Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen – P G Wodehouse

I’m a recent convert to the joys of P G Wodehouse but I can definitely say that Bertie Wooster is one of my all-time favourite characters. I love Bertie. I can’t say quite yet that the Jeeves & Wooster novels are my favourite Wodehouse because I haven’t read any Psmith or Mulliner, but they couldn’t be as funny, witty & mad as Bertie & Jeeves, could they? On Wednesday I spent the day in the city after dropping my car off for a service. I wanted something to read on the train & I chose Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by P G Wodehouse. I liked the idea of another novel starring Bertram Wooster but this one came with aunts & the cover promised a cat so I knew I was set for an amusing read. Two train journeys, lunch & half an hour sitting in the gorgeous Exhibition gardens on a perfect autumn day later, I’d laughed & chuckled my way through all but 30pp of Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen.

The plot, as always, is completely mad, full of things that could only happen to Bertie Wooster. Bertie wakes up one morning with spots on his chest. On the recommendation of a doctor (who thinks he spends too much time drinking cocktails & smoking), he decides to spend some time in the country & ends up staying in a cottage in Maiden Eggesford, organised for him by his Aunt Dahlia who’s staying at nearby Eggesford Hall with some friends who own a horse entered in a local race. On his way to lunch at Eggesford Hall, Bertie ends up by mistake at Eggesford Court, another stately home in the area owned by a horse racing rival of Aunt Dahlia’s friends. He’s accosted by the hunting-crop wielding owner of the Court, Mr Cook, who also happens to be the father of Vanessa, one of the many girls Bertie has been unluckily in love with over the course of his life.

Mr Cook accuses Bertie of attempting to steal a cat, a stray that lives in the stables & is the favourite companion of his horse, Potato Chip. Mr Cook is as single-minded about his horse’s welfare as Lord Emsworth ever was about the Empress of Blandings & Potato Chip pines when the cat is not there. Mr Cook chases Bertie off the premises & this is the beginning of a series of increasingly farcical events including repeated attempts by Aunt Dahlia to steal the cat (she has a large bet on her host’s horse, Simla, & is trying to nobble the opposition), Bertie trying to avoid being disembowelled by Vanessa Cook’s jealous ex-fiance, & an African explorer called Major Plank trying to remember where he’s met Bertie before while telling gruesome stories of his African adventures.

It’s not so much the adventures as the way Bertie narrates them that’s the charm of these books. In nearly every one, Bertie is imposed upon by bossy young women or overbearing aunts. He falls in love or tries to escape matrimonial entanglements. He’s attacked by jealous young men who think he’s stealing their girlfriends or by fathers who think he’s a fortune hunter. Bertie’s tangled explanations, coupled with Jeeves’s deadpan replies are just priceless.

‘What are those things circumstances have, Jeeves?’ I said.
‘You know what I mean. You talk of a something of circumstances which leads to something. Cats enter into it, if I’m not wrong.’
‘Would concatenation be the word you are seeking?’
‘That’s right. It was on the tip of my tongue. Do concatenations of circumstances arise?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Well, one has arisen now. The facts are these. When we were in London, I formed a slight acquaintance with a Miss Cook who turns out to be the daughter of the chap who owns the horse which thinks so highly of that cat. She had a spot of trouble with the police, and her father summoned her home to see that she didn’t get into more. So she is now at Eggesford Court. Got the scenario so far?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘This caused her betrothed, a man named Porter, to follow her here in order to give her aid and comfort. Got that?’
‘Yes, sir. This frequently happens when two young hearts are sundered.’
‘Well, I met him today, and my presence in Maiden Eggesford came as a surprise to him.’
‘One can readily imagine it, sir.’
‘He took it for granted that I had come in pursuit of Miss Cook.’
‘Like young Lochinvar, when he came out of the West.’
The name was new to me, but I didn’t ask for further details. I saw that he was following the plot, and it never does, when you are telling a story, to wander off into side issues.

I also recently bought this gorgeous Vintage Classics edition called Week-End Wodehouse. It’s a compilation of bits & pieces from the Wodehouse canon with original line drawings by Kerr. It was originally published in 1939. I couldn’t resist buying it for the lovely Art Deco cover art but also because I love Wodehouse & just can’t get enough of his witty words.

The Royal Wedding

On the day of the wedding of Prince William & Kate Middleton, here are a few of my favourite pictures from royal weddings of the past. Queen Victoria famously proposed to Prince Albert (photo above from and her dress set the fashion for white wedding dresses when they married in 1840.

