Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons

Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons was published posthumously in 2016 which was 27 years after her death.

Juliet Slater has just left school at the beginning of the book, she has done really well in her A levels but her father has decreed that she must get a job instead of going to university. Even a letter from the headmaster can’t persuade him to change his decision.

But unknown to her parents Juliet had struck up a friendship with an elderly and wealthy spinster and she takes herself off to live with Mrs Pennecuick – ‘Aunt Addy’, packing a case full of maths and science books so that she can continue her studies in the large house which has a bevy of Spanish servants. As you can imagine Juliet’s intentions are suspected by just about everyone, especially as she’s a very strange character. Nowadays she would probably be described as being quite high on the Autistic or Asperger’s spectrum but neither of those words appear in the book. Juliet has no interest in anything but mathematics and becomes obsessed by coincidences. It’s a word that she has to look up in a dictionary, helped by a library assistant as Juliet’s knowledge of anything outside maths and science is scanty. She’s not interested in any relationships with people and isn’t even grateful for all the help she gets from Aunt Addy, but Addy’s great-nephew Frank sees Juliet as his project, he thinks she might be a genius, and over the years he attempts to help her further her studies and to make her less self-obsessed and a bit more ‘normal’.

I enjoyed this one despite Juliet being so strange and unlikeable. There were plenty of other characters whose company I did appreciate, but if you’re expecting another Cold Comfort Farm you might be disappointed, I remember so many laugh-out-loud moments in that one, but Pure Juliet is quite different. The ending was very abrupt though, almost as if the author just got fed up writing it.

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons was first published in 2016 by Vintage Classics – posthumously obviously – as the author died in 1989. If you’re expecting another book like the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm you might be disappointed as this one is very different, but I really enjoyed it.

It’s the early 1970s and Wilfred Davis is still bereft after the death of his wife six months previously, but almost worse than that is the behaviour of his teenage daughter Mary who has left home for the bright lights of London, about 70 miles from her family home in Torford, without so much as a cheerio. Mary just wants to find a husband and have three children called Max, Hugh and Cilla, she thinks that London is the place to meet her husband. Wilfred is overcome by sorrow while sitting on a park bench, his sobbing attracts the attention of a man who gives Wilfred a linen handkerchief.

So begins a strange friendship between Wilfred and the man who is called Lafcadio and the two women that he lives with in one of the yellow houses that Wilfred can see from his own home. The yellow house has a strange atmosphere and from conversations between Lafcadio, Miss Dollette and Mrs Cornforth it seems that the three of them might have somehow been sent to help Wilfred – or maybe not Mrs Cornforth, there’s something quite scarily tempting about her. All of Wilfred’s problems clear up and his daughter is soon back in touch with him, it really seems like his life is being orchestrated from on high.

I loved the 1970s, I know we aren’t supposed to but I’ve never been able to understand that, just think of all the great musical artists who came to the fore then, and are still around doing their thing nowadays (apart from Bowie sadly) and this book just oozes 1970s somehow. Yes I DO love flares!

In the book Mary manages to rent a grotty room in a poor part of London – Gospel Oak – an area I don’t recall ever having heard of before, but I was amused to hear on the radio recently that it’s deemed to be a very posh neighbourhood now.

This was one of those books that for me had a song running through it – The Beatles, She’s Leaving Home. It was written by Lennon and McCartney and I believe that they got the idea for the song from reading in the Daily Mirror about a teenager who had run away from home, but that was in 1967.

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons

 The Yellow House cover

When you see the name Stella Gibbons you immediately think of Cold Comfort Farm, well why wouldn’t you? it’s such a hilarious laugh out loud book. But she wrote so many others, it’s a shame that we all automatically judge everything against Cold Comfort, because her other books are well worth reading too.

Apparently when Gibbons died in 1989 she left behind two unpublished books, you can read about it here.

The Yellow Houses is one of them, she wrote it in the 1970s and it’s well worth reading, I really enjoyed it.

Wilfred is a retired local council official and living in Torford, a town about seventy miles from London in East Anglia, and when the story begins he has been a widower for just six months. He really misses Pat his wife but when their only child Mary runs away from home, leaving just a note saying she is going to London, Wilfred is absolutely bereft. Sobbing on a park bench he realises that someone is standing in front of him, offering him a handkerchief – and so begins his relationship with Mr Taverner, an odd chap who manages to make Wilfred feel better about things.

