Short and deeply unsettling…. @mjohnharrison @nightjarpress #doelea


It seems like today is a good day to post a few thoughts about a little limited edition chapbook I picked up recently (and got a bit excited about) – “Doe Lea” by M. John Harrison, from Nightjar Press. I’ve rambled on about MJH on the blog before; I’ve been reading his books for decades, and I love his writing. Very distinctive, very individual, often unsettling and defying categorisation – the sort of thing I love, really!

Anyway, I follow his website, and when he mentioned “Doe Lea” would be coming out in a signed, limited edition of 200 copies I was standing by to do that internet shopping magic as soon as it appeared on the Nightjar site. Which I duly did, and my copy arrived a couple of days later to much excitement at the Ramblings (and slight puzzlement from Mr. Kaggsy who, despite being supportive of my bookishness, doesn’t quite get why I get so worked up about literature….) However – back to “Doe Lea”.

I reviewed MJH’s collection “You Should Come With Me Now” back in 2017; a collection of shorter works of varying length, it really proved that the author is a master of whatever form of writing he takes on. “Doe Lea” would actually have fitted into the collection very well; 15 pages long, it’s a haunting and somewhat disconcerting story, taking a snapshot from the life of one man. As the tale begins, the narrator is leaving the hospital where his father has just died; he takes the train south from London towards the coast on his journey home, musing on memories of his father and how the latter had been affected by his final illness. The train develops some kind of fault and stops at a small place called “Doe Lea”, which oddly enough the narrator doesn’t seem to have noticed before.

As there’s like to be a delay before the train is fixed, the man wanders around Doe Lea; the place is small, oddly quiet, and there is a weird geographical feature. The people he encounters are unsettling; an air of stasis seems to hover over the town, having an almost hypnotic effect. The train will no doubt be fixed and will leave, but there are real doubts about whether man will get on it, who he actually is, and the slippery nature of the reality we are apparently reading about…

I shan’t say much more about “Doe Lea”, except to say that it was a really fascinating, beautifully written and disturbing piece of writing. Although nothing directly *scary* happens, there is an underlying sense of unease running through the whole story; MJH is quite brilliant about conveying that kind of thing in his work. Much is left unexplained and to the imagination, which is always a much more effective way of unsettling the reader. and there’s a blurring of identity which is quite unnerving. I have to say that if my train ever stopped at Doe Lea I don’t think I’d want to get out – and I’m glad I read this in the daytime, because I’m still wondering about the strange geographical feature…

So “Doe Lea” was a fitting read for Halloween; although I’m sad to say that I can’t encourage you madly to go off and buy a copy because it seems (unsurprisingly) to be sold out. MJH has a new book out next year (exciting!) and maybe “Doe Lea” will turn up in another collection some time – I certainly hope so, because it deserves a really wide audience! 😀

“Dogs are better than cats” (Miranda Hart) @NottingHillEds #ondogs


On Dogs: An Anthology

It’s blindingly obvious from my Ramblings that I’m a huge fan of Notting Hill Editions; their beautifully presented and always engrossing editions are starting to find a regular place on my shelves…. ;D What you may not have realised is that I’m also a huge fan of dogs! When it comes to our four-legged friends I definitely come down on the side of the canines (sorry, cat-lovers – although I love them a bit too…) I guess the fact that I grew up in a family which always had a dog in the house has got something to do with it. The first resident was Buster, a Collie/Cocker Spaniel cross my mum and dad had when they got married. He was a lovely, even tempered dog and my mum was heartbroken when we lost him. She kind of swore she would never have another dog, until we stumbled across West Highland Terriers. Some friends visited from Scotland with their Westie called Hamish. My brother and I were entranced, and when a Westie puppy appeared in a local pet shop we plagued my mother until she brought it home with us. He was Hamish too and he lived until he was 17; he was followed by Duncan, Angus and Jamie until my dad passed away and my mum decided a dog was too much for her. Which is a roundabout way of saying I am a Dog Person; so the latest release from Notting Hill Editions, a wonderful anthology entitled “On Dogs” is most definitely my kind of book! 😀

“On Dogs” is edited by Rosie Heys, and comes with an entertaining introduction by Tracey Ullman. It’s illustrated by photographs by Gruffpawtraits, and the contents range far and wide through a marvellous array of authors writing about dogs in all shapes and forms. There really are some excellent selections, and not only fictional dogs, but extracts from people like Barbara Woodhouse and her thoughts on how to train dogs; academic discussions on the gradual development of the dog species and the morals of breeding, and indeed having a pet at all; and thoughts about the differences between dogs and wolves.

There’s poetry, including verse from Lord Byron and the Empress of China; Virginia Woolf introduces Flush to Elizabeth Barrett; Jack London shows us dogs in the wild; and we even get to encounter Bulgakov’s mongrel Sharik, who takes centre stage in his very wonderful “Heart of a Dog”. Elsewhere, A.A. Gill and Will Self tussle with the fact that they have been seduced into becoming dog owners by a pair of pleading canine eyes; we learn about the role of dogs in expeditions to the North Pole; Mrs. Gaskell shows us a surprising harshness from the Brontes towards their dogs; and John Steinbeck travels through the southern states of America with his dog Charley.

