The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

I can hardly believe it myself but this is the first thing by the Scottish author Muriel Spark which I’ve ever read. I suppose at just over 90 pages it should be called a novella, it’s certainly a very quick read as well as an enjoyable one so I’ll definitely be working my way through the rest of Spark’s books.

It’s set in London in 1945 between VE Day in May and VJ Day in August and the war in Europe has just come to an end but of course the war in the Far East is still ongoing. Muriel Spark seems to have captured the atmosphere of the time with everyone being obsessed with ration books and not even being able to get any soap. All of the girls borrow a Schiaparelli evening dress which one of them inherited from a wealthy aunt, except Jane who can’t fit into it.

London is a mess with bomb sites everywhere and the May of Teck Club which stood opposite the Albert Memorial has avoided a direct hit but three times all the windows had been shattered when bombs fell nearby.

The May of Teck Club exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.

There are over 40 women living at the club which is just a genteel hostel with the youngest ones living in dormitories and the older ones having bedrooms, but love, money and marriage are the main things on their minds. They’ve survived when so many of their men friends didn’t.

Joanne, a vicar’s daughter, gives elocution lessons to young pupils within the premises so the book is scattered with the poetry which they have to recite. But there’s also Selina who is not quite right in the head and is under the impression that she’s in a relationship with the famous Jack Buchanan.

There’s lots going on and at one point I found that I had to get a tape measure to measure my hips! Anyway, this was one from my 2011 Reading List, and I really enjoyed it. I don’t know what to read by Spark next though because I don’t think that there’s much point in reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie because I’ve seen so many films and dramatizations of it.

Ian Rankin’s Reichenbach Falls

Late last night I watched Reichenbach Falls which had apparently been on before but I had missed it. At first I thought this was going to be another Rebus investigation but it was far more convoluted than anything in the Rebus series. I really enjoyed it and it wasn’t just a bog-standard crime investigation. I suppose it is a dark tale, but it also shows the beautiful architecture and scenery around Edinburgh, and the film can be enjoyed for that aspect alone. I think it will be of interest to anyone thinking of going there for a visit.

The film maker has really shown what I think of as the hidden Edinburgh at the Water of Leith and St Bernard’s Well, which I didn’t even know existed until recently. At times it was like an advert for Tourism Scotland and was very easy on the eyes. It did go from ‘the sublime to the cor blimey’ but that’s the old Scottish split personality, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jekyll and Hyde thing.

Rankin threw in plenty of other Scottish writers one way or another and Richard Wilson played the part of Arthur Conan Doyle.

I’m hoping that the above link is available for people outside the UK to view. Otherwise it might be available on Netflix.

Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

Sartor Resartus cover

Stefanie at So Many Books got me thinking that I should read this book.
This is the first thing that I’ve ever read by Thomas Carlyle, which is a bit shameful really considering he lived and taught a stone’s throw from where I live. I had always thought that his writing would be very dry and boring, he sounded like one of those old Scots curmudgeons to me, but I was pleasantly surprised. There’s a lot of humour in Sartor Resartus which is apparently his protest against Materialism, and it only occasionally descends into thou-ing and thee-ing, which I can’t really be doing with. The title means ‘the tailor patched or remade’ and although it’s written about Professor Diogenes Teufelsdrockh (which translates as god-made devil-dung) a German from the University of Weisnichtwo who has written a Philosophy on Clothes with Carlyle as his editor or patcher, introducing Teufelsdrockh’s work to the British public. In reality Teufelsdrockh’s experiences are Carlyle’s.

Carlyle was born in the very small village of Ecclefechan in the south of Scotland and having been there to see his birthplace I can see why he wanted to leave, there’s just nothing there and in fact the name of the place sounds strange even to Scots. I can imagine that when he told people where he came from, nobody actually knew where it was, which is why he gave Teufelsdrockh’s town the name of Weissnichtwo, which translates as Know not where. That’s my theory anyway but Wikipedia doesn’t agree with me.

