Recent Reads: Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling


I should confess up front here that I’ve never before read anything by Kipling – which is a *big* gap in my reading knowledge, really. However, Hesperus Press have been kind enough to provide me with another one of their lovely Hesperus Minor editions – beautiful reprints of children’s classics – in the form of his “Puck of Pook’s Hill”. As always from Hesperus, it’s an attractive edition with French flaps, and the foreword is by children’s author Marcus Sedgwick.


To briefly introduce Kipling, Wikipedia tells us: “Joseph Rudyard Kipling ( 30 December 1865 – 18 January 1936) was an English short-story writer, poet, and novelist. He is chiefly remembered for his tales and poems of British soldiers in India and his tales for children. He was born in Bombay and was taken by his family to England when he was five years old…his children’s books are enduring classics of children’s literature; and his best works are said to exhibit “a versatile and luminous narrative gift”. Kipling was one of the most popular writers in England, in both prose and verse, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kipling’s subsequent reputation has changed according to the political and social climate of the age and the resulting contrasting views about him continued for much of the 20th century.Literary critic Douglas Kerr wrote: “He [Kipling] is still an author who can inspire passionate disagreement and his place in literary and cultural history is far from settled. But as the age of the European empires recedes, he is recognised as an incomparable, if controversial, interpreter of how empire was experienced. That, and an increasing recognition of his extraordinary narrative gifts, make him a force to be reckoned with.”

Certainly, I think I might find some of his more colonial works a little difficult to deal with; but this story is set in the heart of old England, Pevensey in Sussex and its environs. The book opens in high summer – it is Midsummer’s Eve and two children, Dan and Una, are performing their own version of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. They like it so much that they go through the play three times; but they haven’t noticed that they’re doing so in the middle of a fairy ring… Up pops the elf Puck, called up by their play; one of the Old Things, who’ve been in England for thousands and thousands of years. He claims to be the oldest of the Old Things, and in fact we wonder whether he might be the last.

Una and Dan are obviously imaginative children, and so receptive to Puck’s narratives of the past. He begins to regale them with stories from deep history, when there were pagan gods on earth and they came to England but somehow became absorbed into the land and turned into ordinary mortals. Puck, however, does not just relate other people’s stories; instead he plucks the protagonists from the past to tell their own tales directly to the children.

As the book progresses, we find out more about the making of England – the comings and goings of various tribes, how people in the past travelled far and wide over the globe, how men fought and empires rose and fell. And each night, when the children return home from their ‘play’, Puck gives them the gift of forgetting “by Oak, Ash and Thorn” – all three Celtic sacred trees. They meet Sir Richard Dalyngridge, who has adventures at home and on the high seas; the Roman centurion Parnesius, defending Hadrian’s Wall from the Picts among uncertain political forces and a failing Roman empire; Sir Harry Dawe; and the Jewish money-lender Kadmiel, who was instrumental in one of England’s most important laws…


I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from “Puck” but I don’t think it was quite such a deep, atmospheric, moving and engrossing book! The writing is quite lovely, and the descriptions of the Sussex landscape – the heat, the stillness, the buzzing of bees – will be familiar to anyone who’s spent a summer day in the English countryside. The stories Puck and his fellows tell us are poignant and inspiring at the same time – full of adventure (pirates and Devils in the southern seas; Viking invaders) but also change and loss (Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries and the religious wars; the waning of the Roman empire). It’s a tribute to Kipling’s skill that he can encapsulate all this in a children’s story.

“The houses change from gardened villas to shut forts with watchtowers of grey stone, and great stone-walled sheepfolds, guarded by armed Britons of the North Shore. In the naked hills beyond the naked houses, where the shadows of the clouds play like cavalry charging, you see puffs of black smoke from the mines. The hard road goes on and on – and the wind sings through your helmet plume – past altars to Legions and Generals forgotten, and broken statues of Gods and Heroes, and thousands of graves where the mountain foxes and hares peep at you. Red-hot in summer, freezing in winter, is that big purple heather country of broken stone.”

