Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Attenbury Emeralds - Jill Paton Walsh

Over the weekend I read The Attenbury Emeralds, Jill Paton-Walsh’s continuation of Sayers' detective fiction. The story itself is implausible but none the worse for that, I’d rather have a good yarn than something sensible. There are shades of The Moonstone, but more a modern riff and riposte to it, all well constructed, and I whizzed through quite happy.

Whizzed through partly, to be honest, because there wasn’t much meat in it to slow me down. The characters lack complexity, compared to their treatment under Sayers’ hand, and sadly there’s also less humour and what I can only describe as less energy. Maybe it’s the rationing (the book is set in the 50s). Everyone is subdued and just a shade too sensible, especially the new boys. I badly missed St John – killed in action in the war, sadly.

Speaking of the war we also get a namecheck on the Café de Paris (note to authors: many, many places across the country were bombed out during the war, why does everyone fixate on the Café de Paris?) where the particular emerald we’re interested in was worn on the fateful night.

Anyway the pace picks up, Wimsey is hot on the trail, the characterisation of the people he interviews along the way is actually very good, you really start to get hooked and then..

And then suddenly the ancestral home burns down and brother Denver keels over, so Wimsey is the new duke and has to rush off to help, abandoning his investigation. Long faces all round, grump grump grump, goodness aren’t the death duties high.. oh well, I suppose his majesty didn’t expect to have to be king and he managed.

Frankly you would think a dukedom were a glass of not-so-sparkling cyanide from the way he and Harriet react.

So that oddly unnecessary and pace-killing interlude over and we’re back in London to continue the main story. Emeralds retrieved, murderer caught, don’t really believe the motive but never mind, it’s that sort of story.

All nicely wrapped up with a letter from the Duchess of Denver at the end which is worth the entry price alone. And yet.. and yet I know I'll never reread it.    

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Last Days of Summer

Officially Autumn begins on the 22nd September but to me, and I suspect to others, the summer is over when the schools go back. 

In many ways I love Autumn. Things look like they're over, but that's just sleight of hand. Nothing is really dying. In fact it's a time of great fertility - every dropping acorn a potential oak - and glut: apples, tomatoes, blackberries.

It's been a good summer, and a busy one. In addition to my trip to Oxford I've been to 3 proms, 2 Royal Academy exhibitions, 2 V&A late nights, The Shakespeare Metamorphosis at Senate House, HMS Belfast,  and the Fire Garden pictured above.

(In case anyone is wondering, yes I have a full time job, but I only work the actual hours I'm contracted for.)

The Fire Garden was amazing; metal forms shaped into primitive machines, and flames so much more beautiful and elemental than any power we might use now, to drive them. Chimneys that gorged and spat sparks into the air, orb-shaped furnaces that hung at head height, twisted forms with bunsen blue flames that boiled water into steam.

And so back to study. This October I'm beginning an MA in English Literature with the Open University. The giant cardboard box they sent me went untouched for a week, but I cracked it open this evening. Onwards we go...

Sassoon's Obelisk, Enfield

Wednesday, 7 September 2016


More blue skies - this time over the Bodleian Library early last week. Oxford is, as expected, much lovelier in the Summer than it appeared last Autumn on a briefer visit. The stone of the colleges is beautiful and warm, and there are books everywhere, as if the city were one giant library that hasn't quite been fully catalogued yet. 

I did some of the tourist things - a drink at the Eagle and Child, a brief tour of the Bodleian, a laughable attempt to draw the Divinity School. A museum, two other exhibitions. The botanical gardens, the market, a walk by the river and a lazy hour sitting watching people in punts and trying to sketch trees.    

I also bought six books:

Patrick Hutber - The Decline and Fall of the Middle Class (written in the 70s) 
Nicolas Bentley - How Can You Bear to be Human? 
Coope - The Quiet Art
Anthony Storr - The Integrity of the Personality
Graham Swift - Last Orders
The Golden Age of Murder - Martin Edwards

I have dipped into the Bentley and The Quiet Art - the latter is very dippable because it's all shortish pieces, an anthology of  (to quote Baron Brain) 'the rich and varied flora of medical thought'. 
On the other hand Nicolas Bentley seems to have been old-fashioned even when How Can You Bear was published (1957), and one essay on what jobs women should and should not do absolutely staggered me in it's certainty that he, a cartoonist and occasional author, felt he was in a position to tell anyone else what they should do with their lives.  

The Golden Age of Murder is about the Detection Club, and excellent, but I badly want to finish it before reviewing. 

Monday, 8 August 2016

Blue skies...

