An Autumn Sowing by E.F. Benson

An Autumn Sowing cover

An Autumn Sowing by E.F. Benson was first published in 1917, so three years before his first Lucia book but there are quite a lot of the same elements in An Autumn Sowing. Snobbery and class consciousness figure prominently of course, it’s a good read although if you expect a Lucia type book then you might be disappointed.

Thomas Keeling is very wealthy, he lives in a spacious house in the town of Bracebridge and he is going to be the mayor in the following year. He has made his money through owning a large department store and having a very astute sense of business, but of course it is ‘trade’ so he’s never going to be able to be a member of the County Club where the local aristocrats are, despite being penniless. Mr Keeling is only ever going to be allowed to join the Town Club, fit for people like himself who started out owning just a fish shop.

Thomas Keeling has been disappointed with his marriage and his children, and the one bright spot in his life is his love of books and the fact that he can well afford to have a library of his own, where he indulges in his love of beautiful volumes. Nobody else is allowed into his library, apart from the young man who runs the book department in Keeling’s store. Charles is the closest thing that Thomas has to a friend, not that Thomas would unbend enough to actually have a friend, he’s very much the boss.

When Charles’s sister Norah needs a job she becomes Thomas’s secretary and after a shaky start when she describes Mr Keeling as being a cad a relationship builds up between them through their mutual love of books. Thomas can’t help comparing Norah with his wife and the wife doesn’t come out of it well. He thought that he was marrying above his station when he married the daughter of a P&O captain but in truth she’s a rather vulgar woman in a noveau riche kind of way, filling her home with ghastly folderols, such as a stuffed crocodile which stands on its back legs holding a brass tray – for visiting cards.

This book was never going to have a happy ending but it is really quite funny in that sharp-tongued Benson way and it’s interesting to see so many similarities with the Mapp and Lucia books. There are characters who speak ‘baby talk’, a figurative secret garden, a mayor, royal honours and an extension for the local hospital.

I found it interesting that the secretary was called a typewriter not a typist or secretary and she was expected to bring her own typing machine with her instead of being provided with one. I wonder when they started to be called a typist?

My copy of this book is a 1987 reprint and it’s a shame that it isn’t available on Project Gutenberg as I’m sure that a lot of people would enjoy reading it.

I haven’t read any of Benson’s Dodo books, have you? Would you recommend them?

Psmith – P.G. Wodehouse

I’m way behind with writing about the books I’ve been reading lately so I’m just going to mention that I really enjoyed reading P.G. Wodehouse’s books featuring his character Psmith. I can’t remember which bloggers mentioned enjoying these books fairly recently, was it you?

Anyway, I downloaded them from Project Gutenberg onto my Kindle because I suspected they might be perfect holiday reading- and they were. The first one Mike and Psmith kept me entertained on the ferry journey from Harwich to the Hook of Holland and I read the others whilst in Holland. Psmith in the City and Psmith Journalist, they’re a hoot.

P. G. Wodehouse’s books are available for download here.

Wodehouse said that he got the idea for his character Psmith when he heard that a schoolmaster had asked a pupil of his how he was and the pupil had answered that he ‘just kept getting thinnah and thinnah’ and so the character Psmith was born. I always get a clear view of anybody I’m reading about, usually completely imaginary people depending on their descriptions but as soon as I read the ‘thinnah and thinnah’ bit it was a schoolboy version of the Tory M.P. Jacob Rees-Mogg who appeared in my mind. He’s only missing a monocle as far as I’m concerned.

jacob rees-mogg

Psmith to a T – for me anyway.

Piccadilly Jim by PG Wodehouse

Piccadilly Jim by PG Wodehouse was first published in 1918, that date was a surprise to me as I had no idea he was writing as far back as then, but it would seem that at this time he was also working on Broadway, writing song lyrics with Jerome Kern amongst others, some people are just sickeningly talented.

