Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory

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  I always swear blind that I’ll never read another book by Philippa Gregory … and then I do.  This one, despite being the sequel to the dreadful “Tidelands”, is really quite interesting, until the end where it becomes utterly farcical.  All the main characters in it are fictional, so she can’t do too much distorting of the facts – although there are a few really amateurish blunders, surprising from someone who’s actually got a degree in history – and it covers quite a range of locations and themes.  We jump about a lot between London and New England, and also spend quite a bit of time in Venice.  The last few chapters are just silly beyond words, but most of it really isn’t bad.

Also, it raises the interesting question of what happened to old Roundheads.  The Yorkists hung around like a bad smell for years, plotting comebacks.  The Jacobites were still trying to make a comeback over 50 years after the Glorious Revolution.  Then they somehow got turned into a romantic Lost Cause, as did the Confederates, and as to some extent did the Spanish Republicans.  But what about the Roundheads, who won the war but lost the peace?   I suppose it’s a difficult question, because … well, who *were* the Roundheads?   Very few people set out in 1642 to execute the king, set up a republic, and try to force religious extremism on an unwilling country: most of them would have had aims similar to those which were actually achieved by the Whigs in 1688.  However, in this book, we see a former Roundhead soldier living in New England, only to become disillusioned there by the treatment of the Native Americans.

A lot of loose ends aren’t tied up, so I assume that a further sequel’s planned.  I’ll say I won’t read it, but then I will.

Amateurish blunders.  The wife of a knight or baronet is Lady Surname.  The daughter of, say, an earl is Lady First Name.  Mixing them up is a common mistake, but a poor one.  Illegitimate children cannot just be legitimised by their parents marrying years after their birth: it’s not that easy.  No-one has ruined their life if they discover immediately after the marriage ceremony that their new spouse is a bad ‘un: they just need to get the marriage annulled.  And Italians would not have been going on in 1670 about how the English were all obsessed with drinking tea!   Tea only started to become popular in England in the 1660s.

The story.  In the previous books, our “heroine” Alinor, a widow with two children, was tried as a witch after having an affair with a Catholic priest in disguise, by whom she’d become pregnant.  As you do.  This book, set 21 years later, finds Alinor and her daughter living and working in London, whilst her son has been working as a doctor in Venice.  But then a Venetian noblewoman turns up with a baby, and says that the son’s drowned and she’s his widow and this is their child.  And then the former priest turns up, having given up the priesthood, and says that he wants to marry Alinor so that their child can be his heir.  But where is the child?   There are two children, who’ve been brought up as the twin offspring of Alinor’s daughter Alys (who’s been abandoned by her husband).  Is one of them actually the child of Alinor and the priest?  Er, we don’t know.  Alys claims that her mother miscarried, but it all seems a bit dubious, and the mystery’s never really cleared up.  Presumably that’s been left for a future sequel?

Meanwhile … actually, the more I think about it all, the sillier it seems, not just the last few chapters but most of it!   But it didn’t actually seem that bad at first.  The Venetian noblewoman tries to seduce both the ex-priest and Alys.  Then she says that she’s got a load of valuable antiques left to her by her first husband, and needs help to bring them to England and to flog them to rich courtiers.  So the ex-priest helps her.  Then agrees to marry her.

Meanwhile, Alinor, unconvinced that her son is dead, dispatches her granddaughter Sarah to Venice, to look for him.  There are some genuinely interesting bits about life in Venice – the position of the Jews in the ghetto, and the denunciation process – but it all gets rather farcical as it turns out that he’s not dead after all, but is in prison, having been denounced by his wife and the bloke who was helping her with the antiques, with whom she was having an affair … but who then falls in love with Sarah.  Furthermore, most of the antiques are forgeries. Then it turns out that the son is now working on the leper island, from which no-one ever escapes.  But Sarah miraculously rescues him, and he, she and the antiques bloke all roll up at the church in London just as the bisexual widow is marrying the ex-priest.  All is exposed.  Oh, and the antiques bloke is the baby’s dad.