The next morning Wilfred notices that he can see a lovely newly painted yellow house from his window and it turns out that that is where Mr Taverner lives. When Wilfred gets inside the house it’s like everything that he could ever have wanted, it doesn’t say it in the book but from the description you know that it feels heavenly to Wilfred. Everything begins to get better for Wilfred and Mary gets in touch with him. Mary has only ever wanted to get married and have three children and really her reason for going to London is to give her a better chance of finding a husband. She’s only 17 and had still been at school, but she knows her own mind.

This book has quirky characters and a house where strange things happen – is it haunted? There’s also quite a lot of humour, although it isn’t of the laugh out loud variety. I liked the step back into the early 1970s when decimalisation had just been brought in and there were maxi as well as mini skirts and smelly afghan coats.

I gave it a four on Goodreads but I might have given it 3.5 if that had been possible, it’s definitely better than a three though.

Starlight by Stella Gibbons

Starlight by Stella Gibbons was first published in 1967. She is of course best known for writing Cold Comfort Farm which is a witty take off of popular romances which had a rural setting, more precisely those written by Mary Webb.

I’ve read the Cold Comfort books and a few others but I must admit that I had no idea that she had written so many others, and so far the ones I’ve read have each been quite different, although dogs have featured in the books I’ve read. She did write over quite a long period of time though so it’s unsurprising the settings would be different. I love her quirky characters, and this one has London as the setting, a very dilapidated street where some of the houses have been ear-marked for demolition, the area was damaged by bombs and you can still see the cracks.

Gladys and Annie Barnes are sisters in their 70s and they live in a two room flat in a house which has been split up, housing various different tenants on each floor. Life is grim and the sisters are poverty stricken but not quite as much as the old man living in the attic above them.

The tenants are in despair when they hear that the owner of the house has sold it to a ‘rackman’ a slum landlord, they expect him to put up their rents and eventually make them homeless. Gladys in particular is at her wits end, her invalid sister is more sanguine, and against the odds the change in ownership turns out to be a good thing.

I really enjoyed this book, Gibbons evoked a great feeling of post-war London and some of its inhabitants. A time when 8/6 (eight shillings and sixpence) or in decimal money 42 and half pence was the weekly cost of a slum attic room’s rent.

It’s a piece of social history as well as a good read. The setting must be the late 1950s rather than the 60s. Gladys is still talking about drawing the black-outs rather than the curtains, and it’s sad to note that although there was a time when life got a lot more pleasant for working class people living in London, the glory days of the 1960s and 70s, we’re back at the stage of having people living in disgusting slums again, although this time they’re paying exorbitant rents for damp ridden flats.

In some ways this book reminds me of a working class version of Barbara Pym’s or even Jane Austen’s books. There’s witty dialogue, vicars and curates, snobbery, a young female in need of nurturing and a reasonably happy ending. I warn you though that by the time I finished the book I felt absolutely awash with tea and half suffocated by cigarette smoke! There is one character in it who is distinctly odd, especially towards the end of the book, strange totally unlikely things happen to her, but I’m still giving Starlight a 4 on Goodreads though.

In case you were wondering how we climbed the steep slope up to better living conditions and then plummeted down the other side again, look no further than Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party who sold off all the council houses dirt cheap and allowed the owners to sell them on at huge profits to – buy for let landlords, modern day ‘rackmen’. Life for many people is even worse than it was in the slums of post war London, but that’s another bee I have in my bonnet.

PS. Jack says rackman should possibly be “Rachman” after an infamous 1950s and 1960s slum landlord but it was spelled rackman in the book.

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons was first published in 1938 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classic. This is a really enjoyable read, four stars on Goodreads I’d say. Inevitably though I find myself saying that you shouldn’t expect it to be as funny as Cold Comfort Farm, which truly did have me laughing out loud a lot, wayback when I was a teenager, I don’t know what effect it would have on me now though.

Anyway, in Nightingale Wood Viola has been widowed after just one year of marriage. Her husband Teddy had come from a wealthy family, his parents were appalled that their son had lowered himself to marry a girl who just worked in a shop. Viola ends up moving in with her parents-in-law, Mr amd Mrs Withers and their two almost middle-aged daughters Tina and Madge. Everyone seems to have given up hope of them ever getting married and moving out, so it’s a very strange household which Viola finds herself living in.

