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The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother And Me
The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother And Me
by Sofka Zinovieff
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is there a straight man in the house?, 11 Jan. 2015
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Having read Mark Amory's worthy biography of Lord Berners a few years ago, I was not sure that it was necessary to re-cross the threshold of Faringdon House. However, the title of Sofka Zinovieff's book intrigued me, especially as the Amory biography dealt with the post-Berner years at Faringdon in a mere two page postscript. Also, I was seduced into buying this book by the splendid Amazon reviews - every one giving five stars.

Zinovieff writes with a beautifully assured style. There is no need for me to repeat here the synopsis of the story; other reviewers have dealt with this admirably. The delight for me was that characters in the book and the events which surround them are painted so vividly that I was able to imagine having been there and witnessed first hand just what went on. The author pulls no punches, and at times ventures into fascinating detail. I will leave future readers to discover this for themselves!

Perhaps the most fascinating character is 'The Mad Boy' - Robert Heber Percy - the 'black sheep' of a highly respectable upper-class family. In relation to him, the story intriguingly leaves one or two fundamental questions unanswered. However, since all the dramatis personae of the time are now dead, we probably never will know the truth. To make sense of what I am saying, and to understand the title of my review, you will need to go out and buy the book!

When it arrived, like other readers I was amazed by the book's sheer physical weight. It is printed on high quality paper, with beautiful illustrations throughout, and is a joy to hold. For this reason I urge you to buy the book and not the Kindle version. I hope you gain as much enjoyment from it as I did.

Full marks, Sofka Zinovieff, for a beautifully crafted work. Five stars, unhesitatingly.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 20, 2015 7:28 AM GMT


A Noble Thing: The National Trust and Its Benefactors
A Noble Thing: The National Trust and Its Benefactors
by Merlin Waterson
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb book, 8 Dec. 2013
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At first glance, on seeing this for sale in a National Trust shop, you might think this is just another "coffee table" book. You would be wrong.

It is, in fact, a superbly crafted and well-written work which deals with the important role which many of the donors and benefactors of The National Trust have played in creating the wonderful portfolio of properties which are now owned by the Trust, thereby ensuring their preservation for all time.

James-Lees Milne had a go at a similar subject in 1975 with his 'Some Country Houses and their Owners'. Merlin Waterson's book is a rather more "grown-up" and certainly more up-to-date, version of the continuing story of the National Trust and its place in the rich fabric of the British Isles we know today.

The author has impeccable credentials for writing this book. He spent a distinguished career with the Trust, ending up as Director of Historic Properties. His prose style is excellent and he paints vivid pictures of the benefactors, the dramatis personae within donor families, and the properties themselves.

This is an important work of reference for all those who are interested in our heritage and the unique role which the Trust has played in preserving so many fine buildings (sometimes, happily, with their contents; sometimes not). It describes the ongoing role (or lack of it) of the donor families, and the agonising decisions which had to be made to sacrifice, very often, centuries of ownership. Waterson also explains the important role that Government, The National Heritage Memorial Fund and The National Lottery Fund have played in what would otherwise have been impossible 'rescue situations'.

This is a fine book which I heartily recommend.


