Shrewsbury – some buildings

As I said in a previous blogpost Shrewsbury is a very busy town, but it’s also quaint and very historic with lots of Tudor timbered buildings. Definitely use the park and ride if you visit the town though as the traffic was a nightmare. On the plus side the policemen were very friendly and helpful.

Shrewsbury Buildings

Shrewsbury buildings

Higgledy-piggledy, holding each other up.

Shrewsbury buildings

The restaurant below will probably look great in the summer when they have their hanging baskets properly planted up.

Shrewsbury Tudor building

But the one below is probably the grandest that we saw. I wonder what it was originally, as you can see it houses a pharmacy nowadays, on the ground floor anyway.

Shrewsbury Building

The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre

The Honourable Schoolboy cover

I was pleased when I realised that I could read The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre for The 1977 Club as we have all of his books in the overflow bookcases in the garage. Jack read them at that time. But I have only read A Small Town in Germany by le Carre previously. I was even happier when it dawned on me that this book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, I have a bit of a personal project going on to read as many as those prize winners as I can get a hold of.

I loved this book although for me it was essential that I had the time to read it over quite a short period of time, it’s not a 30 pages at bedtime before you fall asleep sort of book. Also as I was reading it 41 years after it was published it has a distinct feeling of nostalgia and historical fiction now.

It begins with the British secret service (the Circus) being under a cloud as far as the American ‘Cousins’ are concerned as Bill Haydon has not long been unmasked by George Smiley as a spy for Russia, recruited when he was a student at Oxford 30 years previously. Haydon had so much influence he had been able to have good members of staff pensioned off or elbowed out, leaving a very much weakened Circus. George Smiley is in charge of putting together a team to investigate money laundering in Hong Kong which was still a British Crown Colony at that time. He manages to bring back some of those that Haydon had ousted. The investigations lead from Hong Kong to Cambodia and Thailand and drug smuggling comes into it too.

That’s all I’m going to say about the story, it’s quite convoluted as you would expect of a spy story, but I really enjoyed this one and the fact that I haven’t read any of the other Smiley books which were written before this one wasn’t a problem at all, although I had watched them on TV years ago. I must say that I think Alec Guinness was the perfect Smiley.

1977 Club

Some previous 1977 books that I’ve read are:

The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I,Claudius by Robert Graves

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

1977 Club
I’m participating in The 1977 Club this week which is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. I’m also reading The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre, but I still have 100 or so pages of that one to read.

The Passion of New Eve cover

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter was first published in 1977, which is why I read it. It really isn’t my sort of book. It’s well enough written but is extremely weird and I suppose when it was written it was hailed as some sort of feminist wonder read. Each to their own. I suspect the author had recently visited the US and she just let her imagination run wild into a future it could be heading for.

Evelyn (a man) lives in London but by chapter two he has travelled to New York, a place that all of his American friends had warned him about. It’s a lot worse than he could have imagined though as society has completely broken down and it’s mayhem, it’s a bit of a civil war situation and everyone’s out for themselves. After some adventures Evelyn decides it might be safer outside the city, but that’s when all his troubles really begin.

After getting lost in the desert he’s kidnapped by a young woman, taken back to an underground society of women headed by a large multi-breasted fertility goddess who performs a sex change on him – hey presto, now Evelyn is Eve.

After escaping from there he/she ends up at the home of Zero who’s a one-legged, one-eyed pirate type who has seven young female followers, they’re all supposed to be his wives and he decides that Eve will be his eighth, she has no say in the matter. This part seems a bit Manson family-ish and that had certainly been in the news not long previously. Bizarrely Zero blames an old movie actress called Tristessa for his infertility and he thinks she lives somewhere in the desert. He uses his helicopter to track her down and things get even weirder. Eventually Eve ends up in the hands of a heavily armed army of right-wing supposedly Christian schoolboys and paedophilia is added to the mix.

There’s a lot more of course but I’ve already written more than I usually do about the storyline of a book. In this book gender is flexible and I suppose in its day that was a strange thought, but now it seems that it’s quite common for people to choose which gender they want to be. I’m just not that interested as I think of people as people not a sex.

So this was a weird read by an author who nicked ideas from various places, it might have shocked readers back in the day but as often happens with science- fiction some things have just about caught up with it.

This is the first book by Angela Carter that I’ve read but I have a few more in the house so I’ll eventually give her another go – sometime.

Thanks Kaggsy and Simon for setting this up.

This and that

Today it was actually quite mild and sunny – at times anyway and I spent most of the day in the garden , still ‘redding up’ (tidying up) weeding and cutting back the dead bits. In fact after the brutal cold weather and snow we had a fortnight ago there are now quite a few fatalities. My rosemary bushes had gone all through the winter fairly happily, but the Easter weather was just too much for them and they’ve had to be chopped right back, I hope they re-grow. It was only today that I realised that my lovely ceanothus (Californian lilac) now has brown leaves instead of the lovely glossy dark green leaves it has had all through the winter. More chopping back required, I find it painful. A few roses have succumbed to the cold weather, but I’m hopeful that they might survive – eventually. Strangely the lavender bushes are all very happy looking, so much for them being tender Mediterranean plants, but my Alpine edelweiss plant looks like it has had it. I’ll leave it in though just in case there’s life in the roots yet.