Hurrah!  The ex-priest is saved (not that he really deserves to be).  Er, no.  It is declared that the bisexual widow’s marriage to Alinor’s son was unlawful because she’s a Catholic and he’s a Protestant.  She and the ex-priest are both Catholics, but are both pretending to be Protestants.  So that’s OK.  So this marriage stands.  And the ex-priest declares that he’s ruined.  Er, even though the marriage hasn’t been consummated, so he could soon get it annulled. I did say that it got farcical, OK?!

In between all of this, we hear about Alinor’s brother, the aforementioned former Roundhead now living in America.  Those sections are much better, and considerably less farcical.

It’s actually not as bad as it sounds!  It does turn into a farce towards the end, but, for a while, it isn’t bad.

 

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin (Facebook group reading challenge)

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  Hands up – I thought I’d hate this, but I actually quite liked it.  I don’t mean that I had anything against either the author or the book, but this is a genre which I normally avoid like the plague – “dystopian novels”.  However this month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a “young adult dystopian novel”, so that’s what I did.

I don’t really get the appeal of dystopian novels, I have no idea why anyone over the age of about 8 is now referred to as a “young adult”, and I thought that Ryan was a boys’; name and was rather bemused to discover that Ryan Graudin was a woman, but never mind.  Anyway, if I was going to put myself through reading a dystopian novel, I was going to find one which was at least vaguely historical; and that’s how I came to this one – which is set in an alternative universe in which the Nazis have won the Second World War, taken over the whole of Europe and Africa, and divvied Asia up between themselves and the Japanese, whilst the US has stayed out of it.  The American author has completely and utterly ignored the existence of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom were playing an important role in the fight against the Axis powers, and pretty much ignored Central and South America too: that really annoyed me.

Our heroine, Yael – and I’m afraid that I was nearly at the end of the book before it finally dawned on me that the name had been chosen because of the Jael and Sisera Bible story – escaped from a concentration camp as a child, and now, in 1956, is part of the Resistance movement and plans to assassinate Hitler.  OK, I was with it this far.

As a result of being the victim of experiments carried out by a Dr Geyer, who is presumably based on Mengele, she can “skinshift” to make herself look like anyone else who’s nearby or whose photo she’s seen (it’s originally explained that she can “shift” into their face, although presumably she can also shift into their height, weight, voice etc). Right.  This was getting rather … er, well, not my kind of thing.

And, as Hitler rarely goes out in public, the only way she can get close to him is to kidnap a young female motorbike champion, “skinshift” into her identity – fooling everyone, including the said rider’s brother and ex-boyfriend (which seems pretty unlikely, although I suppose I bought the Blake/Krystle/Rita storyline in Dynasty back in the day!) – , and win a prestigious Berlin to Tokyo motorbike race which for some reason goes via North Africa (it’s not quite clear how come she’s suddenly become an expert biker), which will mean that she gets to dance with Hitler at the champions’ ball, and can then shoot him.

No, me neither.  “Skinshifting”?  Hitler at a motorbike champions’ ball?   Incidentally, I absolutely hate motorbikes.  Horrible noisy things.  But it was actually rather entertaining.  However, that wasn’t so much the dystopian stuff as the descriptions of the places through which the race went, and the rather inventive attempts of the competitors to nobble each other – everything from drugging water bottles to shoving people off boats, to transmitting tranquillisers by kissing.  Oh, and they all got kidnapped by the remnants of the Red Army at one point.  On a more serious note, we heard about Yael’s memories of the concentration camp and the loss of her mother (her father was never mentioned, for some reason) and friends.

At the end, she did actually get to dance with Hitler, and shot him.  You’d think that, at a ball attended by both Hitler and Emperor Hirohito, there’d have been some sort of security checks to ensure that no-one was carrying guns, knives or anything else, but apparently not.  Only it wasn’t Hitler – it was a skinshifting doppelganger.  But, because people thought Hitler had been killed, uprisings started everywhere.

