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One From the Archive: ‘London War Notes: 1939-1945’ by Mollie Panter-Downes *****

First published in 2015.

The 111th entry on the Persephone list, and one of this year’s spring reprints, is Mollie Panter-Downes’ excellent London War Notes: 1939-1945.  First published in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1972, the collection gathers together material which was originally published in The New Yorker during the Second World War.

Between 1939 and 1945, Panter-Downes wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’.  These letters began at a pivotal time for Great Britain, as: ‘The first was written on the very Sunday that Neville Chamberlain informed the nation that his untiring efforts to preserve peace had failed’.  In all, she contributed 153 such pieces, as well as two dozen short stories, which Persephone have already gathered together in the Good Evening, Mrs Craven collection.

Edited by William Shawn, this new edition features a far-reaching preface which has been written by David Kynaston.  He believes that Panter-Downes’ humour is ‘wryly observational’, and this volume rightly leaves ‘historians as well as readers forever in her debt’ for the slice of wartime life which it presents.

The original American spellings and turns of phrase have been retained within London War Notes, as they ‘give a better sense of the period and of Mollie Panter-Downes’s original audience’.  Another nice touch within the book is the way in which it has been split up into sections, each of which refer to different years within the Second World War.  Each thus begins with a helpful timeline of the main historical events which occurred in any given year, which are both of importance in general terms, or which had definite consequences within Britain, and thus had major effects upon the populous – the rationing of petrol in September 1939, for example.

Robert Harris called Panter-Downes ‘the Jane Austen of the Home Front’, and it is easy to see why.  She is incredibly observant and, Kynaston agrees, she ‘deftly and economically makes us feel present without ever resorting to purple prose’. Panter-Downes is a wonderful writer; she is coolly intelligent, and is never one to get flustered.  One immediately receives the impression that she was one of those incredibly collected and headstrong women, who always tried to make the best of any given situation.  Each of her observations within London War Notes is of value, and never does she under- or overstate anything.  Panter-Downes is particularly fabulous at reasserting her own position, and that of her country, against the war at large.  She is a thoughtful prose writer, too: ‘The London crowds are cool,’ she writes on the day that war is declared, ‘in spite of thundery weather which does its best to scare everybody by staging unofficial rehearsals for aid raids at the end of breathlessly humid days’.

London War Notes is a wonderful and all-encompassing read.  It is a fabulous piece of non-fiction, and feels incredibly fitting for the varied Persephone Classics list.  As far as journalism – and particularly wartime journalism from the perspective of somebody who was surviving on the Home Front – goes, London War Notes is at the very pinnacle.

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One From the Archive: ‘Mossy Trotter’ by Elizabeth Taylor ****

First published in 2015.

The 633rd book on Virago’s wonderful Modern Classics list is Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children, Mossy Trotter.  First published in 1967, the new edition comes with lively Tony Ross illustrations, and an introduction written by Taylor’s son, Renny, who says: ‘… some of it is based on my childhood…  She must have made notes of  things that I got up to because you’ll read about some of my adventures in Mossy Trotter‘.

The blurb of Mossy Trotter – which has been praised by prolific children’s authors Jacqueline Wilson and Kate Saunders – says that within its pages, Taylor ‘perfectly captures the temptations and terrors of a mischievous boy – and just how illogical, frustrating and inconsistent adults are’.  It then goes on to compare the book to such classics as Richmal Crompton’s Just William, and Clive King’s Stig of the Dump

The premise of the book is almost Roald Dahl-esque, and it is sure to appeal to both adults and children: ‘When Mossy moves to the country, life is full of delights…  But every now and then his happiness is disturbed – chiefly by his mother’s meddling friend, Miss Silkin.  And a dreaded event casts a shadow over even the sunniest of days – being a page-boy at her wedding’.

Mossy is a curious, likeable and amusing child, whose inquisitiveness often gets the better of him, and leads him into sticky – sometimes quite literally – situations.  He is particularly fond of tar, and finds himself playing in it when the workmen have been, despite knowing that his mother will be cross with him: ‘… to begin with, he would stand in the tar-splashed grass at the side of the road; then he would drop a few stones on to the tar to see if they stuck; then he would put out his toe and prod an oozy patch, and in no time at all he was stamping in it, picking bits up and rolling them into rubbery balls, and his legs would be smeared, and so would his jeans and his shirt’.

