“Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” (Anna Christie, (Greta Garbo) 1930)

You may remember, back in the mists of time (14-20 October), the 1930 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Although I took part, I’d hoped to do two posts, but was far too disorganised with the second one. Karen kindly said I could sneak in a late entry, so here it is, very much overdue and very much overlong!

My excuse is I’m having renovations done in my tiny flat and the whole place is in disarray to say the least. It has made me clear out 19 sacks of books to the lovely charity bookshop, but the overall effect on my shelves has been negligible. Which makes me think I should just give in and accumulate books until they take over entirely and smother me. A good way to go in my opinion.

Back to 1930! Do have a look at all the wonderful posts from people who managed to post on time – it turned out to be a great year 😊

Firstly, some cosy crime courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series, The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton.

The titular village is a pretty place in East Anglia, but somewhat isolated and insular “with that curious half-mistrustful air not uncommon among the natives of East Anglia.” 😀

Strangers are not welcome in High Eldersham, and Samuel Whitehead, retired police officer and local publican, was one such stranger. Still, he seemed to have settled in relatively well right up until the point that someone stabbed him to death. Inspector Young is called in from Scotland Yard and immediately suspects one of the locals:

“He knew from experience that brutal murders, inspired by some entirely inadequate motive, were not uncommon. They were nearly always due to the workings of an unbalanced mind, brooding over some fancied grievance until the lust of blood was awakened. Then the hitherto harmless and peaceful individual became a criminal… He would await his opportunity and deliver the blow. And, the deed once perpetrated, he would return to normal sanity. It was not unlikely that the murder of Whitehead was due to such causes.”

It’s hardly a robust theory. Young is not an idiot though, and he quickly unearths the titular secret, although that doesn’t tell him who murdered the pub landlord, or why. He decides to call on his old friend Desmond Merrion “a living encyclopaedia upon all manner of obscure subjects which the ordinary person knew nothing about.”

And so the professional and amateur detective set about solving the mystery, which to modern readers won’t be much mystery at all – its very clear what’s going on. That’s not a criticism though. I suspect in 1930 it wasn’t quite so obvious, and it doesn’t matter now – the comfort of these plot-driven golden age stories is watching everything play out exactly as it’s supposed to, and I enjoyed following Young and Merrion as they discovered the extent of the dastardly deed.

While it’s not the most sophisticated in terms of plot or characterisation, The Secret of High Eldersham still has enough about it to pull you along. It also doesn’t fall foul of many of the prejudices of GA detective fiction either. Despite the bizarre opinion of East Anglians that I quoted at the beginning, in fact the residents aren’t made too yokely; there’s no racism/anti-Semitism that I can remember; and the loveliness of the female love interest isn’t dwelt upon and she’s actually allowed to have a personality.

Burton doesn’t hang about – there’s very little filler here. He gets on with telling the story and once that’s done, it ends. So, a quick, cosy crime read, perfect autumnal reading as the nights get longer for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Simon also reviewed TSOHE for the 1930 Club and you can read his review here.

In my last post I looked at EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady which included this entry:

August 31st.—Read The Edwardians which everybody else has read months ago—and am delighted and amused. Remember that V. Sackville-West and I once attended dancing classes together at the Albert Hall, many years ago, but feel that if I do mention this, everybody will think I am boasting—which indeed I should be—so better forget about it again, and in any case, dancing never my strongest point, and performance at Albert Hall extremely mediocre and may well be left in oblivion.”

Although I don’t have much in common with the Provincial Lady’s life of ease, like her I enjoyed The Edwardians, which Sackville-West told Virginia Woolf she was writing to ‘make my fortune. Such a joke it will be, and I hope everybody will be seriously annoyed.’

Although she saw it as a joke, its not really a comic novel. It tells the story of Sebastian, heir to the country estate of Chevron, and his sister Violet. Chevron is VSW’s beloved Knole, which she couldn’t inherit due to having ovaries, and which Virginia Woolf also immortalised as the home of Orlando.

The chapters are told from the point of view of different characters, beginning with adventurer Leonard Anquetil, who is not of the same class as the rest but has been invited to Sunday dinner because they think he will be amusing.