I haven’t read an awful lot of Wodehouse books but of those I have read I wouldn’t rate Piccadilly Jim as being one of the best. Probably because although there are the usual wonderfully terrifying aunts, somehow the characters just aren’t that lovable.

Jimmy Crocker was a journalist at one point but when his mother marries a millionaire he gives up the work to concentrate on having a good time. He’s now famous for appearing in the gossip columns of the newspapers, instead of writing columns himself.

The blurb says: In a dizzying plot, impersonations pile on imoersonations so that (for reasons that will become clear, we promise) Jimmy ends up having to pretend he’s himself.

You can download Piccadilly Jim and a lot of other Wodehouse books
here, if you’re interested.

My Man Jeeves and Ukridge by P.G.Wodehouse

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this summer and now have quite a backlog of books to blog about, so this is a short double whammy, mainly to remind myself of what I have read when I look back over the year. Most of my summer reads have been light ones, escapist books really because we had to have workmen in to sort out the house before putting the house up for sale and it’s all so stressful.

So My Man Jeeves is as you would expect, a collection of short stories which follow the usual pattern, with Jeeves always knowing better and coming to the rescue when things go pear-shaped. All jolly good fun and if you want to see what I mean you can download the book free from Project Gutenberg here.

The next Wodehouse book which I read was one I picked up at random from the library so is an actual book.

Titled Ukridge, the characters are new to me. To be precise we have Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge plus Corky Corcoran who is a young chappie built along similar lines to Wooster but with more in the way of brains. His old school pal is Ukridge, a ne’er-do-weel who is always skint, in fact relies on Corky for just about everything, including socks and shirts. Ukridge always has a crazy money making scheme on the go and is full of energy and confidence, no matter how many times things go disastrously wrong for him. As you can imagine, Corky takes the brunt of it all financially. Ukridge’s high-handed manner with Corky’s ‘man’ Bowles ensures undying loyalty from Bowles himself, so Corky is battling against Ukridge and Bowles, an uneven contest.

‘Light as a feather, but fabulous’ – Ben Elton says on the front cover, and I agree.

Ukridge’s middle name Featherstonehaugh is of course one of those surnames which isn’t pronounced as it looks, it is pronounced Fanshaw.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

I turned to P.G. Wodehouse when I very quickly decided to give up trying to read something heavier, I just wasn’t in the mood for reading something I had to concentrate on. I already had Right Ho, Jeeves on my Kindle, if you want to have a go at it you can get it free here.

You know what’s coming, which of course is part of their charm. Bertie Wooster has been in the south of France, spending a lot of time with his cousin Angela. On his return to Blighty, Bertie pays a visit to Angela’s mother, his Aunt Dahlia. A couple of Bertie’s friends are included in the house party, Augustus Fink-Nottle and (gosh I’ve forgotten the other chap’s name, that’s Kindles for you! ) are both in need of help. Their love lives are not going well and Bertie is determined to sort them out. He advises them on how to win the hearts of their girls, you can imagine how well that goes!

Jeeves does his best to rein in his young master but of course Bertie thinks he knows best.

The BBC recently aired Wodehouse in Exile, with Tim Pigott-Smith playing the part of Wodehouse and Zoe Wanamaker as his wife. It was really well done and if you are interested in Wodehouse I think you’ll enjoy it.

I hadn’t realised that Wodehouse had neglected to leave his home in Le Touquet, France before the Nazis got there in 1940. The upshot of which is that he was sent to a prison camp, but when the Germans realised that he was a famous author they decided get him to broadcast talks on the radio which could be interpreted as being pro-Nazi.

It makes you think that Wodehouse himself resembled Wooster far more than Jeeves – how he could have been stupid enough to get himself into such a situation, and not even realise it, beggars belief – but he did. Anyway, you can view the programme below if you’re interested. I hope people outside the UK are able to view this too, but it might be blocked.

