The Children of Green Knowe ~ Lucy M Boston

I had been teaching for about three years, I think, when my headteacher came in one day and told me that I was now in charge of the school library. He wasn’t the sort of person who consulted his staff about their preferences, nor was he the sort of person with whom you argued, so from that day on I was in charge of the school library. Having been an avid reader since before I went to school myself, it wasn’t the onerous task it might have been to someone else, but I was aware that I had stopped reading children’s fiction when I was about eleven or twelve and, other than my forays into Enid Blyton and Lorna Hill, I couldn’t really remember very much about it. So, every Friday evening before I went home I would nip into the library and pick up a couple of books by authors I hadn’t yet encountered for my weekend reading.  Thus began my lifelong love affair with children’s literature.  

The Children of Green Knowe, the first in Lucy M Boston’s sequence based around her own house and garden, was one of the earliest books I took home with me. Published in 1954 and set in the depths of East Anglia, it is very much of its own time and place. Its main character, seven year old Toseland, (and, as promised, that is a picture of Toseland Bear at the head of this post) is going to spend Christmas for the first time with his great-grandmother, Mrs Oldknow, who lives in the eponymous Green Knowe. The surrounding countryside is completely flooded and later in the story the property is cut off yet again by snow and this isolation from the world around it is fundamental to the sense that the house and gardens are trapped in an understanding of time all their own: a time that has no respect for ordinary temporal boundaries but which allows generation after generation to co-mingle in a manner that has nothing to do with haunting but everything to do with knowing who you are, where you have come from and finding your place in the world.

Like Lucy M Boston’s own home, Green Knowe has stood for almost 900 years, always in the hands of the Oldknow family who, in their stead, are always served by a Mr Boggis. When Toseland first arrives he can feel the weight of past generations surrounding him as he explores the house which is to be his new home. Toseland is an old family name, it has come down through the generations and so there will be no confusion, his grandmother shortens it to Tolly (Toseland Bear is never shortened to Tolly) and she tells him about a previous Toseland, known as Toby, and about his brother, Alexander and their sister, Linnet. This generation of Oldknows appears to have lived in the middle of the 17th century because we later discovered that they died in the great plague of 1665. Tolly becomes completely fascinated by them and their lives, especially by the horse which Toby rode, Feste, and as he shows himself to share the same interests as they had, to be subject to the same sensitivities, to be, in fact, a true Oldknow, so gradually the children, whose memories still linger, show themselves to him.

I found myself reading the book much more slowly this time than I suspect I did the first time round. There is some beautiful writing in it.  Here is Tolly, lying in bed on a night when the frost is biting hard.

The owls hooted outside. Their sound seemed to echo from a glassy, frost-hard sky. Tolly could literally hear how wide the meadows were.

I was also much more aware of the underlying concerns rather than simply concentrating on the storyline. This isn’t, as I suspect I thought on my initial reading, a ghost story. It seems to me that what Boston is really interested in is the way in which not only our own past but also the past of those generations that have preceded us forges our identity.  Yes, we are free to make our own decisions, but how we do that will inevitably be influenced by past experiences, even if not our own and even if we only react against them.  Up until this point in his life, Tolly has been pretty much shoved from pillar to post, isolated in a boarding school and, because his father and stepmother are abroad, forced to stay there even during the holidays. Now, for the first time, he has a sense of his own identity, of where he has come from, of his heritage, and this knowledge gives him the strength to grow and to begin to make choices for himself.

I am so glad I went back to this book. If you don’t know it then do you try and pick up a copy and appreciate Boston’s work for yourselves. I seem to remember thinking that the third book in the series, A Stranger at Green Knowe, was even better – a treat for another weekend, perhaps.

V for Victory ~ Lissa Evans

I remember somebody once pointing out to me that while most of the literature coming out of and focusing on the First World War was to do with life in the trenches, that which took the 1939–45 war as its subject was far more likely to concentrate on the home front.  That may be very much an over-generalisation, but it certainly holds true where Lissa Evans‘s new novel, V for Victory, is concerned. The book begins in the autumn of 1944. London is being ravaged by V2s, rockets which were launched from mobile units only to come crashing to earth five minutes later with little or no warning, devastating buildings and killing in just a few short months over 2000 Londoners.  Fourteen-year-old Noel is living in Hampstead with his aunt Marjorie Overs. Except she isn’t his aunt and her name isn’t Marjorie Overs.  It takes quite some time for the full story of their relationship to be revealed but what we do learn very early on is that for some years previously Noel had lived in the house they now occupy with his godmother, Miss Matilda Simpkin, who is dead. Quite how he comes to be there at this point with his non-aunt Marjorie, who we actually know as Vee, isn’t clear, but what is obvious is that there is a great deal of affection between the two of them and that Vee, who is doing her best to keep the wolf from the door by taking in lodgers, is doing a very good job of bringing the teenager up. The situation rather reminded me of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, given that, like the Fossil girls, Evans’ Noel is relying for his education on the strengths of the various individuals who live in the same house.

