Folio Society splurge

You’d think Phoebe didn’t want me to get at those books, wouldn’t you?! Well, this was one battle of wills she didn’t win.

I’m rushing towards my goal of 1,000 books on the tbr shelves with a vengeance lately. I was tempted by the Folio Society special offer for their new titles & bought these three gorgeous editions. I’ve always wanted to read William of Malmesbury’s Deeds of the English Kings, which was written in the 12th century & tells the story of English history from the coming of the Romans to the reign of Henry I. This is the 1998 translation for OUP but with the usual attention to detail & gorgeous illustrations of Folio editions.

I already own a copy of Desmond Seward’s biography of Richard III, first published in the 1980s. The subtitle says it all really : England’s Black Legend. Although I’m a member of the Richard III Society, I’ve always been interested in different interpretations of Richard’s life & reputation & Seward has updated the book twice – in 1997 & again this year after the discoveries in Leicester. I’m looking forward to reading it again.

After reading Pushkin’s poetry over the last few months, I couldn’t resist this volume of his stories, including his most famous, The Queen of Spades.

Another incentive for this little purchase was the inclusion of a free copy (yes, it was free!) of this beautiful edition of A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Apart from the poetry, this edition includes the woodcuts by Agnes Miller Parker that were used in the 1924 edition.

I love woodcuts & these are just lovely. Here are a couple of examples. There are full page examples like these as well as little vignettes. One of the joys of the early Persephone Quarterly magazines was the inclusion of woodcuts by artists like Claire Leighton, Gwen Raverat & Tirzah Garwood. This book is so lovely that Sunday Poetry will be featuring Housman for the next little while.

I’ve also bought a couple of secondhand Folio editions. When I book my car in for a service, I often hop on the train & go to Camberwell, a suburb with a lovely Art Deco cinema (the Rivoli) & an equally lovely secondhand bookshop, Sainsburys Books. I saw a very sweet movie, Begin Again, with Keira Knightley & Mark Ruffalo, had some lunch & browsed around Sainsburys. I’ve bought some lovely Folio editions there &I wasn’t surprised to find two more to add to my collection.

The woodcuts by Peter Reddick were the attraction of this edition of Thomas Hardy’s Desperate Remedies.

Also, the lovely endpapers with a map of Wessex. This was Hardy’s first published novel & is a bit of an anomaly as it has definite elements of the sensation novel. I’ve never read it & look forward to seeing what Hardy does with a plot that sounds more Woman in White than Mayor of Casterbridge.

Then, there was the Chevalier de Johnstone’s Memoir of the ‘Forty-Five. Despite his title, the Chevalier was a Scot who rallied to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie. I couldn’t resist the lovely binding of this copy which is based on an original binding of the period.

Round the Bend – Nevil Shute

Tom Cutter wants to fly. As a young boy in Southampton, he leaves his job in a garage to hang around a flying circus. From this first job, picking up paper & cleaning the planes, he eventually becomes part of one of the clown acts & meets Constantine Shaklin, a boy of his own age of Russian-Chinese parentage. Connie is an unusual boy with his mixed parentage & experience of living all over the world. His religious curiosity also makes him different. He goes to church, synagogue & mosque, as if he’s searching for something or just exploring any idea that comes his way. Tom is intrigued but accepting of his friend’s eccentricities. Eventually the circus moves on & Tom moves on with it, working on the planes in the winter, learning all he can. After a few years, the circus is wound up & Tom finds a job with an aircraft company while he waits to be old enough to train as a ground engineer. Connie goes out to live with his mother in the United States & the boys lose touch.

During the War, Tom stays with Airspace as an engineer but also takes advantage of cheap flying lessons for employees & qualifies as a test pilot. He spends part of the war in Egypt, repairing crashed aircraft. At the end of the war, Tom returns to Southampton to consider his future. A brief wartime marriage had ended in tragedy &, although he’s offered an excellent job, he realises he can’t face staying in Southampton with the sad memories of his wife, Beryl. With his experiences in the Middle East, he decides to start a charter freight business for companies operating in Bahrain.

