The Avenue Goes to War by R.F. Delderfield

The Avenue Goes to War cover

The Avenue Goes to War by R.F. Delderfield is of course the sequel to The Dreaming Suburb and in this one the war has well and truly started, no more of that ‘phoney war’ as it was called in the beginning, before the heavy bombing started. Everybody in The Avenue is joining up or war dodging in the case of Archie Carver who is only interested in making as much money as possible. Often it’s the most unexpected people who are most determined to ‘do their bit’.

Delderfield was great at creating interesting characters and in this book he wrote about what was the reality of war for many, with the civilians often ending up taking the brunt of the German attacks.

He shows how society changed completely, sometimes the changes were for the better though, with The Avenue becoming much more socially welcoming for people, friendships being forged by men who had lived next-door to each other for 20 years but had never exchanged more than a ‘hello’ before. It’s not all about The Avenue however, with a few of the former inhabitants ending up in Germany the action moves there occasionally.

I was really sorry when this book came to an end, but the author tied up all the loose ends very satisfactorily and although the writing isn’t poetic, the sentiments are, or philosophical if you prefer.

My copy of this one is a 1958 first edition and it has a nice wee plan of the neighbourhood at the beginning of the book, something which seems to be missing from the modern paperbacks.

Now I intend to start reading A Horseman Riding By (Long Summer Day and Post of Honor in the US) but I don’t have those books yet. I can’t make up my mind whether to buy the modern paperbacks, or just put them on my Kindle, which is a lot cheaper and quicker. But I prefer actual books – although I’m no great fan of modern paperbacks. Decisions, decisions.

Have any of you read his Swann saga?

At Dusk All Cats Are Grey by Jerrard Tickell

At Dusk All Cats Are Grey cover

At Dusk All Cats Are Grey by Jerrard Tickell was first published in 1940 but it has been published as an e-book by Odyssey Press and when they asked me if I would like to review it I jumped at the chance as I’ve enjoyed reading some of his books in the past.

This is yet another book set at the beginning of World War 2, I seem to have been reading so many of them recently, I suppose the novelists of the day felt the need to write about it and how it was affecting people.

Joanna is the twenty-two year old daughter of Lady and Sir Robert Shirley. Sir Robert is a gentleman farmer in the Cotswolds but he is very poor and he is almost certainly going to have to sell off more land. Joanne decides it’s time she got out and earned a living. She has a rare talent (for a Brit anyway) in that she picks up languages very easily and as she has spent time in Austria and Germany skiing in the past she’s fluent in German.

She gets a job in an advertising agency in London but while she is socialising in the city she meets up with Colonel Seymour who offers her an undercover job when he discovers that she can pass as a native German or Austrian. Joanne isn’t at all keen to spy on Austrian refugees as she is asked to, but with mayhem ensuing across Europe she’s only one of many who have to do things they would rather not.

Of course there’s a lot more to the book than I’ve said, there’s also some romance thrown in. I’ve noticed that some other people who have reviewed this book have been disappointed that Tickell didn’t spell out exactly what Colonel Seymour’s department was up to. For me that just added to the authenticity because so many people were involved in ‘hush hush’ work, and at the time nobody questioned the fact that people couldn’t talk about the work they were doing. Walls have ears – as the slogan said.

My thanks go to The Odyssey Press who provided me with a copy of this book for my Kindle. I enjoyed it a lot, although maybe not quite as much as Tickell’s Villa Mimosa, Appointment with Venus.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

One Fine Day cover

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes was first published in 1947 but my copy is a 2011 Virago, how I hate those new Virago covers, bring back the original green ones, please.

This book was written in 1946, a time when everyone was trying to adjust to a normal life without war, it’s not made easy by the fact that everything post-war has changed, especially for those who had had some money and were used to servants looking after them. It’s a day in the life of Laura, a middle class wife and mother of Victoria, a ten year old. Laura’s not terribly domesticated and she’s a bit of a dreamer so she’s struggling to cope with cooking and mending.

Laura Marshall’s husband is getting into the routine of commuting by train to London from Wealding in Sussex every morning, but he’s also constantly worrying about the state of his garden and house, there’s no help to be found anywhere and it all seems to be crumbling around him.

This is so well written and observed, Panter-Downes has Laura comparing the differences between her middle class husband’s standoffish attitude to his own daughter and a local working class man’s obvious adoration of a young relative. They’re poverty stricken and slovenly, but happy. Of course Stephen had gone off to war, leaving a small girl behind and he’s having trouble recognising that wee one in the self-contained ten year old that she has become while he was at war for five years.

When Laura makes a visit to the local ‘big house’ she thinks:
All those windows, she thought in horror. For the rest of her life, now, she would see things from the point of view of cleaning them. Confronted by a masterpiece of architecture, she would think merely, How much floor to sweep, how many stairs to run up and down. The world had contracted to domestic-house size, always whispering to the sound of somebody’s broom.

