Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Behold, Here's Poison - Georgette Heyer #1936Club

It turns out that Heyer published 2 books in 1936 (a bonus for me this week). The Talisman Ring, covered in yesterdays post, and a contemporary detective novel, Behold, Here's Poison. I can't really argue with the general opinion that Heyer's detective fiction isn't in the same league as her historical novels, but they're still pretty good and probably deserve a bit more love than they've had. 


To be fair Arrow have started reprinting these in smart new jackets - normally around Christmas and presumably thanks to the continuing enthusiasm for nostalgic Golden Age crime, so maybe they're getting a bit more love than I've noticed. There are 11 of these crime novels (one of which, Penhallow, is a bit of an outlier in terms of style) and I think it's a shame there aren't a few more. There might have been some level of collaboration with Heyer's husband, a barrister when she was writing these who apparently supplied some plot details, but I doubt his contribution was particularly significant.

The characters are pure Heyer, and very much part of her stock in trade. She also has a couple of mysteries (more thriller than murder) in her historical novels, including The Talisman Ring so the two strands of her writing are not so dissimilar. Behold, Here's Poison shares other things with The Talisman Ring too. Almost all the action takes place in a few interiors - a substantial house in a wealthy London suburb, Grinley Heath, and a smart London flat off St James, and there are the same very evocative descriptions of certain scenes. 

The one thing I'd remembered really clearly about this book was it's opening. The under housemaid is taking tea up to the still sleeping household, and looks out of a window. She muses about the neighbours but mostly is thinking about the weather - it's going to be sunny and she has the afternoon off. It's a small thing but so very relatable. 

Unfortunately her plans are ruined by finding the master of the house dead. Initially it looks like natural causes - his doctor is certainly ready to say so, but then his doctor also had reason to want him dead, and then Mister Matthews most forceful sister turns up and demands a post mortem. Unfortunately for another sister, a niece and nephew, their mother, an uncle, the doctor, and possibly others who had reason to want Mister Matthews gone, it was murder. Unfortunately for the police it's 5 days later and much of the possible evidence has been destroyed. 

There is a smooth and very intelligent nephew who exists to annoy the rest of his family, whilst running his own parallel investigation to the police - he wants to preserve the family name if possible. He also becomes a slightly unlikely, but eventually oddly convincing love interest for  Stella, Mister Matthews niece and one of the few more or less likable characters amongst the suspects.

Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a couple of quite generous reviews of Heyer's detective fiction. She notes that the plots aren't the best, but that the characterisation and humour are. The relations between two sisters and a sister in law are masterfully handled here. They might be caricatures but Heyer makes them live, or at least she does when it comes to showing how incompatible they are, so that even though they're not likable I still feel sympathy for them having to deal with each other.   

There's an emphasis on dress as well, both male and female which is very Heyer, and also very 1930's. Reading these books makes me realise how much the ideal of masculinity has changed over the last 100 years. Intelligence and elegance seem to be the most important attributes a hero can have. I guess this says a bit about the preferences of the Queens of Crime too. 

In short this is a satisfying mystery, the murder method is clever, Heyer's detective is likable (also very intelligent), there's plenty of her trademark humour and a few twists along the way. If you're new to Heyer and doubtful about historical romance, her mysteries are a great place to start. They come with a slightly different set of expectations, and possibly a bit less genre prejudice attached to them. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Talisman Ring - Georgette Heyer - #1936Club

I had forgotten about the 1936 club until I saw a reminder from Simon a couple of weeks ago, and then got quietly excited when I realised I could read two Georgette Heyer's for it, one of which is an all time favourite - The Talisman Ring. I've been using Simon and Kaggsy's book club as a Heyer enabling tool since they started it and I'm not going to break with tradition now when she's been such a solace in the past year.


This has mostly been due to the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong on Twitter. Every Sunday we work through 3 chapters of whichever the current book is with plenty of mostly entirely relevant discussion. It's a particularly friendly group of readers with plenty of differing opinions and reading the books like this has been really illuminating. I don't think we've done Talisman Ring yet (I didn't join the group until it had been going for a few months), but I took a lot of what they've made me think about into this umpteenth read of it. 