English and Latin from Mr Jepson, who‘s a journalist. Mathematics and bookkeeping from Mr Reddish – he‘s a cashier – sciences from Dr Parry-Jones, French from Mrs Applebee… cookery from Miss Zawadska.

Running parallel with the story of Noel and Vee is that of Winnie, an ARP warden for whom the war has meant far more responsibility than she found in her previous role as a bit part actress and who has grown into the job until she is regarded by her colleagues with respect and affection. Only a month after their marriage Winnie’s husband, Emlyn, was among those captured at Dunkirk, and as a consequence their relationship since has relied on censored and stilted correspondence most of which, on Emlyn’s part, is centred around his plans for the home they will have when the war is over,

she had fallen for Romeo and now found herself padlocked to the editor of Modern Homes and Gardens.

Winnie is a twin; not, however, an identical twin. Avril is glamorous, svelt, works in the Ministry of Information and is married to a man who is currently abroad, doing something for the Foreign Office. She is also embarking on a new career, as a novelist. Her book, surprise surprise, is about an ARP warden but the life that she portrays is one that Winnie singularly fails to recognise.

Rodrick’s profile had an ancient blankness, as of a frieze in a torch-lit passageway. Binnie turned, silently, knelt on the mattress and slid her cushioned form alongside his. “If we died now there’d be no more pretence,” she said. She imagined their two bodies fused by violence into one melded, bloodied being, ensexed eternally.

Fortunately, Evans herself is much more prosaic and realistic about not only the perils but also the sheer weariness that Londoners are facing day by day five years into a war that never seems as if it’s going to end. She speaks of the way in which everyone is bored of everything, not simply the dangers that they face, but the lack of food, the lack of fuel, the lack of colour, the lack of joy. And she also hints at the determination of those who have lived through the experience that when it is over things are going to be different. She never actually ventures into the political realm, but she does speak of the returning soldiers shocked by the dismal grind of London life for whom tin medals weren’t going to be enough this time round. I don’t think I’ve ever understood the reason behind the election of the Labour Government in 1944 quite so clearly before.

I‘m told that some of the characters in this novel appeared in the author’s previous book, Old Baggage, a copy of which I own but which I have yet to get round to reading. I’m sure, however, that those of you who have read it will very much enjoy meeting these people again in what I thought was a very satisfying novel and I look forward now to going back and encountering them in their earlier incarnations.

With thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for a review copy.

Review Catch-Up ~ August 8th 2020

book chapter six

This is the third in a series of catch-up posts with short reviews of books that I’ve read over the past couple of months but haven’t been able to get round to writing about in any great detail. It’s not meant to imply that the books are any less worthy than those that get a post to themselves, just that I tend to read faster than I can blog and it seems better to provide a brief comment than nothing at all.

Dark Waters ~ G R Halliday

Dark Waters is the second novel in G R Halliday’s police procedural series featuring DI Monica Kennedy and if you have read From the Shadows, be warned, this one is every bit as disturbing. The heavily mutilated bodies of two very different men are discovered in the Highland district where Inverness based Kennedy operates.  Although officially seconded to traffic at her own request after the traumatic events related in the earlier novel, Kennedy is asked to take the lead role in the case as the only available senior officer.  Both victims are missing limbs and the indications are that they were alive when these body parts were removed.

Intercut with the story of the investigation is that of Annabelle, a young woman with a fast car in search of a stretch of road on which to test it out. When the inevitable happens Annabelle wakens to find herself strapped to a bed and being administered to by the ‘weird’ Marcus who alternatively uses the promise of the presence of the mysterious ‘Doc’ to reassure her and threaten her.  The story then becomes both one of investigation and of a race against the clock to save Annabelle from the same fate as the earlier victims, although it is some time before the police realise this.

Like so many leading characters in modern crime novels, Monica Kennedy has a fractured past that haunts her current work: in her case problems that are linked by both a difficult family background and the repercussions of a previous investigation. I don’t feel that Halliday handles this aspect of the novel particularly well. There are too many hints and nods in the direction of what has happened to Kennedy in the past and Monica herself dwells on it pretty much all the time, but the reader never really discovers in any detail what those problems have been.  The character and the story are strong enough to stand on their own and I found that I was simply being irritated and distracted by the constant references to the leading character’s own traumas. The same was true of the suggestions that Monica’s young daughter, Lucy, is in someway prescient and able to provide insights into current cases through her dream world. The story doesn’t need that.  I did wonder if I was seeing the influence of James Oswald’s Tony McLeod novels here, but Oswald‘s point is surely a more universal one to do with the force of evil that will always accompany human desire for power and wealth. In Dark Waters the supernatural element seems added on rather than integral to the whole ethos behind the created world. Will I go back for a third novel? I’m not sure. Halliday writes well and plots well, but there is work to do on maintaining focus I think.

