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“…an agreeable promenade…” #onthepottlecombecornice #howardsturgis @spikenard65

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I don’t know if it’s a reaction to reading the chunkster that was “Wolf Solent“, but I have been very much enjoying plunging into shorter works this month! Of course, it *is* Novellas in November time, so that’s even better, and today’s book is a recent arrival I was very keen to read (and in fact picked up as soon as it arrived) – “On the Pottlecombe Cornice” by Howard Sturgis.

The book is part of Michael Walmer’s Zephyr Books imprint, a series which brings classic short works back into print (although intriguingly, this title has never been released in book form before). I’ve read most of the titles he’s released so far and they really are a treat – handsome slim hardback editions, and some really interesting authors like Elizabeth Berridge, John Cowper Powys and Henry Handel Richardson, to name just a few. Sturgis is an author new to me, and apparently his masterpiece is “Belchamber” from 1904. On the basis of “Pottlecombe…” I may have to search it out…

This novella tells the story of Major Mark Hankisson who’s retired to Pottlecombe, a tiny village on the Devon coast. Here he lodges, and regularly goes for a daily promenade in the locality, including some recently developed streets. One of these is “the Cornice”, named by a celebrated local lady poetess. And during his daily walks, Major Mark (as he is known locally) gradually becomes aware of a local lady who also takes walks, although not with the regularity that he does. The times being what they are, however (the turn of the 20th century), the two do not speak and barely acknowledge each other. However, the Major finds his thoughts increasingly drawn towards the grey lady, as he thinks of her…

Eventually, he discovers that the lady’s name is Miss Agnes Lamb, who cares for a bedridden sister. Agnes seems a little frail, sometimes struggling to deal with the vagaries of the weather; and when the ladies go away for the winter, Major Mark realises how much he is affected by the grey lady. He is delighted when she returns from her absence and he manages to make tentative moves towards acquaintance – but, alas, all is not as it seems as he will sadly find out…

This is a short work (at 55 pages it straddles the line between short story and novella, really) but it’s so beautifully written and such a poignantly told tale. Despite its length, Sturgis conjures vivdly a small village and its gradual move into modernisation, the lonely lives of some of the inhabitants, and the slow recognition by Major Mark of his attraction to Miss Agnes. The end is genuinely affecting, and quite haunting – I hadn’t expected such a slim work to have such impact!

“On the Pottlecombe Cornice” can be read in one sitting, and I would probably recommend that; but it’s a book whose flavour and setting will linger; the story of Major Mark’s passion is a very moving one. A very worthy and welcome release from Mike Walmer, and one which definitely makes me want to read more of Sturgis’s work!

Review copy from the publisher, for which many thanks – you can find more details of Mike’s books here.

“…all we creatures…should perish once and for all…” #johncowperpowys #upandout @spikenard65

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Back in December 2019, just before the world descended into chaos, I reviewed a slim hardback volume released by Michael Walmer as part of his Zephyr imprint. It’s one of my favourites of the many series he publishes, focusing on classic short works, and I’ve loved and reviewed most of them. The book in question was “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!” by John Cowper Powys – an unusual title, an unusual book, and yet it was quirky, beautifully written and ultimately very moving. So when Mike kindly offered me a review copy of another Powys in the Zephyr series I couldn’t resist!

The new work is “Up and Out” – and yes, that *is* a kind of giant slug on the cover, and yes it’s relevant to the story! If “The Owl…” was quirky, “Up…” is out and out strange – but nevertheless a fascinating and really thought provoking read! The book focuses on Gor Goginog and Rhitha, an intense young couple who find most of the world to be an unpleasant place. So when a giant atomic explosion destroys the world, they seem remarkably unfazed to find themselves floating through space on the last tiny green scrap of the world which has survived. Here they encounter Org, a creature created Frankenstein-like from the mad acts of vivisectionists, and his human partner Asm (ahem…) As the small piece of planet floats through space, the four survivors debate what has happened. They encounter a giant fork-tongued slug which is Time; pass into the Void; encounter mythical being and Greek Gods; and end up party to a debate on free will between God and the Devil. All the while, most of creation seems to have had enough of existence and is committing mass suicide wherever you look. Does God have the answer, or is oblivion best??

Why are we – answer me that, angel of my heart! – why are we debarred from deciding that this confounded creation of life, by this Grand Inquisitor and Master Vivisector we call God, this life which the greatest of all philosophers maintains appears by the eternal processes of matter – why, I say, are we debarred from deciding that it is the opposite of a praiseworthy thing, that it is in fact a wicked and abominable thing, to allow this life to go on?

If this sounds a bit bats, well it probably is – but it’s certainly an entertaining and fascinating read!! Powys is obviously drawing on Welsh myth and history in places, with Gor invoking all sorts of gods and mythologies at places. However, the discussions range far and wide over all kinds of beliefs and creeds, with the whole universe eventually coming to the conlusions that suicide is the best option as life is so horrible. Certainly, the early pages of the book deplore much of the progress of the time, with vivisection coming in for some bitter criticism (with which I wholeheartedly agree), and Powys does seem very disillusioned with life.

But it seemed to me that a world without free will, a world ruled by absolute determinism from the start, would be so dull and tedious an experiment as to be hardly worth making.