One reason I love this particular book so much is that although there are romances in it, it's essentially a comedy thriller in fancy dress. An old man (Sylvester) is dying, he's rescued his granddaughter from the dicey position of being an aristocrat in revolutionary France at about the same time that his grandson was suspected of shooting a man in cold blood to get back the talisman ring which had been lost over a game of cards. Ludovic (the grandson) is promptly shipped out the country with almost everybody assuming his guilt. Sylvester has summoned his great nephew, Tristram, to his death bed in the hope that he'll marry his much younger cousin (the granddaughter) who will otherwise be alone in the world.

Tristram isn't especially enthusiastic but he needs a wife and isn't especially enthusiastic about anybody else either. Eustacie seems to feel much the same - although after a few hours in each others company it's fairly clear that they really won't like each other much. Then Sylvester dies, Ludovic turns up as a smuggler in which guise he meets Eustacie escaping the prospect of a dull marriage. There's some shooting in a moonlit forest, Tristram realises that Ludovic is innocent, another cousin suddenly looks suspicious, and a woman who makes him laugh turns up. There are a lot of jokes, and it's all very enjoyable.

Reading Heyer slowly it also seems crazy that her work was never adapted for film. Most of the action here takes place in a handful of different interiors and a bit of woodland, the dialogue, and running around is very reminiscent of the screwball comedy's of the era, and the cast is limited. It should have been a gift to film - and a well made contemporary adaptation would be delightful (the only book of hers that was adapted was not well served - you can find The Reluctant Widow on you tube - it's an absolute mess compared to the source material) even if it wasn't entirely faithful. 

As it is there are wonderful scenes - such as Sylvester's death bed - lit by 50 candles, furnished with rich brocades, with an old man in his wig and a great ruby ring at the centre of it determined to have the last word. I feel like I'm watching rather than reading, and Heyer invites her readers to be amused as well as entertained by the vision she's created. 

What I hadn't really noticed before this year, but am coming to see as more of a feature of her work is how loosely Heyer sketches in the details of her main characters. Tristram is described as tall, dark, lean, and we know he's good in a fight - but otherwise it's up to the reader to decide on the details. Ludovic is tall blond and handsome, Eustacie is small dark and beautiful... There isn't really a lot about their personalities either beyond humour and intelligence. Her secondary characters by comparison are much more richly detailed. This has to be a big part of why her books have aged relatively well (there are bits which haven't), it's so easy to project yourself into the heart of them. 

Overall The Talisman Ring is lighthearted, well written, fun. It doesn't expect to be taken particularly seriously, it's function is solely to amuse and entertain which it does very well indeed. I'm very happy to have had a reason to read it again right now. 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

In The Garden - Essays on Nature and Growing

It was the 14th of January 2020 when I last went to London, the purpose of the trip was to get a readers card for the National Art Library (housed in the V&A). It was a preliminary for a piece of research that's back on indefinite hold now, and even when it's possible to revisit London for nothing much more than pleasure it's going to be a much longer time before I want to go there (or consider the exorbitant train fare worth while). I've never been to Daunt Books - there's never been time. 


It's London that 'In The Garden' mostly evokes for me though, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Individually each essay in this collection is excellent - there's not a weak link in the chain. Not even Nigel Slater who is not a favourite writer (I can't deny the quality of his writing, but I can't relate to it either - everything in his written and photographed world feels too perfectly curated, too aspirational, for me - even the imperfections, it leaves me cold). Collectively there's a metrocentric feel about the book that I think leaves it feeling a little unbalanced.

Kerri Ní Dochartaigh describing the garden she's growing in Ireland, and Caroline Craig's 'Just Call Me Alan' where she describes her families farming and gardening in Provence, both towards the end of the collection somewhat redress the balance, but a couple more essays like this to add to the mix would have been welcome. 

It's not that I'm unsympathetic towards London bound millennials struggling with high rents and shared housing, longing for a garden to find and ground themselves in. I live in a city centre flat, the lack of a garden of my own is a constant small grief, but I also know plenty of millennials who didn't go to London, who by their mid twenties had mostly bought houses and gardens with their partners, who got allotments and started families before they were 30. I want to read something which reflects what a garden means to these people too.

What is here is excellent though, and there are at least a good number of voices that I don't think we often see in garden and nature writing. How a garden might tie together generations of immigrant families - from the first generation trying to assimilate or recreate a little bit of home through 2nd and third generations making their own identities or reaching back to find links with different parts of their heritage.

