West of Scotland book purchases

I’ve been in my beloved west of Scotland earlier in the week so that Jack could go to a football match. It’s too far to do comfortably in one day so we stayed overnight and that gave us plenty of time to visit the shops and eateries that we wanted to visit. Amazingly the weather dried up and we had bright sunshine and blue skies – so much for the weather in the west being wetter than the east!

Without even trying I ended up buying eight books, some from charity shops and the four books from Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series were from a sort of junky ‘antique’ shop. I was so pleased to get these ones that date from 1948 and still have their pristine dustjackets. They were all given to a boy called Phil in 1948 from his mother, nannie and John and Mary.

Missee Lee by Arthur Ransome
The Big Six by Arthur Ransome
Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome

Books by Arthur Ransome

Arthur Ransome Books

The Westering Sun by George Blake – because of the lovely cover and it being Scottish.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – a mystery to me but it was 50p so I thought I might as well buy it.


And two more Scottish books.
The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster
The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

Books Again

It’s World Book Day today which is probably why the date was chosen for the publication of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I dashed to W.H. Smith’s this morning to get my copy of it but annoyingly had to go out tonight so have only managed to get to page 43 so far. Of course it’s not going to be easy to read in bed as it’s so weighty. I suspect that I’ll be reading most of tomorrow!

Oh – and Jack’s team (Dumbarton) won their football match. Sometimes being away from home for one night only is just perfect as you can have one whole day of doing exactly what you want, and you’re only away from your own bed for one night. We visited Helensburgh and the Loch Lomond area and I managed to get some scenic photos which I’ll show you soonish.

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

Greenery Street cover

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail was first published in 1925 but I read a Persephone reprint. I’ve been meaning to get around to reading this one for years and years as everyone seems to love it – and so did I. I only have one other book by him, it’s called Upside-down and I haven’t read that one yet. He was Angela Thirkell’s brother, worked as a set designer for a J.M. Barrie production and the family had lots of links to upper class English/Scottish society. The artist Edward Burne-Jones was his grandfather, and he was also related to Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin.

Greenery Street is very much an autobiographical book which tells of the first year of marriage of a young couple – Felicity and Ian Foster. Felicity’s parents had banned her from seeing Ian before they had even met him, she was their youngest daughter and Ian didn’t earn much money at his job in an insurance firm in the city. This of course only makes the young couple even more determined to see each other and Felicity’s much older sister Daphne is deployed to help the situation.

With permission to get married they set out to find a home and settle in Greenery Street, number 23 – a corner house. They love it but are very short of money and end up in a huge amount of debt to the local builder. Felicity is just useless at housekeeping and her two servants run rings around her. Ian and Felicity are both rather frightened of approaching the servants to complain of anything, even the disappearance of Ian’s five bottles of whisky!

Felicity ends up being overdrawn at the bank and Ian says:

‘Do you realise that you’ve got through the whole of your quarter’s allowance in six weeks?’

And still Felicity didn’t answer. If Ian and the man at the bank both held this extraordinary belief it seemed useless for her to argue. Horrible loathsome money, why must it come and spoil everything like this? She supposed she’d known it all along, really, only still it seemed impossible. Extravagant? It was monstrous to say she was extravagant, when she’s bought nothing for herself – absolutely nothing – since that hideous cotton frock which she’d never been able to wear.

It was all those foul tradesman, and their foul weekly books!

Of course Felicity had been gasping to buy that dress when she saw it in the shop window.

This is a lovely read, it’s funny and will remind a lot of people of what it was like to be setting up their first home, although most of us probably didn’t have such an upper class way of life.

But from what I know of such people it is really true to life. It seems that the richer people are – the less inclined they are to pay the bills of the tradesman that they use – leeching off people who have far less money. Seriously I’ve known a few people who have gone out of business because of this attitude, although to be fair Ian and Felicity’s debt is on their conscience.

