Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson

Spring Magic cover

Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1942 but I read a 1986 reprint which had to be hauled out of Fife Libraries’ reserve stock. I’m only thankful that they haven’t got rid of the books completely, as they have with so many other authors.

I’m not close to having read all of D.E. Stevenson’s books but so far Spring Magic is my favourite. The setting is mainly Scotland and during World War 2. I’m very partial to wartime books especially when they are contemporary.

Frances Field is living in London with her aunt and uncle, she has been with them for years as her parents died when she was quite young. Her aunt is a very silly selfish woman and she believes that Frances is there to pander to her every wish. The aunt is a hypochondriac and Frances had been very sorry for her, but when the doctor tells Frances that there’s nothing wrong with her aunt and urges Frances to get out and get a life for herself, she does just that, taking the aunt’s decision to decamp out of London to a supposedly safer location as her cue to have a holiday in Scotland and think about her future.

The island fishing village that Frances finds herself in is sleepy and friendly but it isn’t long before the whole area is inundated with a battalion of soldiers from the British army, changing everything, especially as some of the officers’ wives have arrived too. Frances has never really had any women friends her own age before and it opens up a whole new world for her.

Not everything is sweetness and light as Frances realises along with everyone else that one of the wives is in an abusive marriage, but nothing can be done about it. Aerial dogfights and air raids bring the war right to her door and there are misunderstandings but as you would expect – all’s well in the end.

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West

No Signposts in the Sea cover

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West was first published in 1961 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classics reprint from 1985.

I really liked this one, the setting is a cruise ship which is sailing to exotic locations and Edmund Carr is a passenger on it, one of the reasons he decided to go on the cruise is that he discovered that Laura is going on it and he has secretly admired the beautiful and smart widow for years.

Edmund had never married, his life had been taken up with his career in journalism and he had ended up being an influential leader writer on a serious Fleet Street newspaper. Edmund’s doctor has recently given him bad news, he doesn’t have long to live so he gives up his job to go on the cruise and spend his last weeks with Laura who knows nothing about his illness or indeed even that he will be on the cruise.

This is a thoughtful read as Laura and Edmund’s friendship deepens and they explore each other’s views on marriage and other things and Laura realises just how different their backgrounds are (possibly this explains Edmund’s reticence where a relationship with Laura was concerned) as Laura is obviously well-heeled and Edmund grew up in poverty in a teeny wee cottage. There’s plenty of humour though in observing the other cruisers and those must have been gleaned from the author’s own cruising experiences.

There is an introduction by Victoria Glendinning.

This was Sackville-West’s last novel, written when she was dying of cancer. She had a complicated personal life but was also a very keen and knowledgeable gardener, creating the famous Sissinghurst – a place that I have yet to visit.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

Birnam Book Festival 2018

I’ve just heard that there’s going to be a book festival taking place at Birnam on the weekend of 23rd to 25th of November, I’m really annoyed that I won’t be able to attend it this year as I’m busy that weekend. In fact there are about five things on that weekend that I wanted to go to, it seems that everyone decided that a month before Christmas was the best time for an art fair/festival/antiques fair and I’m fully booked up already.

Jenny Colgan will be one of the many writers appearing at this first book festival next weekend! (23rd to 25th of November). You can check out the programme here. Tickets are available at the Birnam Arts website.

Birnam is of course just a hop and a skip away from Dunkeld which is one of my favourite places to go for a day out and if the book festival doesn’t take up all of your time then there are some lovely walks to go on in the area, but it looks to me like there’s plenty of interest going on at the book festival.

I hope it’s a great success as I want to go to the next one!

Abbotsford’s gardens

Abbotsford Information Board

Abbotsford Stitch

Looking towards the front of Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford the photo below is what you see to the right hand side of it.

Abbotsford Garden
The photo below is of the same piece of garden ground but this time viewed from his study.
Abbotsford Garden from Study

There was still quite a lot of colour around although most of the roses were over, next time we’ll visit in the summertime.
Abbotsford Walled Garden, Sir Walter Scott, 1
Abbotsford Walled Garden, Sir Walter Scott 2

Below is an elegant sheltered spot to sit in within the walled garden, but the day we were there was hot, very hot for October and as you can see it was very sunny.
Abbotsford Walled Garden

Abbotsford Walled Garden,Sir Walter Scott

In the distance you can see that the blue delphiniums were still going strong.
Abbotsford Walled Garden,Sir Walter Scott 6

Abbotsford Walled Garden Information Board

Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford – again

Time for a few more photos of Sir Walter Scott’s old home – Abbotsford, in the Scottish Borders. Below is a photo of his dining room and it’s quite different from how it looked when Scott was alive. Originally the walls and ceiling were varnished a dark brown wood colour so it must have felt a bit like being in a big wooden box.