“And now the rest of the day must be got through somehow, but the members of the house-party, though surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them, showed no disposition to be bored by each other’s familiar company, and no inclination to vary the programme which they must have followed on innumerable Sunday afternoons since they first emerged from the narrowness of school or schoolroom, to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand. Leonard Anquetil, watching them from outside, marvelled to see them so easily pleased. Here are a score or more of people, he thought, who by virtue of their position are accustomed to the intimate society of princes, politicians, financiers, wits, beauties, and other makers of history, yet are apparently content with desultory chatter and make-believe occupation throughout the long hours of an idle day. Nor could he pretend to himself that on other days they diverted themselves differently, or that their week-end provided a deserved relaxation from a fuller and more ardent life.”

Through Anquetil, our introduction to the lives of the privileged class is a sceptical one at the least, scathing at most. Yet VSW adored Knole, and through Sebastian’s feelings for Chevron we learn how feelings of home run deep, even when that home is a vast estate populated by many.

“Everybody, from Sebastian downwards, obtained exactly what they wanted; they had only to ask, and the request was fulfilled as though by magic. The house was really as self-contained as a little town; the carpenter’s shop, the painter’s shop, the forge, the sawmill, the hot-houses, were there to provide whatever might be needed at a moment’s notice. So the steward’s room, like the dining-room and the schoolroom, was never without its fruit and delicacies.”

Meeting Anquetil has an enduring effect on both Sebastian and Violet. Sebastian’s conflicted feelings about his class, privilege and the society he operates within are brought more to the fore.

“One half of Sebastian detested his mother’s friends; the other half was allured by their glitter. Sometimes he wanted to gallop away by himself to the world’s ends, sometimes he wanted to give himself up wholly to the flattering charm of pretty women. Sometimes he wished to see his whole acquaintance cast into a furnace, so vehemently did he deprecate them, sometimes he thought that they had mastered the problem of civilisation more truly than the Greeks or Romans. “Since one cannot have truth,” cried Sebastian, struggling into his evening shirt, “let us at least have good manners.” The thought was not original: his father had put it into his head, years ago, before he died. But this brings us to Sebastian’s private trouble: he never could make up his mind on any subject. It was most distressing. He had, apparently, no opinions but only moods,—moods whose sweeping intensity was equalled only by the rapidity of their change.” 

We follow Sebastian as he has affairs, becomes a fashionable man about town, and tries to figure out what he wants. In the background of this is his younger sister Violet, who seems a more determined and clear-sighted individual:

“She felt inclined to say, “Very well, if you want the truth, here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid—too stupid to recognise their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which sometimes are artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real. Whatever happens, the world must be served first. In spite of their brilliance, this creed necessarily makes them paltry and mean. Then they are envious, spiteful, and mercenary; arrogant and cold. As for us, their children, they leave us in complete ignorance of life, passing on to us only the ideas they think we should hold, and treat us with the utmost ruthlessness if we fail to conform.””

The plot is slight but I think it’s meant to be – one of VSW’s points is that nothing much happens to these people. I came away with a mixed picture of aristocratic life; on the one hand there is an unflinching portrayal of wasteful, privileged lives, but on the other hand, they are never entirely condemned. I suspect this mirrors VSW’s conflicted feelings on the issue, and it also stops the novel from being too judgemental and bitter.

I didn’t enjoy The Edwardians as much as the other Sackville-Wests I’ve read ( All Passion Spent and Family History) but maybe that’s because I didn’t find Sebastian particularly engaging. I felt Violet was off having a far more interesting time, living in her own flat, hanging out with Bohemians and falling in love. I would have liked to hear more about that, or even some more about their wonderfully bitchy mother. But that’s just personal preference and I do find VSW’s writing to be a great read.

To end, the classic musical Puttin’ on the Ritz was released in 1930. Imagine if you’d never heard that well known ‘reasonably straightforward syncopated 5/4 time signature’, you might struggle with it…

“He lives in a house, a very big house in the country.” (Blur)

In the words of Sir Noddy of Holder, “It’s ChristmAAAAAAAs!”

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If you are already baulking at the thought of spending several days trapped together with your dearest loved ones, a selection tin of chocolates and a turkey that never seems to end despite the fact that everyone somnambulates around with its half-masticated flesh hanging from their mouths for at least twenty hours in every day, then take heart. Being trapped together in country houses has provided some wonderful material for Christmas reads, and escaping into one will prevent you killing off your relatives (which I wouldn’t recommend anyway, because you are, in crime-story parlance, part of a closed circle of suspects and you’ll definitely get found out).

