Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

Madam Will You Talk? cover

Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart was first published in 1955 but my copy is from 1969 as I think you would have realised from the cover. When I was reading this book I didn’t realise that it is actually the first book that she had published, it certainly doesn’t read like a first effort.

Charity is a young widow and when she decided to go on a road trip to Provence she asked her close friend Louise to accompany her. Not long after arriving at their hotel Charity befriends David an English teenager who is staying there with his French step-mother. It transpires that David’s father Richard has been tried for murder but has been acquitted, and when Charity overhears a conversation she realises that Richard is in France and is trying to track down his son. She is sure that David is in danger, he certainly seems to be terrified of his father.

I really enjoyed this book which is a mystery, adventure, romance and travelogue all rolled into one. There are some lovely descriptions of the countryside and there’s a hair-raising high speed car journey with Charity as the expert driver, something quite advanced and new for a female character in 1955 I think.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Au Reservoir by Guy Fraser-Sampson

 Au Reservoir cover

Au Reservoir by Guy Fraser Sampson is a continuation of E.F. Benson’s hugely enjoyable Mapp and Lucia series. I’m not usually at all keen on such things but for those of us who love to be in the company of Lucia and Mapp and all the other inhabitants of Tilling (Rye) in East Sussex, Au Reservoir is faithful to Benson’s characters and the situations they usually got themselves into so that’s a big plus.

Mind you Benson’s characters were so well drawn with so many eccentricities that I think it would probably be a fairly easy job for anyone with a gift for writing to cobble together a book written in his style, like a sort of join the dots exercise.

This book is slightly updated for modern readers with Major Benjy being a bit more risque than he could get away with before and a few incongruous words were used by Lucia who would never have referred to her living-room, it was always her drawing-room and she wouldn’t have used the word specialty, she would have said speciality – as I would too!

The Labour government and high taxation is mentioned a lot, which put me in mind of Angela Thirkell’s post war books. As I recall it was usually just the local rates that got Benson’s Tillingites aerated.

As you would expect from the title this is the last of these books and I found the ending quite sad. No more Moonlight Sonatas for Lucia and Georgie. What am I saying? What a relief for the Tillingites!

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I’m still stuck in World War 2 but this time it’s a fictional book, The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton was first published in 1947 and if you enjoy a World War 2 English setting then you’ll love this one.

Miss Roach is a rather lonely woman in her late thirties, she’s a reader at a firm of publishers and like many people she has been bombed out of her home in London so she has taken up home in a suburban boarding house in Thames Lockdon (Henley-on-Thames) and she is having to commute into the city every day by train.

The boarding house is populated by single people all older than Miss Roach, the women are of the genteel variety, but it’s Mr Thwaites who is a thorn in Miss Roach’s flesh. Thwaites is an elderly man who gets his kicks picking on Miss Roach at every opportunity, usually at meal times. He’s a bully and a buffoon and Miss Roach dreads mealtimes, but when an American serviceman comes into her life things seem to look up a bit.

There seems to have been quite a fashion for books with a wartime boarding house setting, I suppose it was a new experience for strangers to be thrown together as they were and as such it was a rich source of copy.

I have a confession to make – this was actually a re-read for me, but it was a long time before I realised that! It seems that I read it way back in 2011 and during this re-read I kept thinking I’m sure this must have been made into a film, because it seems so familiar. But at no point did I think I had already read it – until I got almost right to the end – honestly – what am I like?!

Anyway, I still enjoyed it and if you’re interested in what I said about it in 2011 you can read that post here

Some Guardian links

I’ve been watching and really enjoying The Durrells on TV and I read a lot of their books way back in the 1970s, so I was interested to see that there’s a new biography of them out now, by Michael Haag called The Durrells of Corfu. It looks from the review though that it might be a bit of a missed opportunity as according to this article by Kathryn Hughes (who seems to know a lot about that family) Haag has stuck to the previous Durrell mythology as written by themselves and has ignored the even more interesting aspects of the family.

There’s a roundup of new thrillers here if that is your interest.

I’m interested in reading a new book called How to be Human by Paula Cocozza which is about an urban fox.

