My Turn to Make the Tea by Monica Dickens – a young woman’s experiences working on a small town newspaper in the late 1940s republished by Virago

My Turn to Make the Tea by Monica Dickens

This is the third book in Monica Dickens’ series of fictionalised memoirs that recalls her actual experiences in various jobs. Coming from the Dickens dynasty, her background involved a good school, “finishing” in France and a return to be a debutante. Bored of the whole system, her experiences as a sort of cook and servant led to her first book, “One Pair of Hands” published in 1939. The second, which I have read and enjoyed, “One Pair of Feet”, related a version of her experiences of training as a wartime nurse. This book relates to her time as a junior reporter on a regional newspaper, as well as her time in a boarding house where her fellow tenants and landlady are sharply observed. Despite one or two tragic events, this is a novel which exhibits the humour amid the reality of working as a woman in an established but small newspaper, and the housing shortage which made for interesting times in the late 1940s. This edition is a reprint of the 1951 book and represents a fascinating look of the limitations of being a woman in a job in a fixed hierarchy, and living in a very mixed house. It is undoubtedly funny, yet also provides an insight into the hopelessness of a world still coming to terms with a difficult peace.

The great thing about the “Downingham Post” is that every week every page must be filled with local news , however trivial, repetitive, and even reworded from reports in neighbouring local papers. As the newest and only female reporter in the building, Monica has to do the boring and mundane jobs associated with the actual production of the paper, from filling inkwells to always making the tea for everyone. The only responsibilities she is entrusted with are the jobs no one else wants or can be bothered with: the wedding reports which she lovingly crafts from details proudly supplied which are reduced to the same as every other wedding report, brief reports from the local magistrates courts of minor crimes when everyone else has sloped off, and reports of gymkhanas featuring the same assembly of spoilt children and their ponies. This is far from Fleet Street but it is a paper taken by everyone, and unfortunate errors which feature in the early pages of the book are fiercely disputed. Not that the men in the office help, advise or reassure; when she returns to the office after a difficult (but funny) session with an irate reader, she records “Someone had drunk my tea, and the office cat had got my biscuit on the floor”. Monica’s voice in this book is honest, sharp and incisive in many ways, with a skilful turn of phrase and telling details. Apart from her difficulties of being the put upon junior in the office, she travels by bus (many wet bus stops) and being away from her family home, must find accommodation in a town where rooms are in short supply. She must brace herself to live in a faded room in the house of the hateful Mrs Goff, whose concern for her tenants is minimal if not cruel, and she is nervous of sleeping in a supposedly notorious room. She is not a highly trained journalist – faced with a road incident she says “I scribbled away in my homemade code substitute for shorthand, which sometimes made sense to me when I came to transcribe it and sometimes not”. Between acrobatic friends and sorting out the local sports results for the newspapers, Monica lives a full life if like everyone else still hampered by rationing and shortages.

This is a absorbing read of a young woman’s experiences which although fictionalised, have the bite of reality in all its silliness and human interest. I found the writing so easy to engage with, where there are few complaints but a winning acceptance of the trials thrown at the writer. There are the minor incidents associated with a local newspaper, but also the problems that are not deemed suitable for the loyal readership and their expectations. I recommend this book as written without the complex plot of novels, but with the daily realism of life for a young woman in a small town.   

Final Acts – Theatrical Mysteries Edited by Martin Edwards – an Anthology of classic crime stories from the British Library Crime Classics series

Final Acts – Theatrical Mysteries Edited by Martin Edwards

Fourteen stories, fourteen mysteries are selected by Martin Edwards for publication in the British Library Crime Classics series in this excellent volume. Like other anthologies in the series they share a common theme, this time being theatrical settings. In his fascinating Introduction, Edwards considers why the theatre is such a popular background for tales of murder and mystery, and some of the authors who have seized on the theme for some of their most successful novels. These include Ngaio Marsh whose love of the theatrical world is well known, and Agatha Christie whose work was not only successful on stage but who enjoyed writing about actors in her mysteries, as did other authors who appreciated the skills they used when involved in deceit and trickery. Life backstage provides a rich setting for murder and mystery; Edwards mentions the clever “Measure for Murder” by Clifford Witting which I have reviewed, in which an amateur drama group becomes an enclosed community for mystery. These fourteen stories range from 1905 to 1958, arranged in chronological order, and Edwards writes a short Introduction to each author, giving an outline of their writing career and where the selected story appears in the context of their writing as a whole. Beginning with Baroness Orczy, and working through to the subtlety of Christianna Brand, this is a collection of brilliant tales of actors and actresses, writers and performers, murder and mysteries. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this exciting book.