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(Image from here)

Firstly, The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay (1936), a novel from the golden age of detective fiction which has been re-published by the British Library Crime Classics series.  The Melbury family, despite their inherent distaste for one another, spend Christmas together at Flaxmere, the country seat of Sir Osmond Melbury. Sir Osmond is deeply unlikeable, a controlling patriarch who manipulates his family through threats of disinheritance. His daughter Jennifer attempts a certain degree of rebellion:

“She developed some sort of life of her own by working in the Women’s Institutes, but these activities were hampered by Sir Osmond, who disapproved of what he considered the Bolshevist tendencies of the movement.”

Of course, it’s no surprise to the reader that it is Sir Osmond who meets a sticky end, shot in the head by someone clearly undertaking a Yuletide charitable act for the benefit of his family. Suspicion falls on the guest dressed in the Santa costume (definitely not the actual Santa, kids, don’t worry)who discovered the body. Colonel Halstock, Chief Constable of Haulmshire and friend of the family, is brought into investigate.  The realisation that in fact there were two people wandering around in Santa outfits is brought to the Colonel’s attention:

“there was a tap at the door and in walked Miss Portisham and George’s son, Kit. The child strutted in, very pleased with himself, and yet a little nervous. I couldn’t think for a moment what made him look so absurd. Of course, it was the eyebrows!  He had tufts of bushy white hair stuck onto his brows, rather crookedly, one of them taking a satirical tilt towards his temple.”

This being a golden age novel there are false wills, documents half-burnt and discovered in fireplaces, faithful old retainers speaking in regional accents, and a thwarted young couple. The Christmas setting is perfect for a country house murder:

 “they must be having a pretty awful time, I realized, especially as they were, most of them, not given to intellectual occupations. They were forbidden to leave the house, except to walk up and down the drive within sight. They could find nothing to do except sit about and suspect one another.”

So there you are, if you find yourself sitting around on Christmas Day gazing at your loved ones and suspecting them of murder, it’s probably best to distract yourself with an intellectual pursuit or a long walk. Besides, I guarantee they almost definitely didn’t kill anyone.

(Images from Goodreads)

Secondly, Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford (1932, the lovely edition above is by Capuchin Classics, 2012), in which no murders take place despite a family being holed-up together in a country house for the season.

“’Oh what heavenly fun it will be!’ and Bobby vaulted over some fairly low railings and back, casting off for a moment his mask of elderly roué and slipping on that of a tiny-child-at-its-first-pantomime, another role greatly favoured by this unnatural boy.”

This being Mitford, the family and assorted hangers-on have names like Bobby Bobbin, Lord Leamington Spa, and my favourite, Squibby Almanack.  Christmas Pudding is just such a joy – a silly, farcical, witty, clever, well-observed joy. There’s a plot of sorts: pretentious author Paul Fotheringay wangles his way into Compton Bobbin – “one of those houses which abound in every district of rural England, and whose chief characteristic is that they cannot but give rise, on first sight, to a feeling of depression in any sensitive observer” – under false pretences of being a tutor to the mercurial Bobby, and finds himself vying with Lord Lewes for the romantic attentions of Philadelphia Bobbin. But really, who cares? The fun of this novel isn’t in what happens, it’s in Mitford’s sharp observations “a woman had either a good reputation or an international reputation” and ridiculous characters interacting with one another.

“Bobby was now seldom to be seen; he spent most of his time giggling in corners with Miss Heloise Potts, a pretty black-eyed little creature of seventeen who substituted parrot-like shrieks and screams of laughter for the more usual amenities of conversation”

“’Squibby dear,’ said the duchess, waving an empty glass at Bobby as she spoke, ‘just tell me something. Have you seen Rosemary and Laetitia latishly? Are they alright, the sweet poppets?’”

I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that Lady Bobbin never met Lord Melbury, as she also tends to blame the Bolsheviks for anything she doesn’t like (in this instance foot-and-mouth disease which prevents her hunting). But if you think these references mean Mitford’s work is politically dated, let me give you this little nugget:

“He was evidently a man of almost brutish stupidity, and Paul, who had hardly ever met any Conservative Members of Parliament before, was astounded to think that such a person could be tolerated for a moment at the seat of government.”

Ahem.

I highly recommend this, in fact I’m almost tempted to say the thing that should never be said about humourous novels, but its Christmas and I’m drunk feeling festive so I’m going to say it anyway: if you like Wodehouse, I think you’ll like this 🙂

If this has whetted your appetite for golden age country house mysteries, the BBC is screening an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None (which is admittedly an island house rather than a rural one) on Boxing Day:

Season’s Greetings to you all!