No Place Like Home by Beverley Nichols

No Place Like Home was first published in 1936. I started reading Beverley Nichols books after buying a couple of lovely old editions of his – Down the Garden Path and A Thatched Roof. I enjoyed those ones and it was when I was trying to find the third one of that trilogy on the internet that I came across this book and just bought it, not having any idea what it was about but having a fair idea that I would enjoy it – which I did.

Beverley Nichols travels from his home in England to Austria where his lack of language skills meant that he ended up spending his first night there in a sanatorium for TB sufferers, instead of a luxurious hotel. When he did get to a hotel things weren’t much better due to the strange man who was in the room next to his. I must say that it was a comfort to discover that Beverley Nichols experienced nutty neighbours, just as we did in earlier days.

By coincidence a lot of the countries which Nichols visited were the same as those visited by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his book Between the Woods and the Water just a few years earlier, but the books are very different, although neither of them comment much on the politics of the time. Obviously Nichols sets out to be amusing, and he manages it on his journey through Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Palestine.

I was really surprised at his description of the Pyramids of Giza as the World’s Biggest Flop because I thought that they would have been fairly unspoiled way back in 1936, but it seems that even then the place was ruined by tourist tat just a stone’s throw from the pyramids.

As a serious Christian, and by that I mean one who obviously knew the Bible well, Nichols was keen to visit Palestine – as it was then. There are some places which are probably best kept to the imagination though as almost all of the Biblical places were a disappointment. Jerusalem was basically an open sewer, so the smell was terrible.

This part of the book doesn’t have so much humour in it as he was obviously not impressed by the state of the place, but it’s the most interesting part and the saddest really when you consider that things have gone from bad to much worse for the Palestinians since 1936. At this time Jews were moving in to Palestine and setting up the first Kibbutz, financed by Americans I believe, and he did visit one, but he was appalled by it. The thought of parents not being with their children in a normal family way was horrific to him, but the squalor of Zion Vale, and the fact that they didn’t seem to realise that it was hellish, but were in fact very proud of it, was a mystery to him. Where had all the money which had been poured into it gone?

Anyway, I think this book is out of print and probably quite difficult to get a hold of, which is a shame because it’s an interesting, and at times funny read. At the end of it he has to get home to his garden because he doesn’t want to miss his daffodils blooming. It’s a common experience of keen gardeners, especially at the time of year when new things are popping up every day – if the weather is half decent – why would you ever want to leave your garden?!

Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse

This is the third book which I’ve read recently about life at Blandings Castle and I did find it enjoyable although it didn’t have me laughing out loud as much as the first one did – Something Fresh.

It’s mainly about Gally, who I must admit is a great character, he’s Lord Emsworth’s younger brother and in his younger days he got up to all sorts of high jinks, such as only those in so-called ‘high society’ could. He has been writing his memoirs which are full of scurrilous stories involving people in respectable positions now, and although he had sold them to Lord Tilbury (a publisher) he has thought better of it and decided to destroy them. Lord Tilbury is determined to get his hands on the manscript though as he knows he would make a mint from their publication.

Meanwhile all is not well in the romance stakes where the young people are concerned, mainly because Ronnie is determined to marry a chorus girl called Sue but Lady Julia and Lady Constance are determined that he will not marry her.

And then there’s the Empress of Blandings, a magnificent pig who only cares about eating – as pigs do.

Silliness reigns in these books – but sometimes that just hits the spot.

Young Men In Spats by P.G. Wodehouse

Young Men in Spats cover

It’s such a long time since I read anything by P.G.Wodehouse, but I bought this lovely hardback at a National Trust booksale recently and although I have loads of books waiting in a queue to be read, this one jumped to the front because I was just in need of something really light and cheery.

It’s a book of short stories and I suppose you could say that the subject of most of them is cherche la femme as they’re all about young men trying to win the attention of bright young things.