And it’s a very gripping story – so much so, that I was as lost in the tales of the past as Dan and Una were, coming back to their present (and mine!) with a bit of a shock, as Puck brought forgetfulness to the children. The tales are interspersed with poems and songs, lamenting losses, praising heroes and telling stories in their own right. One of the most moving sections of the book is that which deals with the leaving of the fairy folk from English shores, as the world becomes riven with strife which they cannot deal with. They are spirited away by boat, sailed abroad by two sons of a wise woman; one is blind and one cannot speak so the fate of the little people will never be told among mortals.

“Puck” draws on the myths and legends of England, but tells them with a twist, from the point of view of minor players – making them all the more human. Why this should touch me so deeply is a question I pondered – being an ex-pat Scot I suppose I’m technically a pict, so I shouldn’t relate to the English past. However, I spent most of my young life in Andover, a very old town in Hampshire (which gets a mention in the book!) and I do feel very connected to the southern English landscape. I found myself reflecting that there is no ‘pure’ English stock; we are a polyglot nation, formed from all the many races who’ve come and gone from our shores over the centuries. Nevertheless, I think Kipling is saying that those who stay become one with the land and from that springs the Britain we know today.

“Puck of Pook’s Hill” is a little masterpiece – wonderfully involving, full of expert storytelling, deeply moving. I read it on what felt like the first summer day of the year, with the sun shining, the air still and soundless, and bees buzzing in the back garden – I can’t think of a more appropriate book to read on a day like that, and hats off to Hesperus for their lovely new edition of this amazing book.

A lost Calvino interview

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The great writer interviewed by the BBC (in English!) just before his death and shown in 1985 shortly after he passed away:

Recent Reads: Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson


Since making the acquaintances of the lovely little Moomins recently, I’ve felt myself drawn back towards Moominland – so I suppose it wasn’t going to be long before I caught up with their second adventure, “Comet in Moominland”!

CometMoominland_covThis is the first ‘proper’ Moomin story, as all the regular characters make their proper entry and are named, and it was first published in 1946. The tale opens in Moomin Valley, where Moomintroll and Sniff (the ‘little creature’) are off exploring. They follow a path to the sea, encountering a mischievous silk monkey on the way, and discover a wonderful cave. However, all is not as idyllic as it might seem, as everywhere they go, the pair come across a strange symbol – a star with a tail. Nature seems to be trying to tell them that all is not well, and when Moomintroll discovers that a comet is approaching earth, he and Sniff set off to find the observatory on top of the Lonely Mountains, where the astronomers can tell them what is happening.


Their journey is a long one, and dangerous too, as they encounter crocodiles, storms, underground rivers and other perils. Once they’ve confirmed the arrival date of the comet, there is a race against time to get home to warn the others – but along the way are all sorts of distractions, like a Village Shop, a ball and a very fetching Snork Maiden who Moomintroll finds very attractive… Will they make it home in time and what will happen when the comet arrives?

This is *such* a wonderful book that I feel totally aggrieved that I never read the Moomins when I was young! Jansson’s created a beautiful little world, peopled with loveable creatures; all of whom have their own foibles and frailties, but that makes them all the more loveable! Moomintroll is a mix of brave and cautious; Sniff is a bit scared of everything and not afraid to claim credit for things he hasn’t done; Snufkin has a story for all occasions and is very awkward about new things; the Snork Maiden is rather self-obsessed; and the Snork wants to have meetings about everything! Nevertheless, they all pull together when needs be, and I got *so* involved in their journey!

“You must go on a long journey before you can really find out how wonderful home is.”

The illustrations, of course, deserve special mention – simple line drawings which are so evocative and imaginative, capturing wonderful landscapes and all the adventures of the journey. I wish it was possible to get the books in big, deluxe volumes so you could see larger versions of the drawings! And the situations she puts her characters in are so imaginative and memorable – one of my favourites was of the adventurers crossing the dry sea bed on stilts.


With these books, I feel there’s plenty going on under the surface, and perhaps it’s only as an adult reader you see these things. The characters go through a number of experiences which force them to see past their foibles and grow up a little; and because of when the book was published, I couldn’t help thinking of the comet as analogous to the Nazis and Second World War which had swept so close to the world, trying to destroy everything familiar…

“Moomintroll thought how frightened the earth must be feeling with that great ball of fire coming nearer and nearer to her. Then he thought about how much he loved everything; the forest and the sea, the rain and the wind, the sunshine, the grass and the moss, and how impossible it would be to live without them all, and this made him feel very sad.”

