The Citadel by A.J. Cronin

The Citadel cover

The Citadel by the Scottish author A.J. Cronin was first published in 1939. It was the fifth book that he had had published and prior to taking up writing he had been a doctor for ten years. The Citadel must have been cooking away in his head for several years before he wrote it. This book is much more important than most fiction as it has been regarded as having been instrumental in the setting up of the National Health Service.

At the beginning the setting is 1924 in a coalmining village called Drineffy in Wales where Dr Andrew Manson has taken his first position after graduating. He’s going to be the assistant to a doctor who has worked there for years and is popular, but Andrew quickly discovers that he will have to do all of the work as Dr Page is bed-ridden, having had a stroke. This doesn’t stop Page’s spinster sister from grabbing the vast majority of the money from the ‘business’ leaving Andrew with less than a pound a week for pocket money. It’s a miserable dirty and poverty stricken place but Andrew works hard and is popular and he’s interested in doing research into lung diseases so he has plenty of interesting case, and to cap his happiness he marries Christine, a young schoolteacher. But not everyone is happy with the young doctor, he has made some enemies and that culminates with Andrew leaving the village to work in a larger Welsh town.

Andrew and Christine eventually end up moving to London where he buys a deceased doctor’s practice, but most of his patients are poor so life is still a struggle. When Andrew meets up with one of his friends from university he can’t help being jealous of his riches. He wasn’t as clever or hard working as Andrew but had concentrated on looking prosperous and soon was, with wealthy patients, most of whom were not at all ill but were lonely or hypochondriacs. The successful medics were selling medicine which was mainly made up of coloured water with a bit of ether added. In fact they weren’t any better than snake oil salesmen. Andrew is seduced by the high lifestyle and as he gets richer his marriage deteriorates until he and Christine are barely speaking to each other. She longs for the countryside and a garden but spends her days standing in a cupboard making up the fake medicines.

A tragedy wakes Andrew up to what he has been doing, and he realises that so many of his Harley Street colleagues are charlatans doing much more harm than good and doing very well out of it financially.

This is a sad book at times, but is a great read and when it was published it was Gollancz’s highest selling book. As you can imagine Cronin made plenty of enemies, and a group of medical specialists tried to have the book banned which probably just about guaranteed its success.

The Citadel was made into a film in 1938 and there was a BBC adaptation in 1983.

Call for the Dead by John le Carre

 Call for the Dead  cover

Call for the Dead by John le Carre was first published in 1961 and it’s the first book in his George Smiley series. I’ve really enjoyed his Smiley books in the past but I really wish I had started to read them in the correct order. I had always been puzzled by Smiley’s strange marriage to the wildly unfaithful Lady Ann, so I was glad to discover from this book some of the history behind the couple.

As soon as I started reading this book I realised that it had been made into a film and I had seen it fairly recently, it didn’t go into the details of the marriage though so I did learn more from the book.

George Smiley had been given the job of questioning one of the British Intelligence staff members who has come under some suspicion, he’s supected of spying for the East Germans. Smiley takes him to a park to have an informal chat with him but despite the low stress venue and laid-back style, the suspect soon ends up dead, supposedly at this own hands, but Smiley isn’t convinced, it just doesn’t add up to him. His bosses in the ‘Circus’/ British Intelligence seem keen to blame Smiley for the death, but soon Smiley himself is attacked.

This is a suspenseful read, but if you’re a James Mason fan you might want to seek out the film which is called The Deadly Affair.

1917 – the film

It’s just typical that there are no films out that I want to go and see at the flicks for a year or so – then two come along at the same time! The same thing happened last year with Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite.

This year it’s 1917 and Little Women, so I’ve seen two films in two days, 1917 was the first, it’s a subject that I’m well acquainted with although I’m more interested in the social aspects of it and how it all affected society, not so much on all the strategy involved.

The film is directed in a way that makes you feel almost as if you are actually there, jogging along the length of a busy trench, it’s all very realistic. The mud, blood and decaying bodies. The rats, rats and yet more rats. The crazy expectations of those giving out the orders, the ordinary Tommy’s determination to obey and save the day. Well, they had no option I suppose as one way or another they were going to get shot at.

The differences between the British and German trenches are stark, with the German ones being made from concrete and bags of solid cement. I was quite disappointed that no makers mark could be seen on them as it should have been Blue Circle cement who dodged an embargo, according to WWI British soldiers of the time. Yes, the German trenches were solidly built, not the mud and wooden slat constructions of the British trenches.

Two lance corporals have to take orders to Colonel MacKenzie which tell him to stop an impending attack, as it’s a trap, but they have to travel through German territory to reach the Colonel. It’s not an easy journey!

