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 Loud Halo by Lillian Beckwith

 The Loud Halo cover

The Loud Halo by Lillian Beckwith was first published in 1964 and it’s the third book in her Hebridean series. These books are comic novels set in the village of Bruach where ‘Miss Peckwit’ has gone to recover from an illness, she had been a teacher in the north of England. Life on a remote and primitive Scottish island is very different from what she has been used to. There’s no indoor plumbing, actually no plumbing at all, no running water just a well and the toilet is a shed with a big bucket – if you have a man strong enough to lug it out. Lillian makes do with two earth sheds which she takes turns at using and seems to think that’s hygienic enough.

By this time Lillian has been well and truly accepted by the locals and is even speaking some Gaelic. The books are stories of her encounters with her neighbours who all seem to be eccentric. There’s Kirsty who treats her poor brother like a slave and she steals her neighbour’s crops with no conscience involved, her neighbour ends up having to move.

More and more tourists are arriving, despite the midges and they are turning out to be good business opportunities for the locals. Quite a lot of this book deals with the things that the islanders get up to in order to get money, including the government assistance which they all seem to be on, there’s also an awful lot of boozing going on. I had a feeling that life on the island was beginning to lose its charm for Beckwith and indeed at the end of the book she has packed up and the villagers are seeing her off at the station. She did write some more Hebridean books in later years though.

It was a wee bit of a Miss Buncle situation – if you’re familiar with that D.E. Stevenson book you’ll know that Miss Buncle wrote a book about life in her own village which became very successful. The trouble was that all of the characters were far too recognisable and none of them was happy at being put in her book!

This book is a good light read, a glimpse back to the days before everyone on the islands had all mod cons. By the time I went to Skye for the first time in 1970 the locals even had freezers which I was very impressed with as we only had a small fridge with ice box at home. Our old friends who had gone back to live on Skye again after a five year sojourn in Glasgow had a freezer in their living room, it was one of those sliding lid ones and thinking about it I think it actually said ‘Wall’s ice cream’ on it! Anyway, I still have a few of these Beckwith books to read so I’ll continue with the series at some point in the future.

Gerald and Elizabeth by D.E. Stevenson

 Gerald and Elizabeth   cover

Gerald and Elizabeth by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1969 and I really enjoyed it, up until page 188, then I got a shock.

Gerald Burleigh-Brown is on a ship, on his way home from South Africa where he had been working as an electrical engineer at a diamond mine. He left under a very dark cloud, without any references as he had been accused of attempting to steal uncut diamonds and as you can imagine he was very depressed about his future. He was going to London to look for work, but his half-sister Elizabeth has become very successful on the stage and Gerald doesn’t want to contact her, he’s too embarrassed about his situation and is worried that it would somehow harm Elizabeth’s career if anyone found out about the accusation.

But Eliabeth spots Gerald in the audience one night and is determined to keep in contact with him. She has a problem of her own. She’s in love with a wealthy shipbuilder. Sir Walter owns a shipyard in Glasgow and he’s keen to marry Elizabeth, but she is sure that there is a strain of mental instability in her family and refuses to marry him. Of course Gerald manages to sort it all out.

There’s quite a bit of travelling from London up to Glasgow and then on to the Scottish Highlands involved in the storyline and it’s all very scenic, especially if you know the areas mentioned, but for me it was ruined by D.E. Stevenson’s anti-semitic attitude. When Gerald is looking for a gift he visits an antiques shop in Glasgow.

The bell jangled as he opened the door and an elderly man with a hooky nose emerged from the back premises. I was surprised by the mention of a hooky nose and I thought ‘surely not’. Then Gerald is annoyed when the dealer refuses to accept a cheque as he doesn’t know him and he has lost money before that way. This is before bank cards of course. Gerald wants him to make enquiries at the bank.

“I’ve no time for that,” replied the little Jew nastily. You’d better go to the bank yourself and come back with the money.” He had been turning Gerald’s cheque over and over in his dirty hands; now he handed it back.