From humble beginnings with just one old plane, Tom builds the business up through sheer hard work & rigid economy. He has no racial prejudices & employs local Arab & Asian pilots & engineers, giving them responsibility & trust. He also knows that local staff are cheaper to employ than Europeans. The change in Tom’s fortunes & his life comes when he meets Connie Shaklin again. Connie is an engineer who had spent the war in Canada servicing aircraft. As a British citizen he joins up but insists that he won’t fight as his beliefs do not permit him to kill. His other skills are utilised instead & after the war he went out to Bangkok & worked for Siamese Airways. Connie agrees to work for Tom & takes over the engineering side of the business.

From the beginning, Connie exercises a remarkable influence over the other men. He begins an evening prayer session at which all religious groups are welcome. Connie’s own beliefs are never spelled out but he begins to be seen as a prophet, even a messiah by the locals. Tom is bemused but happy to let Connie continue as his workshop has never been better run & it’s obvious that his influence is good. The business grows as Tom buys more aircraft, negotiates better deals & expands operations into South East Asia. Connie’s religious mission also seems to be growing in popularity until there are hundreds of people gathering at the airfield each evening for prayers. This causes some friction with the local British authorities, already a little suspicious of Tom’s willingness to work with the locals & stay outside the establishment. eventually, tom is told that Connie must leave.

On a trip to Burma, Tom meets an Englishman, Colonel Maurice Spencer, who has become a Buddhist monk who has heard of Connie & is keen to learn more. He speaks of Connie & his mission in a very mystical way,

We must look for the new Teacher. One day the Power that rules the Universe will send us a new Teacher, who will lead us back to Truth and help us to regain the Way. There have been four Buddhas in the history of this world, of whom Guatama was the last. One day a fifth will come to aid us, if we will attend to Him. Here in Burma we earnestly await His coming, for He is the Hope of the World.

Connie’s religious mission continues alongside Tom’s more prosaic story of his business. Connie’s sister, Nadezna, comes out to Bahrain to work as Tom’s secretary; the business continues to expand & it becomes obvious that Connie’s mission is drawing to a climax.

Round the Bend is an unusual novel with a mixture of the practical & the mystical. The story of Tom’s business is remarkably detailed; Nevil Shute’s books all have this quality of building up the layers of detail, very practical & methodical, detailing all his decisions & contrivances. I found all this fascinating & Shute’s own background in engineering is obvious. On the other hand, there’s the ephemeral nature of Connie & his mission. Connie himself is modest, self-effacing but remote, rejecting all human relationships apart from his love for his sister & friendship with Tom. He seems to do very little but his influence on those around him is profound. The Christian overtones are sometimes a little too obvious, as when Tom denies that he thinks Connie has any divine qualities three times, but generally, Connie’s influence is seen as a general force for good without beating a drum for any one kind of religious experience.

I found that the two aspects of the story worked well together. The Middle Eastern & Asian setting helped with this, I think, as Westerners still see the East as mysterious & this plays in to our perceptions as readers, as we identify with Tom. Round the Bend is a compelling book & I found it very hard to put down. Shute’s style is so matter of fact, almost prosaic, that the religious elements seem quite ordinary within the charmed circle of Tom & his company. Tom himself just accepts Connie for who he is, without prejudice, as if he has been just as affected by Connie’s magnetism as the workmen who believe that he is a prophet. The reactions of others, usually Europeans, just point the difference between two vastly different ways of looking at the world. I have several other Nevil Shutes on the tbr shelves & I’m looking forward to the next one very much.

Sunday Poetry – Afanasy Afanasievich Fet

The final poet in this anthology is A A Fet. Illegally adopted by his mother’s husband, Shenshin, he was brought up as gentry until he was fourteen when the illegality of his mother’s marriage & his adoption was discovered. It meant that he was no longer gentry & not even a Russian citizen as his mother was German. He was sent to school in Estonia, only returning to Moscow to study at the university some years later. He joined the Army as a private, his goal being to regain his gentry status by becoming an officer. Eventually he left the Army & became a wealthy landowner & poet. At the age of 53, he was reinstated to his former status by Imperial decree & allowed to use his adopted father’s name. In the last ten years of his life, he published four collections of poetry, although this poem is from earlier in his career & was published in 1859.