The film has a great cast, although Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth have very little screen time, but the rest of the acting talent is just as good. This isn’t exactly uplifting viewing but I’d watch it again, given the chance.

The director Sam Mendes based the film on stories he heard from his grandfather and decicated the film to his memory.

The African Queen by C.S. Forester – book versus film

The African Queen cover

How many times have I watched the 1951 film The African Queen? I have no idea, but there are definitely bits of it that I could act myself, you’re probably the same. Anyway, I hadn’t realised that it was based on a book by C.S. Forester which was published in 1935 so when I saw the book in an Edinburgh secondhand bookshop recently I snapped it up.

I really enjoyed reading this book but all the way through I was comparing it with the film, and as a fan of Humphrey Bogart for me the film just pips the book. In the book the character of Allnutt is a whining cockney, so there was just no way that he was going to trump the character of the Bogie version of Allnutt. The setting is of course German East Africa during World War 1.

There are quite a lot of differences in the storyline, because I suppose that the early 1950s film industry wasn’t going to shock their audiences with a Katherine Hepburn in the shape of Rose (sister of a missionary) who very quickly has a sexual relationship with Allnutt as she does in the book. I don’t recall that in the film Rose realises that she had always been under the thumb of either her father or brother and had never been able to make decisions for herself. She found freedom with the death of her brother who had been a miserably strict Christian missionary.

There’s a lot in the film which is faithful to the book, the whole journey in The African Queen is as it was in the book, until close to the end which is very different, but the ending would definitely not have got past the prudish sensibilities of the times. I prefer the book’s ending. The writing makes it so easy to imagine the surroundings, even if you hadn’t seen the film I think. The film features large African animals, just because they could I suppose, but they don’t appear in the book which sticks to the mosquitoes and leeches which are shudderingly horrible enough.

Several times Rose is described as being only slightly below Charlie (Allnutt) socially, something which was important at the time I suppose, but in the film she seems so superior. For once I found the film more enjoyable than the book, and not just for Humphrey Bogart!

You can see a short trailer for the film below, if you’re interested.

Island of Dreams by Dan Boothby

Island of Dreams

Island of Dreams by Dan Boothby is subtitled A Personal History of a Remarkable Place. The place is the Kyleakin Lighthouse Island (Eilean Ban) which is now used as a base for some of the stanchions that hold up the Skye Road Bridge, so it’s now very different from the remote unspoiled place that was home to the nature writer Gavin Maxwell for years. He was of course most famous for writing books on otters that he had tamed (supposedly) Ring of Bright Water being the first and most popular one in the series, more than a million copies of it were sold. Some fans of the book seem to become quite obsessive and the author appears to have been one of them.

Dan Boothby had always wanted to visit the island and sort of worship at the place where Maxwell had lived and written his books. After years of wandering around the world he jumped at the opportunity to work as a warden there, clearing the island of the worst of the weeds engulfing the paths and such and showing visitors around the place. It must have been a very different experience from Maxwell’s with the Skye bridge looming above and the noise of the cars thumping across it.

Apparently Boothby has always wanted to emulate his hero and become a writer, and this is his first publication. For me it wasn’t a huge success, there are some interesting observations in it, but at times the author seemed to be going out of his way to make himself quite unlikeable. One bit particularly irked me.


Over the summer and autumn I’d remained remote, and had been a rare visitor to the pubs in the villages. I shared the paranoia that many English feel when they move to Celtic lands. We know we’re not really wanted. The English have historical ‘previous’: think of the Highland Clearances or the Welsh Not, think absentee landlords and Famine. The English have been oppressors and usurpers, loud crass and bullying; an occupying colonial force. English imperialism and heavy-handedness, the injustices of the past, still cause Celtic eyes to narrow, mouths to move, and men to bare their teeth. The Scots, the Welsh and the Irish don’t forget, unlike us English, who’ve moved on.

To which I say – it’s very easy to move on if you’ve not been the victim of injustice, or treated like a second class citizen in your own country. Boothby seems to suffer from the breathtaking arrogance that is thankfully a bit rarer nowadays, but as an English friend of mine who has lived in Scotland for many years said to me. The only English people who have a problem in Scotland are those who do the English thing – by which he meant throw their weight around and assume that they are right about everything and expect Scots to change their culture to suit them.

So as could be expected, Dan Boothby moved on at the end of his Scotland stint, no doubt thinking he knows it all now, despite the fact that he thinks we’re all Celts, he has ‘done Scotland’.

I enjoyed Gavin Maxwell’s writing as a youngster, but I was never happy about him keeping what should have been wild animals as pets and remember thinking how stupid he was when one of them gave him a very nasty bite and he was absolutely furious with it for being so ungrateful!! But anyway, if you were keen on the Maxwell books it might be better not to read this one, they do say that you should never go back and it might be better if you keep your memories of this island as it was back in the 1960s before there were cars thundering overhead.