“Going underground, going underground” (The Jam)

There were a few blissful weeks over the summer when everyone took their kids on holiday and my commute to work was almost bearable, because it was done with approximately two-thirds less people than usual.  Now those halcyon days are well and truly behind us and everyone’s back at work, I thought I’d try reading about public transport to see if it fills me with new-found affection for my early morning travel.  Given that I’m reading during said commute, with my book touching my nose and my head wedged into someone’s armpit, there’s still some way to go, despite the efforts of some wonderful staff.

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Firstly,  Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. This was the first of Hay’s three crime novels, and is part of the British Library Crime Classics re-issues, which I completely adore. I love these so much I even bought one full-price the other day, rather than waiting for them to turn up in charity bookshops, which is something I never do.  This could be the start of a slippery slope….

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The wonderfully-monikered Miss Euphemia Pongleton is found strangled by her own dog leash on the stairs of Belsize Park station (for those of you who know the Misery Northern line – see, it can get worse – you could be dead).   Suspicion falls on her wastrel nephew Basil Pongleton, whom she was constantly inheriting and disinheriting:

“It’s awfully difficult to explain and I had a ghastly time with the police yesterday. Wonder they didn’t arrest me right away, but they’re keeping an eye on me. I noticed a fishy-looking fellow with police-feet lounging opposite my window in Tavistock Square this morning”

The dialogue is definitely part of the appeal of golden age detective fiction for me, it’s just wonderful. While Basil is dithering around making matters worse, his eminently more sensible cousin Beryl tries to unravel the mystery.  Miss Pongleton lodged at the Frampton Hotel, and each of the eccentric fellow boarders has their part to play.  My favourite was Mrs Daymer:

“a middle-aged lady who liked to accentuate the gaunt strangeness of her appearance by unfashionable clothes. She would explain proudly that they were of hand-woven material…perhaps their intimate connection with the sheep justified their particular unwieldiness”

Mrs Daymer, who gives off a smell of wet sheep in the rain, is unperturbed by the murder as she writes crime fiction and likes to “suck [people] dry” for her novels. Between her and Beryl, they manage to piece together what happened.  This being the golden age, there is a missing will, confusion over some pearls and an obese terrier (ok, so that last one isn’t really a trope but I had to give him a mention). Murder Underground is not the most taxing mystery (I’m useless at guessing who done it, and even I got this one quite early) but it’s a great example of this period in detective fiction, and very readable.

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If only this poster was right… unfortunately I find it the swiftest way to passive-aggressive tutting, both given and received.

Secondly, Metroland by Julian Barnes. I don’t always get on with Julian Barnes.  I can see he’s a highly accomplished writer, but I find him coldly intellectual and distancing.  However, in Metroland I think he does capture something about a certain time in late adolescence and the wish for a brave new world. Christopher and his friend Toni live in the suburbs at the tail end of the Metropolitan line, and wish they didn’t:

“Toni and I prided ourselves on being rootless. We also aspired to future condition of rootlessness, and saw no contradiction in the two states of mind; or in the fact that we each lived with our parents, who were, for that matter, the freeholders of our respective homes.”

Yes, Christopher and Toni are hugely pretentious snobs.  They desperately wish to be French, which leads them into unintentionally hilarious scenarios like trying to be flaneurs along Oxford Street.  They also talk about art with a capital A:

“Art was the most important thing in life, the constant to which one could be unfailingly devoted and which would never cease to reward; more crucially it was the stuff whose effect on those exposed to it was ameliorative.”

Oh dear.  But in case you’re wondering why on earth you would want to spend any time in this idiot’s company,  I do think it’s worth it.  As I said, I find Barnes can be cold, but actually his portrait of Christopher is quite affectionate, and although you laugh at his pretentions, he’s not contemptible, just young and striving for something different to that with which he has grown up.  Christopher gets his wish and moves to France, but of course he doesn’t quite end up living the life he imagined. Metroland is about how its not always a disaster to not achieve your dreams, and how ordinary can also equal happy.

To end, a wonderfully British reaction to an unusual happening on the tube (for those of you not of these isles, rest assured that the response from passengers at the end is actually a huge outpouring of unconditional enthusiasm, I promise you):

“Babies don’t need a vacation, but I still see them at the beach…” (Steven Wright)

The rest of that title quote is: “It pisses me off! I’ll go over to a little baby and say ‘What are you doing here? You haven’t worked a day in your life!’” Unfortunately right now I’m working every day of my life and that pisses me off no end.  Being the eternal student means any spare spondoolicks go towards debt repayment, so no holiday for me for the foreseeable future. As a bibliophile, the obvious answer to this is a vicarious holiday via the printed word.  Here I am reading in my local park:

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Just kidding – I don’t like Walt Whitman.