Like other stories of theatrical life, there are many possibilities in the stage props, costumes and make up that feature in these stories. Giving the impression of opulence with simple tricks is a standby in several of these stories. Actors and actresses are desperate to make their mark, get the best parts, dominate the stage. Sometimes that prompts them to desperate action, and in the confusion of entrances and exits audiences and others can be fooled. Dorothy L Sayers writes of a former actress who observes carefully the comings and goings of a theatre, but she cannot predict the intricacies of feelings involved in the story “Blood Sacrifice”. Another desperate writer features in the chilling “The Blind Spot” by Barry Perowne from 1945. An ambitious friend gives Roderick Alleyn problems in Ngaio Marsh’s “I Can Find My Way Out”. Ernest Dudley’s “The Case of the Ventriloquist’s Doll” features his ongoing characters Doctor Morelle and Miss Frayle in quite a forensic case with a demanding theatrical client. John Appleby’s 1950 story “Drink for an Actor” is set in one of Shakespeare’s plays being performed and is a subtle question of motives. Christianna Brand’s story is also set in the highly charged world of backstage to a production of Othello, though the recounting of the case is also a fascinating element to cover in a short story length.

Like the other anthologies in the series, this collection serves as a taster or introduction to some lesser known authors whose books are being reissued. It also includes strong favourites indulging in the rich opportunities presented by the atmosphere of theatrical productions. Tricks and deceptions, impressions and literal acts can deceive both the amateur and professional detective, and all of these authors excel at literary sleight of hand. I found much to enjoy in this book, with all the stories being based on original ideas freely adapted even though the endings were frequently not traditional. This collection will appeal to not only the classic mystery reader, but also those who enjoy the glitter and deliberate deceit of the theatrical world.    

Blitz Spirit 1939 – 1945 – Compiled by Becky Brown from the Mass Observation Archive – Voices of Britain during Crisis

Blitz Spirit 1939 – 1945 Compiled by Becky Brown

This book is a valuable non fictional account of the Second World War taken from a unique point of the view – it is written by those involved on a day to day basis. It is a book which is not written by professional writers – though the compiler Becky Brown has done a thoroughly professional job in identifying and editing the extracts presented. The extracts come from a unique source, the diaries written and submitted to an organisation called the Mass Observation Archive. This was founded in 1937 by three people keen to discover what people really thought of their daily lives and the big events of the day. Volunteers would submit monthly diaries of their thoughts, observations, and opinions anonymously, and the aim “was to create an anthology of ourselves” by compiling these documents together with the outcomes of Directives or surveys on great issues of the day. There were some five hundred diarists who were chosen to cover a great range of people from different backgrounds across the UK. Some apparently wrote diligently in clearly typed documents, others produced far more scrappy affairs, perhaps written in haste. These documents represented in the moment comments; rather than considered productions written after the events and carefully edited. They are therefore valuable insights into life in Britain in some of the most crucial days of War and the build up to it, a unique record of the truth behind the headlines and memoirs that appeared afterwards written with the benefit of hindsight.

It is to consider this so called “Blitz Spirit” with the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic in mind that this book seemed especially important. Politicians and others called for the blitz spirit to operate in society during Lockdowns and other Regulations. Brown points out in her excellent Introduction that in the extracts that she has chosen “we hear a vibrant, discordant  humanity and see the ordinary lives that must necessarily continue behind an extraordinary event”. One solitary “blitz spirit” of harmony, good humour and cooperation simply did not exist. The contributions here show that people were frightened, angry, confused and scared that the chances of defeat seemed overwhelming. In selecting these extracts Brown has chosen a range of views and placed them in strict chronological order, not by theme, gender or optimism. Indeed, the entries are anonymous, titled only with gender, profession, and location.