Zing Tsjeng's 'A Ghost Story' is a favourite piece for the way she talks about how her garden bridges gaps between her and her mother, and all she has to say on how we transfer our feelings into something like a garden. Francesca Wade is very good on London Square gardens in 'A Common Inheritance' too - but then I'll say again, there isn't a weak essay here. There's no shortage of things to think about either, I guess this is what happens when you chose writers to talk about gardening rather than gardeners to write about it. 

I've also been a little bit on the fence about buying both Kerri Ní Dochartaigh's 'Thin Places' and Francesca Wade's 'Square Haunting' too, but I'm now much more interested in both based on what I've read here. It's definitely a collection to have a good look at.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

There's No Story There - Inez Holden

These are more of the war time writings of Inez Holden, this time from 1944-45 after the earlier collections of Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different at the Time which covered 1938-1941. There's No Story There is a novel, or something between a novel and a fictionalized account of Holden's war time observations. She did work in a munitions factory in Wales although I'm not clear if it was on the scale of 'Statevale' - which covers seven miles, has 30,000 employees, and is an enclosed world of it's own.


I found Blitz Writing interesting, Holden is too good an observer and too good a writer for it not to be, but it's not as compelling as There's No Story There which given that the construction of the two isn't so very different kind of surprises me. There's an extra something about this book, a subtle sort of alchemy that makes it work in a way I can't pick apart.

There are 13 loosely connected chapters - vignettes really, of life at Statevale from the perspective of varied characters, the final chapter presented as a letter a newish arrival is writing home ties everything together. There are also 3 final chapters which are unrelated, but all add to the war time picture, especially Musical Chairman.

This book came out with Margaret Kennedy's Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry and it is absolutely worth reading both together because both feel like they show a part of war time history that's under represented. In  Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry it's Kennedy's willingness to share her fears and prejudices, in There's No Story There it's all about the behind the scenes work and this time I was really surprised by my own ignorance.

Holden was a Bright Young Thing who ended up as a socialist, and reading this book there's more than a suggestion that conditions at Statevale verge on being a socialist utopia - sort of. there's a place for everybody - jobs for people to damaged to go into, or back into the army. Conditions in the hostels are basic but good and for a portion of your wages every need is taken care of. What I hadn't realized is how little choice people had in how and where they were employed.

There's comedy here - especially in chapters 7 and 8 (Factory Tour and Visit) when the visitor who turns up isn't quite the visitor expected, and then something much darker in 9 (Check Up) where a Jewish man finds persecution where none is intended. His paranoia has good foundation of course, which adds to the bleakness of his situation.

There are chapters about being snowed in to the factory, and out of it, Snowed In is perhaps my favourite in the book - it's where I think Holden's magic touch is most evident. She creates images which have an almost mythic power here without being heavy handed about it. It's something about the other worldliness of a snowy landscape and the warmth of a boiler room contrasted with each other. 

There's also a casual look at the strain that war time years apart put on marriages, all the human frailties and weaknesses and how we accommodate them in a community, hints of a mystery, and above all the extraordinariness of ordinary people. Readers will recognise as clearly as Holden did that there is a story - the curious thing is that in all the endless stories of the war that we keep remaking and rewriting how seldom this one seems to be told.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Castle Skull - John Dickson Carr

I’ve been saving this Rhineland Mystery as a treat – I thought the combination Of John Dickson Carr and a suitably gothic Germanic setting to let himself loose on would be quite something. The promise of an Aleister Crowley like figure was also hopeful, but in the end I either wasn’t in quite the right frame of mind, or John Dickson Carr was showing a certain restraint. I think it’s more likely to be that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind because Carr does provide a castle full of secret passages perched high above the Rhine, and shaped so that it looks like a giant skull – which can hardly be thought of as restrained.


This is another Inspector Henri Bencolin mystery, Bencolin is lured from Paris by the great Belgian financier Jérôme D’Aunay, after the equally mysterious and horrifying death of his friend and host, Myron Alison (Carr definitely wasn’t holding back, Myron turned out to be almost as hard to kill as Rasputin). Both men were friends with the charismatic, unpleasant, and very successful magician, Maleger who’s body was supposedly found in the Rhine 17 years previously with yet more mystery attached.

