The Portuguese Escape – Ann Bridge

After I finished reading The Lighthearted Quest, the first of the Julia Probyn series by Ann Bridge, I could barely wait to read the second book. As the title suggests, this time Julia’s in Lisbon, covering a royal wedding for one of her newspapers. Naturally she’s staying with the bride’s family which gives her an entreé into high society. Julia’s friend, Major Hugh Torrens, who she met in Morocco when she was searching for her missing cousin, Colin, is also in Lisbon. He works for British Intelligence & has been given the task of getting a Hungarian priest, Father Antal Horvath, out of Communist Hungary to the United States so that he can tell the West what’s really happening behind the Iron Curtain. He must go through Portugal because the Vatican has an emissary there to talk to him about the fate of a Cardinal imprisoned by the Communists.

As the book begins, another Hungarian refugee is making headlines. Young Countess Hetta Páloczy was left behind when her parents had to suddenly flee during the Soviet invasion. Hetta has spent the last six years first in her convent school & then, when the convents were shut down, working as a cook in a country village for Father Horvath. At the age of 22, she arrives in Lisbon as the result of an exchange & is reunited with her mother, a social climbing woman who would give her right arm for an invitation to the royal wedding which is the only topic of conversation at cocktail parties & receptions. Hetta is truly an innocent abroad but she knows her own mind. She refuses to speak to journalists when she first arrives, insists on an explanation for everything asked of her &, although she has nothing in common with her mother & her values, she is intent on rebuilding their relationship. Hetta’s stories of life under Communist rule could make her a celebrity but she refuses to talk to idle people who see her as just the new sensation,

The fact was that Hetta Páloczy found herself rather up against the western world as presented to her at Estoril in many of its aspects, of which the social ease, the urbane worldly wisdom of her mother’s confessor was most definitely one. The richly-dressed congregation at Mass on Sundays, with shiny cars waiting outside, the interior richness of the churches themselves, with all their treasures displayed, not hidden away in the deep reed thatch of some peasant’s house for security – the very safety of it all jarred on her, after the passionate devotion of the people at home, holding with such stubborn intensity to the practice of their religion in the face of persecution and danger.

Richard Atherley, Secretary to the British Ambassador in Lisbon, takes Hetta under his wing & his protective feelings soon become something more. When Torrens asks Hetta to help him identify Father Horvath, she is pleased to think she will see her mentor again but Atherley begins to realise the danger she may be in as they are followed around Lisbon by thugs who speak Spanish with German accents. His fears are realised when Hetta is kidnapped on her way to visit Father Horvath at Gralheira, the Duke of Ericeira’s country estate where Julia has arranged  for him to stay until he can leave the country. A further emotional complication is that Richard’s former mistress, the elegant Mme de Vermeil has arrived in Lisbon for the royal wedding, & Hetta soon discovers their relationship.

The Portuguese Escape is a terrific adventure story with car chases, espionage & a plot so convoluted that I can’t even begin to summarise it. The descriptions of Lisbon & the countryside are wonderful, it’s almost like reading a beautifully written travel narrative at times & the reader learns of the culture & some of the history of Portugal as well. This isn’t the kind of thriller that could be set anywhere. Even the car chases are written so that we can enjoy the countryside they’re all racing through. Julia is magnificent as always. She has the Duke & his family completely entranced & has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Portuguese road networks that mere mortals can only marvel at. I could barely turn the e-pages fast enough to find out what would happen next. I’ve already downloaded the rest of the series, & it won’t be long before I move on to The Numbered Account, set in the world of Swiss bank accounts & a Greek heiress who is engaged to Julia’s cousin, Colin.

My Father as I Recall Him – Mamie Dickens

The bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens is coming up in 2012 & already there are many events planned & books to be published about this writer who is probably second only to Shakespeare in fame & affection. I’ve loved Dickens’s novels for as long as I can remember & I plan to read Martin Chuzzlewit & Barnaby Rudge next year as they’re the only two of the novels I haven’t read yet. I’ve never found the titles very appealing for some reason. Why is David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby an inviting title for a novel & these two are not? I may be pleasantly surprised & become as fond of Barnaby & Martin as I am of so many other characters in the novels.

