Category Archives: Classics

‘Anybody can have tuberculosis…’

THE PLAGUE AND I, by Betty MacDonald, originally published in in the UK in 1948, my edition 1959 (boy, do I love old Penguins)…

coverOne of my favourites, for years and years. I can’t remember when I first encountered The Plague and I, but certain expressions and catchphrases from it have passed into our family shorthand, so my guess is that my parents loved it too.’Toecover’, for instance, a word that describes a hand-made object of uncertain usage and all-too-certain unpleasantness. Ideally, a toecover should have no discernible function, and – in my opinion – involve limp crochet in some respect. Then there’s ‘Hush ma mouth, what have ah said?’, delivered in a clichéd Southern accent. This should be deployed after the ostensibly inadvertent revelation of some fact that has got the speaker into trouble, and is ironically directed at the person who has given the game away. Then – no, enough already. You get the idea.

This should not be a funny book. Absolutely not, no way, it’s about a stay in a 1930s tuberculosis sanatorium, for heaven’s sake – and yet it is. Hilarious, even laugh-out-loud funny in parts, and yet those parts are interspersed with more serious stuff. I recently lent it to a friend who had to spend some time in hospital, and she not only loved it, finding it funny too, but also found it relevant. As she said, ‘times change, but people don’t.’

betty macdonaldIn the late 1930s Betty MacDonald – who had led a slightly unconventional life but who had, as yet, not committed any of it to paper (her best-known book is probably The Egg and I, about her first marriage to a chicken farmer and which came out in 1945) – developed a series of colds, then a cough, then extreme tiredness… But, ‘operating under the impression that I was healthy and that everyone who worked felt the same as I did’, failed to put two and two together. In all fairness, so did a series of doctors (largely because she consulted each specialist about his – and I mean his – own area), until she was finally diagnosed with TB. Tuberculosis, of course, could be tantamount to a death sentence. As it can now, sometimes – but then there were no drugs which worked against it and it was horribly prevalent. It’s also highly contaigious and MacDonald caught hers from a co-worker who managed to infect several other people as well. As a single mother with two small children and a negligible income, she was luckily admitted to a charitable sanatorium in Seattle, which she calls ‘The Pines’ in the book. She was to stay at Firland Sanatorium for nine months, in 1937-8, and emerged cured.

Firland wardThe picture she creates is so vivid that this is one of those books where the mental images generated are so strong that they dominate even when you see contradictory pictures of the place that inspired them. The echoing, draughty corridors, the never-ending cold, the sound of invisible footsteps approaching, passing and then fading into the distance… but it’s not depressing, even in the serious phases. It’s populated by a cast of characters, all of whom I find exceptionally well drawn and entertaining. They range from Betty’s family and her near-constant companion in The Pines, Kimi Sanbo, to the miscellaneous array of nurses and other patients such as Gravy Face and Granite Eyes (two nurses); Charlie who loved to pass on depressing news of deaths and disasters; Minna of the Southern drawl and ability to dump people in the cacky… there are so many of them, so well delineated, that picking just a few to mention here was difficult. But space has to be made for Miss Gillespie of the Ambulant Hospital’s occupational therapy shop, generator of many a toecover:

‘Miss Gillespie was physically and mentally exactly what you’d expect the producer of hand-painted paper plates to be. She had a mouth so crowded with false teeth it looked as if she had put in two sets … and her own set of rules. One of these rules was that women patients could not use the basement lavatory because “the men will see you go in there and know what you go in there for”. Another forbade the pressing of men’s trousers by women, on the grounds that such intimate contact with male garments was unseemly.’