I did actually get quite into it, which surprised me.  The “skinshifting” was a step too far, though, especially as surely there was no way that she could have fooled the brother and ex-boyfriend of the person she was impersonating – who, incidentally, was totally forgotten about, having been kidnapped and locked up but with no mention of how she was to manage for food and drink and so on!    I shall be sticking to normal historical novels in future, but, hey, each to their own, and if people enjoy reading dystopian novels then good luck to them!

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

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This is the true story of how Laura Freeman was diagnosed with anorexia at 14 and how the food described in books helped her to recover.  I’m pleased to say that Laura, thanks largely to the support of her wonderful mum, is now doing well, with a successful writing career, a nice husband, and a double first from Cambridge; but she went through a very rough time.

This is an interesting book, even though her taste in books isn’t that similar to mine, but I’m probably the wrong person to be writing about it.  I know all about binge eating disorder, and I can understand bulimia, but I find anorexia difficult to relate to.  But Laura does a wonderful job of explaining it – through the prism of seeing her mind as a library, in which the books have all fallen off the shelves and got in a mess.

Books and food.  She doesn’t talk about whether there was any connection in her mind between books and food *before* she developed anorexia, so I assume that there wasn’t one.  Now, I grew up reading books in which everyone was always eating.  And we’re not talking a cup of tea and a biscuit – we’re  talking huge slabs of cherry cake, crumpets dripping with butter, and “young bathtubs” of whipped cream.  And sardines, but we’ll ignore that bit: I don’t like sardines.  The Malory Towers and St Clare’s girls were always having midnight feasts, with goodies from their enormous tuckboxes (strangely unaffected by rationing). The Chalet School girls ate vast quantities of cream cakes and fancy bread twists.  The Five Find-Outers spent so much time eating sticky buns in the local cafe that it’s a wonder they ever had time to search for clues.  The Famous Five, the Mystery gang and all the others consumed large picnics followed by equally large high teas.  Even the Ingalls family, who lived in the middle of nowhere and had no money, were always eating Ma’s “good” food.

Is there some sort of connection between all that and my eating disorders?  No: I honestly don’t think there is.  Probably because there’s never much connection between the amount of food eaten by characters in books and their weight.  About the only one who worried about her weight was Caroline Scott in the Wells books, who went through a phase of turning down second helpings of afters … before magically losing all her “puppy fat”, developing a perfect figure, and being swept off her feet by a handsome Spaniard.  In about 1987, a kind old lady assured me that I’d lose my “puppy fat”.  I’m still waiting.  And, anyway, none of them eat for no specific reason, or to punish themselves.  They only eat at “occasions”.  Like midnight feasts.  I really want to say that I’ve just discovered the answer to eating disorders, and that it’s that you need to have high teas and midnight feasts with a gang of mates rather than eating your way through the contents of the fridge (or, if it’s empty, the freezer) for no reason whatsoever.  How lovely what that be?   But, sadly, it isn’t, because if I ate even one of those high teas, I would put on 3lbs.  This does not happen to people in books.  Lucky them!!

There’s a definite negativity about overweight characters in books, though.  It’s just that their weight is shown as a character trait (a bad one) rather than as a function of what they eat.  It’s OK for Frederick “Fatty” Trotteville to be fat, because he’s supremely self-confident, but it’s made very clear that no-one would want to be like the unfortunately-named Alma Pudden, or Linda Fischer, or even Hilda Jukes who gets picked on despite having a very kind personality.

Strangely – well, strangely to me – Laura Freeman doesn’t see it like that.  She picks up on books portraying being thin as being a negative thing.  The examples she gives are Charlie Bucket and his family, painfully thin because all they can afford to eat is cabbage, Anne Shirley being very thin when we first meet her, because no-one’s really looked after her until she goes to live with Matthew and Marilla, and Mary Lennox looking “thin and yellow” because she’s been living in “unhealthy” India.  I suppose I take the point.  There’s a lot of talk in books about feeding people up, especially after they’ve been ill.

