Recent Reads: Books Do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell


Lovely first edition cover, featuring X. Trapnel's swordstick!

Lovely first edition cover, featuring X. Trapnel’s swordstick!

Well, what a fabulous title, to start with! This is the tenth book in the “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, and I must say it is one of the ones I’ve enjoyed most.

The story starts just after the end of WW2, with Nick demobbed and trying to take up normal life again. He revisits his old university to do some research on the writer Robert Burton, and encounters an old friend in the form of Sillery, as well as meeting Ada Leintwardine, who will have quite a major part in this volume. Ada is notionally acting as Sillery’s secretary as he prepares to publish his diaries, although she has literary pretensions herself. In fact, much of the book focuses on literature and publishing, as we are treated to the reappearance of one of my favourite characters, Quiggin. He has set up a new publishing firm with Howard Craggs, naturally enough called Quiggin and Craggs. The firm is also starting up a literary magazine, with which Nick becomes involved, very topically entitled “Fission”. Also involved is Ada, plus behind the scenes the firm is being bankrolled by Rosie Manasch and Widmerpool. Add into the mix the fact that Lady Craggs is the former Gypsy Jones, and you have a recipe for quite a publishing operation with a lot of personal axes to grind!

There is sadness too, as Nick’s brother-in-law Erridge dies suddenly, and there is a spectacularly awkward funeral where the Widmerpools, Quiggin and the Craggs’ appear noisily. Erridge had been going to fund “Fission”, and so the group feel obliged to attend, but Pamela Widmerpool (née Flitton) is in her usual contentious form, and ends up being sick in a rare vase back at the house – which leads to a comic scene of Nick and co trying to clean the vase without breaking it.

I think one of the reasons I liked this book so much was because of the appearance of a new character, the wonderfully-named novelist X. Trapnel (apparently based on writer Julian MacLaren-Ross). If I recall correctly, Trapnel has been mentioned before, though this is his debut proper. Trappy, as he is known, is a fabulous, larger-than-life figure whose antics dominate much of the book, and he has a rather dramatic effect on the lives of several characters! He’s got strong opinions and is happy to have a go at anyone, in particular hapless book reviewers:

“How everyone envies the rich quality of a reviewer’s life. All the things to which those Fleet Street Jesuses feel superior. Their universal knowledge, exquisite taste, idyllic loves, happy married life, optimism, scholarship, knowledge of the true meaning of life, freedom from sexual temptation, simplicity of heart, sympathy with the masses, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity – particularly the last, in welcoming with open arms every phoney who appears on the horizon. It’s not surprising that in the eyes of most reviewers a mere writer’s experiences seem so often trivial, sordid, lacking in meaning.”

The biggest effect he has is on that unlikely couple, Kenneth and Pamela Widmerpool. To be honest, you have to ask yourself what motivated either of them to marry the other in the first place; however, putting that aside for a moment, Pamela the predatory female is once again on the hunt, and this time not only does she captivate Trappy but she also leaves Widmerpool for him! This is mildly surprising, as she hasn’t left him yet despite having a succession of relationships, and swapping comfort for the squalor he lives in doesn’t seem quite her line. However, she doesn’t stay with him for that long before stomping back to Kenneth – but not before taking out her anger on poor Trappy’s work….


Unsurprisingly, the “Fission” journal collapses, and there is fall-out amongst the personnel. The book ends with Nick returning to his old school, scene of his first encounter with Widmerpool all those years (and books!) ago, to enrol his son. Here he runs into Le Bas, his old housemaster, now old and acting as librarian. Despite the passage of time and the loss of many of Nick’s friends and contacts during the war, some things are unchanging.

And the title? Not as you might expect a hostess describing a lovely residence, or indeed Trappy talking about some grubby lodgings! This is actually the nickname given to Bagshaw, an old acquaintance of Nick’s who is to be editor of “Fission”; the nickname being given in one of two rather scurrilous scenarios!

“Bagshaw was for ever fascinated by revolutionary techniques, always prepared to explain everybody’s standpoint, who was a party-member, fellow-traveller, crypto, trotskyist, anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, every refinement of marxist theory, every subtle distinction within groups. The ebb and flow of subversive forces wafted the breath of life to him, even if he no longer believed in the beneficial qualities of that tide.”

I’m actually starting to find it hard to review these books, because I’m running out of superlatives! Certainly, this is one of my favourites in the sequence so far (if not *the* favourite – I can’t say till I’ve read them all). I found the portrait of literary life in the late 1940s fascinating and entertaining, and the escapades of Pamela and Trappy were a hoot. The book captures brilliantly the post-war atmosphere of insecurity and austerity. The humour is lovely – Pamela’s behaviour shocking and funny at the same time.

