Wartime at Woolworths by Elaine Everest – An addictive saga!

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This is the sort of book which is partly comfort reading, partly melodrama and essentially a family saga. It is about people who behave predictably in a particular setting, this time war time Kent. The idea was originally that three girls are brought together by their common employment at a branch of Woolworths, but by the time of this third book in the series the links between the original girls are so complicated by common friends and family that it is difficult to see the characters that the first book was based on. It is quite complex, as part of the action takes place out of the immediate vicinity of the shop, and a knowledge of major events of the time helps to make the narrative and some of the emotions demonstrated clearer.

The story opens with Betty who is running the Erith branch of Woolworths in conversation with Sarah. The action then leaps backwards to a few months before when these two women are dealing with the crisis, and minor drama of life on the home front, when Betty has been promoted to manage the store, but is dealing with a staff shortage brought on by the absence of men who are fighting in the forces. Also the original Woolworth girls are distracted by young children and family pressures, despite the efforts of Ruby who appears to be some sort of universal grandmother. Two of the three girls decide to go back to their places of origin to try and discover what remains of their families, in London and Birmingham respectively. Both searches result in drama and long lasting repercussions as wartime problems claim the full attention of the reader. Based on an actual tragedy in London, there are few happy outcomes here. The various generations of the women are complicated, and their trials and tribulations are interwoven. There are happy moments of survival and joy, as well desperation. All matters are quickly resolved and while melodrama is the order of the day, there are happy human elements of joy and relief throughout.

This book is really a sort of soap opera in novel form. Everest undoubtedly creates characters who have a variety of emotions, and the wartime setting gives a lot of scope for dramatic incident which she takes full advantage of, and not in the most obvious way. Some events are difficult to believe in objectively, but the whole is a pleasing and slightly addictive narrative. The interlinks of people are a little difficult to keep up with and various generations are mixed in confusing ways, but as this is the third book in a series many readers will have a greater knowledge than I have of the setting and people described. Many of the characters are more than happy to help in the most difficult of circumstances, and in many ways this is a positive book. I was happy to read this review copy of the book and found it surprisingly enjoyable. It seems to sit well in its genre of twentieth century saga featuring women in difficult circumstances, and it is generally a positive read.

I asked for a review copy of this novel as I too was a Woolworths girl: I had a Saturday job in a large branch clearing tables in the cafe. I learnt various things, such as how to eat left over cream cakes in record time, and how to deal with awkward customers. Much of my earnings subsidized my book habit! This was an addictive read, and I freely admit to tracking down a copy of the first in the series!

Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. Lorac – a British Library Crime Classic featuring country life

Sometimes with a murder mystery the location is central to the story; it gives depth and sometimes even clues to the central questions. This book is subtitled “A Devon Mystery”, and the setting in the West Country becomes more important throughout the book, as country ways, the contrast with London attitudes and even the geography of the countryside becomes relevant to the investigation by Lorac’s detective, Inspector Macdonald. This latest book in the highly successful British Library Crime Classic reprint series fulfils all the promise of Lorac’s other novel in the set, “Bats in the Belfrey”. It is a clever novel if only because for much of the time it is not always certain that there is a crime, and certainly the solving of it is far from straightforward.

The novel opens with a tense problem for some of the characters, as Colonel St Cyres tries to avoid his daughter in law, June. She is living with him and his daughter Anne for the duration of the war, in which time this book is set. His son, Denis, is a prisoner of war, and June is an unwilling guest with her small son in order to save money despite her regret at missing life in the society of London. She is hoping that one of her friends, Tom Gressingham, will be able to rent an adjoining cottage and land, but her father in law has other ideas. He has heard of a naval officer invalided out of the service, Nicholas Vaughan, in search of a cottage and the opportunity to farm a small amount of land. When the Colonel meets Vaughan he is most impressed by his sensible plans and determination to transform the long neglected cottage, a project he soon embarks on. Vaughan is a man who appreciates solitude, despite Gressingham, his friends, Brendon and Radcliffe, and June all criticising his lack of involvement. The death of Vaughan, though trailed on the back of the book, took me by surprise, as it is introduced in a clever and novel way, when Wilton, his fellow officer seeks a clarification of what happened. Macdonald arrives in Devon and meets the extremely competent Bolton and together they establish the confusing facts of the case.