The stars glowed red in leaf-still weather
And it was thus
We two gazed at the stars together
And they at us.

When all the host of heaven come stealing
Into the breast,
Cannot the breast withhold, concealing
Something at least?

All that preserves or prompts life’s ferment
From infancy,
All that is borne off to interment
In secrecy,

Then stars more pure, than dark more tender,
Black night more dread,
All this, in eye-to-eye surrender
Was what we said.

The Advent of Murder – Martha Ockley

Faith Morgan is the relatively new vicar at St James’s, Little Worthy. Faith used to be a policewoman & some of her former colleagues, especially former boyfriend Ben Shorter, find her change of career, & her vocation, hard to accept. In the first book in the series, The Reluctant Detective, Faith found herself in the middle of a murder investigation when she’d only just arrived in Little Worthy. Now, when murder touches Faith & her congregation again, she finds it difficult to resist doing a little investigating of her own. Her police training & natural nosiness are an irresistible combination.

Advent is a busy time for Faith. She has all her usual duties plus the Christmas pageant to organise. Churchwarden Pat Montesque never lets Faith forget just how important the pageant is to the parish & Faith’s immediate problem is finding a donkey to carry Mary in the procession. On her way to talk to new parishioner Oliver Markham, the Joseph in the production, Faith comes across a police team investigating the discovery of a young man’s body by the river on Markham’s land. Detective Inspector Ben Shorter is heading the investigation but Faith gets more information from Sergeant Peter Gray, a friend & parishioner. The boy, Lucas Bagshaw, has been hit on the head & had then fallen into the river somewhere upstream of the place where he was found.

Faith discovers that Lucas belonged to the youth choir run by junior choirmaster Jim Postlethwaite, a charismatic man who is determined to make a success of the choir even if some of the clergy at the cathedral are sceptical. Lucas had dropped out of school following the death of his mother some months earlier. His father had never been on the scene & his only relative was his mother’s younger brother Adam, an ex-soldier & alcoholic. Lucas’s best friends Vernon & Anna, known as V & the Dot, are shocked by his death but unwilling to give Faith or the police much information. As Faith struggles to balance her busy work life with her sister’s increasingly urgent demands that they talk about their mother’s health, she also becomes more involved with the investigation into Lucas’s death. Everyone involved has secrets they are determined to keep but murder tends to reveal much more than just the name of the murderer & this case is no exception.

This is the first mystery & the first contemporary book I’ve read in a while. A mention of The Reluctant Detective on a blog somewhere reminded me that I downloaded this second book & hadn’t yet read it. That’s one of the disadvantages of a Kindle, it’s so easy to forget what I have on it. Discovering that the third book in the series, A Saintly Killing, is due to be published next month, made me want to read this one immediately. I’m so glad I did because I enjoyed it just as much as the first book.

Faith is such a sympathetic character & her great enthusiasm for her new life & vocation is very touching. This time, we learn a little more about some of her parishioners, particularly spiky Pat Montesque & Faith also has a little flutter of romance with Jim Postlethwaite. Unfortunately taking him along for dinner with Peter Gray & his wife is a disaster when Ben Shorter turns up with his date, the pathologist working on the Lucas Bagshaw case. Jim’s uneasiness & Ben’s antagonism make for a very uncomfortable evening. It shows Faith how difficult it can be to separate work & friends & her previous life in the Force from her new life in the Church. I enjoyed all the details of Faith’s working life & her tentative relationship with a cat she calls The Beast is also endearing if you happen to be a cat lover. We know who’s going to come out on top there. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next book in the series & I’m determined that it won’t get lost on my Kindle. I’m going to read it before it disappears from that first screen!

