A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith was published way back in 1965, but it was in the 1970s that I discovered her and then went on a Highsmith binge, recommended to other people that they should read her books, and then for some reason didn’t keep up with her books myself in subsequent years.

So this was a recent library choice for me, I’m fairly sure that I didn’t read this one in the 1970s. It has been republished as a Virago Modern Classic.

Sydney Bartleby is a young American writer and he is living with his wife Alicia in the wilds of rural Suffolk. Sydney has a very vivid imagination and I suppose he is the writer’s equivalent of a method actor as he feels the need to act out one of his plots to see how he will feel, he wants to get the emotions correct as he digs a grave in a remote patch of countryside.

At times I was in two minds as to whether Alicia had actually been murdered by him or not, so when Alicia does disappear from their cottage, supposedly having gone to visit her parents but never arrived there, things look very bad for Sydney indeed. All the clues point to him having done her in and everyone is sure he is guilty, including the police.

This was a cracker of a book, really full of suspense. Why oh why have I left it getting on for 40 years since I read a Patricia Highsmith book?!

Do you have a favourite book by her which you can recommend me to read next?

Bees and Aberdour Railway Station, Fife

bees in Aberdour

You’re not going to believe me – but see those two bumblebees on the plant in the photo above – they buzzed right past my nose heading straight for the plant pot which is located in Aberdour High Street, just at the railway station entrance.

Anyway, I was a bit alarmed by the size of the thing which buzzed me so close and so I had to have a closer look. It was actually TWO bees flying together, tum to tum, the upper one holding on to the lower one as it flew. Jack of course, being a bloke said they must be doing the dirty deed! Think again – said I, as that’s not how they do it!

I can only think that we saw a bumblebee self-rescue service in action as when they reached the plants in the tub they proceeded to do what bees normally do. Maybe one bee saw the other one in trouble on a pavement, and decided to do it a favour and take it to be re-vitalised. You quite often see them worn out crawling along with no energy to fly.

Am I being completely daft? Probably, but have you seen two bees flying tum to tum, holding on to each other?

The railway station at Aberdour is famous locally for having a great display of plants, especially in the summer, and a lot of work goes into it, to make it pretty for travellers passing through. You can have a look at photos of it here.

Two Quick Reads

I’m rounding off July’s blogposts with what were two very quick reads. The first one is The Perfect Murder by Peter James and it was one of the books chosen to be given away on World Book Night 2014. It’s one of those books which is actually titled Quick Reads, I think they are supposed to encourage non-readers to take up reading, which is I suppose a good idea.

I hadn’t read anything by Peter James before although I believe he is very popular. The Perfect Murder subtitled Marriage Can Be Murder seemed like an apt read for me at he moment as we will be celebrating our 39th wedding anniversary on Sunday!

Anyway, to the book – Victor Smiley and his wife Joan have been married for nearly 20 years. It’s fair to say that they’re driving each other mad. Joan wakes up every night with Victor seemingly in training to be the world’s loudest snorer, he argues with everyone and embarrasses Joan all the time. He has been a disappointment, not even able to father any children.

Victor hates Joan and spends his time at home watching old Morse and Poirot episodes, in fact any old detective shows, and they give him ideas. Unknown to him Joan also has similar ideas. It’ll end in tears all round, you just know it.

In fact for me The Perfect Murder was just mildly entertaining, an okay-ish read, but if like me you read a lot of crime/detective books then you’ll find it very predictable.

The other quick read was Susan Hill’s The Boy Who Taught the Beekeeper to Read. I bought this one at a local library where they were selling off some old books. I didn’t realise when I bought it that it was a collection of short stories and the pages in the front with the vital information had been torn out by the library folks.

So I was a bit perplexed when the first story ended and I went on to what I thought was the next chapter, only to quickly realise it was nothing to do with the first chapter, which must have been a short story. That was disappointing because I thought the first story could have been written up into something much more interesting than it was, as it just ended abruptly on what was a really low note.

But the same could be said for all of the short stories really, especially Father Father, about two young women, still living at home with their parents and when the mother dies the father replaces her very quickly with a new wife barely older than they are. An old story which we’ve probably all witnessed, hopefully at a bit of a distance.

There’s nothing uplifting about most of the stories in this book, if you’re susceptible to depression it could put you on a right downer!

Pollok House and Garden in Glasgow, Scotland

Here we are back at Pollok House and Garden, you can see my previous post about it here.

Pollok House  garden

Unfortunately the wedding which was taking place inside the house later went outside for the reception in one of those wedding marquees, not my idea of an elegant do but they are very popular nowadays. It meant I couldn’t get photos of all of the garden.