This novel depends greatly on the local inhabitants who are slow to welcome newcomers, but are impressed by Vaughan’s industry and commitment to the land. In contrast the Londoners are brash and convinced that their money will buy everything. The evacuee, Alf, is a standout character with his intelligent interest in cars and keenness to help.  Anne, the Colonel’s daughter, is a quiet but eloquent witness who enables the investigation to proceed out of her regard for Vaughan. These and other characters helped to maintain my considerable interest in this novel. This is a confident, well written book in which small details are investigated to great effect, and the setting is carefully explored as the truth is exposed gradually and carefully. Later events are shocking, but well within the reasonable range of the mystery. It is a cleverly constructed novel, not only in terms of guilt but in how the situation developed where murder is likely. The introduction by Martin Edwards explains who Lorac was and how prolific she was in the writing of detection novels.  I do hope that more of her novels are reprinted as they are well written and most enjoyable.

I am so glad that I was able to track down a copy of this book; it was a really good read over a short period of time as I enjoyed it so much. Roll on the next Crime Classic!

Company in the Evening – Ursula Orange – Wartime comedy and romance

This extremely enjoyable novel by Ursula Orange was originally published in 1944, but it is far more than another wartime novel. Indeed, the mid war setting hardly makes reference to the ongoing bombing in London. This is a first person novel which seems very ahead of its time, featuring a woman coping, just, with the slings and arrows of a job, a live in relative, a small child and recent divorce. Her reactions as recorded in this novel are so understandable; even the title of the book reflects just what she claims she does not need, company in the time she relaxes from her job in London. This is a book from an era when the servant problem existed, but the problems which emerge are far more personal than employer problems. This is a book which tackles many themes, not all of them stuck in the mid twentieth century, and is an honest, funny account of life.

Vicky, narrator and chief protagonist, is on her way to her widowed mother’s house as the book opens. Up until now she has arranged her life very much on her own terms; after a carefully arranged divorce from Raymond she is bringing up her daughter Antonia with the assistance of Blakey, cook, sort of nanny and general servant. Sadly, her brother Philip has been killed in the early part of the war, leaving a very young pregnant widow, Rene. It is partly to move Rene back with her that Vicky is making the visit, partly to relieve her mother of the burden of a large house. While she realises that such sacrifices are demanded of many at this time, she regrets her loss of independence as she has an organised life involving three days a week working for a literary agent. Rene proves to be a difficult housemate, unsure of Vicky and soon at odds with Blakey. Barry, a local headmaster, has been seeing Vicky for a while, but she is not interested in more than friendship. In a traumatic episode, Vicky runs into Raymond, and her life becomes more troublesome.

This is a well written, involving book with plenty of humour amongst the annoyance of daily life. I enjoyed Vicky’s internal monologue, convinced that her determination to bring up Antonia alone is a responsible one, but also guilty that she has no siblings, proud that she behaves well without much discipline, and that she appreciates small treats. I enjoyed her minute examination of conversations, her understandings and misunderstandings, as they all seemed drawn from life. The problems that she encounters in her paid work are particularly appropriate for the novel, as a short story author behaves delightfully badly. This book is very well written and full of observation, controlled and well planned given the time of writing, when the outcome of the Second World War was not decided. Altogether this is a book ahead of its time in terms of realistic romance, daily life described and humour. Having just checked my review of Orange’s other reprinted book, the strangely named “Tom Tiddler’s Ground” (see https://northernreader.wordpress.com/2017/05/04/tom-tiddlers-ground-by-ursula-orange/) this book has a similar honest humour and is equally enjoyable. It is definitely a great discovery on the part of Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press, and I am really grateful for the review copy.


Growing Up by Angela Thirkell – a wartime gem!

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This one of the wartime Thirkell novels that work so well. It reflects a time when the Second World War had been going on some time, written when the outcome of the fighting was still not apparent, when there was no indication of exactly how much longer it would go on. The fear of whether one of the characters had survived the evacuation of Dunkirk was in the past, but the drama of D Day and similar decisive action was still very much in the future. Men, brothers, husbands are still liable to be sent abroad; there is the real fear of them not returning. There is a certain settled acceptance of war time arrangements such as an entire hospital being billeted in the local big house, wounded soldiers being invalided out of the army, women taking on roles that would never have been envisaged pre war. This is the civilian side of war, but not one of bombings and blitz, but still there is some grief and fear.

