Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Nostalgia Rules - OK!

A day trip to London last week resulted in the acquisition of just one book, which is pretty unusual for me – normally I return home aching in every limb after staggering around with a backpack stuffed full of books, and heaving it on and off the train. Anyway, I was very restrained this time around, and just bought this, from a vintage toy stall in Greenwich Market, and it was only £1, which is an absolute bargain.
Apparently, The Ladybird Book of London has now been updated, with additional pictures, but this is an original (retro, as my younger daughter would say) in remarkably good condition, although it is missing the dust-jacket, which had a picture of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament - the same image was printed on the board covers of later editions, and which also appears inside the book.
According to a note inside, this was ‘First published in 1961’, but Ladybirds are notoriously difficult to date, so it's not necessarily a first edition. However, the company stopped publishing books with dust-jackets in 1965, when coloured illustrations were printed directly on to the board covers, so that narrows the sating field a bit! 

Not only do I remember this book from my childhood, I also recall visiting most of the places featured – we were a short train ride from London, and had relatives there, so we ‘went to town’ quite a bit. OK, I know I’m wallowing in nostalgia, and this a self-indulgent post, but as far as I’m concerned The Ladybird Book of London is a real classic, with 24 illustrations showing London’s best-known sights as they were when I was small, and I love it!  

The information still holds good, and illustrator John Berry focuses very much on the subject of each picture, so you don't see much traffic, or many other buildings. I suppose they're rather idealised images, but it does mean he places are recognisable, despite London’s changing skyline and altered streetscapes. And only one attraction has disappeared - the wonderful Planetarium next to Madame Tussaud's has closed, but the building survives, providing a home for a Marvel Superheroes 4D display. It would be interesting to go round with a camera, and take shots from the same angles as Berry's paintings.

One thing which has altered quite dramatically since the book was published is the River Thames. It appears in several pictures, generally as a busy waterway, packed with cargo ships and barges, but it really doesn't look like that any more. The closure of the docks has completely transformed the Thames, and these days great stretches of the river are empty, and the main traffic seems to be commercial pleasure craft. I hadn't grasped the scale of the change until I looked at this book. I suppose changes don't happen overnight - they creep up on you unawares, over a period of time, so slowly that you hardly notice.
Then... John Berry's portrayal of the Cutty Sark.
 Since we’re talking boats, I’m pleased to see the Cutty Sark draws tourists to Greenwich just as it has always done. There’s a new visitor centre on what was once the quayside and the surrounding area has been landscaped, but the view of the ship’s masts standing proud against the sky is the same. 
Now... My portrayal of the Cutty Sark, taken last week. It was painstakingly restored after a
devastating fire in 2007. You can say the Visitor Centre, behind the plants, stretching along
the quay in front of the ship. The view hasn't changed a lot, but it's more commercial now.
And there are still ducks, geese and swans on the lake at St James’s Park, as well as pelicans - a Russian Ambassador gave some to Charles II way back in the 17th century, and they’ve been breeding ever since. You can feed the birds, or enjoy a picnic, or read a book under the shade of a tree, or just sit and watch the world go by. London’s parks are fantastic, and this is one of the nicest, as lovely now as it was 55 years ago when The Ladybird Book of London was first published, and you can still find spots which offer a vista with few intrusions from the modern world. 
An unchanging scene in St James's Park. 
Trafalgar Square also remains pretty similar, although the empty fourth plinth is now used as temporary exhibition space for artworks, which is a great improvement, and you’re not allowed to paddle in the fountains, which is a shame. And, of course, the streets around the square are full of tall modern buildings. 

There’s a good map on the front papers, which is clear enough to use - the lay-out of the main streets can’t have altered that much! But the Tube map on the end papers is probably a museum piece, printed long before the creation of the Jubilee Line, the Docklands Light Railway, and the Piccadilly Line extension to Heathrow Airport. 

And the airport (referred to as London Airport) merits an entry, looking like a child’s model – surprisingly small for what is described as one of the largest and busiest airports in the world. And it boasted a public enclosure where people could watch ‘airliners’ arriving and taking off, as well as pony rides, a miniature railway and a sandpit! The author tells us: 

The authorities of the airport are pleased to see us, and they have arranged everything for our pleasure and interest. 