 The entries show the development from the days of August 1939 when there was a Crisis, which in some respects had been going on for some time, through to a Declaration which brought an “Awful feeling of hopelessness” to one diarist, “this terrible calamity” to another and expressions of concern about evacuees to others.  As the book proceeds there is a good mix of those commenting on raids and the local reactions to them, the rationing of everyday foods, queuing and the Black Market, amusing comments made and anger at the silence on reporting of realities. People write in confidence of gossip and reports of negative events and behaviour  – no military secrets are revealed but there is real thought, real reactions, the contrasting between truth and speculation. An example is that a writer reveals how they were told an entire street of houses in Derby was flattened the previous night, when in fact they knew no bombs had fallen in the area at all. People are shown as being angry that some life styles seem to continue unaffected, while they restrict their own consumption of goods and resources, and work hard in voluntary roles. The contributions from both women and men do not show a split in opinion on gender lines, the occupation of the diarist does not always define the nature of the comment.

This book is made up of brief comments on a huge variety of topics from different perspectives. The Compiler comments that they are “riddled with fear of defeat” rather than any grin and bear it philosophy, the “Blitz Spirit” beloved of many commentators. It is by its nature bitty, but I would argue that those who seek more coherent comments and flowing narratives can seek out other books written at the time, or complied more recently of contemporaneous diaries. Brown has supplied a  Further Reading list including a selection of Anthologies and a Selection of standalone diaries. I am obviously in the target audience for this book as I recognise several of them that I have read, including the diaries of Nella Last, seen in Victoria Woods’ “Housewife 49”. Altogether this book will be of interest to those who enjoy fiction set in the period, fans of wartime histories, and most of all those who are fascinated by the voices, often forgotten, of those who experienced this crisis, recorded without the benefit of hindsight.

The Hymn Tune Mystery by George A. Birmingham – a mystery from 1930 set in a Cathedral, now republished by Oreon Press

The Hymn Tune Mystery by George A. Birmingham

In this spirited interwar mystery originally published in 1930, ecclesiastical characters and dubious types fill the streets of the small town of Carminster as a mystery develops around the Cathedral. An organist is known for his erratic behaviour, a Dean with more than a passing interest in exciting Latin lyrics, a dynamic daughter and many more make up a charming story of a missing tune which I found really engaging. A novel of its time, there is gentle humour as people begin to realise that there may be more going on than they first expect, and they are always aware of their place in the hierarchy of the town. The characters are consistent and well imagined, ranging from the uncertain and anxious Dean, through the clever and funny Precentor, to a cautious and long suffering police Inspector. For anyone who knows something of church politics, including Anthony Trollope fans, there will be a fascinating element of the clerical characters to enjoy, but everyone will enjoy the mystery and the atmosphere. George Birmingham has a sophisticated touch with the clues and leads, and the setting of the small town where everyone knows what is going on is well handled throughout. This is a very engaging and entertaining book which that I really enjoyed, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read and review it.

The book begins with a description of the beauties of Carminster, an idyllic town dominated by its Cathedral which in turn has been the beneficiary of gifts from the newly created Lord Carminster. At his behest tombs have been moved, scholarships created and heavyweight church furnishings provided, even if there were those who had reservations about these changes to the age old way of life. One of these is the Dean, whose secret enthusiasm for translating dubious Latin drinking verses is concealed from his dominant daughter Sybil, who has chosen running the Dean’s house and indeed the Cathedral over a life in academia. In this she conspires with the Archdeacon, a man of firm and structured beliefs, behaviour and expectations in every aspect of life. They both despair of Cresswood, a good organist whose attraction to the bottle is well known to everyone, but whose playing is undoubtedly inspiring. A late night visit to the Cathedral by the Dean and as it proves, Cresswood, means that the following day, when music is expected in a full choral service, silence ensues. A verdict both unofficial and official is quickly reached, and the matter seems at an end, but maybe there is something more to discover.