An understanding Taylor bestows the role of confidante upon her young audience almost immediately: ‘Where things had been was what grown-ups worried about all the time.’  She outlines, in the tale’s very beginning, the vast differences which exist between children and adults.  The character of Miss Silkin opens proceedings by talking about her concept of paradise: ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken.  This had been his private paradise from the moment he discovered it.  It was a shallow pit filled with broken treasures from which, sometimes, other treasures could be made…  If he could only find two old wheels, he could build himself a whole bicycle, he thought’.

I was reminded throughout of Astrid Lindgren’s charming Pippi LongstockingMossy Trotter feels almost as though it was written by the same author, just with a more masculine young audience in mind.  Mossy’s adventures, much like Pippi’s – a birthday party, a visit from his grandfather, and being a page boy, for example – are lovingly relayed by Taylor, and are certain to leave children wanting more.  The whole has been so well crafted, and interlinking tales wind through from one chapter to the next.  Mossy Trotter is rather a charming read, which is sure to drum up childhood nostalgia in the adults who come across it due to Virago’s reprint.

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One From the Archive: ‘Greenery Street’ by Denis Mackail *****

First published in 2016.

Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street (1925) brings something a little different to the female-dominated Persephone list, in that is one of the few novels they have chosen to publish which was penned by a man.  I knew nothing about Mackail before I began to read – not even that he was the brother of celebrated author Angela Thirkell, whose works are currently being reprinted by Virago – but the introduction was fascinating, and I was left with the impression that he was a man I would have enjoyed spending time in the company of.  He sounds like an awfully humble fellow; of his writing, he said, ‘I was just trying to tell stories, to get bits of life on to paper, and, I suppose, to express myself.  Where does all that gaiety and kindness come from when in real life I am a cynic and frequently a wet blanket as well?’

9781903155257The Greenery Street of the novel’s title is based on Mackail’s Walpole Street, in which he lived; it ‘consists of thirty-six narrow little houses – all, at first glance, exactly the same’.  Mackail sets the scene immediately, and one feels utterly familiar with the street and its inhabitants, despite never setting foot in the locale: ‘For though every young married couple that comes to Greenery Street does so with the intention of staying there for life, there are few streets where in actual fact the population is more constantly changing.  And the first sign of this change is in almost every case the same.  It is seen in the arrival of a brand new perambulator’.  On this seemingly inevitable point of leaving the street – or, rather, of being ‘forced out’ of one’s five-storey home as it is simply not big enough to house a child – the house itself is personified: ‘For all the happy memories which the little house holds, it has already become his enemy.  He knows this, and yet he can never hate it in return.  Neither, though, can he allow it to see how much, how terribly, he minds.’

We are introduced to Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster at the outset of the second chapter.  The pair have been officially engaged for ‘very nearly a fortnight’.  The difference between them is vast – Felicity is frivolous and naive, and Ian is far more level-headed and pragmatic – but this makes the relationship between the two, and the way in which they interact, all the more interesting.

Every single one of Mackail’s characters, whether protagonists or not, feel incredibly realistic.  One could be forgiven for holding the opinion that a novel written entirely about the day-to-day lives of a married couple in the 1920s could be rather dull.  Greenery Street does busy itself with such things as budgeting, ordering meals, and decorating, but it is rendered in such a way that mundane is one thing it is not.  The details which he picks out are surprising in both his descriptions and perceptiveness: ‘His heart melted to the consistence of a hard-boiled egg.  His principles and scruples trickled out of the heels of his shoes.  He loved this maddeningly unbusinesslike creature [of Felicity], more than anyone had loved anybody in the whole history of the world…  What did anything matter so long as she clung to him like this, so long as her eyelashes flickered against his cheeks, and her heart beat so comfortably against his own?’

With regard to the novel’s prose, Mackail is witty, presenting little wink-wink nudge-nudge asides to the reader at intervals.  These additions to the main story are refreshing, and it is almost as though the reader is taken into his confidence: ‘We haven’t had much space for descriptions of people in this record so far; we have rather had to take them as they come; but we must try and squeeze in a paragraph for Mr and Mrs Foster’s brother-in-law – if only because he was so shy that we should never get to know him if we waited for him to make the first move’.