X. Trapnel is wonderfully portrayed, a person always acting a part, driven by conflicting forces and desires:

“Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, an opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age.”

I did wonder whether Powell was putting his own thoughts about writing into Trapnel’s mouth, as he goes on to express doubts about realism vs artistry in novels:

“There are certain forms of human behaviour no actor can really play, no matter how good he is. It’s the same in life. Human beings aren’t subtle enough to play their part. That’s where art comes in.”

On the subject of the dreaded Pamela comes my one reservation about the book. I haven’t really had an issue with Powell’s portrayal of women up to this point in the sequence, accepting that he is perhaps a little old-fashioned but not finding anything too objectionable. However, Pamela is portrayed as a real Praying Mantis – an angry man-eater who plays with the opposite sex; they fall at her feet left, right and centre and yet she is mostly indifferent. But at the end of the story, after she has ditched Trappy, he reveals the root of her problem, in quite crude terms – she is frigid, and the constant partner-changing is presumably being portrayed as a search for satisfaction (though I would be more likely to suspect the cause as being insensitivity on the part of some of the men she associates with). I confess I found this somewhat clichéd, even allowing for the stereotypes about women and sexuality which might have circulated in the past. And frankly, I think the deep psychological issues she has (displayed in her violence towards Odo Stevens when she descends to physical aggression) can’t just be explained away by the fact that sex is failing her. She’s a lively and fascinating character and I found this attitude let me down a little.

However, putting this one item aside, “Books…” was a fabulous read. The mysterious and often dramatic marriage of the Widmerpools; the vicissitudes of “Fission”; the eccentricities of Trappy; all this and much, much more made the book a real unputdownable. Roll on the next Powell!

Recent Reads: Green Grows the City by Beverley Nichols


Isn’t it odd how the strangest and most unexpected things can influence your reading? For example, I was happily involved in the 10th Anthony Powell “Dance” story, “Books Do Furnish A Room” when the Doctor Who 50th anniversary hit at the weekend (I guess few people on the planet could have missed this). I’m a long-term old-school Doctor Who fan and tend to dismiss the modern stuff a bit. However, the celebrations really got to me, so much so that I’ve spent several days channelling my inner geek and actually found that I couldn’t read the Powell properly – so instead I whizzed through another Beverley, the very amazing “Green Grows the City”! I *have* since finished the Powell (which I absolutely loved and will review soon) – but in the meantime, some thoughts about city gardens!

Alas, my edition doesn't have a lovely cover like this!

Alas, my edition doesn’t have a lovely cover like this!

The book begins with Beverley bemoaning the fact that he is stuck in the city (a flat in Westminster) and is missing a garden and can’t find anywhere nice to live. Fortunately, the indefatigable Gaskin is to hand, and instantly tracks down a nice little modern house in the quiet area of Heathstead (wherever that might be!). The garden, unfortunately, is a nightmare – a triangular pile of mud and mess with an ugly angular apex, which Beverley decides to leave as a cat run. Most of the neighbours are lovely, apart from the ghastly Mrs. Heckmondwyke at No. 1, but the household settle in, and it isn’t long before our author is seduced into doing something with the horrible garden.

This is only the second Nichols gardening book I’ve read, and I sense there will probably be a running structure to these – Beverley moves in; garden is a mess; one awful neighbour; many obstacles occur; Beverley triumphs in the end and creates lovely place! However, this is not meant as a criticism as any excuse to reading his writing has got to be good – I sense I may be turning into a Beverley Bore! – and in fact this book is about a lot more than gardening.

One of the gorgeous illustrations

One of the gorgeous illustrations

Of course, there is always the lovely writing – Nichols’ style is chatty and anecdotal, a delight to read and he is always in a dialogue with the reader, so you feel you are talking with an old friend. He’s also always witty:

“You see, it was the first really modern house that I had ever owned, and I wanted to take advantage of this modernity. So the first thing I did was to buy a Frigidaire, which is still regarded by a large proportion of the British public as rather daring, even shocking. Like bloomers. This machine fills me with fascination, not unmingled with fear, to this day. Those cubes! Mysteriously forming in the depths of the night! That frost… out of the nowhere into here! I once wrote a story about a ghost in a Frigidaire, but it was so terrifying that it had to be set aside.”

I’d rather like to read that story if it ever existed; and I’d also like to have come across Nichols in the following situation!