This is a story that seems to involve in a very natural way, with real personalities realising their limitations. I particularly enjoyed the character of the Reverend John Dennis, minor canon and Precentor, notionally in charge of the music of the Cathedral. He is an outsider and takes a very different line from the powers that be, which is significant when certain things seem to happen. The humour is gentle yet effective, the setting fascinating, and the plot is clever. I recommend this novel for so many reasons, and I am so pleased that it has been republished by Oreon Press and made available once more.    

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell’s Classic Novel in a Graphic Novel from Scarlett & Sophie Rickard

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell – Scarlett & Sophie Rickard

This novel in its original form is a mammoth undertaking to read; a full edition runs to 250,000 words. This edition is therefore a wonderful way to experience this early socialist novel, as it appears in a beautifully drawn graphic novel which transforms the rhetoric into real speech between the working men. Not that the women are side lined in this vibrant and lively telling of a group of people in a fictional town struggling to survive. The wives of the men who are the focus of the novel are shown to fight the lack of money with generosity and resource, helplessness and acceptance, or a balance between the two. The children from an early age are forced to learn the realities of their lives, but that does not stop them dreaming of the treats that fill shop windows. There is another group of men in the book who are the bosses, form the majority of the local council and combine to supress wages and line their own pockets. One or two men stand between the groups as taking orders from above and pressing the workers into greater efforts for less money.

Altogether this could be a challenging book, but in the work of Sophie and Scarlett it is transformed into a small work of art, with illustrations that leap off the page and silently convey volumes. It is a book to savour which makes even political points come to life with absolute clarity and with colour and contrast. It is an amazing achievement that will transform even those who would not normally read graphic novels into huge fans.

The book takes for its main narrative the focus of a group of men working to decorate a large house for Rushton’s business. They spent each lunch time in talk, which could be local gossip but can encompass discussion of their lot generally, as those known to the men have to variously go into the Workhouse or meet with other terrible difficulties. Owen is the politically aware speaker; being a skilled artist he will be asked to do specific tasks for which he will not get more money or praise, but his innate generosity means that he will always help others. He speaks of breaking the present system that means those with no knowledge will continue to vote for those who actually oppress them, who lay off the older men, issue ridiculous instructions, and generally cut every possible corner to keep on the right side of the employers. Not that Owen gets a fair hearing for his revolutionary socialist views; he uses examples, including the famous “Money Trick” to show how the men accept their lot of overwork when they can get it, horrible and dangerous tasks and shortened lives. The view then shifts to the homes of some of the men, with little furniture or comforts. One child and his mother speak of their situation, where another young mother demonstrates to her husband the problems of making money stretch for even the basic necessities. As a year progresses, the men are shown as in and out of work, taking what joys they can, sharing resources and facing challenges. Forced to cut corners and work to minimum standards, they are challenged and desperate, but Owen’s message of breaking the system falls on deaf ears. Some of the women become desperate, and yet others will help where possible. Meanwhile the rich men of the locality connive to cover their losses and extract the maximum profit from everything, while the local doctors  and charities try to show that the people are desperate.

This could sound like a depressing read, and certainly there are some awful things described. There is also colour and contentment as the people strive to help each other and find pleasure where possible, and the challenges issued to the status quo are brought to life. I really enjoyed the experience of reading this book, relishing the contrasting settings and the characters who are brought to life with the illustrations and small indications of what is going on for them.  I have also reviewed the sisters’ more recent book, “No Surrender” which also tackles difficult subjects, and both books are wonderful examples of the illustrator’s art and the skill of the dialogue which brings the narrative to life. I thoroughly recommend this unusual book for so many reasons.