And that’s just some of the riches “On Dogs” contains; it really is a superb collection, full of funny, profound, moving and entertaining pieces about dogs (and of course their owners). I never like to pick favourites, because I enjoyed all of these pieces, but I must mention two authors in particular. Brigitte Bardot, known for her love of animals and running sanctuaries for them in France, provides a powerful ‘Open Letter’ where she condemns the wanton breeding of dogs which has led to such an overpopulation of the animals that her sanctuaries are full of unwanted canines. I couldn’t agree more, and if I ever get round to having a dog of my own it will be a rescue one. *

Mother used to send a box of candy every Christmas to the people the Airedaile bit. The list finally contained forty or more names. Nobody could understand why we didn’t get rid of the dog. I didn’t understand it very well myself, but we didn’t get rid of him.

Then there’s James Thurber… He contributes a piece entitled “The Dog That Bit People”, which is taken from his “My Life and Hard Times”. It tells the story of an Airedale called Muggs who does indeed seem to bite everyone, including the family – so much so, that you actually do really wonder why they kept it! It’s a screamingly funny piece of writing which had me laughing so much I almost couldn’t breathe! I’ve read and reviewed Thurber before, and this reminded me how much I loved his writing – priceless!

So “On Dogs” is another winner from NHE as far as I’m concerned. It’s as beautifully produced as all of their hardback essay collections, and will entertain you from start to finish. Plus if you’re Christmas shopping for a dog lover it may well solve all your problems… (there, I said the C-word – sorry!) Me? I’m still laughing about Muggs…. ;D

*In case anyone’s wondering, I crave a Wire Hair Fox Terrier….

Coming in six month’s time – a very special reading club! :D


Time for a drumroll, please! After the success of the #1930Club (and what a fab week of reading it was!), Simon suggested we ask for nominations for the next Club reading week, which will be in six months’ time. Despite some proposals of early or late dates, we both feel comfy sticking within the 1920-1980 range, and the actual year of 1920 came up several times in comments on our blogs.

Now, that’s quite an interesting suggestion, because of course next year will be 100 years on from that year. So as it’s an era that appeals to both of us, has an interesting anniversary and was a popular choice, we’ve decided that the next club will be the #1920Club! 😀

Simon has designed this nifty graphic for us all to use when we’re reading and posting about books from 1920, and as you can see the dates will be 13-19 April 2020. I noticed, too, that this will be our tenth Club Week, so it’s a bit of a milestone as well!

So – you can’t say you haven’t been warned. You have six months to source, research, read, enjoy and get ready to post about books from 1920. I’ve already got one title lined up which I’m *very* happy about! So what are you waiting for? Ready, steady – off you go! Here’s to the #1920Club! 😀

On My Book Table… 3 – an update!


After the flurry of excitement and reading from 1930 for our recent Club Week, I thought it was about time I took stock and had a look at exactly what was on the Book Table; I frankly need to get a bit realistic about what I’m reading next, and there have also been some new arrivals at the Ramblings… So once I’d put away all the 1930 possibles, there was a bit more room to have a shuffle and a reorganise and a think about forthcoming reading; and after all that, I was left with these on the Table!

Yes – there are indeed a few newbies in the pile, though in fairness a couple of these are from the library. I reserved a shedload of Thomas Bernhard and that’s the last one to arrive; and Brian Bilston’s “Diary of a Somebody” was a must after I recently finished his marvellous poetry collection – review of the latter to follow shortly! Binet and the Lighthouses (sounds like an indie band…) have both previously appeared, but there are in fact five new review copies which have snuck in. The Stella Benson and Marie Belloc Lowndes are from the lovely Michael Walmer, and I have several of his titles standing by to read and review – all sounding very, very interesting. “The Government Inspector” is a lovely new translation of Gogol’s famous play from Alma which is calling strongly. And there are two fascinating Penguins which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books. Once again, choices, choices…

So only two of these are purchases, picked up at the weekend when browsing the charity shops with Eldest and Youngest Child (who came home for a flying visit). I know nothing about the Fitz-James O’Brien book apart from the fact that it apparently channels Poe (which has to be good)!  But the other find was a beautiful pristine Virago that I was pretty sure I didn’t already have – and I was right!

I own a number of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books already, and things weren’t helped by the fact that someone had donated several of them and I was trying to work out what I had and what I already had read. Anyway, I chose correctly and this is in lovely condition, so I was very happy to bring it home at a bargain price.

I’m currently actually reading a book on the pile – the lighthouses one, which is fascinating so far. However, perched on the top is this very slim story which I intend to get to soon:

As I’ve mentioned previously, this is a limited edition short work by M. John Harrison, and as it’s apparently a bit spooky we’re getting close to the right time of the year to read it!