As an author, Mackail is shrewd and acerbic; the Foster’s maid, Ellen, is referred to throughout as ‘the Murderess’, for instance.  Greenery Street is also filled with humorous details; when visiting the next-door neighbours for a dinner party of sorts, both Ian and Felicity are presented with drinks which they do not particularly want: ‘Felicity, afraid of provoking him [Mr Lambert] again, took the glass which he offered her and managed, a little later, to hide it behind a photograph-frame on the mantelpiece.  Ian – after a sip which came near choking him – found sanctuary for his on the floor under his chair.  Mr and Mrs Lambert emptied their beakers with appreciative relish’.

There are interesting elements to the prose at points; some of the dialogue is rendered in play format, for example.  The itemisation of Felicity’s small library, along with details pertaining to any damage on each particular tome, was both simple and clever: ‘Item.  Shakespeare’s plays in three volumes – one slightly damaged by water, the result of the owner’s attempt to read Romeo and Juliet while having a bath.  Damage occurred when owner was fifteen’.  We are shown many of Felicity’s inner thoughts too, which works wonderfully as it unfolds against her speech and actions.

Almost every book which gets Persephone’s stamp of approval is a firm favourite of mine.  Greenery Street is no exception.  It is a perfectly compelling read, and one which I am going to be recommending as highly as I possibly can.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Joy Luck Club’ by Amy Tan ****

The Joy Luck Club begins is Amy Tan’s first novel, and was first published in 1989.  The novel begins in 1949, where four women, all recent arrivals in San Francisco, decide to ‘meet weekly to play mah-jong and tell stories of what they left behind in China’.  These women call themselves the Joy Luck Club.  The novel is split into four sections, each of which includes a chapter told by three of the four women in the club – An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong and Ying-Ying St. Clair – or their daughters – Waverly, Lena, Rose and Jing-Mei.  Tan has decided to begin the novel with a small cast list featuring her protagonists.

9780749399573The first perspective used in The Joy Luck Club is that of Jing-Mei Woo, who has had no real choice but to join the club: ‘My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club.  I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah-jong table has been empty since she died two months ago.  My father thinks she was killed by her own thoughts’.  All of the women within the Joy Luck Club met each other through the First Chinese Baptist Church when first arriving in their new hometown.  Jing-Mei says: ‘My mother could sense that the women of these families also had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn’t begin to express in their fragile English’.  The idea for the club had been dreamed up by her mother whilst she was still a resident of her native China, ‘on a summer night that was so hot even the moths fainted to the ground, their wings so heavy with the damp heat’.  Her vision for the club included the following view: ‘We weren’t allowed to think a bad thought…  And each week we could hope to be lucky.  The hope was our only joy’.

As with her other novels, Tan weaves in the vivid past of the Chinese, making it a firm and intrinsic element of her protagonists and, indirectly, of their daughters.  The disparities between both cultures – Chinese and American – is highlighted throughout, particularly so with regard to the generational divide.  The differences between different areas of China is also addressed.  Lindo says: ‘That was how backward families in the country were.  We were always the last to give up stupid old-fashioned customs…  You never heard if ideas were better in another city, only if they were worse’.  Tan outlines the way in which language can be misconstrued in its meaning from one culture to another.  The Joy Luck Club is culturally stable, and uses Chinese vocabulary, customs and a wealth of traditional foodstuffs to ground it in time, place and culture.  The merging of the cultures is fascinating, as is the outlining of Chinese cultural constraints and expectations.  From a cultural perspective, The Joy Luck Club is a most interesting novel.

Tan’s prose, particularly with regard to the speech of her characters, is beautiful.  She excels particularly at descriptions.  The stories of each of the protagonists are woven in throughout.  The way in which different first person perspectives have been used works so well.  The majority deal with the present, and all include details of the past, which have shaped the women.  Throughout, Tan exemplifies the bravery of women in the face of dire adversity. The relationships between the women are believable and translate well to the page.  Each thread of the story works well, and an extremely absorbing novel is created as a result.

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One From the Archive: ‘Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries’, edited by Martin Edwards ****

First published in July 2015.

