Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

Not So Quiet cover

Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith was first published in 1930 but my copy is a Virago from 1988. I can hardly believe it but this book has been sitting unread on my Virago shelves for getting on for 30 years. I have no idea why it has taken me so long to get around to it. When I picked it up last week and read the blurb I knew it was right up my street.

Helen Zenna Smith is a pseudonym . She was really Evadne Price, an Australian. She had a varied career, moving to England and becoming an actress, but she became a journalist and writer of children’s stories.

She was asked to write a parody of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front which had just been published the year before. The parody was to be called All’s Quaint on the Western Front by Erica Remarks. She thought that was an awful idea – and I agree. But she agreed to write a woman’s war story and when she met Winifred Constance Young who had been an ambulance driver at the front she was able to read her wartime diaries and use them to help her to write this book which tells of the horrors of war. Something that the people back home didn’t want to know about.

This is a great book which is I think very truthful about the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches and the V.A.D.’s who had to pick up their broken bodies. Helen Smith is an ambulance driver and of course the war is nothing like the folks back home think it is. Her parents are proud of their splendid daughter who’s doing her bit for King and Country. Her mother is not at all interested in the realities of war, but she spends her time on committees and vying with another woman to be the most important person in the neighbourhood. The war has just brought excitement into her life and a chance to boast about her daughter.

The reality is that the women volunteers are treated far worse than the troops are. The ambulance station commandant is a monster of a woman who is constantly on the lookout for reasons to punish the volunteers she’s in charge of. This means that the women get hardly any sleep. After doing their long shifts they have to scrub out the ambulances which are full of blood, vomit, body parts and everything that should be inside a human being – but isn’t. The food is uneatable and even the smell of it cooking makes them feel sick. Soldiers feel sorry for them.

There are quite a lot of detailed descriptions of mangled bodies and horrible injuries, but don’t let that put you off reading this book.

This book won the Prix Severigne in France as the “novel most calculated to promote international peace”.

The Musgraves by D.E. Stevenson

 The Musgraves cover

The Musgraves by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1960. Esther and Charles Musgrave have been married for 25 years but they’re not destined to add any more years to that tally as Charles is terminally ill. He was a widower when he married Esther and is much older than her. His 17 year old son Walter reacted badly to the marriage and took off in high dudgeon to make a life for himself, cutting off all contact with his father.

All that is in the past though and it’s Esther and their three daughters that are preying on Charles’s mind in his last days. Delia the eldest daughter has always been difficult, she has never quite got over not being an only child and having to share her parents with two younger sisters. She’s a needy and dissatisfied young woman and likes everybody to know it, with the result that the other members of the family are walking on eggshells when she’s around.

Meg the middle daughter is going to be married to Bernard soon, but her mother isn’t at all happy about the match. Charles is obviously keen to get Meg settled with a steady husband, looking to the future he knows that Bernard will be a help to his family when he’s no longer around to look after them. Esther doesn’t like Bernard and is really quite a hypocrite considering her far more mismatched but successful marriage with Charles.

Rose, the youngest daughter is packed off to school and with Charles’s death and Meg’s marriage Esther is living with just Delia in the much smaller house that they’ve had to move to when it became a financial necessity to move out of their large family home. Delia isn’t happy with the change in their circumstances, living in a large house with plenty of land around it had been important for her ego and she feels the downfall keenly. Esther is delighted with the new house though, it’s just Delia’s personality that is a problem.

I enjoyed this book about difficult family dynamics and clashing personalities. It’s often the middle child in a family who is supposedly the difficult one so I’m told, but I think that quite often the eldest child comes as such a shock to some mothers, especially if they are young mothers and are an only child themselves. I’ve certainly observed some young mothers treating their eldest as if they are a sibling that they never had and not their child. By the time they have a second child they’re ready to get into mothering mode so the relationship is very different. It’s harsh on the eldest child. Perhaps that was part of Delia’s problem.

Well, as Tolstoy said: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Although I prefer D.E. Stevenson’s books to have a Scottish setting (so parochial of me I know) I did enjoy this one.

The Strongest Weapon by Notburga Tilt

The Strongest Weapon cover

The Strongest Weapon by Notburga Tilt was published in 1972, by a small firm of publishers in Devon. Possibly it was a book which the writer paid to have published as I honestly can’t see any publisher stumping up money to the author.