So that’s what’s on the Book Table post-1930 Club! Hopefully I’ll be reading more than one of them soon! 😀


#1930Club – what a week and what a year! :D


Aaaaannnnnnndddd breath! We reach the end of another Club Reading Week, and what fun it’s been again! I’ve often said at the end of one of our Clubs that I could have happily read on for a second week; however, with 1930 – a bumper year in publishing, if there ever was one – I think I could easly have managed a month! 😀

However, I *am* pleased with the books I read, and I think there was quite a lot of variety in there (and not just a reliance on Golden Age Crime, however tempting that was!) Here are the books in question:

And I’m happy to say I enjoyed all of them (even if some of the poetry lost me occasionally…) Not going to pick out favourites – both classic crimes were amazing, and discovering Dos Passos was a real joy.

There were several I intended (or hoped!) to read which unfortunately slipped through the net; although I had a pretty large pile of possibles, these are the ones I most regret…

I could, of course, have read tons of Christie – “The Murder at the Vicarage” is an old favourite, and “Black Coffee” is a novelisation of her 1930 play (cheating, perhaps, but it would have been fun). I’m sad I didn’t get to the Sayers, but I shouldn’t need an excuse to read her. And alas, I read no Russians this week, which is most unusual for me. In fact, I’m feeling a bit of Russian Reading Deficiency at the moment (is that a condition?) so may have to embark on something soon. So, after I’ve had a lie down, what’s coming up next on the Ramblings? Well, dogs will make an appearance this week; I imagine more classic crime is on the horizon; and I hope to get onto lighthouses too (not literally).

And in case you were wondering about the next club (just so you could get planning in advance), Simon suggested we ask for nominations from our readers again; so if you have any ideas for a good year to read from in 6 months’ time, please do leave them on our blogs! Thanks to everyone who’s joined in, shared the love of 1930 and come up with a wonderful array of reading suggestions! I’ve loved reading from 1930, and thanks to Simon for being such a great co-host – watch our blogs to see where the next Club Reading Week will go!

#1930Club – “But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.”


My final read for the #1930Club is perhaps a bit of a contrast to the others, but tends to reflects some of the trends in literature at the time. Author John Dos Passos is remembered as a modernist writer, and with the first part of his ‘USA’ trilogy, “42nd Parallel”, which was first published in 1930, he was certainly experimenting with style.

I’ve had this book for a looooong time, and why I’ve never read it before is unclear to me… It’s certainly a Big Book (the three works collected together here run to over 1000 pages) but the first part is 340 pages which you would think is manageable. I started it early for our club week, but have only just managed to finish in time – for reasons I’ll talk about later!

“42nd” is set in America in the early part of the 20th century and the structure is a little unusual. Parts of the narrative follow the life stories of the main characters, but these are interspersed with sections called “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye”. The main narrative is relatively straightforward; the other sections fragmented and impressionistic, building up a composite picture of the developing modern world of America at the time. “Newsreel” has fragments from newspapers and song lyrics, capturing specific historical events and grounds the narrative in a time period; “Camera Eye” is particularly stream of consciousness, capturing the thinking of contemporary characters; and interspersed with these varied narratives are potted biographies of notable and relevant people of the age.

The four main characters are themselves a varied and interesting bunch; initially we encounter ‘Mac’ McCreary, firstly as a young boy known as Fainy (from Fenian – his Irish heritage and his left-wing family have led to him being named after the Irish Republican movement) and thereafter as he grows up, makes his way in the world and becomes heavily involved in a variety of working class revolutionary movements. Then there is J. Ward Moorhouse, who again comes from a poor background but takes a different trajectory through life, following his ambitions to become rich and successful. Janey Williams is a young stenographer whose aspirations are independence and to earn her own living – a relatively new ambition for women of the time. And finally, Eleanor Stoddard is a social climber; a cold woman, again from a poor background, she’s determined to make her way into society.

He hated the newspaper office and the inclines and the overcast skies and the breakneck wooden stairs he was always scrambling up and down, and the smell of poverty and cabbage and children and washing in the rattletrap tenements where he was always seeking out Mrs Piretti whose husband had been killed in a rumpus in a saloon on Locust Street or Sam Burkovich who’d been elected president of the Ukrainian singing society, or some woman with sudsy hands whose child had been slashed by a degenerate.

In the sections bearing each character’s name, we watch their lives unfolding; the affairs, the marriages, the ups and down of business and finance, the struggle to make ends meet and the relentless mobility. The men, in particular, move from city to city; and in some cases, other countries. Mac, most notably, spends time in Mexico where he witnesses part of Zapata’s revolution; and other characters travel to Europe as well as all over the United States. They inhabit a world which is changing, where the certainties and stabilities of America’s 19th century are falling away. Each has their own aspirations and their own views of where the country should go, but the impact of the First World War begins to encroach. Towards the end of the book America enters that War and a new character makes his entrance, in the form of Charley Anderson. Charley is another character who starts out with nothing, from a poor and restricedly religious home. Although only the first part of his journey appears in “42nd”, with him enlisting to go and fight, I can see he’ll reappear in later sections of the book.

