The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons was first published in 2016 by Vintage Classics – posthumously obviously – as the author died in 1989. If you’re expecting another book like the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm you might be disappointed as this one is very different, but I really enjoyed it.

It’s the early 1970s and Wilfred Davis is still bereft after the death of his wife six months previously, but almost worse than that is the behaviour of his teenage daughter Mary who has left home for the bright lights of London, about 70 miles from her family home in Torford, without so much as a cheerio. Mary just wants to find a husband and have three children called Max, Hugh and Cilla, she thinks that London is the place to meet her husband. Wilfred is overcome by sorrow while sitting on a park bench, his sobbing attracts the attention of a man who gives Wilfred a linen handkerchief.

So begins a strange friendship between Wilfred and the man who is called Lafcadio and the two women that he lives with in one of the yellow houses that Wilfred can see from his own home. The yellow house has a strange atmosphere and from conversations between Lafcadio, Miss Dollette and Mrs Cornforth it seems that the three of them might have somehow been sent to help Wilfred – or maybe not Mrs Cornforth, there’s something quite scarily tempting about her. All of Wilfred’s problems clear up and his daughter is soon back in touch with him, it really seems like his life is being orchestrated from on high.

I loved the 1970s, I know we aren’t supposed to but I’ve never been able to understand that, just think of all the great musical artists who came to the fore then, and are still around doing their thing nowadays (apart from Bowie sadly) and this book just oozes 1970s somehow. Yes I DO love flares!

In the book Mary manages to rent a grotty room in a poor part of London – Gospel Oak – an area I don’t recall ever having heard of before, but I was amused to hear on the radio recently that it’s deemed to be a very posh neighbourhood now.

This was one of those books that for me had a song running through it – The Beatles, She’s Leaving Home. It was written by Lennon and McCartney and I believe that they got the idea for the song from reading in the Daily Mirror about a teenager who had run away from home, but that was in 1967.

Close Quarters by Angus McAllister

Close Quarters by Angus McAllister was published in 2017 and I decided to read it because Jack was literally shaking the bed with laughter as he read it. I have to say that although it is funny in parts, I didn’t laugh out loud.

The setting is Glasgow’s West End, which if you don’t know it is a rather cosmopolitan and up market area with expensive housing, due mainly to the proximity of The University of Glasgow and the attractions of the Botanic Gardens, a posh hotel and restaurants, eclectic shops, the BBC (once of Queen Margaret Drive but now housed elsewhere in the city) but also ‘normal’ pubs and shops.

A ‘close’ in Scotland is the communal entrance area and stairwell of a tenement building in Scotland. Most of the book features the inhabitants of 13 Oldberry Street, a tenement building which contains seven flats, and a small shop on one side of the ground floor. One of the longest inhabitants of the building is Walter Bain and close to the beginning we’re told that Bain is dead – murdered. It seems that the deed must have been committed by someone who lives in the building as the close security door hasn’t been damaged.

The rest of the book features how Walter Bain’s horrible personality impinged on the lives of his long-suffering neighbours. Bain behaved as if he owned the entire building and spent his time firing off badly spelled and ungrammatical notes to them whenever he thought they had committed a heinous offence – such as not shutting the gate, missing their turn at cleaning the stairs, or having their television on! Bizzarely his mantra is ‘this is a family building’ despite the fact that there are no children in any of the flats. His tyranny has ruled the building for years before someone snaps and does him in.

Suffice to say that everyone has a good reason to murder Bain, in fact – in other parts of Glasgow he would have been bumped off a lot sooner – but then there wouldn’t have been a book, there would just have been a few columns in the Scottish newspapers and a few minutes on the Scottish TV news!

There is humour in it, it wouldn’t have been Glasgow if there was no banter and I really enjoyed strolling around Byres Road and the West End, our old stamping ground, it just didn’t have me shaking with laughter and I guessed the culprit very early on, as did Jack to be fair. His review is here. I’ll definitely try some of McAllister’s other books in the future.

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

 The Last Protector cover

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor is set in London 1668 where Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard has arrived clandestinely from France where he has been living. With the restoration of the King after the end of Cromwell’s Commonwealth following the civil war, Richard had been laden down with his father’s debts and he was in France to avoid his debtors. He’s really homesick for the countryside and his family apparently.