Really? This makes it sound as if air travel was an enjoyable experience, and the airport was so nice that people flocked there for days out, like some kind of theme park, and I’m not at all sure that was the case. Perhaps people who lived further away had a different perspective, but we lived nearby and were used to planes flying overhead (I think they were seen as a bit of nuisance). Lots of local residents worked at Heathrow, and people went there to catch planes, or collect relatives, but I don’t remember anyone going there just for fun.  
Does anyone remember Heathrow looking like this?
The book was written by John Lewesdon, but I can’t find any information about him. However, Ladybird used teachers, historians and other experts in addition to well-known authors, and some writers were only involved with one book, so perhaps Lewesdon was one of these.   

The paintings are by John Berry (1920-2009), one of the company’s chief illustrators for some 20 years. A former war artist, he was an acclaimed portrait painter, but also worked as an illustrator, and in advertising - he provided the tiger for Esso’s iconic ‘Put a Tiger in your tank ‘campaign. 
Portrait of an artist: John Berry, who illustrated
The Ladybird Book of London

Monday, 27 April 2015

Patricia Brent, Spinster

Think Fairy Tales…  And Love at First Sight… And Obstacles Overcome…  And Rags to Riches…  And Happy Ever After…  Patricia Brent, Spinster, by Herbert George Jenkins, is all these, and is one of the most delightful books I’ve read this year. If you liked Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day you will love this – it’s every bit as funny and light-hearted, and features an equally unobtrusive, overlooked heroine who metamorphoses into a stunning, sophisticated beauty with a mind of her own. And, of course, it has a lovely, happy ending.

Once again I owe thanks for a new discovery to Simon at Stuck in a Book, who wrote a lovely review here but, as usual, I’m a little late to the party, because other people posted pieces about this months and months ago.  
This is a 1919 cover I stole from Simon at Stuck in a Book,
so I hope he doesn't mind. Personally, I think it looks
rather sinister with all those eyes.
Anyway, I digress. Orphaned Patricia, secretary to a rising MP (who is unlikely to rise very far), is an impoverished "paying guest" at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, where the boarders, the landlady, and the building itself are all down on their luck. One day she overhears two of her elderly fellow "guests" pitying her because she doesn’t have ‘a nice young man’ to take her out. Hitherto, whatever she may have thought about the inquisitive residents and their pretentious gentility, Patricia has always remained polite. But she’s 24, lonely, and bored - and at this point something inside snaps. 

So she tells everyone she will not be there for dinner the following evening because she is dining at the Quadrant Grill-room with her fiancé! To satisfy the boarders’ curiosity, she invents an Army major named Brown, who is home on leave from France (the book is set in 1918, before the end of the First World War). And she explains that no, she doesn’t have an engagement ring because she hates ‘badges of servitude’! 
The next night she dresses with care and sets out to dine - on her own. But, to her horror, on arrival at the posh restaurant she finds three Galvin Houseites have turned up to spy on her. Rendered reckless at the thought of the humiliation she must endure if her lie is exposed, she approaches a young staff-officer sitting on his own, and asks him to help by ‘playing up’, and he happily obliges. 
Needless to say, the young man - Lt Col Lord Peter Bowen, DSO (how fortuitous that his name is so similar to the make-believe boyfriend!) – falls in love with Patricia, and she is equally smitten, but won’t admit it. 22She’s determined not to succumb to Lord Peter’s charms: he may offer an escape from her dreary life, but she is much too proud to marry a wealthy man when she is poor.  
Looking at this 1970s cover you'd never know the
book is set in 1918!
As Lord Peter pursues Patricia, and she tries to keep him at a distance, a kind of sparring partnership develops between them, reminiscent of the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. But there are complications because Patricia’s original story means everyone thinks she and Lord Peter are already   engaged… And life becomes even more awkward with a visit from sour, interfering Aunt Adelaide (her sole surviving relative)! 