I’m growing to love the little Moomins and their wonderfully evoked world – but I think I should definitely ration the books or I’ll be tempted to gobble them all at once and have nothing left to read!!

Incoming! ….plus a new collection begins….


Well, by my standards, it’s been quite a quiet week for book acquisitions – which is probably a good thing, really…

The Cheyney on the left came from an online source – I’m not exactly sure why, except for the fact that the cover is wonderful, and it is apparently set around Pevensey which I’ve just been reading about in another book (there will be a review later this week)! The Ransome and the Innes came from the Samaritans Book Cave – I’ve never got round to reading “Swallows and Amazons” so this year will be the one I do. And any Innes is usually worth picking up!

As for the new collection – well, I’m a sucker for book lists and the like, and while I was flaneuring across the InterWeb this week I stumbled upon a list of “Roth’s Writers from the Other Europe”, which had some fascinating titles on it. Excitingly enough, I have four of the books listed (and have read one of them) so this rather encourages me to check out some of the other ones….

Somehow (and I can’t recall how – that’s the nature of online wandering!) I came across another little collection of Central European Classics, which had been put out by Penguin a couple of years ago in lovely bright colours. I guess they bombed a bit (which is a great shame), because I can’t see that they ever put out any more and they’re only now available second-hand. So a couple have made their way to the Ramblings:

I’m quite surprised I haven’t noticed these before, because I’ve been keen on reading Capek for a while. However, I’ve found them now – there’s only ten – and they’re mostly not expensive. Oh dear – I can hear the bookshelves groaning in anticipation!

As for my current reading – the very spiky and wonderful “The Surprise of Cremona” by Edith Templeton. And there was a surprise in store when I looked her up online – I recognised one of her book covers and realised I have picked up this:


in a charity shop and it was hidden in my stacks. Truly I need to sort these books out and get them into some sort of order and actually make a (very big) list of what I have to read!!

Vintage Crime Shorts: Another Duo of Tales


Time for a little more vintage crime – because I must confess that I have several book hangovers at the moment and can’t really settle to anything of substance! However, murder mysteries are always good as mental palate cleansers!! I’m gradually reading my way through the lovely “Dead Witness” collection and this time round there were two tales – Arrested on Suspicion by Andrew Forrester Jr. (1864), and the title story, The Dead Witness: or, The Bush Waterhole – W.W. (Mary Fortune) (1866).

These stories were very different from each other and of the two, I definitely preferred the second. Forrester’s tale is narrated by John Pendrath, who lives with his sister Annie. After a new lodger moves into their building, with a slightly dubious air about her, John and Annie notice she has a visitor (her daughter?) who might be mistaken for Annie. Then his sister is arrested for apparently being a thief and it is left to John to investigate. To be honest, I found the story somewhat plodding, with our very precise and pedantic detective constantly reminding us he was following in the footsteps of Poe. Much of the plot was taken up with him trying to recreate the methods employed in The Purloined Letter to find a missing communication and the rest was about decrypting cyphers, and honestly just a little dull. It was enjoyable but one of the weakest entries so far.


However, the title story was much, much better and had a fascinating background. Mary Fortune was the first woman to write detective stories, and her is set in the Australian outback. A young photographer has gone missing and the narrator, a detective called Brooke, goes off to the bush to investigate. Here he runs across traces of foul play and sets about tracking down the murderer and his prey. The story was quite innovative, with excellent scene-setting and good descriptions. Fortune captured the strangeness of the outback well, and the story is atmospheric and quite shocking at some points. Fortune by all accounts had quite a lively life, ending up in jail for vagrancy and alcoholism – but she certainly made a large contribution to the detective genre!

I’m enjoying reading my way through these early tales of crime and investigation – highly recommended for any classic crime fan!

Recent Reads: Inclinations by Ronald Firbank


“I’m glad I can still sometimes drug my senses with a book,” Lady Dorinda exclaimed.