Pollok House  garden

I do love box hedging and it’s so easy to strike cuttings from any trimmings you make. I think I’ll make some sort of wee design in my own garden, nothing grand like this of course.

Pollok House  garden

Below is an area of mixed flower beds.

Pollok House  garden

And a stone wall bedecked with self seeded flowers.

Pollok House  garden

No grand house is complete without a lovely bridge it would seem. This is the bridge which the Clydesdale horse in my previous post walked over.
Pollok House bridge

The tearoom is located in what was the kitchens of the house and it’s obviously the place to go for lunch as it was very well patronised. It’s worth taking a look down there even if you don’t want anything to eat or drink as it’s all very Downton Abbey-ish, with the butler’s telephone booth. I recommend the gingerbread though Jack chose the shortbread, we sampled each others – as you do, both were very tasty. There’s also a good exhibition of Scottish landscape paintings downstairs.

It was a good day out all in all.

Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson

Mrs Tim Gets a Job

Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1947. It’s maybe not quite as funny as her earlier Mrs Tim of the Regiment but it’s still very enjoyable.

It’s at the back end of World War 2 and Tim is still based in Egypt, and it’s going to be quite some time before he eventually makes it back to Blighty. Hester is soon going to be at a loose end as their son Bryan is at boarding school and their daughter Betty is just about to go away to school too.

So when Hester’s friend Grace announces that she has found a job for Hester she’s in two minds as to whether she should accept the position or not. As a middle-class army wife she has no real experience of being a housekeeper, which is the job on offer in a Scottish Borders hotel.

After some swithering she decides to accept it, despite being warned that the lady owner of the hotel is a somewhat difficult character. After a somewhat shaky start Hester begins to enjoy herself and finds that she is valued by the locals and the hotel guests. The American guests try to talk her into going to the US to work for them, but that has no appeal for Hester. She has a conversation with one of them who tells her that: There are at least half a dozen perfectly good reasons why she wants me. Perhaps the chief reason is that I always seem happy and it would be pleasant to have me in her home.

This surprises me vastly, and I tell her so.
She asks if I am really happy, and if so, why.

Feel quite unable to answer these questions offhand.

Mrs Wilbur says thoughtfully that she has come to the conclusion that English women are happier than their American sisters, and she can’t think why, because it seems to her they have a pretty poor time of it. Is it their natures? Is it something in the air? Do I think she should take that as her jumping-off point when she gives her lecture on the Spirit of English Womanhood?

I inquire why Mrs Wilbur thinks happiness is so important.

She looks at me in amazement and says the pursuit of happiness is one of the chief aims set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

This silences me completely, but Mrs Wilbur insists that I must explain my views on the subject. She presses me so hard that at last I am forced to admit that I think the pursuit of happiness an ignoble aim and a selfish aim, and as selfish people are never happy – a foolish aim.

Mrs Wilbur exclaims. “Well fan me with a cup of broth!” and looks so shattered that I feel I ought to order a cup of broth immediately.

That made me laugh. I’m definitely going to use fan me with a cup of broth in the future. D.E. Stevenson was very definitely a Scottish author and was in fact related to Robert Louis Stevenson, so this one counts towards the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

The Glasgow Tenement House

After we visited the very grand Pollok House in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago, we decided to go to the other end of the National Trust properties in Glasgow – the tenement in Buccleuch Street in Garnethill, not far from the Art School. Sadly I wasn’t able to take any photos of it, this is something which drives me round the bend as I can’t see a down side to people taking photos in NT properties. Obviously the camera’s flash could be turned off if they are worried about ancient tapestries that would be damaged by the light.

You can see a few photos of the tenement flat which are online here and here.

Miss Agnes Toward lived in the flat for about 50 years and in that time she doesn’t seem to have changed anything, even having gas lighting up until the 1960s. So it’s a bit of a time capsule, the flat has just one bedroom in it but the kitchen and the front room (parlour) both have a bed recess and box beds fitted into them.

Sadly there seem to be no photos of the bathroom online. It has a lovely basin in the shape of a shell with the water coming out of a smaller shell instead of a tap, and more shell shaped grooves for the soap and whatever.

It was all very familiar to me as I was born in a Victorian Glasgow flat, although it was a larger one with ornate cornicing and ceiling roses. In fact Jack did mention that the glass lemon squeezer on display in the kitchen is exactly the same as the one which we still use, there were quite a few things there which we have in our home.

The Tenement House is well worth a visit, it’s a wonderful glimpse back for anyone interested in social history.