As the novel progresses Patricia finds her voice. At the start you think she’s rather quiet and dowdy, but she’s neither. She’s intelligent, articulate, witty, very independent, and quite modern really, so it’s a bit of a shock when she turns to mush as Peter finally kisses her and she realises she loves him. Now I know things were different when this was written, but I refuse to believe any woman ever fainted when kissed. 

But that’s a small quibble, because this is such an enjoyable romantic comedy – and there’s a comedy of manners going on as well, because Jenkins is a more astute observer of social distinctions than you might expect. At Galvin House for example, residents are desperately trying to maintain some kind of social position and keep up appearances, for appearances are everything. 

At Galvin House manners were things that were worn, like a gardenia or a patent hook-and-eye. 

There’s a social hierarchy that must be observed, with rules about precedent and conduct, dress codes, table etiquette and so on. The account of the residents’ preparations when Lord Peter comes to dinner is hilarious. And it’s interesting to see how their attitude towards Patricia changes as soon as they think she is engaged to a lord. But their vulnerability is revealed during a night-time bombing raid. 

There are some wonderful characters. I particularly like Mr Triggs, father of the MP’s aspirational wife. Now retired, he’s risen from humble beginnings to make a fortune in the building trade, but remains down to earth, shrewd and kindly, equally at ease in all levels of society. But it’s his clothes that make him memorable, rather than anything he does or says. Take this for example: 

Triggs stood before her, florid and happy. He was wearing a new black and white check suit, a white waistcoat, and a red tie, while in his hand he carried a white felt top-hat with a black band... and over his black boots he wore a pair of immaculate white spats. 

Isn’t that a splendid image? Actually, Jenkins is brilliant at describing clothes. Here’s Patricia dressing for that first evening with a non-existent fiancé: 

With great deliberation Patricia selected a black charmeuse costume that Miss Wangle had already confided to the whole of Calvin House was at least two and a half inches too short; but as Patricia had explained to Mrs Hamilton, if you possess exquisitely fitting patent boots that come high up the leg, it’s a sin for the skirt to be too long. She selected a black velvet hat with a large white water-lily on the upper brim.  

“You look bad enough for a vicar’s daughter,’ she said, surveying herself in the mirror as she fastened a bunch of red carnations in her belt. “White at the wrists and on the hat, yes, it looks most improper.” 

The final touch to the ensemble is a gold wristlet watch fastened over one of her white gloves. 
I imagine Patricia's dress looking a little like the pink
one on the left, but in black, with some white trimming,
and red flowers at the waist. From Delineator May 1918
A costume was usually a two-piece outfit, but charmeuse puzzled me. I thought it might be a fashionable style, but it turned out to be very fine, satiny material, which drapes and clings, so perhaps this was one of those rather shapeless, floaty outfits that were so popular at the time, with a kind of longish jacket layered over a skirt that came above the ankle, but well below the knee. 
Or there's this, also from 1918, which is less floaty,
 and a bit more classy perhaps, and the white cuffs
 and neckline are rather nice.
And those patent boots must have been highly desirable, because in 1918 questions were raised in Parliament following an Army Council Order the previous year which effectively banned the sale and manufacture of women’s boots, presumably to free up materials and workers for the armed forces. 

I should point out that Patricia Brent, Spinster was originally published by in 1918, and re-issues were available as late as the 1970s, but print editions are hard to find. However, it is available as Ebook from Project Gutenberg.

High, shiny, black boots! These were made in America in 1918,
and I think they look pretty stylish, so perhaps Patricia wore
something similar.   Found on

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Magical Moorlands

I read this on my Kindle, so there's no cover to
admire, but I could resist including this picture
of the 'real' book.
I don’t ever remember learning about moors when I did ‘A’ level geography at school. Glaciation, yes. Vulcanicity, yes. Limestone scenery, yes. But moors, no. Like Hartley’s past, they are a foreign country, and the little knowledge I do have has been acquired through novels – all the usual suspects, like The Secret Garden, Jamaica Inn, Wuthering Heights and Hound of the Baskervilles. I wrote about them back in 2012, prompted by a walk round Warwickshire Moor, one of our local ‘wildspots’ here in Tamworth.