Firstly, I’m having a staycation with The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude. I love golden age detective novels, and this is one of the wonderful re-issues under the British Library Crime Classics series.  Set in the coastal Cornish village of Boscawen, the Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr Pendrill are avid consumers of detective fiction, meeting every Monday for dinner and to divide the spoils of their library parcels:

“heaven forbid that the shadow of any crime should ever fall across the grey-stoned cottages, the gorse dotted commons and cliff-girdled seas of his beloved parish. He preferred to get his excitement second-hand and follow the abstruse machinations of purely imaginary criminals”

Reverend Dodd doesn’t get his wish however, as someone murders the dastardly Julius Tregarthen, bringing the pragmatic Inspector Bigswell to the village, in direct contrast to the Reverend’s more idiosyncratic detective style:

“it’s always struck me that the detective in fiction is inclined to underrate the value of intuition. Now, if I had to solve a problem like this, I should first dismiss all those people who, like Caesar’s wife, were above suspicion, merely because my intuition refused to let me think otherwise. Then I should set to work on what remained and hope for the best!”

This approach seems highly dubious to me, but then even the level-headed Inspector has his own prejudices, as he records in his notebook:

“Three shots entered the room at widely scattered points. The garden is fifteen feet in length. This argues a poor shot.  Probably a woman.”

Between the two of them however, they of course manage to find the villain.  The Cornish Coast Murder is not the greatest detective story ever written, but it is entertaining and well-paced, and has a surprising sympathy for the murderer – this is not a clear-cut case of right/wrong. Bude went on to write other cases set in picturesque tourist traps  – The Lake District Murder, The Sussex Downs Murder.  He didn’t change his pseudonym to a local town each time though, disappointingly (John Ambleside? John Bexhill-on-Sea?)  I may take another holiday later in the season to Bude’s other murderous locations…

Secondly, and in direct contrast to the cosy Cornish amateur detecting, The Shore by Sara Taylor. I can’t claim this as a relaxing vacation read, despite the beautiful cover:

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The Shore tells the lives of islanders off the coast of Virginia. The chapters are told from the viewpoints of different characters and move back and forth across time from the nineteenth century to the twenty-second, showing how people, bloodlines, events and actions are all interwoven. Taylor’s writing is breathtakingly beautiful but her gaze is unflinching:

“The Shore is flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow…We take the force out of hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say the government doesn’t remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the maps.”

Life on The Shore is not easy – the people are brutal and brutalised, violent and destructive – particularly towards women. At times the unrelenting harshness of the lives depicted made this a tough read, but Taylor’s writing is so original, so tight and accomplished, that I felt myself drawn onwards, like one of her characters unable to stop themselves:

“[I] have been easing back into the landscape like putting on a favourite coat. I hate this place and I love this place and I don’t know if I want to go as far away as possible or ever leave.”

The Shore is its own place, with its own rules.  There are ‘witches’ – women bearing the scars of domestic violence who medicate those in need with traditional remedies from the land – and storm bringers, young girls with gifts inherited from their grandfathers:

“She finds a breeze, gives it a twist, and pulls the particles across the bay like teasing knots out of her sister Lilly’s hair.  It is a gradual process, and her pace slows as she waits. The ambient moisture begins to bead and grow heavy , a million pregnant bellies.  Then, she brings it down.”

The Shore is truly astonishing. It’s definitely one to read only when you’re feeling robust enough to take it, but I wholeheartedly recommend it.

 “The stars are smeared across the sky, not the pretty scatter that most people imagine, but a crush of millions in the beautiful, pure darkness”

For me, this sentence sums up The Shore.  It is striking, unsettling, the imagery is unexpected and there is a hint of violence – all from the point of view of an individual who knows how powerless they are but still carries hope.

To end, the obvious choice of Madge (who appeared in Desperately Seeking Susan, as did Steven Wright who started the post – this was, of course, complete coincidence brilliant planning on my part) in a video where the budget appears to have been maxed-out on matching bangles for all concerned…these were simpler times, people.  All together now: “Holidaaay! Celebraaaate!” :