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 Courts of Idleness by Dornford Yates

The Courts of Idleness cover

The Courts of Idleness by Dornford Yates is a collection of short stories originally published in 1920 but my copy is a reprint from 2008. The author’s real name was William Mercer but he chose to use both his grandmothers’ maiden names as his pseudonym. Writing was obviously in his blood as his elder cousin was Hector Hugh Munro, better known as Saki.

I enjoyed these stories which are similar to Wodehouse in that the characters are ‘bright young things’ all such fun and silliness, but every now and again there’s a teeny reference to the men’s previous experiences as officers at the front during World War 1. To me they bubble with the near hysterical personality of survivors. It’s authentic too as Dornford Yates was a Second Lieutenant in the London Yeomanry.

There are five short stories which are mainly fun, interrupted by a wartime ‘Interlude’ which is anything but fun, then another six short stories of the amusing silliness, verging on the sort of thing that I remember from sketches in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The stories are linked as the characters travel from Madeira to Macedonia.

One story called As Rome Does begins: Solemnly we regarded the Colosseum. “Reminds me of the Albert Hall with the lid off,” said Berry. “But it does want doing up. Glad I haven’t got it on a full repairing lease.”

“Is anything sacred to you?” demanded Daphne.

“Yes” said her husband. “My appetite. That is why I venture for the second time to suggest that we should leave this relic of barbarity without delay, Besides, it revives painful memories.”

“When were you here before?” said Jonah.

“In a previous existence. Joan of Arc was by no means my first incarnation. In AD 77 I was a comic gladiator. Used to fight with gorgonzolas which had been previously maddened by having Schiller read to them in the original tongue. They used to call me ‘Sticking Plaster,’ because I was always coming off.”

The blurb on the back says: ‘Mr Yates can be recommended to anyone who thinks the British take themselves too seriously’ PUNCH.

I’ll read more by Dornford Yates whose books seemed to haunt me for a long time as there were shelves full of them wherever I went, but I knew nothing about him then – they all disappeared for ages before some surfaced again in my recent trip to Edinburgh bookshops with Jenny and Celia.

Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith

 Fatty O'Leary's Dinner Party cover

Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith is a very quick read at just 174 pages of fairly big print, so it’s ideal for taking with you to the beach (if you’re that way inclined, I’m not) or to a hospital appointment or bus trip, as it’s not something you have to concentrate on, it’s a piece of light entertainment.

Fatty O’Leary lives in Arkansas with his wife Betty, they’re very happy, were childhood sweethearts and can honestly say that they never argue. They’re really very contented, but Betty wants to surprise Fatty with a birthday present of tickets to Ireland to visit his roots. It’ll be the trip of a lifetime for them.

Unfortunately things go badly for Fatty from the very beginning when their flight has been overbooked and they are looking for someone to volunteer to miss the flight and go on a later one. When no volunteer comes forward it’s suggested that Fatty should be bounced off the flight due to him being rather overweight. Poor Fatty, he’s mortified and when he does get to Ireland he discovers that his case is missing so he has no clothes and he can’t find anything to fit him in Ireland.

The whole thing is a complete disaster with Fatty and Betty left feeling they have been very poorly treated by the Irish as they suffer one indignity after another and so they opt to go home early.

This has some hilarious situations in it, it’s a bit of a hoot in a completely silly way and although on the surface it might be viewed as being ‘fattist’ it isn’t really and eventually has a happy ending.

I had a cheeky wee keek at Goodreads to see what other people thought of this book and I think it really depends on how much of a sense of humour folks have. It is supposed to be very tongue in cheek I’m sure but the negative comments made me laugh almost as much as the book did. One reader said that – as Fatty was an antique dealer he couldn’t be that stupid as they were sure you had to have qualifications for that job. Really! Well it made me laugh my socks off.

This one counts towards the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

I am left wondering how Alexander McCall Smith finds the time to write so many books, maybe he has managed to clone himself!