Donna Leon fans will want to read this interview. She tells why she has turned to eco-detective fiction. I have to say that I’ve never read anything by Leon but I know that Joan of Planet Joan is a fan so I’m going to give her a go.

Every Guardian Review section seems to increase my list of books to read, but I can’t not read it!

Pattern by Emma Bridgewater

Pattern cover

Pattern by Emma Bridgewater is a must read for any fans of Emma Bridgewater’s pottery, a real eye candy publication. But it’s also an interesting read with Emma Bridgewater explaining how the company was developed with help from her husband Matt and later on some other designers.

She has also added in some of her family’s favourite recipes. It all adds up to an entertaining reading experience. It’s a follow up from her book Toast and Marmalade.

If you don’t know about Emma Bridgewater pottery you might like to have a keek at some images here.

The 1951 Club

the 1951 club

I’ve read and blogged about quite a few books that were published in 1951 in recent years, so if you’re interested in my thoughts on them click on the titles.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch

The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau

Cork on the Water by Macdonald Hastings

The Catherine Wheel by Patricia Wentworth

The Duke’s Daughter by Angela Thirkell

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer

School for Love by Olivia Manning

Of course 1951 was an important year in Britain as we had The Festival of Britain which went on for most of the year – or at least until the general election when Churchill became PM again and he saw the whole thing as being Socialist so he shut it all down – spoilsport!

But apparently the Festival was a life-saver for the people who had by then been suffering under austerity for years and years what with the war and even worse rationing post-war. It cheered people up no end to see the bright colours and modern designs, and was a great opportunity for artists, designers and makers.

Before I started blogging I read and enjoyed Festival at Farbridge by J.B. Priestley which was published in 1951 and has local events featuring the festival.

I blogged about the festival some years ago and if you’re interested you can see that post here.

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford

The Blessing cover

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford was first published in 1951, so I decided to read it for the 1951 Club which is being hosted by Karen of Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book.

The Blessing was a re-read for me but it was way back in the 1970s when I first read it and as far as I can recall – I enjoyed it just as much this time around.

It’s the beginning of World War 2 and Grace is a young upper class English woman who is engaged to Hughie. He has just gone off to war and he chose not to marry Grace before leaving, thinking it would be unfair on her if he was killed. Subsequently Grace meets Charles-Edouard a rich Frenchman who is going to join up with de Gaulle and is determined to marry Grace because he wants a son – in case he is killed during the war.

Of course Grace ends up dumping poor Hughie and marrying Charles-Edouard and she doesn’t see him for seven long years, but she did get pregnant immediately after the wedding so when her husband does get back from the war he has a six year old son Sigi who is rather spoiled and used to getting his own way.

Grace and her family move to France and so begins her education in the ways of French marriages. As predicted Charles-Edouard is far from being a faithful husband and his relatives and friends are less than impressed with his choice of wife.

When Grace leaves her husband in high dudgeon after an infidelity too far she goes back to live with her father in England and Sigi quickly realises that he can play his parents off against each other to his own benefit.

This makes it sound like rather a grim read but The Blessing is really quite hilarious in parts. When I think about Nancy Mitford’s own experiences of life in France post-war though – where she hung about for years waiting for her married lover to spare some time for her, putting her own life on hold for him, it’s actually quite sad that she knew what to expect from men of that type, but she still chose to do it – AND when his wife did die, he went off and married someone else!

As it happens over the years I’ve read and written about quite a few 1951 books, but I’ll mention those ones later.

1951 club

Nella Last’s Peace – The post-war diaries of Housewife, 49

Nella Last's Peace cover

Luckily I have a copy of Nella Last’s Peace so I was able to dive straight into it after finishing her war-time diaries. I love being in her company although for quite a lot of this book Nella was suffering from poor health, almost certainly due to the end of the war meaning that she no longer had a reason to get out of the house and meet lots of people. Her life was closing in around her again, it’s a sad fact that the war had given a lot of people a purpose to live, they all felt they were pulling together against a common enemy – Fascism.