Cat Lovett had been friendly with the Cromwells as a child, a supposedly chance encounter with Richard’s daughter Elizabeth leads to a rekindling of the friendship. But Cat is suspicious, especially when her husband is befriended by Elizabeth and her friend Mr Cranmore.

There’s unrest in London as the Stuart court is completely immoral and there are many papists within it. This is upsetting a lot of people, particularly the Duke of Buckingham and his supporters and it seems that there might be a plot to overthrow the king. This is worrying for Cat, the daughter of a regicide, but her husband has always supported the Cromwells and he can’t be persuaded that he’s putting them in danger. Can Marwood protect Cat?

This is the fourth book in Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett series and I’m really looking forward to reading the next one The Royal Secret which is due to be published later this week.

The books are atmospheric and informative. The Guardian said of it: ‘This is historical crime at its dazzling best.’

The Light Over London by Julia Kelly

 The Light Over London cover

The Light Over London by Julia Kelly was first published in 2019. It’s a dual time novel with the setting being in WW2 London 1941 and 2017 Gloucestershire. This type of structure often works well but at times they can be annoying if you are enjoying the story and the timeline suddenly switches away from it. The author is American but is now living in London.

Cara has recently divorced and relocated to Gloucestershire where she has got a job with an antiques dealer who does house clearances. When she finds a wartime diary in an old tin while helping with valuations and house clearing she asks her boss Jock if she can keep the diary and he’s happy for her to do so. The diary has been written by a woman who had run away and joined the army to do her bit, rather than stay at home and marry the young man that her rather bullying mother had planned out for her future.

The diary comes to an abrupt end and Cara is keen to find out what happened. She’s helped in her task by Liam, her new and rather good-looking neighbour. So the book contains two romances and a bit of a mystery, unfortunately for me it just didn’t work, in fact there are so many anomalies in the writing that I took to keeping a note of them, this might seem like nit-picking but if you are setting a book in England and all the characters are English then it’s important not to import Americanisms into it as it jars so badly.

The most obvious one was the use several times of the word purse where it should have been handbag.

The word blond was used to describe a woman but the ‘e’ also appeared in the next sentence, otherwise it was without the ‘e’.

The word stand-down was used in relation to the end of the war.

Card shark is used a few times, it should of course be card sharp, I have no idea if card shark is American.

Ticket taker should be ticket collector.

Do you think Princess Elizabeth will serve? The phrase in the UK is/was join up.

Off ramp was used when it should have been slip road, and tea kettle was used instead of just kettle.

In other words the book is in need of being edited to weed out the incongruous Americanisms – as well as the cornier romance parts.

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

I read In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman because it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2014 and I have a personal project to read all of the winners, which I’m never going to complete I’m sure, but I’ll have a good go. It pushes me to read some books that I never would have thought of reading otherwise, this one comes under that category. I had a wee look at the reviews on Goodreads and noted that several people had abandoned the book, that’s something that I rarely do, but I can see why people would do so, this is a very wordy book at 554 pages, actually it seemed longer. I can’t say that I disliked it, but at the risk of seeming sexist I think this one might be appreciated more by male readers. This is partly because a lot of the book is conversations between two men who have been friends since they met at Oxford University.

The narrator is an investment banker of Pakistani origin, it’s 2008 and he suspects that he is going to get the blame for the mess his bank is in, they need a fall guy and he’s the youngest partner, but to be fair – he did have the idea of selling sub-prime mortgages, which caused all the trouble. He comes from a very wealthy background so losing his job is not a great worry. He has lost sight of Zafar over the years since they were at university, and when Zafar turns up at his front door he doesn’t even recognise him. Zafar has been in Afghanistan which as we know had become a hellhole.

The narrator mainly sits back and listens to Zafar as he does a lot of ‘mansplaining’, pontificating on varied subjects that he seems to be an expert on however, he’s not an expert on the one thing that I know about – the design of the Union flag/jack which he says most people think is symmetrical, when we all know that it certainly isn’t symmetrical and anyone putting up that flag has to be careful not to fly it upside-down! But the narrator also points out that Zafar is wrong about some things.

Otherwise Zafar tells the story of his life, from his conception in Bangladesh and poverty stricken childhood to his disastrous relationship with Emily and her wealthy entitled family in London.

Although this is a well written book, sometimes beautifully written, it was in dire need of an editor, and I’m left just hoping that the author has fewer problems with women in his own life than his characters have in the book. The women are all portrayed as being ghastly.

Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder

Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder was first published in 1929 but my copy is a modern paperback which has been reprinted by Girls Gone By, actually although it’s a paperback (I prefer hardbacks) it’s still a lovely book and there are 46 pages of very interesting information at the beginning. There’s some history of education in England and Scotland which had/have very different systems. Scotland’s system was way ahead of the English one which only really got into gear for ordinary children in the 1930s. It was the 1920s before commissions recommended that secondary education should be available free to all children in England. In contrast in Scotland education was sponsored by the state from the 18th century. There are also some interesting photographs of the original book covers, and some old schools and teachers.

Unusually this book is set in an ordinary girls’ secondary day school rather than a boarding school so the reader sees the girls at home as they visit each other to do homework together and also as they enjoy each other’s company outside school and socialise with their families.

Evelyn’s best friend is Elizabeth but when they meet up at school after the summer holidays they haven’t seen each other for eight weeks. It’s evident from the beginning that although they’re great friends they’re quite different characters. Elizabeth is always thinking ahead, such as planning to get what she thinks will be the most interesting seat locations in their new classrooms. Evelyn is altogether more serious about her studies.

When Elizabeth seems to be more interested in being friends with another girl Evelyn is surprised, she can’t see the attraction and the girls grow apart somewhat. There’s no animosity, just a coolness but Evelyn is hurt. It’s all character forming though, and all so familiar to anyone looking back on their own schooldays. I particularly enjoyed the way the girls were disdainful of the ‘Home Life’ department and the girls who were too stupid to do anything else – it felt so true to life. I just remember being astonished that anyone would need lessons on such things as washing clothes! I had been doing all the housework in my family home since I was ten years old.

This book is so well written and observed with the teachers also coming across as human beings with a life outside their workplace. This is a really enjoyable read so I’ll definitely be looking for more books by the author.

The Spanish Letters by Mollie Hunter

 The Spanish Letters cover

The Spanish Letters by Mollie Hunter was first published in 1964 but my copy is a Puffin book dating from 1972.

The setting is Edinburgh and the year is 1589, the end of January. Young Jamie Morton is a caddie in the city – that means he earns his living by doing messages for people, whatever is needed, maybe delivering a note to someone, a sort of odd job person who has to know the city inside out. He has been trained up by ‘the Cleek’ a much older caddie. There are a few hundred such males of all ages in Edinburgh, it might be a bit of a precarious living but Jamie likes it because he’s his own boss. He isn’t so keen on being starving half the time though.

When a young well known musician goes missing Jamie is asked to help track him down and so begins a tale of adventure, murder and kidnap with the Earl of Huntly – a favourite with King James involved.

There’s a ship from the Netherlands docked at Leith, Edinburgh’s port, and there’s a suspicion that it has Spaniards on board. Is there a Spanish plot afoot? A second Armada attempting to topple Queen Elizabeth. For once the Scots and the English are on the same side, well most of the Scots are.

This was a really enjoyable read, my first by the author but I’ve recently bought a couple of others. Her writing reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett’s adventures which is high praise indeed, but obviously not as convoluted (or long) as Hunter’s writing is aimed at youngsters. Her books are apparently all well researched so it seems like a painless way of learning history.

For anyone who has already read this book you might be interested in this blogpost that I wrote earlier, when I visited Huntly Castle in Aberdeenshire.

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!

Bel Lamington by D.E. Stevenson – a book review

Bel Lamington cover

Bel Lamington by the Scottish author D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1961 and to begin with the setting is London although it does move on to the north of Scotland later.

Bel has been in her tiny London flat for 18 months but she doesn’t know any of her neighbours, she had had to move to London to find work after her aunt had died. Her parents had died long ago when she was a small child, so apart from her work in a shipping company the only joy in Bel’s life is her small garden which she has cultivated in containers on a flat roof outside her living-room window. So when she comes home from work one summer evening she’s not best pleased to discover that a strange young man has invaded her wee patch of heaven. It turns out that Mark is an artist, quite a good one and he wants Bel to model for him, which she does, but Mark turns out to be a bit of a flibbertigibbet.

Meanwhile things at Bel’s work aren’t going well, she lives in fear of losing her job as she has no money to fall back on so life is stressful, especially when the women who have been working there for years take a dislike to her. Well, she had been promoted over their heads so that was bound to cause friction. Things come to a head and Bel ends up travelling to Scotland to spend time with an old schoolfriend and her father. The Thames-Clyde Express takes her to Dumfries in south-west Scotland where Bel’s life takes a turn for the better.

