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July 2014




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Jul. 31st, 2014


July Books


Miss Garnet’s Angel, Salley Vickers
Every Woman for Herself , Trisha Ashley
Mr Mac and Me , Esther Freud
Jonah & Co., Dornford Yates
Adèle & Co., Dornford Yates
The Truth about Melody Browne, Lisa Jewell
And Some Fell on Stony Ground A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot, Leslie Mann, with a Foreword by Richard Overy
Chocolate Shoes and Wedding Blues, Trisha Ashley
A Winter’s Tale, Trisha Ashley
The Berry Scene, Dornford Yates.
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Jul. 26th, 2014

garden journal

Here’s a pretty thing


I bought this miniature orchid at the market maybe three years ago? I can’t remember, but I’ve had it for quite a while. It was in flower when I bought it but showed no signs of flowering again. I persevered with a fairly neglectful treatment of it, just pouring water through the compost every week. No faffing about with rainwater or special feeds. I was delighted to see buds appear at last and the first flower opened yesterday.


Jul. 24th, 2014


And Some Fell on Stony Ground A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot, Leslie Mann


In his brilliant introduction, Richard Overy (author of The Bombing War), points out that although this book is fiction, it is ‘not fictitious’. Leslie Mann (1914 – 1989) joined the RAF in 1939. He flew as a tail gunner until being shot down over Germany in June 1941 during a raid on Düsseldorf, and taken prisoner. It’s thought that he wrote this fictional account of life in Bomber Command sometime in the late 1940s.

The story is written in the third person, describing exactly what Mann’s fictional alter ego, Pilot Officer Mason, did and thought during one day and night while on ‘ops’. The style is spare: ‘Mason did this, Mason thought that’ but the terseness only adds to the sense of grim reality in the account. At the time Mann/Mason was a ‘Bomber Boy’, British airmen were flying Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers, already out of date and unreliable. Raids on German industrial sites had been authorised to show that Britain was taking some action against Germany and to raise morale at home. In reality, the ratio of loss of life and machines to bombing success was so poor that these raids were largely futile and the deaths of trained air crew not worth the results. It’s horrible to think of nineteen and twenty-year-olds being sent off to pointless doom in this way. Mann/Mason was very aware of this, which accounts for the bitterness in his story.

Mason describes life on the station: a visit to the local pub, a dance in the mess, a chance encounter with an attractive girl. The preparations he makes for the night’s flight are given in detail, as are the actions of the crew. Once they’re underway, the sense of claustrophobia inside the plane is palpable. Imagine being the rear gunner, exposed in that little Perspex bubble; the navigator, whom everyone depended on to get them to their target and safely back, when they were hundreds of miles from home and solid ground; the pilot, responsible for the safety of his crew. And everyone afraid. This is no Dam Busters.

The bald narrative of events is mixed throughout with Mason’s reflections: on past sorties, on lost friends and comrades (too many), on reasons for fighting. When a new boy asks Mason what an op is like, he replies laconically, ‘Not so bad.’ This is what he’s really thinking:
What could you tell these first-trippers? That it was bloody awful, frightening, sickeningly so, and more often fatal? That each trip got worse? That each time you got back you could hardly believe it? That the ground seemed so solid and firm and friendly and you were just about to feel happy when you realised that it only meant you were alive to go again, and again, and then again, until God knows when?

Pondering on death, as he does almost all the time, he wonders,
Was defeat more bitter than death, was death sweeter than defeat? He supposed so, but he didn’t at this moment really understand it, because death could be achieved any time, in dozens of ways – if defeat was so bad – without taking the lives of others. Living was the difficulty, not dying.
He also makes it clear that he and others he knew were not fighting on, even when they were afraid, for some nebulous idea of sacrificing their lives for their country.
That was the great thing – to be alive at the end of the war with a conscience that was clear and open to inspection and criticism. It had nothing to do with patriotism.
As he makes clear, fear is not the same thing as cowardice; fear was natural.