Over the weekend we were up north in Inverness on a football related jaunt. Friday was freezing and grey, a disappointment as the weather forecast said it would be nice up there. But the sun arrived on Saturday – and there was warmth with it, amazing! When I say warmth it was probably just in double figures celsius, but not long ago it was -5 so I was happy. Can you believe I actually had to put the car window down? Inverness was heaving with people, there were so many tourists, and it being a Friday night we couldn’t get into any of the restaurants that we tried as we hadn’t booked. There was one restaurant that had only four people in it, not a good sign considering how jam packed everywhere else was, but we had no alternative so we gave it a go. It was a Mediterranean eatery (allegedly). It was expensive and it was possibly the worst meal I’ve ever had in a restaurant – AND I came out feeling hungrier than I had been when I went in! Why oh why didn’t I check out the Tripadvisor reviews first?!

The book pile has grown by seven books, I bought some in the Pitlochry bookshops on the way up to Inverness. Then some more in a Dingwall bookshop. Dingwall actually has two secondhand bookshops, amazing. I think maybe the long dark winters in the Scottish Highlands lead to a lot of people picking up books to take themselves to pastures new, for a wee while anyway.

One of the books that I bought was by Rose Tremain. I’ve never read anything by her, but I enjoyed reading this Guardian article last week. Have you read any of her books?

I didn’t take any photos of Inverness itself, but you can see some images here.

Nana by Emile Zola

Nana cover

Nana by Emile Zola was first published in 1880 and it’s part of his Rougon Macquart series which I’ve been reading completely out of order. There’s a list on Goodreads which recommends the order they should be read in, you can see it here. I’m not sure if it makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of the books.

Bluntly, this book is about prostitution and the part it played in French society of the Second Empire, particularly in Paris. Nana is the main character and in the beginning she’s a new girl in a theatre, her first experience on stage didn’t go well at all, she couldn’t sing, but she had the wit to realise that a lack of talent wouldn’t be a problem for her, she had a great figure and she was more than happy to show it all off, with just a very thin gauze veil for cover.

The men are agog, so are a lot of the women, and Nana goes from being a penniless unknown to being the toast of Paris, in some circles anyway. She’s a manipulative and totally dishonest tart who as time goes on becomes more and more out of control. The wonder is that the men involved with her were happy to put up with her nonsense, but there’s nowt as queer as men when it comes to sex it would seem!

Apparently Zola did a lot of background research for this book and he even managed to get a peek at a very ornate and expensive bed of a famous Parisian courtesan, and he based Nana’s bed on that one. As ever Zola’s descriptions light up the book but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others of his that I’ve read. Zola wanted to compare Nana’s destructiveness with that of the French Empire’s disintegration which came in 1870.

Zola did set out to show how hereditary weaknesses affected various members of the families in this series and Nana’s personality is completely out of control, self-centred and destructive. She’s a nutter, one of those women who should have ‘dangerous to everyone’ stamped on her forehead. She’s smart though, much wilier than everyone else and has the unusual (for that society) tendency to kindness when others are in despair.

This one was on my Classics Club list.
Have you read Nana? What did you think of it/her?

The cover of my Penguin Classic shows ‘Nana’ painted by Edouard Manet.

Shrewsbury Abbey

We managed to visit quite a few towns during our fairly recent trip to Oswestry, and one of them was Shrewsbury. We had no idea that the town was going to be quite as congested as it is, but thankfully we had already decided to use the very handy and cheap Park and Ride there. The traffic was incredibly heavy and slow moving, it would have been a nightmare driving through it and searching for a parking place. Otherwise we were really impressed with Shrewsbury which has a very high proportion of independent shops, so it’s quite a unique shopping experience – if you’re that way inclined.

But we visited Shrewsbury Abbey which is in the photo below. The abbey was founded in 1083 but a lot of the building was destroyed in the 16th century apparently

Shrewsbury Abbey

It’s not magnificent looking from the outside, but it’s better internally as you can see from the photo below.

Shrewsbury Abbey

Shrewsbury Abbey

I’m sure that one of the stained glass windows is a recent one which was commissioned in memory of the author Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter, who lived locally. She set her books around the abbey where her character Brother Cadfael was a Benedictine monk.

Shrewsbury Abbey

The window below is very high up and much more ancient.

Shrewsbury Abbey

In the past the abbey has been inundated as you can see from the photo below of a boat in the aisle. The River Severn runs through the town and obviously gets too close for comfort sometimes.

Shrewsbury Abbey

It seems to have been terribly dark when we were in the abbey, but you can see much better images here.

Spy Sinker by Len Deighton

Spy Sinker cover

Spy Sinker by Len Deighton was first published in 1990 and I hooked it out of the overflow bookcases in the garage ages ago. I can’t understand why it took me so long after that to read this last book in the Hook, Line and Sinker trilogy. It is of course a continuation of the Bernard Samson story.