Victoria & Albert’s eldest son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales married Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 (photo from A beautiful bride & another wedding that stopped the nation.

Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Alix of Hesse married Tsar Nicholas II in 1894 (photo from A marriage that began & ended in tragedy but Nicholas & Alexandra were a devoted couple, very much in love until their deaths during the Russian Revolution.

I’ll be sitting up tonight to watch the whole thing. Luckily, it all begins at about 7.30pm Melbourne time so I won’t have to prop my eyes open to stay awake. Abby & I will settle down with a pot of tea & enjoy all the pageantry. Fingers crossed that it doesn’t rain.

The Hanging Wood – Martin Edwards

How could you do that to your own brother? These words, spoken by Orla Payne, echo throughout the book. Sibling relationships are at the heart of The Hanging Wood, the latest in the Lake District series of mysteries by Martin Edwards, one of my favourite writers of contemporary crime fiction. Twenty years ago, Orla Payne’s teenage brother, Callum Hinds, disappeared. When their Uncle Philip is questioned by the police after his brother names him as a suspect & then commits suicide, the case is quickly wrapped up, even though Callum’s body hadn’t been found & there seemed to be no real motive for Philip to murder his nephew. Philip was a quiet man who enjoyed the visits of his niece & nephew. There was no indication that his interest in them was unnatural.

Orla & Callum’s childhood had already been disrupted by the breakdown of their parents’ marriage. The children lived with their mother, Niamh, who had married Kit Payne. Orla took her stepfather’s surname but Callum never accepted him. Callum stayed in contact with his father, Mike, & often visited his farm. Philip lived nearby in a derelict cottage in a place called the Hanging Wood. The farm & the wood are adjacent to a holiday resort, a very upmarket caravan park, owned by the Madsen brothers, Gareth & Bryan. The madsens are local bigwigs with a lot of local influence. Their generous financial support of police initiatives puts Hannah under extra pressure from her boss to wrap up the investigation quickly.

Also nearby is St Herbert’s, a residential library established by a local landowner. It’s here that Orla Payne, returning to the Lake District after years away, meets Daniel Kind. Daniel is a historian & writer, working on his latest book at the library & Orla tells him that she doesn’t believe her Uncle Philip murdered Callum. Daniel suggests that Orla call DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the Cold Case Review Team at Cumbria Constabulary. Orla’s phone calls to the Team are muddled by alcohol &, when she can’t explain her reasons for her theories about her brother’s disappearance, she hangs up in despair. When she is found dead shortly after, in a grain silo on her father’s farm, Hannah feels compelled to investigate the case further.

Hannah’s investigations stir up old rivalries & motives in a satisfyingly complex plot that had me guessing right to the end. All my guesses were completely wrong of course, that goes without saying!  Daniel & Hannah work well together on this investigation. Daniel is able to learn a lot about the Madsen & Hinds families & the tangled relationships of the people in the small community that was touched by Callum’s disappearance. Hannah’s investigation is fuelled by her guilt about Orla’s death & the possibility that it might not have been suicide. What if Orla was right? If Philip wasn’t responsible, the person behind Callum’s disappearance could still be out there.

Apart from the convoluted plots, the reason I love this series is the relationship between Hannah & Daniel. Throughout the series, they have both been in relationships but at the beginning of this book, they’re both single. Daniel has broken up with Miranda & is living with his sister, Louise, while she looks for a place of her own. Hannah has separated from Marc but hasn’t quite been able to make a decisive break. Daniel & Hannah have become good friends but there’s a spark of attraction between them that keeps the reader on tenterhooks. This is a very satisfying book with enough clues & red herrings to keep any mystery lover up half the night to finish it.

The Tinker & the Snow Goose

Every year, around Remembrance Day & Anzac Day, I find myself reading books about WWI & WWII. Fiction, non-fiction, letters, diaries, poetry. I’m endlessly fascinated & humbled to read about the experiences of men & women who gave up the comfortable, certain lives they knew & joined the forces or worked on the Home Front to help the war effort in any way they could. A few months ago, Lynne, better known as Dovegreyreader, sent me a copy of her father’s memoir of his war service, Bugle Boy. Len Chester is better known to the readers of Lynne’s blog as The Tinker & he makes regular appearances there, most recently, eating a hot cross bun on Good Friday.