She doesn’t mention that until the end of the book, though.  Most of it is an account of the different books she read as she recovered, and how the food described in them, and the way in which it was described, appealed to her and made her want to try it.  I suppose that’s what I should be writing about, but they weren’t really my favourite books, so I haven’t really got much to say about them.  Interestingly, they weren’t the sort of books you’d usually associate with food.  The writings of the First World War poets.  And Charles Dickens: the only food I associate with Dickens is the gruel which poor Oliver Twist had to eat in the workhouse.  Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie.  Elizabeth David’s recipe books.  Harry Potter.  They aren’t my books, as I’ve said, but it’s a wonderful account of how books can help people, and I’m so glad to know that Laura is now doing so much better.

There are more books about eating disorders than there used to be, but it’s still a subject that’s not talked about very much, and this is a really different take on it.  I feel like I’ve just written a load of stuff about myself rather than about Laura’s book, but books like this are important for people who’ve got their own issues, and you’re bound to try to relate what they say to yourself.   An interesting read.

Alison’s Easter Adventure by Sheila Stuart

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 This is a really nice, if rather formulaic, children’s adventure/mystery book, published in 1950.  Some baddies have stolen a load of treasure.  Our heroine Alison and her brother Niall, during their holidays from boarding school, uncover the baddies’ identities and find where the treasure’s hidden, beating the authorities to it.   There’s someone in disguise, and an old house with a hidden passage, and various mysterious goings-on – because, if you were snooping round a house, obviously you’d help yourself to a load of chocolates from an open box and make it really obvious that someone had been there!

You get the idea.  But it’s a lovely book.  It’s set in the Scottish Highlands.  There’s a lot of reference to wearing kilts, and everyone goes fishing and plays golf all the time.  The authorities are represented by the children’s uncle/guardian, so they’re all on friendly terms and there’s no sneering at the police.  There’s a lot of dashing about in cars and boats, but nothing completely unrealistic – Ruritanian princes being sacrificed to sun gods, that kind of thing 😉 –  happens.  It’s just a nice old-style children’s book, and it holds up very well over 70 years after it was published.

 

The Maid of Buttermere by Melvyn Bragg

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  I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel by Melvyn Bragg before, but I really enjoyed this.  It’s a fascinating depiction of a true story – how Mary Robinson, the daughter of Lake District innkeepers, was so beautiful that she was mentioned in guidebooks and people came to Buttermere to see her, and how she married a tourist who was, or said that he was, a colonel, an MP, and the younger brother of an earl … only for it to turn out that he was an impostor and a bigamist.

The story went viral, to use the modern parlance.  It was all over the newspapers, such a big story that people were practically fighting to get seats in court for his trials.  Songs were being written about it, and being used by kids for street games.  This was in 1802 – even then, an ordinary person’s wrongdoings and another ordinary person’s misfortune could somehow catch the mood of the nation, with everyone and their dog having an opinion about them, and those opinions being influenced by their positions in what we’d now call culture wars, in the febrile atmosphere following the French Revolution.  And, in the middle of this very sorry tale, there are a lot of glorious descriptions of the Lake District, not only the landscape but the lifestyle and customs.

It really is a beautifully written book.  We get these lovely descriptions of the Lake District and of life there, and of how Mary and her family have been affected by her unsought after fame, and how she’s still unmarried despite her great beauty and her genuinely nice personality.   And, if you don’t know the story, you will at first believe everything that her admirer, the supposed Colonel August Alexander Hope says: we aren’t told that he’s an impostor.  We see him courting a wealthy young woman – from Manchester 🙂 – whose guardians are delighted at the idea of her bagging an aristocrat, only for him to decide instead to make a love match with Mary.

And then we see it all come crashing down, as it turns out that he’s really John Hatfield, a man of relatively humble origins – from Mottram-in-Longdendale, as it so happens.  He owes money all over the show, he’s impersonated an MP, and, horror of horrors, he’s been sending out letters without paying postage (which MPs were allowed to do).  He also abandoned his first wife, who later died, and their children, remarried, and abandoned his second wife, who’s very much still alive, and their children.

