The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge

 The Private World of Georgette Heyer  cover

I’m not what you would call a huge fan of Georgette Heyer but I have probably read and enjoyed around ten of her books and they are a bit more than just good comfort reads as Heyer put a massive amount of effort into researching the historical periods that she wrote about. She compiled books of Georgian/Regency slang, fashions and such, including cutting out illustrations from magazines and drawing different types of carriages and even coats of arms, so that she could describe them properly in her books.

While she was actually writing her books she was inclined to be her worst critic and often described the one she was engaged in writing in letters to friends as being a STINKER. But once it was completed her opinion often changed.

To begin with she appeared to be very different from most authors in that she seemed very normal and went out of her way to avoid publicity, never gave interviews or did anything to promote her books. Even her married name was kept from the public and she wanted nothing to do with any other writers. I often judge people by whether I would be happy to have them as a neighbour or not and to begin with I would have been more than happy to have Heyer as one, but as the book progressed my opinion changed.

For one thing when she was actually writing books she wrote well into the wee small hours. I doubt if many readers would have guessed that her book writing was fuelled by Dexedrine and gin. Yes she was apparently on speed! She and her husband were obviously the type of people who always lived beyond their means, despite the fact that they must have had a huge annual income between them. During the war they took out a lease on chambers in The Albany. I watched a TV programme about that place a few years ago and it is only the super wealthy who can afford to live there, it has always been a very salubrious address. They chose not to buy property and didn’t even employ a proper accountant which led to great difficulties with the Inland Revenue over the years – stupid beyond belief! She was one of those women that don’t like other women and she was quite open about her dislike of young girls.

I suspect that the trouble was that she and her husband were very keen social climbers and for them it was imperative to own a new Rolls Royce and other such fol-de-rols. Heyer had in fact financed her husband through his law degree and he did eventually go on to become a successful QC, but before that he had run a sports shop with his brother-in-law and spent his time re-stringing tennis racquets and such. They both came from rather lowly backgrounds but that seems to have been forgotten when Heyer in later years described other lawyers’ wives she had met as being not out of the same drawer as her!!

One heartening thing was that they both loved Scotland and habitually holidayed there, but she hated Ireland, in fact she said that she had never been the same woman since visiting Ireland!

She was a wonderful letter writer though and I imagine that a book of her letters would be very entertaining, she was very witty as you would expect from her books.

Heyer was dogged by ill health for years, particularly problems with her throat so I was astonished when towards the end of the book it was mentioned that she smoked between 60 and 80 cigarettes a day. Given that – the drugs and the booze it’s just amazing that she lived to the age of 72.

All in all this is a good read. Georgette Heyer was just quite a flawed and odd character, but then most writers are and I’ll continue to read her books from time to time.

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

 Somewhere Towards the End cover

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill was published in 2008 when the author was 89 and she was getting to the stage when her life was becoming ever narrower and she was realising that there were some wishes that were just never going to come to fruition, such as – she was never going to be able to own a pug, she was too old to be able to give them the walks and the care that they need, she says ‘I would so like to to begin that process all over again with a little black-velvet-faced pug – but no! It can’t be done.’ Each to their own I thought, I think those dogs are like marmite, you either love or hate them.

To begin with I thought that this book might be one of those name dropping ones because in no time flat she was mentioning Jean Rhys, but it was just that she had a close professional relationship with her as Athill was an editor at Andre Deutsch, and Rhys had a terrible fear of death and inevitably death is one of the main topics in this book. You would think that that subject could be depressing but it’s actually quite an uplifting book. She was apparently often described as “the finest editor in London”.

I found this to be a fascinating and at times really funny book. She’s quite brutally honest about her relationships with men, and she has much the same feelings about religion as I have. She had no religion, was an atheist but had a Christian upbringing, so had a clear view of right and wrong. However she was one of those people who did whatever she wanted and to hell with anyone else, so her sense of morality where relationships were concerned was pretty low.

‘So we, the irreligious, live within the social structures built by the religious, and however critical or resentful we may be of parts of them, no honest atheist would deny that in so far as the saner aspects of religion hold within a society, that society is better for it. We take a good nibble from our brother’s cake before throwing it away.’

Diana Athill might have thought she was somewhere towards the end of her life but in fact she still had another ten years of it to go and of course wrote another three books after this one. This book was nominated for the biography category of the Costa book awards. In fact I thought that she had died recently but it seems that she is still alive and kicking aged 99.

One thing that really annoyed me was that she mentions that although she had worked with the publisher Andre Deutsch from the beginning, she was very poorly paid. She said she understood that he deserved to take more money out of the company as it had been set up using his money, but she couldn’t afford to buy a house despite having worked for him for donkey’s years – and he refused to pay her any more. Honestly, publishers are just the limit. I bet he wouldn’t have tried that on if she had been a man! Of course in the 1960s and 70s even professional women couldn’t get a mortgage from a bank or building society, if they wanted to buy a house they had to save like mad for years, it’s amazing how much life has changed since those days.

