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A life wasted? Discovering the writing of #elizabethberridge

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The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge

Bookish Twitter is a regular source of distraction and inspiration for me; I reckon a good chunk of the books on Mount TBR are thanks to the lovely folks there recommending new authors and works to check out! Recently, there was a bit of a flurry around novelist Elizabeth Berridge and her name kept turning up and popping into my line of sight. So a little bit of serendipity came into play when Mike Walmer kindly offered me a copy of his reprint of Berridge’s first published work: a novella called “The Story of Stanley Brent”, from 1945.

Berridge (1919-2009) was known as a novelist and critic, publishing fourteen works between 1945 and 1995; yet her profile is not that high nowadays. Persephone have published a collection of her short stories under the title “Tell it to a Stranger”; but much of the Twitter flurry was around striking covers of Abacus paperback editions of her novels. Fellow bloggers have been rediscovering her work with interest, so I was keen to find out what her writing was actually like.

There was a name for everything, it made things less frightening, made you believe that you could be cured.

“Stanley…” is a novella of 75 pages (with very small type, it has to be said…) and it does indeed relate the life story of the titular Brent, opening in the year 1907 when the young man proposes marriage to Ada after a soaking in a rainstorm. They marry; encounter issues when Ada comes up against the realities of being a wife; have children; Stanley is promoted. And as they age, the world changes round them, with the First World War taking away family and friends; the country-like suburbs are absorbed into the cities and towns; and rumblings of events in Germany are darkening the horizon.

Throughout the youngest daughter’s childhood the country round the Brents was slowly swallowed up. Wooden blocks for roads now lay where once the wheat had burnt. Lorries passed continually, laden with bricks and returning with timber cut from the marked off building sites. Bonfires of blackberry bushes, gorse and hawthorn made the autumns mournful and spring a time of no regrowth. Asphalt hid the muddy paths to the station, and roads were made up, pavements laid at the expense of the older residents.

My summary makes the book sound a little simplistic, but it actually isn’t and Berridge is a remarkable skilful writer to fit as much as she does into such a short narrative. Stanley seems a fairly ordinary man, but there are undercurrents; he suffers from asthma which strikes him at times of stress; he often finds himself questioning the point of what he does; and he senses there is more to life than he experiences. As he ages and his health suffers, his marriage becomes very much a shell and it seems that there is little deep communion between the couple (something which was in fact signalled early in the book).

Stanley remembered this now, the shrug, the indifference. The crack entered his heart. The Frenchman seemed so alone – yet he had wife, children, a house, a trade he enjoyed. Wasn’t this enough, and if not why? Fear darkened Stanley’s clear blue, somewhat stupidly innocent blue eyes; shortened, for a moment, his breath. Something else, what was it?

Perhaps Stanley stands for each ordinary man living an everyday life but yearning for more; certainly, at one point he feels a strong bond with his stepfather-in-law, a French musician in exile whose unfinished violin playing perhaps symbolises the lost opportunities in both men’s lives; and who says rather crytpically at one crucial point in the narrative:

“Each man must dance to his own measure.

For a small book, “The Story of Stanley Berridge” is surprisingly affecting. The underlying element of melancholy comes to the fore regularly throughout the book; and Berridge is adept at capturing emotions and events in just a few words. For example, Stanley doesn’t fight in WW1 (he is “turned down”, presumably because of his health) and in passing the narrative comments “A few women gave Stanley white feathers”, imparting so much about that conflict and the emotions which went with it, as well as conveying how Stanley was judged and how he might have felt about not fighting.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book, but I don’t know that I’d anticipated quite such a memorable read. Berridge writes so well, capturing the little nuances in daily life, the subtle interactions between characters, and also how the world changed during the period of Stanley’s life. “The Story of Stanley Brent” is a novella you can easily read in one sitting, but I think its title character and his life will stay with you afterwards. And if this is any kind of indication of Berridge’s writing, I’m definitely keen to read more!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

A powerful and moving book over @shinynewbooks #rosemacaulay @KateHandheld

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I have a review up on Shiny New Books today of a remarkable and powerful book collecting together the war writings of Rose Macaulay – “Non-Combatants and Others”, published by Handheld Books. Macaulay is an author I’ve covered before – her “What Not” was a very intriging book – so I was happy to be able to read and review this one.