The McFlannels see it through by Helen W. Pryde

The ‘it’ which the McFlannels are seeing through in this the second book in the series, is of course World War 2. The McFlannels are all doing their bit as is everyone living up the same close in Glasgow. Mr McMuslin is an Air Raid Precaution Warden (put that light out!) and is fairly enjoying himself trying to organise his neighbours. Sarah McFlannel is really only interested in seeing the inside of the McMuslin flat though and when he implies that she can’t take part in the fire watching (looking out for fires caused by bombs) because you have to be under 60, Sarah is incensed, she’s not much older than 50.

The book is full of laughs although as they’re in broad Glaswegian – especially when it’s Willie McFlannel speaking – I’m not sure how well it will go down with non Glaswegians. For me though it brings back so many phrases that I had just forgotten about, and I love the relationship between Willie and Sarah McFlannel. Their children are almost off their hands now, but Willie is still always looking for a ‘wee cheeper’ (a kiss) from Sarah, and Sarah is always being shown up by her husband’s broad Glaswegian accent. Long may it live!

In this one Willie ends up in hospital, having had an accident at work. He keeps dropping in and out of consciousness and one woman says:” Ah mind when Ah had ma operation for ma perspirated stummuck, there wis a wumman in the next bed that was aye drappin’ intae unconsciousness like that, and she was deid in hauf an hoor.” Poor Sarah isn’t amused.

There are quite a few books in this series but the first two have hit the mark with me because the first one was all about the McFlannels flitting and moving up the housing ladder, just as we were arranging our flitting. At the end of The McFlannels see it through they are thinking about downsizing as the kids have grown up, we followed the same pattern as I was reading the books. I wonder what will happen in the next one.

Whatever, I’m sure that there will still be a rivalry between Mrs McFlannel and Mrs McCotton, it’s what’s keeping them going!

I read this one as part of the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys

This book is subtitled: More News from the Home Front 1942-45.

Obviously it’s a continuation of Henrietta’s War, and is every bit as good as that book. Joyce Dennys said that she didn’t know where Henrietta ended and she began. As Joyce was a doctor’s wife herself and living in the West Country she was really just embroidering her experiences, and as they were all so unusual in wartime she probably didn’t have to do too much embroidering.

In amongst the humour there is the odd bit of serious observation, sometimes explained by footnotes. One is about the up and coming White Paper which the government was preparing on the proposed formation of the NHS. In Henrietta’s April 19, 1944 letter to her friend Robert she tells him of a conversation about it which her husband has with his friend, Doctor Rival.

It makes you think, and I must admit that it makes me feel proud that whilst they were still busy fighting World War II they also had time and the inclination to set up the National Health Service. We were up to our eyeballs in debt, the financial debt to the Americans was only just payed off a few years ago, it took us about 60 years to do that. But they still managed to do it, and this crowd of politicians that we have in at the moment are doing their best to get rid of the NHS. Shame on them!

Anyway, back to the book. Spookily, the May 16th, 1945 letter to Robert reports that it is snowing, just as it was today in the west of England, so the weather wasn’t any better then. In this book Henrietta reveals herself to be a booklover and when there is a Red Cross campaign for book donations she has a difficult time of it, which books can she part with? She gets out her copy of The Princess and Curdie, but then thinks again as she might need it for future grandchildren. She sometimes wakes in the night, in anguish over the books which she has lent to people over the years – never to see the people or books again! We probably all know how that feels!

I was really sorry when the book came to an end, especially as she doesn’t seem to have written anything else in a similar vein. I enjoyed being part of Henrietta’s world, but it struck me that in reality the end of the war was a brief joy for a lot of people, then after the celebrations they were bereft because they knew that everything was going to be changing and terrible as it may seem, the war was the best time of many peoples’ lives. They felt useful, they all had a common enemy and there was always so much going on, organising to be done and fund raising for Spitfires and such. Joyce Dennys seems to have captured the atmosphere of her times in an amusing way, which obviously went down well with Sketch readers during the long hostilities. Another hoot and a comfort read, perfect for when your brain feels more akin to spaghetti than grey matter!

Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys

Well, I don’t know who to thank for pointing me in the direction of Joyce Dennys, but it was definitely a blogger, not that that helps much.

Joyce Dennys was a doctor’s wife who wrote comical articles for Sketch, and she illustrated them with cartoons. Her first article went down so well that she was asked to contribute regularly.

