Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson

 Wild Harbour cover

Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson was published in 1936 but it has been reprinted by British Library in the Science Fiction category. Actually it’s a bit of a difficult book to categorise, I wouldn’t really call it SF. Ian Macpherson was a Scottish author and he was obviously influenced by what was happening in the news in the 1930s, with Hitler tooling up for WW2 and indeed the Spanish Civil war already ongoing.

Hugh has no intention of waiting for his call up papers, he doesn’t want to take part in any war, so he and his wife Terry pack their little car with as many things from their home as they can and as much food as possible, and set off for the western Highlands of Scotland. They know of a well hidden cave there that they can hide out in. Hugh has also managed to buy lots of ammunition for his gun and takes a lot of rabbit traps too, he plans to shoot deer to feed them.

The next part of the book is all about them trying to make their cave into a home, levelling the floor, building a chimney and hearth. It’s fine in the warm summer weather but they know that it’ll be brutally cold and snowy in the winter. This section reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie except they were building a cabin, not fitting out a cave.

Life is much harder than they could have imagined and eventually the war catches up with them as starving gunmen make their way into the Highlands. Certainly towards the end this wasn’t an uplifting read as I’m sure you can imagine. I’m sure that in the 1930s there were a lot of ordinary people who just felt like getting away from the threat of a wartime situation, just as many people nowadays hanker after going off grid and withdrawing from society – even without the prospect of being called up to ‘do their bit’.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep cover

The Big Sleep is the first book by Raymond Chandler that I’ve read but I’ll definitely be tracking down his others. This book was first published in 1939 and it’s the first book which features the private investigator Philip Marlowe. I must have seen the 1946 film of the book umpteen times, if I see it’s on TV I’ll always watch it again if possible, I’m a Bogart and Bacall fan.

Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to track down whoever is blackmailing his daughter Carmen. Sternwood is wheelchair-bound and obviously a very ill man, he has two daughters and they’re both spoiled, the youngest Carmen is really out of control. The eldest daughter Vivian is married, but her husband is missing which is also a worry to Sternwood as he got on well with his son-in-law. Vivian is addicted to gambling, playing roulette.

Marlowe’s investigation uncovers a world of gangsters, gun-runners, pornographers and murderers. The plot is great but the writing is even better – honestly I had no idea that Chandler was such a good writer. I love that he describes everything and everyone, but manages to avoid overdoing it somehow. Writing the screenplay must have been a fairly easy task as Chandler had already written all the action and dressed all the actors. Add to that Marlowe’s dry wit and classiness, this book is a very entertaining read.

I was really surprised to read that Chandler went to school in England and even joined the British civil service. In 1917 he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and fought in France with the Gordon Highlanders.

imbibing

Prefects at Springdale by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

 According to Queeney cover

I think I had been looking at Angela Brazil books when this author’s name popped up. I had never heard of her, but was interested to see that her books are mainly set in Scotland. Although Dorita Fairlie Bruce was born in Spain – hence her nickname Dorita – her name was actually Dorothy, she was really Scottish and apparently second only to Angela Brazil in popularity where school stories were concerned. Her books are set in Scotland, I recognised the area as being Ayrshire, the other side of the River Clyde from where I was brought up and quite a bit south. At one point some of the girls go on a jaunt with Dimsie to Arran which is a place I’ve always wanted to visit and intended to do it this year – but we all know what happened to that plan.

I don’t think it was just the setting that led me to enjoy Prefects at Springdale, which was first published in 1936, more than any Angela Brazil books that I’ve read. Somehow the schoolgirls seemed more authentic to me. Unfortunately the books can be quite expensive, there are seven books in this Springdale series and I inadvertently started off with the sixth one. Well, I was amazed to find this book in a pile at an antiques centre, the books are usually really expensive but obviously the seller didn’t rate this author highly as it was priced at £5, I snapped it up.

Anne is preparing to go back to Springdale School, packing her trunk when her sister Peggy tells her that she has received a letter from Diane, also known as Dimsie, a Springdale old girl who is now 23. She’s going to be working there as a temporary games-mistress until a permanent replacement can be found. Peggy is worried about Dimsie and wants Anne to look out for her. It’s going to be a bit of an awkward situation all round as some of the younger girls had rather idolised Dimsie when she was a senior girl.