Len served throughout WWII as a Boy Bugler in the Royal Marines, having joined up just a few months before the beginning of the war at the age of fourteen. That’s the first shock to get over. Fourteen years old. It seems like something out of Nelson’s Navy and, as Len soon discovers, some of the routines & punishments on board ship hadn’t moved on much since Nelson’s day. Len soon recovers from the shock of having to make his own bed to regulation standard (having never made his own bed before), being woken by Reveille at 6am, polishing the cork floor till it shone like a mirror and getting his uniform ready to go on parade at 8am. Len was a fast learner & soon knew all the tricks of the barrack-wise. When his parents came to visit for the first time, he marched up to the Sergeant on the gate to ask permission for leave.

Drawing myself up to my full height, I halted in front of the Sergeant. 
‘PO/x 3943 Boy Bugler L Chester, permission to leave barracks Sergeant.’ 
My father was bursting with pride and my mother had tears in her eyes; I was terrified. Whilst I stood there with my proud parents watching, he did a 360-degree inspection of me, including a bird’s eye view of my cap cover, because I’m sure he was 7’6” tall. 
‘You have dust in the welts of your boots, go back and clean them properly.’ 
My father’s pride at that moment knew no bounds, my mother shed some more tears and I was completely humiliated.

Of course, Len was an old hand of three weeks standing so he just went back to his bunk, sat there for a few minutes, went back to the Sergeant & was passed through with no problems. After his initial training, Len was posted to HMS Iron Duke stationed at Scapa Flow, the supposedly impregnable base of the Royal Navy in the north. An air raid in March 1940 almost ended Len’s career in the Marines.

I was very lucky during that raid as I was sent with a message to the bomb area and had to move along the starboard waist when I heard the whine of a plane diving. I didn’t wait but ran as fast as I could, easily breaking the four-minute mile, undoing eight cleats on an armoured door and getting inside to safety. The plane machine-gunned all down the starboard side and after the raid I dug a bullet out of the decking where, a short time before, I had run. I still have that bullet – it is a tracer bullet – but it hasn’t got my name on it.

The most dangerous part of Len’s war service was when his ship was part of the Arctic Convoy fleet. He was now on HMS King George V, a 35,000-ton battleship. At the age of 16 & with two years service, Len was looked on as an “old soldier”, and he found the life on board more agreeable even though life was more precarious. The ship had a Royal Marine band so he had the company of the other band members instead of just himself and another boy bugler who were kept apart from the other seamen. The task of HMS King George V was to keep between the Norwegian shore & the convoy of ships sailing from Scapa Flow to Russia. The bitter cold meant that life on board was a constant struggle to keep the ship clear of ice which could damage the guns. Mines were the main danger as the German battleship Tirpitz was often expected but it never actually put to sea.

Incredibly, the men who served on the Arctic Convoys were never awarded a campaign medal. The Arctic Association was formed to remedy this & eventually a lapel badge, the Arctic Star, was awarded & a white beret could be worn. There are very few men left who have the distinction of wearing the white beret but Len Chester is one of them,

It isn’t truly white, actually; it has a yellow shading to denote the fact that blood turns yellow when frozen on ice.

After the Arctic Convoys, Len was posted to the Mediterranean and, when he turned 18 in April 1943, he transferred to the Royal Marines. After training, he was drafted to HMS Glasgow and served in the Far East. Len’s story is a fascinating one. I don’t think the current generation really has any idea of the hardships endured by the men & women of the war generation & that’s why it’s so important that stories like Bugle Boy are written down & published. Len credits his late wife, Vera, & daughter, Lynne, with pushing him into writing down his story & anyone who reads the book can only thank them for their persistence.

I also read Paul Gallico’s lovely story, The Snow Goose, as part of my Anzac Day reading. I know I’ve read this story before but it’s been a very long time & I loved reading it again. My local Classic FM station sometimes plays the radio version of The Snow Goose with Herbert Marshall as narrator & playing Philip, usually around Remembrance Day. This is a very moving production. Herbert Marshall had a beautiful voice, I always loved him in two of my favourite movies, The Letter with Bette Davis & The Enchanted Cottage with Robert Young & Dorothy McGuire.  