This was an enjoyable read, especially when the story moved to Scotland, but I thought that the London workplace stresses and office were very authentic. I knew eventually there would be a happy ending and that’s the sort of book that I’m drawn to at the moment.

The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb

Dimsie Goes to School cover

The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb was originally published in 2014.

The author had been annoyed when Andrew Marr had implied that the suffragettes “were not terrorists in any serious modern sense”, the truth is actually very different and Simon Webb set out to put the record straight. He did repeat himself quite a bit but this is still a very informative and interesting read as well as being an eye-opener for me as I had thought I knew a fair amount about the subject, it turns out that I didn’t.

It’s often thought that the years from 1900 to the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 were something of a golden age of peace and prosperity. The truth is that it was a time of upheaval with the WSPU led by the Pankhursts conducting a campaign of terrorism. In 1906 the non-violent suffragists had been hopeful that their campaign for universal franchise would be successful as the Liberals had won a landslide victory, but heigh-ho, the new government was busy with other things such as setting up the welfare state and Old Age Pensions. The suffragettes who were mainly upper-class people who didn’t want ‘votes for all’ only wanted votes for wealthy women, home and business owners, a very small minority of women. At the time most men didn’t have the vote either.

Emmeline Pankhurst was completely in control of her Women’s Social and Political Union which was financed by aristocratic people to the extent that it was awash with money. Her daughter Christabel skipped Britain to live in Paris in luxury. She helped her mother control things from there. The last half of this book seemed to be a long list of terrorist activities that went far further than chaining themselves to railings and breaking windows.

Historic churches were routinely burnt to the ground, many bombs were deployed causing huge damage to people and buildings, trains were bombed, houses were burnt to the ground. St Paul’s Cathedral was almost blown up. A new Carnegie library was completely burnt within less than 24 hours of it being opened, railway stations were popular targets for bombs and for some reason Scotland took the brunt of the campaigns of violence. Dundee seemed to be a hotbed of suffragette violence. In Fife where I live they burnt down Leuchars railway station and parts of St Andrews University. Historic documents went up in smoke. Golf courses and football grounds were routinely damaged, anywhere that would particularly upset men really. The beautiful Kibble Palace in Glasgow was blown up just after it was opened, the list of atrocities just goes on and on. It’s no wonder that their are photographs in existence of furious people going after suffragettes as they had no care for the lives of others and just didn’t care what happened to the general public who had to put up with all the violence.

Interestingly when there was a truce in 1911 the WSPU’s coffers were much emptier than they had been. Apparently the violence pulled in the money from donors. I couldn’t help thinking about that Qanon woman Marjorie Taylor Green who has been pulling in loads of money from donors who agree with her particular brand of madness, the more crazy her speeches are the more money they send her! It seems it was much the same for the suffragettes.

Yes some women were permanently harmed due to being force fed but that didn’t last long as the powers that be were so worried about creating martyrs for the cause that when suffragettes were sent to jail for setting off bombs they just went on hunger strike for three days and were released, no matter how long their sentence had been. Emily Davison of course ended up being their martyr and over the years there have been arguments as to whether she meant to kill herself or not. She had tried to commit suicide on two earlier occasions, breaking her skull in one attempt, she was a poor soul really who obviously had mental health problems despite being highly intelligent and having been to university, she was badly treated by the Pankhursts who refused to give her any money despite the work she did for them. She wasn’t a young woman she was 41 years old and that return ticket to Epsom to see the Derby meant nothing as on the race day the price of the single or return ticket was exactly the same and I suspect that the busy ticket clerks just gave everyone a return ticket.

One thing that did annoy me was that the author remarks at the beginning of the book that the suffragette dcolours of white, green and purple stood for purity, hope and majesty. Of course the purple stands for equality which is why it was used by the Fathers for Justice campaigners in recent years.

Anyway, that was a long one, I had a lot to say but it’s just so interesting the way history can be whitewashed over the years. We’ve always been taught that we women had a lot to thank the Pankhursts for when in reality the public at the time lived in fear of being blown up by them and their very well paid staff, and they had no conscience at all about burning down the workplaces of poor women, leaving them destitute. They never wanted ordinary people to have the vote at all never mind ordinary women. I’ve only listed a small amount of the places damaged and sometimes obliterated by them.

This book has a very comprehensive bibliography. I was sent a digital copy by the publisher via Netgalley.