I’ve also read many biographies of Dickens. Michael Slater’s magnificent biography will be hard to beat but I am looking forward to Claire Tomalin’s book which is on its way to me right now. I love Tomalin’s writing & one of my favourite biographies is her book on Ellen Ternan & Dickens, The Invisible Woman. In anticipation of all this Dickensmania to come over the next 12 months, I’ve just read this delightful book by Dickens’s daughter, Mamie. My Father as I Recall Him (picture from here) is only 50pp long & is brimming over with love & affection for the man who was adored & admired by his daughter without reservation.

The book was written at the end of Mamie’s life in the 1890s & is a collection of stories & anecdotes about Dickens as a father, a friend & a writer. The only biography of her father that Mamie recommends is John Forster’s quasi-authorized book & Mamie never mentions the fact that her parents had separated or, of course, that her father had a mistress. This is Dickens as a great man who loved his home & family & was never happier than when he was among them. This was certainly one aspect of Dickens & Mamie’s book is the source for many anecdotes that have appeared in every book about Dickens written since. One of the most famous stories, about Gad’s Hill House, is almost like a fairy tale,

As a “very queer small boy” he used to walk up to the house – it stood at the summit of a high hill – on holidays, or when his heart ached for a “great treat”. He would stand and look at it, for as a little fellow he had a wonderful liking and admiration for the house, and it was, to him, like no other house he had ever seen. He would walk up and down before it with his father, gazing at it with delight, and the latter would tell him that perhaps if he worked hard, was industrious, and grew up to be a good man, he might some day come to live in that very house.

Of course he did just that, living at Gad’s Hill for the last years of his life. Another famous story shows how absorbed Dickens became when writing. Normally he was left quite alone when he was working but, after Mamie had been ill, Dickens asked if she would like to lie on the sofa in his study while she convalesced.

On one of these mornings, I was lying on the sofa endeavouring to keep perfectly quiet, while my father wrote busily and rapidly at his desk, when he suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing, me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice. Ceasing this soon, however, he returned once more to his desk, where he remained silently writing until luncheon time…for the time being he had not only lost sight of his surroundings, but had actually become in action, as in imagination, the creature of his pen.

The last years of Dickens’s life were blighted by illness, both physical & emotional. His last reading tour of the United States was an act of will that almost killed him. The readings took so much emotional energy, especially the sensational scenes like the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist that Dickens himself wondered how he would ever get through the tour.

“It likewise happens, not seldom, that I am so dead beat when I come off the stage, that they lay me down on a sofa after I have been washed and dressed, and I lie there extremely faint for a quarter of an hour. In that time I rally and come right again.”

Dickens was returning from France one day in 1865 with Ellen Ternan & her mother when their train was derailed at Staplehurst in Kent. The shock of this incident never left him for the final years of his life as, although not physically hurt, Dickens helped to tend the injured & saw people die from their injuries. The fear that his relationship with Ellen would be discovered must also have affected him, although this is not mentioned in Mamie’s book. Dickens wrote of the sense of dread he felt whenever he had to travel by train & Mamie saw how badly he was affected,

…on one occasion, which I especially recall, while we were on our way home from London to our little country station, Higham, where the carriage was to meet us, my father suddenly clutched the arms of the railway carriage seat, while his face grew ashy pale, and great drops of perspiration stood upon his forehead, and though he tried hard to master the dread, it was so strong that he had to leave the train at the next station. The accident had left its impression upon the memory, and it was destined never to be effaced.

Mamie writes movingly of Dickens’s death. She & her sister, Katey, were summoned to Gad’s Hill by their Aunt Georgina after her father became ill.