The only man that gets anything out of capitalism is a crook, an’ he gets to be a millionaire in short order…

“42nd Parallel” turned out to be an absolutely fascinating book; and for all its modernist tropes, very readable! There can be something intimidating about approaching a large work with a reputation, but once I got embedded in the story, I couldn’t put it down. When I approached reading Dos Passos I anticipated something stylistically interesting and perhaps challenging; what I hadn’t expected was such a refreshingly socialist novel! The author certainly nails his colours to the mast and you might regard the book as the novel as social history. The story demonstrates what Dos Passos sees as the pernicious effect of the American Dream; the quest for modernity, possessions and money corrupts some characters and grinds others down.There is a stark contrast between Mac’s viewpoint and that of his wife and her family with their aspirational American dream, which is built on the bones and the work of others. Even the responses to the coming of war vary, from those who see it as a money-making opportunity to those who want to fight for their country. It’s a fascinating reflection of different types of humanity, and that divide between moral viewpoints seems very modern…

As you can see, it’s a chunky volume which I’ve only read part of….

The structure of the book itself is fascinating; the individual stories exist in isolation for a good part of the book until they begin to intersect, and it’s fascinating to see one particular character from another character’s viewpoint as the different strands begin to dovetail beautifully. Although some sections are grounded in fact, the separation seems a little nebulous in places, and in fact one biography has a section which is directly attributed elsewhere. The Newsreel and Camera Eye segments act as anchors and signposts, giving the narrative context and background; and the composite structure of the book weaves a rich tapestry, building up a vivid picture of the America of the time.

Initially, I was a little uncertain as to the attitudes displayed towards the female characters, particularly the harshness in the “Mac” sequences which make up the early parts of the book. However, as the narrative developed and Dos Passos introduced female stories, I found his writing of the women reflected the difficulties they faced, the struggle to make a living and the complex negotiations with the demands of the men around them. His women are not ciphers, each an individual coping with different situations in their own way, and I’m going to be interested to see how they move through the rest of the sequence of books.

Because, of course, this is only the first book in a set of three; the whole promises to be an immensely impressive undertaking and I finished “42nd Parallel” very keen to see how events play out over later volumes! This was perhaps an ambitious read for me to launch into during a busy time at work and with a deadline of the end of the #1930Club week looming; particularly as the type is quite small and the pages quite dense, so there’s a *lot* in the book’s 340 pages. Nevertheless, I’m really glad I *finally* picked up my first Dos Passos as it was an absorbing and rewarding read, and a fitting end to a wonderful week of reading books from a really rich year in publishing! 😀

#1930Club – The Poetry Edition…


When I was digging around in the stacks for 1930 books, I started wondering whether I’d ever read any poetry for our Club Weeks – and I don’t think I have (I could check, but my computer is very slow so I’m relying on my rubbish memory). This set me checking to see what verse had been published during that year, and I discovered an important volume had come out in 1930 – “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot. I own several collections of his verse so I went searching and discovered that of course I do own this volume. However, an online search revealed another intriguing fact; Basil Bunting, who I’ve discovered recently and written about on the blog here, published his first collection in 1930, an obscure privately printed book entitled “Redimiculum Matellarum” which is pretty much impossible to get hold of. However, some research revealed that all the poems included were available in his “Complete Poems”. I had been contemplating getting a copy of this for a while, and I’m afraid this discovery tipped me over the edge. Damn you Bloodaxe Books and your wonderful poetry editions!!

So I’ve been spending some time with Eliot and Bunting and am left facing the actually very difficult task of writing about these works. Many and much greater writers than I have pondered these poets, and frankly I don’t know that I’m qualified to offer much. So I’ll just share a few thoughts here – forgive me if I talk rubbish!

First up, Eliot. “Ash Wednesday” was written in 1927, after the poet had converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism, and as you might gather from the title is a work concerning religion. Wikipedia describes it as “richly but ambiguously allusive and (it) deals with the move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation”; I suspect it’s the religious references which cause me to struggle with it. Yes, I’ve read “Ash Wednesday” but I’d be lying if I said I understood it. It’s a dense, evocative text, laden with imagery; and though I don’t always get the sense of it, I often love the sound of the words. More about the latter later in this post…

In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying

On to Basil. Bunting was associated with the Modernist poets of the early 20th century, and was highly regarded by the likes of Ezra Pound. The poems in “Redimiculum Matellarum” (which apparently translates literally as ‘A necklace of chamberpots’ ) are scattered around the Collected volume and I made a list and read them in order. The first verse is “Villon”, included in a section entitled ‘Sonatas’, and the man of the title was a 15th century poet-villain. The poem reads as a prison ballad, with the modern poet merging at times with the historical one and aligning himself and his experiences with the life of the earlier man. The other verses vary in length and range over love and sex, the poetic muse and the beauty of the world. Bunting’s verse is intriguing, often contrasting beauty with harsh realities; and I ended up keen to read more of his work.

