My Friend Muriel by Jane Duncan

My Friend Muriel  cover

My Friend Muriel by Jane Duncan is the second book in the author’s ‘My Friends’ series. It was first published in 1959, which was a very good year by the way! This one was a perfect read for these Covid-19 times, it’s a great light read with plenty of laughs. I took this book out to the garden to read on a glorious day last week and it grabbed me immediately. It’s a first person narrative with Jane Duncan – or Janet Sandison as she is in the book telling how she met her friend Muriel who is definitely a bit of an odd bod. It begins in 1930 when Janet was a student at the University of Glasgow and she was lodging with family friends in a village on Clydeside between Clydebank and Dumbarton, which just happens to be where I grew up (see my header photo – it’s Dumbarton). So I knew exactly where Jane was. On her commute to uni every morning she could see No 534 being built at John Brown’s shipyard, the ship was of course eventually named Queen Mary.

It’s just the wrong time to be graduating from uni as there was just about no chance of any graduates getting a job due to the Great Depression. Janet is faced with having to go back to her family home in the Highlands, but before that happens she is troubled for the first time in her life with toothache and while waiting in the dentist’s waiting room she peruses the magazines. An article titled Are You Lonely catches her eye and the upshot is that she writes off to a given address to get a pen friend from the writer of the article Mrs Whitely-Rollin. This eventually leads to an offer of work in England where Janet meets Muriel who pops up off and on throughout Janet’s life.

This book takes Janet from the age of 20 to her mid thirties so it includes WW2 when she joined the WAAF, working in the Operations Room and getting engaged from time to time as she was the only female there! There were lots of familiar situations in this book, for me anyway. There’s even a character called Alexander Alexander and you might think that is an unlikely name for anyone to be given, but I knew a man with that name, although he was called Sandy Eck by everyone – both of those being diminutives of Alexander.

The blurb on the front says: A riotous romp – moving, funny, fresh and alive. Second in a series that is making publishing history.

Back in 1959 this book cost all of 2/6 which if you aren’t old enough to remember pre decimal coinage is 12 and a half pence. It cost me all of £1.60 on our February trip up to Aberdeen (which must have been our last trip away from home) it was money well spent.

The Courts of Idleness by Dornford Yates #1920 Club

It’s the week of the 1920 Club and I thought I had read quite a few books published in 1920 but it turns out that since starting this blog I’ve only read one – The Courts of Idleness by Dornford Yates, you can read my thoughts on it here.

Oops I’ve just realised that Open the Door by Catherine Carswell was also published in 1920, you can read my thoughts here.

I’ve also read Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson, another 1920 book but apparently didn’t blog about it, that’s strange as I love that series.

A Rope – In Case by Lillian Beckwith

A Rope - In Case cover

A Rope In Case by Lillian Beckwith was first published in 1968. The setting is Bruach, a village in the Scottish Hebrides. The author who was an English woman who moved to the Hebrides and then started writing about the community and many of her neighbours which is always a bit dangerous. ‘Miss Peckwitt’ – as the locals called her – was told. ‘Always carry a rope – in case’. And whether it was for repairing a fence, tying up a boat or securing the roof of the local taxi, there was no denying the wisdom of it. And Miss Peckwitt soon discovers that her rope is indeed an invaluable piece of kit.

Bruach was a welcoming village and in this book there’s a new villager called Miss Parry, she’s another English woman who has taken over the house of the two spinsters nicknamed ‘the pilgrims’. Miss Parry is a keen knitter and enthusiastically begins to knit clothes for the villagers, but she doesn’t use patterns and the results are always unwearable, but that doesn’t put her off. The socks she knits are just long tubes with no heels in them, none of them match and she claims that as they are for the orphans they don’t need heels. Miss Peckwitt makes the mistake of complaining about her lack of a decent bra and the difficulty of buying one from a catalogue so Miss Parry arrives with half a dozen home made bras, made from an assortment of unsuitable materials such as tartan and Harris tweed – I can feel the itch just writing about them!

This book, like her previous three is an amusing glimpse back to a way of life that doesn’t exist now, life and death as it was in a Hebridean village in the 1960s. With plenty of quirky inhabitants, there’s never a dull moment.