If you’re interested in viewing the 1969 film of Ring of Bright Water starring Virginia McKenna you can see it below.

Mary Queen of Scots – the film

In recent years we’ve been lucky if there is one film on at the flicks within the whole year but this year already we’ve been to see two films – two weeks ago we went to see The Favourite and last week we saw Mary Queen of Scots and I enjoyed it although it is a bit cavalier with the historic details. The Irish actress Saoirse Ronan plays Mary Stuart and she did a good job of it although she must have put a lot of effort into learning a Scots accent, for no good reason as Mary had lived at the French court since the age of five and her mother was French so she would have had a French accent as she lived in France for well over ten years waiting to marry the Dauphin. It was never expected she would return to Scotland but after her husband died the French wanted rid of her.

The film is beautifully shot and I’m glad to say that all the locations are in Scotland. I was puzzled as to why the Scottish castles looked so grim, I swear that at the beginning one of them looked like a cave on the inside with really rough walls that looked like you could have climbed up them. I’ve never seen anything but smooth stone walls inside and outside of castles and of course the walls would have been covered with tapestries.

The murder of Rizzio was much more dramatic than I had ever imagined it to be. Darnley is portrayed as being gay, I’m a bit cynical and so assume that that’s a bid for the pink pound/dollar. And of course Mary and Elizabeth meet despite all of the historians agreeing that they never did meet. Elizabeth’s skin is skillfully made up to show how badly her skin was damaged by pockmarks. I doubt if she ever let anyone see those, hence the thick and poisonous lead based make-up that she wore.

There’s also no sense of all the years that Mary was kept in captivity by Elizabeth – or of her many escape attempts.

Thankfully the film stops short of her actual execution as that was famously very nasty, who knows whether the axeman was deliberately incompetent when he hacked at her neck or if it was just nerves or bad luck.

David Tennant being cast as John Knox was a great touch, I thought he was brilliant in the role.

If ever anyone was in need of good advisors it was Mary Stuart, but either she didn’t have anyone to advise her or she chose to ignore them. She would have been better emulating her royal cousin Elizabeth and eschewing men and marriage, but then we would never have had King James V of Scotland / I of England. I wonder what would have happened if he had never been born.

The Favourite – a film

Yesterday afternoon we did something a bit different from usual – we went to the local flicks. There’s rarely anything on that we want to watch because most of the films nowadays seem to be of no interest to us at all, I suppose they’re ‘action’ films – or shoot-emups. Just watching the trailers for them is like a punishment to me as the sound is so loud, the sound effect guys really let rip!

Anyway, I saw an advert on TV for The Favourite, I’m fairly sure it was billed as a comedy but there isn’t really much in the way of comedy in it – a few sarcastic quips which at a stretch (and if they’re not aimed at you) could be deemed to be funny I suppose.

It’s about time that Queen Anne had some attention to her, it makes a nice change from Victoria anyway, she had such a sad life though and The Favourite is set towards the end of her life when she was beset by ill health. Just about the only thing that most of us know about Queen Anne is that she ‘lost’ seventeen children, either from miscarriage, still birth or disease. When you think about that then it’s amazing that she survived as long as she did – and wasn’t completely off her head. I lost one child through miscarriage and that was bad enough I can tell you.

Anyway – back to the film: Sarah Churchill, The Duchess of Marlborough is Queen Anne’s closest friend/secret lover, but Sarah is really ruling the roost as Queen Anne isn’t up to the job, she’s too ill. It’s Sarah who plots with politicians to take the country into war, a war which is being waged by Sarah’s husband, it was the making of him financially.

Sarah’s pretty young cousin Abigail turns up at the palace looking for work and protection, Abigail’s abusive father had gambled her away when she was just fifteen, life has been more than tough for her but Sarah sets her to work as a scullery maid. But Abigail knows about herbs and manages to soothe the sores on the queen’s legs, and so begins the rivalry between the two cousins for the Queen’s affection.

Money is needed for the war and it’s proposed that land tax will be doubled, Anne doesn’t want to be at war with France, she’s only really happy when she’s with her seventeen rabbits, one for every child she lost, named after each dead child. I found it to be terribly sad, but as ever Olivia Colman, who plays Queen Anne was great in the role, she really is very versatile in so many different parts.

Although I mainly enjoyed the film there were a few things that annoyed me – as often happens nowadays the diction of the actors just isn’t clear enough, there were quite a few instances when I hadn’t a clue what was being said. At one point , just after Queen Anne slapped Sarah Churchill I’m sure that Sarah said “It’s okay” If she did say that it is completely wrong. I think there were quite a few speech incongruities like that. When you think of all the money and care put into getting the settings, costumes and make-up correct, modern dialogue should be a simple thing to avoid. For me the ending was too abrupt.

