The Gates of Eden by Annie S. Swan

The Gates of Eden by Annie S. Swan was first published in 1893. This book is seen as her most successful one I believe and it was an interesting read for me as almost all of the action takes place within a couple of miles of my home. Unusually the author didn’t change the names of any of the villages involved in the tale. The main setting is a hamlet called Star which Annie S. Swan had moved to when her husband got employment there as a teacher in the wee school. They only lived there for two years, it must have been a bit of a culture shock for them as they would have been used to Edinburgh and Star was really at the back of beyond comparatively.

The story begins with the death of a young woman who has just given birth to twins, both boys. Before she died she asked her husband to make the eldest boy – Alexander (Sandy) a minister when he grew up and he was determined to keep his promise. The result was that Sandy was put above his younger brother James who was destined to help his father on the farm and was very much overlooked by everyone. Nobody seemed to realise or care that James was also talented and had dreams of his own, farming was drudgery to him, he wanted to be a writer. When Sandy left to go to St Andrews University James was deeply unhappy, especially as Sandy had always just taken for granted that he deserved the best things in life.

As you would expect Sandy had grown into a really self-centred snob with money and status being his god, which isn’t great for someone who is going to become a church minister, but James who has spent his time reading widely such people as John Stuart Mill, has turned into a really thoughtful, decent and compassionate human being. Still his father doesn’t appreciate James and it’s their Aunt Susan who has cared for the twins since their birth who eventually sees James’s worth.

This is a book very much of its time with a Christian slant but not overly preachy. The lessons are many – stick in and hard work will pay off, everyone deserves a second chance, don’t be a miser or proud and materialistic – forgive.

Locally Annie S. Swan is a bit of a heroine here for putting such small places in Fife on the map back then, but in truth, if you read her memoir as I have she was quite disdainful about the two years she and her husband lived in the area, but as she said – at least she got two books out of it.

There is a lot of Scots dialogue in this book, I can only surmise that back then readers were less easily put off by that, now many readers would find it too difficult or annoying to read. Interestingly despite the fact that there’s much mention in the book of the broad Fife speech it actually isn’t a Fife dialect, so perhaps the author couldn’t cope with that herself.

My Garden and St Andrews, Fife

Spring has definitely sprung in Fife, not that you would kow it from this photo, I think a new camera is required, or maybe it would be better if I used my phone. Anyway there are various primulas, snowdrops, heathers in flower, but they look very ‘peely wally’ in the photo, that’s a Scottish phrase meaning pale.

my Garden

Since these photos were taken the garden has had a good ‘redd up’ that’s another Scottish phrase meaning tidied up. There was a whole winter’s worth of dead leaves and broken branches.

my Garden , crocuses

There are a lot of primroses around, I think I only had one plant to begin with, they’re great at self-seeding in this garden.

my Garden.primroses

The one thing that does really well in my garden is moss, it grows abundantly on the soil and the grass. Looking on the bright side – I won’t have to buy any sphagnum moss to line hanging baskets!

Garden , garden in Fife

The Belfast/butler’s sink in the background is a fairly new acquisition which is needing work done on its surroundings. I plan to entice birds into it, it should make a good big bird bath. In my previous garden I had a bigger one and I put some water plants in it, it was very popular with the blackbirds but I’ve only seen a couple of magpies in this one so far. Luckily they were together so it was two for joy!

my Garden

I’ve been hard at work in the garden digging up more turf and I’m waiting for a delivery of gravel to arrive. Jack is very happy to have less grass to cut.

What else have I been doing apart from gardening and reading a lot? Well, last Friday we drove to St Andrews, it was really quite exciting to travel more than five miles, just lovely to see some different scenery for a change. It started out so bright but it got duller as we reached the coast. Below is a photo I took of one of the beaches in St Andrews. It was very quiet by the time we walked back towards the town. The wee cottage on the left hand side of the photo is the lifeguard centre and the ruins of the cathedral are almost in the centre in the distance.

St Andrews beach, Fife

The town itself was very quiet too, the only shops open in Scotland are shops selling food so it was only the ice cream shops and a posh whisky shop which were open. I’m presuming that as the whisky shop also sells shortbread that was the reason it was allowed to open!

I could only stand and gaze at the secondhand bookshop, my nose wasn’t quite pressed against the window, but it wasn’t far off. I think it might be open again in about five weeks from now – one person in at a time – or two from the one household no doubt.

Bouquiniste Bookshop, St Andrews

We Also Served by Vivien Newman

We Also Served cover

We Also Served by Vivien Newman is subtitled The Forgotten Women of the First World War. I’ve always been interested in WW1 so I’ve read a lot of books about the period but I still found a lot of new to me information in this book.