You know the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous”? Well, Proust’s prose is definitely sublime, and Ronald Firbank’s characters are wonderfully ridiculous, so it certainly applies here! And you couldn’t get two more different books than these – the deep and lyrical “Swann’s Way” and the short, snappy, witty “Inclinations”! It’s quite surprising, actually, how far apart these authors are – actually at opposite ends of the spectrum – particularly as they were almost contemporaries.

I reviewed Firbank’s “Vainglory” here, and published Michael Walmer has been kind enough to supply a copy of his second novel, “Inclinations”. I can see that Michael has a fondness for Firbank, and it’s easy to see why, as he’s such a quirky and witty writer! This is the third Firbank I’ve read (the first being Valmouth, many years ago) and he just gets better and better…

inclinations“Inclinations” is notionally about the experiences of young and bored Mabel Collins, who is whisked off to Greece by the famous biographer Geraldine O’Brookomore. The latter, often referred to as Gerald throughout the book, is on the trail of her latest subject, the female traveller Kitty Kettler, and Mabel comes along as a companion. Mabel, however, is soon being wooed by the dashing Count Pastorelli, and eyed up by the newly married Mr. Arbanel (much to the chagrin of his young wife). Needless to say, Mabel and Gerald encounter all kinds of eccentric characters, prone to spouting strange and witty dialogue, before events reach a crisis (well, actually, several!) – there are Professor and Mrs. Cowsend, the actress Miss Arne, Miss Clint (queen of the ladies’ maids) and the Australian Miss Dawkins. The second section of the book finds Mabel back at home – although many things have changed in her life…

Like “Vainglory”, this book was a real hoot! Firbank’s sharp conversations and constant repartee is quite breathtaking, and it’s amazing how something which is basically woven together strips of dialogue can be so funny and actually be understood; in fact, one short chapter consists of the world “Mabel!” repeated eight times and makes perfect sense in context, and because of what has gone before!


Firbank obviously made an art of telling a story in as few sentences as possible, at least in this early part of his career. However, there is a fascinating part of the book which reveals how change would come, and that’s chapter IV of the second section. This particular edition contains an alternative version of that chapter, written much later, and it’s noticeably and strikingly different from his early style: there are paragraphs of description; completely new characters; they are given proper introductions; and the prose feels expanded, altogether different from the early way Firbank tells his tale. However, even in this early work, Firbank can do description with the best of them:

“In the grey cedar crests, from the blue fir-trees of the Kronian hill, the wols flapped gabbling; among the fields of mournful olives the cicadas called; over the fragments of fallen marble, crushing the wild thyme, the fire-flies flashed; and on the verandah of the Hotel de France, the scintillation of her diamonds harmonising equally with the heavens as with the earth, Dorinda, Lady Gaiheart, was finishing a tale.”

“Inclinations” is a worth addition to Michael Walmer’s catalogue. Although slim, it’s as witty and funny as the other Firbanks; and this edition once again features a lovely Aubrey Beardsley cover drawing. Highly recommended for anyone who likes camp repartee and whimsical humour!

Reading Proust: Swann’s Way


The reading of Marcel Proust’s epically long work, known variously as “Remembrance of Things Past” or “In Search of Lost Time”, depending which translation you read, has the reputation of being one of the most difficult things to do amongst bookish folks! And it’s true that I’ve been carrying around my three Penguin volumes for over three decades, thinking that one day I would read Proust. In fact, reading Proust is often spoken of with the same kind of trepidation as the reading of Joyce’s “Ulysses” although with the Frenchman it’s the length of the volumes (and the sentences!) which seems to be the most off-putting.


Whatever – as I said here, I was moved to embark on Proust properly (after a couple of abortive attempts in the past) thanks to a fellow LibraryThinger, Laura, and I’m going to tackle it a novel at a time, with gaps in between. So the first one is in my volume entitled Swann’s Way, and that’s where I have begun.

First, a word on Proust himself, from Wikipedia: “Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922) was a French novelist, critic, and essayist best known for his monumental novel ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ (‘In Search of Lost Time’; earlier translated as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’). It was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927.”