The eye-catching British Library Crime Classics publications now have a short story collection in their midst.  Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries has been edited by Martin Edwards, and presents a ‘collection of vintage mysteries’, all of which centre upon the theme of holidays.

In his introduction, Edwards writes9780712357487 that Resorting to Murder ‘shows the enjoyable and unexpected ways in which crime writers have used summer holidays as a theme’.  The tales have a wide range across the Golden Age of British crime fiction, encompassing both ‘stellar names from the past’ and uncovering ‘hidden gems’.  Edwards believes that some of the stories which he has selected for publication within the volume are ‘obscure’ and ‘rare’, and have ‘seldom been reprinted’.  Well-known authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett and G.K. Chesterton thus sit alongside the lesser-known likes of Basil Thomson, Leo Bruce and Gerald Findler.

Only British writers have been focused upon here, but the settings which they use as their backdrops are rather diverse.  We visit Conan Doyle’s Cornwall, E.W. Hornung’s Switzerland, and stop off at golf courses, secluded resorts and walking tours conducted in France along the way.

Edwards’ aim was to present ‘vintage stories written over the span of roughly half a century, and which have the backdrop of a holiday’, whether at home or abroad.  ‘This straightforward unifying theme,’ he tells us, ‘is counterpointed by the stories’ sheer diversity’.  The differing perspectives and shifts with regard to time periods and settings works marvellously, and ensures that the collection can be read all in one go by the greedy traveller, or dipped in and out of by the more relaxed reader.  Diversity exists between the detectives themselves, too; there are shrewd man-of-the-moment types who go out of their way to appear in charge of the situation, and those who are quite unsuspected by others until the pivotal moment at which all is revealed.

It is a nice touch that each story within Resorting to Murder has been introduced with biographical details of each author, as well as the ‘background to their writing’.  The only unfortunate detail which is missing is that nowhere does it specify which year each story was written or published in.  Chronologically ordered they may be, but one cannot help but feel that this small yet important element would have been useful in a collection which purports to show the progression of crime stories.

Resorting to Murder is engaging and filled with aspects of interest.  As is often the case with anthologies, particularly thematic ones, some tales are far stronger than others, but there is definitely something for everyone within its pages.  Resorting to Murder is a wonderful choice for summer escapism, as well as the perfect book for the discerning armchair traveller.

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One From the Archive: ‘Every Eye’ by Isobel English *****

Every Eye is a beautiful Persephone novella, complete with, as ever, stunning endpapers.  It was the publishing house’s fifteenth publication, and is one of my favourites to date.  The copy does not contain a blurb – as many Persephones do not – but, perhaps unusually, there is no extract from the work itself either, as is often the Persephone way.  Rather, we are given an insight into the novella through an extended John Betjeman quote.  In the Daily Telegraph in 1956, Every Eye‘s publication year, he wrote: ‘Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace.  Such a novel is Every Eye.  It is remarkable for the skill of its construction, and for the style of its writing…  [English] is on the mark whether she is observing scenery or character.’  I hasten to agree. 9781903155066

Isobel English is a pseudonym for June Braybrooke, a friend of the likes of Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith.  For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the author as English throughout my review.  The novella’s preface was written by her husband, Neville Braybrooke; he includes many fascinating biographical details, and writes also about the rather charming publication preparation of Every Eye: ‘… after it was returned [from being typed], she wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it by hand to her publishers…’.  English published only three novels in her lifetime, between the years 1954 and 1960.  In 1974, she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories entitled Life After All.

Every Eye runs to just 119 pages, but its length is perfect; English’s writing certainly works well in the more compact literary frame.  The novella charts the life of a newly married woman named Hatty, and begins with the death of her aunt, Cynthia: ‘It is strange that this news should arrive today, the eve of our departure.  Tomorrow morning Stephen and I are to set off for Ibiza, the most savage of the Balearic Islands.  We have been married a year and this is a long-promised holiday.  Now it seems something over and above, an involuntary almost predestined mark of respect to a dead person, for it was Cynthia who first told me of this place which must have been when I first met her  about the time of my fourteenth birthday’.  Indeed, Cynthia, who was married to Hatty’s ‘big brown bear’-like Uncle Otway, lived there for much of her life.