“The next day, I was down at the nurseries. (Did you know there were nurseries in London? Stretching for acres and acres, unsuspected, behind the most unpromising facades? No? Well, there are. But I won’t tell you where they are, because I like to prowl about them alone. Muttering.)”

Gardening is obviously something that Nichols found essential for his well-being and peace of mind – we all have things like this in our life – and he is happy to rhapsodise about his particular plot of land:

“The whole essence of a garden is that it becomes an old friend, or rather, a host of old friends. Will the irises be as good this year as they were last? How will the delphiniums have stood being divided? Will the phloxes have ‘established themselves’ in the coming summer? These are the things that matter, that really move the heart.”

Of his first attempt at squeezing in a rockery, in front of a brick wall whose stone clashes terribly with the rocks, Nichols says:

“The rocks were so stark, so suggestive of wind-swept moors, and the brick was so smooth, so obviously civilized, that it was as though I had asked Emily Bronte to meet Evelyn Waugh at tea. And if you can think of any worse predicament than that, you are welcome.”

However, reading “Green Grows the City”, we cannot ever forget the context in which it was written. My edition was published by the Garden Book Club in 1940*, and references to the Second World War and Hitler are scattered about. This is the early part of the War, and Nichols is trying to carry on as normal – or as normally as possible – and perhaps even doing his bit for the war effort by distracting his readers and reinforcing British values. As I’ve said before, I find it frustrating that he’s seen as a light-hearted gardening author because he obviously feels so strongly about the rights and wrongs of life and morals, valuing the smaller things in life that are actually so important – the success of growing a difficult plant; the kindness and tolerance of most neighbours; the joy of cat owing (and also, actually, the sadness of losing a cat which is very poignantly portrayed). As the book (and the garden!) progress, there are reminders of what is happening in the real world, and maybe in some small way Beverley’s battles with Mrs. H parallel what is happening in Europe, with her greed and self-centred attitude representing the worst in human beings – or maybe I am just reading a little too much into this.


And Nichols is not afraid to state his views. A visit to the cinema to watch some newsreel footage of current events brings forth this cri de coeur:

“So I pay my shilling, and sit back and watch the achievements of mankind flickering before me. Those achievements, to be frank, seem a little monotonous. Line after line of youths, in brown shirts, black shirts, red shirts, any sort of shirt… marching, always marching. Backwards and forwards, to the North, to the South, to the East and West. Marching with bigger and better guns, to louder and fiercer music. Marching with clenched fists or with outstretched arms, animated with the insane conviction that the fist that is clenched was made for the sole purpose of striking the arm that is outstretched. Marching, always marching, blind to the beauty that is around and about, deaf to all music save the sound of the drum, marching to a destination that no man knows but all men dread.”

Nichols was a pacifist, and although it might be unusual to regard gardening as one of the last bastions of civilisation, we cannot help but agree with his conclusion:

“… we both know, you and I, that if all men were gardeners, the world at last would be at peace.”

This book was another joy from start to finish: for the quality of Nichols’ writing, for the delight of watching his achievements with the garden, for the wit, and for the portrait of an ordinary human being continuing with his normal life as much as possible while the world started to go mad. I’m actually not ashamed at all that I’m becoming a Beverley Bore, because I think the world would be a better place if more people read books like this and loved their gardens!


* Lovely as old book club editions are, I did find this one a little frustrating as for some reason all the photographs were in the wrong place – which necessitated a lot of rooting around to find out what Nichols was talking about at times! However, there *are* lovely drawings. Perhaps I might be persuaded to buy myself a proper copy with the photos correct? 🙂

Recent Reads: No Man’s Street by Beverley Nichols


It probably hasn’t escaped anyone who reads this blog that I have become a bit of a fan of Beverley Nichols recently. So I was *very* excited (as I mentioned here) to discover he’d written a series of crime novels, and it was probably inevitable I would be reading the first one before long!

My 1975 W.H. Allen edition - I'm not sure who the dapper fellow on the cover is, but it cerainly ain't Horatio Green!

My 1973 W.H. Allen edition – I’m not sure who the dapper fellow on the cover is, but it certainly isn’t Horatio Green!

“No Man’s Street” is the first in the series, and features Beverley’s regular detective, Horatio Green, assisted by his niece Charlotte. Green has retired after a hinted-at illustrious career as a private detective, often working alongside a policeman called Waller, a rather traditional officer who Green has allowed to take credit for many of the cases. However, the peer and music critic Sir Edward Carstairs is found mysteriously murdered (stabbed in the back although with a surprisingly small amount of blood) and Mr. Green is lured out of retirement by the prima donna Sonia Rubenstein to investigate.