MacDonald is extremely good at expressing the life of any closed institution. The way the world narrows down; the way rumours (‘all based on a little bit of truth’) start, expand and spread; the effect of being thrown into involuntary contact with people you would normally avoid, and the intensity of the resulting reactions. (‘…the major irritation of all was my room-mate, who was so damned happy all the time, so well adjusted. She loved the institution and the institution loved her. She loved all the nurses and the nurses loved her. She loved all the other patients and all the other patients, but one, loved her. That one used to lie awake in the long dark cold winter nights and listen hopefully for her breathing to stop.’) It was a tough regime, but it had to be – no drugs, remember. TB was essentially treated by rest and some basic chest operations; there had to be rules. But there was also the pointless expression of power indulged in by some: ‘ “We do not tell the patients the rules, Mrs Bard. We find that trial and error method is the best way to learn them.” I said, “But how can I be obedient, co-operative, and helpful if I don’t know what I’m supposed to do?” She said, “We don’t allow arguing, Mrs Bard”…‘ She is also very good on how difficult it is to adapt to life afterwards, describing what could almost be a type of Stockholm Syndrome. But she did shake herself free, and the TB didn’t reappear.

So yes, a sort of happy ending. ‘Sort of’ because Betty MacDonald died in 1958, from cancer, at the age of only 49.  I’m sure she would have been surprised and possibly flattered to know that people were still enjoying her books over fifty years later. I most certainly am. Great book.

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One child’s ‘Downton’ Christmas

CHRISTMAS WITH THE SAVAGES by Mary Clive, originally published in 1955, my edition 1964; illustrated (delightfully) by Philip Gough

My choice – no roll of the dice this time!

coverIt’s nearly a year since I started this project and so, in celebration of my year of random reading, I decided to put away my dice shaker and choose a book for myself.

The last two have been – completely accidentally – quite appropriately seasonal, so I thought I would throw in a third for good measure. Since my mother ferretted out Christmas with the Savages in a second-hand bookshop and passed it on to me many years ago, it has been one of my traditional Christmas reads. A real comfort book, especially when the weather is dreadful, the roof has started leaking where it’s never leaked before and the Christmas lights have failed.

Christmas with the Savages is a fictionalised account of an Edwardian Christmas (possibly about 1910?), one which draws heavily on Lady Mary Clive’s own upbringing. The heroine (and she is undoubtedly that) is Evelyn. A somewhat – er, let’s settle for ‘indulged’ – only child from a upper-class London background, her parents are away just before Christmas when her father is taken ill. Her mother therefore arranges for Evelyn to spend Christmas at Tamerlane Hall, where her friend Lady Tamerlane is hosting a family Christmas.

book 1

This effectively means that Evelyn will be spending her Christmas with a whole load of children she does not know: the Savages, the Glens and the Howliboos, plus their nannies and nursemaids. This is something of a shock to her system: ‘…I did not see many other children…’. But they’d probably be a shock to anyone’s system; certainly they don’t behave as you might expect Edwardian children to do if your only frame of reference is TV and some rather stuffy autobiographies.

book 3

These are very real children, delineated with a dry pen:

‘You’d better not have any more sweets, Harry,’ said Rosamund, ‘not after what happened at dinner.’
Harry appeared to be pondering great thoughts. At last he spoke.
‘Sick can be very surprising sometimes.’

They misbehave horribly and quite dangerously, and their perspective on the house party is their perspective, or specifically Evelyn’s almost anthropological perspective. She’s always slightly outside (typical of the author’s position, perhaps).

book2

And from her perspective, the rest of the house party scarcely exists: as she says ‘in fact I never did really discover how many grown-ups there were downstairs’. This isn’t one of those books where the child holds up a knowing mirror to the adult world; there are no shades of The Go-Between here. The adult house guests hardly intrude (apart from ‘Aunt Muriel’s Husband’ the archetypal Christmas nightmare whose connection to the family is no longer really valid, Aunt Muriel having died some years before, but who nevertheless contrives to be invited). Adults – apart from the servants, who are much more part of the children’s world – are generally there as foils or enablers, as people who can help to stage a play, urge you to write your thank-you letters or guide you home when you get lost.

book 5

Evelyn gets through Christmas without too many perils, hideous amateur dramatics notwithstanding, but it all – well, no spoilers. Suffice it to say that she manages to evade a court martial on the rubbish heap by being called back to her home, and I’ll just leave it at that. A truly delightful book, and not just one for those hankering after a vanished, nostalgic, upstairs-downstairs world (even the New Statesman liked it on publication: ‘This book is wonderful and touching and hilariously funny’).

book 4

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas, and all the very best for the New Year.