Odd things happen on the way to the Rhine, and when Bencolin and Jeff finally arrive there’s a massive thunderstorm, all the better to appreciate the skull shaped castle in. The suspicion is that one of Myron’s house guests must have murdered him, and as everybody has been stuck in his house together suspecting each other for several days they’re not very happy. An old friend and adversary of Bencolin’s is also on the scene – his German counterpart, officially in charge of the case. The two had been spies on opposite sides during the first world war and have retained a good deal of respect and friendly rivalry.

As I describe this book I realise I’m going to have to read it again at some point, because it sounds better and better, and hopefully next time I’ll be in a better mood to appreciate all the details – of which Carr is a master. As it is the moment I really perked up was near the end when he’s describing a somewhat macabre dinner party and does a role call of Vermouth’s and Amaro’s – which made me long for any sort of aperitif suitable occasion – even a dinner party designed to flush out a murderer in a ghastly castle shaped like a skull with black onyx floors (especially such a dinner party – it would be one memorable way to end lock down).

There’s also a delightfully incongruous cocktail in production at this point – it’s not one I’m familiar with, and a quick look in my own books on the subject and online doesn’t throw up any references for it from 1931 – there’s a similar recipe that claims to be from 1960’s. At some point I’ll dig a little deeper on this – Carr’s version is simple, and I think it would be very drinkable, although I can see why Jeff Marle opts to change to Pernod after his first one. I haven’t made it yet as I don’t have an open bottle of apricot brandy to hand – but it’s 2 parts gin, 1 part apricot brandy, 1 part freshly squeezed orange juice, shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass.

It sounds like a decent cocktail for spring – it should allow the apricot brandy to really shine, be quite fruity, and have a hell of a kick to it. As Carr’s characters have been stuck in their own mini lockdown, a couple of relationships have come to a messy end as well as the matter of the murder under investigation it’s a clever choice – so at odds with the rest of the Gothic atmosphere and high emotion.

 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Kulich - Russian Easter Bread from Red Sands

The sun has been shining, we're allowed to meet  friends again without the pretense of exercise, and to celebrate that I made the Kulich from Red Sands to take to a park with a flask of tea for a properly long chat with a very dear friend who I've missed seeing regularly more than I can say over the last year.

I think this Easter bread first caught my eye in Darra Goldstein's 'Beyond The North Wind', although I can't shake the feeling that I've seen it somewhere else recently, as well as in 'Red Sands'. If I have I can't find it now, although there's also a version in Olia Hercules 'Mamushka' so I have at least three recipes I can refer to in my kitchen alone.

Darra Goldstein tells me superstition holds that the success of this bread is mood dependent and not to try making it if you're feeling impatient or bad tempered. I was in a very good mood this morning between the sun and the prospect of seeing R, but there was something about this dough which made me happy as well and it behaved beautifully for me. It's a superstition I'm inclined to adopt.


Every recipe I've looked up for Kulich (I've gone through a pile of them online as well) is different, and although they're all versions of an enriched spiced dough with fruit that's about it. The advantage of the Red Sands recipe from my point of view is that it makes a relatively small quantity. It's enough dough for four breads baked in 400g tins (the sort that have had tomatoes or beans in). That's a good individual size and not to many to find homes for if you live alone. The bigger challenge was using enough tins of things the right size over the last week and remembering to keep them. 


There are other advantages to the small size version - the modest quantities of ingredients are easy to deal with, which is helpful when you're handling a sticky dough like this one - it was very happy in a food mixer which is a bonus if you have carpel tunnel issues and the alternative is a solid 10 - 12 mins of kneading by hand. I didn't get through endless eggs and it was an excellent way to finish up some of the dried apricots left over from Christmas cakes. Same with the mixed spice as well which saved me making another batch and having half of it hang around for months. Smaller tins cut the baking time too, and these little Kulich are easy to handle as they come out of the tins - instructions for larger versions sound like it could all go wrong at the last minute.

Flavour wise to say they're somewhere between a pantone and a hot cross bun but denser is accurate enough, they also strongly reminded me of the tea loaf of my childhood, a sort that seems to have been particular to Shetland - and also made from an enriched dough, studded with raisins, sometimes spiced, soft in the middle, crusty on the outside. A link doesn't seem impossible, although delicious bread is delicious bread the world over.