It begins with the feverish knitting of socks, scarves, gloves and such comforts as were desperately needed by the soldiers in the trenches and sailors. Even young children were knitting socks, one poor little eight year old boy was said to have been knitting almost right up to his last breath, but it was mainly females who were doing the knitting. The women in Dundee knitted over 6,000 pairs of socks in the early months of the war! It was a great way of making women feel that they were doing something for the war effort, they couldn’t go and fight but with so many women having a husband, brother, son at the front they wanted to do their bit. Knitting was approved of by the powers that be but when it came to doing anything more involving such as nursing women were told they couldn’t go to the front. Famously (if you know anything about this subject) the Scottish surgeon Dr Elsie Inglis was told to ‘Go home and sit still.’ The British government wasn’t interested in help from women. The Serbians, French and Belgians were much more sensible and Elsie Inglis and her nurses are still revered in Serbia today.

Early in the war women were recruited by the government to hand out white feathers to men that they thought should be in the army, a way of shaming them. I must admit that I hadn’t realised this was originally organised by the government.

Later as the war dragged on women were taken on in war service as nurses, munitions workers, were recruited in the armed forces (not armed of course) land girls, who were particularly disliked because they were used to free up men for the front. Their wives didn’t want their husbands going to war and up until then farm workers had been safe from conscription. Women were recruited as spies and if caught they were executed. The stress and strain of the horrific experiences of nurses led to them suffering from shell-shock and what we now call post traumatic stress disorder and sadly nurses did commit suicide.

This was a great read although at times infuriating as women were treated so badly, earned much less money than the men when they worked in munitions, despite the horribly dangerous work which often ended up with them being blown up or poisoned by the chemicals. Those accidents were hushed up.

The women who had been despised by male workers often ended up being admired by them because of the hard work and long hours they put in – and of course most of them had to go home and start doing all the work there too, so never got any rest at all. However, when the war ended the women had to give up their work and go back to the kitchen sink and often the only option open to them was to go back into service as a maid. Their efforts did go a long way to women getting the vote, but only if they were over 30 at first.

Thank you to Pen and Sword History and NetGalley for providing me with a digital copy of the book for review.

Upside Down /Love Among the Ruins by Denis Mackail

 Upside Down   cover

Upside Down or Love Among the Ruins by Denis Mackail was first published in 1943 and it doesn’t seem to have been reprinted since then, which is a shame as it’s an enjoyable read. I was lucky enough to find a copy for just a few pounds, in Edinburgh I think, but copies seem to be selling for around £30 on Ebay. Denis Mackail was of course Angela Thirkell’s brother, it might be entirely my imagination but at times I did think I recognised a resemblence in their writing, a sort of familial chattiness maybe.

The setting is London in early wartime where Mary Jesmond, a famous middle-aged actress is having a tough time finding work, like everyone else in the profession. Her grown up daughter Laura Rivers also has talents of a thespian nature but sensibly decides to sign up for war work, finding a job in a government office in London with Humphrey Knowsley as her boss, a rather eccentric bachelor.

Roy Vincent is a youngish playwright who doesn’t actually have a play written, but Mary Jesmond is desperate to secure the main part in any play he might write. With the blitz beginning in earnest they end up continuing get-togethers in air-raid shelters as the bombs fall around them. Mary’s beloved house had already been bombed, which is why she and Laura are in tiny adjoining flats, she’s quite sanguine about the whole thing, but she does wonder if Roy is more interested in Laura than in writing a play for her.

This book has a lot of humour in it and a very authentic wartime atmosphere as you would expect. It’s a pity that it isn’t more easily available to readers.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Saturday cover

Years and years ago, before I started blogging I read a book by Ian McEwan and it had such a horrible ending I swore I would never read any more of his, but his book Saturday which was published on 2005 won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. I have a personal project on the go to try to read all those prize winners, so I had to give Saturday a go. Luckily I found this one to be a lot better although I kept waiting for something awful to happen. It had its moments but nothing too horrific.

The story all takes place within Saturday, February 15th, 2003 in London. Later on in the day there’s going to be a massive anti-war demonstration – against what became known as the Iraq War (or the Second Gulf War.) But for Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon it begins very early in the morning as he woke up and found himself drawn to look out of one of his very large home’s windows. There’s something flying across the London sky and at first he thinks it might be a comet, but it’s an aeroplane with an engine on fire, possibly it’s a terrorist strike, given the political situation. He’s worried that the perfect family life that he and his wife Rosalind have with their two grown up children might be threatened.

It turns out that it’s something far more mundane that leads to a terrifying situation for them all. A silly car accident and the ensuing confrontation with the other driver and his side-kicks, coupled with Henry’s refusal to back down almost leads to disaster.