Dancing With Death by Joan Coggin – an entertaining 1947 classic mystery republished by Galileo Publishing

Dancing With Death by Joan Coggin

Lady Lupin is a bit scatter brained, an amateur detective and a Vicar’s wife – which in this 1947 novel means that she is summoned by her good friend, Duds, to a house party which is disastrous, and not just because they have run out of alcohol. This is a stylish novel of an almost claustrophobic gathering which takes place in a house to try and recreate a time before post-war rationing, when food and drink were plentiful, and everyone was younger. It has been re published by Galileo Publishing recently, and offers a superb insight into life at the time for a certain group of people linked by family ties and old romances. There is a mystery which does not actually mature until well into the novel, but the building tension within what is virtually a closed community of people is well handled. This is a well written novel of social manners and expectations, old loves, clothes and a setting which fulfils many of the requirements for a classic mystery, Written from different points of view but mainly from the point of view of Duds and Lupin, this is a fine example of a novel which shows a sophisticated understanding and presentation of characters under pressure, with a certain amount of humour. Written to portray the times, Coggins has assembled a fine cast of characters and placed them in a complicated situation, and I found the whole package very engaging, and very hard to put down once begun.

The book begins with Lupin receiving a telegram at the Vicarage which alerts her to her friend’s difficulties. “Am in great trouble, please come at once. Duds”. This summons sends Lupin into something of a panic; she wants to rush to her friend’s house yet is aware of her family and church obligations. Her scatter gun instructions to her maid/ housekeeper/church worker are enough to confuse anyone, being contradictory and wide ranging. To be fair she is full of trepidation for what may have happened, as an earlier letter from Duds described a house party where things were going wrong; her husband Tommy is becoming exasperated with Henry, one of the guests, and murder is feared. Imagining the worse accordingly, Lupin sets off to discover what she can do.

The narrative then goes back in time to a few weeks before Christmas. Duds and her husband have recently inherited a manor house and a certain amount of money, but they have had a tough War and rationing is still taking its toll. In order to cheer everyone up, Duds thinks of having a small party to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, with guests staying for an entire week. While Tommy is dubious about getting enough food and drink to supply a party, and they have relatively little domestic help, but Duds is determined. It is decided to invite Duds’ cousins, twins Flo and Jo, who she was very close to as children. Now they are young women, Flo is married and seemingly content, while Jo is apparently less settled. With Flo’s husband Gordon, the list also includes Sandy, a man who has recently returned from Germany where he spent time as a Prisoner of War. When Henry, a man who Duds had a brief romance with when much younger, writes to ask if he and his second wife Irene can come, a party of eight seems possible. From the beginning all is not well. Henry is a talkative know it all, and his wife a bore if essentially good natured. Flo seems happy, and Gordon attentive and helpful. Sandy is morose and drinks a great deal, and Jo is just argumentative. As Duds struggles to keep the party fed and Tommy tries to eke out the drink, it is obvious that old romances, a difficult inheritance and general dissatisfaction is ruining any possible festive atmosphere, and disaster is beckoning.

This is a book which I greatly enjoyed, despite the possible lack of a sophisticated mystery. It shows the difficulties of post-war which extends beyond the shortages of  food and drink, as people come to terms with the changes and even losses experienced over the previous few years. My favourite character is undoubtedly Lady Lupin, whose friends would acknowledge is far from methodical and calm in her suspicions and detection, but is nonetheless dogged in her pursuit of the truth. Apparently, she appears in other novels, and I will be keen to seek these out. I recommend this novel as very much of its time, and a very entertaining read.

Playing Under the Piano – From Downton to Darkest Peru – by Hugh Bonneville – an Actor’s lively autobiography

Playing Under the Piano by Hugh Bonneville

An actor’s biography is often a picture of life in their times, and this funny and honest book by a well-known actor, Hugh Bonneville, from television, stage and film captures something of life since 1985 when his professional career began. Subtitled “From Downton to Darkest Peru” which neatly sums up the two roles he is probably best known for in recent years, this likable and witty account of his life has its very funny moments which can quickly switch to a moving comment on a fellow actor who died too soon (Emma Chambers). While he is internationally recognised as Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley, in the successful Downton Abbey series and films, he is also Mr Brown in both Paddington films. Able to transfer from drama to comedy and seemingly not afraid to attempt some interesting image changes, Bonneville has a strong background of stage work which underpins his frequent television appearances in many series and well loved films. This is not just a book of success, however, as he details his failures to get the part in well known productions, and the ups and downs of life when he has put his hopes and fortunes in the balance. A book which made me chuckle and sympathise with an actor’s life, this book is discursive, engaging and as entertaining as the many sightings of this versatile actor.

