Tag Archives: autobiographical books

‘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.

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?

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?

Comfort reading

DRAWN FROM MEMORY and DRAWN FROM LIFE, by E H Shepherd, originally published in 1957 and 1961 respectively; joint edition, 1986.

Bookcase 4, shelf 4, book 9

I’ve not been very well. I’m waiting for a hand op – which I’m looking forward to, as it should make my life much easier – but I’ve caught the Great Cold from Hell, and have been feeling very sorry for myself indeed.

The dice must have sensed this, because they led me to this enchanted title – the literary equivalent of a nice snuggly blanket and a welcome cup of tea.

That’s not to say that it’s cosy. Far from it, in fact. But it is a good read, and that’s exactly what I needed.

E H Shepherd is an artistic hero of mine, and I adore his work (I worked for a brief while as an illustrator’s agent, and this amazingly failed to put me off my love of illustration). He’s undoubtedly most familiar as the man who brought Pooh Bear to life, not to mention Piglet, Rabbit, Eeyore and – unsurprisingly my favourite – Tigger. He also breathed illustrative life into Mole, Water Rat and Badger, and gave Mr Toad his rakish air and goggles. 

These books are his autobiography. They are snapshots rather than a full account, though – the first one looks at roughly a single year, 1887, and the second takes the story on until his first marriage in 1904. They are, of course, beautifully (and often wittily) illustrated.

Drawn from Memory originated because Shepherd promised his children to write down all the stories he had told them, and it reminds me strongly of Marcel Pagnol’s magical autobiographical books. There is the same clarity of vision – almost like looking down the wrong end of a telescope into the past – and the same elegiac quality. That is perhaps not surprising. Like Pagnol, Shepherd lost his mother shortly after the book’s narrative ends and, also like Pagnol, his best friend (in Shepherd’s case, his older brother Cyril) died in the First World War.

He describes and illustrates a vanished world, but one which is recognisable much of the time – small boys are small boys, always have been and always will be. Childhood holidays, especially when looked back on, can be idyllic, times of sun and animals to make friends with and undiluted fun.

Other things here are amusing and entertaining because of the changes that have taken place since, but I suspect that the characteristics underlying incidents (such as his maiden aunts’ shocking discovery that the new curate was – shhh – a smoker) still remain. And his illustration of their horrified recognition that the mantlepiece held a tobacco pipe – sorry, a ‘TOBACCO PIPE!’ – radiates their disapproval and uncertainty. How could such a thing be tolerated? What was the world coming to? A curate! Smoking!

The second of the two books, Drawn from Life, was really written in response to the success of the first. It is darker, partly because Shepherd is older and partly because the years after Drawn from Memory were not easy. His mother’s illness and death is not mentioned in any detail, but the shadow is cast over the future – and before the book is out and Shepherd is married to his beloved ‘Pie’, his father has also died, after becoming increasingly disabled. It’s also a book about a young man, with a young man’s recognition that the world isn’t straightforward and with his growing understanding of how things work between people. But it is still a delightful account of life as an art student at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is still a good read even if it hasn’t quite got the innocent charm of Drawn from Memory (it would be fake if it did, after all).

And I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing in the final full-page illustration an echo of the legendary hundred-acre wood, where ‘a boy and his bear are forever playing’:

(Incidentally, and this has nothing to do with these books, but Pie died young too, following an operation to relieve her athsma some ten years later. Shepherd’s illustrations may reflect a sunny and innocent world, but that’s a tribute to his personality, and his upbringing. He was, above all, a survivor – not someone to whom bad things never happened. Another reason to love his work. It radiates optimism.)