They young men are all members of the Drones Club and most of the stories feature Freddie Widgeon, Wodehouse was economical about the other characters, most of whom are categorized as Beans, Crumpets or Eggs. The later stories feature a Pint of Bitter, a Small Bass, a Light Lager – you get the idea I’m sure. So there’s a lot of: A Crumpet said to a Bean…. And it was this mode of writing which made me stop and think – what does this remind me of and of course it was Damon Runyon‘s Tales on Broadway.

Do I hear you say That’s absurd? Fair enough, after all on the surface the only similarities are that they are both books of short stories. They’re set in different continents, the characters are from very different backgrounds but there’s the same sparkling wit, stupid men, fearsome as well as delectable women and lots of fun.

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

This is a quick read at 216 pages. It’s another of Grandad’s old Penguins from 1953 but it was first published in 1928.

I realised quite late on in this book that I’ve been reading Evelyn Waugh’s books completely out of order. I’m sure that Scoop has the character Lady Metroland in it and in this book Margot marries Lord Metroland. I should have read this one first.

Anyway, it begins in Oxford on the night of the Bollinger Club’s annual dinner, it’s a time of stress for those in authority as the filthy rich members of the exclusive club always cause mayhem in the town.

Paul Pennyfeather is a serious young student, studying to become a vicar, but when he runs into a group of drunken Bollinger toffs on his way home, the result is that he ends up being ‘sent down’ and his future is in ruins.

He ends up having to take a job as a schoolmaster in a very bad boarding school at a time when the only qualification that you seemed to need to get a job like that was to have been educated at a public school yourself.

I found it very amusing, if a bit too close to the truth in parts, because it does seem that even nowadays you can get away with an awful lot if you go to certain schools and know the right people. The whole Bollinger Club thing is obviously modelled on the Bullingdon Club – which our dear, dear leaders (and I don’t think!) Cameron and Osborne attended.

It was interested to see Evelyn Waugh mentioned quite a lot in the Mitford letters. He was regarded as a complete drunk and a shameless social climber. One of the sisters mentioned that you could track his ascent by the people that he had dedicated his books to. This one is decicated to Harold Acton, apparently he reached a pinnacle when he dedicated a much later book to Deborah (Mitford) Devonshire. Annoyingly I’ve packed his other books away already so I can’t check out his social progress. He was a dreadful snob but he was also a good writer. I don’t think I would have wanted him as a dinner guest though, not that he would ever have lowered himself to come.

Cheerfulness Breaks In by Angela Thirkell

I needed another trip with Angela Thirkell down Barsetshire way and I thought this book would hit the spot, and it did. First published in 1940, the Second World War is just beginning to change everybody’s lives with lots of the young men joining the various armed forces and the ones not in uniform feeling guilty for having reserved occupations which are keeping them safe from harm for the moment.

Rose Birkett, the beautiful but dim daughter of the headmaster of Southbridge School, is swanning down the church aisle at last, after several failed engagements which had driven her parents mad with worry and has caused mayhem within the school as she worked her way through the junior masters. At last they are going to get rid of her. Rose has met her match in the Royal Navy, in the shape of Lieutenant Fairweather, who seems to be able to take command of Rose and navigates her through her foul and dispiriting experiences unperturbed.

As usual there are quite a few romantic matches before the end of the book, some of them amazingly hasty but such was life at that time as young folks ‘carpe diemed’ like crazy in case there was no tomorrow for them.

The villages are inundated with cockney children who have been evacuated there along with their colonies of head lice!

Even in 1940 the East European refugees were obviously an annoyance to the locals, which makes it seem quite up to date, given the recent changes in Britain’s demographics and the large amounts of Poles/Lithuanians and the like which now make up part of our population.

As it says on the cover – England is on the brink of war, but the people of rural Barsetshire are not down-hearted.

There’s plenty of humour as well as romance. The only complaint I have is that the book does end very abruptly. In fact the last chapter is called – story without an end. It left me feeling that I wanted to go on and read the next Thirkell book immediately but, I don’t have that one – typical, I have about five of her later books. I’m going to have to buy Northbridge Rectory.