So am I going to continue? After all, this was supposed to be one year of random reading, with the aim of encouraging me to reread books rather than buy new, and reread unexpected choices (hence the roll of the dice).

Well, I have to go on. It’s been great; I’ve rediscovered old favourites, renewed my friendship with authors I’d almost forgotten, and had a whale of a time. I’ve even been freshly pressed by WordPress following my return to Eric Newby’s wonderful The Last Grain Race. I can’t stop now – especially as I’ve barely scratched the surface. Where did I put that dice shaker?

What’s ‘hooray’ in Finnish – or Swedish, come to that?

MOOMINLAND MIDWINTER, by Tove Jansson, published in English translation in 1958, my (extremely tatty and yellowing) edition 1977

Bookcase 3, shelf 6, book 10

coverWhat are the odds of getting two appropriately wintry books in succession? I guess that’s the point about rolling the dice and picking a book – it is truly random. Actually, I think I’d have preferred Comet in Moominland when it comes to the stories of Moomintroll and his friends, but let’s not quibble: this is wonderful. And it’s frosty outside and we are thundering towards the solstice – “‘But that’s exactly why we burn up the great winter bonfire tonight,’ said Too-ticky. ‘You’ll get your sun back tomorrow.'” – and this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. For adults and children both; I’m as enchanted by it now as I was when I was six. There’s only one downside to Moominland Midwinter as far as I’m concerned: the almost complete absence of my hero and role model, Snufkin (aka Aragorn, in his Strider persona?).

I’m not sure why the Moomins and their friends have exerted such a strong pull on me over the years, as they have on many other people. They’re undeniably attractive to small children (and bigger ones, even if you do end up identifying with Snufkin, a wanderer and adventurer, rather than the cutely rotund and domesticated moomins). The stories are good, and the illustrations are absolutely wonderful.

wood

They’re atmospheric (here are people bringing torches to the midwinter fire), and the larger, more elaborate ones have a wealth of detail which used to fascinate me. Er, still does fascinate me. For me, they sit perfectly with the text, the ideal of children’s book illustration. A little, in fact, like Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations in the previous post.

But what of the plot? What of the story, the essence?

oooooWell, this book has been described, just a little pompously, as ‘having greater psychological depth’ than the earlier books in the series – I’m not so sure about that, though maybe once I stop laughing I’ll agree (I don’t have a lot of patience with over-academic analysis these days). Moominland Midwinter opens when Moomintroll wakes up when he should be hibernating, safely tucked up in bed with his tummy full of pine needles. No-one else is awake, and he is suddenly in a strange and alien land, where even the most familiar things are strangely different. The moominhouse is covered with snow, the sky is black and – when he goes exploring – the sea is frozen. He is terribly lonely, but gradually discovers that this different world has interesting inhabitants, notably Too-ticky, who has taken up residence in the family bathing-house

walk

which she shares with some invisible shrews and a mystery resident… and soon others come to the fore. Little My, for instance, an old friend, has also woken and crashes into him as she sledges downhill on a silver tray:

‘Little My!’ cried Moomintroll once again. ‘Oh, you can’t even guess… it’s been so strange, so lonely… Remember last summer when…?’
‘But now it’s winter,’ said Little My, and fished for the silver tray in the snow. ‘We took a good jump, didn’t we?’

fireGradually, through the coming of the Great Cold, the lighting of the Midwinter Fire and the arrival of many refugees from the consequences of the cold (who are welcomed, camp in the moominhouse and eat all the stored jam), Moomintroll becomes more and more at home in his winter world. But it’s not just about Moomintroll conquering his homesickness for the summer. There are many other little touches. There’s Salome the Little Creep, one of the refugees, who has taken up residence in a Merschaum tram, and her unrequited passion for the hideously sporty Hemulen (Moomintroll describes him to Too-ticky: ‘He’s going to live in an igloo, and at this moment he’s bathing in the river.’ ‘Oh, that kind of Hemulen,’ says Too-ticky, and we all know exactly what she means even though we may never have met a Hemulen). There’s Sorry-oo, the little dog in his hat and blanket who’d really like to be a wolf until he encounters the real thing; there’s the Squirrel with the Wonderful Tail, there’s the Groke… Hmm, maybe we’ll leave it at the Groke.