Honestly I was absolutely gobsmacked, and mortified that any other readers might think that that sort of attitude was normal in Scotland, especially considering that Gerald is portrayed as a decent chap all the way through the book. I can assure you I’ve never heard anything like that. I was ten years old in 1969, but that sort of attitude to Jews seems to me to be medieval. As Robert Burns said a couple of hundred years earlier, “A man’s a man for a’ that.”

I’m also wondering why an editor didn’t strike it out? Days later my heid is still birlin’ just thinking about it. Up until page 188 this was a good read. It was her penultimate book with House of the Deer published in 1970 being her last so maybe she was going a bit odd in the head in her old age, she died in 1973.

Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson

 Five Windows cover

Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1953, but it has been reprinted since then.
I enjoyed this one although I can’t say that it’s my favourite by the author.

I really like the idea of a book with five sections, each one beginning with a description of the view from the window from the room where the narrator David is living. Through the actions of other characters that we meet David learns some important life lessons.

David is the only child of the local minister and his much younger wife, they live in Nethercleugh in the Scottish Borders, it’s a very quiet rural location and we follow his career from the age of nine until his early 20s.

The first window view is from his childhood bedroom window and “looked out over the garden to the bridge and the hills.”

The setting changes to Edinburgh when he starts secondary school and lives with his uncle.

The view from the second window “looked out on a chequer-board of gardens, each separated from its neighbour by a solid stone wall covered with ivy.” David’s two best schoolfriends are very different from each other and he allows himself to be led by one of them, culminating in David moving to London at the end of his schooldays.

The third window is London and it begins: The wall towered up some thirty feet from my window: It was of dingy brick and there was no break in it except for an iron ventilator.” The boarding house that he rented a room in was ghastly, filthy and the food provided was awful, but worse than that was the other boarders. But this was a steep learning curve for David, he learned a lot about people before he made his escape, for me this was the darkest section of the book, but maybe it’s through strife that we learn the most.

The description of the fourth window view begins, “My window looked out on to roofs of all shapes and sizes sloping in all directions: upon jutting gables and hundreds of chimney-pots.” From an attic flat David has real freedom for the first time, a place of his own but it’s not easy as he has to count every penny. This section is much happier as until now David’s life was far from one he had imagined for himself, and it begins to go in a more hopeful direction.

The fifth window was “dirty and we could not see through it, so I opened it from the bottom and we looked out …. Now that the trees had been felled we could see for miles: we could see meadows and fields: we could see hedges with the green tint of spring upon them.”

I liked this book but it has a few preachy Christian passages in it which don’t appeal to me. It has a lot of similarities with O. Douglas books with the main character home-making and descriptions of interior decoration – and the preachy bits. But I do love the idea of the descriptions from the windows as whenever you walk into a room of a house that you think you might end up living in the first thing most people do is walk over to the window to see what the view is like.

Yet again D.E. Stevenson managed a wee name check for her more illustrious relative R.L. Stevenson.

West of Scotland book purchases

I’ve been in my beloved west of Scotland earlier in the week so that Jack could go to a football match. It’s too far to do comfortably in one day so we stayed overnight and that gave us plenty of time to visit the shops and eateries that we wanted to visit. Amazingly the weather dried up and we had bright sunshine and blue skies – so much for the weather in the west being wetter than the east!

Without even trying I ended up buying eight books, some from charity shops and the four books from Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series were from a sort of junky ‘antique’ shop. I was so pleased to get these ones that date from 1948 and still have their pristine dustjackets. They were all given to a boy called Phil in 1948 from his mother, nannie and John and Mary.

Missee Lee by Arthur Ransome
The Big Six by Arthur Ransome
Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome

Books by Arthur Ransome

Arthur Ransome Books

The Westering Sun by George Blake – because of the lovely cover and it being Scottish.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – a mystery to me but it was 50p so I thought I might as well buy it.

Books

And two more Scottish books.
The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster
The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

Books Again

It’s World Book Day today which is probably why the date was chosen for the publication of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I dashed to W.H. Smith’s this morning to get my copy of it but annoyingly had to go out tonight so have only managed to get to page 43 so far. Of course it’s not going to be easy to read in bed as it’s so weighty. I suspect that I’ll be reading most of tomorrow!