All through the night we watched him – my sister on one side of the couch, my aunt on the other, and I keeping hot bricks to the feet which nothing could warm, hoping and praying that he might open his eyes and look at us, and know us once again. But he never moved, never opened his eyes, never showed a sign of consciousness through all the long night…Later, in the evening of this day, at ten minutes past six, we saw a shudder pass over our dear father, he heaved a deep sigh, a large tear rolled down his face and at that instant his spirit left us. As we saw the dark shadow pass from his face, leaving it so calm and beautiful in the peace and majesty of death, I think there was not one of us who would have wished, could we have had the power, to recall his spirit to earth.

Mamie’s book is full of a daughter’s memories of a much-loved father. There are many Dickensian moments at Christmas, on holidays, practical jokes played on family & friends. The cover of the book shows Dickens & the illustrator John Leech dancing with Mamie & Katey. The girls had tried to teach the two men to dance & the result was incongruous as Leech was over six feet tall & Dickens could never learn even the simplest dance although he was so clever at acting & performing in other ways. This was the private man that his daughter knew & although much is left unsaid, this is a book that any Dickens fan would enjoy reading. I downloaded my copy of My Father as I Recall Him free from ManyBooks.

Sunday Poetry – Farewells

A sadly Romantic poem today by Thomas Campbell (picture from here). Gilderoy was a 17th century highwayman who killed several people (including a judge & his treacherous mistress) on his way to the gallows or he was a Perthshire freebooter hanged with five of his gang. Although, if he killed his mistress, who is the speaker of the poem? The name Gilderoy may have come from the name of a 13th century Irish chief who raided Scotland & mean the red-haired boy. The poem was set to music in the 19th century.

The last, the fatal hour is come,
That bears my love from me:
I hear the dead note of the drum,
I mark the gallows tree!

The bell has toll’d; it shakes my heart;
The trumpet speaks thy name;
And must my Gilderoy depart,
To bear a death of shame?

No bosom trembles for thy doom;
No mourner wipes a tear
The gallows’ foot is all thy tomb,
The sledge is all thy bier.

Oh, Gilderoy! bethought we then
So soon, so sad, to part,
When first, in Roslin’s lovely glen,
You triumph’d o’er my heart?

Your locks they glitter’d to the sheen,
Your hunter garb was trim;
And graceful was the ribbon green
That bound your manly limb!

Ah! little thought I to deplore
Those limbs in fetters bound;
Or hear, upon thy scaffold floor,
The midnight hammer sound…

A V.A.D in France – Olive Dent

I’ve started my November Remembrance reading with Olive Dent’s short memoir of the two years she spent as a V.A.D (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nursing in France during WWI. Olive doesn’t tell the reader anything about her personal circumstances apart from the fact that she had no personal ties & could therefore volunteer to help the war effort. She becomes a St John’s Ambulance volunteer, takes some nursing classes & embarks for France with 100 other V.A.Ds in the late summer of 1915.

Olive & another girl are sent to a tent hospital set up on a racecourse outside a town. Although the Sister in charge is dismissive of them to begin with – no experience, totally untried etc – they soon show their worth. A camp hospital in France is nothing like a well-equipped civilian hospital in England,

The newcomer to a camp hospital finds matters very different to what she has been accustomed in England; no hot water, no taps, no sinks, no fires; no gas-stoves, a regular Hood’s “November” of negation. She probably finds the syringe has no suction, and all the cradles are in use, and there is none for the boy with bad trench feet, that there are only six wash-bowls for the washing of a hundred and forty patients, and that there is nothing but a testing stand, and a small syringe with which to help the medical officer through a dozen typhoid inoculations.

Improvisation becomes second nature. Scrimping & saving, borrowing a little of this & that from the next ward. All the staff have the same dedication to the soldiers they’re caring for. Olive’s hospital assessed wounded men to see if they needed to be sent back to England or could stay & be treated at the hospital for a quicker return to the front line. A coveted Blighty ticket would send a man home with a minor wound. Even though he would be given two tickets – one for the journey home & one to bring him back again –  it was still a blessing to be away from the front even for a short time.

