TV watch: The Festival of Britain

Yesterday evening I watched a programme on BBC4 about the Festival of Britain and the Brave New World it might have represented. Some of the people responsible for designing and building the exhibition are still alive and were interviewed (they were very idealistic), as well as people who’d just been along and enjoyed themselves. I’ve written before about my own experience of the leftovers from the Festival. Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough to appreciate it, say about seven, the exhibition, with its history of British technological innovation, its futuristic homes and general atomic new age theme, was gone. This is because as soon as the Attlee government fell, the new Conservative government under Winston Churchill (who was ill and not fit to be Prime Minister), had destroyed the whole thing *out of sheer spite*. So, I never got to see the wonders of the exhibition and marvel at the beautiful Skylon. It was an unpopular decision. In a piece of film I’d never seen before, the Lord Mayor of London declared the exhibition closed, to loud boos. At the end of the programme I felt really angry. I mean, fancy spending money on something to amuse and educate ordinary people!

Apricot Sky, Ruby Ferguson

Ruby Ferguson is best known for her children’s books about Jill and her ponies but she also wrote adult novels, both romances and thrillers. Until now, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary has probably been the best known. I have an old H&S paperback copy and it’s been reprinted by Persephone. Wonderful Dean Street Press are now reprinting Apricot Sky as part of their Furrowed Middlebrow series. I didn’t want to finish this. It must be the archetypal middlebrow ‘nice book’ which people allegedly used to demand in libraries. It describes a summer in the Highlands and has all the ingredients for comfort reading: beautiful scenery, old houses and their furnishings, gardens, lots of food, romance and humour.

Mr & Mrs MacAlvey live at Kilchro House, which must be pretty big. Besides themselves there’s daughter Raine, elder daughter Cleo, just back from three years in America, three orphaned grandchildren, two house guests and two visiting cousins from England. Also, Vannah Paige, a sort of factotum-cum-housekeeper who is treated as a friend of the family, a cook and at least one maid. The war is not long over and rationing and coupons get several mentions but no one starves here. Two sons never came back from the war but no one goes on about it. The third son lives nearby with a wife no one can stand and two sad, repressed children. ‘It was understood in the village that none of the MacAlveys were quite all there…’ They are, of course, a delightful family.

Raine is engaged to Ian Garvine, who farms locally at Larrich with his elder brother Neil, known as ‘The Larrich’ because he’s the local laird. Poor Cleo is in love with handsome Neil and spends most of the book feeling that every time they meet, she makes a fool of herself. The four of them have a good time deciding how the ancestral home, sadly neglected, is to be made fit for a bride. Weddings are taken very seriously. The grandchildren are just like all the Highland children I’ve ever read about: thin, brown and spending all their time outdoors, preferably sailing. They dread the arrival of the English cousins, who are always clean and tidy, good at everything and great snobs. Needless to say, in the Highlands, the grander you are, the shabbier you look.

Apart from the romances, the book is almost plotless, just a lovely description of a way of life. If it upsets you that just after the war people can still have plenty to eat, keep servants and send their children to boarding school, this book is not for you. It will be out on June 21st. I’d suggest not reading the introduction until you’ve finished the book. Not to avoid spoilers but because the use of words like ‘liminal’ may put you off what is a very light, amusing book. I loved it so much that although Dean Street sent me an e-book, I may splash out on a hard copy.

You can see the full list of the upcoming Furrowed Middlebrow issues here.

Crime Fiction Round-up

I’ll start with the best, although it won’t be out until August. I enjoyed Ambrose Parry’s first two books about Dr Will Raven, practising medicine in grim nineteenth century Edinburgh. Sarah, now widowed, has returned from a trip abroad chastened, believing her dream of studying medicine is over. She also finds that in the meantime Will has met a woman he wants to marry, the daughter of an eminent doctor. But why does the doctor seem so pleased to get her off his hands? This mystery will last for most of the book. There are two murder themes here. One is the sudden death of an important, unpleasant Edinburgh figure and the arrest of his son for the murder. The other is about the ghastly trade of baby farming and the heartless murder of babies. These two stories turn out to be strangely connected and yet again Will and Sarah work together to solve the murders, in spite of the new woman in Will’s life. As in the first two books, the atmosphere of Edinburgh, with its extremes of wealth and poverty, its snobberies and hopelessness, is very well conveyed. Reading it, I was constantly thankful for modern medicine and shuddered every time a doctor began treating a new patient without washing his hands. A brilliantly original series. I read this thanks to NetGalley.
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Now, with yer hy-dee-rangers …

Years ago, a nice old boy came to give a talk to the Horticultural Society. To my delight, he called hydrangeas hy-dee-rangers. His advice was good, though. Yesterday, on Gardeners’ World, Monty Don pronounced that now is the time to prune hydrangeas. Hmm. I always used to do them in March, work a little rose fertiliser round them and let them get on with it. That’s why I like them: one job, once a year and months of flower. This year, we are still having quite heavy frosts every morning, so I’ll be postponing that pruning for a while.