With thanks To Random House UK Vintage Publishing and NetGalley for the review copy.


Tales From the Folly ~ Ben Aaronovitch

As many of you will know, I am not a great reader of short stories. The one exception I’ve made over the past few years has been the tales that interleave the full-length novels, written by Jodi Taylor, chronicling the adventures of those intrepid observers of historical events in contemporary time (don’t call it time travel) from St Mary‘s Priory, Rushford. Taylor’s line in dry observation and witty dialogue lends itself very well to the form and, in addition, most of the stories move the overarching narrative forward and are therefore pretty much essential to the reader’s understanding of the developments in the lives of her much loved characters. I was hoping for something of the same from Ben Aaronovitch’s latest publication, Tales From the Folly, which is a collection of stories featuring both major and minor participants from his London based series featuring policeman and apprentice wizard, Peter Grant. However, while each of the (very) short stories and the even shorter “moments“ are perfectly enjoyable, they tend to read as what, for the most part, they are, which is responses to requests for a short piece of writing for a particular occasion. Consequently, while most of them do add the occasional insight into a particular participant‘s character, they don’t really further the overall narrative thrust or contribute to the development of the story world. This isn’t to say that they are not well written, they are, and there are frequent examples of Aronovitch’s trademark verbal wit, but too often they feel contrived, the characters  placed in a situation designed to meet a requirement rather than to forward the overarching narrative in a necessary manner. I’m not sorry that I read them, but if I hadn’t it would not of made any difference to my understanding and enjoyment of the whatever novel is to follow the latest full-length story,  False Values.

Cut To The Bone ~ Roz Watkins

Research tells us that one in a 100 people is a psychopath.  If you start to explore specific jobs then apparently 21% of managing directors are psychopaths. I wonder if anybody has ever made calculations about headteachers? I reckon I might of met a few. Anyway, the point is that if you look round society in general many very successful people, not necessarily nice people, but successful people, may well have psychopathic tendencies.  You would do well to remember that as you embark on Roz Watkins’ third novel featuring DI Meg Dalton, Cut to the Bone. As the novel begins Meg is still recovering from the death of her beloved Gran and worrying about her mother. who is about to embark on a trip to El Salvador to support women in their fight for sexual freedom. Possibly the last person she is concerned about is her father, who hasn’t been on the scene for a very long time, however, one of the things that this novel is about is the damage that fathers can do to their children and so we might expect when the missing parent turns up on Meg’s doorstep his motives will not turn out to be as pure as he declares them to be.

Set in what sounds like the long hot summer of 2018, the Derbyshire countryside, which forms the vast majority of Meg’s stamping ground, is as parched and tinder dry as the rest of the country and so, when she and her partner, DS Jai Sanghera, receive reports of a missing 18-year-old girl, Violet Armstrong, their search begins to a background of concern about wildfires sweeping across areas of open moorland. Violet has made something of a name for herself on social media platforms as the “bikini – barbecue – babe”. Advertising the benefits of meat products, she has become a target for militant animal welfare groups; one in particular, Animal Vigilantes, has been especially virulent in their condemnation, threatening to slit her throat. However, while the actions of violent extremists offer one line of investigation, it soon comes apparent that Violet, who is adopted, has been asking around in Gritton, one of the local villages, trying to identify her birth father; is it possible, therefore, that someone doesn’t want the truth to come out?

The investigation takes Meg and Jai to the local abattoir, where Violet had a job cleaning. It seems that the last time the girl was seen was on her way to the factory for her nightshift and she has been reported missing when, the following morning, her car was still there but there was no sign of her. The police are faced with the horrific possibility that not only has the girl been murdered, but that her body has then been fed overnight to the pigs awaiting slaughter the following morning.

The factory is owned and run by Anna Finchley, with the assistance of her brother Gary and Daniel Twigg and the pigs they process come from a local farm in the hands of the Nightingale family, whom we meet in the person of Tony, something of a local grandee, and his daughter Kirsty. Tony seems agreeable enough, but it very soon becomes clear that Kirsty is someone that you would not wish to cross. It is perhaps troubling, therefore, that Violet has also made contact with them, claiming that her birth mother, whom she has been told is dead, was in fact Tony’s younger daughter, Rebecca.