The Thames at Crossness yesterday - I walked up from Woolwich to within sight of the QEII bridge - and in fact to within 2 miles of the end of the Thames Path, but I'd been out in the sun for three hours, which was enough. There's little shade on the river.

The arch on the right in this picture is the Barking Creek Flood Barrier. The cross bar drops down and blocks the mouth of the creek at high tides. There's seaweed on this stretch of the Thames, although (as you can see) it's not really that wide yet.

I'll be returning to Erith for the last bit of the Thames Path and then winding down the rivers Darent and Cray as part of the London Loop, which my aunt and I picked up again starting today.

No good pictures though - some nice horses and lakes, and the sort of cornfields that make you feel like you're in a Cadbury's flake advert - but also lots of brambles and golf courses, and a cancelled train coming home.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Kew - again.

This evening I went to Kew Gardens after work (they open late on Fridays in the Summer) to see the Hive; a new installation that feels like a cross between 'proper' art and a conceptual Chelsea Flower Show garden.

Essentially it's a giant climbing frame in a flower meadow, wrapping you around in lights and speakers. Pretty, with the buzzings and the lights changing colour, but much too serene and open and empty to be reminiscent of a real hive.

But perhaps that was because it was evening, and the bees were winding down for the night.

Of course one advantage of the evening is that it is that little bit quieter and you can stop anywhere - even bang in the middle of the palm house walkways - and take pictures without inconveniencing anyone.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Thames through London

There are various ways to orientate yourself through London - there is the tube, which is inaccurate but sufficient for casual visitors, there are the parks, which run down like a series of wedge-shaped steps through one side at least - Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Green Park, St James' Park. There is the AtoZ. Or there is the simple method I used when I was 19, which was not to bother about where I actually was since I could always pick up a bus back.

The most obvious landmark though is the Thames. You are either South of North of the river, and ancient boundaries invariably end at the river's edge. So Vauxhall is South to Pimlico's north, Ditto Putney and Fulham, Southwark and the City, Lambeth and Westminster.

So, in order to provide some idea of where the places on this blog actually are, and perhaps give people who haven't been an idea of the shape of London and where it sits, I've drawn this rough map.

Further west leads to Runnymede (Where the Magna Carta was signed) Windsor, Oxford, Shepperton Studios, Eton College, Henley Regatta, Kelmscott and the Cotswolds. Heading East you reach Herne Bay, Southend and the sea.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

fourteen reasons I'm going get a library fine again..

From left to right:

John Mortimer's Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, which I got from Mitcham library after reading Rumpole at Christmas. I meant to wait for colder weather before reading any more Rumpole - it's an winter sort of pleasure - but I've just rediscovered him and I'm impatient. To be enjoyed with a glass of Chateau Thames Embankment (in this case Montepulciano) in my Hello Kitty glass to the right there. That's my travelling glass, a useful size for fanta, wine or water for painting. Thick enough to be tough, and not likely to tip up. I brought it in Florence.
I haven't read the book yet,

Bill Bryson's African Diary - another not yet read, this time from Wimbledon Library, and next to it Dolly by Susan Hill. I like Hill very much and she delivers reliable chills, but I don't think she's got whatever it is that makes a book a classic. She's very much of the here, now, and sturdily middle class.

The Sermon on the Fall of Rome, Jerome Ferrari (in translation) another I've not read yet but the reviews promise amazing things, and I wanted to read more work in translation.

Thirst by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, again in translation. I normally avoid fiction about war, especially recent conflicts, but I think this appealed because it promises to show both sides, not just one. I also avoid books about writers trying to write, but here I'm hoping it will leaven the bleakness of conflict. I got this from Mitcham library, which has a homely between-war facade and core with a square 1970s build wrapped around three sides of it, like one of those neck cushions people are meant to use on aeroplanes.

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz. I read Horowitz' The House of Silk some years ago, and although I felt the sensibilities of Holmes and Watson were slightly anachronistic it was a good yarn. I've only recently started to appreciate how many 'new' Sherlock Holmes spin-off stories there have been. From Julien Symons' Sherlock obsessed actor in the 70s, to the recent TV series, to The Seven Percent Solution (a retelling in which Sherlock begins to succumb to the cocaine and have delusions about Moriarty) to the film Young Sherlock Holmes. Neil Gaiman has written Holmes and Watson into an alternate universe, and Disney has made him a cartoon mouse. With all that going on it's impossible to be precious about the canon. And it may be good.

