’s girlfriend, and occasional pieces from selected pupils. The styles vary accordingly, with the official line varying to the more informal to letters and comments from varied officials, including the absent actual head teacher. I found much of it very funny and bits of it painfully true as teachers meet the same difficulties of resources, awkward families and tough lessons as in more modern schools. There is Titus, the unnaturally brilliant child from a family which has banned books, who proves that the text books are wrong. Miss Foxberrow, a graduate who tries to introduce new teaching methods and a revolutionary sports day, provides a diversion in many ways, while George Harpole tries to balance the needs of the children with the various wreath obsessed and frankly strange teachers who inhabit the staff room. He does battle for blackboards and his children unfairly discriminated against for grammar school places. We also get a picture of his private life and a problem spanner. There is a physical battle with a parent which is significant for his life as well being a satisfactory episode for the reader.

Altogether this is a good read, especially for those of us who have worked in schools. It is not real life, but the sense of immense frustration is recognisable, especially as the different documents and writing styles keep one reading, fascinated to find out what enormity is going to occur next in this account of school life. J.L.Carr’s own publishing firm, Quince Tree Press, seems to be a small gem on the evidence of this and the sequel which I am looking forward to reading. The Harpole Report reminds me of “The Diary of a Nobody” in its self – conscious revelation of the best of intentions meeting challenge and disaster, and I can recommend it as a short, satisfying read.

The Lark by E. Nesbit

Apologies for my recent silence. We had to return to the Northern home lands for various reasons, but we managed to fit in a visit to Barter Books. This wondrous shop was holding onto a copy of a Winifred Peck book that I had found on their catalogue, and I found another one on the open shelves. As both of these books are out of print I was really pleased. The gentleman who passed the latter down from a high shelf was amused by me clutching the book to me when he offered to return it…Before you ask, we did take some books to barter, and I am pleased to say that I emerged from the ex- railway station with a large bag of books which I had not paid money for, and leaving some credit behind. Oxfam in Hexham got the rejects, but as I bought a pile of books from them they benefited twice over.

Today’s book is a jolly read.

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My review copy of this (Thank you, Dean Street Press!) is in the brilliant new reprint series, Furrowed Middlebrow, and again it is an enjoyable read that mysteriously slipped out of print. I loved reading this slice of early twentieth century life, describing the lives of two cousins, Jane and Lucilla who are thrown onto their own resources after a fairly inadequate preparation for life. If you want some escapism from everyday life, this tale of romance, flowers and making the best of a trying situation maybe for you.

On the face of it, the difficulties to be faced by two young women left alone in the world in 1919 may be daunting. This book, however, is more in the style of an adult fairy tale, in which they ultimately make a life for themselves, despite as well as because of the men that they encounter. The opening of the book is a strange story of teenage girls testing the romance of folk lore to try to foresee who one of them will love. It comes to pass that a series of much more mundane events lead to a sighting, and the rest of the novel is shaped by this unusual experience to a certain extent. Both girls have been left orphans, and have grown up in a girls’ school with gifts from a mysterious guardian who has provided for them until one day, when they are instructed to depart for a small cottage with a small cash sum. The cottage is well set up, there is a good servant in residence, and they choose not to be downhearted.  Indeed, Jane declares that this situation is going to be one of opportunity, a “Lark” in fact. Some readers may think that it sounds anything but, given the situation of unmarried women in the wake of the First World War, when even experienced, qualified men found employment and indeed hope hard to come by, but this is essentially a tale of optimism rewarded.

Being a fan of womens’ writing of the interwar period the style of this novel is unusual in that it is cheerful and optimistic, even though there is no family and no real plan of survival. So much of this novel is dependent on coincidence and fortuitous happenings that real life can seem a little far away, as the girls accidentally come upon people who are able and willing to help them with flowers to sell and a premises to work from, although the paint removal disaster is more realistic. This novel requires a certain suspension of disbelief in places, but the flowing style of writing means that there are few or no jarring notes. Indeed, I enjoyed gently following their progress, even if the repetition of unreliable people is a little frustrating.

This is a book to be read for sheer enjoyment and escapism. It is not a powerful book, but there are elements of realism and understanding that would bring acknowledgements from many readers. If you are in need of an easy read, with no death and despair, this is a fine book which I would recommend.