And what about Violet’s claim to have seen The Pale Child, a creature of myth who it seems appears whenever the water levels at Ladybower Reservoir sink sufficiently for the old drowned village to become visible? Legend has it that if The Pale Child, said to be an ancestor of the Nightingale family, sees your face then you will die. Has Violet’s fate been foretold? And, if it has then there are others who should also be very worried because the drought has indeed lowered the water level and The Pale Child is undoubtedly stalking the village and the woodland roundabout.

Attacked on social media by both sides of the animal welfare argument and then physically by animal welfare extremists, the last thing that Meg needs is to have to deal with her father who, for the reader at least, is clearly after the money that her Gran left her, money that Meg had hoped to use to finally buy a home of her own. But fathers and their relationships with their families, misguided and/or self-seeking, are at the heart of this story.  If Rebecca, whom we come to know as Bex, truly was Violet’s mother then who was her father? And why did Tony Nightingale send his three-year-old daughter to live with her aunt, not seeing her again for 13 years? Did you know that psychopaths can also run in families?

I enjoy Watkins Meg Dalton stories, not the least because I know the area she’s writing about very well indeed. When she talks about driving down Winnats, my immediate thought is “did she have to remove a sheep first?” Not an every day occurrence on Winnat’s Pass, but certainly something I’ve had to do on more than one occasion. Sitting in the middle of the road is, apparently, a favourite ovine past time. As with most serial police procedurals, I do think it’s better if you start at the beginning and jumping in midway will leave you with questions about elements of Meg’s background.  However, if you are new to the series that just means you have three books to enjoy rather than one, if not, you won’t be disappointed with this latest instalment.

Writers & Lovers ~ Lily King

IMG_0093Why have I not come across the writer, Lily King, before? I wouldn’t have come across her now had it not been for Susan‘s recommendation of her latest book, Writers & Lovers, and her comment that Elizabeth Strout had said it was “Gorgeous”. I trust Susan’s judgement anyway, but when you couple that with Elizabeth Strout’s recommendation any writer has to be worth taking a risk on and believe me, Writers & Lovers truly is gorgeous.

Casey Peabody is, as she tells a gathering of students at the very end of the novel, thirty-one years old and seventy-three thousand dollars in debt. Since college she has moved eleven times, had seventeen jobs and several relationships that didn’t work out. She’s been estranged from her father since twelfth grade, and earlier in the year her mother died. Her only sibling, Caleb, is three thousand miles away.  When we first meet her she is living in Boston and working shifts in a local restaurant in a vain attempt to make ends meet.  Home is what is described as a ‘potting shed’ attached to property owned by Adam, a friend of her brother. Adam, however, is no friend of hers. Actually, I’m surprised he’s a friend of anybody. Two pages in and I’m making a note to myself to the effect of ‘why hasn’t somebody biffed him one?’ The only thing that has been a constant in Casey’s life over the past six years has been the novel that she is writing. This isn’t something that has just come out of the blue, that seventy-three thousand dollar debt has been amassed while she was at college on what we in the UK would call creative writing programmes. While fellow students have fallen by the wayside, abandoned their writing and taken up other jobs, Casey has persisted.

Is Adam impressed?

Is he hell.

‘How many pages you got now?’

‘Couple of hundred maybe’…

‘You know’, he says, pushing himself off his car, waiting for my full attention. ‘I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say’.

Maybe ‘biffing’ is too good for him. I’m thinking perhaps extermination?

Actually, the key phrase in that passage is waiting for my full attention because Casey frequently finds herself being belittled or ignored by men who have been brought up to think that the world owes them recognition and should dance to their tune. One of the reasons she is estranged from her father is because he has tried to dictate her career, pushing her to develop her talent as a golfer and scorning her ambitions to write. The only time we meet him is when he and his second wife turn up at the restaurant, Iris, where Casey works, in order to get her to turn over a ring of her mothers, the sole possession she has to remember her by. Then there is Oscar Kolton, a widowed writer with whom Casey enters into a relationship. When she accompanies him to a book reading he cannot cope with the fact that a female author has been accommodated in a larger venue.

‘I am forty-seven years old. I was supposed to be reading in auditoriums by now…I know I have a better book inside me. I have something big inside me. I just. Ever since. Fuck’. It almost seems like he’s going to punch the bricks of the gift shop beside us. Instead he lays his palms on the wall and lets out some jagged breaths.

Nearly every guy I dated believed they should already be famous, believed that greatness was their destiny and they were already behind schedule. An early moment of intimacy often involved a confession of this sort: a childhood vision, teacher’s prophecy, a genius IQ. At first, with my boyfriend in college, I believed it too. Later, I thought I was just choosing delusional men. Now I understand it’s how boys are raised to think, how they are lured into adulthood. I’ve met ambitious women, driven women, but no woman has ever told me that greatness was her destiny.