Abbotsford  Dining Room
After Scott died his daughter-in-law had the walls and ceiling painted cream but you can see that a wee bit of the paint has been scraped off the ceiling mouldings so that you can see what it should have been like.
Abbotsford  Dining Room , Sir Walter Scott, Scottish Borders

If you’ve read Scott’s books you’ll know that he was keen on writing about knights and chivalry, in fact he started a whole fashion for books like that and he was also keen on collecting armour and weapons too as you can see from his armoury below.
Abbotsford Armoury

Abbotsford  Armoury , Sir Walter Scott,
Scott was keen to have his house built using authentic bits of old buildings, in fact it sounds like he became a bit of a plunderer and he thought nothing of ripping out panelling from old buildings such as the Palace at Dunfermline. His excuse was that he was saving them from ruin, but I suspect that he hastened the ruin by what he was doing to the buildings. Dunfermline Palace is certainly a ruin now.
Abbotsford Ceiling , Sir Walter Scott
I’m not sure where the fireplace below came from but the tiles are Dutch.
Abbotsford Fireplace, Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford
The chandelier below is in the drawing-room and to the left of it you can see a painting of Sir Walter with one of his dogs.
Abbotsford Drawing Room, Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford Chandelier
More of the drawing-room.
Abbotsford Drawing Room, Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford 2
One of its doorways is flanked by two huge harps and the wall covering is Chinese silk, very grand.
Abbotsford Drawing Room, Sir Walter Scott Harps

But just a stone’s throw from all that grandeur is the dogs’ cemetery, in a wooded area to the side of the house, no doubt it was a favourite area for walks. Next time I’ll show you some photos of the gardens.
Abbotsford  Pet's Graves, Sir Walter Scott

The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall

The Machine-Gunners cover

The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall was first published in 1975 and it won the Carnegie Medal.

We’re back at the Second World War in this book, the setting is the fictional town of Garmouth on Tyneside where the children were enthusiastically seeking out war souvenirs in the shape of spent machine-gun bullets, shrapnel and the tailfins from incendiary bombs. They’re vying with each other all determined to have the best collection. Chas McGill has the second best collection, the best is owned by the local school bully who takes great delight in bashing everyone up but of course he is really a coward.

Chas hits the jackpot when he discovers the wreckage of a downed German aeroplane deep in a local woodland. With the help of some friends he manages to free the machine-gun from it and with the help of a tremendously strong mentally challenged neighbour they all set about building an underground shelter for the gun – which expands and expands until it’s a large air raid shelter. The children become adept at nicking anything they need so it’s a real home from home. In fact as one of them lost both his parents in a recent Tyneside air raid the shelter has become his home, the authorities think he also perished in the raid.

At one point an escaped German prisoner of war stumbles across their hide-out and as they’ve somehow managed to jam the machine gun they realise that he can help them fix it. The prisoner is exhausted and ill and the children look after him, well they can’t turn him over to the authorities, he would tell them about their machine-gun.

This is a great read which at times has elements of ‘Dad’s Army’ about it with the Home Guard featuring and local enemies being much more annoying than the German prisoner who isn’t at all like a Nazi, he seems like a decent chap.

This book is very autobiographical, the author dedicated it to his father and mother who were the father and mother in the book.

He says: The bombing raids on Tyneside during the despairing winter of 1940-41 were appalling and relentless and The Machine-Gunners is a tribute to the endurance, courage and humour of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

We will remember them

Hooge crater cemetery, Ypres, Belgium,
Hooge Crater Cemetery Panorama of Graves

Langemark German war cemetery, near the village of Langemark, part of the municipality of Langemark-Poelkapelle, Belgium.

German War Graves, Langemark, Belgium

Tyne Cot war cemetery, near Zonnebeke, Belgium

Graves and Memorial Cross, Tyne Cot Cemetery

The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan

The Summer Seaside Kitchen cover

The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan was published in 2017 and I believe it’s the first book by the author that I’ve read. I decided to read it as I’ve been avoiding really heavy books for a wee while, the Brexit mayhem and such was getting me down and this one seemed to fit the bill as a light read. I really enjoyed this it – to a point, there were some things that annoyed me, but more about those later.