There’s a lot to like in this book, the loving relationship between Henry and his wife Rosalind, the very talented and successful arty off-spring Theo and Daisy who also seem to be very grounded, but it isn’t all sweetness and light – like most families. There’s also a cantankerous grandfather, and an awful lot of information on various neurological problems, too much maybe. McEwan certainly did his research, and not just in books, in operating theatres too.

The setting of the family home is great too, a huge house overlooking a London square that Rosalind had inherited. It’s a weird thing but at the moment I don’t seem to be able to get away from London squares – and I don’t mean Albert Square.

This was a surprisingly good read.

Highland dancing, St Andrews, Fife

A couple of evenings ago I was watching a lovely programme Darcey Bussell’s Wild Coasts of Scotland, it’s on the UK’s Channel 4 but might be available on a channel near you too. Apparently her grandfather had been Scottish and she had always promised him she would visit some of his favourite places that he had obviously never forgotten about after he migrated to Australia, sadly she didn’t get around to doing it until after his death, but it was clearly a moving experience for her.

Anyway, in one of the episodes she had some Highland dancing lessons and I was surrised at how exhausting she found it to be. Admittedly it’s decades since I did the Highland Fling or sword dance, so Darcey is years older than I was, but she described it as part dance and part endurance sport as you’re constantly moving quickly. She seemed quite puffed out within a very short time.

Highland Dancers, St Andrews, Fife

It reminded me that way back in November 2019, before Covid 19 appeared we had visited a St Andrews Day Fair at St Andrews. It was absolutely freezing, there was a Baltic wind and it was really the scantily clad dancers that impressed me, just because they were so stoical about the weather, but now I admire them for their strength and stamina! You can see the the ground was white with frost. I must say that when I did Highland dancing I was not dressed like them, I wore a proper kilt and white blouse! There’s a very brief video of them below, dancing to what sounds more like Irish pipes to me, there were certainly no Scottish pipers there, just piped music.

Highland Dancers video

For some reason there was a vintage bus parked by the edge of the festivities. It has to be said that in Scotland we don’t make much of our Patron Saint’s day, not even in the town of St Andrews. It was really just an opportunity for some local food makers to sell their wares – we bought cakes of course!

an old bus, vintage bus, St Andrews, Fife

An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor

 An Edinburgh Reel cover

An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor was first published in 1968. I’ve been reading a fair few books set in historic Edinburgh recently and this is another one. The setting is mainly around the Royal Mile, six years after the battle of Culloden, so 1752.

Christine has left her family home of Strathdallin in the Highlands to go and meet her father in Edinburgh, it’s her first visit to the capital and she’s not impressed as the place stinks. So although her family home at Strathdallin had been trashed by the Redcoats after the battle and there are only a few rooms left standing and the roof is leaking, she’s still homesick for the place. Living in a couple of freezing rooms at the top of a tenement building doesn’t suit her at all, despite having friendly but much better off relatives living in the same building.

John Murray, her father has spent most of the past six years in France after he managed to escape from a prison hulk after his capture, he knows that he had been betrayed by another Scotsman after Culloden but doesn’t know his name. He’s still a loyal Jacobite and is determined to get back at whoever betrayed him.

When Christime first sees her father she’s shocked that the he doesn’t look at all like the handsome tall man that she remembers. She must only have been nine years old in 1745 and she has grown while her father seems so old and shrunken, he has permanent health problems because of his treatment by the English and his estate has been seized by the government, so they are penniless.

Christine is worried for her father as he’s in danger of getting dragged into another Jacobite plot and ending his days kicking on the end of a rope.

This was a great read, very atmospheric with a wee bit of a romance too. I’m sure that Iona McGregor got it exactly right when she has the wealthy Edinburgh inhabitants getting all teary eyed and sentimental over the songs sung about ‘The Chevalier’ – despite the fact that most of them hadn’t been supporters of the Jacobites during the Rising.

This book was apparently aimed at children aged 11 and over, but like all well written books it’s appreciated by people of all ages.

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden

 An Episode of Sparrows cover

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden was first published in 1956. The setting is an area of London which like them all has a mixture of what had been grand houses fringing a poorer neighbourhood. The Victorian iron railings had been removed from the private gardens in the square belonging to the grander houses, and big holes were appearing in the grounds where large quantities of earth had been removed, it was a real mystery and Angela – queen bee of the Garden Committee – is determined to get to the bottom of it, although someone else will have to do the work of course.