There are plenty of candidates for the murderer because, as with most classic murder mysteries, the victim is not a pleasant person; sadistic, cold and with a tendency towards blackmail, he is not missed by his sister or friends or former colleagues. His nephew Peter inherits the title but not much in the way of money, so has no motive and a perfect alibi; however, things are not so clear-cut for sister Veronica, her companion Sheila Crane, the conductor Dr Ernst Kalkbrenner and even Sonia herself. The plot starts to thicken in a quite dramatic way, involving Iron Curtain spying, illegitimate children, unexpected marriages and lost musical compositions – this is quite a rich and involved story!

I was particularly struck by the portrayal of Veronica and Sheila who, reading between the lines, are a couple; Nichols paints a sympathetic portrait of them, with their anxieties and pains very movingly rendered, and I imagine this might have been quite an unusual thing for the time the novel was published.

(Photo from beverleynichols.com)

(Photo from beverleynichols.com)

Every classic detective story has to have its own detective with some personal quirks and this one is no exception. Horatio Green is an endearing character, with a love of music and flowers, plus a highly developed and sensitive sense of smell which seems to play a large part in his solving of mysteries. Nichols admits in the foreword to my edition that he invested the character with many of his own characteristics and certainly there is more discussion of plants, gardens and fountains than you might normally expect in a mystery novel!

“…he was a kindly person, who held the old-fashioned opinion that we had been brought into this world to try to do some good, and that if we did not do it we should look very foolish when we came to meet our Maker. Mr. Green had no doubt whatever that one day he would meet his Maker, and he tried to live his life accordingly. It was often – as many of us will agree – very difficult.

Meanwhile, he stood there sniffing his Christmas rose.

He was pink, small and round. He was five foot one in his socks and he weighed 160 pounds. His eyes were grey and inclined to blink, and his hair was grey and inclined to thin. He was a happy little man, for he loved his fellow men, and he adored his garden.”

This being Beverley Nichols, the writing is lovely and there is a lot less flippancy and light-heartedness than in some of his other works; which is a good thing really, as it wouldn’t sit well beside a murder. But then, Nichols is actually a much deeper writer than he’s often given credit for and I find it a little sad to hear him pigeonholed as a surface-level garden writer.

“How could he explain to a man like Smithers – for he hardly admitted it to himself – that snobbery is a deep and devastating vice, that it will kill to gain its ends? That the illusion of ‘Society’ – Smithers’ conception of ‘Society’ – is the final cheat, the ultimate task-mistress? How could he tell this lost, rich fool about these dark, mysterious things? He would never understand; he would not even hear. He would only straddle his legs even wider, and ask one to have another sherry. And call one a ‘sleuth’.”

I’m not going to go deeply into the plot because I don’t want to put in any spoilers – all I will say is that it is quite complicated, but not impossible to guess or solve for an experienced mystery reader! I liked the variety of elements in this – the iron curtain/spying side of things, the music, the settings, the little gardening asides – and events got quite exciting towards the end. Certainly, NMS isn’t up in the ranks of Christie, Sayers and all the Golden Age writers, and I’m sure Nichols would have been the first to acknowledge this. But it is a good, absorbing and extremely entertaining read, and I’m looking forward to following more of Horatio Green’s cases!

Monday Music


Especially for Lori, a little nostalgia from a *long* time ago!

Recent Reads: The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene


Hot on the heels of #greeneforgran, I have been lured into reading another of the great man’s works – this time, by an odd little Culture Show special on the BBC, which featured writers who stayed in London during the Blitz. It covered the obvious suspects – Greene, Bowen and Henry Green, plus poet HD, but strangely enough focused on “Ministry” and not “The End of the Affair” – the latter being only briefly mentioned. However, I did like the sound of “Ministry” very much and was inspired to track down a copy.

First, a word about Greene’s description of the book. His works are notoriously divided into what he called his ‘entertainments’ and his more serious tomes. However, it does seem to be that the two often overlap, and although ‘Ministry’ is described as an entertainment, I don’t think it is. It’s certainly extremely enjoyable, and entertaining, but it’s quite a deep, thought-provoking work – but more of this later…

“The Ministry of Fear” is set in London in the middle of the Blitz, and our ‘hero’ is one Arthur Rowe – a vague kind of man, who lives in a rented room and wanders round the city. He comes across a charity fete, in aid of the Free Mothers (an organisation to aid mothers of the free allied nations) and in a surprise fluke wins a guess-the-weight-of-the-cake competition. However, the people running the fete seem surprisingly reluctant to let him take it away, trying to buy it from him or persuade him to donate it back. However, Arthur sticks by his cake and returns home, and immediately life becomes even stranger.