Interestingly, he died before the work was fully completed and there have been different versions of the later books pieced together over the years. The first English translation was by C. K. S. Moncrieff, from what is now regarded as a non-definitive version, and he was actually working on it while Proust was still alive. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and was the standard for years, until a new French version was put together and so Moncrieff’s translation was updated to reflect this by Terence Kilmartin, and it’s this version I have; an omnibus in three volumes from Penguin in the 1980s.

More recently, there have been new English versions by a group of different translators. I confess I’m a little wary of the idea of the various volumes not being rendered in the same ‘translated voice’ so I’ve stuck with my older version and so we’ll see how I get on!

Book 1 is “Swann’s Way”, and it’s divided into four sections: Overture; Combray; Swann in Love and Place-Names: The Name. It’s 462 pages long, which is half the page length of some Russian chunksters I’ve read recently – but that doesn’t necessarily make it a quick read….

“Overture” introduces us to our unnamed narrator (I believe he later is given the name Marcel), a boy much occupied by love of his mother, and the need for her to come and tuck him in with a goodnight kiss; if family friend Charles Swann is visiting for dinner, then he doesn’t get his night-time visit. Here we first come across the character who will dominate much of the first book. Marcel is obviously a highly strung, perhaps sickly, boy; subject to dreams and night terrors, unreasonably anxious about things. This section ends with Proust’s most famous piece of writing, that of the ‘peitit madeleine’, the taste of which triggers memory.


“Combray” tells of Marcel’s life when his family are visiting the country and staying with great-aunt Leonie, an invalid, and of the countryside around them and the ambience, sights, smells, sounds and people of the area. There are two country walks the family take, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, which are described in much detail; and Swann has become someone they cannot visit because his wife is staying locally and it transpires he has made an unfortunate marriage. Marcel catches a glimpse of Gilberte, the Swanns’ daughter, and is instantly smitten.

“Swann in Love” gets to the heart of the story, going back in years to tell the tale of Charles Swann’s great love: his passion for Odette, basically a high-class courtesan, and the effect on his life and his psyche. This section charts the course of their affair in detail: the ups and downs; the high emotions; the jealousy and betrayal; and the reversing of roles. Much of this takes place via the house of the Verdurins, proto-Bohemians, holding soirees and deploring ‘bores’. It’s a very intense tale, and a remarkable portrait of love in all its beauties and horrors.

The final part of the book, “Place-Names: The Name”, jumps forward again and takes us to Paris, where Marcel and his family have returned home from Combray. Marcel re-encounters Gilberte, and they become playmates in the Bois du Boulogne. The passion of Swann for Odette is replicated in a slightly watered-down, younger way by Marcel and his obsession with Gilberte. The book ends with the older Marcel revisiting the Bois and regretting the passing of time and the loss of an age of elegance.

That’s a really short summary to give some idea of what the book is about, but to be honest, events as such are not what Proust is about. For a start, there’s his prose and sentence structure – incredibly long and labyrinthine, they’re actually sometimes hard to follow, but his writing is really quite gorgeous and atmospheric. We’re reading about emotions and images and the landscape and the stars and what’s inside a human and what it sees outside of itself.

“It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.”

To be a little more specific, the book is dominated by Swann and his passion; and as a portrait of hopeless, doomed love, it’s unparalleled. Charles Swann is a stockbroker of Jewish extraction; well-known, well-connected, friends with many royals and a serial seducer. He seems to do little but chase women, collect art and occasionally scribble at an article on Vermeer. When he meets Odette de Crecy, he is initially unimpressed, as she is very much not his type. Odette, however, is making a play for Swann, and initially the seduction attempts are all from her. Odette attends the somewhat strange gatherings at the Verdurins’, and here Proust has a wonderful time mocking them and their pretensions. He’s very crushing, poking fun at them all, and you wonder initially why a woman like Odette would want to mix with them (unless it’s just to meet potential male protectors!) However, as the friendship between Swann and Odette continues, the balance shifts; finding her unattractive, he strives to make her appeal to him and eventually does by turning her into an illusion, a replica of a work of art loves. By turning his perception of her into the image of something he can love he unwittingly becomes the creator of his own doom.