This is a short book and I think it would be best read at one sitting, to get the feeling of real time, as in Len Deighton’s Bomber. I read this book courtesy of NetGalley and gave it five of five stars, unusually for me. I understand that it’s being published in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum. That’s just as it should be because, in my opinion, this little book deserves to be a wartime classic for its exploration of how it felt to be actively engaged in combat. It will be published by Icon Books on September 4th and I hope it has great success.

Jul. 18th, 2014

life on mars

TV Watch: Terry & June (yes, really)


Terry & June is one of those programmes I wouldn’t have dreamed of watching when it was first broadcast and until now I’d never seen a single episode. The advent of Freeview has opened up a new/old world of programmes on channels like Yesterday, ITV3 and Drama. Some I’ve been thrilled to revisit, like When the Boat Comes In with JAMES BOLAM. Others were quite new to me, e.g. Upstairs, Downstairs.

When I saw that Drama was showing Terry and June from the very first episode, I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about. I’m now addicted and record it every day to watch later. I gave myself 10/10 for deducing entirely from internal evidence the date of the first prog: 1979. What on earth do I find to enjoy in it? Terry and June might as well have lived on another planet compared with the life I led at the time.
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Things Found in Books

It's a long time since I posted anything in my occasional series Found in Books. Today AbeBooks has some booksellers' stories on the subject. No bacon!

AbeBooks: Things Found in Books

Jul. 15th, 2014


Mr Mac and Me, Esther Freud


I’d previously read and enjoyed Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky and Peerless Flats so I said yes, I would like to read Mr Mac and Me. It’s very different from the others. Set, like so many novels published this year, in the period of the First World War, it tells the story of Thomas Maggs. He’s a Suffolk boy with ‘a twisted foot’, the only surviving son of a drunken publican father and a hardworking mother. His ambition is to be a sailor but his father hates the sea and his mother fears all the time for his safety, determined not to have one living son who ‘survived for nothing’.

When writing her semi-autobiographical novels, Esther Freud knew her subject. Unfortunately, she knows 0 about the First World War. Tom’s sister Mary comes rushing home to announce that they’ve heard ‘on the radio’ at the big house where she works, that war has broken out. Remarkable, since the BBC didn’t start broadcasting until 1922. Then Tom and his mother go to read the new DORA which has been posted up. This seems to have been cut and pasted from Wikipedia. To add to my difficulty in continuing with the book after these annoyances, it turns out that ‘Mr Mac’ is Charles Rennie Mackintosh and I tend not to like fiction about real people. So, how did I get on with the rest of the book?
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Jul. 9th, 2014


Every Woman for Herself, Trisha Ashley


I’ve written before about how much I enjoy Trisha Ashley’s chicklit for the intelligent person. In no time we have references to the Bröntes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens (I found ‘Barkis is willing’ very funny), Frank Zappa (that’s an unusual one) and Bob Dylan. Her books are always well written, with nothing to irritate. Every Woman for Herself was first published in 2002, so is earlier than the others I’ve read.

You wouldn’t expect a book which begins with a divorce and a case of manslaughter to be funny, but Every Woman for Herself manages it. Artist Charlie Fry (née Rhymer) is suddenly informed by her rat of a husband that he’s divorcing her, everything is fixed and she just has to sign a few papers. Shocked, if not that sad, she prepares to go back to her family for a while. Home is the Parsonage (an affectation of her father’s, since it’s no such thing), inhabited by a bunch of very eccentric characters. Ran, the father, is a writer who keeps a series of mistresses in the Summer Cottage. His latest is Jessica, known as the Treacle Tart. She has moved into the house with her twin girls, an unprecedented threat. Ran hoped to raise an extraordinary family and he succeeded. Tough, outspoken (she’s terribly rude to Jessica) Emily, a wonderful cook, runs the household and dabbles in white witchcraft. Anne, usually overseas as a war correspondent, is home recovering from cancer. Wars didn’t seem to last long once she’d (Anne) arrived – I think they took one look and united against a greater peril. The really clever one is Branwell, an academic whose behaviour is definitely abnormal. He occasionally returns home to recover his equilibrium. The other members of the household are faithful retainers Walter and Gloria Mundi, brother and sister who live in a separate cottage. Gloria is a mother figure for the children. Like Emily, she has the power of sight and tries to interfere in people’s lives (for their own good as she sees it) by reading tea leaves and brewing vile potions.
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Jul. 2nd, 2014