This book does not move along in a strictly linear format; rather it follows a topic from a certain point through to its conclusion. Thus members of Hugh’s immediate family are commented on in a concentrated way at some points, and also feature in asides. His mother concealed secrets in an unusual way, as well as evidently listening to Hugh’s demands for attention. His father is also featured as a busy doctor and a vivid character to the end. Hugh’s school life was not a series of acting experiences, but he admits to becoming very pretentious in his pursuit of the theory of acting. His career at Cambridge in the shadow of the Thompson /Fry /Laurie domination of Footlights was familiar to me, but his actual academic achievements took second place to his gaining experience in his chosen field. His attitude to Drama school was very calculated, and he was soon seeking work and an Equity card. He had lucky breaks, not least in finding minor roles in Regent’s Park theatre and later the RSC, but equally there were times when he was not kept on. There are fascinating tales of different directors’ styles, including strange workshops which some objected to in different ways. There are disappointing but time and money consuming auditions, contrasted with successes and celebrity moments. The mechanics of memorable scenes in plays and a certain bloody Downton moment are recalled, alongside the tricky nature of arduous auditions for adverts when he discovered the power of saying no. Certain characters jump off the page; as you would expect there are celebrity encounters and mistakes. A fascinating section deals with a frustrating summons to America for a series which leaves Hugh kicking his heels and ignoring peanuts in strange places. A President is helpful, where a British politician is less so. The photographs included in the hardback edition are very interesting, and the index is helpful.

This is an immensely readable book which gives genuine insights into a British actor’s life since the mid-1980s. Hugh emerges as a likable down to earth person, who has had some enjoyable times and career highs, but also some frustrating and often funny experiences. He mentions those he has worked with often with affection, even wonderment, like Maggie Smith, but never to show off, as he is always quick to admit his blunders. While I have always enjoyed his appearances in diverse programmes such as Twenty Twelve and the film Notting Hill, this is a readable account of the theatre work and the projects that did not go so smoothly. I would recommend this genuinely enjoyable book to anyone interested in an actor’s life, as well as those obsessed with a certain television and now film period drama.

The Woolworths Girl’s Promise by Elaine Everest – the story of Betty’s promise from a War and the life she discovers

The Woolworths Girl’s Promise by Elaine Everest

There is a whole series of Woolworths Girls books, beginning with the lives and fortunes of small group of young women in 1938, following their lives and those around them, right up to a new generation of Saturday Girls in the 1950s. This book is a worthy addition into the world of Woolworths Girls, but I think it would also stand as a book on its own, as it tells the story of one of the slightly older characters in the first books. Betty Billington is a crucial character in the Erith Woolworths store, but the way she achieved her senior role and so much else is the focus of this well written and engaging novel. It begins in London in the disturbed days of the First World War, when Elizabeth as she is then known by her parents lives a sheltered life. Her progress from that point is the story told in this novel, together with the challenges she meets and the remarkable people she encounters. Throughout the book a central theme remains, how her promise made to a young man shapes her thoughts and decisions, and how she comes to identify herself with the much loved shop. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this absorbing book.

The beginning of the novel introduces Betty secretly meeting Charlie, a young man bound for the Front in 1917. She has had to conceal her relationship from her strict and ambitious parents, who are determined that she will make a suitable marriage and never become involved in the sordid world of work. When the worst happens, Betty’s reaction alerts her mother to her secret romance, and from that point on she is effectively excluded from her home. Betty seeks sanctuary with Charlie’s bereaved father and younger sisters, and in so doing discovers a whole new world in which her innocence and sheltered upbringing is in sharp contrast with the women who have to earn small amounts to survive. As she discovers that her accent and clothes proclaim her as someone very different, her experiences at the Woolwich Arsenal munitions works are traumatic. It is only when she discovers the local Woolworths store that she begins to hope for a new way of life, in which she can begin to live as an independent woman while keeping her promise to the man that she loved.