The Snow Goose is a fable about innocence, beauty, courage & love. Set on the wild Essex coast, it’s the story of Philip Rhayader, a man who sees himself as an outcast because he has a hunchback & a crippled hand. He retreats to a lighthouse where he sets up a sanctuary for the birds who stop there on their migration. He also paints and sails & lives a completely solitary life. One day, a young girl, Frith, comes to him with a snow goose, wounded by hunters. Together they heal the goose & form a tentative friendship. Frith is timid & initially frightened of Philip’s appearance but she grows in confidence. The snow goose, a rare visitor from Canada, continues to return to Philip every year on her migration. For several years, the snow goose doesn’t visit & Philip realises how much he has come to rely on Frith’s visits. Then, in the first year of WWII, the snow goose returns, just as Philip is about to join the great flotilla of boats that set out to Dunkirk to help with the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Frith watches Philip set off in his tiny boat with the snow goose soaring overhead & waits for his return. This is such a gentle story, but its themes of friendship, love & sacrifice are very relevant to Anzac Day & every other day of the year.

Sunday poetry – Abraham Cowley

Abraham Cowley (photo above from was another of the Cavalier poets of the 17th century. Born in 1618, he studied at Cambridge but went to Oxford at the outbreak of the Civil War & is said to have become a spy for the Royalist cause. His loyalty was questioned in later years & he never felt he received his due after the Restoration. I especially like the second verse of this poem, The Wish. A small house, large garden, few friends & many books, I can’t argue with that!

Well then; I now do plainly see,
This busy world and I shall ne’er agree;
The very honey of all earthly joy
Does of all meats the soonest cloy,
And they, methinks, deserve my pity,
Who fo it can endure the stings,
The crowd, and buzz, and murmerings
Of this great hive, the city.

Ah, yet, e’er I descend to th’ grave
May I a small house, and large garden have!
And a few friends, and many books, both true,
Both wise, and both delightful too!
And since love ne’er will from me flee,
A mistress moderately fair,
And good as guardian-angels are,
Only belov’d, and loving me!

Oh, fountains, when in you shall I
My self, eas’d of unpeaceful thoughts, espy?
O fields! O woods! when, when shall I be made
The happy tenant of your shade?
Here’s the spring-head of pleasure’s flood;
Where all the riches lie, that she
Has coin’d and stamp’d for good.

Pride and ambition here,
Only in far-fetch’d metaphors appear;
Here nought but winds can hurtful murmurs scatter;
And nought but echo flatter.
The gods when they descended hither
From Heav’n did always choose their way;
And therefore we may boldly say,
That ’tis the way too thither.

How happy here should I,
And on dear She live, and embracing die?
She ho is all the world, and can exclude
In deserts solitude.
I should have then this only fear,
Lest men, when they my pleasures see,
Should hither throng to live like me,
And so make a city here.

A very happy & peaceful Easter to everyone.

The Letters of T S Eliot Volume 2 1923-1925 – ed by Valerie Eliot & Hugh Haughton

I’ve been waiting for the publication of Volume 2 of T S Eliot’s letters for 20 years. That’s how long ago Volume 1 was published. As this Volume only covers three years, 1923-1925, & is over 800pp long, I don’t know if I’ll be around to see the end of the project. I’d like to think I’ll see at least a couple more Volumes though. I love reading letters. It took me a few weeks to be in the right mood to pick this book up but, once I did, I couldn’t stop reading. Several times I read 100pp in a sitting. My neck & wrists would be sore & I’d think I would have to stop. Then, I’d see that the next letter was to Virginia Woolf & the next one to Ottoline Morrell & I’d read just a few more pages. I don’t want to deceive you that the book is full of the Bloomsbury Group. Eliot was only on the fringes of the group &, apart from the Woolfs & Lady Ottoline, the only other Bloomsbury correspondent is Mary Hutchinson, Clive Bell’s mistress.

Most of the letters are concerned with Eliot’s involvement with the Criterion literary quarterly. In the three years covered by this volume, Eliot was working full-time at Lloyd’s Bank & editing the Criterion in the evenings & weekends. The Criterion was bankrolled by Lady Rothermere, wife of a newspaper baron. It was a vanity project for her, really, but she didn’t interfere in the editorial decisions & Eliot shaped the quarterly to reflect his own ideas about art, literature & criticism. Unfortunately Eliot received no salary for his work so he was forced to stay at Lloyds, a decision that had a detrimental effect on his health & his own writing. He wrote virtually no poetry during this period, apart from the sequence that became The Hollow Men. He also began work on his play, Sweeney Agonistes. Apart from this, all his writing was criticism & editorials for the Criterion.