… drift on merciless reiteration of years;
descry no death; but spring
is everlasting

So – poetry. I like reading poetry very much; but with the more complex stuff I sometimes feel I’m struggling to understand it and I end up feeling cross with myself that I don’t get it. However, one part of Virginia Woolf’s essay, which I reviewed earlier this week, struck home and made me feel better about it. She talks about reading poetry when one is ill, stating:

In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond the surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other – a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause – which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain.

Although I can’t always put into words what I get from poetry, I think it’s exactly what Woolf is hinting at above. The music of the words speaks to me in a way I can’t define and puts me in a particular state of mind. So I shall stop worrying about it, and if I take nothing more from poetry than a love of the sound of the words and a deep emotional feeling, I’ll be happy. 1930 certainly produced some interesting poetry, Modernist or not – and I’ll definitely be dipping into Bunting again as the years go on! 😀

#1930Club – “… a mechanism tuned to kill…” @BL_Publishing #JohnDicksonCarr


The danger with our reading weeks, particularly when they’re from a year earlier in the 20th century, is the terrible temptation I face just to let myself wallow in several days of reading classic crime! Golden Age detective stories are my go-to comfort reading – I can’t get enough of them, especially in times of stress, and so the British Library Crime Classics have become something of a lifeline! After enjoying my time spent in the company of Agatha Christie earlier in the week, I had a flick through the BLCCs I have unread on the shelves; alas, none of them were from the year in question. However, I think it was a comment on my trailer post for the Club that alerted me to the fact that a new BLCC had just made its debut – and it was published in 1930! I asked the BL if they would be able to provide a review copy, and indeed they did, along with several rather fantastic looking other titles – thank you *so* much, British Library Publishing! I have no excuse not to wallow in classic crime during the chilly autumn evenings!

But I digress. The 1930 book in question is “It Walks By Night” by John Dickson Carr, and it’s a special release for a number of reasons. Firstly, as Martin Edwards mentions in his introduction to the book, it’s the first title by an American author to be published in the series. Secondly, it’s the first published novel by Carr, which makes it doubly fascinating! JDC was known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve read a number of his books and covered some on the blog. I *love* a locked-room mystery – and as the setting for this one was 1920s Paris, it was always likely to be a good one.

Carr’s regular detective is Dr. Gideon Fell, but this early work features another sleuth, one who apparently continued to feature in Carr’s books over the years. He is Henri Bencolin, a director of the police amongst other titles, and he’s assisted by the narrator of the story – his ‘Watson’ who is a young American Jeff Marle. Bencolin was close friends with the latter’s father, and has a paternal interest in the young man. And the mystery they investigate is a dark and chilling one, the brutal killing of a young aristocratic sportsman on the night of his wedding. However, the matter is not as straightforward as that might sound. For a start, the butchered man is found in a locked room with no way in or out which was not being watched. The method of death means he cannot have committed suicide, and yet no-one can have entered or left the room to murder him without being seen. To make things more complex, the detectives have a suspect, in the form of a madman called Laurent. The latter was previously married to the bride before being locked up for violent and insane behaviour, with the marriage being anulled. However, Laurent is free and known to have visited a plastic surgeon… Therefore, the killer could be anywhere and look like anyone, as well as seemingly having the ability to make himself invisible and pass through locked doors or walls. It’s a pretty and apparently insoluble puzzle and one which will tax the sleuths to the very end…

For the present, we were all aware only of a confused and numbing sense of terrible things moving behind a veil. That room, with its amber lights and its black-and-white flagged floor, the two men who were my companions, suddenly took on an aspect of unreality which made me feel as though I were alone. It stripped away everything…

Needless to say, I absolutely *loved* this book; it was one of those I just couldn’t bear to put down, sneaking a few pages here and there whenever I could. Bencolin is a fascinating and often enigmatic character, and makes a wonderful detective; the sidekicks, in the form of Marle plus a slightly batty Austrian doctor, Grafenstein, are very entertaining. However, there’s a real darkness and tension in the narrative; 1920s Paris is full of drug-taking and depravity, people are not what they seem, and there is a creeping sense of dread surrounding everyone at the thought of a madman murderer being close by yet unrecognisable. Carr likes to slip in chilling hints of the supernatural (which admittedly he eventually dispels) and these add to the tense atmosphere of the story. And the plot twists and turns beautifully, with additional characters such as a Sharon, a rich Englishwoman who fascinates Jeff; a slimeball of a drug dealer; and a playwright with an obscure background who may or may not be what he seems. It’s a wonderful mix and makes for a most enjoyable and absorbing read!

Isn’t the cover stunning??

As Edwards mentions in the introduction, the first edition of the book came with a clever marketing device; at a certain point in the narrative, a band was put around the remainder of the book and the reader challenged to solve the mystery with the information given so far and without reading the rest of the book. That point is marked in this edition and frankly I didn’t haven’t a chance of a solution; by then, I think I suspected just about everyone in the book and although I maybe had a bit of a glimmer closer to the end, I certainly was nowhere near the answer.