However, back to the book F’licity as she is known in the family is a dippy charmer and Ian is besotted with her. The book is dedicated to Diana, the author’s wife and sadly she died in 1949. Up until then Mackail had published a book every year but he gave up writing after her death. He died in 1971.

Greenery Street was actually 23 Walpole Street, London which despite apparently being too small to accommodate a growing family has now been split up into flats, one of which sold recently for £1.49 million. The photo below is of Walpole Street although number 23 was of course a corner house so presumably was an end terrace towards the left of this photo. If you’ve read the book you’ll recognise the little balcony that Felicity sat on. Not at all bad as a starter home I’m sure you’ll agree. Coincidentally P.G. Wodehouse had also lived in this house at an earlier date.

Walpole Street

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

My Friends the Miss Boyds cover

I’m dying to get my hands on Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light which is published later this week but I had a look at my bookshelves and realised that I had an unread book by her so decided to knock that one off the TBR list. An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel was published in 1995 and I loved it. I’ll give it four stars on Goodreads, ideally 4.5 I think. The author is five or six years older than me but her descriptions of how things were back in the 1960s were so evocative to me, it brought back so many memories.

The time slips backwards and forwards between childhood and college.

Carmel is an only child and living in the north of England with her parents in their council house. She has an Irish Catholic background and a mother who is ambitious for her. Karina who is in her class at school has a similar background and when it comes time to go to high school they both manage to get into the equivalent of a grammar school, the Holy Redeemer. It seems they are the only girls to have got there via a council estate. Karina isn’t a friend though, she’s the girl that all the mothers hold up as a good example to their daughters. Karina is clean, such a help to her mother and such and that doesn’t endear her to her peers. There’s a something about her though, she leads a bit of a secret life which Carmel catches glimpses of as she sees her smoking with a group of rough kids.

But the time quickly moves on to the end of schooldays when Carmel gets into a particular London college – as does Karina and Julianne from the same school, and the main topic of conversation in the laundry is about who is engaged, is on the pill, pregnant, thinks they might be pregnant or has just discovered that she isn’t pregnant. Despite the fact that the young women are studying for degrees the most important thing is boyfriends and the cachet having one gives them. The food on offer at the college is dire, but nobody complains, apparently young women aren’t expected to have appetites, their boyfriends would never put up with it.

There’s a lot of comedy and tragedy in this book and I found the ending to be so unexpected, but the whole thing is so well written and observed. It would be an education to female students today to read this as I’m sure there couldn’t be more of a contrast between college girls then where everything was geared to getting married for most of them and putting men on a pedestal, and now since the advent of so-called equality of the sexes where the young women know (I hope) that their future life is as important as any man’s.

Helen Dunmore said in the blurb: ‘Hilary Mantel is a wonderfully unsurprised dissector of human motivation, and in An Experiment in Love she has written a bleak tale seamed with crackling wit.’

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O’Brien

 Fair Helen cover

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O’Brien was published in 1964 and it’s the third book in her series also comprising The Country Girls, and Girl with Green Eyes (previously The Lonely Girl) which are about two young Irish girls. This one begins with Baba giving a quick resume of her and her friend Kate’s (known as Caithleen before) life, they had been friends since childhood. Surprisingly both young women have married well-off men and are living in London. You would think that they had fallen on their feet but the title of the book is deeply sarcastic as marriage has turned out to be far from bliss for the young women.

I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the other two books, it’s not that the writing is bad but neither Kate nor Baba seemed to mature over the years, but then if they had the book would have been very different. I just felt like giving them both a good shake a lot of the time. I found the ending to be quite depressing, but I’m glad that I completed the series. This is a very quick read at just 160 pages.

The Double Image by Helen MacInnes

 The Double Image cover

The Double Image by Scottish author Helen MacInnes was first published in 1966, so at the height of the Cold War and this book seems now to be a nostalgic look back to the time when spies were kitted out with seemingly innocuous items such as pencils, cuff links, tie clips and lipsticks in which could be hidden notes, microfilm or even a poison filled tablet for use in desperation.