This was a great read which seemed quite before its time with one of the girls being keen to become an archaeologist and another one being determined to train as a museum curator and luckily they both get a chance to get some hands on experience. There’s a bit of an adventure and a smidgen of romance and this one was an enjoyable trip back in time and place. I also like the rather stylish 1930s design of the book cover.

When I opened this book I discovered that a previous owner had left a wee cache of bits cut out from pop magazines, from the 1970s. I suspect that she wasn’t allowed to stick posters on her bedroom walls so made do with small ‘photos’ cut out. She was a fan of Gilbert O’Sullivan, Rod Stewart, Slade and two mystery chaps that I don’t recognise. I’ll try to take a photo of them and add it here later, maybe someone can enlighten me.

Whose posters did you put on your bedroom wall? I was devoted to Marc Bolan and T.Rex. I’m not even sure if teenage girls still do things like that nowadays.

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.

Classics Club Spin # 23 – Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell omnibus

I feel it’s a bit of a cheat putting Angela Thirkell’s Summer Half on my Classics Club list as it doesn’t really fit in with my idea of a classic but I’m trying to work my way through the books I have in my house and I don’t have many classics unread. Having said that – this is a re-read for me as I read Thirkell’s books just as I managed to get a hold of them, and now I’ m reading them again, in the correct order. Summer Half was first published in 1937.

Colin Keith’s father expects him to continue with his law studies and go on to be a barrister, but Colin feels bad about living off his parents, he feels it’s time to earn some money so he applies for a teaching post at the prep school at Southbridge. He’s nervous about the boys though, would he be able to cope with them? When he’s successful he’s in two minds about it as he really does enjoy his law studies.

The other teachers are a friendly set though and Colin settles down. Philip Winter is another young teacher there and he has the misfortune to be engaged to Rose Birkett, the headmaster’s daughter. Rose is beautiful to look at but she’s an intensely annoying dimwit with a tiny vocabulary. Philip is her third or maybe fourth fiance- and she’s only 18. The older boys in the school are incensed at the way Rose treats Philip and young Tony Morland and Eric Swan particularly do their best to protect him from her constant flirting with any other handy males.

As the setting is mainly the school there’s a lot of fun with the boys, particularly Hacker who is their classics scholar and is a bit of a nerdy character. He has a pet chameleon and in Hacker’s attempts to look after his pet he inadvertently causes mayhem in the school, but such fun!

“Mr Carter pointed out that the classics appeared to be no preparation for life, in that they did not, so far as he could see, even train a boy to think.”

I had to laugh when I read the line above as it’s so true. You just have to think of Boris Johnson who allegedly reads ancient Greek, but can barely string a sentence together in English.

This one was perfect light reading for Covid-19 times.

Two People by A.A. Milne

 Two People cover

A.A. Milne is obviously best known as the author of the Winnie the Pooh books which are beloved by people of all ages, but he also wrote quite a few books which were aimed at adult readers. This one was first published in 1931.

Two People must be the most autobiographical of his novels. Reginald Willard is wealthy enough not to have to work and he leads a perfect life, has a beautiful young wife Sylvia and a lovely home in the country. He adores his wife but when he tells her that he has just finished writing a book he’s understandably quite surprised by her lack of interest in it, she doesn’t even want to read Bindweed and says she’ll leave it until it is published. That seems unlikely to happen as far as Reginald is concerned, but Bindweed does find a publisher and the book becomes the must buy of the season, it’s wildly popular although nobody seems to have actually read it, it’s talked of everywhere.

Reginald is increasingly aware that his wife and he don’t share many things in common and her friends aren’t the sort of people that he wants to socialise with. He seems to be under the impression that Sylvia is a bit of an air-head, and is surprised when others find her interesting and amusing.

They decide to move to London for a while, but this just makes it more obvious that they don’t have much in common and Reginald seems to resent the fact that Sylvia makes a lot of friends of her own, males included.

I enjoyed the London based half of this book most, mainly because more interesting and amusing characters were introduced. It was an enjoyable read.

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.

Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson

Rosabelle Shaw cover

Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1937. I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I realised that D.E. Stevenson had named a character Rosabelle. I was at school with a girl with that name and I’ve never heard of anyone else having it – well not until I read about the tragic drowning of Rosabelle of Ravenscraig Castle which inspired Sir Walter Scott to write a poem which you can read here.

