Blog of the week

Well, sort of. This is actually Tweets of the week, as Helen posts @LBFlyawayhome on the Ladybird Books.


The illustrations range from the pretty,


to the of-their-time (I was tickled at how much Charles II and his courtier have faced exactly out of a mid-century illustration of sober lawyers), to the unintentionally amusing


and the completely barmy and opinionated:


Heavens to Betsy



Reminded by Beth Bonini’s cheerful Instagram feed of these delightful books (I’ve posted about their companion volumes here and here before), I think I’m getting ready for a re-read.


Lots of commentators compare these books to Meet Me in St Louis, and as well as the period details (the hairstyles! the dresses! the slang! the excitement over a telephone!), what I love most is the inherent optimism – progress is always good, and friends and family remain stable whilst welcoming new developments – but also the complete acceptance that a job, writing, singing, making your own mind up, are all important to a girl and in no way conflicted with the rest of her being.


I find it depressing that a modern book wouldn’t show this, or would have to make a big point about it. Written in the 50s about the 1900-1910s, Betsy, Emily and Carney are in fact far more progressive than any characters today.



I came across this Virginia Woolf quote below, which reminded me of this favourite book, with its invitation to “those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine” to hire an Italian castle for the month of April. Yes please…


If life has a base that it stands upon, it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light…

Uncle Fred

“Mr Davenport has been entertaining his uncle, the Duke of Dunstable, to luncheon, and over coffee His Grace broke most of the sitting-room furniture with a poker.”

To say that this information surprised Pongo would be correct. To say that he was astounded, however, was going too far. His Uncle Alaric’s eccentricities were a favourite theme of conversation with Horace Davenport, and in Pongo he always found a sympathetic confidant, for Pongo had an eccentric uncle himself. Though hearing Horace speak of his Uncle Alaric and thinking of his own Uncle Fred, he felt like Noah listening to someone making a fuss about a drizzle.

Uncle Fred in the Spring Time, part of an excellent Christmas book haul.

As time passes

A beautifully illustrated children’s book with pictures by Madalena Matoso.




Each page has its own caption, from the mundane to the profound. Rubbers rub out and computers slow down.



Fringes grow, ice-creams melt and thread sews.



Hard things become easier, new goals appear, people turn pink and books turn yellow, and the hands of the clock turn again.


Available here, all images from the website.

A warm embrace

I usually turn to a bit of comfort reading at this time of year, and a firm favourite are the Mountjoy novels. Perhaps Unaccustomed Airs, which features a wintry house, a dash to Budapest and Christmas feasts, or Divine Comedy, which has choral music and velvet enough to get anyone ready for Carols from Kings.



For those who don’t know the series, the Mountjoy family themselves are renowned for their appreciation of a rakish life, and the local pub, The Mountjoy Arms, cheekily features a woman being carried off to bed on its sign.


…even if business men scorn it

This book does not seem to be growing very large although I have got to Chapter Nine…I know this will never be a real book that business men in trains will read, the kind of business men that wear stuff hats with curly brims and little breathing holes let in the side. I wish I knew more about words. Also I wish so much I had learned my lessons in school. I never did, and have found it such a disadvantage since. All the same, I am going on writing this book even if business men scorn it.

Chapter Nine from “Our Spoons Came From Woolworths”, a novel by Barbara Comyns, who is one of my favourite authors for the way her artless voice skewers everyday life and whose writing in fact contains great skill. From later in the book, this passage always makes me laugh too:

“I knew it was Rollo. When he saw me bent over the disgusting jam [Sophia’s employer has asked her to make rhubarb jam on the hottest day of summer], he said ‘Good afternoon. How are you?’ and the girls seemed surprised he knew me. I hunched myself up and murmured ‘I’m feeling beastly, thank you’ and great puffs of jammy steam came in my face.


I came across the work of Max Beckmann in the Met this week, and it seems a good fit for Barbara Comyns’ writing, not just in period but also the style of appearing extremely sunny in a manner that conceals great skill. This is Beckmann’s wife Quappi on the Riviera in 1926 (photo October 2016.)

Reading blind

When all was still, at a late hour, poor crazed Miss Flite came weeping to me and told me she had given her birds their liberty.