Altogether these were a lovely thing to make, fitted well enough around a morning routine, and appeal more to me than either Simnel cake or even chocolate eggs (although I like those too). I really like their mushroomy appearance and the feeling of Sunday best they have about them. I absolutely recommend Red Sands, both for the travel journal elements and the recipes - I've found myself cooking a lot from it this year. I would normally include the recipe, but as every one I've read seems so particular to it's writer it doesn't feel quite right to do it this time. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Work Place Harassment

I've been debating for a week or more about writing this post - it's something I've been thinking a lot about against the background of the ongoing Sturgeon V Salmond drama. One of the more annoying aspects of this is the number of people who will smugly declare online that Salmond was acquitted of the charges bought against him last year, and ignore his own admissions about how inappropriate his behavior had been. That your man isn't actually a rapist seems like a very low bar to set. The what about the Tories response which either swiftly follows or has preceded this is frustrating too. Damning corruption and lying on one hand, and then using it as an excuse for more corruption and lying on the other isn't a good look. 

Something else I see a lot of is people who questioning how Sturgeon apparently didn't know what was happening earlier, and asking why it wasn't called out earlier. I don't know what her experience, or that of the other people working in Holyrood at the time was, but I can share mine in the hope that it might be a little bit helpful to someone somewhere.

Around 20 years ago I was an assistant manager in an off license. At the time it had a heavy drinking culture, and once you exclude the weekend staff, a lot more men working for the company than women (my experience was that about 1 in 5 of us were women). Regardless of the ratio I've generally found the wine trade to be a reasonable place for women to work in, with a lot of great role models at every level to show you what's possible.

There were a few uncomfortable incidents along the way - a van driver who used to like to make me blush by describing his sex life in explicit detail whilst he stared at me. It was bullying, but everybody treated it like a joke and it seemed easier to go along with that. After he left for another job I said something about how relieved I was he'd gone and why. My then boss was appalled - I should have said something he told me, he would have sorted it out. Which reinforced that it was sort of my fault, but he was right there in the room, chose not to see how uncomfortable I was, gave permission for that drivers behavior by laughing along with it, and never seemed open to a conversation that might have made him uncomfortable.

Another manager was an alcoholic. Drinking at work was a sackable offence but at the time almost everybody did to some extent - tasting samples of whisky in your tea, a bottle of wine split at the end of the day after cashing up. Mostly quite innocent and how we learnt so much about wine. There were plenty of checks and balances to discourage it getting out of hand, but in this case they weren't robust enough. Our working life with this manager started like this, but then the bottles got opened earlier and there were more of them - but he shared everything with us, so we were complicit, and initially it was fun. 

It was less fun the couple of times I had to get my mother to drive him home because he was too drunk to trust to the bus, less fun when he started getting a bit handsy, no fun at all when his wife would come and sit with him in the back of the shop when she finished her work for the day, drinking with him and laughing whilst he asked 18 year old girls for their bra size, but her unwillingness to pull him up on his behavior coupled with her own spiteful remarks towards us made it so much harder for the rest of us (not so much older or more experienced) to know what to do. And then it was Christmas and anybody who has worked in retail will know what that's like.

The penny dropped for me far to late, I came back from a couple of weeks off and saw very clearly how out of hand things had got. A training day in another branch talking to my peer group led to a lot of raised eyebrows and worried looks, and then everything came to a head. None of the younger girls would work a shift alone with this man, and after a staff tasting event one of them asked if I would back her up if she complained about things said to her. I'd heard them, they were completely out of line, so there was only one answer.

The first result was my female area manager, who I had every reason to believe knew about the drinking problem, asked me if I could get this girl to withdraw her complaint. She wasn't pleased when I said no. We were all asked to write statements which we were told would be completely confidential. They were later turned over to out manager. I took the brunt of this - my contract said I had to work as many hours as it took to keep the shop running which meant whilst he was suspended I worked 60+ hour weeks without any overtime. It was exhausting, there was constant pressure to drop the complaints, cover up the evidence, and of we wouldn't, explain our own behavior. Meanwhile colleagues who had known this man in previous roles would tell me what a great guy he was, how the problem was this or that, and was it fair that he'd lose his job over this. What would it do for his marriage, he was trying to start a family. All of it.