The book does eventually come to the crux of the matter, something which often features in arguments about religion. Free will is something we’ve apparently been granted by God, and so humans can be good or bad. At one point in “Up…” God does point out that he could easily create a new world, take away free will so that everyone behaves nicely and there is a lovely calm world – but as he says, this would be terribly boring… Perhaps God is coming to believe also that self-destruction and oblivion is the best option…

More than this I shall not say, but I would encourage you to read the book if you can as it’s very thought-provoking, full of ideas and quite intriguing! Powys writes in a melodramatic fashion, which adds to the entertainment, and he’s not afraid to explore all manner of concepts – which is very refreshing! Me, I’m a godless woman so I tend to think that you’re not here, then you are here, and then you’re not again, so you might as well enjoy the time inbetween the darkness. But I found reading “Up and Out” a fascinating, if sometimes strange, experience and so kudos to Mike for bringing this back into print – another worthy addition to the Zephyr series! 😀

“”…frayed, ragged, blurred and indistinct.” #JohnCowperPowys #MichaelWalmer

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The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe! by John Cowper Powys

I hate to have to confess this, but there are books on my TBR which have been there for literally decades… And in many cases, I really don’t want to get rid of them because I’ve come across absolute gems when I’ve finally got round to reading some of those pending books. A case in point is “The Mandarins” by Simone de Beauvoir, which I bought in the 1980s and finally read in the 2000s: it turned out to be a most wonderful book, which I love and would never part with. Hence, I suppose, my difficulty in getting rid of the things… ;D

Anyway, one particularly large pile is my collection of John Cowper Powys books – here they are:

The pile of Powys books is so big it threatens to eclipse Christmas… ;D

Yes, it’s a very large pile of very chunky books. Yes, I have two copies of “Wolf Solent” (the most recent edition came home with me because of the larger type). Yes, the little red book on top is his monograph about Dostoevsky. Yes, I really *should* get on with reading one of these books soon (I did get well into “Wolf Solent ” some years ago, pre-blog, but got distracted). I’m afraid I have to admit that, in typical fashion, I *have* read a John Cowper Powys book recently, but it wasn’t any of these. Instead, I spent some very happy book time with this lovely edition of an early and obscure and hard-to-get story by Powys: “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!“, which has just been reissued by Michael Walmer – and what a treat it turned out to be!

Loving the cover of this edition! 😀

“Owl…” was first published in 1930 in a limited edition of 250 copies (and I think it’s been quite hard to get hold of since). It’s a short, quirky and extremely individual story; and bearing in mind it was published a year after “Wolf..” it’s probably not what his readers might have been expecting. The story is set in a small flat in 1920s New York, a place which is occupied by an old couple; retired circus performers, they live in fear of “the Authories” who seem determined to put them in a home. However, the old couple are not the only inhabitants of the flat; there are a number of inanimate objects who appear to have an existence, from a wise stuffed owl through an amorous china duck, a rude glass fish, some Eastern Gods, an emotionally charged doll and a crumbling wooden horse. All of these objects have their own opinions on life, the universe and everything, and are happy to voice them to each other. However, there is another layer of occupation which involves a pair of partially created characters from an unfinished novel of a long-gone tenant, and the filmy ghost of the kind old lady who lived in the flat before the old couple arrived.

They were not elves, or ghosts, or elementals, these Two Beings. They were not sylphs or salamanders or undines. That they should have existed in the Known World at all only proved that the philosophy of the Owl was correct when he made it clear to the Duck by irrefutable logic that at every known point in space thousands of unknown dimensions meet and overlap.

All of these different beings maintain a fragile co-existence on their different planes; however, the Authorities are imminent and the objects are incapable of preventing cataclysmic change. Is there anyone amongst them who can save the old couple from the horrors of a home?

The plot really does sound outlandish, but it actually is quite brilliant, and in 60 pages Powys manages to pack in humour, pathos and moments of real emotion. The writing is quirky and if you haven’t got the turn of mind which can accept the unlikely or impossible you may find the oddness a bridge too far. I, however, absolutely loved it; I was utterly gripped, whether listening to the objects debating their philosophies or sympathising with the poor doll’s desire for romance or empathising with the couple’s desire to simply be left along. It’s a fantastic tale, yes, but has roots in something deeper; it considers existence in all its different forms, concluding I think that people should be left alone to resolve their own lives.

But in the great clanging, marbly, brassy City, littered with sordid lives, strewn with wind-tost debris and bitter dust, exhaling mephitic stenches and corpse-chills, one resource, one issue, one last escape is left…

The end solution is signalled fairly early on, and is desperately moving; the book ends on a slight note of ambiguity, which is entirely suitable; and as soon as I’d finished reading I felt like going back and reading again to see if I’d missed any nuances. It’s unusual, perhaps, for such a short and idiosyncratic work to have such an effect; but “Owl…” really got under my skin, and as I’d finished it during my lunch-hour I felt completely unsuited for work for the rest of the day!

Even the inside is pretty!

Mike Walmer’s Zephyr imprint is a series of classic short works in hardback and I reviewed the first, by Gautier, back in 2017 (I have the second waiting to be read!) I think they’re an excellent collection so far, works that really deserve to be available, and there’s an added bonus in that they’re also very pretty! I absolutely loved “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!”, and you never know – this might spur me on to actually *read* some of those Powys chunksters lurking on Mount TBR! 😀

(Review copy kind provided by Mike Walmer, for which many thanks!)

ETA: Helen has also read and loved this book, so do pop over to see her thoughts. We agree it’s a fab book to read but possibly difficult to write about without spoilers! 😀

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