Coleridge has already written an article about how romantic it is that The Buttermere Beauty has married an earl’s brother.  He now writes several more articles, about how poor Mary has been cruelly taken in by this cad.  Wordsworth also gets involved.  And it’s all over the papers.  In this era of the early Romantics, and also the Rousseau-esque Enlightenment ideas about the nobility of nature, Mary is cast as a symbol of unspoilt nature, living a simple life in the Lake District, until Hatfield came along.

And, in the tense political atmosphere – this is 1802, so we’re in the gap between the Treaty of Amiens and the start of the Napoleonic Wars, and we’ve also got the repressive Pittite legislation in force on the home front, as well as tensions over parliamentary reform, Abolitionism, Catholic emancipation and trade unions -, the upper classes are horrified that someone has dared to impersonate an MP, and an earl’s brother at that, but some members of the lower and middle classes, whilst sympathetic to Mary, quite admire him for cocking a snook at the Establishment.  (The narrative does explain the historical background, for non-historians).  The book was written long before the term “culture wars” was in use, but that’s what was  going on.

He’s hauled up in court in London, with hordes of people turning out to watch him going in, and scrapping over seats in the courtroom.  You really couldn’t make up some of the things that went on in Georgian Britain!   Meanwhile, poor, poor Mary, as if she hasn’t been through enough, has a baby, who dies three weeks after birth.  Then he’s brought before the Assizes in Carlisle, and by this point he’s become quite a celebrity.  People go to see him in jail.  Hotels fill up with people wanting a piece of the action.  Again, people are scrapping over seats in court.  It’s not Team John versus Team Mary: it’s whether you’re for John or against John: even some of those who are desperately sorry for Mary see him as a romantic figure who acted out of love for her.  And, again, there’s this support for a man who’s known hard times and hasn’t been frightened to impersonate one of the ruling class.  The one person who doesn’t seem to feature anywhere is the real Colonel Augustus Alexander Hope, who is abroad and doesn’t seem very interested in any of it!

John was hanged, for forgery.  Mary did get a happy ending, marrying a nice man and having four children.  Maybe if this had happened in mid-Victorian times, she’d have been expected to hide away somewhere and feel ashamed, even though she was a completely innocent party, but the Georgians were more understanding.

You do get these strange stories from time to time.  Remember the man who faked his own death in a canoe in 2002, 200 years after Hatfield married Mary?   And they do fascinate people.  And this one’s particularly interesting because of the way it interacts with the “culture wars” of the time.  Melvyn Bragg’s does an excellent job of writing about it, and it really is a very good book.

 

Flickerbook by Leila Berg

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I absolutely love the fact that a fellow Old Girl of my school had her books banned from Listen With Mother for being “a corrupting influence” -the issue being that the characters in them did such terribly shocking things as coming down the stairs backwards.  Listeners were so horrified by this subversive behaviour that they complained, and the BBC decided that the books had to go.  Janet and John, and Peter and Jane, would never have dreamt of coming down stairs backwards.  Leila Berg did end up winning the Eleanor Farjeon award in 1974, though, so evidently, everyone had come to terms with kids coming down the stairs backwards by then.

Unfortunately, this book, her autobiography of her early years, doesn’t go that far, only up to when she was in her early 20s.  It’s not very coherently written – I think the idea is that it sounds like a child or young adult talking, rather than “sounding” like prose – and anyone who isn’t familiar with Higher Broughton will probably be thoroughly confused by the first third or so of it.  If you do know Higher Broughton, and know exactly where she means when she talks about Bury New Road, Great Clowes Street, Leicester Road et al, you’ll love this; but it’s very localised and very much a personal memoir.  She hasn’t even changed the names of her neighbours.   If you know Manchester/Salford in general, you’ll love her descriptions of walking round town, especially all the references to Sherratt and Hughes bookshop (sadly no longer with us); but, again, if you don’t, you may just feel rather confused.