The book is subtitled “Writings Against War, 1916-1945”, and its centrepiece is the title novel “Non-Combatants and Others”. It’s a stunning and moving story, first published slap-bang in the middle of the First World War and revealing some of the horror of that conflict. Also included are some marvellous pieces of between the wars journalism, and an emotional short story from the Second World War. It really is an excellent collection which I highly recommend – and you can read my review here!

“…no man is allowed a death certificate without first dying for it.” @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #margotbennett

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The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

“When in doubt, reach for a crime classic”; that could well be my motto here on the Ramblings, as they *have* become such a comfort in recent years, and particularly during the pandemic. I do feel the books have gone from strength to strength, with a wonderfully diverse range of titles being published. And the most recent one I received for review was just as fascinating and engrossing as the others I’ve read, as well as taking a very unusual angle on the Golden Age crime format!

“The Man Who Didn’t Fly” was Scottish author Margot Bennett’s seventh novel, and she’s a forgotten name in the field of crime writing (and indeed writing generally). However, as Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction reveals, her books were highly regarded at the time and she was nominated for major crime writing awards. Despite this, her career took her in a different direction, writing for television during the 1950s and 1960s; and her work seems to have been all but forgotten which is a great shame, based on this novel.

Sergeant Young tried the buffet. The tea-lady, who had a contrived shade of red hair, and the new small waist with the old, spreading hips, smoothed one eyebrow with her little finger, and said she’d been talking to a gentleman from Sweden at the time, and she really couldn’t remember a thing, except that poor Mr Lee had looked in to ask about a passenger who wasn’t there. When she mentioned Lee’s name her eyes moistened and she turned away, fumbling until she found a very dainty handkerchief.

The GA Crime genre has its conventions – country house, quirky detective, locked room mystery, cast of suspects; but increasingly with the BL books, the works featured move outside that format and “Fly” is a fine example. Instead of a ‘whodunnit’ or even a ‘whydunnit’, it’s more a case of ‘what-the-heck-has-been-going-on-to-lead-up-to-this-situation?!?!?’ The book opens with the crash into the sea of a small private plane on its way to Ireland; the pilot is lost, as well as three male passengers. However, four men were meant to fly; and it initially proves to be impossible to work out who was on the plane and who didn’t actually fly. Witnesses are vague about what they saw on the day; the fourth man does not come forward to identify himself; and the detectives have to start to dig into the lives and behaviour of the four men to try to work out just what had been going on to cause the group to want to fly to Ireland – and indeed why one didn’t…

Central to the mystery is the Wade family; a widowed father plus two grown up daughters Hester and Prudence. Once the detectives have spent time getting confusing and inconclusive witness statements, they focus on the Wades, to whom all the passengers were known. Eventually, Hester is ostensibly persuaded to provide a narrative of events in the days leading up to the flight, though it is actually told in the third person. And a gripping tale it is too; the ordinary family seem to have been surrounded by so-called friends and contacts with very dodgy connections! The events are gradually explored, the narrative builds up till all is revealed and there are some lovely twists and turns along the way; but more than that I *will* not say, because I don’t want to spoil the reading of this book for anyone!

Words! We have too many words. Word poets talk all the time of love and death. People fall in love and they die, and no amount of poetic advice has ever helped them to do either of those things more successfully.… But they are always interested in money.

“The Man Who Didn’t Fly” was a compelling and surprisingly moving story, with far reaching elements; and so cleverly written. You’re plunged right into the story from the very start, and events are unclear until Hester begins to reveal the sequence of events. As you read on, there are lightbulb moments when parts of the plot suddenly become clear; and I did have a few suspicions about why particular characters were acting as they were. But there were still shocks are the end which were quite unexpected (but absolutely made sense when you got to them).

There’s a depth to the characterisation which is pleasing; Hester herself is the glue that holds many things together, both in her family and with regard to the plot! And it’s painful at times watching her struggle with her relationship with one of the passengers, Harry; a wastrel poet, she finds him infuriating and irresistible at the same time! In fact, the Wade girls, brought up by their father, were a very engaging pair and I sensed shades of “I Capture the Castle” in their situation of poverty. Bennett had strong left-wing convictions, and she does manage to have a dig here and there at the greed of human being, through the mouths of her characters! The detectives deserve a little mention, too; the team of Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Young, although at some points seeming to take a back seat in the narrative, is an engaging one. The pair have an entertaining relationship, in particular with Young’s apparent vast knowledge of culture and arts, upon which Lewis often has to draw during this investigation!

As I said, this is a hard book to discuss in detail without giving too much away; but it really is a superb entry into the BLCC range. Bennett is an excellent writer, and pleasingly this edition includes a rare short story “No Bath for the Browns” which is quite brilliant! I absolutely loved “The Man Who Didn’t Fly”: clever, twisty, brilliantly constructed and compelling from start to finish, it really was a stellar read. On the evidence of this and the short story, Bennett is a very unjustly neglected author, and I really hope the BL reissue more of her works. Highly recommended! 😀

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

“From dissolution springs forth desire” @LittleToller #RichardSkelton

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Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton

We have all been living through very strange times in 2020, and frankly I see no sign of things getting anything like back to normal. Books have, as usual, been my main coping mechanism – particularly while we have been stuck in place, unable to go anywhere except in our heads. And it’s been impossible to ignore the economic strain being put on smaller publishers during the pandemic, with many struggling to keep their heads above water. I have been buying books directly from them wherever I can, and one imprint I came across fairly recently was Little Toller. Based in Dorset, they publish works rooted in nature and the landscape, both new and classic; and so to support them I was happy to send off for a couple of their works. This was my first experience with them, and the books not only arrived promptly, they’re also attractive and beautifully produced works. I can see myself wanting to explore further… But anyway, let’s get on to my first Little Toller read: “Beyond the Fell Wall” by Richard Skelton.

Skelton is a new name to me; a British musician, his early work was apparently triggered by the death of his wife, as a way to come to terms with his loss. His music has been compared to Arvo Part and Eno, and his work is mostly released via Corbel Stone Press. “Beyond the Fell Wall” is part of Little Toller’s ‘Monograph’ series, and it’s a beautiful and evocative piece of work.

There is something unsettling about living beside ruins. It reminds us, perhaps, of the brevity of the human span, and the folly of ‘civilisation’ in the face of enduring nature.

It’s hard, really, to know where to start in describing this work. Composed while Skelton was living in the Furness Hills of Cumbria, it straddles the line between poetry and prose (which I often think is an artificial one anyway); and explores the landscape of the area as Skelton spends time amongst the paths, streams and, in particular, the dry-stone walls of the region. This is a land with a long history of occupation by man and animal; and Skelton’s meditations reach back into this past, drawing on folklore, myth and language. It’s a heady and beautiful mix, enhanced by illustrations by Michael Kirkman, and rewards slow, meditative reading.

Is there a glimmer, then, of something older – some remnant of profane, beautiful knowledge lodged within the wall’s foundations – in those great hefts of rock, too huge to be shifted?

The thread running through the book, as it does through the landscape, is the dry-stone wall itself. These are all over the land, constructed from stones scoured out by glaciers and deposited there in the past. Nothing holds them together apart from their careful assembly, and they are as subject to entropy as everything else which lives and dies on our planet. Skelton explores how walls came to define the topography of an area, as a human act to try to enclose and restrict. But like everything else human, they will eventually pass on…

These men never grew complacent when there was something to be exploited. These men never fell idle when there was time to kill. The hills rang with their industry, and so they, exclaiming with sheer effort, ushered their own song into being.

As you might have guessed, I absolutely loved this book. Skelton’s poetic, emotional responses and connections to the world, the landscape and its history resonated deeply; and at a moment in time where I think I am more of aware of that natural world and where we sit in it, it was also a timely reminder that humans may well eventually fall by the wayside. “Beyond…” is beautifully written, with explanatory linguistic notes at the back, visually poetic pages which draw on old English field names, and it’s a book which has the effect of pulling you back towards nature. It certainly lingers in the mind and is a work I’ll return to when I’m in need of the solace of the natural world.

Alexey Komarov / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) – via Wikimedia Commons

No line drawn, however straight, remains unwavering. All resolve ultimately weakens. Everything tends to disorder.

So my first foray into reading a Little Toller book was a real winner. Now, more than ever, we need to reconnect with nature and try to stop destroying it; books like Skelton’s are a reminder of how much we belong the natural world, are a part of it. A lovely, lovely book and highly recommended!

Embarking on a mind-expanding project – exploring Penguin’s Great Ideas with Seneca! :D

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On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
Translated by C.D.N Costa

 

You might remember me having a grumble back in June about the dangers of reading challenges, and how I was currently fighting the urge to start a new project of reading my way through the Penguin Great Ideas little books. This all came up because the new batch out later this month contains some irresistible titles and I was hit by the mad desire to try and improve my mind (ha!) by reading the lot in sequence… Yes, all 120! Now bearing in mind my track record with the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin Moderns, that was probably a silly idea. However, during August I *did* manage to get back into the saddle with both of these projects (and I think ‘project’ is the best word to use here as this is going to take me some time…) So feeling emboldened, I have picked up the first book in the series and set forth on my journey – wish me luck….

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.

The Great Ideas sequence starts with Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life”, and the quote on the front very aptly reads “Life is long if you know how to use it“. A Roman philosopher who lived from approx 4 BC to 64 AD, he was a proponent of Stoicism and as well as his philosophical works was also a dramatist, satirist and statesman. This book contains three works – the title essay, as well as Consolation to Helvia and On Tranquility of Mind. As I believe is common in works of the era (and forgive me if I’m wrong here!), these pieces are all addressed to a particular individual; and they’re drawn from the Penguin volume “Dialogues and Essays”.

… sometimes we are gripped by hatred of the human race.

So – onto the first entry in the book, the title piece. This was addressed to Seneca’s father-in-law Paulinus, and in it he addresses the very human habit of wasting our time… His argument is that if we live our lives wisely and with thought, any life is long enough. Instead of spending all our hours rushing around looking for fame or fortune or approval, or losing chunks of our lives in trivial pursuits, we should spend our time in the present moment, doing things with meaning and purpose. It’s a very timely and sensible philosophy, and I think if we did all pause, take stock and direct our lives sensibly we might be happier. It’s not always that simple, of course, but something to aim for maybe…

… it is easier to bear and simpler not to acquire than to lose, so you will notice that those people are more cheerful whom Fortune has never favoured than those who she has deserted.

The second piece is a letter addressed to Seneca’s mother Helvia. The philosopher had been exiled to Corsica for political reasons, as well as apparently losing his only son; so his letter attempts to console his mother for the death of a grandson as well as the exile of a son. Here, his stoic principles are clearly on view as he assures his mother that he is happy and not suffering, and therefore she should not grieve for him.

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of it swiftness, but glide on quietly.

The final essay is one of Seneca’s “Dialogues” and addressed to his friend Serenus who seems anything but serene… The latter is in fact anxious and worried, unsure of his path through life. Seneca advises taking the middle way, steering a course between a life of action and a life of contemplation. He comes up with all manner of sensible suggestions as to choice of friends, austere lifestyle and even ensuring that your collection of books is not just for show! Kind of like Roman therapy, then!

My first experience of both Seneca and Penguin Great Ideas was a really positive one! The Stoic Philosopher really does have some good ideas about how to negotiate the madness of the world, particularly in these turbulent times when so much is changing around us, and his works are full of eminently quotable aphorisms. The translation is excellent and very readable, and the book is a wonderful introduction to Seneca. The book comes with no extra or supporting material, apart from minimal notation within the text, which I assume will be the case with the rest of the GIs; and that’s fine, because I feel these works should be treated as a taster for the author in question. If a reader has been stimulated and their appetite whetted, they can go off and research the author, explore further and even buy a bigger book…

Hey! I think this project could be fun! 😀

Exploring love, grief and loss with Julian Barnes

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Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Over recent years I’ve been rediscovering my love of the writing of Julian Barnes; and so he’s made several appearances on the Ramblings, although pleasingly I still have plenty of his books unread. This is one of them, and I have no idea why I particularly felt the strong need to pick it up when I did. But I had that urge, in the middle of a crisis when I was undecided as to what to read next, and I’m glad I did. It’s an often painful read, and a powerful one; but beautiful and honest too.

“Levels of Life” is a non-fiction work, tagged on the back as “biography/memoir” and that’s a fairly accurate description. The book takes as its structure three levels – its sections are entitled “The Sin of Height”, “On the Level” and “The Loss of Depth” – and uses this construct to explore initially the lives of Nadar, a pioneer ballonist and aerial photographer; Colonel Fred Burnaby, another balloonist given here a fictional passion for Sarah Bernhardt (who was also a devotee of dirigibles); and then finally he exlores his own grief and emotions at the loss of his wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh.

Kavanagh died in 2008 from a brain tumour, 37 days after diagnosis of her illness. That bald statement along reveals what a cruel, shocking and unimaginable time it must have been for Barnes to live through. Yet the writer in Barnes needs to explore not only his own emotions and his own loss, but also the human condition and what it means to love. Nadar cared tenderly for his wife for years after heart attacks and strokes; Colonel Fred here never really recovers from the love of Sarah; and Barnes was quite obviously devastated by the loss of the love of his life.

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.

“Levels of Life” is obviously a raw and never easy read; Barnes is always honest and unflinching in his look at himself, his grief, his process of mourning and his reactions to others. It could perhaps be considered unusual to structure a book on your own personal grief this way, but I think Barnes was trying to make his story and his emotions more universal. And it’s as if he can only deal with the topic obliquely, skirting around his subject by exploring other people’s lives before approaching the autobiographical section from an angle. That’s understandable; a loss like this takes time to come through (if you ever really do), and although Kavanagh died in 2008, the book is dated at the end “20 October 2012” (four years to the day from her death).

Apart from “A Life with Books“, a lovely little pamphlet I read just over a year ago, my experience of reading Barnes has all been fiction. Branching out into his non-fiction works has been something I’ve wanted to do for such a long time; and although this was a hard book to read, it was also a beautiful and moving one. Barnes captured quite brilliantly that sense of loss of a close loved one; the fact that it’s not only their physical presence which has gone, but also the shared experiences, the personal in-jokes and the structure of a joint life lived. The initial sections of the book were fascinating and moving in themselves, and a clever way to approach Barnes’ exploration of his own loss.

The more I read of Julian Barnes’ work, the more I realise just what a wonderful writer he really is. To be able to take your grief and loss, and then turn it into a work of great beauty is very special; and apart from anything else, “Levels of Life” is a moving and emotional tribute to his wife and his love for her. Not an easy read, as I said; and selecting the right time to read it in your own life is important. But it’s a powerful and unforgettable work, and I’m glad I chose to read it right now.

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