After the war rationing actually got worse and there are far more mentions of tinned food in this book, it seems that it was much more difficult for Nella to make the delicious meals that Will had been lucky enough to be given during the war. As Nella loved cooking and feeding people it must have been difficult for her. Petrol was also rationed until mid 1950 but luckily Will always managed to have enough to drive Nella to her beloved Coniston in the Lake District from time to time. I think it was only those trips and her beloved pets that kept her sane, but over the years she learned to be more positive and ‘polish up the dark side’.

The suicide rates particularly for women were pretty high and there seem to be a lot of them amongst Nella’s acquaintances – and they were reported in the local newspaper, something that they tend to keep quiet about nowadays if possible. Perhaps it’s just as well that we now have non poisonous natural gas and not coal gas as the preferred method of ‘topping’ themselves seems to have been to stick their head in the gas oven.

These peace-time diaries concentrate on neighbours and family members, Nella still has worries about her sons and her relationship with Will her husband is still up and down, they’re really a mis-matched couple, complete opposites who should never have married. There were times though when I was on Will’s side although after 35 years of marriage I was surprised that Nella didn’t seem to know him as well as I did. How could she have been happy that for one he had made a quick decision about buying a new (to them) car? I knew it was going to end up a disaster!

I found it very frustrating that about 18 months of the diaries went missing during the war and in that time obviously a lot of things happened. For one thing we don’t know what happened to Nella’s chickens, suddenly they aren’t there and she’s having to barter for fresh eggs.

Nella comes across as being a very caring person with a conscience which led her to being taken advantage of, particularly by her husband’s family, all of whom had treated her quite badly over the years, but it didn’t stop her from organising care for them in their old age.

Mostly though I think it was taking part in the Mass Observation experiment that had a big impact on her life and writing these diaries, getting it all off her chest, and also in some way becoming a writer, something she had always fancied doing. I’m sure she would have been amazed to see what had become of her writing. She also spent a lot of time writing to various people during the war, to friends of her sons who were servicemen and such, I bet those letters were looked forward to. I wonder if any of those were saved, I’m sure they would have made entertaining reading too.

I’ll have to track down a copy of Nella Last in the 1950s now. I can’t wait.

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham

Death of a Ghost cover

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham was first published in 1934 and it’s the sixth Albert Campion murder mystery, so fairly early in his career and for me that’s the problem with this book. As he matured Allingham wrote Campion as a much more interesting character than he was in his early days, he’s just too shadowy and one dimensional, I much prefer the older married Campion.

John Lafcadio was a great artist and he decided that to keep his name going as long as possible after his death he would paint several pictures to be unveiled after his death – one a year, beginning ten years after his death. I have to say that that is a great idea.

It’s the eighth unveiling of one of those paintings, so eighteen years after his death, and there are lots of famous people at the party, suddenly the lights go out – a shilling is needed for the electricity meter, and there’s a murder!

So begins Campion’s investigation, aided by Stanislaus Oates, but for me there’s just not enough of Campion and it’s all a bit predictable.

The Pursuit of Paradise by Jane Brown

The Pursuit of Paradise cover

I think it must be a few years since I bought The Pursuit of Paradise – A Social History of Gardens and Gardening by Jane Brown. I wasn’t really too sure what to expect of it. Sometimes gardening books are a bit like ‘teaching granny to suck eggs’, not that I think I know everything about the subject, but as I’ve been gardening since I was a wee girl, over fifty years!! – it’s inevitable that you pick up a lot of information one way and another.

But this book was informative, it has eleven chapters:
1. The Purest of Human Pleasure
2. The Secret Garden
3. The Military Garden
4. Emancipated Gardeners
5. The Rise of the Small Garden
6. Acquiring Eden
7. Science Lends a Hand
8. It’s Clever, but is it Art?
9. Labour of Love
10. The Formative Garden
11. Future Gardens

I found The Military Garden most interesting as it hadn’t dawned on me that so many gardening terms come from the arts of warfare – cordon, earthing-up, trench, bastion, palisade, covered way and more. It seems that when generals were at a loose end after wars were won, they went home and started to plan gardens where they could keep everything under control, just as they had commanded their men. All that topiary stood in for regiments of men!

This one is definitely worth reading if you enjoy social history and gardening.