Spiderweb by Penelope Lively

 Spiderweb cover

Spiderweb by Penelope Lively was first published in 1998. I’ve read quite a lot of her books in the past couple of years and enjoyed them all, but although I liked this one for me somehow it lacked something, so I was a wee bit disappointed by it.

It begins with Stella Brentwood settling down in rural Somerset, she has bought her first home and is putting down roots, something she has avoided in the past, which is ironic really because her entire life has been taken up with anthropology, studying how other people live in more exotic areas of the world. She has always been an outsider but even as a student she never hankered after a husband and children, unlike her friend Nadine who had her future family life all planned out.

Stella’s closest neighbours are a bit of a problem family. Mrs Hiscox is a bully who is only happy when she’s raging at someone, so she rages all the time and her young teenage sons and her husband sigh with relief when she takes her bad temper outside the family. Stella is still observing human nature, just as she did in her career. When other people want more of Stella in their lives than she’s willing to give she realises that she has made a mistake settling down.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve written and as you would expect there are some great observations on human character, but I think that Stella’s detachment from society, colleagues and friends was a problem for me.

Torhouse Stone Circle, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland

I don’t think I had even realised that there were standing stones in south west Scotland, which was daft of me because there must have been quite a lot of travelling to and fro between that part of Scotland and Ireland, even way back in the times when such stone monuments were being built.

So I was surprised to see stones in a field right next to the road we were driving along. It was the Torhouse Stone Circle, a bronze age monument. We stopped to have a closer look, and the sheep that we had disturbed in the field scattered and pushed themselves back into the neighbouring field.
Torrhouse stone circle
On the other side of the road there are just three stones and some broken bits standing in a field. The stones are nowhere near as large as the ones in Orkney, but they’re still atmospheric and intriguing and these ones have the added attraction that you’ll probably have them all to yourself when you visit them, unlike those in more touristy areas. I like the lollipop shaped tree in the distance.

Torrhouse  stone circle + lollipop tree

Alice and Thomas and Jane by Enid Bagnold

Alice and Thomas and Jane cover

Alice and Thomas and Jane by Enid Bagnold was published in 1930 and it’s illustrated by Enid Bagnold and Laurian Jones.

Enid Bagnold originally told these tales about three adventurous children to her own children to keep them entertained and quiet as they always wanted to do different things from each other and were often noisy and messy.

Alice, Thomas and Jane get up to all the high jinks that I’m sure Bagnold’s own children would have longed to do – such as flying in the tail of a small aeroplane, hidden from the pilot of course, taking a ferry to France as Thomas did and creeping out at night to explore Smugglers’ Cave.

This is a lovely and fun read involving vicarious and therefore safe adventuring, and the illustrations are charming. You can see a few of the images inside the book here.

Enid Bagnold is of course better known as the writer of National Velvet. I’ve not read anything else by her but it seems she had a fascinating life, although Sam Cameron, wife of ex PM David Cameron is apparently her great-granddaughter – well nobody’s perfect. You can read about Enid Bagnold here.

My copy of this book is a 1930 original and it’s bound in what I think is called buckram, it was fairly dirty when I bought it but otherwise in good condition. I’ve been able to scrub off the dirt in other books bound with buckram very successfully and it was the same with this one. They really come up well, almost like new. Sometimes the binding gets a bit sticky, then you should just allow it to dry out before having another go at it with a damp sponge or wet wipe.

St Ninian’s Cave near Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway

St Ninian's info board

When we were in the county of Dumfries and Galloway (south-west Scotland) recently we decided to visit St Ninian’s Cave which is near Whithorn. It’s apparently a place that St Ninian – the man who brought Christianity to Scotland way back in the 390s – used for contemplation and prayer. I must admit I hadn’t realised it was quite that long ago. It’s really a very small cave nowadays, but probably over the years it has suffered from rock falls and been eroded by the sea.

St Ninian's cave

When we reached the car park for the cave a bus full of school children and teachers complete with guitars had just disembarked. So we decided to race on ahead of them so we could reach the cave before them and sample the atmosphere better. It was apparently a walk of a mile or so, it seemed longer, through woodland before reaching what is a really beautiful beach full of the most interesting and lovely stones I’ve seen on any beach. It was slightly misty though.