“Among all the modes by which love is brought into being, among all the agents which disseminate that blessed bane, there are few so efficacious as this gust of feverish agitation that sweeps over us from time to time. For then the die is cast, the person whose company we enjoy at that moment is the person we shall henceforward love. It is not even necessary for that person to attracted us, up till then, more than or even as much as others. All that was needed was that our predilection should become exclusive. And that condition is fulfilled when – in this moment of deprivation – the quest for the pleasures we enjoyed in his or her company is suddenly replaced by an anxious, torturing need, whose object is the person alone, an absurd, irrational need which the laws of this world make it impossible to satisfy and difficult to assuage – the insensate, agonising need to possess exclusively.”

As Swann falls deeply in love, Odette moves away from him. I found myself, the more I read, coming to the conclusion that he was just a bit dim! He wilfully ignores the reality of Odette’s lifestyle and past, never questioning what kind of woman she really is, until it is far too late and he is utterly obsessed. Proust (and narrator Marcel, who interjects a little disconcertingly towards the end of this section) dissects Swann’s emotions and feeling, charting the course of an all-encompassing passion. As Swann’s love and jealously become more intense, he discovers more of Odette’s lifestyle and hinted-at perversions – none of which assuage his feelings or cool his ardour.

“I do feel it’s absurd that a man of his intelligence should let himself suffer for a woman of that sort, and one who isn’t even interesting, for they tell me she’s an absolute idiot!” she added, with the wisdom invariably shown by people who, not being in love themselves, feel that a clever man should only be unhappy about a person who is worth his while; which is rather like being astonished that anyone should condescend to die of cholera at the bidding of so insignificant a creature as the comma bacillus” Princess des Laumes,

And I did find myself wondering where my sympathies lay. I felt that Proust wanted us to take Swann’s side, empathising with his pain and the indignities he goes through in his pursuit of Odette. But as a 21st century woman, I found myself understanding something of Odette’s need to survive in what is a rigid, restricted, caste-bound society world; Swann has money and privilege, which he takes for granted, but Odette only has herself to use to obtain money and security. I questioned just a little bit, too, whether Swann would actually have fallen in love with Odette, as when we see him in high society, he is obviously so much at home, so much of that milieu that it’s hard to imagine him taking such a step outside it. However, there are no absolutes in human behaviour!


Reflecting on this book, I realise that it covers so many types of love: that of Marcel for his mother; Swann for Odette; Marcel for Gilberte; but also the other friends and family, and the landscape and natural world. Proust, through his narrator Marcel, captures beautifully and poetically the confusion of youth, full of vague, unspecified but intense longings. As he wanders through Swann’s Way or the Guermantes Way, the imagery of nature, sky and land is stunning. Finishing the book I was left with a series of most vivid and beautiful images – embracing the hawthorns; a particular musical phrase played at gathering; ghastly soirees at Verdurins; and of course the evocative taste of the madeleines.

But if this book is about anything, it is about time – the consistent theme throughout. There are in effect two Marcels – the older version who is looking back to the child; and even the young narrator is bound up in the effects of time upon his life. Time is the thing humans have the hardest job coming to terms with – how it passes, how to speed up or slow down that passing, the effect time has on us, the loss and regret at what has passed. For all of us, our past continues to resonate throughout our lives (more than we might like to admit), particularly our childhood; and Proust captures this so brilliantly in his sensuous, dreamlike prose.

“Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries which we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be.”

I’ve been asked if Proust is difficult to read, and the answer is actually no, not really. Logically enough, for a book so focussed on time, that’s the one thing you have to be prepared to give it. There is absolutely no way you can read “ROTP” quickly; I’m a fast reader, but I slowed right down here and I found the best way to enjoy the experience was to let the gorgeous prose just wash over me. Yes, sometimes you get a little lost and have to go back over a sentence or two; yes, sometimes the lush, lyrical description and the complex sentence structure *can* appear off-putting; but the effort is most definitely worth it. I thought I would be clever and read some Proust every day alongside another book, but I found it impossible – I was so engrossed in the stories of Swann and Marcel that I was drawn back in, having the experience of almost being absorbed into the book to the exclusion of everything else (which is not good when you’re supposed to be working, but you’re wanting to read your book!). The writing was so vivid and involving that it many ways the book became a kind of alternative reality that I was living through.