Although the setting at the beginning is dirty and sticky London it isn’t long before the action moves to a peaceful Scottish island called Mure (it’s fictional). Flora has been working in London, she’s a very junior lawyer there and her mother had always encouraged her to get an education and have a life away from Mure and spread her wings. A billionaire has moved to the island and although he had promised to bring work and to invest in the island in reality he has kept very much to himself, employed non-islanders and the islanders haven’t gained anything from his presence. Now he needs the help of a hot-shot law firm as the luxury hotel he has looks likely to have an off-shore wind farm as a view – and he wants to put a stop to that.

Flora is sent up to Mure as she obviously has local knowledge, she’s not happy to be back, there are too many bad memories, her mother is now dead and her father and three brothers aren’t exactly happy to see her.

So far so good, I liked Flora and in fact there are plenty of likeable characters in this book as well as a lovely sense of the island landscape.

What annoyed me was that I think that if a writer is writing fiction then they should make sure that they change things that might be too much like real life. I know a few authors and they often say that they get ideas for their books from the news, but don’t make it obvious. Surely everybody knows that Donald Trump threw a hissy fit when he didn’t manage to get the plans for an offshore windfarm close to his Aberdeenshire golf course thrown out. I think at the very least Jenny Colgan should have changed the windfarm to a salmon farm or even to a tidal wave energy turbine – anything but wind turbines.

Otherwise the story was too predictable and it annoyed me how many times Colgan had Flora turning red or pink, she seemed to suffer from terminal embarrassment. Otherwise this fitted the bill as an entertaining light read.

Aquhorthies Stone Circle

When we were up in Aberdeenshire a few weeks ago we perused the map and I noticed that there were standing stones marked on it, very close to where we were based. I can’t resist standing stones or stone circles – so off we went to find the Aquhorthies Stone Circle.

Aquhorthies Stone Circle info board

Aquhorthies Stone Circle isn’t right by the roadside as many are, but there’s a small car park close by and from there we walked the 400 metres or so to the field with the stones. They’re quite impressive, not on the same scale as the ones in Orkney but still very good.
Aquhorthies Stone Circle

It’s thought that these stones were an aid to farming, with the moon being a guide to the ancient farmers, telling them when it was a good time to plant their seeds. However, I think that’s just one of many theories over the years. I’m fairly sure that the Victorians would have looked at that massive recumbent stone and said – aha, that’s obviously a sacrificial altar stone.

Aquhorthies Stone Circle, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

As you can see from the tractor in thhe background this region is still a farming area.
Aquhorthies Stone Circle, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, neolithic monument

Whenever I visit standing stones I can’t resist patting them, but as yet I’ve never had anythig close to an Outlander moment, although some of them definitely do seem to hum and buzz, and they’re all incredibly atmospheric.

Aquhorthies Stone Circle, standing stones, Aberdeenshire, neolithic monumnent, Scotland

And – no I haven’t a clue how Aquhorthies should be pronounced!

The Star-Spangled Manner by Beverley Nichols

The Star-Spangled Manner cover

The Star-Spangled Manner by Beverley Nichols was first published in 1928 and it’s a collection of twenty-three essays about various aspects of life in America in those days. More than anything I was struck by how topical many of the subjects are, even after ninety years.

Beverley Nichols obviously liked visiting America, he lectured there and supervised the production of plays. He had lots of friends and very high-profile contacts there, but he was always an observer and often a critic. He even managed to have a meeting with the then President, Coolidge who apparently had a reputation for being rather silent and lacking in personality, but Nichols managed to get some interesting thoughts and anecdotes out of him.

Prohibition was in place at this time, so there are his observations on that – it’s a mess of course. He also meets a Trump-ish businessman with his eyes on the White House, but it’s towards the end of the book that his thoughts turn back to Britain and the need to regenerate British industry. He calls for Europe to unite and to get rid of all the economic tariffs between the various European countries.

From the previous books that I’ve read by Beverley Nichols I had no idea that he had a serious and deeply thoughtful side to his personality. He’s not perfect of course – who is? But I really like being in his company – via his books. How Brexit would have enraged him!