I’m now looking forward to reading Diana Athill’s other books. You can read an interview with her here.

Guardian Links

You might be interested in these links from today’s Review section in the Guardian:

There’s a Penelope Lively interview by Susanna Rustin which you can see here.

I was also interested in this article – Do we read differently as we get older? by Julian Barnes which you can see here.

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Queens' Play cover

I actually read Queens’ Play a wee while ago, but I have such a backlog of book reviews to catch up with, mainly because of not blogging while we were on holiday. I use this blog to keep track and remind myself of books that I’ve read though, so here goes.

Queens’ Play which was first published in 1964 is the second in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and as I recall, I enjoyed it even more than the first one. These books aren’t really suitable for bedtime reading – well not for me anyway because they require more concentration than I can usually summon up by then.

In Queens’ Play Francis Crawford – more commonly known as Lymond is in France at the court of the seven year old Mary Queen of Scots. He has been invited there by her mother, Mary of Guise who thinks that her daughter is at risk of assassination, with good reason no doubt. The young Mary was sent from Scotland to France as a five year old, but that might have been a case of jumping from the frying pan to the fire.

As France and Scotland shared an enemy in England it was hoped that the young Mary and the young French Dauphin would eventually strengthen the alliance through a marriage. But those in power in England were obviously against that alliance. It was Lymond’s job to seek out intrigues and to protect Mary from them.

The New York Time Book Review said:

“(Her) hero is as polished and perceptive as Lord Peter Wimsey and as resourceful as James Bond.”

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Some fountains

Back to the cruise and I always take photos of fountains whenever I see them, although I have to admit that I don’t often have to reach for my camera when I’m in Scotland for that reason, as there is a paucity of fountains here. I have no idea why, maybe they’re seen as being more worry than they’re worth as they would have to be turned off and drained in bad winters. Below are some of the photos I took in Spain Portugal and France.

a fountain

But there were quite a few around in various destinations on our cruise. The one above was in Porto and the one below is in Ferrol I believe.

afountain

They’re rich in fountains in Honfleur as they have at least three of them although the one below might be better described as a water feature as it is a very gentle movement, but quite mesmerising. They’re all very different.

afountain 3

afountain 4

afountain

There’s something joyous about a fountain and the only ones I can think of in Scotland are really old ones. There isn’t even one at the newish Scottish Parliament buildings, although there is water it is just standing water with no apparent reason for being there, a missed opportunity in my opinion.

What do you think, are fountains a frippery too far – or not?

Saint Andrew’s Day

torridon

Here we are again at Saint Andrew’s Day – and it’s traditional for those of us actually living in Scotland to do absolutely nothing to celebrate it. But I’ve been sent some winter break ideas by Visit Scotland so I thought I would share them, you can see them here.

Mind you I have tatties and a turnip and I suppose I could get a haggis for our dinner – that’s celebration enough.

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge

 Master George cover

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and that is printed on the cover, it was published in 1998. I read it because it actually won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1998, but that is not mentioned on the cover of the book, which I think is a real shame especially considering it is the oldest literary prize in Britain, but of course it’s a Scottish prize, based in Edinburgh University, and you know how London-centric everything seems to be nowadays.

You never know what you’re going to get with Beryl Bainbridge, but this one turned out to be historical fiction, set before and during the Crimean War. I enjoyed it but I think that I made a mistake in reading it at bedtime, as it deserved and needed concentration. The last parts of the book are pretty ghastly as you would expect from a brutal war setting, but the earlier parts of the book are about Georgie, a young man interested in photography, and some of the people who make up his family household.

George Hardy eventually becomes a surgeon and some of his household accompany him to the war. They all have close relationships with him and all helped him hide a secret from his mother, which creates a bond between them. Myrtle is his adoptive sister and she adores him, hero worships him, Pompey was picked up off the streets and now assists him with his photography and Dr Potter, is the family doctor who has an interest in geology and the new sciences.

The blurb on the back say:

‘A novella-sized miracle of passion and war’ Ruth Rendell

‘It is hard to think of anyone now writing who understand the human heart as Beryl Bainbridge does.’ The Times

It’s definitely worth reading, and out of interest I looked up what did win the Booker Prize in 1998 and it was Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, which I haven’t read, so I can’t compare it.

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

 Garden Open Tomorrow cover

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols was first published in 1968 although my copy is a Country Book Club publication from 1972.

Beverley Nichols was of course a well known garden writer and he also appeared on TV but he was just a bit before my time I think, I certainly don’t ever remember him being on TV. Percy Thrower was the first TV garden presenter in my life. But I’ve really enjoyed the Nichols books that I’ve read, particularly his early 1930s series of four books about his life in the country and the making of his homes and gardens.