Literary connections are always uncertain. I am no longer very popular with the Nation people, because my political and social views are so reactionary and ultra-conservative. They have become gradually more so and I am losing the approval of the moderate and tepid whigs and Liberals who have most of the literary power. It is less offensive to be a Socialist nowadays than it is to be a Tory. I want to be able to say just what I think. But if I stay in the bank I shall never have time to say what I think. There is so much I want to do.  (To his Mother late February? 1924)

The hundreds of letters to the printer, publisher & contributors of the Criterion are fascinating. Eliot did all the work of chasing contributions, organising review copies, cajoling reluctant or slow writers to meet his deadlines, hurrying up the printers & making decisions about the font size of reviews as opposed to feature articles. His reach was enormous. He was soliciting articles from writers all over Europe & the US. He was always striving for that balance between serious articles & a famous name to put on the cover to attract readers. All this work was done with only occasional secretarial help in his own time.

The other major theme of the letters is his marriage & his wife, Vivien’s, ill-health. The Eliots were married in 1915 & Vivien’s health had been precarious from the start. She comes close to death several times during these three years, suffering from influenza, bronchitis, colitis, liver problems & rheumatism. The financial burden is just as great as the emotional strain as Eliot takes Vivien to see endless new doctors & tries to find a country cottage so she can live away from the fogs of London. He wrote to Virginia Woolf asking her to be on the lookout for something suitable,

I don’t know whether you are in London. I hope at Rodmell. Now what we want – again!- is a cottage, a barn, a stable, or a shed, or even a bit of land on which a sectional bungalow could be put up – it doesn’t matter what, so long as it is in the country, and is cheap. Ever since we have been without even that miserable place at Fishbourne we have pined more and more. It’s the only way to get out of London – however miserable, we want something of our own. So if you hear of anything, or can find anything…We only want to go and live in the country, and if Lady R. would only provide a possible salary – which is not to be hoped – we should go at once. (To Virginia Woolf February 4th 1925)

By mid 1925, Eliot’s own health had broken down & he was on the verge of a breakdown. He blamed himself for Vivien’s ill-health but also felt trapped by it,

In the last ten years – gradually, but deliberately – I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately – in order to endure, in order not to feel – but it has killed V. In leaving the bank I hope to become less a machine – but yet I am frightened – because I don’t know what it will do to me – and to V – should I come alive again. I have deliberately killed my senses – I have deliberately died – in order to go on with the outward form of living – This I did in 1915. What will happen if I live again? ‘I am I’ but with what feelings, with what results to others – Have I the right to be I – But the dilemma – to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? … Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying? (To John Middleton Murry mid-April? 1925)

Fortunately, by the end of 1925, Eliot’s financial worries had eased. He was able to leave Lloyds when he was offered a position as editor of a new literary quarterly to be called the New Criterion. It was to be published by a new house, Faber & Gwyer (later Faber & Faber), with whom Eliot would be associated for the rest of his life. There’s a photo of Eliot in the book, taken at around this time. He’s standing outside the offices of Faber & Gwyer, still looking like a banker, in his bowler hat, leaning on his umbrella. He looks pale, thin & weary but happy. I’m looking forward to the next Volume of letters to find out what happens next. I hope I don’t have to wait another twenty years!

Almayer’s Folly – Joseph Conrad

One of the things I love about reading groups is that they force you to at least try books outside your usual comfort zone. I’ve just finished reading Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad with my 19th century group. I’ve never been a fan of Conrad. I read Heart of Darkness at school & two of his other novels, The Secret Agent & Under Western Eyes, with this group & none of them engaged me. When I saw Almayer’s Folly in the list of books I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. Conrad again & set in Borneo, oh dear. Surprisingly, I enjoyed Almayer’s Folly very much.

Kaspar Almayer is a disappointed man. He feels European, although he was born in the East & has never visited Europe. He had great ambitions as a young man when he was apprenticed as a clerk to a trader in Macassar. After a year’s clerking, he joins the service of Lingard, a charismatic merchant who is said to have a map showing the whereabouts of a great treasure in the interior of the country. Almayer becomes a surrogate son to Lingard & eventually marries Lingard’s adopted daughter. He hopes to inherit Lingard’s fortune & discover the secret of the treasure. This girl (we never know her name) was rescued by Lingard after a battle with some Malay pirates. Lingard sends her to a convent school to be brought up as a European but he has no idea of her inner thoughts. She had expected to become the old man’s concubine, maybe his wife, & she is pragmatically resigned to that role. Instead, Lingard sends her to the convent & then marries her off to a clerk.