garden journal

June Books and Gardening


Lord Roworth’s Reward, Carola Dunn
The World of Arthur Ransome , Christina Hardyment
A Room Full of Bones, Elly Griffiths
Dying Fall, Elly Griffiths
The Brother of Daphne, Dornford Yates
The Third Wife , Lisa Jewell
Captain Ingram’s Inheritance, Carola Dunn
Striding Folly, Dorothy L Sayers
The Vet’s Daughter, Barbara Comyns
Blood Count, Robert Goddard
A Place for Us Part 1, Harriet Evans
The Courts of Idleness, Dornford Yates
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Jun. 27th, 2014


A Place for Us Part One, Harriet Evans


How’s this for a book-selling wheeze? Bring out part one (for the Kindle), leave the reader with a cliff hanger, then follow up with three more monthly serial parts. It’s going to work for me.

A Place for Us begins with a quotation from Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus:
… the family—that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to.
Martha Winter is preparing for her eightieth birthday party and sends out an intriguing invitation:
David & Martha Winter request the pleasure of your company at a party to celebrate Martha’s 80th Birthday There will be an important announcement. We ask that you please be there.
This event will apparently ‘tear apart her family’.

Martha lives with her artist husband at Winterfold, a lovely house which was once a bustling family home but now contains just the two of them. We know that both came originally from the East End and that there’s some mystery about how they met and got together during or possibly just after the war. It’s also slightly strange that two Londoners, one of whom needs access to London for work, should have chosen to leave it for a country house they couldn’t then afford. The book begins with Martha’s musings and her posting of the fateful invitations, then moves on to each member of the family in turn.

Although the Winters appear to have the perfect life (or as perfect as it can be at that age), their children are pretty screwed up. Daisy is the difficult one. A cruel and wayward child, as an adult she went overseas to do Good Works, abandoning her baby daughter Cat to be brought up by the grandparents. Clever Florence is an art historian living in (ha ha) Florence, where she makes a fool of herself over a man, silly woman. Sweet Bill, the stable one who still lives near home working as a GP, has troubles he seems unaware of; his second wife Karen is discontented and his marriage is nearer the rocks than he realises. The last main character is Lucy, Bill’s daughter from his first marriage. Not one of these people is really happy or successful. Yet Winterfold draws them back. Cat, working in Paris (another woman suffering man trouble), has a secret she hasn’t revealed even to her beloved Gran. Living hand to mouth, More and more she found herself drawn to the novels of her childhood, the books that filled the upstairs shelves at Winterfold: Edmund Crispin, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart..

Will the entire family obey the summons and attend the birthday party? What will the ‘important announcement’ be? There’s a bombshell on the last page as Martha reflects that ‘This thing she had been dragging around for so long would be gone soon.’

I read Part One courtesy of NetGalley; it will be available from 31st July. Then there will be three more monthly instalments before the whole book is published as a paperback in January 2015. I for one can’t wait that long and shall be looking forward to my next fix as summer turns into autumn. Harriet Evans is a new author to me and she’s hit on a winning formula here: I’m hooked!

Jun. 26th, 2014


The most beautiful place in the world?


Yesterday, my cousin came down just for the day. I picked her up at Poole station, we walked down to the Old Town, ate fish and chips at a pub on the Quay, then had a tourist-y boat trip around the islands in Poole harbour. It was so beautiful.
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