Sir Harry and Lady Waring are living in part of their large house, the rest having been converted to a hospital for wounded soldiers. They lost their only son in the First World War, but are more than accepting that their nephew Cecil will inherit the house, provided that he survives his naval service. His sister, Leslie arrives on the scene having been involved at a high level in war work, but having suffered when her ship back from foreign work was torpedoed. At the beginning of the novel Lydia and Noel Merton are sent as paying guests to live with the Warings. Both have appeared in the Barsetshire novels before; Lydia was the memorable Lydia Keith, outrageous and noisy as a girl, now utterly devoted to her husband Noel and a settled character. She has become someone able to deal with many people and situations in a mature way, but still she has doubts. The servants in this novel are real characters, far from being dismissed as being unimportant. The scary Nannie Allen, overprotective of those she cares for, her daughter Selina, the focus of many male hopes while she cries at any situation, and Jasper the gamekeeper all contribute to the novel. Meanwhile the soldiers and nurses in the other part of the house contribute greatly to the story. There are a few set pieces which are particularly funny, including Mrs Spender who otherwise features in the Northbridge Rectory novel and Mrs Laura Morland, who gives a talk at the hospital. The latter sounds very much like a real experience on Thirkell’s part.

This is a very satisfactory episode in the Barsetshire series. There is no denying the fear and tension in the background; Thirkell in common with everyone else had no way of knowing what the outcome of the war would be; while the immediate fear of invasion had receded by this point, there was no foreseeable end and many people were still being sent secretly abroad. This novel does not contain the subtext of suspicion of refugees that some of the other books feature, each character has respect and understanding. I have really enjoyed rereading this book, and anyone who likes Thirkell’s novels will appreciate it.

Sadly, Virago have not so far produced this novel as an actual book, just on kindle. As I think I have said before, Thirkell’s books never seem to be the sort to suit the ebook format, but maybe that is just my view. There are copies out there ( I seem to have acquired two produced in wartime) and there is probably a Moyer Bell edition to be had from the USA. If you like Thirkell’s wartime books, and I think that they are the best, this is definitely a gem.

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate A British Library Crime Classic

This recent murder mystery from the British Library crime classic series is a grim reminder that life on the Home Front in the Second World War was not glamorous for most people. Raymond Postgate had written a successful novel, “The Verdict of Twelve”, which looked through the biographies of the characters rather than just their relationship with the crime. Whether a result of his socialist interests or his journalist experience, he was far more interested in the people who may have been guilty or innocent rather than the complications of a plot. In this novel he painstakingly describes the background of each of the main suspects and victim beyond the discoveries made by the police detective Inspector Holly, and each story has an element of sorrow or loss shaped by the events of the early 1940s. Nobody really emerges as a likable character, least of all the victim.

Councillor Grayling is a deeply unpopular man and victim. He has ambitions to be a great man in his community and home, but cannot achieve anything, it is suggested, without bullying and blackmail. His wife dislikes him, the Vicar, who is a sad man in his personality and role, suspects him of corruption, and provides information of the victim’s last journey home by train. He describes how others sat round him in the carriage and exhibited symptoms of a miserable cold. Grayling had enemies in that carriage of both a personal and business nature; consequently Holly discovers that he has several credible suspects with reasonable motives. The tone is sombre, and there appears to be desperation all around, even if most of the characters are not in actual danger from the fighting. The method of killing is particularly grisly, and could only be carried out in wartime, which adds to the background of grey misery.

I actually found this a really interesting and intriguing book. The plot is almost secondary to the almost short story approach to each character, which reveals more than strictly necessary to potential involvement in the murder. Consequently this is not a mystery to read quickly because of the plot and the need to find the guilty person; I found each character’s story well written and providing a fascinating insight into everyday life in wartime. This is not a cheerful read but a well written novel of people in all their weaknesses. As a snapshot of the times it is a deeply atmospheric book with some strong images and rather world weary reality. Martin Edwards’ introduction refers to the “dark days of the Second World War” as the background of this 1943 book, and calls Postgate “a talented … amateur rather than a seasoned professional”. This is a fair assessment of an sensitive book of the era.




