Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times

For this week’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme which is hosted by Judith at Reader in the Wilderness I’ve chosen some much older books.

The photo below is of a couple of my shelves for Scottish books. These ones are all of fairly ancient titles, but ones that I have loved reading in the past and will never get rid of.


I went through a phase of reading J.M. Barrie’s books, it’s probably about 15 or 20 years ago now. Hardly anyone reads his work nowadays, beyond Peter Pan which is such a shame. In his day he was incredibly successful with his novels and his plays were wildly popular in the theatre. I particularly loved his The Little Minister, Tommy and Grizel and Sentimental Tommy.

John Buchan wrote a lot more books than The Thirty Nine Steps, I have just a few of them really. I haven’t read all of these ones yet, but Greenmantle is my favourite so far.

A.J Cronin was a local GP in Dumbarton where I grew up, although at some point he gave that up to concentrate on his very successful writing career – and moved to Switzerland, probably for tax reasons. But he still supported the local football team. Possibly his best known book is The Spanish Gardener which was made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde. It’s well worth watching too.

O. Douglas who was also known as Anna Buchan was John Buchan’s sister. Her books are real comfort reads, a step back to what seemed to be a simpler time, on the surface anyway. Like many Scottish female novelists she often writes about the making of a home and there’s usually a group of children to be loved by someone who isn’t a mother, but becomes a mother figure. One little boy is usually absolutely adored. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a real pity that Anna Buchan never married and had children, but she wrote her own families, which might have been some solace I suppose.

These authors are all well worth reading and Anna Buchan, John Buchan and J.M. Barrie’s books are available on Project Gutenberg, it’s strange that Cronin’s aren’t, but maybe they are still in copyright.

Kirriemuir, Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie

As I said a while ago, we drove north up to Kirriemur in the county of Angus in the last week of our holidays. We’ve visited the wee red sandstone town a few times in the past when our boys were wee and reading them Peter Pan kicked off an interest in J.M. Barrie’s writing in general. This whitewashed building is the ‘tenement’ which the Barrie family lived in, upstairs on the right hand side. He was actually born in this building. They had what is called in Scotland a room and kitchen. The kitchen is a largish room with a cooking range of some sort and usually what is called a bed recess, which is an alcove designed to fit a box bed into. Probably all the kids in a family would have slept in that bed. Today a kitchen like that would be described as a ‘family room’ as it was multi functional. The ‘room’ usually had a bed recess too and the parents slept in that one. Sometimes the ‘room’ doubled up as a sort of parlour during the day. There were eight children in the Barrie family and what with all of them and the noise of the weaving looms, it must have been a bit of a nightmarish existence.

J.M. Barrie's home from street

The ground floor of the building was taken up by a huge weaving loom as Barrie’s father was a weaver, at least he didn’t have far to travel to his work! This photo is actually of the back of the building.

J.M. Barrie's childhood homedoor 2

Opposite the doorway is the washhouse which would have been shared with neighbours I think. This wee building was the inspiration for the Wendy house in Peter Pan. It doubled up as a play house for the children in the area.

washhouse in Kirriemuir

The photo below is fuzzy but you can see that inside the washhouse there was a boiler in the right hand corner, to heat up the water. It still has some of the wash necessities of the day. I can actually remember using a wash board when I was young – and I wasn’t in a skiffle group!

a washhouse interior

This Peter Pan statue is fairly new to the town.

Peter Pan statue

Not one but TWO clocks in the town square. Have you noticed that when I take photos of places it always seems to be about 4 o’clock, we never seem to be able to get out of the house until after lunchtime! I used to blame the kids for this but I don’t have that excuse now!

Kirriemuir town square

Kirriemuir is quite unusual as it was built mainly with red sandstone. It’s a very small, quiet town but in the past it has been heaving with trouble. Some of those cobble stones have been dug up and hurled through windows during times of strikes by weavers when there were mobs in the streets. It was all before Barrie’s time but he got the stories from his mother and used them in his novels.

a street in Kirriemuir.

Kirriemuir is very old fashioned as you can see and to me it feels quite remote from everything. The inhabitants probably do most of their shopping in Dundee or even Aberdeen. It does have small independently owned shops though like a sweetie shop which from the smell of it makes the sweets on the property. I stopped myself from going in though, due to being on a healthy eating kick but we couldn’t get past the ice-cream shop – it was worth it, very good!

Barrie often went back to Kirriemuir and took friends with him too. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote that he was sure that the folks of Kirriemuir had no idea that Barrie was really famous in London. I suspect though that it was just that they didn’t want to make too much fuss of him, in case he got a big head. He may have come from humble beginnings but he ended up being very wealthy and famous. When he wrote Peter Pan he didn’t need the money so he donated all of his royalties to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and they still benefit from the royalties despite the fact that it’s more than 75 years since the book was written.

Although nowadays Barrie only seems to be remembered as the author of Peter Pan he was also an incredibly successful playwright. I suppose the best known of them is The Admirable Crichton and he also wrote novels. Luckily Project Gutenberg has quite a lot for free download here. The Little Minister is a good place to start if you want to read some of his novels.