Jack noticed that this film was made by Film 4 – if we had waited six months or so we would have been able to see it on that TV channel – oh well, you see it all in far better detail on the big screen.

If you are interested in her history you can read more about Queen Anne here. She was the last of the Stuart monarchs.

Dunkirk – the film

This afternoon we went to see the new film Dunkirk. It has been getting rave reviews but we would have gone to see it anyway as Jack’s father George was one of the soldiers lucky enough to be rescued from the beaches. Which is just as well because if he hadn’t been then there would have been no Jack!

The film is very tense, there’s no preamble, it begins with soldiers running through French streets under fire then switches to one of the small rescue boats being kitted out for the journey over to France – to save the British army. The action keeps cutting between that boat, the beach at Dunkirk and the battle going on in the air. There’s really very little dialogue, compared with most films anyway and that probably adds to the atmosphere. Mark Rylance is particularly good as the small boat owner but all the acting is good.

The only thing that sort of annoyed me was that there seemed to be a distinct lack of soldiers on the beach. I’ve seen photographs of it and it was absolutely packed out, as you would expect with up to 330,000 British men waiting to be evacuated, and later 150,000 or so French soldiers. If they didn’t want to pay for so many actors they could have computer generated them easily.

The Guardian film critic wasn’t impressed by the film although he was mainly annoyed by it focusing on one small boat rather than on some of the more dashing real life stories involved, but I don’t agree.

You can see the official film trailer here.

The photo below is of my in-laws George and Nancy on their wedding day which was arranged very quickly when George thought that he was going to be part of the D-Day invasion force four years later. I suppose they thought that the odds were against him surviving and as they had been going out with each other for years and years it might be now or never.

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins cover

At Christmas I watched the film Saving Mr Banks which is about the terrible amount of wrangling that Walt Disney had to go through to get P.L. Travers to allow him to turn her Mary Poppins books into a film. Actually it’s about the only film that I’ve liked with Tom Hanks in it, I’m not a fan. I didn’t really know much about P.L. Travers- beyond that she hadn’t been at all happy with what had been done to her books, anyway the film Saving Mr Banks was enjoyable and it made me think that it was about time that I read at least one of the Mary Poppins books.

Luckily I found a paperback copy of the first book at the Oxfam bookshop in Morningside, Edinburgh. The book was first published in 1934.

It was an enjoyable read and I was surprised that it was really quite similar to the Mary Poppins film, well the bits of it that they used anyway.

Mary Poppins herself comes across as being less prim and snooty than her film version. Presumably Walt Disney thought it would be a good idea to make her ‘posh’ English. I have heard that all English accents are seen as being upper class in America though – or they were in the past.

This was just a good light read that I embarked on when I was in the midst of a heavy cold, and it filled in one of those gaps that I have in children’s literature, I think I went on to adult books too early really.

At the same time I bought this one I also bought a book called The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett. I hadn’t even heard of it but it’s apparently a children’s classic and it won the Carnegie Medal. Have any of you read it?

The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch

The Wooden Overcoat cover

The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch was first published in 1951 but my copy is a 1961 Penguin reprint. I had never heard of Pamela Branch before I came across this book but I’ll definitely be looking for more of her books. Sadly she only wrote four of them.

If you don’t like any comedy at all with your vintage crime then this book won’t be for you, but I found it to be an absolute hoot.

It begins with a murderer getting off with it, the jury has just brought in the verdict, but the reader knows that Benjamin Cann had indeed strangled his girlfriend. When he gets out of The Old Bailey he is befriended by Clifford Flush who takes him to his house in Chelsea, it turns out that it’s the headquarters of a ‘club’ and all of the members are murderers who have got off with it. For very good reasons they’re all very scared of each other.

The house next door is inhabited by two married couples who are house sharing, they’re all artists of some sort and have decided to start taking in lodgers. Benjamin Cann is their first lodger and it isn’t long before murders ensue, but not at all as you would expect.

This book has some wonderful characters and hilarious situations. It’s a real shame that it wasn’t made into a film by Ealing Comedies, along the same lines of The Ladykillers (1955), it would have been brilliant. The BBC have dramatised it for radio apparently but it isn’t available on the iplayer at the moment.

If you enjoy comedy along with your vintage crime then you’ll love this one. I was lucky enough to pick this one up for about £1 in a local shop but the ones I’ve seen on the internet are stupidly priced. Yet again I wonder if anyone ever buys these wildly priced books.

If you are wondering what I mean by The Ladykillers you can see it on You Tube below.