I woke in the warmth of clear blue sunlight, one of those mornings that flood you with a swashbuckling joyousness, so that you want to sing and hit somebody for sheer exuberance. The high windows were all swimming in a dazzle of sunlight, and up in their corners lay a trace of white clouds, like angels’ washing hung out on a line over the grey roofs of Paris. The trees had crept into green overnight; they filled the whole apartment with slow rustling; they caught and sifted the light; in short, it was a springtime to make you laugh at the cynical paragraph you had written the night before.

John Dickson Carr was a really marvellous author, and an outstanding proponent of the classic crime story. “It Walks..” is a treat for the aficionado as it’s peppered with references to everyone from Sax Rohmer to Edgar Allen Poe (and the latter is, of course, often reckoned to be the creator of the modern detective story). There’s a darkness and depth to Carr’s books which isn’t always there in books from that era, and he also writes remarkably well. His descriptions of Paris were vivid, and some of the sequences with Jeff and the Sharon were incredibly atmospheric. There were jumps and chills and wonderful detecting and really, this book was such a treat!

Well – I reckon I *could* have happily spent the week with Golden Age crime if I’d done a bit of research and dug out some more titles from 1930. However, I’m very, very glad I read “It Walks by Night” as it was an utterly entertaining and completely enjoyable book. This particular edition (and isn’t the cover lovely?) comes with an extra treat, in the form of “The Shadow of the Goat”, a rare short story by Carr which was the first to feature Bencolin. It contains all the elements you’d expect from Carr, including hints at the supernatural, a locked room, lots of twists and interestingly it ends (like “It Walks”) on a dramatic high point which is perhaps a little unusual. Really, I can’t recommend this one highly enough; the BLCCs are a wonderful thing anyway, and this one is a really special entry on the list. 1930 really *was* a marvellous year for books! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, with perfect timing for the #1930Club, for which many thanks!)

#1930Club – Mr. Kaggsy considers a novella by a sometimes controversial author…


As has become a tradition, when Mr. Kaggsy learned that another Club Week was coming up, he offered to provide another guest review – I think he quite enjoys his little forays into book blogging, although he’s much more of a film man nowadays. Anyway, he’s chosen an author I’ve never read (despite Middle Child’s attempts to get me to) and so here is his guest post – it’s quite a long one…. 😀

The Virgin and the Gipsy (later Gypsy) by D. H. Lawrence

1930 first editions, by G. Orioli, Italy and Martin Secker, UK

Lawrence’s novella, amounting to just over 30,000 words, was written in the mid-1920s, but only discovered after the author’s death in 1930, in France. In that year it was first published in Italy and five months later in Britain. Still in print, today’s public domain rules mean that ‘new’ editions will continue to be produced. “The Virgin and the Gipsy” (later changed to “Gypsy”) also received a fresh lease of life when it was made into a film, shot in 1969, to be released the following year. I have to confess that I only came upon the tale after the cinema adaptation.

The story commences after a vicar in his late forties, abandoned by his wife for a younger man, has transferred from his vicarage in the south to a rectorate in the north. The setting, in the fictional parish of Papplewick, the local river providing its name, represents a new placement for clergyman’s two daughters, his blind mother and his sister, another sibling being a brother from the city. The embittered minister clings to the memory of his distant wedding day: “(in) the rector’s heart still bloomed the pure white snowflower of his young bride.”

The girls’ contact with their mother is minimal, a woman described as glamorous and not dependable, “forever coming and going”. In time, the daughters are returning from a finishing year in Lausanne, Lucille approaching twenty-one and Yvette nineteen. Back home, “The rectory struck a chill into their hearts as they entered.” Lawrence’s land of the north, with its steel mills and rugged geography, is always evident: “The country, with its steep hills and its deep, narrow valleys, was dark and gloomy, yet had a certain powerful strength of its own. Twenty miles away was the black industrialism of the north. Yet the village of Papplewick was comparatively lonely, almost lost, the life in it stony and dour”

In the dull domestic setting, the household is almost matriarchal, the grandmother ruling the roost and her only daughter having a sharp tongue. One day, the adolescent girls, desperate to forge some kind of social life, go on a motoring jaunt into the countryside with two male contemporaries. At one point, ahead of them is a light cart, the sight of its driver kindling feelings within the younger car passenger: “Yvette’s heart gave a jump. The man on the cart was a gypsy… something over thirty, and a beau in his way.” Following an opening exchange the group agree go to the traveller’s winter settlement to have their fortunes read.

After her encounter with the traveller the aroused female regards him as virile and more interesting than the two privileged men accompanying her. When back in her home, “Yvette stirred luxuriously in the bed. The thought of the gypsy had released the life of her limbs, and crystallised in her heart the hate of the rectory: so that now she felt potent, instead of impotent.”