And above all, there’s winter:

cold...

Poor Tove Jansson, though (she was part of Finland’s Swedish-speaking community, by the way; hence the post’s title – knew I’d forgotten something!). There was a lot more to her and her work than the delightful family of small trolls she created, but they did tend to take over due to their immense popularity (her Summer Book is another wonderful read, and there isn’t a hint of a moomin). It’s difficult, though. Unless you are someone like Tolkien, who lived and breathed his world so completely, an incredibly popular character or range of characters is bound to assume greater importance than your other work, at least in your readers’ minds. And as a footnote I’d just like to raise another Tolkien comparison: the importance of the landscape and the natural world. Moominland is fully realised; the trees and – my goodness, they both have Lonely Mountains. Maybe it’s no coincidence that both Tolkien and Jansson were great lovers of the north… now, where’s the snow?

Almost good timing – Christmas with Dylan Thomas

A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES, by Dylan Thomas, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone; this illustrated edition originally published in 1978

Bookcase 9, shelf 2, book 3

The book-selecting dice are evidently not quite running on the same calendar as me, but I am very glad I got this in November and not, say, June – that would have been completely wrong. This nostalgic, romantic, poetic and occasionally deeply surreal evocation of Christmas past would have been impossible to read in warmth and sunshine, but snuggle up next to the stove on a dark night – perfect. And that’s even if I can’t read anything by Dylan Thomas without hearing Richard Burton’s voice in the background at the same time. Or my own – it’s a wonderful book to read aloud.

There is a sort of narrative to A Child’s Christmas in Wales, taking readers through memories of the Christmas season, starting with one of the most evocative opening passages I can think of:

One Christmas was very much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

It moves from ‘the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve’ with Thomas (or his narrator, perhaps that should be) in Mrs Prothero’s garden waiting for cats – (‘It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats.’) – being diverted by Mrs P frantically calling ‘fire’,

to him going to bed on Christmas night:’I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.’

Ardizzone’s illustrations run throughout my childhood like a thread, as does this book – despite my growing up 250 miles from the nearest part of Wales; my father adored Dylan Thomas – and it’s such a perfect combination. The frantic Mrs P, the boys and the cats: they’re just right. It’s tempting to see Ardizzone as a literal ‘translator’ and so he is, but his versions of the time of Thomas’s childhood – ‘when there were wolves in Wales’ and the boys ‘chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears’ – are equally literal:

The use of language is, as you’d expect, absolutely magical. It’s impossible to describe; it has to be quoted:

‘Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss…’

The year before last, we had heavy snow right over Christmas, even here on the west coast of Wales where we normally get very little. As I forced my way out of the house and up the hill, trudging through the woods, I thought of this so clearly. I’d have liked to declaim it to the few sheep I passed, but I couldn’t remember it well enough (sheep are such sticklers for poetic accuracy – oh dear, I think it’s catching).

More realistically, I love the family get-together (brought hilariously and touchingly up-to-date by Mark Watson in the 2009 BBC film ‘A Child’s Christmases in Wales’), the aunts and uncles – ‘There are always Uncles at Christmas’ – around the fire:

This book is frequently described as a ‘modern classic’, and so it is, but it’s more than that. It’s a delightful read, an amusing, diverting journey into the past, into Christmas family traditions and foibles (‘Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year’), into a partly imaginary but completely believable poetic world. There’s even a possible ghost. What else can I say but a rather early Nadolig Llawen?

Of course, the classic version of this book is read aloud not by Richard Burton but by Dylan Thomas himself; it’s worth digging it out. And if you’re inspired to find this lovely illustrated edition, be aware that there is a minature version about; delightful but impractical. You need to see the deacon’s jawbone and the bishops in the belfrey. Didn’t I mention them?