One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

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A selection of covers for a well established book. Curiously, I think the most recent one is the least enticing…

This is a 1952 book which looks back on the wartime year of a young woman who decides to train as a nurse to help the war effort. She does not need the money; she is not forced into the hospital by conscription, she “could not make up her mind what to be”. She finds many snags to each of the choices, A.T.S. requiring little work, the W.V.S involves ungrateful evacuees and the Land Army requires mangel- wurzel pulling in the early morning. The idea of nursing “Had always attracted me.” and she embarks on a journey to a hospital, any hospital who will allow her to start training immediately.

For those who may not relish the idea of a medical memoir, the writer is far more interested in her situation in the new way of life she discovers at the hospital. The other nurses of all ranks are discussed as some eat their body weight, others fall in love with local servicemen, some are determined to run the hospital on strict lines, or at least whichever ward Dickens is sent to in a haphazard way.  She works nights, fails to sleep during the day, and is occasionally invited away from the hospital for social engagements. One of the funniest situations is when she visits a school and is hailed as a source of a diagnosis of an odd rash. It is a funny book, despite or perhaps because of its setting. She assists at the last minute saving of a woman, and nurses private patients with their many and various requirements. There is a moment when the war seems about to intrude with extra patients, but as in many cases it is an anti climax, as is well suggested in the build up to the anecdote.

This is a well written, amusing book full of tales which have the suggestion of truth. It is not a sentimental tale, but more in the spirit of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” which is high praise.  As a tale of the Home Front it is almost modern in its humour, and is far from a grim recall of danger survived. Dickens emerges as an independent young woman with a keen flair for honest observation. It is of its time, but is well written and engaging, and given its subject matter, a surprisingly cheerful read. I found it a fascinating picture of war time life, cheerful in contrast with other books of the time, and can recommend it to anyone interested in the life actually lived by some of the people of Britain at a time of challenge.

At the moment life at the Vicarage is busy. Today Northernvicar and I went to Leeds to see a couple of museums as part of our M.A. course. We know how to live! Selwyn, the Vicarage cat, was so appalled by his abandonment that he fell down the back of a cupboard on our return…

Blue Murder by Harriet Rutland – a Dean Street Classic

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“A Golden Age Murder” it proclaims on the cover of this book, another Dean Street Press book send to me for review. It is the final book published by Harriet Rutland, and it is a strong book notable for several twists and turns, some of which are totally unexpected. A clever book, it is an experience of reading a novel written in war time (1942) when the dangers of the blitz are a real and indeed intrude into the action. This is both a classic and an unusual novel, even if the identity of the killer is not obscure long before the end, even if only because there are relatively few possibilities. The horrible nature of the characters is so cleverly written that sympathy is in short supply, but the narrative is so compelling the reader will want to see how it works out.

Murder happens in a household where the parents are awful, the daughter difficult and the son and wife challenging. A beautiful young teacher is involved, a will is debated, and the threat of physical danger is ever present. A locally unpopular head teacher is dangerously susceptible to the charms of Miss Charity Fuller, and indeed dominates his school with more than an iron rod, much to the dismay of the teachers and at least one parent. His wife, Mrs Hardstaffe (Rutland loves playing with names in this novel) is a hypochondriac with money which proves to be a dangerous combination. The daughter, Leda, is a tough, capable woman, obsessed with her dogs and war work. Into this unhappy household comes Arnold Smith, failed writer searching for inspiration. As he becomes enthusiastic about writing a murder mystery, he keeps saying that he is going to “murder” one or more of the people around him, as he becomes a lodger in the challenging household.

This is quite a tightly written novel where there is a full set of motives. The police appear and feature as amusing characters, trying to do their best, but they seem largely ineffective. Not that they are figures of fun, but their questioning does not seem to bring results. There is a painful description of a maid who is a refugee from the German forces; while she is quite faithfully described she reflects a time when the full horror of the treatment of Jews is only just emerging. So she is seem as sensitive and melodramatic when perhaps later views would have been more sympathetic.

This is perhaps not the best of the Golden age novels, but it is a deeply interesting portrayal of a time and the people living through it. The lesser characters are well described, as even the cameo of an evacuee’s father takes its place in the overall picture of a horrible head master. This book features some truly chilling moments, and yet given the time at which it was written almost takes it into a picture of a country at war, when not everyone ‘pulled together’.  I recommend it as a gripping read of characters stuck together by fate, destruction being a real possibility.