Rosabelle Shaw is set in Scotland, it begins in Edinburgh 1890 where Fanny quickly ends up marrying and moving to a new life in rural Scotland where her husband John is a farmer. Rosabelle is their first-born but as you would expect John is keen to have a son eventually, but when a ship is wrecked on the nearby rocks the only survivor is a baby boy. John does his best to track down the parents but has no success. Unfortunately Fanny has already bonded with the baby which she names Jay, and she has no intentions of giving him up anyway. From the beginning the child comes between the couple and things only get worse as the years go on.

I ended up enjoying this one although for a large part of the book the manipulative and deceitful nature of Jay and the way that Fanny puts Jay before her own children and husband made it an uncomfortable read, but it eventually ends well for the Shaw family.

I might be reading too much into D.E. Stevenson’s writing but it seems to me that she often gives a wee nod to other Scottish authors, there’s the use of the unusual name Rosabelle – a nod to Scott, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the house of Shaws appears in Catriona – Robert Louis Stevenson’s sequel to Kidnapped.

I rather like the cover of the 1967 edition of the book which I managed to borrow from the Fife libraries reserve stock. It looks like an authentically Scottish scene for the historical setting.

Evensong by Beverley Nichols

Evensong Cover

Evensong by Beverley Nichols was first published in 1932 and it’s one of his straight novels, there are very few mentions of anything botanical at all, apart from flowers sent to a well-know operatic diva. Sadly, mine didn’t have its dust cover, shown to the right.

Pauline is a young Canadian woman who is travelling to England to be with her Aunt Irela who is a famous opera singer. Pauline is now alone in the world after the death of her father and she ends up being a paid companion to her aunt. This is no easy task as Irela is a bit of a monster, manipulative and spoiled, she has to be the centre of attraction, but she’s also miserably mean. Nichols wrote what can only be called an homage to Jane Austen when he has Irela arguing with herself over how much (little) money she should give her niece as payment.

Time is catching up with Irela though and her voice is nothing like as good as it once was, she can’t hit top C now and has to have well known arias re-scored so she can still sing them, not that she would ever admit that.

There’s a love interest for Pauline of course, but can she break away from her aunt? Or will she be stuck running after her forever?

This was enjoyable, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as his better known garden/home books such as Down the Garden Path or A Thatched Roof.

The Children Who Lived In A Barn by Eleanor Graham

Mobius Dick cover

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham was first published in 1938. My copy is a Persephone reprint. The author is probably better known as an editor for Puffin and Penguin books, and as such she obviously knew better than anyone that the best way to write a book for and involving children is to get rid of the parents as fast as possible, which she duly does in this book.

The Dunnet family consists of the parents and five children who range in age from thirteen to seven. Susan is the eldest and luckily she’s a very level-headed and competent girl, she has to be because their rather feckless parents take off for Switzerland where Mrs Dunnett’s mother has taken ill. They’re completely confident that Susan can look after everyone until they get back, but they don’t return and even worse the children are evicted from the family home as the landlord wants the house.

The villagers are mainly helpful and a farmer offers them the use of an old barn to live in. They set to work making it habitable and as the summer approaches they make a decent job of looking after themselves although the bulk of the work has fallen on Susan who has to learn how to wash and sew. She’s at her wits’ end trying to make ends meet.

Susan has become a little mother figure with help from a local teacher, the baker and some others, but the local district visitor is determined to get them all put into a ‘Home’ for orphans. She’s a thoroughly despicable character, but to be fair nowadays there is no way that ‘home alone’ children would be allowed to look after themselves, they’d all be taken into local authority ‘care’ immediately.

This is a charming story even although the reader has to suspend disbelief, not only when the children are allowed to stay in the barn, but also the reason why the parents haven’t returned is fairly pathetic and totally unlikely. It’s well written otherwise although I have to say that it always annoys me when the youngest girl in a family is portrayed as spoiled and whining as is Alice in this book – such nonsense as I should know!

There’s a preface by the author Jacqueline Wilson in which she explains that when she was growing up it was normal for children to be given a latch key and to be by themselves at home – until their mother got home from work. All quite true, there were millions of us growing up like that, really bringing ourselves up, I don’t know when it was decided that children had to be chaperoned all the time, possibly around the late 1970s.

I’m fairly sure I didn’t read this one when I was wee, I think I would definitely have remembered it as it would have been right up my street. Have you read it?

This one is on my Classics Club list – another one bites the dust.

The endpapers are taken from a 1938 screen printed design by John Little.

Arrowhead