But whatever you’ve been brought up to think, writing a novel is not something that just drops into your lap because it is your destiny, because it is something you want, something that you deserve; it is hard work. For Casey, it has been six years hard work, but it has been six years in which the act of writing has been that which is constant and steady in her life. It has been my home, the place I could always retreat to…the place where I am most myself. Casey, unlike those students with whom she studied, has stuck to what she truly wants to do. However difficult it’s been, she has remained authentic to who she wants to be regardless of what it has cost her and it is precisely that feeling of authenticity which resounds throughout the novel.  I don’t know to what extent Writers & Lovers is autobiographical, but the ‘Writers’ element of the book feels like a lived experience.

However, the book is not just about being a writer but also about being part of a relationship, and relationships have to be worked at as well. You can’t, like Oscar, just take the other person’s acquiescence for granted because they fit well into your life, or drop out for a couple of weeks, as Silas does, without telling them, because you’re having a bad time. Being in a relationship means accepting that the other person has needs and wants as well as you and respecting that; it certainly doesn’t mean being used as a one night stand. When Casey‘s brother, Caleb, visits and, having slept with Adam, realises that the encounter meant so much more to him than to his so-called friend, Casey consoles him by saying, he’s never going to allow himself the option of you or any other guy. He’s not that brave. And that is exactly what it takes to be in a relationship, to commit to it and work at it on a long-term basis, it takes bravery. This is something Adam will never understand, just as he fails to understand the commitment and sacrifice that writing her novel has meant for Casey. (Do you get the feeling I’m not impressed by Adam?)

It took me a little time to get into Writers & Lovers and that is something that I should remember as a reader; that the act of reading is one of forming a relationship with the writer to bring the actuality of the narrative to life and therefore it should be given the same sort of commitment on my part as the writer gave to it during the actual composition. Once you do give this novel that sort of commitment, it will repay you a hundredfold.

With thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for the review copy.

Remain Silent ~ Susie Steiner

B7565CB2-4272-4F45-9DC9-02CE18ED9356Remain Silent, the third in Susie Steiner’s series about DI Manon Bradshaw, is not an easy book to write about. Superficially it is a police procedural, and like all good police procedurals these days it deals with a subject that is of current social concern: in this instance the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers and the ill-feeling expressed towards them by some members of the communities in which they are housed. However, there is much more to this book than simply a straightforward narrative journey taking us through the crime, the investigation and the arrest, and that ‘more’ is to do with the difficulties that  Manon faces as a working mother, trying to combine her commitment to her children with an ailing partner and a demanding and responsible job.  So what’s new, you might well ask. Almost every police procedural that you pick up features a main protagonist who has major difficulties in their personal lives. Absolutely, the difference here is that the difficulties that Manon faces are realistic. She isn’t trying to deal with the fact that somebody has knifed both her parents, that she is in a same sex relationship and nobody must know, or even that she has an illegitimate child by another police officer. She is simply facing the day-to-day problems that must make life so complicated for someone whose job means that she doesn’t know when she’s next going to be able to get home and play her part in family responsibilities. Steiner’s books are not just police procedurals, they are also about the problems faced by professional workers who feel themselves torn between two different sets of commitments. So, with that in mind, I’m going to split what I have to say about Remain Silent into two sections. Firstly, a bit about the crime and the social situation which gives rise to it and secondly some thoughts about what Steiner has to say on the subject of the realities of trying to cope with the pressures of both a job and a family in a world that looks for perfection in how a woman handles both.

Steiner’s novels are set in the Fenlands and as such it was only a matter of time before she tackled the question of immigrant workers – the way in which they are brought into the country and the exploitation and abuse that is their lot once they arrive here. In this case, the plight of a particular group of Lithuanian men working in a chicken factory is brought to police notice when one of them is found hanging from a tree. The question is whether he was murdered or if his death was suicide; the answer will dictate how the death is investigated. Steiner splits her narrative between the enquiry and the background into the journey two of the migrants, Matis and Lukas, make from their home in Klaipeda.  Matis has been the driving force behind the decision having

made the common mistake of thinking relocation equals reinvention, thinking his old self wouldn’t follow him across Europe.

Lukas has been less keen. He is leaving behind a loving family and a girlfriend, who will eventually be used as hostage for his silence and compliance. It is Lukas’s body that has been found.