There’s quite a lot of humour in the book, often in the way that the ‘lower orders’ express themselves. But Angela Huth who wrote an introduction to the book seems to have missed some of it, as she’s under the impression that the big house is being turned into some sort of institution.

In fact the family in the big house has decided to hand it over to the National Trust and retreat to a self-contained flat in the property, as many such stately home owners did around that time. Perhaps Huth didn’t understand the ‘joke’ that the charlady gives the information that National Trusses will be taking over the big house. Most of the humour is from the way the working class people speak but it isn’t really in any nasty condescending way.

It’s a very enjoyable read and I just hope that I can get my hands on more of her books. You can read her obituary here.

Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Casting Off cover

Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard was first published in 1995 and until a few minutes ago I had thought that it was the last in the Cazalet series, but apparently the last one All Change was published in 2013, the year before Howard died.

I know that a few blogpals are intending to read this one soonish so I don’t want to say too much about the storyline that runs from July 1945 to 1947.

You would think that people would be relieved beyond belief that the war in Europe was over, but of course for lots of people it meant the end of a time when they had plenty to do, they had had a sense of achievement or importance as they had been needed in the various voluntary organisations helping the war effort. Everyone is trying to get used to the changes although of course some things aren’t changing quickly enough, such as the rationing which is getting worse.

Members of the Cazalet family are beginning to move back to London instead of all being at the family country home – Home Place. Relationships are changing, some might not survive.

Three quarters of the way through this book I was feeling quite depressed by it as I really didn’t like the turn things were taking, and I couldn’t see how the author would get the many loose ends tied up by the end, and I had been under the impression that this was the last book.

I ended up being fairly well satisfied with it, especially as the characters that I particularly disliked seemed to be getting their richly deserved come-uppance. I’ll now have to get the last in the series All Change.

I’m thinking about buying the DVDs of the BBC series because I didn’t see it when it was on TV. Did any of you watch the series and if so did you enjoy it?

No Resistance by Evelyn Anthony

No Resistance by Evelyn Anthony was first published in 1967, but at somepoint the title seems to have been changed to The Rendezvous, – so confusing. I remember way back in the 1970s I devoured these books which are mainly set in wartime, often spy stories. I had no idea that this was the first such book which Anthony had written, despite having had a lot of books published before this one, they were all historical fiction. I don’t recall ever reading any of those ones – have you?

In No Resistance a young female French resistance agent Terese Masson has been arrested by the Gestapo. She’s interrogated by Colonel Alfred Brunnerman who employs psychological techniques to get information, but she knows that eventually he will have to hand her over to the torturer, if Brunnerman’s techniques fail.

She’s terrified, but at the same time very attracted to Brunnerman. Years later Brunnerman and Masson meet up in America where they have both settled. Brunnerman has changed his name and nationality to dodge prosecution, as a Nazi originally and latterly to foil the Israeli execution squads which are tracking down ex-Nazis.

This is the type of romance full of suspense which I find to be very enjoyable.

That Summer by Andrew Greig

That Summer cover

That Summer by Scottish author and poet Andrew Greig was first published in 2000 and it’s the first book which I’ve read by him, it won’t be the last though. Luckily my library has all of his books.

The title refers to the summer of 1940 when World War 2 was just beginning to hot up after a period of unreal quiet, referred to by all as ‘the phoney war’.

The setting is mainly England although at one point the main character Len is posted to Scotland for a short time. There are four main characters: Leonard Westbourne is a young fighter pilot and his friend Tadeusz is a Polish fighter pilot who is much more experienced, in all ways really. Tad is a devil for the women, as apparently the Poles were, according to my dear old friend Marjorie who fell in love with one (the last love of my life she said) who was based in Kelso in those dark days, but I’m wandering off the subject.

Len and Tad team up with the two friends Maddy and radar operator Stella who both must be a bit crazy to be going out with fighter pilots given their life expectancy, but then there was danger everywhere and you had to live for the day.

Jack gave me this book after he had read it saying that he thought I would like it, he thought it was very good and you can read his more professional review of it here.

At first I thought it was a bit slow but I really got into it and my only gripe was that as the story is told in the words of the main characters it wasn’t always instantly obvious who was ‘speaking’.

Otherwise this book is a very good depiction of what it must have been like to be ‘one of the few’ in the Battle of Britain and to be involved with them.

The blurb on the front says, ‘It will be a long time since a book has made you care so much.’ – The Times

In fact during the 1970s I worked with a woman who had been a radio operator in communication with fighter pilots during the war, hearing everything that was going on up there, no fun at all and it makes you wonder how people managed to just get back to normal life after years of listening to such things. But they did and those young women who were stationed near Blackpool only wobbled when London was pasted and they couldn’t get in touch with their families down there. I wonder if my generation would have been as stoical?

This is another one read for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson

The Four Graces cover

The Four Graces are the daughters of the Reverend Grace, a country vicar in an English village. Mr Grace is a widower and his four grown up daughters are ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort; the story takes place in a year during World War 2.