He wasn't a bad man as such, and if he'd admitted he had a drink problem the company would have bent over backwards to get him help. He didn't and it became our problem, not his. We were treated as if we were more of a problem than him - we were responsible for the paperwork, the investigations, his mistakes, and our own. When I say I had every reason to believe our area manager knew there was a problem it's because her predecessor told me in front of her to speak up if things got out of hand, but when it came down to it there was no support for anybody speaking up.

He lost his job, got another one somewhere else, moved on. I hope managed to knock the drinking on the head. The rest of us where more or less marked as trouble makers. I've seen the same sort of situation unfold many times since then. The details change but what's constant is people getting sucked into difficult situations incrementally until speaking out can feel impossible, and a lack of support when you do speak out. Worse when people are actively discriminated against for speaking out and predatory individuals are protected. It's also behavior that's dangerously ubiquitous online.

I've tried in my working life to be someone that will listen too and support people who want to blow the whistle, sometimes that's included pointing out how difficult it might be to do so, that there are often more repercussions for the victims of inappropriate behavior than there ever will be for the perpetrators. The older I get the more angry it makes me. That alcoholic manager was mostly his own victim, but every case I've seen since then has been someone exploiting the people around them, pushing the bounds of what's okay bit by bit, picking their victims and undermining them at every turn. It's calculated and unforgivable behavior. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

George Mackay Brown - Centenary Year

2021 has a few centenaries I'm planning on marking. There's Patricia Highsmith's which I know I should have celebrate din January, and who's massive collected short story collection Under A Dark Angel's Eye from Virago is weighing down my conscience right now (it's on top of a pile of guilt inducing books right in front of me all waiting to be read as a matter of urgency). It's a hundred years since Georgette Heyer published her first novel, The Black Moth, which I'll be reading as part of a Twitter group later in the year, which will be a lot of fun, and it's also George Mackay Brown's centenary. 

I think there's another one, but I can't for the life of me remember what it is (prompts gratefully received if anything seems obvious). 

I noticed a few weeks ago when I was combing through Birlinn's forthcoming titles that they're bringing out a trio of his titles in June. They were by no means the only things I noticed - browsing publishers websites is a potentially expensive pastime. It's Mackay Brown's short stories that I particularly love, and the collection edited by Malachy Tallack that has particularly caught my eye. I'm assuming this is a collection that Tallack has chosen, and despite having what I think is the whole set, I really want to see which ones make the cut in this volume.


It's probably also a good year to try and get to grips with Mackay Brown's poetry and novels. I failed utterly with Greenvoe so long ago that it's about time I tried again. And whilst I'm in an Orkney mood there's some Eric Linklater that might make good companion reading.

There is also a celebration and exhibition being run by Orkney Library (one of the best library twitter accounts out there) where they're asking people to knit and donate hats. These will be displayed and then sold to raise money for a local charity. I'm quite taken with this idea - I like knitting hats, I have a piece of his writing in mind as a starting point, and a bit of creativity always makes me feel better about the world in general, so whilst things are still relatively locked down this is a welcome project.

 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Colour of Hope - Jen Feroze

On the anniversary of lockdown starting, writing from a city that has never had lockdown restrictions fully lifted, this feels like the best possible book to be hosting on a blog tour. 

We haven't had the unusually good weather that graced this time last year, the vague idea that lockdown would be something that lasted a matter of weeks feels unbearable naïve now. But it's what I assumed back then, when being told to stay at home felt almost like a gift. Something that would let me put a whole host of worries and responsibilities aside for a month and concentrate on reading and making for a little while. Infection seemed a safe distance away (it wasn't) and long Covid was not yet a thing. 


I've been lucky all things considered. I didn't have a job to lose (still struggling to find one, but that's another story), nobody close to me has died from Covid, although people on the edge of my circle have, and I've lost friends and family to other causes who I had every reason to think I'd see again, or be able to mourn for in company, but that's a boat we're all in. Quite a lot of close friends are dealing with long Covid, which is the thing that frightens me most about this virus.