The people responsible for the exploitation and abuse of Matis and his companions are fellow Lithuanians, running the usual racket of taking the wages of the men to ‘pay’ for their journey and living costs. However, local people are not adverse to making use of their services as well if it means that they have to fork out less than they would to a British worker. Even the Tuckers, who live next door to the house where the men are billeted, and who complain bitterly about the ill-kept accommodation and the rubbish-filled front garden, are quite happy to have a little cheap plumbing done on the quiet, and the gang master has got a nice little sideline in garden paving on the go. The Tuckers, however, are not the only people to complain about the presence of the migrants in their community. Onto the scene march the supporters of One Wisbech: English jobs for English people. Stop the flood. Foreigners go home. Led by Dean Singlehurst they troop down the cul-de-sac where the migrants live, waving their banners and shouting their slogans. If Lukas’s death does turn out to have been murder the suspect pool is pretty wide.

In many respects Steiner doesn’t have anything particularly new to say about a problem that has been well documented by press and news reports. What she does do, however, is reflect the ongoing frustration and helplessness that is felt both by the police who are trying to deal with the legal issues raised and the ordinary people who have to live with the situation on a day-to-day basis, be they the migrants themselves or the other people in their communities. And this, I think, is where the strength of her writing lies. One of the points that she picks up on is the way in which there is so often a knee-jerk reaction to a situation about which we actually know very little and how inappropriate that reaction therefore is. Knowing very little, she says, is fine if you know that you know very little: that you know that you don’t know what you don’t know. The problem comes with those people who don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know:

this is the age of stupid. In place of knowledge people are exalting their gut feeling as if that feeling is more valuable than being informed. When actually, what gut feeling generally is, is prejudice.

Steiner also has important points to make about the consequences of the way in which society has encouraged, in particular, men to feel that they have a right to be happy and empowered all the time.  She speaks of

marginalised white men of a certain age.

These men are equally wrongfooted by clever young women, clever young Muslims, clever young gay men – anyone who appears to have access to the crucial information they lack. Information about modernity, how to live, how to prosper, how it all works.

Even Mark, Manon’s  partner, when he has taken ill, refuses to talk about how he is and what is happening. Mark is a good man but admitting that he is in a situation in which he is powerless is something that he simply doesn’t know how to do. That way frustration lies and frustration often leads to some sort of inappropriate outburst.

And then there is the way in which she addresses Manon’s problems juggling a relationship, her children, her friends, and her work. Rather than worrying about whether or not her double life is about to be exposed, or her adoptive brother is about to  crawl out of the woodwork and attack her, or her family‘s history of involvement in drug-running is going to come to light, Manon is much more concerned with the same sort of things that will concern any working mum. Is she going to be able to pick the children up after school? Is her relationship suffering because of the hours she is working? Is she putting weight on? How can she deal with the seemingly never-ending exhaustion? Manon Bradshaw is a real human being with ordinary everyday concerns and Steiner’s work reminds me of how many of the leading characters, not just in police procedurals, but much of genre fiction, are not.

Remain Silent works as an extremely good crime novel, but it is even better at exploring the pressures that a professional working mum, one who cannot simply walk away from the job because her shift is over, faces on a daily basis. Whether Manon decides to stay in the job or comes to the conclusion that enough is enough is something we will only know if there is a fourth book in the series.

With thanks to Harper Collins UK, Harper Fiction and NetGalley for a review copy.





Arthur Ransome and Pigeon Post

used red coffee cup and saucerAs many of you know, a large part of my career was spent lecturing in children’s literature and although I’d rather let the association drop over the last decade, I’ve been feeling a real hankering to go back and start to explore the area again. Obviously, I want to catch up with what has been published in recent years, but with the times as they are it’s also very comforting to go back and re-read old favourites. With that in mind, I checked back on the winners and, where possible, the shortlists, for the Carnegie Award, the leading British prize for novels targeted at children and found that the very first was presented in 1936 to Pigeon Post, the sixth in Arthur Ransome’s series featuring the children known collectively as the Swallows and Amazons.

It is almost exactly sixty years since I first read Swallows and Amazons. I was nine years old and was completely captivated by the entire series. I loved the detail that Ransome provided about sailing and camping and cooking and doing all the things that I, as a city bound child, simply didn’t have the opportunity to do. An avid library member already, I read them all again and again and was convinced that if I were to step into one of those small boats I would know exactly how to sail it. And do you know what? Ten years later, as a nineteen-year-old student, that is precisely what I did. Whether it was bravado born of overconfidence, I don’t know, but I was not a Duffer and I did not drown! (I did, however, have a very interesting experience with a herd of cows that decided to swim across the river just as my friends and I were sailing down it! But that’s a story for another day).