St Ninian's beach from cave

pebbles

The cave is still a place of pilgrimage for Christians and a lot of home made crosses large and small have been left there, and also flat stones which have been painted with the names of loved ones who are presumably no longer with us.

crosses

crosses

To reach the cave you have to trudge over 400 yards of a beach which isn’t at all easy to walk on, when we left the area the kids on the school trip hadn’t begun to do it. They were being preached to – poor souls. No words were needed, it’s just a beautiful peaceful place. I’m glad we got to it before its atmosphere was filled with Kumbaya, or maybe it would have been Morning Has Broken.

I’m not at all religious but this is a very nice place to visit, even on a sea misty day.

flowers , St Ninian's beach

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

Troy Chimneys cover

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy was first published in 1953 and my copy is a nice original hardback complete with dust jacket. Everyone seems to have been reading this one a while ago but I skimmed the reviews as I knew I would be reading it soon-ish. So I was quite surprised when I realised that the book’s beginning is set in 1879 with the prologue and then travels back to 1818 via The Lufton Papers which are the memoirs of Miles Lufton who eventually went on to become an MP. He was nicknamed Pronto by his acquaintances because of his active and slightly rapscallion personality.

In reality though Miles would like to retire to the country and Troy Chimneys, a house he had bought some years ago and had rented out until he needed it himself. There’s a bit of a romance and I liked the Regency setting but I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I thought I would.

One thing puzzles me though, I’ve looked at a few Goodreads reviews prior to writing this just to see if anyone mentioned the link with Jane Eyre, particularly towards the end of the book – but it seems that nobody got it – or thought to mention it – or maybe it’s just me.

The Bookshop Guide

A list of second hand bookshops in the UK divided by region/country can be found here. You can search it by stock or location.

I’ve been lucky in the past as the bookshops that I’ve visited because they appear on this list have always still been in existence, but I imagine that given how difficult it is to keep a small business thriving nowadays then some of them may now be defunct.

Happy hunting!

Dundrennan Abbey, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland

We visited Dundrennan Abbey last week. It’s a ruin now unsurprisingly as building here began in 1162, it was a Cistercian Abbey. If you visit the abbey keep your fingers crossed that you get Glyn as your guide as his knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject are something to witness.
Dundrennan Abbey
The abbey is of course a ruin now as it was abandoned as a church centuries ago. This is where Mary Queen of Scots spent her last hours on Scottish soil before she was taken to Workington, probably by the tide, where she was made prisoner by the English to begin what turned out to be 18 years of incarceration before her execution and martyrdom (if you are of the Roman Cathoic faith).
Dundrennan Abbey

She rode here from Langside in Glasgow where the last battle was fought and lost by her troops. Almost certainly she didn’t go straight to the Abbey as that would have been too obvious a destination for her pursuers. It’s thought that she went to a house in the forests nearby (according to local history) but after a few days she left that place and spent the night in the Abbey’s commendator’s house. Was she waiting for a ship to take her to France and safety? Ships sailed almost right up to the abbey from the Solway Firth in those days. She was probably trying to make up her mind where to go, she would have realised that her presence in France wouldn’t have been welcome. They wanted rid of her immediately after her husband the Dauphin died. Perhaps Spain would welcome her. We’ll never know as spies had tracked her movements and the rest is history.

Below is a photo of storage areas, housing mainly bits of stone carving now but the site of the building where she stayed.
Dundrennan Abbey

I was interested to read that one of the gravestones here refers to a knight called Livingstone of Culter. Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles are set around the Scottish Borderlands and of course she used the place name Culter although she didn’t base the Lymonds/Crawfords on any particular people apparently.
Dundrennan Abbey Carved Stone info board

Dundrennan Abbey ,Carved Figure

Dundrennan Abbey

Recent Book Purchases

Books Again

I mentioned earlier that I only bought two books in Wigtown (Scotland’s book town – allegedly). I managed to get a lovely hardback copy of Dorothy Dunnett’s Scales of Gold, it’s one of her House of Niccolo books. I also bought a Virago, The Flint Anchor by Sylvia Townsend Warner in a shop called Byre Books which is hidden away behind some houses on the main street.

Jack had looked up an online list of secondhand bookshops in the UK. There was a shop listed in Gatehouse of Fleet, a very small town with not a lot in it, but a very wee shop on the High Street has a mixture of art and old books for sale. I managed (just) to stop myself from buying any of the art but I couldn’t resist buying three books.

Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook. I don’t have any of her books but I used to read her articles and when we lived in Essex for a couple of years we were close to her garden, but I used to always just catch a glimpse of it from the bus to Colchester. She died just last week but she was a good old age, over 90.

Peeps at Many Lands is a series of travel books and I bought the Corsica book which was published in 1909. It was written by Ernest Young and illustrated by E.A. Norbury. Published by Adam and Charles Black. It has some nice colour illustrations.

I think the man in the bookshop thought that I just bought books with pretty pictures because the other book I bought there is The Englishman’s Castle by John Gloag with charming illustrations of various sorts of grand homes by Marjory Whittington. This was was published in 1944 and has that Book Production War Economy Standard logo on it. I have quite a lot of books published in wartime and I must say that although the paper was supposedly not the best quality they’ve all fared well over the years, much better than modern paperbacks anyway. They seem to begin to deteriorate after just ten years or so.

Incredibly there’s another bookshop in Gatehouse of Fleet although it’s a bit more difficult to find as it’s housed in part of an old mill by the edge of the River Fleet. It’s a lot bigger and has mainly old books, I don’t think there is much at all in the way of modern-ish paperbacks which suits me fine. I bought a book by J.I.M. Stewart called The Man Who Won the Pools. Also The Garden of Ignorance by Mrs. Marion Cran which was published in 1917 I believe.

The last one I bought there is called Recording Scotland, published by Oliver and Boyd in 1952 and has loads of lovely illustrations of places in Scotland by famous artists. Somewhere I bought a copy of Penelope Lively’s A Stitch in Time, one of her books she wrote for children.

On the way back home we drove along the Ayrshire coast and into Lanarkshire with the intention of visiting Garrion Bridge, an antiques centre that we hadn’t been to for years. To be honest there’s very little there that could be described as an antique but we did find some books there. So I came away with a couple by D.E. Stevensons – Five Windows and Sarah’s Cottage and also a couple of old but pristine orange Penguin books by the Bradford author Oliver Onions,Widdershins and The Story of Ragged Robin, but those ones are gifts for a friend who collects that author. We were so chuffed to find those ones.

I think you’ll agree that that was quite a haul.

Here, There and Everywhere

I’ve been away in Dumfries and Galloway for the past four days, and I thought I would be able to blog from there. We were near Dalbeattie for a couple of days and then had a couple of days in Wigtown – known as Scotland’s book town. WiFi was supposed to be available from both locations, well technically it was I suppose but it was soooooo slooooow – we just gave up on it. I don’t know how people who actually live in that remote part of south-west Scotland cope with modern life.

Anyway, it was the furthest south we had ever been in Scotland and we spent the four days running around like mad things so in the end we were glad to get home for a rest. We had a great time though and the weather was brilliant. We visited two famous gardens that I’ve wanted to see for years – Logan Botanics and Threave Gardens. I must admit that plants were purchased, I’ll squeeze them in somewhere!

Town wise we visited Dalbeattie, Kirkcudbright, Whithorn, all in beautiful sunshine but of course the day we went to the Mull of Galloway, the southernmost part of Scotland there was a sea mist there, so we weren’t able to see the Irish coast just miles away, nor even the Isle of Man.

We did make full use of our Historic Scotland membership – well we like to get our money’s worth! We visited Sweetheart Abbey, Glenluce Abbey, St Ninian’s Chapel, St Ninian’s cave, New Abbey Cornmill, Orchardton Tower, Chapel Finian, Dundrennan Abbey, Caerlaverock Castle, Cardoness Castle, Carsluith Castle. The towns of Dalbeattie, Kirkcudbright, Gatehouse of Fleet, Whithorn, Isle of Whithorn (not an island)and Wigtown.

Books were purchased too, but not where you would expect. I only bought two books in Wigtown. I think it must be a real disappointment to people who have travelled a long way to get there as there aren’t that many bookshops and two of them were closed the two days we were there, very annoying as one of them had a book displayed in the window that I wanted to buy.

When we get around to sorting through the photos I’ll do some blogposts on where we visited. I really enjoyed the change of scene but I was so glad to get home, I was worried that even four days away in the heat we’ve been having would have frazzled my garden, luckily there was heavy rain on and off yesterday, we missed it all but could see how heavy it had been, especially when we saw a side street in Ayrshire under water and people on their doorsteps looking very worried.

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”.