Lillian Beckwith wrote seven books with Hebridean settings, but she ended up moving back to England when some of her neighbours took umbrage at being used so blatantly as copy for her books. There’s no denying though that they’re good if you’re in need of a laugh and this week I’m definitely in need of a laugh!

The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E.M. Delafield

I didn’t even realise that this book existed before I spotted it at the St Andrew’s and St George’s Edinburgh booksale. I really like the previous two books which I’ve read by E.M. Delafield, so I snapped this one up. My copy is an old one from 1940 but I believe this book has been reprinted fairly recently.

It’s the beginning of the war, the time when nothing much was happening so it was called ‘the phoney war’. Everyone seems to have been desperate to get into some kind of war work, to ‘do their bit’, and the Provincial Lady was no different. This is a commom theme in early Second World War era novels, whether the author is someone like Angela Thirkell or Evelyn Waugh.

Lots of people must have seen the whole thing as a way of getting out of their particular rut and making their life more exciting. For some of them it probably became too exciting but there’s no doubt that for loads of people it was the best experience of their lives and peacetime, when it eventually came was an anti climax.

Anyway, the Provincial Lady has abandoned home and hearth with her husband’s blessing and is in London looking for war work which will help in the war effort. But so far there is nothing for anyone to do, she pulls strings and has meetings with various government types but the best she can manage is a job in a canteen, making tea for people who are practising first aid and air raid duties.

She has to make her way back to her Devon home to sort out domestic problems (you can’t get the staff, you know). Evacuees and rumours are the staple and everyone seems to think that the German people are going to revolt and get rid of Hitler, another war is unthinkable to some, especially those who lost sons in the First World War, which seems so recent to them.

Yes, so far so deja vu-ish, I hear you say, but there’s plenty of humour too, as you would expect from the Provincial Lady, and my copy is illustrated with drawings of scenes and characters from the book.

Obviously writing a book like this was Delafield ‘doing her bit’ as books like this one must have been a real comfort to people in wartime.

I always feel a bit shuddery when reading books like this one though as at this time there had been no actual air raids and so no civilian casualties, or even military ones. By the time the book was published in 1940 the readers must have been quite nostalgic for that strange time in 1939 when hostilities hadn’t begun yet. It’s just as well they didn’t know what was in store for them.

The Duke’s Daughter by Angela Thirkell

After watching all the horrible things which have been happening in the news from all corners of the world, I was in dire need of some light-hearted reading to take my mind off it all. This book fitted the bill perfectly and although I sometimes had a bit of difficulty keeping all the characters straight in my mind, especially when people who featured in earlier books are mentioned, I still found it really enjoyable.

This book was first published in 1951 and the upper class inhabitants of the county of Barsetshire are still grumbling about Them – by which is meant the Labour government of the day which seemed to be spending all of its time thinking up ways to tax the supposedly wealthier members of the poulation. Death Duties are a big worry to those who have money and the rest of them would no doubt like to have the luxury of having so much money that they had to worry about how much was going to be paid over to the government on their death!

As ever Angela Thirkell has purloined bits from various classic authors, most notably Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen and set it in her own time.

In this one there are quite a few characters being paired up at the end, to everybody’s satisfaction, and some of the more ghastly characters are nicely snubbed. I’m reading these books as I find them so not always in the correct order which is a wee bit annoying but I intend to read them again when I get the full set. No doubt the news won’t be any better then, whenever that may be.

I found this book in an antique centre, very reasonably priced and it’s a first edition, not that I’m ever bothered with that, but it does have the original dust jacket, a bit tatty, but it has comments on the back from luminaries of the time, a couple of them I haven’t heard of but here are a few of the comments.

‘Grace, wit, equanimity and engaging narrative power… if the social historian of the future does not refer to this writer’s novels, he will not know his business.’ – Elizabeth Bowen.

‘Mrs Thirkell possesses to a high degree the gift of making characters spring to life. She is often both witty and shrewd… she has a most observant, and often an attractively wicked, eye.’- C.P. Snow

I’ll just add – Angela Thirkell is well worth reading!