First published in March 1946 but obviously written when war was still ongoing, in the Far East anyway, it’s a deliberately light-hearted tale of family life and sisters in particular. D.E.Stevenson didn’t want to write about the depressions of Total War, she wrote about the inconveniences of war and of course that perennial problem of rationing.

Adeline, the youngest sister, doesn’t really feature much as a character as she is in London most of the time, in one of the services. But she manages to foist a most ghastly person on the family. Aunt Rona (by marriage) has been bombed out of her home in London and Addie tells Rona that she will be made welcome at the vicarage. Well most sisters would have been up in arms at that because Rona makes life at the vicarage very uncomfortable, especially as she has obviously decided to become the next Mrs Grace. But it does give D.E. plenty of opportunity to have some fun at her expense.

The book is light entertainment but it does flag up actual situations which people found themselves in in wartime. Such as the woman who had grown to love her wee evacuee as if he were her son. When his mother decides that as London is no longer in danger from Hitler’s bombs she writes asking for her son to be sent back to his family home. But the boy was never cherished at home and she just wants him there as he is now old enough to be of use to her. The evacuee’s surrogate mother is desperate to hold on to him and give him a good start in life, something he won’t get in his biological home.

This was a situation which did happen and I know one man who was heart-broken to have to go back to the city and leave his country home and family when hostilities stopped. He kept up contact with them all their lives though.

So, this is a good comfort read, but is true to life as it was at that time.

Stevenson was of course Scottish, indeed a relative of Robert Louis Stevenson, and I read this one for the Read Scotland Challenge. I think that’s my ninth one.

The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell

The Headmistress was first published in 1944, in fact my copy is a first edition hardback, not that I’m bothered about such things but I do prefer hardbacks to the modern paperbacks.

This one mainly involves the Belton family, they’ve fallen on hard times and are unable to afford to live in their large home. Luckily the Hosiers’ Girls’ Foundation School has rented the property for the duration of the war, however long that may be, and the Beltons have taken up residence in a smaller house which is situated more conveniently in the village.

I did enjoy this one although it didn’t feature much in the way of food rationing information, it was mainly clothes coupons which seemed to be a worry. I really like all the social history side of these books but there’s plenty of humour too.

The character of Heather Adams starts off as ghastly annoying schoolgirl and by the end has begun to transform into an almost likeable young woman. But it’s Miss Sparling, the headmistress of the school who as a newcomer has caught the eye of more than one of the local gentlemen, there always has to be some romance after all.

Friendships are forged when people realise that they have a hatred for the same person, everything else is forgotten about when the Bishop or Miss Pettinger rear their ugly heads. Those characters manage to unite people against them. This seems so realistic to me, I’ve definitely experienced the most unusual combinations of people who have bonded over a mutual dislike.

This storyline must have spoken to so many of the original readers of the book as the younger members of the families are all being sent off overseas and are really not expecting to be coming home again. In reality that was exactly what was happening in every community in the UK and elsewhere of course.

I could be doing without the Mixo-Lydian/Slavo-Lydian nonsense but I suppose that was reflecting the animosity between some of the many Eastern European refugees who were finding there way to the UK during the war. I think that the Mixo-Lydians must have in reality been Romanians as they have ‘escu’ endings to their surnames.

This was another enjoyable visit to Barsetshire, mainly with the Belton family who are the descendants of the Beltons who featured in Anthony Trollope’s book The Belton Estate.

Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies are probably better known as Fortunes of War as that is what the BBC serialisation was named. The first three books were published separately between 1960 and 1965 as :

1. The Great Fortune
2. The Spoilt City
3. Friends and Heroes
and later published in one big volume as The Balkan Trilogy.

As you can see an audio version is available.

The sequel is The Levant Trilogy which was published in three volumes between 1977 and 1980 as:

1. The Danger Tree
2. The Battle Lost and Won
3. The Sum of Things.

If you’re at all interested in World War II you’ll love these books. I read them all in 2008, just before I started blogging and I don’t even have any notes on them but I thoroughly enjoyed the books and they’re written so well I was finished them in no time at all, which was the only disappointing thing really.The writer Anthony Burgess said that they were, “The finest record of the war produced by a British writer.”
Can’t say fairer than that can you?

I remember that I loved watching the BBC serialisation but for some reason it’s never been re-shown, unless I’ve just missed it somehow. It starred a very young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. I think it was only the second thing that I’d ever seen Emma Thompson in, the first programme was by the BBC again and it was called Tutti Frutti. It was ages ago now and again it doesn’t seem to have been re-shown. But at last, it’s out in DVD.

It was set in Scotland and also had Robbie Coltrane and Richard Wilson in it. I remember it was very funny and is just the sort of thing that they should have on now in these dark and gloomy days. Emma Thompson was able to do a very good Scottish accent. Her mother is the Scottish actress Phyllida Law.

I think I might just put the DVDs on my Christmas list, if my husband’s looking for any ideas!