Although this book was written in 1832 it’s amazing, and sometimes quite depressing how little some things have changed. On page 93 he writes: His first Law-Examination he has come through triumphantly; and can even boast that the Examen Rigorosum need not have frightened him: but though he is hereby an Auscultator of respectability, what avails it? There is next to no employment to be had.

This was obviously Carlyle’s experience and the reason why he ended up teaching in Kirkcaldy which he managed to stick out for just a few years, which isn’t surprising as he wrote this:
Among eleven-hundred Christian youths, there will not be wanting some eleven eager to learn. Which is presumably why, like many a Scot before him, he left Scotland to find fame and fortune in London.

Okay, so I admit it, I haven’t quoted any funny bits, but they are there, honestly. One thing that really annoyed me about the book is the use of the word English, which is often used when the word should be British or even Scottish. This must have been an editor re-writing Carlyle as no Scotsman would have done it. The author Smollet is even described as English! Or was it Carlyle posing as an English editor? Who knows. The structure of the book is multi-layered, but if Carlyle did mean to write English when it should have been British or Scottish – then he took it too far.

Apparently Dwight Eisenhower kept a copy of this book with him from 1942-1945 while commander of AEF and noted ‘It is a wise man who has read this masterpiece and acts upon its call.’ Adolf Hitler was reading Carlyle’s biography of Frederick the Great in 1945. Carlyle’s distaste of democracy and his belief in charismatic leadership obviously appealed to Hitler. Well nobody’s perfect!

The powers that be in the shape of ‘the toon cooncil’ demolished the building which was the school that Carlyle taught in, and replaced it with a 1970s horror. So the only thing which I could photograph is the other side of the street, which they daren’t pull down as it is The Old Kirk and this is the street which Carlyle would have walked down every day on his way to work, and the view which he would have had from his classroom window.

R.L. Stevenson’s House, Edinburgh

As we were passing this house on the way to St. Giles on Saturday, I thought I would take a photograph of it.

Thomas Stevenson built this house in 1803 at Baxter’s Place, at the bottom of Calton Hill in Edinburgh and just a stone’s throw away from Princes Street. The Stevensons were famous as a family of engineers and lighthouse builders before the author Robert Louis was born into it.

The building was used as a place of work with a separate flat for the family, so this is where R.L. was brought up and as you can see, the windows are boarded up. It has been like that for years and nothing seems to be being done to it.

I can’t help thinking that Edinburgh Council has missed a great opportunity to turn this house into a Stevenson museum, as happens in other towns.

We have museums all over the place which are attracting thousands of visitors, even when they are in out of the way places such as Haworth (Bronte) and Kirriemuir (J.M. Barrie). Even Paul McCartney’s childhood home has been turned into a museum.

Unfortunately the top parts of the Georgian building have been sold off seperately and seem to be being lived in by people now, although there is a broken window, maybe squatters have moved in. So I think they’ve missed the chance to put it all back as it originally was. If the flats ever come up for sale they will be so expensive given the price of any property in Edinburgh but especially Georgian townhouses, the council would never pay out the money required.

I can’t understand why the basement and first floor have been left vacant and unloved for years though. It’s a mystery.

Ravenscraig Castle

I went to school with a girl called Rosabelle a very long time ago in the west of Scotland and I had never heard of anyone else with that name until quite recently when I came across the poem Rosabelle which was written by Sir Walter Scott.

When I read it I realised that he had written it about a local lass, the daughter of the Saint Clair (Sinclair) family who owned Ravenscraig Castle, the remains of which are situated about a mile from the esplanade in Kirkcaldy. For some reason Scott changed the name to Ravensheuch.

Ravenscraig Castle from path.

Ravenscraig Castle from beach.

It has seen better days. Unfortunately the locals have used the building as a handy place to gather stone from for whatever they wanted to build in the past. But if you find yourself in that part of Fife it is worthwhile stopping to take a look at what is left. You can park your car at Ravenscraig Park, the castle is on the edge of it.