Bernard hadn’t ever really fitted perfectly into the world of British spies that he had more or less been born into. His problem is that his father had decided not to send him to the right public school back in England, so Bernard had been brought up in Berlin, and as we all know – to get on in so many British institutions you must have the correct old school tie.

As ever, I can’t say too much about the story for fear of ruining it for any subsequent readers. But I’m assuming that it’s Bernard’s lack of the right background that singled him and his wife out for special treatment that they could well have done without.

This was an absolute cracker of a read.

The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Broken Road  cover

The Broken Road – from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor was published in 2013 – posthumously. Fermor didn’t manage to get the book finished before he died. He had walked from the Hook of Holland in 1933 when he was 18 years old, planning to walk to Constantinople. He wrote two really good books about his experiences A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. For some reason he couldn’t get down to finishing the trilogy off for years. I suppose that it was an awful long way to look back, also he had terrible bad luck with his notes and diaries being stolen more than once and also for some odd reason Harrods Depository apparently destroyed papers that he had lodged in their storage for safe keeping.

This one doesn’t quite match the heights of his earlier books but it’s still a great read. Again he’s hob-nobbing with all sorts of people from gypsies to aristocrats, sleeping in shacks and palaces and when he gets to Greece he walked from monastery to monastery, some of which were wealthy and others very poor.

He had studied ancient Greek while at school and was keen to learn modern Greek and it’s just as well he did as when World War 2 began he joined the British Army and his expertise came in handy.

Bizarrely there’s practically nothing about Constantinople, maybe it was a big disappointment to him.

The really sad thing about these books is that just about all of the people he writes about having met probably didn’t live that much longer as gypsies, Jews, Bulgarians, Rumanians and even Greeks obviously didn’t fare well during the war.

Fermor was a bit of a maverick and although as a youngster he had thought of joining the army the thought of the necessary discipline that that would involve didn’t appeal to him at all. When World War 2 broke out he joined the SOE and operated on German occupied Crete. He proved himself to be independent though – taking it upon himself to kidnap a German General Kreipe at one point. A film was made of that escapade – Ill Met by Moonlight.

Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011 at the age of 96 and you can read his Guardian obituary here.

The Lake District Murder by John Bude

The Lake District Murder cover

The Lake District Murder by John Bude was first published in 1935, but I read the British Library Crime Classics reprint.

This book begins well with a murder almost immediately, just the way I like it, but Inspector William Meredith gets completely side-tracked by another mystery for most of the book. Bude seems to have modelled his writing style on that of Freeman Wills Crofts, but he ended up being more convoluted and detailed than FWC and it became very tedious.

He was so concerned with the plot that he made very little of the various characters, most of which are male. I longed for Mrs Meredith to make an appearance, but after a short but spirited spat with her husband the detective, she almost completely disappeared.

The lovely scenery of the Lake District barely gets a mention. John Bude seems to have assumed that his books would be read by men – and men who were just keen on calculations and measurements at that. I was really amused by this part though:

Wick expectorated with a mingled air of disdain and disgust and pulled out a packet of Woodbines. He had now completed the charging of the petrol tank and was leaning back against one of the pumps, watching the Inspector with ill-concealed impatience.

“Now look here, Wick,” said Meredith briskly. “I want to know something. What time did the Nonock lorry leave your garage last night?”

Wick slowly lit his cigarette, considering the point.

Health and Safety would go nuts if you lit up whilst leaning against a fuel pump nowadays!!

I found this book to be quite disappointing, but as usual the cover is a great one and it has been taken from a 1930s railway poster (LNER) advertising Ullswater English Lakeland, by the artist John Littlejohns.

Ullswater

Night Birds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken

Night Birds on Nantucket cover

I’m making my way through this Joan Aiken series featuring Dido Twite. This was the first of the series that I picked up at a secondhand bookshop, an original Puffin book which cost all of 25p when it was published in 1966, but as it comes third in the series I had to find and read the first two before getting around to this one.

I was attracted to the book because of the back cover blurb:

Here is a new adventure for Dido Twite (the enchanting heroine of Black Hearts in Battersea), waking from a long sleep to foil Miss Slighcarp, the wicked governess, in her plan to assassinate King James III by long-distance gun – and her greatest ally is a pink whale called Rosie.

Who could resist that craziness?!

Dido has been rescued from the sea by a whaling ship and slept for ten months, being fed on whale oil and molasses while she slept. When she wakes up the sailors have just caught a whale and are dealing with it (not a pleasant description) and Dido is sorry to hear that they can’t take her back to England immediately, they’re going in the opposite direction. The ship’s captain has a daughter on the ship, Dutiful Penitence is about the same age as Dido but is pining away after the death of her mother on board. Dido succeeds in making Pen take an interest in life again and together they get mixed up in another Hanoverian plot to kill King James III.

The long distance gun is so powerful it will blow Nantucket back as far as Atlantic City – a horrific thought apparently!

It’s a daft but fun read.