He is instantly pursued, and a strange, high-shouldered man turns up at his lodgings, ingratiates himself and tries to poison him. Rowe is saved by a bomb dropping and damaging the house, and determines to try to find out what is going on. He approaches the Free Mothers organisation to discover who is behind the fete, and meets two refugees, Anna Hilfe and her brother Willi. They enthusiastically encourage Rowe along, and the action spirals into odder and odder events – a séance where there is apparently a murder, a flight through the ruined city, a further encounter with Anna Hilfe where they are trapped in a hotel. And then suddenly the action switches to a seemingly different character in a rest home, with a lost memory. But as this character’s memories start to return it is clear that he is not who he (and we) think and there are even deeper layers to this conspiracy. Our hero fights to retain some kind of sanity, solve the spy mystery and save Anna – will he succeed?

But there is another, major strand to MOF, and it is the character and past of Arthur Rowe; the events in his life that have led him to where he is now, and made him the unfocused, lost individual he has become. Arthur is burdened by an inability to deal with feeling extreme pity, so much so that he murdered his invalid wife rather than see her suffer. He classes himself as a murderer, despite the fact he was tried and acquitted, and he has cut himself off from his immediate past, existing only in the innocence of his childhood or the present. This is why he is vulnerable to the kind of memory manipulation in the second part of the story, and this tendency also allows Greene to explore deeper themes within the setting of a spy chase novel.

Pity is presented as a strong, almost debilitating emotion and I can empathise with the way Greene portrays Rowe’s feelings. Certainly, the older I get, the more of an effect pity has on me and it becomes harder to bear. Therefore, a sensitive man like Arthur Rowe (who even exhibited this inability to cope with the emotion in childhood) would never be able to handle being married to someone who is suffering. And as Arthur desperately tries to make sense of what is going on around him, he does eventually come to some kind of resolution, reaching a point in his life and a state of mind where he will be able to survive – even if he is not being truthful to himself and those around him.

Of course, as this is a Graham Greene novel, the writing is wonderful – he really was a masterful novelist. The atmosphere of the Blitz, the fragmented nature of life in the bombed city where you could lose your life at any time, the confusion and strangeness of not knowing who is friend or enemy; all brilliantly portrayed. He captures the human psyche so well, and one chapter in particular stands out – “Between Sleeping and Waking”. Rowe has gone underground – literally, while the bombing is going on, and metaphorically, while he believes he is being hunted for murder. As he attempts to sleep fitfully while sheltering in the tube, Greene captures brilliantly the experience of dreaming, half-waking, drifting off again and not being sure what is dream, thought or reality.

“He lay on his side breathing heavily while the big guns opened up in North London, and his mind wandered again freely in that strange world where the past and future leave equal traces, and the geography may belong to twenty years ago or to next year.”

Once again, Rowe visits his past but rejects it, acknowledging the changes that have come over the world in recent years:

Lying on his back he caught the dream and held it – pushed the vicar’s wife back into the shadow of the pine – and argued with his mother.

‘This isn’t real life any more,’ he said. ‘Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass. People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.’

As you might expect, there are no traditional happy endings and plenty of moral dilemmas – would you expect any less from Graham Greene? However, the conclusion is satisfying and convincing, leaving us feeling that Rowe will have some kind of future, and that we leave him in a better mental state than he was at the start of the book – this section is not titled “The Whole Man” for nothing!

I loved this book – for its atmosphere, the sense of living through the Blitz, its excitement and the mystery, its memorable characters and thought-provoking exploration of human character, and the wonderful quality of Greene’s prose. I can see why Simon’s Gran was such a fan!

Recent Reads: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh


The thing about book hangovers, I find, is that they can hang around for days! And I wanted to get on with another book after “The Hopkins Manuscript”, but couldn’t decide what, so in the end settled for a slim Waugh – hopefully a funny one! I haven’t read enough Waugh – and it’s not as if Mount TBR isn’t well supplied with his works – so hopefully this will redress the balance a little!

Wikipedia says of The Loved One: “The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (1948) is a short satirical novel by British novelist Evelyn Waugh about the funeral business in Los Angeles, the British expatriate community in Hollywood, and the film industry.” That’s putting it in a nutshell, because for a short novel it has an awful lot to say!