As with all the Woolworths novels, this book deals with the setting of War, when so many suffered huge losses. The emotional upheaval is so well dealt with, as Betty mourns her own loss and is confronted with the realities of life for so many others, especially women. The research in this book is an excellent bedrock for the story. While the dangers and difficulties faced by the employees of munitions factories during the First World War are perhaps well known, the terrible effects of an incident are brilliantly and accurately described within this novel. The emergence of the “Surplus Women” who were left with few marriage prospects after so many men were killed in the War is deftly drawn here; while some dispute the figures, there was certainly a perception that many lives were irreparably altered in the way that confronts Betty and those around her. A more positive attitude is shown by an unexpected ally of Betty’s whose life has always been one of stubborn independence from men, and who presents a whole new world of possibilities.

This is a novel that is based on a promise that is made by a young woman. I found it immensely readable and offering a real atmosphere of the world emerging from War but finding new challenges.  Betty’s story is well told, embracing so much that was going on in the world, but also revealing the emotional problems of many. I recommend this book not only to those who have encountered the Woolworths girls before, but also those who are yet to experience the story of this well -loved shop through the eyes of some  fictional women who worked there.   

Death in White Pyjamas & Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude – Two classic novels in one reissue in the British Library Crime Classic series

Death in White Pyjamas and Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

The British Library Crime Classics paperback reprints of classic crime novels are always good value; this is particularly true of this particular volume. John Bude, real name Ernest Carpenter Elmore, is apparently an author who has been rediscovered thanks to the British Library series. According to Martin Edwards extremely informative Introduction, these two books have been the most difficult to obtain copies of, and they are both extremely enjoyable in their own right and thoroughly deserving of a wider audience. Although they were both originally published during the Second Word War, they make no reference to the ongoing conflict and were obviously intended to “keep up the spirits of readers” during this hard time. They both provide enthralling mysteries which puzzled and distracted this reader with great flair and a flowing style; the second story in particular became truly difficult to put down. With diversions, red herrings and marvellous characters, these are both fascinating stories that I greatly enjoyed, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to read and review this engaging edition.

The first mystery, Death In White Pyjamas, was originally published in 1944 and at first reflects an idyllic world of a theatre company sponsored by a rich benefactor, Sam Richardson. Mainly set in the kind of country house much beloved of classic mystery writers, the grounds and select company of inhabitants provide a closed community and a set of logistical possibilities and suspects which define the eventual murder inquiry undertaken by Inspector Harting. Having plenty of money but no real knowledge of theatrical matters, the choice of plays and cast is largely placed by Sam in the hands of his producer Basil Barnes.

Sam choses the small but beautifully appointed Beaumont theatre in London for the actual productions, but the cast and others actually frequently assemble at the Old Knowle country estate for rest periods between productions and to begin rehearsals when a play is first launched. Basil elects to acquire a small cottage on the edge of the estate and with the help of Deirdre Lehaye, set designer, begins work on establishing its décor. Another person who helps is the female lead of several productions, Angela Walsh, whose youth and beauty soon attracts the attention of several men, including Basil and a young would -be playwright, Rudolph Millar, nephew of Clara who plays the older female parts in the company. The older male lead, Willy Farnham, a character actor with great ability and certain personal issues, make up the group usually to be found at the estate enjoying Sam’s hospitality.

Like any theatre company in mystery fiction, there are underlying jealousies, disturbances and ill feeling amid the group, and these are made more significant when a theft is discovered. The eventual discovery of a body on the estate means that a full investigation must take place, and there are many clever twists in the story. It is a novel of its time with characters who are well drawn and have fascinating interactions. I enjoyed the setting, helpfully illustrated in a map, of the country house and gardens with cottage which provide the background for the excellent characters. It is a well-constructed mystery which I found really engaging, and which I thoroughly recommend.  