The coming of winter brings new challenges. Living & working in tents can be quite cosy but the differing problems of snow & frost are feelingly described. Olive remarks that the only good thing about frost is that they know the men on the front line prefer it to snow which just adds to the mud & discomfort of the trenches. The wards are kept warm & dry but the trek to the mess & sleeping tents needed careful preparation.

Going to bed is a prodigious rite and ceremony. After a bath in a camp bath, which against the feeble force of chilblained fingers has a maximum resistance, immovability and inertia, and yet seems to possess a centre of gravity more elusive than mercury, one dons pyjamas, cholera belt, pneumonia jacket, bed socks and bed stockings as long and woolly as a Father Christmas’s, and then piles on the bed travelling rug, dressing gown, and fur coat. Even in bed the trials of active service do not end, on occasion. We found one girl lying in bed the other night with her umbrella up. The snow had melted and was trickling through the tent, and she was too tired to trouble about having matters righted. “I’m imagining it is a garden parasol, and I’m in a hammock, and it’s June.” Gorgeous imagination!

The hard work & the exhaustion contrast with the pleasure Olive gets from her work. The men she nurses are grateful for their care & the respite from the trenches. They put on a fancy dress party & half the men dress up as women so they can dance as the nurses aren’t permitted to dance with their patients. At Christmas, the wards are decorated with anything they can find, scraps of material, holly & greenery from the woods around the hospital.  The greatest pleasure for Olive is knowing that she’s doing her duty. Her patriotism shines through every page of this book. We may think that her attitude is naive but it comes through again & again in memoirs of the period. The British stiff upper lip, mustn’t let the side down, keep a cheerful face for our boys attitude is exemplified by Olive & her colleagues. The patients too realise that they have a job to do & don’t want to let their mates down. Even after the worst night, full of pain & suffering, Olive can still see the importance of her role & gives thanks that she can help.

One’s eyes smart and feel filled with salt as a man with life ebbing, – oh, so painfully quickly, – grasps one’s hand and says “Sister, God bless you.” The full meaning of the remark arrests one, its sanctity, its solemnity, the benedictory significance of the words spoken under such circumstances engulf one…. But the longest night ends and joy cometh with the morning. The restless tossings have ceased, the breathing is soft and regular. The dew-laden air accentuates the foetid smell of the wounds. I go to the door of the marquee to roll back the walls, and I lean for a moment against the bamboo pole, a surge of emotions overpowering me – aching pity, immeasurable sadness, a sense of human limitations – often indeed – human impotence. Then the joy of success, the transcendent happiness of helping to snatch back a life from the Gates of Death.

Olive Dent’s memoir isn’t great literature. Her prose is occasionally a little purple. Her judgements of men are often based on a class snobbery that was unconscious in a woman of her period. I could ignore all that because the book gives an immediate, enthusiastic, detailed account of active service nursing. This book can’t compare in literary quality to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. But, that’s not where the value of personal memoirs like this lies for me. A V.A.D in France was published in 1917 when the experiences were still raw & immediate. There was a great deal of poetry & prose published during the war but the public quickly grew tired of war memoirs once the war ended & it wasn’t until the late 1920s that the war weariness ended & readers & publishers wanted to read about it again. Testament of Youth benefited greatly from the 15 years of reflection that passed before Vera Brittain began writing it. I admired Olive’s courage, her unflappable initiative & her common sense, qualities that should never go out of fashion or be forgotten.

A Lighthearted Quest – Ann Bridge

I’m glad that A Lighthearted Quest is the first of a series because I’m looking forward to spending more time with Julia Probyn. Julia is a freelance journalist with private means who agrees to go out to Morocco to look for her cousin, Colin Monro. Colin is the son of a rather flustery widow. She owns an estate in Scotland that, until recently, was run by her brother-in-law. His recent death has brought Colin’s sister, Edina, home to look after things but she has a well-paid job in advertising in London, & doesn’t want to live at Glentoran indefinitely. Her salary also pays some of the bills. Colin hasn’t been in touch for months & all their letters & newspaper advertisements have met with silence. He was last heard of sailing a yacht around Casablanca & Gibraltar, buying & selling oranges. Julia agrees to go out to look for Colin, planning to supplement the meagre currency allowance with some articles for her newspaper clients.