Mathematics with Love - the Courtship Correspondence of Barnes Wallis. This is a very odd book, and a very odd correspondence. Wallis is in love with a young student at London University, and offers to help her with her studies. It's clear that if they weren't cousins he probably wouldn't be allowed to write to her at all, but as they are her father allows some flexibility. So they write the normal things you write in letters (or did, when people wrote letters), that a bee has landed on her pen because it is sticky with nougat, that he  went to the theatre, and then she lays out the mathematical puzzles that bother her because her lecturer goes too fast, and he writes back with diagrams, and she responds with formulae, and I got very lost but didn't mind.
What I did mind was the sentimental narrator who can't restrict herself to facts and says things like 'and the knight had won his lady' or 'a flood of emotion had been released in Barnes'. The book would be very much better if she kept quiet and let her readers judge for themselves.

The Green Man - Kingsley Amis. A quite short book which I should have read by now. I had an Amis binge a year or so back, but have read nothing of his before or since. I always think Amis is writing with a male reader in mind, but the fact he's not writing for me doesn't make me not want to read him. His humour is darkly amusing.

Nehru's Letters to His Sister. Kensington Library seems to have a lot of these books of letters - the above Barnes Wallis one came from them. This one was in a small display in the Central Library - they have these small frequently changed displays where things not normally on the shelves are trawled from archive and offered up, and there's almost always something interesting.
The loose connection between the books this time seems to be sibling relationships.

The next book, Cook's Tours, is a case in point. I should have returned this already since I've finished it, but I haven't yet. It's a series of letters (again) as published in the Times and temperance newspapers, sent back by Thomas Cook as he builds and promotes his fledgling company, making contacts in hotels and explaining the difference in British and American railways, and telling people what they can expect to see.
He isn't as tolerant of other cultures as you might expect from someone so widely travelled - and particularly dismissive of anything which offends his Victorian morality - but he's certainly not backward for his time, and it's completely fascinating seeing how people travelled then, and the wonderful months-on-end-long tours that were offered to those who could afford them.
The temperance side is also interesting, because it not only gives you an idea of how much people did drink, daily, but how they were expected to drink, even if they didn't want to.
This still happens of course, but it's not socially acceptable in the way it clearly was.

And Then There Were None. I've been rereading Agatha Christie for some time now and I'm getting into my less favourite ones. This is a very clever book - in many ways her cleverest book, but it's more thriller than proper puzzle.
This was also, of course, the book with the offensive name and nursery rhyme, which is why they've changed the title. A very minor change, since the play was always called this.
They've also changed the rhyme inside though and I'm less sure that's a good move. There is a point where in trying not to give offence you disguise past attitudes and pretend there never was a problem. And ultimately that serves the current crop of bigots who'd like to kid themselves that women's lib and race relations are just politically correct hysteria and there was never any real need for them.
But having said that I was considering buying a copy of Kipling's Just So Stories at Christmas for my cousin's little boy, and I checked some of the language had been changed before I added it to the 'maybe' pile - so I can't claim to be consistent about this.

A Murder is Announced - Agatha Christie. One of my favourites, and one I didn't even come close to solving the first time I read it.
There are an awful lot of people pretending to be who they're not in this book, but that's kind of the point. That the war has shaken out all the odd certainties, and you have to believe what people tell you of themselves.
Oddly the TV Marple I preferred for this one was Geraldine McEwan. It isn't usually, mostly because the changes that were made to a lot of the stories for that series didn't feel like they worked to me, but in this one she was engaged in a way Hickson simply wasn't, and it felt real.

By the Pricking of My Thumbs - Agatha Christie. This is, or was, another favourite. The paperback my mother owned had a terrifying picture of a doll with a cracked head and a dead bird (actually all those old covers were frightening. The giant wasp and the diddy little aeroplane, the apple that is actually a skull, splashes of blood and staring eyes).
Hopefully it's still a favourite, but rereading the earlier Tommy and Tuppence books (and the Bundle Brents and all) I found I didn't like them as much as I had when I was young. They're too silver screen and wisecracky.
Incidentally, this was also one of the Geraldine McEwan Marples I couldn't stand. What was Marple even doing there? Why did Tuppence have to be completely rewritten as this flaky drunk whose children patronised her as a result?

Anyway, last one..

Endless Night - Agatha Christie. As I said earlier, I'm getting into my less favourite ones now, and this is definitely one of those. I remember feeling cheated when I read it.
I was babysitting, so must have been in my teens, and I haven't read it again until now (or rather until a week ago). It's cleverly done, more cleverly that I could appreciate at the time I think, but it still leaves me cold.

So that's the library haul. I'm lucky that I live and work in places with good libraries, I can't imagine what I'd have to spend on books if I didn't.