But her destiny in the rough hands of the old sea-dog, acting under unreasonable impulses of the heart, took a strange and to her a terrible shape. She bore it all – the restraint and the teaching and the new faith – with calm submission, concealing her hate and contempt for all that new life…And dressed in the hateful finery of Europe, the centre of an interested circle of Batavian society, the young convert stood before the altar with an unknown and sulky-looking white man. For Almayer was uneasy, a little disgusted, and greatly inclined to run away.

Such a marriage with two such unwilling partners was destined for failure. Twenty years later, they are still miserably together. Almayer’s business has dwindled to almost nothing. His father-in-law disappeared up the river one day, having used all his money on his futile treasure hunts. The trading business has been taken over by the Arabs. Almayer’s boast that he’s the only white man on the river, as though this were an advantage, seems increasingly hollow. Almayer & his wife have nothing but contempt for each other. Almayer has never loved or respected his wife. He is ashamed of having married a native woman & she is contemptuous of his lack of success in business. She spends her days chewing betel nuts, making sarongs for the servants out of the curtains & breaking up the furniture to feed the kitchen fire, growing more and more resentful & bitter.

Almayer’s only consolation is his daughter, Nina.  He sends Nina to school under the protection of a trader’s wife but Nina learns the subtle discrimination of white, colonial society towards those of mixed race. Beautiful & proud, Nina returns home where she increasingly comes under the influence of her mother, who tells her stories of her Malay pirate forebears. Almayer still dreams of making a fortune & taking Nina to Amsterdam. He imagines they will be admitted to the best society & Nina will be feted for her beauty & charm.  He decides to try to find Lingard’s treasure one more time & enlists the help of a Balinese prince, Dain Maroola. Dain & Nina fall in love, encouraged in their secret meetings by Mrs Almayer.

(Nina) had little belief and no sympathy for her father’s dreams; but the savage ravings of her mother chanced to strike a responsive chord, deep down somewhere in her despairing heart; and she dreamed dreams of her own with the persistent absorption of a captive thinking of liberty within the walls of his prison cell. With the coming of Dain she found the road to freedom by obeying the voice of the new-born impulses, and with surprised joy she thought she could read in his eyes the answer to all the questionings of her heart.

Dain falls foul of the Dutch rulers of the province when he buys gunpowder from Almayer & kills two Dutch sailors during a fight. He’s now on the run & refuses to leave without Nina. He pays Mrs Almayer a rich dowry & she comes up with a plan that will allow the lovers to escape & thwart all her husband’s plans at the same time. Almayer is devastated when he discovers that Nina loves Dain. He has deluded himself that, because he is of European blood, he & his daughter are superior to the native population. All the assumptions of colonisers throughout history are embodied in Almayer’s prejudices against his wife, his servants, the Arab traders & the Malay inhabitants of the country.

The title of the book has many meanings. Almayer’s folly could be his high opinion of himself, his love for his daughter that turns to disappointment & bitterness, the grand house he builds that he never lives in or his assumption of equality with the Dutch authorities who despise him.

For many years he had listened to the passionless and soothing murmur that sometimes was the song of hope, at times the song of triumph, of encouragement; more often the whisper of consolation that spoke of better days to come. For so many years! So many years! And now to the accompaniment of that murmur he listened to the slow and painful beating of his heart. He listened attentively, wondering at the regularity of its beats… No heart could suffer so and beat so steadily for long. Those regular strokes as of a muffled hammer that rang in his ears must stop soon. Still beating unceasing and cruel…How much longer? O God! How much longer?

Almayer’s Folly
is an absorbing look at one man’s path through life from hope to disappointment, never realising that his own pride & narrow-mindedness are the causes of his lost ambitions.

The Unbearable Bassington – Saki

Serendipity in my online reading group means that there will be times when we all want to read the same book at the same time. It’s like viral marketing. It’s usually not the latest blockbuster though, it’s more likely to be a book published 50-100 years ago. Last week, Simon who blogs at Stuck In A Book & Hayley from Desperate Reader discovered that they were both reading Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington. Their enthusiasm led to several other members muttering that they were sure they had a Complete Saki somewhere or racing out to their nearest charity shop on the off-chance of finding an ancient Penguin lurking on the shelves. One of our members who loves to quote funny or extraordinary passages from her latest book began tantalising the Saki-less ones with quotes. I tried to borrow a copy from the library but it was out so I downloaded a copy to my e-reader. Suddenly, half a dozen of us were all reading this wonderful novella, a totally unplanned group read. Elaine from Random Jottings has also just posted about it.