Mr Withers is miserably mean with money and he’s amazed to discover that his son died leaving his widow just about penniless, although as Teddy worked for his father and he was paid pennies in wages it’s a mystery how he was supposed to leave money to Viola. She would leave their home, The Eagles, if she could but she has no family of her own to help her.

That makes it all sound pretty depressing but really it isn’t. One of the sisters-in-law is in love with the chauffeur, the other one adores dogs, and the very well off Spring family are always entertaining the rest of the local nobs.

Viola falls for Victor Spring, the very handsome son, but he has been going out with a girl forever. Is there any hope for Viola?

You’ll have noticed that this bears more than a passing resemblence to a fairy tale. But is has a fair share of humour in it too, mostly from Viola, a very likeable character.

As I said, it was published in 1938 and it has the snobbishness and even anti-semitism which you sometimes come across in books from that era. It also mentions the possibility of a coming war, and that scoundrel who would have been crowned King Edward VIII, if we hadn’t got lucky.

The book has an introduction by Sophie Dahl.

Recent Book Purchases

We were in Edinburgh showing a bookish friend our favourite book haunts in Stockbridge. Honestly I had absolutely no intention of looking at books myself, but you know what it’s like, a book spine captures you attention – and you’re doomed. So I bought this lot:

Latest Book Haul

1. A Croft in the Hills by Katharine Stewart. I bought this purely because of the unbelievably twee cover which is in very good condition, despite the book having been published in 1960.

2. The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden. I read a lot of her books way back in the year dot when I worked in libraries, I now can’t remember which ones I’ve read for sure. I looked at this one and thought I haven’t read it, or certainly have no memory of it. I wish I had kept note of all the books I had read in the past.

3. The Citadel by A.J. Cronin. I was sure that I had this book already but I haven’t been able to find it so I must have given it away. Anyway, I’m not sure if I’ve even read it before as it’s only his Hatter’s Castle which sticks in my mind from way back. If anyone wants to join me in a readalong of The Citadel – let me know.

4. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel. I’ve read the title story from this collection and I’m looking forward to reading the rest in this collection of short stories.

5. Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons. I’ve read her Cold Comfort books and loved them. The Matchmaker was okay, this one is a Virago publication so I have high hopes of it.

6. Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston (1884-1944). This is another of those British Library Crime Classics. Kingston apparently wrote twenty crime novels but he’s new to me.

Have you read any of these book? If so, what did you think of them?

Cold Comfort and North Piddle, Warwickshire

When we were driving around Warwickshire last month I spotted the name Cold Comfort on a road sign. I was amazed, fancy there being a real place with that name, I’m fairly sure that Stella Gibbons must have known about it and decided to use it for her book Cold Comfort Farm. The real Cold Comfort is indeed a farm and it’s near the village of Arrow. You can read about it here.

The same post had a sign pointing to a place called North Piddle. I don’t know if it was the holiday atmosphere which had got to me but I did find that more than a wee bit funny. I looked at all the other road signs I could see because surely if there is a North Piddle then there must be a South, East or West Piddle. What I was really desperate for was a sign saying Middle Piddle, but sadly there seems to be nothing of the kind around, it just doesn’t exist, which is a real shame. Did Stella Gibbons use Piddle in any of her books? It’s so long since I read any of them that I can’t remember.

Anyway, it set me off thinking that it would be a good name for a fictional village in a book in the same vein as Angela Thirkell with a hint of Stella Gibbons.

Of course Middle Piddle would have to have satellite villages with names like Lower Tinkle, Little Wee and Great Flood, not to mention Great Piddle or Much Piddle-in-the-Marsh, and would be peopled with a suitable cast of eccentrics to jolly the whole thing along.

That’s holidays for you, or for me anyway, I’m on the look out for hilarity, determined to enjoy myself to the point of silliness, despite the usual rain. Now, do you think I’ll ever get around to conjuring up fictional inhabitants for Middle Piddle and environs? Well I haven’t yet, but there’s a long dark winter a-coming, and you never know how desperate I might be to do something different, for my own entertainment anyway.