Much of the following parts of the story deal with domestic boredom, dull days indoors. “The rectory was on one side the Papple, in the rather steep valley, the village was beyond and above, further down, on the other side the swift stream. At the back of the rectory the hill went up steep, with a grove of dark, bare larches, through which the road disappeared. And immediately across stream from the rectory, facing the house, the river-bank rose steep and bushy, up to the sloping, dreary meadows, that sloped up again to dark hillsides of trees, with grey rock cropping out.”

Hardbacks – Alfred A. Knopf Inc, US (1930) and The World Publishing Company, US (1944)

At a later time the gypsy happens along the lane to the rectory and his young admirer feels herself charged by his presence. All other ordinary days following the meeting no longer hold any interest for Yvette, even going to a party, or having the company of young men, whom she finds irritating. Around her the weather continues to be blighted by heavy rain and wintry conditions. On a February day the preoccupied young woman goes “… for a walk by herself, up the frozen hills, to the Black Rocks.” On another occasion she takes to her bicycle, and as luck would have it, runs into the gypsy, he hammering a copper bowl near to his caravan, his family about him.

Cold from being out in the day, Yvette is invited to sit and share the travellers’ fire. Her stay stretches to having a meal, she loosening her hair in the sun which has come out. “Her will had departed from her limbs, he had power over her: his shadow was on her.” As for the male protagonist, “(He) was aware of one thing only, the mysterious fruit of her virginity, her perfect tenderness in the body.” An invitation to go into his caravan to wash her hands becomes short-lived, owing to the arrival of a well-to-do couple in a car. The woman is awaiting a divorce from her husband, a former army major, under whom, it later emerges, the gypsy served in the war as “one of the common men, the Tommies.”

In time the couple drive Yvette home, fearing that there might be snow coming, her bicycle on the back of their car. More themes of class are introduced, the major has a wealthy “Jewess” wife, she preferring a younger man, the situation being almost the mirror image of the lot suffered by the rector. The couple ‘living in sin’ are resident nearby, which enables Yvette to visit them. She finds them not just interesting, but open and honest, while her father cannot bring himself to entertain any such notion. Upon returning home and discussing the pair with her older sister, Yvette asks “What is it… that brings people together? People like (the local couple), for instance? and Daddy and Mamma, so frightfully unsuitable?- and that gypsy woman who told my fortune, like a great horse, and the gypsy man, so fine and delicately cut? What is it?” The loose reply she receives from Lucille is, “I suppose it’s sex, whatever that is.

The girls’ banter carries on, neither however speaking from much experience. Yvette’s thoughts turn to the gypsy while she and her sister exchange more views. Another lengthy and intensely intimate conversation occurs later between the stricken damsel and her unmarried friends, touching upon love, marriage, and passion, the older woman somewhat hypocritically opining that a love affair with someone like the gypsy would be “monstrous”, questioning what Yvette would “think of herself! – That’s not love! That’s – that’s prostitution!”

Equally, the rector’s view of the not yet divorced couple is condemnatory, viewing them as immoral. “A young sponge going off with a woman older than himself, so that he can live on her money! The woman leaving her home and her children!” His own religious background and marital failure colours his assessment, while his daughter finds the pair “so solid, you know, so honest.” Her father is infuriated to learn that she has visited the couple’s cottage on two occasions and the unfortunate Yvette is made to send a letter to her only allies, citing her father’s disapproval.

Now, cut off from her friends with whom she felt a bond, Yvette explores her feelings: “She wanted, now, to be held against the slender, fine-shaped breast of the gypsy. She wanted him to hold her in his arms, if only for once, for once, and comfort and confirm her. She wanted to be confirmed by him, against her father, who had only a repulsive fear of her.” Her complex and mixed-up thoughts consume her: wanting revenge against her father, denigrating her matriarchal grandmother, also her aunt, regarded as poisonous, indeed anybody other than a soul who is truthful, however ‘common’ or ‘low’ that person might be.

Paperbacks – Avon Book Company, US (1946) and Penguin movie tie-in, UK (1971)

On a subsequent occasion she sees the gypsy again. “Once he came to the house, with things to sell. And she, watching him from the landing window, refused to go down. He saw her too, as he was putting his things back into his cart. But he too gave no sign.” At that time her conflicted mind prevented her from making any decision. “Almost she could have found in her heart to go with him, and be a pariah gypsy-woman. But she was born inside the pale. And she liked comfort, and a certain prestige.” Later, in the spring while out cycling, Yvette happens upon the gypsy coming out of a cottage, leading to a friendly and animated conversation. However, she learns that he plans to break camp before long and move to the north.