Notburga Tilt was an Austrian who lived there at the time of Hitler’s Third Reich and this book is supposedly about the author’s experiences as a member of the Austrian resistance. It was apparently her job to get information from German soldiers – using her wonderful beauty and sex appeal to vamp them.

In fact in every chapter the author harps on about her good looks and she is constantly being proposed marriage by German officers whom she has only just met! One of them she actually did marry – AND he was in the SS.

The book isn’t at all well written but I feel I can’t be too picky about that as she obviously wasn’t writing in her first language. However I believe that one of the most important things about being in any resistance group is to keep quiet about it. One of the first things Burgi told some of the German soldiers who were swooning over her was that she was in the resistance!! – with no consequences.

There’s also precious little about what she was actually doing apart from seducing Nazis and travelling about. She does however mention losing her watch and a few sentences later she’s checking her watch! However, after searching the internet I was surprised to see that she actually appeared on TV’s This is Your Life and seems to have been a bit of a celebrity at one point, locally anyway.

I struggled to the end, just because I was so incredulous really. It reminded me of when my oldest brother first moved to Holland in the early 1970s. He said that everybody of a certain age claimed to be in the Dutch resistance. In reality though people had to be so brave to do such work that they must have been very much in the minority. However I can imagine that post-war some people did feel the need to dream up an alternative history for themselves. The author of this book seems to have been one of them, but it was the narcissistic aspect of her personality that I found most embarrassing, especially as the photo of her at the front of the book is of a woman who is as plain as a scone – as we say in Scotland.

The Chelsea Flower Show 2018

Yes it’s that time of the year again, The Chelsea Flower Show, and yet again I’m not there. Every year I say I’ll go next year instead of just sitting at home and watching it on TV but this year I’ve been so busy I even missed some of the TV programmes, I hope I can catch up with them.

I didn’t even vote on which garden was my favourite, but only because I just couldn’t make up my mind. I really hated the one called Skin Deep though. Lots of concrete blocks of differing heights don’t make up a garden as far as I’m concerned.

If you want to see the gardens you can look here

One of my favourites is the Welcome to Yorkshire garden. It’s old fashioned, maybe a bit twee but it looks like a great place to relax in.

Gardening as an aid to mental health has been a theme this year. This is something that professionals in mental health seem to have just discovered, but if they had only asked hands-on gardeners we could have told them years ago that even just looking at plants and gardens will make you feel good. Actually getting stuck into the work can be a life-saver for some people though. It’s always a thrill to see a plant growing and thriving, especially if you have planted it or grown it from seed. I’m just going to gloss over the failures though, all gardeners have them, but I was so relieved to hear both Monty Don and Joe Swift admitting that they had struggled to grow Meconopsis – blue poppies. I know I’ve inadvertently killed at least three of them, but I’m still trying!

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett

Checkmate cover

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett is the sixth and last book in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles although in truth this series could just as easily have been named Philippa’s Chronicles. It was first published in 1975.

I loved this series and although I rarely re-read books as I have too many books that I want to read for the first time around, I can see that I might read this series again after a few years. Towards the end of this one I feared that it was going to be an unhappy ending to rival Thomas Hardy’s books, but – it wasn’t. It was however a great read.

Lymond had been determined to go back to Russia where he was almost certainly going to be executed by the Tsar, his friends are determined to stop him and with Philippa’s help he is taken to France. He’s not happy about it, but they are still waiting for their divorce and have to stay there until after the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the Dauphin. Strangely Lymond intends to re-marry as soon as he gets the divorce. Philippa is still being pursued by the ever constant Austin Grey. But Philippa is only interested in finding out the truth of Lymond’s parentage and destroying any evidence that might be harmful to him.

Lymond is leading the French army against England and Spain, but back in England Mary Tudor is in ill health and having trouble with her Spanish husband Philip. It’s a time of religious upheaval with the Protestant religion gaining converts, but they’re being persecuted for their beliefs.

These books are dense with detail and not easy reads but they’re well worth the concentration needed to get the most out of them.

Lymond has been suffering from migraines, almost certainly caused by stress. As a fellow sufferer I was glad to see how Dunnett described his illness. So many people claim to have a migraine when what they have is just a bad headache, nothing like a three day hell with constant vomiting at its height and often vision impairment followed by exhaustion. I feel sure that Dunnett must have suffered from migraines herself or lived with someone who did.