This book (only the first of the sequence!) will continue to reverberate with me for a long time to come; my head is full of images of the country round Combray; of Marcel embracing the beautiful hawthorn blossom; of the Bois du Boulogne in autumn; of young Marcel’s nightlight; of the profile of Odette and her beautiful, elegant clothes. What I can put into a blog post is inevitably going to be limited – after all, people have written books and books analysing Proust and I’ve only scratched the surface here. But I will continue to give my impressions, my response to the wonderful prose of Proust. This will definitely be the year that I read “Remembrance of Things Past”!

Find of the Week!!


I’ve been lucky enough to receive a few review books this week, so the book-buying itch was quite mild when I popped into town at the weekend. I was pleased to upgrade my copy of “the Constant Nymph” for a less battered original green Virago version:


And the fact that it was only £1 was a good thing too!

But find of the week was most definitely this in the British Red Cross shop:


I’ve only read one Hamilton so far, but have another on Mount TBR, and he’s someone I want to read more of/about – so this was a real find – and a real bargain too! Because the Red Cross shop only sell their books at two for £1, so of course I had to choose another – making both utter bargains at 50p each! The second book I chose was Rose Macaulay’s “Towers of Trebizond”. I truly can’t remember if I already have a copy – I think I do, but if so, I’m sure I can find someone to pass it on to.

I *love* the local charity shops!! 🙂

A Proustian Musical Distraction!

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Discovering Nancy Spain


(I thought long and hard about posting this review, as the book title is perhaps a little inappropriate at the moment, bearing in mind all the awful news stories that are about. However, the book is such fantasy, so far away from reality, that I don’t think it can be seen as having any relevance to current events – so here goes….)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book is a really bad influence! He’s constantly coming across obscure writers and pointing his readers in their direction – the most recent being Nancy Spain, a once prominent personality who seems alas to languish in obscurity nowadays. Needless to say, I don’t need much prompting to go off on a book search, and a couple of Nancy’s works have made their way to my shelves!

Wikipedia summarises her thus: Nancy Brooker Spain (13 September 1917 – 21 March 1964) was a prominent English broadcaster and journalist. She was a columnist for the Daily Express, She magazine and the News of the World in the 1950s and 1960s. She also appeared on many radio broadcasts, particularly on Woman’s Hour and My Word!, and later as a panellist on the television programmes What’s My Line? and Juke Box Jury. Spain died in a plane crash near Aintree racecourse while travelling to commentate on the 1964 Grand National.

It was the thought of her crime thrillers that attracted me most, as I’m a sucker for vintage crime, and the first one to arrive was this lovely volume:

spain front

It’s an old, battered Book Club edition – so therefore, of course, very appealing in my eyes! It’s the Hutchinson Universal Book Club, to be precise, one I’ve not come across before – and I had to scan the wonderful back cover, featuring a great picture of Nancy by Angus McBean:

spain reverse

Anyway, on to the contents. Spain’s crime series seems to feature regular characters and detectives (Johnny DuVivien and Miriam Birdseye seem to be the main ones, but Johnny’s wife Natasha, a Russian ex-ballerina, also features strongly in “Poison” – in fact, she was possibly my favourite character!). The book opens with Johnny and Natasha arguing about music – obviously as he’s an Australian wrestler and she a Russian ballerina, Stravinsky is only going to appeal to one of them! Natasha packs a case and leaves, going to stay with her friend Miriam Birdseye, whose detective agency, Birdseye et Cie, is not doing too well. Fortunately, a letter arrives from Miss Liscoomb, the head of Radcliff Hall school in Sussex, where some unpleasant events have been taking place….

The ladies decamp to Brunton-on-Sea, and pose as a couple of temporary teachers while investigating – and in fact, not long after their arrival, the lights go out during a meal and the hot chocolate urn taps are turned on, resulting in one child being par-boiled (yes, really!)

Miriam and Natasha are roped into the school play, “Quality Street”, and gradually get to know the staff at the school, and the locals involved. Old friends (presumably from previous books) turn up, like the improbably named and very camp Roger Partick-Thistle. And then finally, a murder takes place. Can Miriam and Natasha solve the crime before anyone else gets hurt? And will Johnny sulk all through the book or try to track down his missing wife?