Actually, the name is a misnomer on two counts. Firstly, because we’re in Staffordshire, although half the town (including this patch of land) was once in Warwickshire. Secondly, the terrain doesn’t fit with my notion of a moor at all, and now, thanks to William Atkins’ The Moor: Lives Landscape Literature, I know it’s not. The north of the county has its moorland area (which merits only the briefest of mentions from Atkins), but here in the south we’re not nearly high enough to qualify for the term. Like ‘The Moors’ of Atkins’ childhood, in Bishop’s Waltham, our Moor may be a remnant of a much larger wild area, but it is not, and never has been a proper moor. 
A pool hidden among the dead reeds, rushes and grasses at Warwickshire
Moor  looked a little bleak when I took this earlier in the year, even
though it was a sunny  day - but it's not really a moor.
Anyway, the so-called moors of his childhood gave Atkins a lifelong passion for moorlands, and in this book he travels through some of England’s most inhospitable and inaccessible places. He journeys from Bodmin, through Exmoor and Dartmoor, northwards to Saddleworth, the Calder Valley, the area around Haworth, the North York Moors, Alston, and on into Northumbria. 

Along the way he meets the people who live, work and play in these isolated areas: solders, gamekeepers, landowners, conservationists, birdwatchers, poets, farmers, prisoners, vicars, walkers and a host of others. He recounts tales of characters from the past – murderers and their victims, preachers, teachers, librarians, topographers, naturalists, historians, scholars, monks, miners, men of vision convinced that with the right techniques land could be brought into productive and profitable use, and men who tried (and failed) to scratch a living from the poor moorland soils. 

And, of course, Atkins pays tribute to moorland writers. He seeks out places that inspired poets like Ted Hughes and WH Auden, and novelists like the Brontes, Henry Williamson, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle, and researches local legends that might have influenced them. 

I was surprised to see how many of the people he writes about are ‘loners’, and there’s a thread running through the book, showing how the isolated moors (once regarded as barren waste lands) have always attracted people seeking solitude, and provided shelter for eccentrics, outcasts and fugitives. Some were pioneers who thought they could carve a fresh future for themselves. Others, perhaps more akin to the early Christian hermits who dwelt in deserts or on rocky crags in the ocean, wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of the world for a place where man can contemplate (or confront) his own nature and his place in the universe.

Dartmoor, in Devon, showing a view up the River Meavy towards
Sharpitor and  Leather Tordd. (Courtesy of Wikipedia).
Alongside the anecdotes about people there’s a quirky collection of facts about the geology and history of moorlands, with stories about buildings, communities, and social customs, and traditions like Beating the Bounds. Take Dartmoor Prison: everyone knows it originally held French prisoners of war in the early 19th century. But some 20 years before that jail founder Thomas Tyrwhitt tried to establish a settlement there, only no-one wanted to settle in such a cold, wet, isolated spot where nothing would grow! However in 1805, realising that jails and prison hulks were jam-packed with POWs, he saw a chance to make good his losses by building a jail… And the rest, as they say, is history. 

But the book’s real strength – and what makes it so special – lies is the way Atkins uses sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste to describe the landscapes he passes through. Writing about Bodmin Moor, for example, he tells us: 

The wind up here was an assault: in the bracken it sang rich and loud, in the grass it was a piping; between the boulders a hollow roar; it was a thousand voices and one, and each buffet hooted across my ears like a blast across the mouth of a bottle. 

And a little further on he says you’ll exhaust yourself trying to name the colours: 

Beyond the white-grey of the moss-spotted clitter, the moor sank through chartreuse slopes, down to the emerald intake of Penhale Farm, to a motley lowland of pale lime dashed with tawny and dun and fawn, and then the intricate tapestry of purple moor-grass, cotton-grass, mat-grass, heather, moss and lichens; chamois, bronze, taupe, walnut – a hennaed, mouldering, rusting vastness shot with saffron, carmine and topaz, with swathes of reflectivity that shimmered like raffia in the low sun. 