Our hero is one Dennis Lawson, a poet famous in his own country who has survived the second world war and relocated to Hollywood to work there. But his contract has expired (the great fear of all his fellow ex-pats) and he has taken to working in a pets’ funeral parlour. Needless to say, this job puts him beyond the pale as far as his countrymen are concerned, but Dennis seems to care little about what people think. His housemate, Sir Francis Hinsley, has been a successful novelist and then scriptwriter, but he is struggling to cope with the studio’s demands and when they let him go, he takes rather drastic action. It is left to Dennis to arrange his funeral which is how he comes into direct contact with the Whispering Glades funeral service. Here he meets Aimee Thanatogenos, one of the cosmeticians employed there, and life takes an unexpected turn for both of them. Aimee is the favourite of Mr. Joyboy, the senior mortician, and soon a love triangle develops as she is torn between the two men. Meanwhile, Dennis wrestles with writer’s block and tries to hide the nature of his real job from Aimee, who is driven to consult the local agony uncle. Which man will she choose, will Dennis begin to write again and will the characters survive the Hollywood machine?

Waugh was obviously disenchanted with Hollywood and its fakeness after his visit there in 1947 to negotiate a possible film of Brideshead. TLO attacks not only the odd interment habits of the Californians, but also their culture in general – the reliance on image, the uniformity and also the cut-throat nature of the film industry. No-one is immune from his vitriolic pen – not the ex-pat Brits hanging onto their traditions, nor the pathetic Mr. Joyboy, an idol in his workplace but completely different at home, where he is a henpecked mummy’s boy. Even the heroine Aimee is portrayed as incapable of making a single decision on her own and unable to discern what her real feelings are.

Aimee is also a misfit – Dennis recognises her non-conformity and the fact she stands out from the other girls who seem to have come off some kind of production line. This is what attracts him, but it is also what ultimately destroys them: Aimee is unable to deal with the conflicts she perceives between how she thinks things should be and how they are. She is failed by Dennis, Mr. Joyboy and her agony uncle the Guru Brahmin (who is actually two men – the alcoholic Mr. Slump, and another unnamed gloomy man). When these all conspire to let her down, her fate is sealed. Despite her differences she has a need to conform which is why she cannot understand Dennis, who is unlike American men; or deal with the dual personality presented by Mr. Joyboy and his dependence on her mother.

“The mothers of great men often disconcert their son’s admirers. Mrs. Joyboy had small angry eyes, frizzy hair, pince-nez on a very thick nose, a shapeless body and positively insulting clothes.”

“With a steady hand Aimee fulfilled the prescribed rites of an American girl preparing to meet her lover – dabbed herself under the arms with a preparation designed to seal the sweat glands, gargled another designed to sweeten the breath, and brushed into her hair some odorous drops from a bottle labelled: Jungle Venom”

The book features a wonderful cast of supporting characters – the ex-pat Lords, clinging to their traditions (the Cricket Club!) and desperate to maintain their standing in the community; the cold studio staff, only thinking of finances and the success of the next film, moulding the actors to fit into the role regardless of what they are really like; the unbelievable Kenworthy, “The Dreamer”, who sees himself as some kind of leader, when in fact he is simply someone who runs a funeral service – truly Hollywood is the land of dreams.

Whispering Glades itself was apparently based on the Forest Lawns cemetery and TLO paints a devastating picture of the horrors of the Hollywood burial business, which aims to remove death as far away from reality as possible by dressing it up in mumbo-jumbo and making the corpses (The Loved Ones) look like waxworks. The whole business itself is bizarre enough, but Waugh then parodies the place itself in his presentation of The Happy Hunting Ground, the pet funeral service for which Dennis secretly works.

Of course, it is possible to read dual meaning in the title also, as “The Loved One” is how the staff at Whispering Glades insist on referring to the deceased; but it could also be applied to Aimee, loved by two men and eventually making the transition from one definition of the title to the other!

This is a black and funny portrait of a world of make-believe – in more than one sense, ranging from the fantasy of the film-makers to the unreality of the funeral business – and the humour is as dry as a matzo. What’s terrifying is that the unreality is probably still the same, and you can see traces of the behaviour displayed here in modern celebrity culture. This was a wonderful, dark read and makes me determined to read more Waugh!

Monday Music


Just because it’s a wonderfully emotive song (and I’m considering reading The War of the Worlds!)

A little clutch of Beverley books…


Yes, I know – Christmas is coming, I  have enough books already and no spare space, so I really *shouldn’t* be buying any more. But that’s sensible talk, and I’m not sensible when it comes to books….