Death Knows No Calendar

This novel is full of extremely well executed mystery standards. Originally published in 1942, it also keeps well away from War topics. It does feature a retired military man, Major Tom Boddy, whose hobby has long been the reading and commenting on fictional murder mysteries, so that he is well equipped to be an amateur sleuth, especially with the aid of his faithful batman, Syd Gammon. Boddy has not only acquired a lot of theories about investigation from his extensive reading, but also has a lot of local knowledge of the individuals involved. A mysterious death in a locked studio appears at first to be suicide, but for various reasons Boddy is not satisfied by the verdict, and begins investigating on his own with Syd. A local and rather flamboyant artist features, as well as her husband, a disappointed admirer and others who may not have wished the deceased well. Apart from a locked room mystery, several other particular puzzles must be solved, apart from the general questions of alibis and mysterious nocturnal activities. Each character, even the minor ones, are well drawn and distinctive. The settings, which range from a rural village to an unprepossessing area of London, are well established and described. The plot is satisfyingly complex, and when Boddy draws in the police, well managed.

This is an entertaining book which develops all the characters well, especially the two intrepid investigators who sadly did not feature in any other of Bude’s books, but show enormous determination as well as comic aspects as they pursue the truth and even romance. I really enjoyed puzzling out the leads and red herrings, and the characters with their very distinctive dialogue. I recommend this clever and fascinating book as possibly the better of the two offerings from Bude here, and am so pleased that they have been made available once more.    

Will She Do? Act One of a Life on Stage by Eileen Atkins – the life and works of an influential actor in the second half of the twentieth century

Will She Do? Act One of a Life on Stage by Eileen Atkins

Eileen Atkins is a familiar face on television, turning up in period dramas and other programmes. Her generation of actors, which includes Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, are also famous for their stage work and establishing theatre companies; Eileen’s contribution is a memorable one in its own right. This book concentrates on her earlier life, the way a girl born in Tottenham, London, in 1934 and who grew up in a complicated family where money was always a real issue became a well-known actor and co-creator of the famous original “Upstairs Downstairs”. It is a story of wartime experience, damaging dance lessons and the opportunities presented by visionary teachers. It charts her progress from child performer in working- men’s clubs to Shakespeare on stage and early television performances. It is written in a lively style which follows threads of experiences to their logical conclusion and presents her memories of being a teenage girl who experienced the usual crushes, self-doubts and torments. It brilliantly recalls tales of London life in all its opportunities and challenges, as well as the reality of being a jobbing actor desperately needing paid work. With real story telling skill it recalls how she came to experience Shakespeare’s texts and yet struggle with her exams, cope with a loving and ambitious mother who failed to understand her daughter’s real motivation and recall the fashions and food of a changing society. It is immensely readable and flows in a very engaging way and is a realistic and fascinating autobiography of life and acting.

Eileen’s family background was a little complex, yet she was very much loved by her mother who supplemented the family income by sewing. Always a performer, she was spotted early as a potential money earner by a dubious teacher who contributed to her schooling, while encouraging her to dance in a way which wrecked her feet. Her early career as “Baby Eileen” probably sounds worse than it was and satisfied her mother’s yearning for her to perform. Her progress through school shows that she was lucky to find sponsors who greatly enhanced her education, but that there were times when her teenage angst was temporarily dominant. After school her drama training was not straightforward, but at least meant that she was able to get some work in the holidays and after finishing at college. Her relationships and eventual marriage were obviously genuinely felt at the time, but ran alongside the need to work herself, not just to be “A Stratford Wife” waiting for her actor husband, Julian Glover, to come home. There are some fascinating photographs to show her family and friends, as well as some of her most significant performances on television and stage. A comprehensive index is also supplied of people and productions.

This is an honest account of a life in all its aspects. The embarrassing events are there alongside the modestly described great performances. The tenuous connections which paved the way to a long-lasting career are described, as well as the dull grind of Reparatory rehearsals and performances while living in rough accommodation. This is not a celebrity driven account; the well-known actors, directors and producers are honestly described and where Eileen’s relationships with them tricky. This is an excellent account of how an actor’s life was a challenging one in the past, with the stage changing and television in its infancy, and I recommend it as a fascinating read for Eileen Atkins fans and others interested in the experiences of one of the best-known actors of her generation.