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Imagine those colours as embroidery threads, or a crocheted blanket, or scraps of tweed fabric waiting to be stitched into a quilt…  

And his explanations of moorland geology have an economy of language that is almost poetic, with the data compressed into very few words, just as mud and plants were compressed into layers of rock – and is certainly easier to read and understand than any textbook. Here, talking about coalmining on Alston Moor, he says: 

Roll back the grass and peat, and the hillsides would show their striped profiles: shale/sandstone/limestone/coal – each laid down as successive oceans filled and lingered and drained mud and sand becoming shale and sandstone, vegetation becoming coal, the bones of sea creatures tamping into limestone. 

Burrator Reservoir, on Dartmoor, was created to provide water for
Plymouth, and woods were planted around it to stabilise the land.
It looks as if it's been there for ever, and is a brilliant example of
the way men have changed a moorland landscape.
Atkins is as much obsessed by words as he is with the moors themselves, and I was fascinated to discover that there’s a whole language connected with every aspect of this particular landscape. It seems there is precisely the right word to describe every dip and hollow, every rise and slope, every bit of rock, from near microscopic particles to gigantic boulders. There are words for weather conditions, different types of water, soils and vegetation. English is a wonderful language, with a wealth of words to describe people, objects, places, emotions, situations, but just imagine the richness of having so many words devoted to one type of landscape, enabling you to say exactly what you mean.  

It turns out that the moor of Atkins’ childhood is really a fen, and the adjoining wood is actually a swamped wood, known as a carr. And, in case you wonder, a fen and a moor are both boggy and peaty, but a fen’s wetness comes from underground springs, while a moor’s wetness is mainly from rain. “Fenland is saturated from below, moorland from above,” he explains. Fens, like marshes, are usually low-lying, while true moorland can be found only at high altitudes, where there is heavy rainfall. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to grasp the nuances of the terminology: flaughts, for example, are sods of turf, while peats are obtained from a peat hole, but I’m not sure I understand the difference. 

Then there is growan, which is a fine quartz grit - ‘granite’s midway state of degradation from solid stone to powdery kaolin’.  Who knew there was a word to describe such a transformation (I didn’t even know kaolin clay comes from granite)! And what about clitter, the expanse of boulders that rings the summit of every tor. And there are deep griffs, and isolated hags, and cloughs, and curricks… And I particularly like his account of a névé:

The snow remained along the sunken paths and along cloughs and brooks and the footings of walls; it’s surface inch had frozen and refrozen and hardened to a brittle shell. There was a word for this sort of partially melted and refrozen snow – névé, from the Swiss French for glacier

This, apparently, is a grouse, a game bird bred to be shot.
(Pic courtesy of Tom Marshall on the RSPB website)
I must admit that until reading this book I hadn’t realised how much of the moorland landscape has been shaped not just by nature, but by man. Mining, quarrying, farming, military activities, drainage schemes and reservoirs have all left their mark. And grouse moors, apparently, are almost entirely man-made, with the birds and the heather they eat creating what is effectively a monoculture – in the past other species were wiped out to safeguard the grouse. These days, according to Atkins, the land is better managed, and many predators are protected. 

But here, and elsewhere, he considers the difficulty of trying to preserve the environment whilst meeting the conflicting demands of those who use the moors – a tricky task, since the various user groups often have divergent views and interests.

One of the joys of a book like this is the moment of recognition, when a scene matches a memory from your own past, or you come across a place you’ve been to. Parts of Dartmoor I know, and I’ve visited Princetown, where the prison is, and Buckfast Abbey, so I loved that chapter. And Atkins’ description of the long vanished ‘Golf Balls’ at the Fylingdale early warning station brought to mind a holiday in the area many years ago, when the strange structures loomed eerily out of the mist as I drove across the North York Moors.

But it was his account of peat cutting which resonated most strongly, and that description of the colours on Bodmin Moor, reminding me of childhood holidays up in the hills of Donegal, where my grandparents lived. It may not have been a moorland, but the landscape was very similar, and I can remember going to places where peat was cut, for fuel for fires. I think the cut blocks were just referred as turfs, or turves - definitely not flaughts or peats!  The land was very wet, and there were seas of purple heather blowing in the wind, and great cushions of moss, in bright greens and ruby reds, and something we called bog cotton, though that may not have been its proper name. And the white quartz stones in the streams that rushed down from the higher slopes were all stained rusty brown from the peat. 