Dumbarton and the River Clyde

Back at Dumbarton Castle again, and you get some lovely views from there, below is the River Clyde, looking over to its south bank.

River Clyde

And below looking over to Langbank on the other side of the river from Dumbarton. Obviously I took these photos at low tide, but when the Queen Elizabeth II was launched at Clydebank just a few miles down the Clyde this is exactly where I stood to watch her sail past. I was still at primary school and the whole school walked there to see her and wave at the captain.
River Clyde

If you look to the left in the photo below you should just be able to see the Erskine Bridge in the distance.
River Clyde

The photos below were also taken from Dumbarton Castle Rock although this time looking inland. As you can see there’s a lot of house building going on at the moment. The land around there was the Sunderland aircraft factory during World War 2 I believe, so it was a busy place.
Dumbarton Crags
The photo below is of the area just to the right of the photo above, of Dumbuie and Dumbuck which used to be a huge mountainous rock but sadly when I was about seven they started to quarry it and now there’s hardly anything left, it’s like a big hollowed out tooth. I still mourn for what was the original Dumbuck. I hate quarries.
Dumbuie, Crags

When I was about 13 they started building new houses on farmland which was exactly where I used to walk to get to the top of the hills. I couldn’t believe it and feared that eventually there would be no hills left to walk on at all, but they must have decided that the area was too steep for housing, which it is. I noticed that the houses that are being built now near the Clyde have about a dozen stairs up to the front door. I’m not surprised as being so close to the river they’re in danger of flooding. Rather them than me! Dumbarton was a nice town to grow up in, where I lived anyway, on the edge of town but like many places it has sadly deteriorated, the scenery is still good though.
a pano from castle

My Blog’s Name in TBR Books

I’ve never done this meme before but lots of the blogs that I enjoy frequenting have been doing it including Margaret at BooksPlease and I decided to join in. The idea is that you choose book titles from your TBR pile which begin with the letters of your blog name. So, here goes – sixteen of them. I intend to read them before the end of this year.

TBR Books

PPapa-la-bas by John Dickson Carr

IIf This Is a Man by Primo Levi

NNicolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett

IIf Not Now, When by Primo Levi

NNot So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

GGuest in the House by Philip MacDonald

FFor the Sake of the School by Angela Brazil

OOld Hall-New Hall by Michael Innes

RReputation for a Song by Edward Grierson

TTroy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

HHow Late It Was – How Late by James Kelman

EEdinburgh by Robert Louis Stevenson

WWinter by Len Deighton

EEverything You Need by A.L. Kennedy

SSpiderweb by Penelope Lively

TTrooper to the Southern Cross by Angela Thirkell

Have you read any of these books and if so where should I begin?

Dumbarton Castle and environs

Dumbarton Castle and Rock

Last week I was at Dumbarton Castle which is an old friend to me as I used to play around it when I was a wee girl as I lived not far from the castle. It might be a disappointment to some people as it’s not much of a castle really, well not like Edinburgh or Stirling. But Dumbarton was the ancient capital of Strathclyde, so it’s more of a fort and has been used as such since at least AD 450. Built on a volcanic plug, as is Edinburgh, it’s located at a strategic point where the River Leven meets the River Clyde.

Dumbarton Castle and Rock

Over the centuries it has been well used and at one point a lot of French Napoleonic War prisoners were housed at the castle. Below is a photo of the prison but I believe that they were also living in a part of the castle which is now a ruin.

French Prison at Dumbarton Rock

You have to be fit to visit Dumbarton Castle as it has stairs all over the place. I used to think it was 365, they said there was one for every day of the year when I was a lass, but now they must have re-counted. I’m sure I saw a sign saying 555 stairs, all I know for sure is that my knees knew all about them the next day!

Dumbarton Castle stairs, Dumbarton Rock

Mary Queen of Scots sailed to France from here in 1435 when she went there to marry the Dauphin. But long before that it suffered attacks from the Vikings. It’s a very historic place.

I thought these photos might be of interest to people who have read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles as the town is mentioned quite often in the books. Sadly the photos don’t do the distant mountains justice.