Garden Open Tomorrow feels very much like a series of newspaper articles to me, I know he wrote for gardening magazines so possibly it is a compilation of those articles. There’s a lot more botany involved than in his other books I think, no bad thing mind you.

By this time he was spending quite a lot of time in America, this book begins:

‘The weather in England’ – so wrote my friends with monotonous persistence throughout the cruel winter – ‘is quite indescribable.’ Whereupon they proceed in great detail to describe it.

I was out of it all, lecturing in America, where the weather so they assumed, was not ‘indescribable’. In a sense they were right. It would have been easy for example to write a description of the tornado which hit Detroit at fourteen below zero, at the precise moment of my arrival, lifting me bodily into the air and depositing me in a gutter full of slush, whence I was removed to hospital in an ambulance, x-rayed, bandaged, and inoculated against lockjaw.

This isn’t my favourite of Beverley Nichols’ books but it’s still well worth reading if you’re interested in gardening and amusing general chit chat.

After the Dance by Iain Crichton Smith

 After the Dance  cover

After the Dance by Iain Crichton Smith is a collection of short stories by this Scottish author who wrote poetry as well as novels, writing in both Gaelic (his first language) and English, he died in 1998. He was born in Glasgow but moved to Lewis when he was two years old. Although he wrote poetry and prose he was also a high school English teacher.

These short stories have very diverse subjects ranging from the First World War and the horror of mothers seeing a church elder approaching their houses, it was his job to deliver the telegrams, to a Highland wedding in the city. The Highland father feels completely out of it but when the singing starts and he realises the youngsters don’t know the words of the Gaelic songs well he takes over, singing the traditional songs and turns the celebration into a Gaelic culture fest, to the delight of the younger generation.

There are thirty-one stories in the book and a few of them show the author’s distaste of the Free Church of Scotland’s strict Calvinism. But the existence of Calvinism has given him a chance to write with humour on the subject, every cloud I suppose….

There’s an introduction from author Alan Warner (of Morvern Callar fame), who lived near Iain Crichton Smith in the 1980s and he gives an instance of his sense of humour when he mentions that a woman has such an insistent personality that she is the sort of person that you have to say goodbye to through your own letterbox! Mind you I’m not at all sure that that translates for people who don’t have a letter box in their front door.

I really enjoyed these stories, some more than others of course, but they’re well worth reading. I must try one of his novels next year. If you’re interested you can read his obituary here.

You can read what Jack thought of this anthology here. He’s much more thorough than I am where reviews are concerned.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge. I believe that’s my thirtieth.

Kingsbarns Beach in Fife, Scotland

A couple of weeks ago we decided to drive to Kingsbarns, a small coastal village in Fife, quite famous amongst golfers as the course there is used for final qualifying for The Open when it’s at St Andrews. We had only been to Kingsbarns beach once before and I was lucky enough to find some fossils amongst the stones there. There were also several lobster creels lying around on the beach, a bit bashed about, obviously they had been thrown up by the recent wild weather and high seas. I quite fancied taking one home as a decoration in the garden but they weigh a ton, so I decided against it.

If you look carefully at the photo below you should be able to see snow-clad mountains in the distance.
Kingsbarns seascape 1

This time though the beach was clear of any really interesting debris, and I didn’t find any fossils either, I must just have been really lucky the last time. But there was someone actually surfing in the North Sea! We had to go and investigate.

Of course we ended up getting into conversation with a lovely woman called Karen, mother of the surfer. She thought that standing on the edge of a Scottish beach around lunchtime was an improvement on the 5 am starts she used to have when her son Andrew Robertson was a competitive swimmer, before he was lured to the delights of surfing. The dedication of some mothers never fails to impress me!

surfer 1

Cornwall is the place to be if you’re keen on surfing and needing lots of practice for competitions, failing that Tiree is good apparently but I imagine that is quite a bit colder than down south. The North Sea wasn’t too cold according to Andrew, it’s worse in April. We often get colder weather in the spring than in November, we’re much more likely to get snow in March or April than in November or December. Apparently the sea is at its warmest in November as it hasn’t started to cool down.

seascape 2

The rockface below looks like a whole layer of it has been burnt, carbonised somehow – maybe even a layer of coal, evidence of some sort of geological happening in the very distant past anyway.

arockface

We were all wrapped up against the cold but it was quite balmy in early November and we ended up being too hot. We walked to the right and the left of the car park , previously we had only gone to the right but the left side is actually the more interesting part of the beach. There are lots of huge stones there, a couple of them look like standing stones and and the others seem to have been arranged in straight lines. It doesn’t look at all natural, I’d love to know more about the stone formations there. You can see more images of the beach here.

arocks 2

You can see Andrew Robertson in the video below, where the waves were much better for surfing.

Andrew Robertson HOME BREAK FOR XMAS 2015 from Robbie Robertson on Vimeo.