The story is about the relationship between mother & son. Francesca Bassington is still a beautiful woman in her 40s but she is now a widow & not well-off. She lives in a house bequeathed to her by a friend but only until the friend’s daughter marries. Then the daughter will inherit. When the story begins, Francesca is scheming to marry her son, Comus, to this girl, Emmeline Chetrof. Comus is a very handsome young man but seems to have no moral compass & no instinct for self- preservation either. He seems almost wilfully determined to sabotage his chances, as Francesca realises,

“Comus,” she said quietly and wearily, “you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.” ”I think,” said Comus, “ that is the best description that anyone has ever given of me.”

We first meet him as a prefect at his school, about to punish a new boy who is Emmeline’s younger brother. Naturally when Emmeline hears of this, any chance of romance for Comus is dashed. Francesca’s brother Henry, a pompous politician, organises a job for Comus as secretary to the next Governor of the West Indies. Comus puts his name to a scathing letter accusing the said Governor of undiplomatic doings & sends it to the Times. The actual writer of the letter, Courtenay Youghal, is a rising young politician & Comus’s mentor. Francesca encourages Comus to court Elaine de Frey, a young heiress & soon Comus & Youghal are rivals in love.

At this point, I wasn’t sure who the unbearable Bassington of the title was meant to be. Both Francesca & Comus seemed to have no redeeming features at all. Comus is a selfish sponger & Francesca a bored society woman whose only interest in her son appears to be finding a way to get him off her hands – preferably in the direction of a wealthy wife. Gradually though, Comus’s flippancy is shown to hide a degree of self-awareness & this only deepens the sense of cross purposes & missed chances for both Comus & his mother. Then, Saki turns everything around with a couple of chapters that are so poignant & moving that all my judgments & expectations had to be turned around.

Saki is a clever, witty writer. He’s best-known for his short stories, which I haven’t read but am now very keen to get my hands on. There’s something almost Wildean about the comments & observations in this book. Here he is on an unwelcome guest,

“Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once.”

on a woman who supports Free Trade,

“I wonder,” said Lady Caroline, in her gently questioning voice; “a woman whose dresses are made in Paris and whose marriage has been made in heaven might be equally biased for and against free imports.”

and on a fashionable young artist,

“There are two manners of receiving recognition: one is to be discovered so long after one’s death that one’s grandchildren have to write to the papers to establish the relationship; the other is to be discovered, like the infant Moses, at the very outset of one’s career.”

The Unbearable Bassington is, on one level, a portrait of Edwardian society, a portrait of bored, self-absorbed people with no moral conscience or real feeling about anything. On another level, it’s the poignant story of a mother-son relationship haunted by misunderstandings & faults on both sides. So much emotion packed into such a short book, a novella really, only just over 100pp. I loved it & I’ll definitely be looking out for more Saki. Capuchin Classics have recently reprinted The Unbearable Bassington & I downloaded my free copy from

Sunday poetry – John Suckling

I’ve just picked up Reprobates by John Stubbs from the library (it’s had rave reviews so I’m looking forward to reading it) so it’s appropriate that today’s Sunday poetry is by Sir John Suckling, one of the Cavalier poets featuring in John Stubbs’ book. The portrait of Suckling by Van Dyck above is from He was a leader of the Royalist party at Court during the Civil War, was involved in various ill-conceived plots to help the King, fled into exile in France & came to a sad end. He’s said to have committed suicide by taking poison. His reputation today rests on the witty love poems he wrote, such as this one, The Constant Lover. The opening lines are quite cynical, in the style of John Donne, but the ending is tender & gentle.

Out upon it! I have lov’d
Three whole days together;
And am like to love three more,
If it prove fair weather.

Time shall moult away his wings,
Ere he shall discover
In the whole wide world again
Such a constant lover.

But the spite on ‘t is, no praise
Is due at all to me:
Love with me had made no stays,
Had it any been but she.

Had it any been but she,
And that very face,
There had been at least ere this
A dozen dozen in her place.