So I have obtained a few more Beverley Nichols books – and there is a reason behind this!

I was browsing through a certain online auction site (as you do) and I came across the lovely copy of “Death to Slow Music”.  It was very reasonably priced and had such a beautiful cover that I felt I must snap it up – which I did, only to discover that this is in fact the third book in his detective series! So of course, being a series pedant, I will have to read these in order, which necessitated a little ordering as the local library has failed in its duty to provide me with old murder mysteries!

I’ve already had a little peek at “No Man’s Street”, the first Horatio Green story, and it does look very enjoyable. So as soon as I have finished the current book, I may well be off on a Beverley binge!

Persephone Pleasures: The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff


It’s been a little while since I indulged in one of the Persephone Books volumes on Mount TBR, but I recently felt drawn to this one, and picked it up after finishing “Merry Hall” because I really didn’t quite know what to read yet – and I wanted to try to stop myself sending off for every Beverley Nichols book I could find!


“The Hopkins Manuscript” is one of the few books published by Persephone which is written by a man, and Wikipedia says: Robert Cedric Sherriff (6 June 1896 – 13 November 1975) was an English writer best known for his play Journey’s End, which was based on his experiences as a captain in World War I. He wrote several plays, novels, and screenplays, and was nominated for an Academy award and two BAFTA awards.

His works seem quite varied (his other Persephone, “The Fortnight in September”, sounds much gentler than THM!) and the Persephone site describes the book thus: The author of Journey’s End, the iconic play about WWI, was also a novelist and in 1939 he imagined what might happen if the moon crashed into the earth: the events leading up to the cataclysm are seen through the eyes of a retired schoolmaster who lives in a small Hampshire village.

So, sounds intriguing, no? In fact, I think this book will end up being one of my reads of the year because I should state up front that I absolutely loved it! The story opens with a Foreword by the Imperial Research Press of Addis Ababa, describing what follows as the only surviving document by an ordinary man about what turns out to be the fall of Western civilization. Edgar Hopkins is a middle-aged former schoolmaster, who lives in the little village of Beadle in Hampshire. He is a somewhat reclusive, slightly private man, a bit pernickity and obsessed with raising and showing chickens at a variety of local shows – his prize hen being called Broodie! Hopkins has a side interest in amateur astronomy and becomes an associate member of the British Lunar Society. He enjoys his regular trips up to London to attend meetings, and it is this interest that lets him become privy to a devastating secret – it has been discovered that the moon is gradually travelling closer to the Earth and in the following May it will collide with our planet.

The news is initially kept secret to allow the governments of the world to make plans – under the guise of anticipating a future war, dugouts are built and local committees set up to make preparations. In the meantime, poor Hopkins tries to carry on as normal, all the time carrying his secret knowledge with him. As the moon becomes so large in the sky that the truth can no longer be hidden, the Beadle villagers are marshalled by Sapper Evans, a Welsh soldier assigned to co-ordinate the survival plans. Meanwhile, Hopkins has befriended Colonel Parker who lives nearby, and his nephew and niece Robin and Pat; the young people bring a breath of new life to the repressed schoolteacher and the characters all try to clutch at some happiness before the cataclysm. As the fateful day approaches, the characters (and the reader!) are on tenterhooks – what will happen?


Of course, I’m being a little disingenuous here – because the book opens with Edgar in Notting Hill, living in wretched circumstances and trying to survive long enough to tell his tale, it is obvious that the Earth won’t be destroyed – some humans will survive, and our interest is in how, who and also what will happen in the post-cataclysm world.

Well, yes – humans do survive, and those remaining start to rebuild life in England. The world after the moon’s arrival is perhaps a little unexpected, and people pull together and make plans and start to regain a little normality. Alas, this does not last for a long time – we know it will not from the foreword – and the peril comes from within and without…

“The approaching moon had been so remotely beyond human control that it drew humanity together in a bond of ennobling courage. But what thrill was there in the menace that stalked us now? – the menace of human greed and suspicion? The thin, brittle crust of prosperity that we had built over the ruins of the cataclysm would never stand the weight of human strife. Under the strain of war it must collapse in unspeakable chaos and misery. I feared my fellow creatures far more than I ever feared the moon.”