It's been a strange year of isolation mixed with really amazing care and consideration from all sorts of quarters, and if the current lockdown is shorter on the up beat creativity of the first, the genuine kindness people can show is more in evidence than ever.

Which is where I finally get to 'The Colour of Hope'. Created in the first lockdown in 2020 it started as a project to cheer up a friend. In the middle of March Jen asked her to name 3 things which would always make her feel happy, and then put them into a poem. 2020 moved on and the idea expanded - there are 45 poems here, each inspired by, and written for different people (all women I think, which is a cheering testament to female friendship which is a cherry on top of the cake for me). The poems are named for the people they were for, but the original brief is not included so we can make of them what we will.

There are memories and hope for happy moments written into every line, pleasure taken in simple things, many of which are lockdown proof. I don't want to say much about the poems - I don't need to, they're all the best things about this last year. All the unexpected generosity and care, the things to be genuinely grateful for, the things that make us happy. All the things I'll want to remember about 2020. 




Monday, March 22, 2021

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry - Margaret Kennedy

It's turning into a bit of a theme for me with Handheld Press titles - books by authors I have a stack of titles by in old green Virago covers, but have never got round to reading. Margaret Kennedy is definitely in that sisterhood and for no better reason than that there's always been something else to read first. Judith at Handheld press is also really good at following up review copies with an email about when I might write about their books - so they don't end up buried in a pile of other things not to surface anytime soon. (I appreciate Judith and her gentle deadlines).

Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry is a memoir of Kennedy's experiences from May to September 1940. It's written as a journal and covers the period of the Battle of Britain to the beginning of the Blitz. It was definitely created with the intention that it would be read by her family, and probably always with an eye towards publication. Publication came in 1941, but only in America, where it was well received.


It's unlike anything else I've ever read about the War. Kennedy was a successful and well respected writer at this point, decades into her career, she clearly knows her business, and I gave up underlining things because there was something noteworthy on every page. It also seems remarkably candid and personal to someone used to the current pressure to filter yourself that an age of twitter spats and attacks has created.

Margaret can borrow houses for her family to stay in when she feels London is too dangerous, the children have ponies to ride, they have well connected friends, and no shortage of money or places to go when they decide Surrey is to close in case of bombing raids on the city. There are nannies and nurses as needed; leaving Surrey is a relief because apart from Nanny it means no more servants to deal with, and when she ends up in Cornwall it's lunch every day at the local hotel to save on house work. 

She's also writing, caring for her own young children as well as a friends daughter whilst her husband has to remain in London, engaged in war work, involved in the local community, and still doing a hefty amount of housework. It's an unexpected mix of things which are easy to relate  to, and things which are not, Kennedy seems to be both aware of her privilege and to take it for granted, and tells us a lot about the world of well to do, successful, Europhiles with liberal but not socialist leanings in 1940.

Given her liberal ideals occasional displays of class consciousness, or a description of a group of gypsy women as having eyes "Bright and sharp but not quite human" kept shaking me off balance. In 2021 we would definitely think along very similar lines, reading things like this remind me that 1940 is quite a long time ago. 

It's even more of a shock because there's a lot in Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry that feels like it could be being written now. The same surprise at feeling ourselves living history, not knowing what's coming, wondering if it will be a social leveler, if something better can be built on the ruins of the old normal, growing awareness of social disparity and anger at the visible effects of poverty on children's bodies. There's plenty about fear, isolation, and fifth columnists (which seems appropriate after last nights riots in Bristol) too. Margaret's fears for her children are quite hard to read. Deliberately shocking in a way that resonates down 80 years as if they were nothing.

It's these moments, both candid and calculated, that make this such a powerful book to read and which feel most out of sync with a modern world. I can only imagine the response some of what she says would get from a contemporary audience, and have no idea how it would have been read in 1941 - but it leaves no doubt as to how desperate things felt to her in Britain's darkest hour. 

To balance that darkness there's plenty of humour, along with Kennedy's general observations about Europe, America, and national characteristics which are interesting - fluctuating feelings about the French again seem really relevant against a Brexit background. Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry is described in the blurb as being like Mrs Miniver with the gloves off, which for anybody who has read Mrs Miniver, or indeed the War time stories of Mollie Panter-Downes and their like should make you want to read this immediately. Kennedy is much better for being gloves off even if it's sometimes brutal.