View from Dumbarton Rock

A few weeks ago there was a rumour going around the town that Prince Harry and wife would be given the title of Earl and Countess of Dumbarton. Wishful thinking I thought – so I was amazed to discover today that it is indeed true. I suspect that one day they will visit the town, the Georgian house (below) within castle is still used for special events, usually by the army. I just hope that nobody shows them the actual town!

Georgian House at Dumbarton Castle

There are guns aplenty scattered around the walls and strategically placed information boards.

View from Dumbarton Castle

Guns at Dumbarton Castle, Scotland

Dumbarton Castle

Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff

Q's Legacy cover

I read about Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff very recently on someone’s blog and until then I had absolutely no idea of its existence. A quick check of Fife’s libraries catalogue told me that they didn’t have a copy so I quickly resorted to the internet as I enjoyed reading 84 Charing Cross Road so much.

A couple of days later a paperback copy of the book dropped through the letterbox and I wasn’t too chuffed to see that although its condition was described as being very good – it wasn’t as it is very badly creased back and front. That’s why I prefer to buy books in second-hand bookshops as then I know exactly what I’m getting.

Anyway, back to the book. Q’s Legacy was first published in 1985 and it’s a slim volume with just 138 pages. I whizzed through it in no time, I really enjoyed being in the author’s company again.

The ‘Q’ in the title is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Helene Hanff hadn’t been able to continue with her college education due to lack of funds, but she embarked on a course of self-education through the library. After consulting a librarian who directed her to the Dewey 800 section she began to work her way through the books there, but it was when she reached Quiller-Couch’s books that she really felt she had hit a gold mine and this book is her tribute to him. As all book lovers probably know she started a correspondence with Marks and Co, a second-hand bookshop in London and ended up writing a book about her correspondence with them.

But even after the success of 84 Charing Cross Road she was still living a precarious hand to mouth life, renting a one room apartment in New York and never having enough money to go and visit her beloved London and all the literary locations she wanted to see.

Eventually with help from the publisher Andre Deutsch who allowed her to stay in his mother’s house she did manage to get to London again and met several fans who had been keen to show her the sights. I must admit that I was quite amazed that she had such a close relationship with fans, being happy to speak to them on the phone, her number was in the book. Lots of them even sent her copies of her book so she could sign them and send them back. That cost her three times what she got for the sale of each book! – not that she was complaining. She was only getting 7 cents for each copy sold. She also got a small advance of course.

I really enjoyed reading this one although not for the first time I was very annoyed with Andre Deutsch who had a very lavish lifestyle, all on the backs of the authors that he published and obviously paid very little money. Sadly writers are often so thrilled that someone actually wants to publish a book they have written that they are easily fobbed off with scant payment for their work.

However, the writer and editor Diana Athill gets a few mentions in this book as Andre Deutch’s partner and that reminded me that she was another woman who was kept on minimal wages for years by him – and I bet she was doing most of the actual work. Athill lived for most of her life in rented accommodation as she didn’t earn enough to buy a home. Shame on Andre Deutsch.

Anyway, if you enjoyed 84 Charing Cross Road you’ll love this one too. It has some really funny bits in it that I just had to share, but I’ll leave them for you to discover for yourself.

The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett

The Ringed Castle cover

The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1971 and my copy seems to be a first edition. I love the dust jacket. It is of course the fifth book in the Lymond Chronicles.

Philippa has returned from Turkey. She has contracted a marriage of convenience with Lymond, the plan is they will have the marriage annulled within a few years, that should be easy as it hasn’t been consummated.

Meanwhile Lymond has travelled to Russia with his band of mercenaries and it isn’t long before he has gained yet another title – Voevoda Bolshoia, head of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s army. Any position that brings you close to Ivan is a precarious one as his moods and rages are a danger to all around him.

But Ivan is keen to modernise his country and to bring wealth to it through trading. Reluctantly the Tsar parts with Lymond to allow him to sail to England with ships full of goods and Osep Nepeja who is to be the first Russian ambassador to England.

In England Mary Tudor is Queen and married to Philip of Spain. She is praying to have a child and is busy having thousands of Protestants burnt at the stake as offerings to her God, presumably hoping that she’ll be sent a child from God for doing her best to support Catholicism. Life in England is almost as dangerous as life in Russia.

I loved this one and went straight on to Checkmate, the last in the Lymond series.