The book begins in April in Paris where academic John Craig is doing some historical research. He’s very surprised to bump into an old professor of his in the street. Professor Sussmann looks very worried and it transpires that he has just seen a man that he had presumed to be dead years ago. Sussmann is an Auschwitz survivor and he’s in Paris to testify against a group of Nazis who are on trial in the city. Of course the Nazis are all claiming that they were only obeying orders, but the man who was giving them the orders is Heinrich Berg and according to Sussmann he has just seen him in Paris, although he was supposed to have died and been buried years ago. The worrying thing is that Sussmann thinks that he was recognised by Berg as they had been childhood friends.

So begins an old-fashioned but very readable espionage tale which ends up with John Craig becoming involved in a joint MI5, CIA and Deuxieme Bureau plot to catch Berg along with others of his ilk. As you would expect there are plenty of surprises along the way including double agents.

When the action moves to the Aegean island of Mykonos, a place that John Craig had intended visiting anyway, the sense of danger and tension ramp up.

This was a really enjoyable read, probably particularly if you remember the ‘good old days’ of the Cold War.

I love the dust jacket of this book but sadly my hardback copy has lost its cover. The one above is the one that should have been on my 1966 copy though, I think it’s very stylish.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

 The Winter's Tale cover

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare has come in for a lot of criticism over the centuries since it was first published in 1623. The problem seemed to be that it didn’t fall into a distinct category. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, part tragedy, part comedy and part romance. Plus you definitely have to suspend your disbelief at times in the story, otherwise the plot just seems to be far too unlikely.

Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, were great friends in childhood and after many years apart Polixenes visits Leontes in Sicilia. After nine months in Sicilia Polixenes is keen to go home to see his son Prince Florizel, Leontes is reluctant to give him up, but is unable to persuade him to stay on. Not willing to take no for an answer Leontes persuades his wife Queen Hermione to twist Polixenes’s arm – and she succeeds, presumably because Polixenes finds it more difficult to say NO to the heavily pregnant Hermione, and he doesn’t want to seem impolite.

However Leontes is immediately suspicious of this change of mind and decides that his friend and wife must have been having an affair, and that the child that Hermione is carrying isn’t his. Very quickly Leontes’s love for his friend turns to hatred and the man that he had praised to the skies becomes number one enemy and Camillo, a Sicilian lord is ordered to kill Polixenes. But Camillo warns Polixenes and they both sail off to Bohemia.

Furious at this escape Leontes turns his wrath on Hermione and ends up throwing her in prison, where she soon gives birth to a daughter. In an attempt to soften Leontes’s heart Hermione’s friend Pauline takes the baby to the king but it has the opposite effect and he orders Pauline’s husband Lord Antigonus to take the baby away and abandon her in the wilds.

Leontes had sent messengers to the Oracle at Delphos to find out if Hermione had been unfaithful to him, but meanwhile Hermione is put on public trial, during the trial the report from Delphos is read out and it says that Hermione and Polixenes are completely innocent and that Leontes won’t have an heir until his abandoned daughter is found. Leontes refuses to believe any of that, but when news reaches the court that his son and heir Mamillius has died due to the stress at the treatment handed out by his father to his mother Hermione faints. Pauline tells Leontes that Hermione is dead and he’s wracked with grief over the loss of his wife, son and baby daughter.

I would definitely say that this part of the story comes under the category of tragedy. Now for the romance.

While all this has been going on Antigonus has taken the baby to the coast of Bohemia and has given her the name of Perdita which apparently Hermione had asked him to name her in a dream he had. Perdita meaning lost. Perdita is found by a shepherd and his son and as there is a cloth bundle containing gold and jewels with her they realise that the baby comes of noble blood.