As you might have sensed, there’s an awful lot of tongue-in-cheek in “Poison” – in fact, I found myself laughing like a drain at a lot of points during the book. The names along are enough to set you off: Gwylan Fork-Thomas, the chemistry mistress; Dr. Lariat, the local medic and heart-throb; Mrs. Buttick, his housekeeper; Mrs. Grossbody, the matron, Charity Puke, the Classics mistress and her hideous, controlling mother Mrs. Puke; and so on! And Spain’s writing is very witty:

“They drove briskly into Brunton-on-Sea, sitting upright in Roger’s Austin Seven, petrol for which was allowed for educational purposes. They were unalarmed by anything on the wet dark drive except a leaf that blew against the wind-screen and an apparition that fled before them howling like a wolf. It wore a black slouched hat and a loose dark cloak, and was obviously Miss Lesarum saying good night to her Girl Guide patrol.”

If you like your humour delivered drily and in many cases in punchline sentences, then Spain is the writer for you! There is a sense almost of caricature at times, with the lady teachers falling into the stereotypes you’d expect from a girls’ school, with their passions for each other, and also their admirers amongst the girls (it’s not called Radcliff Hall for nothing!). The pupils themselves are hideous, particularly Julia Bracewood-Smith (daughter of the local celebrity crime novelist) and the dreaded, bullying Gwen Soames, who’s worthy of St. Trinians! Spain has great fun sending up the traditional boarding school tale, the high point of which might be the game of Bally Netball, a violent ball game particular to the school which is considerably dangerous:

“The game of Bally Netball raged on unchecked. The little girls were inspired by such terror of their head mistress (now playing like a lambent flame along the ground) that they dared not turn their heads…. By the time that Natasha and Roger had left the Bally Netball game no-one had been killed…” – although quite a number of children do get injured!!

The characters are all larger than life but great fun, particularly Natasha, who does most of the detecting in “Poison” and has a very individual way of speaking:

“And she is telling you that you are going mad, I suppose?” said Natasha.
“Yes,” said Miss Lipscoomb, and sank into a chair. She put her head in her hands. “I think it is true,” she said. “But how did you know?”
“That’s an old one,” said Miriam briskly. “I always used to tell my first husband he was going mad,” she said. “In the end he did,” she added triumphantly.

What’s also noticeable about Spain’s writing is the complete lack of political correctness! Some characters are described as Jews or Jewesses, one of Johnny’s employees addresses him as “Bawss”, Roger Partick-Thistle is portrayed as a screaming queen, and there are many hints at lesbian lifestyles, either overtly (in the case of Gladys Puke’s passion for Gwylan) or more obliquely (the relationship between Miss Lipscoomb and her erstwhile partner at the school, Miss bbirch). There’s also a description of a special school’s outing to the seaside that I won’t repeat here… However, in some ways this is quite refreshing, in that Spain was writing from the margins herself. She was a lesbian herself, and lived with Joan Werner Laurie (the founder of She magazine) for a large part of her life; nevertheless, she had to feign a relationship with TV personality of the day, Gilbert Harding, to satisfy the publicity hounds – which is quite bizarre. So I can put these things in context and allow for them, because Spain was quite happy to lampoon anyone, including herself!

“Black Market Bob was a very smart taxi-driver indeed. He was so smart that he looked like one of Hitler’s S.S. Guards. He made cleanliness appear positively sinister. … Black Market Bob was certainly good-looking in a curious Germanic way. He only looked his best when wearing a peaked cap.”

If this all sounds a bit flippant, there *is* a murder mystery in there, and it’s quite absorbing though if I’m honest, a little straightforward. There are a couple of murders, a number of mysteries, some buried secrets and a lot of high emotion! We’re certainly not up to Christie or Sayers standard here, but I don’t expect Spain was intending her book to be that in-depth. Instead, I imagine she was trying to provide an entertainment, and “Poison” certainly does that! I really enjoyed my read of Nancy Spain – and fortunately there’s another volume of hers waiting in the wings!


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