Voices on the Wind by Evelyn Anthony

Voices on the Wind cover

Voices on the Wind by Evelyn Anthony was first published in 1985. I read a lot of her books in the 1970s and loved them, she specialised in World War 2 espionage books.

In this one it’s forty years after the war and Katharine Alfurd is living in a small Sussex village, she’s fairly recently widowed and only has one daughter who she doesn’t get on with very well, so she leads quite a lonely life and has taken to visiting the local pub, drinking too much and telling anyone who will listen to her about her wartime exploits as an undercover British agent. As she had a French mother she could speak the language like a native.

The 1980s were a time when now and again high profile Nazis who had escaped justice popped up in the news, and that’s what happens in this book. Katharine had been involved with the Resistance in Occupied France and she had come into contact with Standartenfuhrer Christian Eilenburg. Now he is in France after having spent most of his life in Chile hiding from Nazi hunters. He’s about to stand trial and as Katharine had actually come into contact with him during the war she’s asked to travel to France to meet him.

Katharine’s wartime memories were never far away and now her thoughts go back to 1944 when along with others she was sent to France to help the Resistance and prepare for the Normandy invasions.

This was a great read, it does jump around a lot but I didn’t have a problem with that. I’ll be looking for more of her books.

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow cover

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley was first published in 1921 but it has been reprinted regularly since then, the copy I read was from Fife Libraries’ reserve stock. This is the first book by Huxley that I’ve read and the reason I read it was because it was mentioned in another book that I read, one of the characters was reading the book for the third time. I don’t think I will be doing that but I did enjoy it. It’s a gentle parody of English country house novels.

It begins with a railway journey, always a good thing for me especially when I realise it will be a steam train. Denis is a young man on his way to spend some time at Crome a country house he has been invited to as part of a house party. He’s a more or less penniless poet and he’s planning to write a novel. Other guests are a well known portrait painter and a couple of bright young things in the shape of young women, one of whom Denis is enamoured of. The changing times due to World War 1 are in evidence with the young women determined to get rid of their repressions and live a more free life.

This is one of those books that you can’t help thinking that you must be missing many of the allusions in it. When it was read by contemporary readers they would have been able to recognise many of the characters I’m sure. One of them – Mr Callamay – is apparently meant to be modelled on the then prime minister Herbert Asquith who must have been in the habit of chasing after pretty young women.

There are some interesting comments during conversations about people who upset the world such as Luther and Napoleon.

“We can’t leave the world any longer to the direction of chance. We can’t allow dangerous maniacs like Luther, mad about dogma, like Napoleon, mad about himself, to go on casually appearing and turning everything upside-down. In the past it didn’t so much matter; but our modern machine is too delicate. A few more knocks like the Great War, another Luther or two, and the whole concern will go to pieces. In future, the men of reason must see that the madness of the world’s maniacs is canalized into proper channels, is made to do useful work, like a mountain torrent driving a dynamo.”

I wonder what on earth Aldous Huxley would have made of the maniacs that we’re having to put up with nowadays!

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!

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.

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.

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!

The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson

The Young Clementina cover

The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1935 and the story is told in three parts. It’s told by Charlotte who is working in a library in London which isn’t exactly heaving with life and fun. She’s really very lonely and scrapes along on very little money, it’s all very different from what she expected from life when she was younger. She had been engaged to Garth and so had been destined to be the ‘lady of the manor’ but Garth had to go off to World War 1 and when he came back he was a very changed man.

A lack of communication from both sides leads to the end of their relationship, but twelve years down the line Garth comes back into Charlotte’s life, asking her if she will go to live in his home to look after his young daughter who is Charlotte’s god-daughter, while he goes off exploring. Charlotte is in two minds about it, mainly because she knows that after a year or so of comfort and servants in beautiful surroundings she will find it much more painful to return to her dismal poverty stricken existence.

Charlotte eventually discovers what had changed Garth’s attitude towards her and there’s a happy ending. I really enjoyed this one which has a good mixture of mystery, romance, lovely rural descriptions and social commentary with the ludicrous situations that couples had to get into in order to get a divorce back in the 1930s when the book was written.

Attitudes change over the years, however I was absolutely shocked when a male character in this book in all seriousness declared his love for a thirteen year old girl, the man was much older, old enough to be the girl’s father. But Charlotte wasn’t fazed at all and just asked him to wait four years!! Had I been Charlotte I would have beaten him off with a brush! In fact I might have informed the police. How times change.

D.E. Stevenson was of course a Scottish author and Robert Louis Stevenson was her second cousin.