Sixteen years pass and King Polixenes’s son Prince Florizel has fallen in love with Perdita of course! They plan to get married without asking for Polixenes’s permission but the King knows what is going on and he and Camillo disguise themselves and go to the feast at which the betrothal will take place. Furious at his son’s subterfuge Polixenes threatens the old shepherd and Perdita with death and orders Florizel never to see Perdita again. The young couple run off and set sail for Sicilia, accompanied by the old shepherd and his son and helped by Camillo who then tells Polixenes where they have gone, hoping that the king will follow them to Sicilia and take Camillo with him.

Meanwhile, in Sicilia Leontes is still in mourning for Hermione. His courtiers have tried to persuade him to re-marry in order to get an heir to the kingdom, but Pauline tells him that no other wife will match up to Hermione. When Prince Florizel and Perdita arrive in Sicilia Leontes is very happy to see them, especially as Florizel claims to be on a diplomatic mission from his father. But very quickly Polixenes and Camillo arrive and it isn’t long before everyone realises that Perdita is actually the long lost daughter of Leontes and Hermione. Leontes is thrilled to have his daughter back and of course the two kings will be happy to have their offspring married to each other. Everyone goes off to Pauline’s country house where there is a newly made statue of Hermione, but while Leontes is weeping at the sight of his dead wife the statue moves – YES – Hermione is alive!

And that’s that. There is romance and some comedy and the real tragedy is the waste of time – the 16 years in which Leontes mourned for a wife he thought to be dead and of course the loss of Mamillius due to his father’s suspicious and jealous mind. As human beings don’t change over the centuries the psychological aspect of this story is one which is repeated often.

There is a certain POTUS who seems to have that problem, when people are doing what he wants them to do they are just wonderful, terrific people, but as soon as the possibilty of a perceived disloyalty is suspected – all hell breaks loose!

The Winter’s Tale isn’t a favourite of mine, but I was glad that I read it in an Oxford World’s Classic edition as it has an interesting introduction and lots of notes.

Guardian links – Hilary Mantel

Todays Guardian Review section is a special issue as it contains the first chapter of Hilary Mantel’s much awaited book The Mirror and the Light. If you’re so inclined you can read it here. I must admit that I haven’t read it myself as it would drive me up the wall not being able to continue reading it until the book is published on the 5th of March.

There’s also an interview with Hilary Mantel which you can read here, she’s speaking to Alex Clark.

Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin and others write about their favourite Mantel books here.

It’s difficult for me to say which is my favourite because I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies but I also loved A Place of Greater Safety which I read fairly recently.

I’m now wondering if I should re-read Bring Up the Bodies before reading The Mirror and the Light.

My Friends The Miss Boyds by Jane Duncan

My Friends the Miss Boyds cover

My Friends The Miss Boyds by Jane Duncan was first published in 1959 and it’s the first of a long series of books. The author whose real name was Elizabeth Jane Cameron was born in Renton, in the west of Scotland just a couple of miles from where I grew up but she lived most of her childhood at her grandparent’s croft on the Black Isle in the Highlands. Her books are very autobiographical.

The year is 1918 and Janet Sandison the narrator is eight years old. She’s usually called Janet Reachfar as it’s the tradition in the Highlands for people to have the name of the place they live as a surname. Reachfar is her grandparent’s croft and she lives there with her parents, her Uncle George and Tom, the hired man who is thought to be a bit lacking but is really as my mother would have said – “a’ there and a wee bit mair”.

Reachfar is four miles from the village so it’s an eight mile round walk for Janet to get to school, her main companions are George and Tom and she doesn’t have any toys, she has animals instead which she is responsible for, although her dog Fly is her nanny, taking care that Janet doesn’t wander off or fall down the well.