The later chapters, about her involvement in the radical movements of the inter-war years, may be of more interest to everyone – although probably particularly so to people who know the area.   Everyone’s heard of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, and the National Trust is actually a bit obsessed with it, but no-one talks much about the backgrounds of those involved, and you certainly never hear much about there having been women and girls involved.  And British involvement in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War – Leila Berg didn’t go to Spain, but two of her boyfriends were killed there –  has become associated with either intellectuals like George Orwell or well-to-do people like Jessica Mitford, and there isn’t as much focus as there could be on the many “ordinary” people who joined up.

It’s not a very readable book, because the style’s so rambling, but it’s quite interesting.

She does seem to have been very keen on coming across as a rebel.  “Nice” girls in the inter-war years did not use mirrors to look at all bits of themselves, and did not “carry on” with various different boyfriends and write about it.  Even when she’s writing about herself as a young child, she seems rather obsessed with toilets, which you wouldn’t normally write about – too much information!   Her brother does what he’s supposed to – wins a scholarship to our brother school 🙂 , and then goes on to university.  Leila refuses to go to university, drops out of teacher training college, and spends most of her time hanging around at meetings of the Young Communists.  She does a lot of name dropping, but I’m going to assume that she did actually meet all those people.   She certainly had an interesting time of it.

And I do miss Sherratt and Hughes!  It was originally taken over by Waterstones, so at least it was still a bookshop, but then it was turned into a branch of W H Smith when the main W H Smith had to close because of the IRA bomb.  Then that went as well.  But some of the little bookshops in Shudehill, which she also talks about, are still there.  I think she must have been a fan of E J Oxenham, because some of the books she mentions definitely sound like “EJO”s, and she talks a lot in general about expecting secondary school to be like school stories.  That’s all so conventional, but then she turned out to be very unconventional.   And the Listen With Mother ban really does amuse me!

This is probably of limited interest to people who don’t know the area, but it kept me entertained.

 

(Sorry, double-posted because I messed up the Facebook link!)

Flickerbook by Leila Berg

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I absolutely love the fact that a fellow Old Girl of my school had her books banned from Listen With Mother for being “a corrupting influence” -the issue being that the characters in them did such terribly shocking things as coming down the stairs backwards.  Listeners were so horrified by this subversive behaviour that they complained, and the BBC decided that the books had to go.  Janet and John, and Peter and Jane, would never have dreamt of coming down stairs backwards.  Leila Berg did end up winning the Eleanor Farjeon award in 1974, though, so evidently, everyone had come to terms with kids coming down the stairs backwards by then.

Unfortunately, this book, her autobiography of her early years, doesn’t go that far, only up to when she was in her early 20s.  It’s not very coherently written – I think the idea is that it sounds like a child or young adult talking, rather than “sounding” like prose – and anyone who isn’t familiar with Higher Broughton will probably be thoroughly confused by the first third or so of it.  If you do know Higher Broughton, and know exactly where she means when she talks about Bury New Road, Great Clowes Street, Leicester Road et al, you’ll love this; but it’s very localised and very much a personal memoir.  She hasn’t even changed the names of her neighbours.   If you know Manchester/Salford in general, you’ll love her descriptions of walking round town, especially all the references to Sherratt and Hughes bookshop (sadly no longer with us); but, again, if you don’t, you may just feel rather confused.

The later chapters, about her involvement in the radical movements of the inter-war years, may be of more interest to everyone – although probably particularly so to people who know the area.   Everyone’s heard of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, and the National Trust is actually a bit obsessed with it, but no-one talks much about the backgrounds of those involved, and you certainly never hear much about there having been women and girls involved.  And British involvement in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War – Leila Berg didn’t go to Spain, but two of her boyfriends were killed there –  has become associated with either intellectuals like George Orwell or well-to-do people like Jessica Mitford, and there isn’t as much focus as there could be on the many “ordinary” people who joined up.

It’s not a very readable book, because the style’s so rambling, but it’s quite interesting.