Hatty is often frank, and I was immediately endeared to her; she strikes one as rather an original character construct, by all accounts.  When asked for Cynthia what she likes to read after a fraught exchange has taken place, for instance, we are given the following information: ‘Still cautious but placated almost completely, I answered, a little gruffly I remember: “I like good books,” and then to illustrate the extent of my knowledge: “I like Rider Haggard very much, but I can’t stand Jane Austen”.’

Every Eye is not at all a run-of-the-mill portrait of a young newlywed.  The details which English gives too, particularly with regard to Hatty and Stephen’s relationship, and their wider circle, intrigue: ‘6.30am and Victoria.  Stephen’s mother, Amy, is already on the platform waiting to see us off; she has brought with her the young girl that she hoped Stephen would marry before he met me.’

The structure which English has used here, of a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks to speak of, works well; it allows her to present us with a coherent barrage of thoughts and memories, which run simultaneously alongside her present day life and travels.  English’s descriptions are incredibly perceptive; she picks up on all kinds of minute details.  Of the train journey which Hatty and Stephen take through France, for instance, she writes: ‘To begin with we are a carriageful of nondescript putty-coloured figures.  But with the thinning out from station to station, there develops before our accustomed eyes brilliant coloured designs on women’s dresses, cyclamen gashes on mouths and headscarves; the cerulean of the sky greased and shining on the eyelids of the girl in front of me’.

Hatty has such realistic touches to her, and she has been thoughtfully and intelligently constructed.  English’s writing is strong and distinctive throughout, and the novella is often quite darkly funny: ‘So it is Wednesday, and the first for Cynthia below the ground – the cold raw earth lined with evergreens.  “Six feet of semi-detached will do me nicely, dear,” I had heard her say often enough when she was looking for another smaller flat when their lease expired.  At last this has been realised as a permanency’.  Every Eye is a beguiling and sometimes unsettling book, with a vivid sense of place.  From the first it is incredibly absorbing, and is a fantastic choice if you are looking for something which you can read without too much trouble in a single sitting.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Enchanted Places’ by Christopher Milne ****

First published in 2014.

Christopher Milne’s The Enchanted Places is one of the newest books on Bello’s thoughtful list of reprints. He was the son of A.A. Milne, and the inspiration for the darling character Christopher Robin – ‘the small boy with the long hair, smock and wellington boots’ – who shares his adventures with a cast of lively and captivating animals, including Pooh and Piglet. 9781509821891

The Enchanted Places has been written from the vantage point of the author’s mid-50s, and tells of his childhood in the ‘enchanted places’ in Sussex in which he used to play – the Hundred Acre Wood, Poohsticks Bridge and Galleon’s Lap, among others.  As well as talking of his own adventures as a young boy, Milne ‘draws a memorable portrait of his father… [in] a story told with humour and modesty’.

The Enchanted Places, first published in 1974, is the first book in Milne’s three volume autobiographical series, and deals solely with his life as a young boy.  His memoirs begin ‘somewhere around the year 1932’ in his Crotchford Farm home, a place which he and his family adored. Milne describes the reason for which he decided to write about his life as follows: ‘To some extent, then, this book is an attempt to salve my conscience; and it may perhaps be some slight consolation to all those who have written and waited in vain for a reply that this, in a sense therefore, is their reply’.

Throughout, The Enchanted Places is absolutely charming, and full of vivacity.  Milne’s descriptions are beautiful, and it is clear that he was forever full of love for both nature and life.  Rural England springs vividly to life beneath his pen.  Each chapter presents a mini essay of sorts on one subject or another, and whilst Milne’s prose style echoes his father’s, there is also something wonderfully original about it.

A.A. Milne with Christopher and Pooh Bear

Milne is a rather humble man, and comes across so nicely on the page.  He takes the reader on a journey back in time with him to encompass his nursery days, his forays into the Hundred Acre Wood, tours of his home, the discovery of his very first treehouse, and the adoration he held for his childhood nanny.  He goes on to talk of the problems which he encountered due to his immortalisation in fiction, and demonstrates how his father’s fame impacted upon him from such an early age.

The Enchanted Places is a quaint and an incredibly lovely read, and is sure to be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.  The natural settings and shyness of Milne as a young boy have been captured perfectly, and the book presents a rich treasure trove of memories, certain to enchant everyone for whom Winnie the Pooh was a part of childhood.

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