Her character Henrietta is really a thinly veiled version of Joyce herself, as she admitted she sometimes didn’t know where one ended and the other began.

The articles are all in the form of letters from Henrietta to her old schoolfriend Robert, who is doing something in the army – somewhere. Bloomsbury has reprinted them and I have to say that they are a hoot and must have fairly cheered up people in desperate times.

The usual wartime themes of rationing, and queueing, a lack of elastic and clothes in general are to the fore as you would expect. The small town in the west country, near Exeter, where Henrietta and her husband Dr Brown live, is inundated with evacuees and soldiery and it’s all jolly good fun! However, there is a serious side now and again, such as the complaint that women who were caught up in bombing raids and lost legs or whatever were given less compensation than a man with the same injuries. Mind you, it was news to me that anyone got compensation at all, I thought it was just put down to tough luck and there’s a war on you know!

You can see some of her cartoons and illustrations here.

And there’s more of her work on the BBC Paintings site here.

Blotto,Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess by Simon Brett

This was a random choice from the library and the dedication is to Louise who enjoys a good laugh, so I thought I’d give it a go. It was published in 2011 and is in the vintage crime style.

This book takes daftness to the extreme but it’s entertaining if you just want to read a light bit of fun. Ingredients-wise it’s a Christmas pudding of a book. Simon Brett has nicked bits of just about every vintage crime writer that you can think of.

Blotto and Twinks are a brother and sister amateur sleuthing team of the upper class toff variety. Blotto is the male and his character is along the lines of Captain Hastings from Agatha Christie with a smattering of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion mixed in. His sister Twinks is the one with the brains and she sounds at times like Sherlock Holmes although she also has a bit of Harriet Vane from Dorothy Sayers in her with her allusions to classical literature, although thankfully she steers clear of ancient Greek. This is another book where the action moves to Scotland and at that stage it all gets a wee bit John Buchan-ish.

When I tell you that Blotto manages to deal with as many as 20 armed men with only his cricket bat as a weapon you’ll realise that this book should be read only if you are happy to take it with your tongue stuck firmly in your cheek. There are plenty bits of humorous social comment too.

I ended up enjoying it, but then I do have a cricket bat which lives in a corner of my bedroom within easy reach of my side of the bed. It has been there for 24 years and so far I haven’t had to use it – but if I ever do hear an intruder coming up the stairs during the night I’m ready to lean over the banisters and give them a good old whack with it!

Miss Bunting by Angela Thirkell

I got this one from Ebay and it’s an original from 1946, I think this is one of the easier Thirkells to get a hold of.

As you would expect it reflects the times it was written in and the characters are all involved with war work and coping with rationing, coupons and black out material.

Miss Bunting, the governess who has been part of the household in many of the better establishments of the county, is helping out with Lady Fielding’s daughter Anne who is deemed to be to delicate to go to the now over-crowded local school.

Although the book is titled Miss Bunting, a large part of it is about the nouveau riche and boorish Sam Adams and his daughter Heather and how they fit into the area.

This is the third Angela Thirkell book which I’ve read and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but this one is by far the one which has most references to things that I think a lot of people nowadays might have difficulty with. There’s quite a lot about politics in it with the then chancellor of the exchequer coming in for abuse, amongst others. The government is always called ‘They’ and it’s as if they have taken over from the Nazis as the big enemy to be dealt with. This must be because the government elected immediately after the war was Labour and the upper classes would have been dead against them.

In fact, there are people who are hankering after the good old days of the war and looking back to the time when the local aristocracy could become a member of parliament for the price of some cakes and ale! But throughout it all Miss Bunting has a recurring nightmare that all of her former pupils are being killed in the war, so many of them already have been, so there are dark moments as well as light-heartedness.

Angela Thirkell used some of the descendants of main characters from Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire and Palliser books in her books, in some of them they are barely mentioned but the 1940s Duke of Omnium and various others crop up quite a bit in Miss Bunting. There’s still plenty of humour in the shape of Gradka, a Mixo-Lydian refugee who runs Hallbury, Fieldings’ home. One ‘joke’ which runs most of the way through the book depends on people mistaking the Italian word ‘loggia’ for the English word ‘lodger’ and I nearly didn’t get that because you have to read it with an English accent!