She does seem to have been very keen on coming across as a rebel.  “Nice” girls in the inter-war years did not use mirrors to look at all bits of themselves, and did not “carry on” with various different boyfriends and write about it.  Even when she’s writing about herself as a young child, she seems rather obsessed with toilets, which you wouldn’t normally write about – too much information!   Her brother does what he’s supposed to – wins a scholarship to our brother school 🙂 , and then goes on to university.  Leila refuses to go to university, drops out of teacher training college, and spends most of her time hanging around at meetings of the Young Communists.  She does a lot of name dropping, but I’m going to assume that she did actually meet all those people.   She certainly had an interesting time of it.

And I do miss Sherratt and Hughes!  It was originally taken over by Waterstones, so at least it was still a bookshop, but then it was turned into a branch of W H Smith when the main W H Smith had to close because of the IRA bomb.  Then that went as well.  But some of the little bookshops in Shudehill, which she also talks about, are still there.  I think she must have been a fan of E J Oxenham, because some of the books she mentions definitely sound like “EJO”s, and she talks a lot in general about expecting secondary school to be like school stories.  That’s all so conventional, but then she turned out to be very unconventional.   And the Listen With Mother ban really does amuse me!

This is probably of limited interest to people who don’t know the area, but it kept me entertained.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson (Facebook group reading challenge)

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  Hmm.  This book, for a Facebook group reading challenge, came highly recommended, and I really liked the idea of it, but I just didn’t quite get on with it.

Miss Pettigrew is a strait-laced, rather dowdy, down on her luck 40-year-old spinster governess in 1930s London (the book was written when it was set).  An employment agency muddles up two addresses and sends her to work for a glamorous nightclub singer, Miss LaFosse, who’s got several boyfriends, one of whom has just stayed the night, does drugs, and is generally everything that Miss Pettigrew isn’t.   The book’s set across a 24 hour period which sees Miss Pettigrew swept up into Miss LaFosse’s world, given a makeover, go dancing, be kissed by a man, and advise Miss LaFosse and her friends on their love lives.

I should have loved this, but somehow I didn’t.  I think it was some of the attitudes in it.

I am really, really not one of these annoying people who shriek and have hysterics about how practically every book ever written contains remarks which would probably not be considered acceptable now.  One would not realistically expect Ma and Pa Ingalls to be critical of white settlers taking over Native American land, the O’Haras and their fellow plantation owners to be advocates of black civil rights, or Julian Kirrin to be best chums with a working-class lad (whom I doubt would want to be friends with him anyway).   But anti-Semitic remarks on page 6 of a book don’t make for the best of starts.  The word “othering” was being used a lot over the Anne Boleyn programme: well, Miss Pettigrew was definitely guilty of “othering”.  One of her comments, in particular, sounded just like something Jeremy Corbyn would say.   Not to mention the references to oily Dagos … although, somehow, similar remarks don’t bother me in The Thorn Birds, because they’re in the context of tensions between different groups in a small town.

Miss Pettigrew’s a fair reflection of her time and background, and, as I’ve said, I’m really not the sort of person who expects people in different times not to hold views typical of their time and background.  But I just found it rather off-putting, and that’s probably why I didn’t get on with the book.  But I should have enjoyed it, because it was a cracking idea.  Oh well.  Some books work for you, some books don’t!

Mistress of the Maze by J P Reedman

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This is a different take on the time of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the “revolt of the Eaglets” and the murder of Thomas a Becket.  As the title suggests, it’s a fictionalised account of the life of Rosamund Clifford, “Fair Rosamund” of the Bower.   The story, whilst well-known, dates from well after the 12th century and is really pretty bonkers – the idea that Henry would hide his mistress in a tower in the middle of a labyrinth, for fear of Eleanor’s vengeance, and that Eleanor would then murder her, is very hard to believe.  Henry had loads of mistresses and I can’t imagine that Eleanor wasted her time and energy in worrying about any or all of them; and the labyrinth story sounds like someone’s borrowed it from a Greek myth.