Bleak Housis exactly the idea of Dickens that most people think they hate: 800 pages long, a title that must be moral and a plot line that is sufficiently well-known to breed contempt. Add to this an editorial voice that is painfully arch about the Polite World, and no wonder most people give up.

But just as anyone staggering past the opening monologue on dead pet ravens in Barnaby Rudge is rewarded with a terrifying psychological survey of mob rule and entrapment in the face of relentless evil, so anyone who endures Chapter 2 of Bleak House is in for a treat.

The main plot line is hardly a spoiler, as Dickens himself makes clear the futility of the legal battle, and his contempt for lawyerly wrangling, in the first chapter. The love story which is another key feature of the plot is also introduced early, although here Dickens is constantly teasing us with two outcomes, only one of which comes, leading to a perpetual build up and release of anticipation. However, the real pleasure is in abandoning yourself to the multiple worlds of diverse characters who slowly and inevitably begin to overlap, drawn together in tighter and tighter webs as the novel progresses.

In Esther, our main narrator, Dickens introduces a voice that is as direct as Jane Eyre and as sunny and entertaining as the heroes of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White or The Moonstone. Sometimes through Esther’s eyes and sometimes through third party narration we meet the terrifyingly impassive lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn, the self-absorbed Mrs Jellyby who is always saving Africa and ignoring her own family, the moneylenders and rag-paper sellers of the Tom’s-all-alone slum, the delightful military family the Bagnets (“Discipline must be maintained,” says Mr Bagnet, who is entirely and happily ruled by his wife), and Miss Flite who is mad and yet wise after so many years of following Chancery and who relays to Esther the moment Richard’s mind is seized by the lawsuit.

Of course it’s not perfect: Dickens was writing to a monthly deadline and Inspector Bucket changes character entirely partway through the book, whilst early chapters contain a few thundering lectures on the English school system and a case of spontaneous combustion. But who could mind that when Dickens is able to conjure up such atmosphere, whether of hot summers when a judge becomes a sunburned man in white trousers and white hat

who calls in at the shell-fish shop as he comes along and drinks iced ginger-beer

or cold,

I recollect that it was neither night nor day, that morning was dawning but that the street-lamps were not yet put out…I recollect the wet house-tops, the clogged and bursting gutters and water-spouts, the mounds of blackened ice and snow over which we passed…

can sketch an inn like the best kind of letter-writers

[he] preceded me along the sanded passage to his best parlour, a neat carpeted room with more plants in it than were quite convenient, a coloured print of Queen Caroline, several shells, a good many tea-trays, two stuffed and dried fish in glass cases, and either a curious egg or a curious pumpkin (but I don’t know which, and I doubt if many people did) hanging from the ceiling.

and convey a father-daughter relationship with a few strokes of the pen:

“He comes here every evening”, returned Caddy, “and is so fond of sitting in that corner that it’s a pleasure to see him.” Looking at the corner, I plainly perceived the mark of Mr Jellyby’s head. It was consolatory to know that he had found such a place to rest it.

Most of all, Dickens is funny and that makes his books perfect for settling down with on an autumn evening to enjoy. Mr Badger respectfully reminding his dinner guests that his predecessor as Mrs B’s husband was Professor Dingo “of European reputation” must have made many readers laugh, along with Mr Skimpole chiding a debt collector for arriving on his blue-eyed daughter’s birthday. My favourite, though, must be this Cockney rant, still recognisable today, delivered to the interfering social worker and showing how far Dickens is from the popular stereotype of him as a stiff, conventional, preachy writer:

“Now you’re a-going to poll pry and question according to custom – I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! I’ll save you the trouble. Have I read the little book wot you left? No I haven’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it and if there was, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book for a babby and I an’t a babby. If you left me a doll I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why I’ve been drunk for three days and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go for to church? No I don’t never mean to go for to church. I shouldn’t be expected there if I did; the beadle’s too genteel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t she’s a lie!

Present buying

Linda had spent Lord Merlin’s 20,000 francs on a tiny Renoir for Fabrice: six inches of seascape, a little patch of brilliant blue, which she thought would look just right in his room on the Rue Bonaparte.

Nancy Mitford again in The Pursuit of Love.