South Riding

I recently finished watching the 1974 adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. It was in 13 parts & it was so good that it reminded me what I loved about so many of the more expansive literary adaptations I remember from the 1970s & 1980s.

For those who don’t know the story, it’s a picture of the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire – there are only three real ridings, North, East & West. Sarah Burton returns after some years away from home as a teacher in South Africa, to apply for the position of Headmistress at Kiplington Girls School. She gets the job & tries to instill her love of learning & her ambition into all her pupils. On the school’s Board of Governors, her natural antagonist is Robert Carne, the local Squire & landowner, now fallen on hard times as he struggles to keep his estate going while paying for his wife to be cared for in an expensive nursing home. His highly strung daughter, Midge, becomes a pupil at the school. Alderman Mrs Beddows (based on Holtby’s mother, Alice), is also on the Board & is a close friend of Carne.

Lydia Holly lives with her large family at the Shacks, the local slums. Lydia won a scholarship but has to leave school after her mother’s death to look after her feckless father & younger siblings. The Council is split between the progressives such as Alderman Snaith & Joe Astell & the conservatives like Carne. There are many more characters &, as well as the personal stories of Sarah, Robert, Mrs Beddows & Lydia, it’s a wonderful portrait of local council & the opportunities for corruption that exist there. Set in the 1930s, a time of unemployment & economic depression, it is an absorbing story.

South Riding was also adapted for television in three parts in 2011. Although I watched this new version & enjoyed it, three hours was never going to be long enough to tell such a complex story. What I really noticed though, was just how much more real the actors & locations were in the 1974 version. I think this is a trait of most modern classic adaptations. The actors are too pretty! Nigel Davenport looked like a man in his 50s who had experienced great misery in his life. Hermione Baddeley was just heartbreaking as Beddoes, with her horrible husband & her tenderness for Carne. Joe Astell, played by Norman Jones, looked like a man who’d had tuberculosis & wasn’t completely well. I’m afraid Douglas Henshall never convinced me of that.

Lydia Holly, played by Lesley Dunlop, looked grubby, her uniform was different, shabbier than that of the other girls at school. Her home life was squalid, with screaming children & her poor worn out mother & the hopelessness of knowing that she would never get ahead without an education. Above all, Dorothy Tutin was magnificent as Sarah, so passionate & determined & bolshie. I also loved the sets. I could smell those horrible cloakrooms at the school, that Sarah fights so hard to change. Carne’s home, Maythorpe, desperately trying to keep up appearances as the money ran out & Carne was left at one point trying to get a job in Manchester as a riding instructor. Nobody in modern adaptations looks grubby or unwashed. Clive Swift played Alderman Huggins with the most disreputable ginger beard I’ve ever seen.

Maybe it’s because the earlier version was made only 40 years after the book was written, maybe it was the way the series was shot, maybe they just didn’t have the money for grand sets & prettiness but there were no beauties in the 1974 version although it was filmed on location in the East Riding. The beauty came from the acting, the gorgeous theme music by Ron Grainer & the script by Stan Barstow who wrote A Kind of Loving, one of the working class novels of the late 50s that changed British fiction.

Winifred Holtby’s novel is wonderful, one of my favourites, although it took me a few tries to get on with it. The first chapter is set in a Council meeting, setting the scene for the political machinations & personal relationships that will influence the plot. I know I’m shallow, but the copy we had at the library was a very uninspiring hardback with a plain green cover & I just could not get past that first chapter or the long list of characters that preceded it. It wasn’t until I bought a copy of the book in Virago green that I got past Chapter One & raced through the rest of the book. I also couldn’t resist buying another copy in the beautiful reprint covers Virago published a few years ago.

Another favourite adaptation from this period is Testament of Youth, from the book by Winifred Holtby’s great friend, Vera Brittain. A new film of the book is being made at the moment & I’m sure I’ll go & see it, I won’t be able to resist. The trailer is here & it all looks very glossy & pretty. But, I can’t imagine it will affect me as the book & television series did.

Anglophilebooks.comCopies of Testament of Youth & other books by & about Brittain & Holtby are available at Anglophile Books