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you will have noticed that I have an interest in life in Britain during the Second World War. I have picked out some of the Persephone titles which reflect the experiences of women such as Winifred Peck, as well as Furrowed Middlebrow’s offerings of fascinating memoirs like Chelsea Concerto. I have long enjoyed the books of Margery Allingham as her unusual hero Albert Campion solves mysteries in a wartime setting as well as introducing the foggy “Tiger in the Smoke”. So I was interested to track down a copy of The Oaken Heart  being  “The story of an English Village at War”. It is available to order from bookshops in a lovely edition by Golden Duck publishers, which look to be a small Essex business.

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This is an unusual book in two ways; it is an unusual book for Allingham, who is known mainly for her murder mystery books, notably featuring Albert Campion. It is also unusual as a book in that it is almost a real time record of one village’s experiences of daily life in the Second World War. There is one suggestion that it was originally written for the American market, not just to earn its author money, but also to help with the effort to persuade the U.S. public to join in the war effort. The narrative ends in February 1941 when it was far from clear how the war would progress yet alone end, and there is a sense of controlled fear that everything and everyone is still very unsafe. Invasion of this country by enemy forces was still, after all, a very real possibility.

The author was living in a large house in an Essex village in 1939, and the stories and experiences reflect the lives of those around her as war looked increasingly likely, people were evacuated to the village from London, the outbreak of war and the departure of men and women into the Forces. There is a small railway, a school, shops and all the small businesses and concerns linked to a mid century British village. There are characters who behave well in adversity, and the general tone is of resigned acceptance of the imminence of destruction, whether personal, local or national. Thus there is the urgency of gas mask distribution, the preparations for evacuated schoolchildren who turn out to be mothers and children, and the reality of bombs falling in the area if not immediately on the village itself. There are the daily practical concerns of a large influx of people who need not only housing but also feeding and clothing. Book manuscripts must be hidden in biscuit tins, windows taped up and a place for London couples to argue provided. A straw shelter from bombs is built but is most used for cattle over winter. Various elderly people adopt a fatalism which means that they do not seek shelter; and the dropping of flares and incendiaries provide firework type entertainment.

This book is an account of life by a woman dealing with unprecedented experiences; her daily life and the departure of her husband and others to fight. It is reality finely drawn, as the foreword says “And The Oaken Heart    reflects her truthfulness on every page”. It is not a smooth, highly planned narrative, yet it is not a diary in the sense that it contains reflections on this war and those whose lives are being threatened and transformed by its progress. There are funny tales of the determination of one man to build a glass topped extension, but not to hit the last nail in as that is when it is bound to be destroyed. This is no bland ‘Britain can take it’ propaganda as it is too honest; it reflects the real fear as well as the determination to survive and flourish.

It perhaps feels wrong to say I enjoyed this book as there is an element of suffering and fear present. It is an eminently readable narrative, fascinating in its eye for detail and its honesty, when much of the writing about this time almost romanticises the romance of peril. This is the story of a woman who has to visit a bomb scarred London and misses buildings no longer standing, and also who confronts the potential ending of everything. It is also well written and personal, as she recalls and records the strange events and personalities that make up the village around her. The Golden Duck edition that Blackwells tracked down for me contains a short diary and other information, pictures and photographs which all add to the reality. If you have an interest in the Home Front in Britain I would definitely recommend this book.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Does anyone else have a book that lurks in the kitchen waiting to be read? I picked up a copy of Nancy Mitford’s complete novels in a charity shop, and as it was not in perfect condition I did not feel too bad about consigning it to the kitchen for breakfast reading and any other pauses in the day. I have gradually read in this way five novels, even if some of the ideas are horribly dated.  In this way I have read The Pursuit of Love  even if I got it confused with Love in a Cold Climate  as the tv version runs both together.

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One of the most interesting things about the novel The Pursuit of Love  is that interesting feeling that all of this is well known, if you have ever read anything about the Mitford sisters in the mass of biographies, collections of letters and other books about this amazing family who dominated  mid twentieth century gossip. The novel is largely about a family of unusual girls (there are sons in the book, but they are secondary to the plot, such as it is) who live in Alconleigh with their parents, referred to as Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew. The Radlett family is observed by a frequent guest “Fanny”, who is a constant presence during her school holidays given that she is being brought up by an Aunt, as her mother is an infamous “Bolter” from marriages and men. Thus the madness and mayhem of the family is described by a semi – insider, who is used to the foibles of a strange and wonderful Matthew, the inconsistent Sadie, and the passions and plots of girls not sent to school. The beautiful Linda is the most featured, although love and passion are pursued by Fanny and others in the background. Thus we read of first dances, hopeless loves and an unwise marriage (or two). There are some very funny tales of an illicit visit to Oxford involving a paintbox, Matthew’s irrational prejudices, and the general progress of a family and love.