Of course, there was a lot more to Arthur Ransome than he is remembered for most clearly today. Having gone to Russia in 1913 to study its folklore, at the onset of the First World War he became foreign correspondent for the Daily News, covering the conflict on the Eastern Front. He also reported on the Russian Revolution of 1917 coming to sympathise with the Bolshevik cause. He was personally close to a number of its leaders, including Lenin and Trotsky, and during this time met the woman who would become his second wife, Evgenia, then working as Trotsky‘s personal secretary. He provided information to the British Secret Intelligence Service and at one point was very near to being exposed as an agent. Influential in bringing about the peace between the Bolsheviks and Estonia, Ransome and Evgenia set up home together in the Estonian capital, Reval, (now called Tallinn) before returning to England after his divorce enable them to marry.

Swallows and Amazons was published in 1929 and featured the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger and Nancy and Peggy Blackett as the eponymous Swallows and Amazons. By the time Pigeon Post was written the original six had been joined by Dick and Dorothea Callum, known as the Ds, and in many respects Dick is the leading character in the 1936 publication. Having fought for the right to lead the fleet, camped both on Wild Cat Island and in Swallowdale, climbed Kanchenjunga and built igloos on a snowbound fell, in a long hot summer when drought has reduced the River Amazon almost to a trickle, the combined forces of Swallows, Amazons and Ds decide that the time is right to search for gold. Slater Bob tells them the story of a young man who was said to have discovered gold in one of the old mine workings before going off to war and dying without having given up the secret of just where the precious metal was to be found. With the summer holidays stretching out before them and unable to sail for another fortnight, the children decide to capitalise on Dick’s love of all things scientific, discover the mother lode, mine and extract the metal and turn it into an ingot before Captain Flint (otherwise known as Uncle Jim) returns from his own failed expedition to find gold in South America.

Of course, their plans are not without opposition. The land is tinder dry and all the natives (a.k.a. the adults) are concerned about the possibility of seriously damaging fires. Mrs Blackett is also worried because she has responsibility for all eight of the children until various other parents turn up later in the holiday. However, Homer, Sophocles and the unreliable Sappho save the day, enabling the system of pigeon post to be set up so that messages of reassurance can be sent on a daily basis. A pigeon a day keeps the natives away. Then there is the question of the ubiquitous Squashy Hat, who seems to turn up wherever the children want to explore and who they are sure is out to jump their claim and make off with the gold for himself. And what about the mysterious Timothy, sent on ahead by Captain Flint? Why hasn’t he turned up? Has he died at sea? What, for goodness sake, is he? It all makes for what can only be called a rollicking good adventure.

Inevitably, time has dealt less kindly with some aspects of the book than others. Susan still does all the cooking, helped by Peggy, but never John. However, there is always Nancy to tip the balance in favour of a feminist reading. And, during this excursion through the book’s pages, I was away for the first time just how different the upbringing of these children was when compared with mine in a backstreet in Birmingham. I have to say that at nine the class issue really didn’t bother me at all. Something else which struck me this time round was how attuned Ransome is to the character of Titty. We see into her thoughts and emotions to an extent that simply isn’t the case with the other characters. This is particularly true during the episode when they are dousing for water, but it comes out at other points as well, for example, as the book draws to a close:

Titty slipped off into the dusk. The bramble thicket had been saved from the fire, but the little hedgepig, she thought, might have died from fright, with all the smoke, and the roaring of the flames, and the trampoline the firefighters…And then she heard the stirring of dry leaves, away under the brambles. She heard a sniff…a grunt… a sneeze. Perhaps some of the ash blown down from the Topps was tickling its nostrils. Then, in the dim light, she saw it. With steady lumbering trot it was making for the well. She watched a little dark lump work itself down the steps. It was drinking. The water got into its nose, and she heard a small impatient snuffle. It climbed out again and trotted off. She lost sight of it in the shadows. But she had seen enough and slipped back to the camp.

I’ve not been well this week (NOT the virus) so this trip down memory lane has been a really relaxing way of spending some time. The following year, 1937, the award was won by Eve Garnett’s The Family From One End Street. I remember enjoying that as well, although ironically, given that the background of the children was much more like my own, not as much as Ransome’s tales. Maybe I’ll add that to the list for June’s reading.



Bringing It Home

Yesterday, the husband of one of my closest friends died as a result of Covid 19.  His wife is in isolation at home, so am I. She can do nothing and, even though I only live five minutes walk away, I can do nothing to help and support her. Suddenly I am faced with the stark truth of what we are living through.  The deadly possibilities of this virus are no longer something that people in the media are talking about but a reality of my life. Please, will you all implement the precautions we have been asked to take and keep yourselves safe.  I do not want to lose another friend.

National Theatre at Home

IMG_0250Although we normally talk about books on this site, I know many of my blogging friends are also theatregoers. I’m wondering therefore if you have seen the announcement that the National Theatre are going to make some of their productions available on YouTube over the next couple of months under the title National Theatre at Home. Each Thursday, starting from the first Thursday in April, at 7 pm they will release one of their past NT live shows. This will then be available to watch, free, for the next week. The first of these performances is One Man, Two Guvnors and it will be followed by Jane Eyre, Treasure Island and Twelfth Night.  They plan to continue this through May, but haven’t yet announced what the future plays will be. Personally I’m hoping for Othello, Timon of Athens and Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear.