Julia is practical & very determined. She’s also beautiful & has admirers in some very advantageous places such as the Foreign Office & various banks. Julia’s good looks lead some people to underestimate her, see her as a “dumb blonde” but they’re wrong. She’s the kind of no nonsense Englishwoman who asks questions & just expects to receive answers. This sometimes leads to over-confidence & gets her into trouble more than once on her adventures but I found her an endearing character. She also reads Nancy Mitford & Edith Wharton so I could approve of her literary taste as well. Published in 1956, the book is full of the details of travel & politics of the era. Some of the attitudes to women & colonialism are dated but they’re of their time & I enjoy books of this period & earlier without worrying too much about the sometimes questionable attitudes of the characters.

Julia goes out to Morocco on a freight ship &, after an unexpected stopover in Casablanca that allows her to meet up with her banking friend, she moves on to Tangier. No one she speaks to believes that Colin is selling oranges, they all assume he’s smuggling as everyone does along the coast. Tracking him down becomes complicated &, as money is running out, Julia gets a job as secretary to an eccentric Belgian archaeologist, Mme La Besse. Mme is excavating a Phoenician settlement with oil presses, wine vats &, hopefully, some undisturbed tombs.

Julia also makes contact with the mysterious Purcell, the owner of a bar where a lot of English expats congregate. Purcell is able to give Julia a few clues & she soon decides that whatever it is that Colin is smuggling, it’s something more important than a few luxuries for the beauty-starved English. He could even be involved with British Intelligence. She catches a glimpse of Colin & his red-bearded companion on the roof of a house in Tangier but loses him in the crowd. Julia’s search takes her to Fez & Marrakesh, into the souks & bazaars as well as the cocktail parties & hotels of the wealthy. She pieces together the story after adventures including a bomb blast & a night spent in an empty tomb to deter grave robbers. There’s even a hint of romance for Julia by the end of the book.

I loved the atmosphere of this book. I was reminded of Mary Stewart’s books with their resourceful heroines in exotic locations. Also of M M Kaye, who wrote a series of murder mysteries called Death in Zanzibar, Death in Kashmir etc. Although M M Kaye is better known for her big Indian Raj historical novels like The Far Pavilions & Shadow of the Moon (both just reprinted by Penguin), I enjoyed this series which I think was influenced by the author’s life as an Army wife being posted all over the world. I’d love to read them again. Ann Bridge’s husband was in the diplomatic service & you can feel her personal knowledge of North Africa in her evocative descriptions of the cities Julia visits,

Afterwards they all strolled again on the Djema el F’na. There was a full moon, and the great Koutoubia minaret – to eyes familiar with the minarets of Turkey, slender as knitting-needles, so much more like a tower – stood up almost transparent in the moonlight, in all its immense dignity and beauty. At night, under the naphtha flares, the tempo of pleasure and entertainment on the great square – the “place folle” as the French call it – is heightened: the circles around the dancers are more dense, the grey-bearded performers leap more wildly, while the metal clappers, the original castanets, rattle like machine-gun fire; the gestures of the story-tellers are more dramatic, the serpents of the snake-charmers writhe like souls in torment. Public enjoyment for its own sake here achieves an expression unparalleled elsewhere on earth – it is indescribably stimulating. But it is also exhausting, and presently Julia declared for bed.

All the Ann Bridge series (the list of titles is here) are available from Bloomsbury Reader as Print on Demand paperbacks or as e-books, which is how I’ll be reading them. I bought my e-book copy from The Book Depository where it was on sale for 40% off.