If you’re interested in finding out more about J.M.B then you might want to try to get a hold of The Story of J.M.B by Denis Mackail. Published in 1941, it’s a very good read and as Mackail was Barrie’s godson, he obviously knew him well. In fact quite a few of Barrie’s godchildren became authors. Angela Thirkell was Mackail’s sister and of course there’s the du Maurier connection too.

Glamis Castle grounds

The long driveway which leads to Glamis Castle is flanked by fields of cattle, if you have to be a cow this is one of the best places to be one I think. Good grass, lovely trees to hide from the sun, when we get it, not a bad life – for a while anyway.

cows at Glamis Castle, Angus, Scotland

This fountain is just beyond the field of cows and if you’re in the castle you would be looking out on to it from the front windows, unfortunately it wasn’t up and running, which is a pity because I love fountains and for some reason there aren’t enough of them in Britain. Nice trees though, the whole area is well planted tree wise. As you can see from the blue rope there was some sort of festival going on at Glamis and they were busy preparing the grounds for it.

A fountain at Glamis Castle

Going beyond the castle you come to this dinky wee bridge which I just had to have a look at, bridges being something else I’m keen on. We never did find out what was over the bridge as you can see you aren’t meant to go over it. There were a few cars coming over it in the other direction, belonging to the Strathmore family I suppose.

Stone bridge at Glamis Castle, Angus, Scotland

These two statues are of Stuart kings. This one is James VI of Scotland – he was Mary, Queen of Scots’ son and when Elizabeth I of England died with no heir, he was next in line for the English throne. He’s known as James I in England and he is probably best known nowadays as the man who had the bible translated into English – hence it being known as the King James bible.

King James VI of Scotland

This one is King Charles I (Stuart)

King Charles I

He was a bit ‘thrawn’ as we say and his determination to hold on to all of his power led to him having his head chopped off which more or less ended the English Civil War (which actually spread all over Britain.) It was about fifteen years later the Restoration brought his son, Charles II, back as king.

Captain Hook from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is traditionally modelled on Charles I.

Hard Winters, the Tories and Narnia

I bet you don’t think that the three things in the title have anything in common, but they do, well I think they do.

I caught the back end of one of the Narnia episodes which were on TV during the Christmas holidays, it was the wicked queen doing her stuff. We used to be steeped in Narnia here as Gordon my youngest son was obsessed with the books and videos at one point. It always reminded me of the winters of 1979/80/81 which were terribly cold, worse than anything that I had ever experienced before.

When we moved down to Essex the diesel in the removal lorry’s tank froze and the men had to light a fire underneath it to thaw it out, scary stuff. This all coincided with the Conservative party getting into power – in the shape of the dreaded and evil Maggie Thatcher. So you can see why she reminds me of the wicked witch – and vice versa. Evil was stalking the land and so freezing cold winters came along to torment us, just as in Narnia when evil had the upper-hand.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the same thing has happened again as we now have the self-confessed ‘sons of Margaret Thatcher’ at the helm. As before, the freezing winter came just before the Tories got into power, when evil was gaining strength. I predict that as we are in the middle of our second freezing winter on the trot, we’ll probably have another one next year too. I blame all those Old Etonian millionaires. But I’m also reminded of Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes. Prime Minister Cameron and all his Old Etonian pals in the Cabinet are just exactly like the dastardly Flashman and his chums, except that was set at Rugby. I suppose one English public school bunch is much the same as another.

When J.M. Barrie decided to make his Peter Pan character Captain Hook an evil Old Etonian he obviously knew exactly what he was doing. But I cheer myself up by remembering what was in store for Captain Hook!


Classic Children’s Literature

I’ve made a bit of a study of classic children’s literature over the years and although I don’t count myself an expert on the subject, I felt I just had to write to The Guardian Review about last week’s article by A.S. Byatt.

So I was really pleased to see that they had actually published the letter yesterday and illustrated it with a cartoon.

Letters section of Guardian Review 6/3/10

For some reason the Review letters aren’t on the website so I can’t link to them. I took a photo of the page instead. Here’s a close-up of my letter and their cartoon which was by Tom Gauld.

In general it was quite a good article but I do think that Byatt might have made some mention of the fact that so many of the authors she mentioned were actually Scottish.

I find that people from England tend to take it for granted that the great children’s classics were written by English writers. However, J.M. Barrie, George MacDonald, R.L. Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne were all Scottish. In the case of Milne, I believe he was born in England but brought up by Scottish parents and had a grandfather who was a church of Scotland minister. Just thought I’d mention it.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.
by J.M. Barrie.

I’m lucky enough to have my mother’s 1925 copy of this book, which has the lovely Arthur Rackham illustrations. Obviously this book comes under the category of a book from childhood but I’ve read it a few times since then and I always enjoy it. It is the very beginning of the Peter Pan story and is actually the middle section of The Little White Bird which was published before Peter Pan and Wendy.