Monday, 9 March 2015

Poems for Spring

Every year, some time in February or March, depending on the vagaries of the English weather, there comes a sunny day when I walk through the Castle Grounds and smell flowery perfume on a warm breeze, and every year I think ‘how wonderful, spring is on the way’.

Doubtlessly there’s a very logical explanation, because strongly perfumed flowers are already in bloom, like this mahonia, which smells rather honeyish, like oilseed rape perhaps:

Or this little creamy white bloom that I think is sweet box – to start with, because of the perfume, I thought it might be some strange kind of jasmine, even though the flower is not right for that. But, like jasmine, it seems to perfume the air for a good distance around:
Anyway, I’m always reminded 0f Carl Sandburg’s poem Blossom Themes, which encapsulates that moment when the first flowers begin to appear and you realise winter is on the wane…

Late in the winter came one day
When there was a whiff on the wind,
a suspicion, a cry not to be heard
of perhaps blossoms, perhaps green
 grass and clean hills lifting rolling shoulders.
Does the nose get the cry of spring
first of all? is the nose thankful
and thrilled first of all?
If the blossoms come down
so they must fall on snow
because spring comes this year
before winter is gone,
then both snow and blossoms look sad:
peaches, cherries, the red summer apples,
all say it is a hard year.
The wind has its own way of picking off
the smell of peach blossoms and then
carrying that smell miles and miles.
Women washing dishes in lonely, farmhouses
stand at the door and say, “Something is
A little foam of the summer sea
of blossoms,
a foam finger of white leaves,
shut these away—
high into the summer wind runners.
Let the wind be white too.

I love that first stanza, with the ‘whiff on the wind’ and the ‘perhaps blossoms’ and the thought that of all the senses it’s smell that recognises spring first, rather than sight, or sound.
And this year I discovered Kathleen Jamie’s poem, The Dash, which also seems to capture the magic of that moment when the year turns, though for her the arrival of spring is heralded by a pair of birds returning to Scotland after wintering somewhere warmer. But the sense of joy is the same, and the feeling of exhilaration that a longed-for event has finally arrived, and I think it’s interesting that Sandburg and Jamie both have the wind blowing spring in quite suddenly – there’s no gradual creeping-in of a new season.

Every mid-February
those first days arrive
when the sun rises
higher than the Black
Hill at last. Brightness
and a crazy breeze
course from the same airt -
turned clods gleam, the trees’
topmost branches bend
shivering downwind.
They chase, this lithe pair
out of the far south
west, and though scalding
to our wintered eyes
look; we cry, it’s here

This poem comes from her collection The Overhaul, which I finally got round to buying because I enjoyed ‘Findings’ and ‘Sightlines’ so much – these two books both contain essays, or reflections, mainly on nature and wild things, and Jamie’s prose is beautifully lyrical, as she uses animals, birds, found objects as a kind of focus to comment on life. I thought they were wonderful, but Jamie is primarily a poet, and I have been meaning to explore her poetry for quite a while, but was wary, because I’d read reviews complaining that her use of Scottish dialect words made her work difficult to understand.

I admit some kind of glossary would be useful, but even if you don’t appreciates the fine  nuances in her choice of words it’s not that difficult to grasp her meaning, and there’s always Google – I know lots of people don’t like it, but I found airt without any trouble, and now know it has to do with direction, as in the compass.

She’s very much a nature poet, who observes creatures and landscapes, and she has a wonderful and unusual way with words and language, that makes you look afresh at the world around you, and think about it in a different fashion. ‘Wintered eyes’, for example, is such an unlikely pairing, yet it’s absolutely right, describing how tired and jaded we feel after a long, hard winter, and how different the world (and our view of it) becomes when spring arrives, bringing the hope of better things ahead. 