Although I really enjoyed this book I did find it at times to be so sad as the main character, an eleven year old girl called Lovejoy Mason lives a loveless and neglected life as her mother has dumped her on strangers while she goes off to pursue a life on the stage, and doesn’t even send money for her upkeep with the result that Lovejoy has grown out of her clothes and shoes, something that she feels keenly as she has a love of good quality fabric and design, something that her mother had passed on to her.

A packet of cornflower seeds begins her love of gardening and she manages to make a secret miniature garden on a bomb site, the only one which didn’t seem to be inhabited by a gang of boys. But when the local baseball season was over (a game they had been taught by Zassi a little American boy) Tip Malone and his gang turned up to reclaim their patch and trouble ensues. But Tip Malone finds himself drawn to Lovejoy, it’s a mystery to him. He thinks maybe it’s because she always looks so clean with her hair well brushed, despite her obvious poverty. The garden becomes the most important thing in Lovejoy’s life and Tip gets dragged along in her wake.

The children – the sparrows – are the main characters in the book, but their exploits have a big impact on Angela and her older sister Olivia who has always lived in her young sister’s shadow. In particular Olivia who has never pushed herself forward is impressed with Lovejoy’s attitude to life although it has to be said that Lovejoy is anything but a Goody two-shoes.

Although there’s plenty of strife in this book the writing is lovely and it has a great ending so it turned out to be a perfect pandemic read.

I had been under the impression that I had read this book back in the 1970s when I had a big Rumer Godden binge, but I soon realised that I hadn’t, so that was a nice surprise. I wonder how long it has been sitting unread on my bookshelves!

The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley

The Strays of Paris

I must admit that I had never even heard of the Pulitzer prize winning author Jane Smiley until she featured in a Guardian Review article which mentioned that her latest book is The Strays of Paris, and luckily it was available on NetGalley, so I requested it and amazingly got a digital copy for review. I’m so glad that I did as this was one of those books that I just didn’t want to end.

It begins with a racehorse called Paras, or Perestroika as is her racing name, she’s an inquisitive horse and when she realises that her stable door isn’t locked she pushes it and manages to walk out of the stableyard and makes for Paris. The previous day she had won her first race, so she knew she had won a ‘purse’ so she took the purse that she saw lying on the ground outside her stable along with her.

She relishes her freedom and all the different smells around her, she’s happy to be able to crop the wild plants that she passes, her very good racehorse diet could get a bit boring. Eventually she reaches Paris where she realises it’s important for her to keep a low profile, but she makes friends with Raoul who is a raven, a mallard duck couple and Frida who is a stray dog since her human who had been a talented homeless street busker had died. Later on a couple of black rats are incorporated into the little stray family, and they can all communicate with each other.

Frida is wary of humans having been well warned by Jacques her human that most of them didn’t like barking dogs, Frida does a lot of grumbling under her breath. All of the animals are sort of semi attached to their own kind. The dogs of Paris bark at Frida because she doesn’t have a human and doesn’t wear a collar. Paras felt different from the other race horses in the stables, but she does miss the warmth as winter in Paris begins to bite.

Some of the human characters who also happen to be loners could also be described as strays, they realise that there is a horse living loose in their neighbourhood and befriend Paras, but it’s Etienne an eight year old boy who does most to get Paras through the winter and keeps her safe from inquisitive policemen. Etienne is yet another stray who lives with his very elderly deaf and almost blind grandmother who is the last of her generation. She worries about what will become of Etienne when she is no longer around.

This is a great read with the animal characters having hopes and ambitions for the future and it has a fairly happy ending, just what I was needing.

Thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for sending me a digital copy for review.

Inverkeithing, Fife

Way back in February 2020 when there was talk on the news of an imminent lockdown we drove to Inverkeithing for a bit of a rake around at an antiques/secondhand shop which is housed in an old cinema.

After that we decided to have a bit of a walk around the historic parts of the town, knowing that it would be quite some time before we were able to stray from home again, mind you I never thought it would be more than a year! You can read about the history of the town here.

The two photos below are of Fordell’s Lodging.

Old Building Inverkeithing

Old Building, Inverkeithing

It’s thought that the town dates from as far back as Roman times in AD 83, but the first church was built around AD 400. There was a Franciscan friary which would have been used as an overnight stopping off place for pilgrims on their way to St Andrews. There are quite a lot of ancient buildings still standing in the town. Sadly one very interesting looking building is standing empty and unused, but another one has been converted into flats which should stop it from deteriorating.

The photo below is of St Peter’s Kirk.

Inverkeithing Church

Marriage lintels are a tradition in Scotland, especially in the east, with the initials of the bride and groom being carved into the lintel with the date of the wedding in the middle. This one is on Thomsoun’s House, 1617, it’s a bit fancier than most of them.

A Marriage Lintel, Inverkeithing