Margery Allingham by AS Byatt

I thought you might be interested in reading this article by AS Byatt which was published in yesterday’s Guardian review. Although I’ve read quite a lot of Allingham’s books, I haven’t read Traitor’s Purse. Byatt is obviously a big fan of Allingham, as was John Le Carre apparently.

This week’s Review seems to be reminding me of how many books and authors I haven’t read. You might be interested in this article by Erika Johansen in which she celebrated life’s fighters. Ten uncompromising female protagonists – I haven’t read any of the books in which these females appear.

I’m always going to avoid reading Gone with the Wind and Stephen King, but I wonder if I’m missing something in not having read the others. Although I read children’s classics, I can’t see myself reading Harry Potter somehow.

According to Mark by Penelope Lively

According to Mark by Penelope Lively was first published in 1984. I think I’ve only read a couple of other books by the author, but I read and enjoyed Moon Tiger not so long ago. I borrowed According to Mark from a local library, and by the way, the closure of 16 libraries in Fife has been put on hold for the moment, local councillors aren’t happy about the closures, as you would expect.

Anyway, to the book. I didn’t really expect to enjoy this one, but I put my faith in Lively as she’s very well respected I believe, and sure enough it turned out to be very enjoyable.

Mark is a literary biographer, engaged in writing the biography of Gilbert Strong, a writer who has been dead for years. Mark thinks that he knows everything about Strong but he decides to contact Strong’s granddaughter Carrie, to interview her and look around the old family home which is where Carrie’s garden centre business is based.

Mark has a bit of a middle age meltdown and falls for Carrie, but she is really only interested in plants and flowers, she has had very little education because her mother was a bit of a hippy, more interested in men and partying. One of the men took pity on Carrie and taught her to read, but she has huge gaps in her knowledge of the world, on the other hand she speaks fluent French as she spent so much of her childhood there.

At one point Mark encourages her to read Jane Austen’s Emma and at the end of it she realises that she has more than a passing resemblance to one of the characters.

This is a book which looks at everything from the various characters’ point of view and nothing is really as it seems. When Mark wonders why Carrie is looking at a discarded cigarette packet on the ground – she is of course looking at a wild flower near it.

Diana, Mark’s wife, is a very annoying person, one of those women who ‘manages’ her husband to such an extent that she is more like the mother of a small child – to me anyway. Possibly another Emma-esque character. They do exist though, those wife/mummy women, and no doubt it works for some people, although it always makes me feel squeamish.

Early on in this book I did think that it might be a bit of a dud but it turned out to be a really good read.

Pollok House, Glasgow, Scotland

Pollok House  garden entrance

We found ourselves in Glasgow not long ago, unexpectedly really as we had been asked to drive someone to the airport. The last thing that we fancied doing was trailing round shops so as it turned out to be a lovely day we decided to visit Pollok House, a very grand Georgian House, the grounds of which are now a Country Park, very popular with the locals. If you click the link you’ll see lots of photos. The house is now owned by the National Trust and when we were there we were just about the only people looking around it. A wedding was due to start shortly and the library was the venue so we were given a look around there first, so that we would be out of the way when the ‘kilties’ turned up, as the guides said of the bridegroom and his supporters. The chap showing us around couldn’t have been nicer, it was all very interesting, even for someone like myself who isn’t terribly keen on old Spanish art, of which there is a lot there. I must admit that the El Greco is very good – Lady in a Fur Wrap.
It’s hard to believe that this painting was done around the 1570s.

It’s amazing to think that you’re in a very busy big city, it’s all very rural and this big chap caused quite a stir when he came across a bridge, heading for his stable, I think everyone loves these Clydesdales, if that’s what he is, some sort of heavy horse anyway.

Pollok House horse

I think he was happy to reach his stable, where he had a pal already there, but unfortunately it was too dark inside to get a photo of his companion.

Pollok House horse

As ever, we weren’t allowed to take any photos of the inside of the house, which is beautifully furnished. But I do have some of the gardens, which I’ll share with you at a later date.

Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I’ve been swithering about reading Go Set a Watchman but at last I’ve definitely decided not to read it as I don’t want to sully my experience of reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

If you haven’t already done so you can read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman here. It’s accompanied by items by Oprah Winfrey, Shami Chakrabarti, Mary Badham (Scout in the film) and Harper Lee’s sister, Alice.

As it happens, Jack had never got around to reading To Kill a Mockingbird, it seems it wasn’t a set book when he was at school, although I must admit that I read it years before it was given to me at school to read.

You can read Jack’s review here.