Oh – and Jack’s team (Dumbarton) won their football match. Sometimes being away from home for one night only is just perfect as you can have one whole day of doing exactly what you want, and you’re only away from your own bed for one night. We visited Helensburgh and the Loch Lomond area and I managed to get some scenic photos which I’ll show you soonish.

Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson

Still Glides the Stream cover

Still Glides the Stream by the Scottish author D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1959 but my paperback copy is a 1973 reprint.

To begin with the setting is the Scottish Borders where Will Hastie has returned to his childhood home after being away for twelve years. His return is tinged by sadness as Rae his childhood best friend was killed in World War 2 and everywhere Will goes brings back memories for him and makes Rae’s absence all the more sharp.

To make matters worse Rae’s mother is suffering from some form of dementia and she keeps expecting Rae to turn up at any time, she’s constantly talking about him. Rae’s father is a retired colonel and his family home is entailed so he’s obviously worrying about what will happen to his wife and Patty his daughter when he dies as the house and land will then be owned by a cousin.

Like many elderly parents the colonel is keen to see Patty settled so that he doesn’t have to worry about her being left on her own and homeless when he dies, but his anxiety might be leading him and Patty in an unwise direction.

Will begins to feel left out of things and decides to take a walking holiday in France, in the area where Rae had been killed, hoping to track down the farmer that Rae had been billeted with and possibly get some information from him. Rae’s last letter had been rather cryptic.

This was a really enjoyable read and I particularly liked the settings of rural Scotland and the more exotic ambience of the south of France. D.E. Stevenson often gets in a wee nod to her more famous relative Robert Louis Stevenson and she has Will saying that he isn’t travelling with a donkey.

On the back The Bookman says: “Hypnotically readable.”
and from Books and Bookmen Skillfully blends love of people and love of the countryside.”

What do you think of the 1973 cover of this book? I think it’s ghastly, that era must have been a particularly low point for book covers I think.

Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson

Spring Magic cover

Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1942 but I read a 1986 reprint which had to be hauled out of Fife Libraries’ reserve stock. I’m only thankful that they haven’t got rid of the books completely, as they have with so many other authors.

I’m not close to having read all of D.E. Stevenson’s books but so far Spring Magic is my favourite. The setting is mainly Scotland and during World War 2. I’m very partial to wartime books especially when they are contemporary.

Frances Field is living in London with her aunt and uncle, she has been with them for years as her parents died when she was quite young. Her aunt is a very silly selfish woman and she believes that Frances is there to pander to her every wish. The aunt is a hypochondriac and Frances had been very sorry for her, but when the doctor tells Frances that there’s nothing wrong with her aunt and urges Frances to get out and get a life for herself, she does just that, taking the aunt’s decision to decamp out of London to a supposedly safer location as her cue to have a holiday in Scotland and think about her future.

The island fishing village that Frances finds herself in is sleepy and friendly but it isn’t long before the whole area is inundated with a battalion of soldiers from the British army, changing everything, especially as some of the officers’ wives have arrived too. Frances has never really had any women friends her own age before and it opens up a whole new world for her.

Not everything is sweetness and light as Frances realises along with everyone else that one of the wives is in an abusive marriage, but nothing can be done about it. Aerial dogfights and air raids bring the war right to her door and there are misunderstandings but as you would expect – all’s well in the end.

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.

Library haul

Yesterday I went to the library to take back the Elly Griffiths book that I’ve just finished, I still had a couple of weeks before it was due up, but I noticed that somebody had requested it so I knew they would be glad to get their hands on it as soon as possible.

Library Book Haul 1

However, the librarian triumphantly presented me with four books that I had requested. Why is it that they all arrive at the same time? I’m supposed to be concentrating on reading my own books too! I really shouldn’t complain I suppose, especially as two of the books were recently recommended by bloggers that I trust.

Library Book Haul 2

Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson
The English Air by D.E. Stevenson
The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor
The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle

The D.E. Stevensons had to be dug out of Fife’s Reserve Stock and they’re quite ancient but I’m working my way through all of her books, some of which could be described as comfort reads but often have stories revolving around families, and we all know that families can be problematical, and others deal with wartime problems. Rosabelle Shaw is a historical novel and so far I’m enjoying it. At least I’ll be able to renew those ones if I don’t manage to get them all read on time.