The fact that much of this novel is based on the actual Mitford family means that there is the element of embroidered truth about the writing. I have never been sure about the ‘uneducated’ girls who all go on to live such notorious lives, but this book is about the early years, and as such does not examine the fascination with fascism that dominated the lives of some of the sisters. The character of Linda comes to dominate, as she rushes into a marriage with Tony which is obviously ill fated, and then her flight to France. Her relationship with a notorious Frenchman echoes the author’s own true love for Gaston Palewski, and there are elements of Nancy’s own feelings throughout the later parts of the novel.

This is a rush of a book, where significant life events are little examined against the feelings of romance, real and imagined. The plot is not strong, but the characters are undoubtedly memorable. Fanny narrates in a self – effacing way, as this is not her pursuit of love but Linda’s, though she is involved in some of the most significant events and loss.  I enjoyed re reading this book with its funny elements, even if Linda is a frustrating character. It is a novel of its time and class, and there is not much understanding of the bulk of the population who form an unimportant background to the life and loves of the minor aristocracy. Having set that, it does not induce the cringes of horror over the right wing politics of her earlier novels, and here there is more condemnation of those who make money as opposed to hanging onto expensive ancestral seats. Read this book for a land long gone, amazing characters and search for love, and be aware of its inconsistencies which perhaps reflect real life.


Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

The plan of reading my folio set of Dorothy L Sayers proceeds apace, with my reading of Murder Must Advertise  which I greatly enjoyed.  Many editions of these books are available, which means that anyone can get their hands on a copy easily, which makes a nice change from some of the more obscure books I read. I do enjoy reading these lovely books, though, with their nice clear print. Excellent Christmas gift, Northernvicar!

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Variously described as a Golden Age Murder Mystery, or a good novel with a murder in it, I really enjoyed reading Dorothy L Sayers  Murder Must Advertise   which features her near perfect detective, the aristocratic Lord Peter Wimsey.

Following the death of Victor Dean, copywriter, Mr Pym of Pyms Publicity advertising agency, Peter is called in to investigate and he opts to become Mr Death Bredon, aspiring Copywriter. He earns the tremendous sum of £4 per week, which is a first for the amateur detective, but he enters the skilfully described world of advertising with interest. As a former copywriter herself, Sayers draws on her specialist knowledge to create an office world peopled with real characters which includes the workshy and the pedantic. The intricacies of advertising become more than the background for what soon emerges as a murder. Peter’s disguise extends to gaining entry to the murky world of drug dealing and a 1920s fast set which reflects a world of young people bored and seeking sensation, which Peter’s disguised Bredon provides. Soon a relative is assaulted, drug dealers are pursued, and there is much chasing around London as the guilty and desperate emerge. For those who want a more traditional setting for murder, there is even a cricket match to enjoy in the latter part of the book.

I enjoyed this book for its satisfying characters, despite the absence of Harriet, as they try to second guess the guilty. There is peril and excitement as the puzzles are worked on, which I found fascinating, and the atmosphere feels just right. There are some amusing tales of advertising and its niceties as Sayers explores the world of those who try to attract the attention and money of those who earn little but have big aspirations. Martin Edwards says that it shows her “fierce sympathy” for those who could be influenced by advertising in this period. Also, one character says grimly to the super rich Lord Peter, “You don’t know what it is to be stuck for money”, and grimly I remembered that Sayers was often seen to be writing these novels for the income and as wish fulfillment of the perfect, rich man. Either way, this is a picture of world that Sayers knew, but in comparison she has little clue about the drug parties and dealing which influence the guilty. Some deaths and murders also slip by unnoticed, but by that time I was so interested in the plot that I found them less concerning.  This is a strong mystery which is not obvious, and makes for a fascinating read. It is a Golden Age classic, written by Sayers at the top of her form even if it was not her favourite. With the current interest in reprinting murder mysteries of the early twentieth century this is a great starting point for those beginning to read this  type of novel with a good plot, a solid atmosphere and one of the best characters.