You can find out more on the National Theatre website or by checking in to YouTube.

The Bears and I are planning for a regular Saturday afternoon matinee!

Between Silk and Cyanide ~ Leo Marks

When in 1969 Helene Hanff finally managed to get to London her beloved bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, had closed.  However, as she recalls in her memoir, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, waiting for her at her publishers was a letter from a man I never knew existed.

Dear Miss Hanff,

I am the son of the late Ben Marks of Marks & Co. and want you to know how delighted I am that you are here, and how very much my wife and I would like you to dine with us.

I do not know where you are staying so could you please ring me at the above telephone numbers? The second one is an answering service and any message left there will reach me.

We are both looking forward to meeting you.


Leo Marks

The Leo Marks that Hanff then goes on to describe is a writer best known for the script of the 1960 film Peeping Tom and for a number of plays that appeared in the West End.  Not once, in either this or in subsequent books, does she mention his wartime role as the man who completely restructured the codes used by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents sent into Occupied Europe and further afield between 1942 and the end of hostilities three years later.  To some extent this silence isn’t surprising.  Given that Between Silk and Cyanide, the book in which Marks records his time with SOE, was not allowed by the powers that be to be published until 1998, despite having been written over fifteen years earlier, in 1969 Marks almost certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to discuss his wartime role. Apart from anything else, he would probably have had more than enough to say about the bloody-minded incompetence of many people still with a finger in the pie of government to put several cats among a whole flock-load of pigeons.

Having been fascinated by codes since the age of eight after he cracked the one used by his father to indicate what 84 had paid for a book, when he is called for war service he applies to work as a cryptographer.  Rejected by Bletchley Park, (who later recognise him as the one that got away) he finds himself installed with SOE training FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) to decrypt those messages that have been garbled in transmission.  If the wireless operators in Occupied Europe have to be asked to repeat a message then there is a far greater chance of their being captured and so the decryption of indecipherables is a unit priority.  Marks is horrified by the codes that the agents are being asked to use.  Based on a poem chosen by each individual agent anyone intercepting a message and working out key words has only to flick through a volume of best loved poetry to gain access to the code and thus read any future messages sent by that particular agent.  Consequently he devises a number of more secure codes, one of which involved a series of non-repeating keys printed on silk for ease of concealment.  Hence the book’s title: he saw the executive’s choice as being between providing either the silks or cyanide.  In fact, each of the agents did carry a cyanide table with them and despite Mark’s best efforts too many had to resort to using them.

Ultimately it became clear that agents would still have to have a named poem that they could use if their silks, and later their ‘one time pads’, were not immediately available to them and so Marks and his decoders set about writing original and often scurrilous verses that would be difficult to predict. The most famous of these is the one that Marks wrote after the death of a woman he had hoped to marry and which he later gave to Violette Szabo, the agent whose story is told in the film Carve Her Name With Pride.  

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Szabo was eventually executed in Ravensbrück in 1945.

Three things scream out from the pages of this book.  The first is the incredible bravery of the men and women who risked, and all too often lost, their lives in an attempt to free their homelands from occupation.  The second, the devotion to duty of the (mostly) women who struggled to decode the messages sent back, sometimes at the eight or nine thousandth attempt. And the third, the sheer stupidity and egotistical search for power of many of the people who commanded them.  Why Britain was not overrun in the early 1940s is beyond me.  The ordinary people may have been pulling together, but those at the top were definitely not.  I can only assume that the same was true of the German High Command and that one set of narcissistic idiots cancelled the other out.

Re-reading this book in preparation for the Summer School it seems clear to me that Leo Marks had Asperger’s and at quite a high level too.  Not only is this apparent in his fascination with codes but also in what we learn of his relationships and in his style of writing.  He assumes his reader is going to be able to follow all the minute detail he includes about the way in which the codes work and even though I am minded in much the same way as he was, I soon recognised that I didn’t need all the information he was giving me to get the gist of what was really important.  If you decide to read the book don’t be put off by all the coding information; you can manage perfectly well without it. And I would strongly recommend that you do read it.  The sacrifices of the SOE agents and those who supported them in the U.K. and elsewhere, deserve to be commemorated in the minds and hearts of those who came after.  And, as book lovers you will also relish all the mentions of 84 Charing Cross Road, the shop that Leo was intended to take over from his father and a place that he loved with a passion that Helene Hanff was replicate a decade or so later.