However, this is a well-written and entertaining book.  I did wonder if the author would go for a more realistic take on it – Rosamund did certainly exist, and Henry may well have had a home built for her at Woodstock – but she’s gone for the idea of the labyrinth.  The legend goes that Eleanor, even though she wasn’t even in England at the time of Rosamund’s death, and even though Rosamund died in a convent, got into the tower in the labyrinth and murdered her.  The author’s got round that by saying that Eleanor sent a former lady in waiting to kill Rosamund, but that Rosamund survived the attempted poisoning and died in the convent a couple of years later!

The book does do a very good job of making an unlikely story seem plausible, and it covers a period of English history which really deserves more attention.  The domestic details are interesting too.  Not bad at all!

They Wanted To Live by Cecil Roberts

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This is the sequel to Victoria Four Thirty, and it contains a really strange admixture of themes.  And, as Hungary is much in the news today, due to the row over UEFA refusing to let Bayern Munich’s stadium be lit up in rainbow colours as a protest against the new Hungarian anti-LGBT laws, it seemed like a good time to be writing about it.

It’s 1938, and our porter friend Jim has a win on the pools, enabling him and his Hyacinth Bucket-esque girlfriend Lizzie to get married and set off on a Continental honeymoon tour.  However, when they reach Vienna, expecting to find glamour and culture, they find a Nazi-dominated hell.  Horrified by what they see, they agree to smuggle a Jewish refugee’s baby to Budapest … to what, in a book published in 1939, both the author and the characters sadly assumed would be safety.

However, in Hungary, we move away from the harshness of political reality and into a load of folksy peasant stuff, national costumes and dancing and galloping across the steppe, along with caddish counts, which all seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 1930s.  We also see Jim and Lizzie, who’s renamed herself Betty, taken up by a crowd of aristocrats, who either believe or pretend to believe that waitress Betty is a former debutante and porter Jim is an Old Etonian.  After several glamorous nights partying in Budapest, we head off to the country pile of a count … where we hear a lot about the multinational nature of the grand families of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and numerous references to the Treaty of Trianon – which was a mess, and is still causing issues today.  The author wasn’t to know what lay ahead, but it will be hard for the reader not to reflect on the fact that Hungary will soon be throwing its lot in with the Nazis.

A twist in the tale then takes us to Prague, just as the Munich Agreement is being signed, so we get to see that from a Czechoslovak (as it was at the time) viewpoint.  And then Jim returns to his mundane but very real life in London.  The book was published in 1939, so presumably it was written before war was declared, but most people, even early readers, will have read it knowing that war lay ahead.

It really is a strange mixture of very unpleasant realities, with this young, naive couple, abroad for the first time, seeing just what is going on in Austria, and other characters even being driven to suicide by Nazi persecution, and a fairytale in which they get mixed up with the glamorous life of the Hungarian nobility.

Several characters from the first book reappear, but most of them don’t.  The descriptions of Hungary, and also of Vienna, are superb.  I’m not sure how realistic the whole storyline with the Hungarian nobles is, but, OK, I suppose it could have happened.  And the contrast between down-to-earth Jim and aspirational Lizzie is rather funny, until it all ends in tears.

It’s a very readable book, but I can’t remember the last time I read anything with such a complete mixture of different themes.   One minute you’re witnessing Nazi thugs beating up innocent people in a Viennese cafe, the next you’re being taken off to swim in Lake Balaton by a rakish count.  This is certainly different.  And, oh, what a contrast to the first book.  In that book, we saw characters thinking that they could escape their mundane lives and start anew somewhere else.  In this book, we feel all along that danger is lurking, and that Jim is very wise to want to return home, even if working at Victoria Station isn’t very exciting.

Not that I’m comparing the pandemic to the war, obviously, but I went to Vienna in December 2019.  I’ve got photos of myself in the Cafe Sacher, with a piece of Sachertorte, a Viennese coffee and a big grin on my face, and at the Hofburg and the Schonbrunn and the Prater.  When I came home, I thought I’d be back on my travels very soon.  Little do we ever know what lies around the corner, eh?