Jane Austen, Lucy Worsley and me

I very much enjoyed Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home. It is exactly what the title suggests: a description of all the houses Jane Austen lived in or visited and the life she led there. Because Lucy is a proper historian, we are spared ‘possibly’, ‘probably’ and ‘we can imagine how’, which ruin so many biographies for me. It’s written in a very lively style which anyone could enjoy and has some good anecdotes. My favourite is one about Tennyson. When visiting Lyme Regis, he was invited to view some interesting spot or other and cried, ‘No! Take me to the Cobb, that I may see the steps down which Louisa Musgrove fell!’ Tennyson was also a great admirer of Charlotte M Yonge, so he had good taste. It wasn’t until I was looking at the photos in this book that I remembered a television programme Lucy did on the same subject, at one point pacing out the outlines of the long-demolished Steventon Rectory where Jane Austen lived for so long. You only have to compare that programme with the truly terrible one which Gyles Brandreth did recently to see the difference between proper, historical biography and misleading rubbish.

After finishing Jane Austen at Home my plan was to re-read all Jane Austen’s novels, one after the other, something I’d never done before. I decided to read them in backwards (for me) order, moving from the least to the most often read. This meant starting with Northanger Abbey.
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The man who loved Dylan: Bob Willis, cricketer and fan

Bob Willis, A Cricketer and a Gentleman credited to Bob Willis & Mike Dickson, edited by David Willis.

Bob Willis (1949-2019) was the second England fast bowler to take 300 Test wickets and also captained England, which is rare for a bowler. He is a cricketing legend due to his heroics at Headingley in 1981 when, playing Australia, he took eight wickets for forty-three and won the game for England. His fellow players talked of ‘a red mist’ or ‘a trance’ coming over him. Richie Benaud, commentating, said it was ‘one of the most fantastic wins in Test Cricket’ and that Willis seemed ‘almost as if he was in another world’.

Bob Willis, A Cricketer and a Gentleman is rather a hotchpotch of a book but still very interesting. The introduction is by his long-term friend, Ian Botham. There’s a biographical section written by Mike Dickson, anecdotes from friends and colleagues plus extracts from his own writing, all edited by his brother, David. Bob Willis didn’t look like an athlete. At 6’6", his long run and the thump of his foot on the ground as he bowled put a terrible strain on his knees and he was often unable to play due to knee injury, operations and other illnesses. Add to that depression, anxiety and insomnia and it’s a wonder he could play at all, let alone be remembered by all his friends as ‘great company’ and ‘very funny’. In those days there wasn’t the support for top players that there is now; they travelled with about three aides, in contrast to the army of coaches, physios and a doctor which travels with today’s England team. It was up to the individual to keep himself fit, which he worked hard at, always believing that running was more useful to a bowler than time in the gym. He found hypnosis helpful and, at the peak of his career, was lucky to have Mike Brearley, the supreme man-manager, as his captain. After retirement he eventually found his métier broadcasting for Sky, where he was famous for his acerbic comments and telling it how it was. He was so passionate about England cricket that he couldn’t bear to watch his team play badly. As I don’t have Sky, I missed all that.
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Film watch: Hue and Cry

Hue and Cry was the first Ealing comedy, made in 1947. What was normal life then, i.e. bombed-out London with children playing on the bomb sites, is now fascinating social history.

I watched this on Talking Pictures and loved it. It’s also available online and, I think, on Amazon. A teenage boy (Harry Fowler) is convinced that a gang of criminals is using a boys’ comic, Trump, to pass secret codes about their next raid. Adults don’t believe him, so he and a crowd of local children set about spying on their suspects. They recruit London telegraph boys, ice cream sellers and other young workers, schoolboys and some girls, too. The finale, with hundreds of kids setting on a few criminals is dangerous but turned into a delightful romp. Alastair Sim is billed as the big star but has a small part (scene-stealing as ever) as the innocent writer of the misused stories. Jack Warner also stars, rather unconvincingly. Well worth catching and, always a plus with me, quite short.


World Book Day

After reading Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home (very good), I’m having an Austen re-read and absolutely whizzing through the books. It’s easy to see that I’ve had the ones above for over fifty years. I also have the Letters, The Watsons etc. but in different editions. I may not bother with them.