The book starts with The Grand Tour of the Gardens, in which the gardens and some of the characters to be found there are described. Sexism is rife as you would expect from something written so long ago and by a Scottish man, but it is all quite tongue in cheek.

J.M. Barrie had a wonderful, fantastical imagination and a beautiful way with words.

Babies were birds before they were human and have to think hard to remember the time when they could fly.

Peter Pan escapes from being human by flying from the nursery window ledge when he is only 7 days old and flies to Kensington Gardens.

He knows that it must be past lock-out time as the place is full of fairies who are too busy to notice him. When he meets with Solomon Caw after flying to the island in the middle of The Serpentine he realises that he has lost faith in his ability to fly and so is stuck on the island. Solomon declares him to be a Betwixt-and-Between.

Although he is happy on the island for a while, he misses being able to play the way children do and begins to plan how he can escape from the island. Eventually he pays the thrushes to build him a nest big enough for him to fit into and he sails over to the gardens again, but he can only leave the island at night after the park is closed.

The girl in this book is called Maimie and when she is locked in the gardens overnight, the fairies build a little house around her so that she doesn’t die of the cold.

If you have read Peter Pan you might find it interesting to read the book which it developed from.

When Barrie was just 7 years old his 14 year old brother died in an ice skating accident and it is thought that this tragedy was what prompted Barrie to write about a boy who didn’t grow up.

J.M. Barrie is one of the few authors who made up a name for a character which became popular with parents. He came up with it because a wee girl of his acquaintance who couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘r’, described herself as his little ‘fwendy’.

You can visit the Barrie family home in Kirriemuir and the original Wendy house, which is the old wash house in the back garden. Kirriemuir is about 40 miles from where I live. It is quite a pretty small town which differs from most Scottish towns in that it was built from red sandstone instead of the usual grey.

When J.M. Barrie died in 1937, he chose to be buried in Kirriemuir with his family instead of in Poets Corner in London.

I reviewed this book as part of the Flashback Challenge.

Here is a video from 1937 showing some places of interest around Kirriemuir.

The Daft Days by Neil Munro

I was raking around in the attic the other day looking for a particular book which I didn’t find, but I did come across The Daft Days which I vaguely remember buying from a second-hand bookshop a while ago. It’s a favourite pastime of mine – haunting old bookshops but sadly there aren’t so many of them around nowadays.

Anyway, I hadn’t got around to reading it and decided to rectify the matter. In fact I had never read anything by Neil Munro before and I didn’t really know what to expect. I was very pleasantly surprised by the book.

It was written in 1907 and is the story of Lennox Dyce from Chicago who travels to Scotland to live with her aunts and an uncle after the death of her parents. The first surprise for the adults is the fact that Lennox is a girl as they had been expecting the arrival of a boy. Mind you I used to know a girl called Lennox, so it isn’t unknown. The girl goes by the name of Bud and turns out to be such an open, friendly and charming wee soul that she takes the small town by storm and is soon a great favourite with the townsfolk.

She goes on to change the lives of the inhabitants in various ways and also to broaden their outlook on life. Bud grows up to become an actress in London and is the pride of her Scottish home town. Quite a feat when you consider the narrow Presbyterianism which pervades the place.

It’s a long time since I read Anne of Green Gables but if I am remembering correctly, The Daft Days is a similar kind of story, only set in Scotland. It ‘s an enjoyable homely sort of a read, I suppose you could say that it is couthie.

I know that at one point there was a vogue for books set in Scotland and there was a group of authors known as ‘Kailyard’ writers and I think that this might come under that category. It must have been written around the time that J.M. Barrie was writing his Tommy and Grizel and The Little Minister sorts of books. It’s a pity that people only remember him for Peter Pan now as his other books are well worth reading.

So I’ll have to find some more Neil Munro books to try out. If you want to know more about him you should visit the Neil Munro Society.

I would really like to know why the cover of Gilian, the Dreamer is a self-portrait by Archibald Skirving, which I recognised immediately. In what way, if any, are the two connected?

Flashback Challenge

I’ve been reading about all these book challenges that are going on and thought that it was about time that I signed up for one myself. The Flashback Challenge seems like a great excuse to re-read ‘old friends’ and I’m really enthusiastic about it, so I’m planning to read 12 books again, one for each month of the year – and here they are.

Flashback Challenge books

As I’ve never participated in a book challenge before, I’m just presuming that the idea is you write a review in your blog. Anyway, that’s what I’ll be doing with these books, although not particularly in this order.

1. The Enchanted April – by Elizabeth von Arnim.
2. Lark Rise – Flora Thompson.
3. And Quiet Flows the Don- Mikhail Sholokhov.
4. The Fortunes of War – Olivia Manning.
5. Strong Poison – Dorothy L. Sayers.
6. The Railway Children – E. Nesbit.
7. The Golden Age – Gore Vidal
8. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee.
9. Scenes of Clerical Life – George Eliot
10. Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie.
11. Kidnapped – R.L. Stevenson.
12. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier.

I’m looking forward to it.