This really is a remarkable book on a number of levels – the quality of its writing, clarity of its vision and the fact it isn’t better known – which is quite shocking and plaudits must go to Persephone for bringing it back into print. It would be too easy and simplistic to label THM as just a piece of Wellsian sci-fi, because it’s not – it’s much more than that; a deep, thought-provoking work about human beings and how they will behave in a given set of circumstances. It’s also a gripping story, full of characters you come to know, love and care about. The settings and events are vivid and memorable, and I found myself unable to put the book down. I hadn’t actually noticed I was reading a chunkster – the book is 400 pages long! – but the length and pace is necessary for the gradual unfolding of the story. We are given time to watch the relationships develop, the progress of the moon to become public knowledge, the different characters reacting in their own way. The book would not have the same impact if it was rushed – as it is, I became completely absorbed, living the last poignant days of earth alongside the characters.

And absorbed is the right word – I found myself reading long into the night to find out what happened next. Sherriff is remarkably perceptive in his understanding and portrayal of people – from Robin and Pat, young people with their lives still ahead of them, bravely confronting the tragedies they meet; the drunken landlord of the local pub going into decline when the news breaks; the simpler villagers who either don’t understand or don’t believe; and the unpleasant survivors who start to come to the fore once regeneration has begun. Edgar Hopkins himself is a wonderfully engaging character. All too human, with his frailties and vanities, his preoccupation with his chicken breeding and local status, we can identify with him completely and empathise with his horror at the approaching catastrophe. He epitomizes the human spirit, finding the resolve to survive despite not being a natural hero; and we cheer him on in his small triumphs and share in his joys at finding moments of peace and companionship, even though we might laugh at his foibles.

“I thought of this wonderful year that was drawing to its close: this year of striding progress – the peace and gathering prosperity of Europe. All the bitterness and hostility, all the suspicions and racial hatreds that had threatened and darkened the closing years of the old world had gone forever. The nations of Europe had arisen from the ruins of the cataclysm, cleansed of greed, drawn into harmony by a common disaster; determined to build a new world in friendship and mutual respect. The cataclysm had almost destroyed us, but from the ashes had arisen the United States of Europe.”

Sci fi falls into a number of categories and this is the type I like – what might be more accurately titled visionary fiction – fantastic events happening in a familiar, believable landscape; Margaret Atwood and J.G. Ballard’s fiction often falls into this genre. What is excellent about this kind of writing is the freedom it gives the author to make a point. The word “allegory” becomes inevitable because of the context of THM. Written in the late 1930s and published in 1939, it is hard not to see the impending cataclysm of the moon as representing the storm clouds of war which were gathering over Britain. And the resourcefulness of the Beadle villagers and their indomitable survival and attempts at recovery eerily foreshadows the spirit of the Blitz and post-war reconstruction. The book focuses at points on the state of the British Empire and its redundancy is clear – Hopkins rejoices in the new egalitarian state that develops among humans, where class divides disappear and all mix happily together, working alongside one another for the common good. The afterword of the book discusses whether what Sherriff wrote would be possible, but to be honest I thought that whether the science is accurate or not is in some ways an irrelevancy; it is the human side of things the book is about. However, Hopkins/Sherriff is quite vocal about humanity’s greed and the lack of care we take of our planet in a way that anticipates ecological concerns.

This is a deep, rich, rewarding and eminently readable book which I can’t recommended enough – I have a serious book hangover now!

С Днем Рождения Федор Достоевский!


“Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn’t calculate his happiness.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

fyodor-dostoevsky_eK44ZToday is the birthday of one of my favourite authors (as can be seen from any casual glance at this blog!) – Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Wikipedia says:  Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (11 November 1821 – 9 February 1881), sometimes transliterated Dostoevsky, was a Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist and philosopher. Dostoyevsky’s literary works explore human psychology in the context of the troubled political, social, and spiritual atmosphere of 19th-century Russia. He began writing in his 20s, and his first novel, Poor Folk, was published in 1846 when he was 25. His major works include Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). His output consists of eleven novels, three novellas, seventeen short novels and numerous other works. Many literary critics rate him as one of the greatest and most prominent psychologists in world literature.

I’d certainly agree with that, as Dostoyevsky has been highly rated in my opinion since I first read him in my 20s. It’s almost shocking to realise that he was born almost 200 years ago, as his writing still seems powerful and relevant nowadays.

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Although he might be thought of as an intimidating writer, I don’t find him so. I think it’s a case of finding a translator/translation that works for you and diving in. And there are several excellent shorter works around (plenty of which I’ve reviewed here!) if hundreds of pages of “The Brothers Karamazov” is just too scary…

Dostoyevsky on his death-bed, looking remarkably tranquil

Dostoyevsky on his death-bed, looking remarkably tranquil

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Happy birthday Dostoyevsky!

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