Elementary (or not)

THE SIGN OF FOUR, by Arthur Conan Doyle, originally published in 1890; my edition, 1982

Bookshelf 3, shelf 4, book 34

I suppose it had to happen – Sherlock was inevitably going to put in an appearance, especially as I have noticed that the dice seem to select this area of bookshelves more than others (they’re not weighted – honest).

I was quite glad to get this particular Sherlock Holmes book, though, as I’d not re-read it in ages. It’s one of the ones I loved most and may even have been the one I read first – or was that Hound? Either is a rattling good tale and a great introduction to the world of 221b Baker Street.

The Sign of Four is the second Sherlock Holmes book, and like the earlier A Study in Scarlet, it’s a full novel and not a collection of short stories. And like that book, it is also divided into two halves, though not so crudely. Again, one is the crime and the pursuit, and the other is the background. But unlike Scarlet (at least, that is, for me), it’s a cracking read. And it still is.

One of the joys of coming back to this book is the delight I’ve been able to take in discovering all the best Sherlockian clichés developing and maturing with rapidity. Yes, the Baker Street Irregulars had appeared in Scarlet, but here they are again, more developed. 

Here’s Holmes’ cocaine habit – ‘a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?’ – and terrible attitude to women, reported by – as always – Dr Watson:

‘I would not tell them too much,’ said Holmes. ‘Women are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them.’
I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment. 

And here are some of his most famous – and frequently misquoted – statements:

‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’

Hansom cabs clatter along gas-lit streets through a deepening fog (but of course – and happily as I write this the fog outside my house is getting thicker and thicker), and through it all winds the river, scene of one of the great chases in detective fiction.

So what of the plot, what of the story of the governess, the mysterious Indian pearls, the summons at night and the strange and terrifying death of Bartholemew Sholto at Pondicherry Lodge, Upper Norwood? Well, on one level it’s sensationalist hooey, but it’s enormous fun and – and this is a big ‘and’, because it’s far from being generally true of the detective genre, even today – it hangs together and makes logical sense. And it’s exciting, and I’m not giving away any spoilers!

I’ve been thinking about why it works so well. One reason is that though it is sensationalist – the chase, the fabulous jewels, the Andaman Islander with his poison darts – it is also deeply atmospheric:

It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement…

Another reason why the Sherlock Holmes stories still appeal is that they are rooted in a real world; London’s streets and buildings are frequently named and some things are still recognisable to Londoners today – such as the way that you can look down on a foggy city from the ‘heights’ of South London, and see only hints of it, tall buildings poking through the murk. It all builds – the criminal and his Andaman accomplice are tracked along a route that can still be followed; Holmes, Watson and Miss Morston (the governess) are taken in a cab along roads down which you can still drive – and creates a real world, one which barely seems fictional. And this, I am convinced, is largely why the Sherlock Holmes stories have such an appeal, even now, well over a hundred years since they were written. That and the perennial reason of reader satisfaction at a problem ingeniously solved.

Incidentally, reading The Sign of Four and contrasting it with another book emphasised something which has been bothering me slightly during my dice-reading exercise: language and attitudes which are now offensive.

I have just put the other book, written in the 1940s, to one side because of this. I don’t think I’m being over-sensitive, and obviously it was once just about acceptable – in some sectors of society – to sprinkle around words which are now (and even were, sometimes, then) offensively racist in your work. Writers are creatures of their time, and their work inevitably reflects this, but it can make a book unreadable today. At first I was worried about this in The Sign of Four, with its partial setting during the Indian mutiny, and it wouldn’t be written in this way today. But it surprised me at the end. The Andaman Islander, having been referred to by Conan Doyle / Watson in terms which make him seem more of a monster than a human being, finds his defender in Jonathan Small, his companion: yes, he’s been problematic – killing someone probably counts as problematic – but ‘he was staunch and true, was poor Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate.’ The book I rejected, written fifty years later, would never have been so generous.