The poems need to be read slowly, and thought about, one at a time, so that’s what I’m doing, and so far I’m enjoying them very much, and looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Dud Avocado

I had high hopes of The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy, which I bought because it is a Virago Modern Classic, and because the blurb on the back made it sound so enticing:
Sally Jay Gorce, is a woman with a mission. It’s the 1950s, she’s young, she’s in Paris, she’s dyed her hair pink, she’s wearing an evening dress at eleven o’clock in the morning, and she’s seldom had more fun. Having made a vow to go native in a way the natives never had the stamina for, she’s busy getting drunk, having affairs, losing money, losing jewellery, and losing God knows what.
And the opening was promising…
It was a hot, peaceful optimistic sort of day in September. It was about eleven in the morning I remember and I was drifting down the Boulevard St. Michel thoughts rising in my head like little puffs of smoke when suddenly a voice bellowed into my ear …
But thereafter I was disappointed: the book failed to please me, and I’m not quite sure why. It’s well written, the characters are well drawn, and I didn’t hate it. To be honest I don’t think I could even say I disliked it – it didn’t evoke any strong emotions in me. It’s just not my sort of book I guess, and I wouldn’t read it again.
It is, as I’m sure most people know, a classic rites of passage book written by Elaine Dundy, an American actress who married British theatre critic Ken Tynan. It is supposed to be based on Dundy’s own experiences living in Paris (before she met Tynan), but she said: “When I got stuck, I would say to myself, 'What would I not do?' and then I would have Sally Jay do it, and I would be off again."
Sally Jay (generally known as Gorce) is a serial runaway, who is in Paris thanks to her Uncle Roger. When she was 13 he promised her two years of freedom once she has graduated from college – providing she doesn’t run away again. He’ll pay her a monthly allowance, and she can go anywhere she likes, and do anything she likes.
At that point what she wants is to stay out as late as she likes, and eat whatever she likes any time she wants. And she doesn’t want to be introduced to all the mothers and fathers and brothers of the girls at school. She doesn’t want to meet anyone she’s been introduced to.   She wants to meet all the other people and do exciting things and sharpen her wits…
So now Sally Jay, an actress, is in Paris, grabbing every new experience she can. She has a lover, an Italian diplomat named Teddy (they met when she stepped out in front of his car) who takes her to the Ritz, and a circle of oddball acquaintances, who all seem to be outsiders, on the edge of society. They’re not exactly down and outs, but they live a hand to mouth existence. Then there’s Larry Keevil, who was on a drama course with Sally Jay back home in America, and she meets him again and falls in love. But Larry turns out to be very nasty indeed…
The novel rushes along from one episode to another, and there’s a host of entertaining characters to accompany our zany heroine, and on the surface everything is very light and frothy, and often very funny. But there are darker undertones, and some scenes are quite disturbing.
At times the book, written in 1958, reminded me of JD Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, which was published seven years earlier – something to do with the tone perhaps, or the style, or the portrayal of disaffected youth with its hatred of anything phony. For all her outrageous behaviour Sally Jay, like Holden Caulfield, is something of innocent and, like him, she doesn’t really grow or learn from her experiences. She has no thought for the future, and lives for the moment. She’s very bright, and despite the kooky, confident, cynical persona she’s created for herself she’s oddly passive – things happen to her, and she accepts the situation, and goes with the flow, rarely making decisions or initiating action.
The period is wrong, but she could almost be a younger version of a Jean Rhys heroine, before life has saddened her and the promise of good times ahead has disappeared: think of Sasha in 'Good Morning', Midnight. Rhys is far bleaker and grittier, but Dundy’s Paris carries the same sense of seediness and failure, despite the lightness and humour.
And although the ending ought to be described as happy, I can’t for a moment imagine it will be. Sally Jay doesn’t strike me as being a happy-after-person. Each time she meets a new man, or a new situation, she thinks ‘this is it’. But it never lasts. Whatever she does, she never quite fits in, and things never quite work out. There’s a passage early on the book where Sally Jay says:
I was still wearing the evening dress I had in when I’d met Larry that morning, and the funny thing about was that, even though twelve hours had elapsed since then, it still wasn’t particularly appropriate. I mean, I really felt I could expect it to be correct attire at some point of the day – like a watch that has stopped, eventually just happening to have its hands at the right time.
Somehow I felt that symbolised her life, and she’s never going to be correct, or happy, or satisfied.
Jim McDermott's portrait of Elaine Dundy.