The most exciting thing that happens in the community is the arrival of the coal boat which happens only once a year and the dominie (schoolmaster) gives the schoolchildren a two day holiday to watch the unloading of it. The coal is unloaded last with all the ‘clean’ things, the winter stock for all of the shopkeepers such as food, drink, fabric and ironmongery, just everything that people need, first. One memorable time a large and beautiful brass bed was unloaded, complete with mattress, blankets and pillows – a gift for Granny Macintosh. So exciting was that that the kids ran alongside the delivery cart to see it being set up.

The Miss Boyds of the title are six unmarried sisters who have moved to the Highlands from a town, the youngest three still have a shop in Inverness and the locals think that they should have all stayed in town. They have no idea of how to even buy the coal and they spend their time giggling, fluttering and nudging each other. They soon gain a reputation for being man mad and nobody has a good word to say about them, until disaster strikes one of them and then the locals feel sorry for them and are forever sending them gifts of food.

I’ll definitely be reading the others in this series, when I can get my hands on them. They’re full of social history as well as humour and an unexpected bit of sadness too. I really appreciated too that although the book is set in 1918 Jane Duncan tied up all the loose ends and the time moves on to 1949 and she lets the reader know what happened to the main characters from 1919 to 1949.

Jane Duncan also wrote under the name of Janet Sandison.

The blurb on the back says: ‘An impressive first novel … the reader can see every scene and hear every speech … full of vitality’ The Observer

The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson

The Long Ships

The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson is a Scandinavian classic and was first published in English in 1954, translated from Swedish to English by Michael Meyer. This is a great read which combines Viking raids in various countries, slavery, conversion to Islam under duress, escapes, fights and battles a-plenty, romance and details of domesticity in the late 10th century. There’s quite a lot of humour too, with the whole idea of men going ‘a-viking’ apparently coming about because the men were tired of listening to their women’s sharp tongues over the long dark winter.

This is a real page-turner with the action beginning in Skania (southern Sweden) where a young man called Orm has been left behind with the women while the men go a-viking. Orm had been rather mollycoddled by his mother after his older brother Are had left home and never come back again, presumed dead. But Orm ends up being abducted from his own doorstep and so begin his adventures which end up with him becoming a leader of men. But it isn’t all about fighting men, there are plenty of good, strong female characters in this book.

This book does seem to be historically correct and it details how Christianity was spread throughout Scandinavia, something which seemed unlikely given that the Vikings were so keen on raiding holy islands and murdering monks and priests.

Frans Bengtsson was a poet and biographer and The Long Ships was his only novel, it’s a great Viking saga.

This year I intend to try to read quite a lot of European books in translation, this one counts towards that personal challenge.

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

The World My Wilderness cover

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay was first published in 1950, her second last novel with The Towers of Trebizond being her last.

The book begins in post war France at the Villa Fraises where Maurice Michel had lived with his English wife, but Maurice had drowned and as the rumours were that he had been a collaborator it’s assumed that the maquis had dealt with him in retribution. Maurice’s step-daughter Barbary had been on the fringes of the maquis (French Resistance) along with his son Raoul and they had led a fairly wild life dodging the Gestapo and causing mayhem whenever they could. The end of the war hasn’t made much a of a difference to their behaviour.

Barbary had been very close to her mother Helen but since the birth of a son to her and Maurice she’s not really interested in her teenage daughter and decides to pack Barbary off to her father who lives in London. Barbary is appalled at the thought of going there and living with her father and step-mother, but she settles down to life there in her own way, enjoying the many bomb sites and continuing to kick against any authority, and embarking on a career as a shoplifter.

As Barbary’s father is a high flying lawyer she’s a real liability to him, she’s not going to fit into his upper middle-class London society, but she can’t cope with the ruffians of London either.

There are various wildernesses in this book which moves from rural France to the Highlands of Scotland then to the bomb sites of London, and also the wilderness that a family can be when it’s torn apart and re-made in a different guise.

I think the only other book by the author I’ve read is The Towers of Trebizond and I enjoyed that one more with its quirky characters and humour.