Soon, on a sunny March day, Yvette’s family, all but grandmother, having gone out for the day, Yvette is musing in the garden, her thoughts straying to the gypsy, but being suddenly interrupted: “She heard somebody shouting, and looked round. Down the path through the larch-trees the gypsy was bounding. …She heard the scream of the gypsy, and looked up to see him bounding upon her, his black eyes starting out of his head. ‘Run!’ he screamed, seizing her arm.” As would be quickly revealed, a nearby dam had burst under the strain of the swollen spring river. As “..a new great surge of water came mowing, mowing trees down even” the stricken pair made for the house, the very rectory where Yvette felt imprisoned. The rushing flood waters fill the ground level of the house, overwhelming the grandmother, her hand seen disappearing beneath the deluge.

On an upper floor, hopefully now at a safe point, her rescuer bids Yvette to cast off her sodden garments, the icy water liable to cause her to freeze to death. The drenched man, shivering, tugs off his clothes as well. With the stairs gone and much of the house engulfed, both figures stand naked, the man urging that they should take to the bed in the room, now their place of sanctuary. Huddled together, their bodies warm up and the pair fall asleep.

The following day, the gypsy having departed, Yvette’s father has come back and people are fearful that the rectory will collapse, requiring the young woman to be led to safety outside, down a ladder. As time passes, after Yvette’s grandmother’s funeral, she receives a short letter: “Dear Miss, I see in the paper you are all right after your ducking, as is the same with me. I hope I see you again one day, I come that day to say goodbye… (but) the water give no time, but I live in hopes. Your obdt. servant Joe Boswell. And only then she realised that he had a name.”

Strangely the ‘bedroom scene’ is as brief as ever it could be and, given Lawrence’s later expansive sexual scenes in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, perhaps there could have been an intention on the part of the author to develop further the then undiscovered novella. The short, almost whimsical, tale culminates in the bonding of a young woman whose sensual dream might be about to become a reality. Only four decades after the story’s publication would a filmed adaptation boldly flesh out the final physical encounter to render it a sexual one.

In Lawrence’s own and original version, the final twist adds a note of sadness, unrequitedness, as if he wanted to end on an honourable note, having covered sufficiently the blossoming spirit of Yvette. Her independent mind resonates well with the will of young people today, they sometimes confronting similar, but updated, societal constraints. Against a background of propriety, morality and sexuality, Lawrence’s figures, their conversations and situations are perfectly drawn, painting scenes as real as if they had actually happened almost a century ago.

#1930Club – some previous reads!


During our Club reading weeks, I always like to take a look back at books I’ve read previously from the year in question. 1930 turns out to be a bit of a bumper year; not only do I own a good number of books from that year, but I’ve read a lot too! So here’s just a few of them…

Just a few of my previous 1930 reads…

Some of these, of course are pre-blog: there’s two of my favourite crime writers lurking in the pile, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. The Sayers is “Strong Poison”, a book that introduced Lord Peter Wimsey’s love interest Harriet Vane. I adore all Sayers and I would have liked to revisit this during our weekly read. Christie’s “The Murder at the Vicarage” also saw a debut, that of Miss Marple (in novel form anyway – she’d already appeared in short stories). Again, I was so tempted to pick this one up, but I went for “Mr. Quin” instead as I know “Vicarage” so well. Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” is detecting of a different kind, hard-boiled American. I love Hammett’s writing (although not everyone has enjoyed him recently…) and again was very tempted.

Katherine Manfield’s “The Aloe” is also a pre-blog read; it’s a slim and lovely Virago I’ve owned for decades and the story is a longer version of her short work “The Prelude”. A revisit to this one would have been lovely too, as her prose is gorgeous. “The Foundation Pit” by Platonov is most likely the first of his books which I read; it’s an unusual, allusive book and his writing is very distinctive. Yet another writer I’d love to go back to.

As for titles I’ve reviewed on the blog, there’s the very wonderful Jean Rhys. I wrote about “After Leaving Mr. McKenzie” relatively recently (well – 2016 actually…), and so I didn’t re-read. Yet another excellent woman prose stylist, with a haunting main character, compelling prose and a bleak outlook for women of her time and kind.

Nabokov’s “The Eye” was also a 2016 read; it’s a fascinating, tricksy and clever novella, with wonderful writing and a marvellously unreliable narrator. I love Nabokov’s prose and since I have many, many of his books unread on the shelves I should get back to reading him soon! 😀

Gaito Gazdanov is a relatively recent discovery; a marvellous emigre Russian author, many of his works have been brought out in beautiful Pushkin Press editions. “An Evening with Claire”, however, is his first novel which was brought out in the USA by Overlook Press/Ardis, and it features his beautiful, often elegiac prose in a work often described as Proustian. I believe more Gazdanov is on the horizon from Pushkin – hurrah! 😀

Not pictured in the pile above is “Le Bal” by Irene Nemirovsky. I came a little late to the party with her books; I failed in my first attempt to read “Suite Francaise” but after reading a collection of her shorter early works I came to love her writing, and “Le Bal” was one of those titles. It’s a powerful little story, portraying the dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship in all its horror and proves she was such a good writer.

So those are just a few of my previous reads, on and off the blog, from 1930. Really, it was *such* a bumper year for books, wasn’t it? So glad we chose it! Have you read any of the above? 😀

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: