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“How much more important than a knowledge of geography is the possession of an atlas.” @NottingHillEds #aamilne

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Happy Half Hours by A.A. Milne

I’ve often thought how frustrating it must be for an author to have been prolific during their writing career, and yet only ever remembered for one particular work. A.A. Milne is a case in point; most casual readers would only know his Winnie the Pooh tales, which are of course quite marvellous. However, they’re not the end of the story when it comes to Milne; he was a prolific and well-known author of plays, poetry, novels and screenplays before Pooh Bear came along and eclipsed everything else.

Because of this, many of his non-Pooh works were unavailable for years, and in fact one delight has been the reissue of some of his novels and short stories – I’ve read and loved “The Red House Mystery” and “Four Days’ Wonder” for example in recent years. However, Milne really *was* prolific and many of his short pieces haven’t seen the light of day for ages. However, rather wonderfully, Notting Hill Editions have just released a beautiful edition of selected writings, entitled “Happy Half-Hours” – and what a joy it is! 😀

Every now and then doctors slap me about and ask me if I was always as thin as this. ‘As thin as what?’ I say with as much dignity as is possible to a man who has had his shirt taking away from him. ‘As thin as this,’ says the doctor, hooking his stethoscope on to one of my ribs, and then going round the other side to see how I am getting on there. I am slightly better on the other side, but he runs his pencil up and down me and produces that pleasing noise which small boys get by dragging a stick along railings.

Milne wrote many pieces for magazines like Punch; light and witty articles on any subject from love and marriage to the joys of golf. Many of those works are included here, and the book is divided into sections with titles like “Literary Life”, “Home Life”, “Public Life” etc. In fact, the first piece in the book “My Library” will resonate with anyone who ever despairs of getting their collection of books into a sensible order; in the end Milne seems to advocate leaving them just as they are!

Art is not life, but an exaggeration of it; life reinforced by the personality of the artist. A work of art is literally “too good to be true.” That is why we shall never see Turner’s sunsets in this world, nor meet Mr Micawber. We only wish we could.

Milne’s pieces on the literary world are a great joy, and his take on married life a hoot – whether as the eternal wedding guest, or struggling with domestic crises like a bath that refuses to fill and empty in a sensible time, Milne can make you laugh at anything. “Heavy Work” was very funny, with the rueful Milne being told off by his doctor for being so skinny and then attempting to put on weight….And “Geographical Research” dismisses quite wonderfully the need to learn geography at all (which would suit me, as I never could the hang of east and west…) Instead, everyone should simply be provided with an efficient atlas!

International politics is a morass of treachery, theft, broken promises, lies, evasions, bluff, trickiness, bullying, deliberate misunderstanding and shabby attempts to get an opponent into a false position.

However, there is a serious side to Milne on display here, which might be a bit of surprise to some. Having served in World War 1 he became, like many survivors of that conflict, a strong pacifist; and the section of the book entitled “Peaceful Life” contains some powerful pieces arguing against war, with which I couldn’t help but agree. Milne is not an author you’d initially think of turning to for thoughts on war and peace, yet he obviously felt passionately about this; and although I disagreed with some of his later views on the efficacy of the atomic bomb as a deterrent, nevertheless it’s quite clear his beliefs came from the heart.

These Notting Hill Editions books are *so* beautifully produced!

Reading these wonderful writings by A.A. Milne, I couldn’t help sharing some of Christopher Robin’s dismay at the popularity of the Winnie the Pooh books (although for very different reasons…). Milne senior was a really marvellous, punchy and entertaining author – and I’ve loved his adult fictions too – so it’s such a shame that the breadth of his writing hasn’t had appreciation it deserves. Witty, eloquent and profound, these selected writings of A.A. Milne are a sheer delight, and hopefully this is a wonderful release from Notting Hill Editions will bring him to a wider audience – highly recommended!

The perfect frothy caper novel!

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Four Days’ Wonder by A.A. Milne

Way back in the mists of time (well – 2012!) I stumbled across a rather lovely Golden Age crime novel by A.A. Milne (who I’d previously only really known as the creator of Pooh, Tigger and co). “The Red House Mystery” turned out to be Great Fun, and I was keen to explore of Milne’s adult works (and in fact do have volumes of it knocking around the house somewhere…) However, one title I really wanted to read and which proved elusive was “Four Day’s Wonder”, a spoof of the genre, and I couldn’t find a copy at the time so it lurked on the back burner of the mental wishlist for years.

Fast forward six years and I was browsing on The Book People’s website, as they would keep sending me nagging emails reminding me that I had book points to spend, and I can never resist the idea of a free book…. Well, it transpired that they had a lovely set of 5 of Milne’s adult books for a Very Reasonable Price, and that set included “Four Days’ Wonder”. The inevitable happened (and I know I’m not the only one who succumbed – stand up, HeavenAli!) – and I decided to read the book straight away because after all, I’d wanted it for ages! 🙂

“Four Days’ Wonder” is indeed set over four days in the life of Jenny Windell; a naive 18 year old orphan (how much more worldly would most 18-year-old girls be nowadays!!), she revisits her old home whilst in a bit of a dream, and stumbles across the dead body of her wild aunt Jane, whom she hasn’t seen for ages. Jane, an actress, seems to have been the black sheep of the family, with scandalous rumours doing the rounds about her drug taking and playing the harp naked.

So what does a sensible girl do? Instead of calling the police, she makes the mistake of tampering with the evidence and then decides to go on the run. With the aid of her best friend Nancy (a fellow fantasist), she changes her identity, hikes off into the country, and attempts to evade the law. Meanwhile, the wonderfully named and wonderfully inept Inspector Marigold attempts to solve his first murder case, focusing initially on the Parracots, the tenants of Jenny’s old house who discover the body. The sequences where the Inspector is first interviewing Mr. Parracot sparkle with wit, and that’s repeated throughout the book.

Mrs. Watterson sighed and said nothing. She had been married for fifty years, and knew that men would always go on being children. This accounted for War and Politics and Sport, and so many things.

Meanwhile, Jenny has various encounters in the countryside, including one Derek Fenton; she and Derek are instantly taken with each other, and Derek takes the runaway under his wing. Coincidentally, Nancy is working as secretary to Derek’s elder brother, Archibald, a successful (if corpulent) novelist. All the various parties become embroiled in the murder and as the plot strands come together it remains to be seen if Inspector Marigold will solve the murder, if Derek is in love with Jenny or Nancy, and who exactly did kill Aunt Jane!

Caroline was twenty-three, but not beautiful. The General looked over The Times at her across the breakfast-table, and felt uneasily that her face was familiar in some damn way; as indeed it was, for he had shaved something like it every morning for years.

“Four Days’ Wonder” turned out to be a wonderful, fizzy read, full of witty dialogue, humorous situations – perfect for a light reading at this time of year and reminiscent of many a 1930s screwball comedy film. Milne is beautifully tongue in cheek, sending up the detective genre in the form of Inspector Marigold; the girl adventurer in Jenny and Nancy’s intriguing to cover their tracks; and even the romance novel comes in for a little bit of spoofing.

Archibald Fenton, too, is a wonderful creation and Milne is not averse to having a pop at the character of the author! However, the book does have the occasional harder edge, and is oddly touching at times; Jenny is obviously suffering from the lack of parents, having conversations in her head with her ‘Hussar’ (her deceased father whom she’d never known), and I did think that perhaps the older Derek (30 to her 18) was not only a potential partner but also something of an authority figure replacement.

But that’s by the by; “Four Days’ Wonder” has so much to recommend it. Yes, it’s frothy and light; yes, the coincidences are perhaps a little unlikely; but you just need to suspend disbelief and love the book for what it is – a funny, entertaining and utterly enjoyable distraction from the horrors of the modern world. And what’s lovely is that I have another four Milnes standing by when reality just gets to be too much…

Three Things… #2 – documentaries, and the price of books…

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I quite enjoyed my first go at this nice little meme, thought up by Paula, where we post about what we’re Reading, Looking and Thinking. So I thought I would share again where I am – a little snapshot of my state of mind today, you might say!

Reading

Choices, choices…

I’m dipping into a number of books at the moment, mostly shorter ones after the epic, mammoth, involving and wonderful read that was “The Aviator”. There are the next couple of Penguin Moderns and a pair of lovely review classics from Ampersand. Also on the immediate TBR is “Flights” and a very interesting-sounding British Library Crime Classic, “The Division Bell”. As well as books, I’m trying to catch up on the issues of the London Review of Books which have been massing on the coffee table, along with copies of the TLS (a Russian special) and the latest “Happy Reader”. Plenty to keep the avid bibliophile amused….

Looking

Great excitement chez the Ramblings, as BBC4 (finally!) decide to repeat one of the Documentaries that Distracted last year – and probably my favourite. The three-part “Utopia: In Search of the Dream”, written and presented by Professor Richard Clay, was one my viewing highlights of 2017, so I’m glad to see it getting another airing. The series was a bracing and eclectic mix, looking at utopias, dystopias, repressive regimes (from both sides of the politic divide), architecture, art, music et al – very broad indeed. I’d recommend catching the series while you can if you have access to BBC4 or the iPlayer – thought-provoking stuff!

Which obliquely leads on to…

Thinking

A topic vexing my mind lately has been the cost of books. Not just ordinary new books, which do of course vary according to where you buy them, and in what format; but older, out of print or rarer titles that seem to fluctuate madly according to the day of the week.

Of course, we all know that a certain big river store’s prices are often slashed wildly and that real bookshops struggle to compete. There’s the issue also of local shops not always stocking what you want, but as they now all seem to be able to order in quickly I’m finding myself drawn back to Waterstones and the like, and if I have to order online I tend to go for Wordery nowadays who seem quite a decent lot.

The iconoclasm books continue to breed…. =:o

However, old or rare books are a different kettle of (vegan) fish. It was the “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs” book by the aforementioned Richard Clay which got me thinking about values. As I’ve posted about on here before, I had been unable to find this one at a sensible price anywhere, so I resorted to getting Youngest Child to borrow it from her University library over Christmas. With second-hand copies going at over £1,000, I wasn’t going to be owning a copy any time soon.

But I set up alerts on a number of online booksellers and one morning, ping! A load of messages starting to come in with Reasonably Priced and Brand New copies available at under £100. So as I’ve posted, I picked up a copy and was dead chuffed. However, the interesting follow-up to this is that I never got round to cancelling all the alerts and messages are still rolling in with copies for sale – and the price since I bought my copy has been gradually creeping up and up, until a recent email dropped in offering a second-hand version for an eye-watering £8,792.58…. Yes, really…. And it seems to keep going up…

One of my rarer Viragos…

So WHY is it that some book prices vary so intensely and what sets the value? I know this one is an academic book, published in limited quantities by a smaller publisher, but is it simply the rarity value? It’s not only academic books that can have rare prices – I know Jane at Beyond Eden Rock has written about Margery Sharp’s “Rhododendron Pie” which is almost impossible to find at a decent price; and when I first wanted to read A.A. Milne’s “Four Days’ Wonder” it was prohibitively priced so I didn’t bother. I guess it’s some kind of complex calculation of the rarity of the book vs the amount of people who want to read it; when Simon at Stuck in a Book first blogged about “Guard Your Daughters”, the price of second-hand copies rocketed; and Anne Bridge’s “Illyrian Spring”, long sought after by Virago devotees, commanded silly prices before its reprint by Daunt Books.

I guess the moral is simple: if you want a book, and you see it at a price you’re prepared to pay, grab it. Certainly, I’m very glad I got hold of my iconoclasm book when I did – because there’s no way I could afford getting on for nine grand!!!!

*****

So there’s a snapshot of where my head is at the moment – full of books, magazines, documentaries and iconoclasm – the usual rambling and eclectic mix! 🙂

…in which the Birthday Fairy and Santa deliver – big time…

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Well, I did promise book pictures, didn’t I? And so here they come… I happen to be blessed (or cursed) with having a birthday quite close to Christmas so the gifts double up at this time of year, and despite everyone’s best intentions, there are always books!

First off, some modest arrivals for my birthday:

These lovelies came from OH and my BFF J. (amazingly, the Offspring managed to avoid books altogether for the birthday!)

The Peirene title is from J. and she very cleverly managed to pick the one I probably most want to read from their list! OH was also very clever in that he managed to find a BLCC I haven’t got or read, and also a book (the Godwin) which ties in with my current interest in things with a sort of link to the French Revolution (plus it has a *wonderful* David self-portrait on the cover). The crossword book? I love a crossword – I kid myself it keeps my brain alert…

As for Christmas… well, here are the bookish arrivals…!

First up, I always take part in the LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa and this year my books came courtesy of the lovely Simon at Stuck in a Book and these are they:

Simon knows that we share a love of a certain kind of writing and so picked some wonderful books I don’t have by A.A. Milne, Stephen Leacock and Saki – I’ve already been dipping and giggling… And it wouldn’t be a gift from Simon if there wasn’t a title in there by his beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett! I confess to owning several titles but not having plucked up the courage to read one yet – and fortunately I didn’t have this one, which is a beautiful edition, so maybe this should be where I start with Ivy… 😉

Next up a few treats from J. She reminded me when we met up recently that it was actually 35 years since we first met (gulp!) and she knows me and my obsessions and my reading habits well. These were wonderful bookish choices – an Edmund Crispin classic crime novel (can’t go wrong with Gervase Fen), a Sacheverell Sitwell set in Russia, and a marvellous sounding book of pastiches which has already had me giggling – these humorous books are obviously putting the merry in Christmas this year!

The Offspring decided Christmas was the time for books for me (as well as some other lovely gifts) and the above was the result – “The Futurist Cookbook” was from Youngest, the Plath letters (squeeeee!) from Middle and “The Story of Art” plus the Mieville from Eldest. Very excited about these and wanting to read them all at once…. 🙂

Finally, not to be left out, OH produced these treats! Yes, *another* BLCC I don’t have, a fascinating sounding book on Chekhov and a really lovely book on Surrealist art. The latter is particularly striking and has a plate of the most marvellous Magritte painting which I hadn’t seen before and I can’t stop looking at:

It’s called “The Empire of Lights” and it’s stunning and this doesn’t do it justice…

So, I have been very blessed this Christmas – thank you all my lovely gift-giving friends and family! And once I shake off this head cold I’ve also been blessed with, I really need to get reading… 🙂

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