Dear Christo: Memories of Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter
Dear Christo: Memories of Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter
by Rosemary Alexander
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This delightful book deserves a paean of praise, 31 July 2013
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I have recently been confined to bed following an operation and this book has aided my recovery considerably! Apart from pausing to eat, sleep or ablute I found the book difficult to put down.
The book is a collection of short essays and reminiscences of the many friends and acquaintances of the great 20th century gardener and writer, Christopher Lloyd, who died in 2006. Whoever collected and edited these contributions (I think it was something of a collaborative effort) has done a first-class job. Almost without exception they are elegant, witty, hugely descriptive and thereby very informative.
Christopher Lloyd was born at Great Dixter in Kent which, with its wonderfully romantic garden inspired by Gertrude Jekyll, forms the backdrop to much of what is recounted in the book. He spent his whole life living in the house where he was born. As well as being a skilled gardening writer and a consummate plantsman, Lloyd was also a bon viveur and skilled cook. The descriptions of his old-fashioned steamed puddings and turbot 'landed that morning at Hastings' had my mouth watering! However, his friends do not 'hold back' when describing his tetchiness, and some of them aver that this bordered on rudeness to people who had 'not done their homework'. But nobody seemed to mind, because this great man's achievements were so obvious and well-respected.
At first glance, Great Dixter is a quintessential English country garden, but in his approach Christopher Lloyd was something of an iconoclast. So when his patience with the rose garden finally gave in, out came the roses and in came the sub-tropical plants! If you have been to Sissinghurst but never to Dixter then I urge you to go. Sissinghurst is the elegantly coutured lady with not a strand of hair out of place. Her whole ensemble is colour co-ordinated. Dixter is her rather blowsy cousin, with painted lips and a bright summer frock. A straw hat keeps her slightly untidy hair in place! The whole effect is utterly charming.
Back to Lloyd. Despite advancing years, his interest in people never waned. They, as well as his garden, were his life-blood. He had no need for television or radio, and I doubt that he could have possibly understood some of the questionable values of our modern world. Celebrity culture, materialism and shallow values would all have been anathema to him.
So here is a book which is a lasting testament to one of those great 20th century men, the likes of which I doubt we shall see again, for they are truly a dying breed. For anyone who knows Great Dixter this is an essential book to have to understand better why and how it is still there. Hopefully the Great Dixter Trust will be able to allow us all to enjoy Christopher Lloyd's legacy in perpetuity. His friends are even luckier. They have their own memories to treasure.


Mrs Ronnie: The Society Hostess Who Collected Kings
Mrs Ronnie: The Society Hostess Who Collected Kings
by Sian Evans
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A nicely researched and well-written book, 30 July 2013
For anyone interested in the great society hostesses of the first half of the 20th century (they disappeared rapidly after WWII and no comparable 'salons' now exist in Britain) 'Mrs Ronnie' makes a great read. Similarly for those who know and love the beautiful National Trust house, Polesden Lacey, this book sets the perfect backdrop to this idyllic place.
The book is a very nicely written and well-paced biography of that great society hostess, the Hon. Mrs Ronald Greville, imperatrice for so many years of Polesden Lacey. Margaret Greville was a woman assiduous in her pursuit of the aristocracy and, in particular, members of the Royal Family. In this she was remarkably successful, considering that her great wealth stemmed from her Father's remarkable success in 'trade', which was rather looked down upon by the aristocracy of the time. I can only think that her wealth was so enormous, her collection of jewellery so fabulous, her hospitality so lavish, her connections so impressive, that very few important people of the day could ignore her. And if they did so, it risked them being subjected to her notoriously vicious tongue.
Sian Evans paints a very fair and non-judgmental picture of her subject, and of her life and times. On balance, I rather like Mrs Greville. She may have been ambitious and self-seeking, but behind that rather hard carapace I find a woman with a warm heart. She had a legion of servants who adored her and had served her for many years and her generosity to them when she died was remarkable for the time.
The author's task was not made easier by the fact that Mrs Greville's Head Steward, in accordance with his Mistress's wishes, destroyed all her personal papers after her death. Sian Evans has coped very well with this handicap and produced a nice volume which is easy to read and assimilate. I think it will be well received, and I urge readers who are interested in British Society in the first half of the 20th century to see this for themselves.


The Cat's Table
The Cat's Table
by Michael Ondaatje
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2.0 out of 5 stars So very disappointing. Is it my fault?, 28 July 2013
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This review is from: The Cat's Table (Paperback)
It is page 214 and I am finally giving up. Tomorrow the book will go to our local Hospice Bookshop in the hope that it can end up in the hands of a reader more in tune with its narrative.
The Cat's Table tells of the excitement and adventures of a young boy on a 3-week journey from Ceylon to England in the early 1950's interspersed with 'flash-forwards' to the boy's subsequent life when growing up in England.
It got off to a good start with an excellent account of the exciting journey to join the ship in Colombo. But from the point the boy boards the ship, the story begins to fall apart. The fact of the matter is that he is travelling tourist class, and therefore he will not be sitting for dinner in the same dining room as the Captain - not even at the 'Cat's table'! He then appears to be sharing a cabin with a crew member, again an absurd suggestion. The book is so constantly littered with things that could never possibly have happened that I can only treat the narrative as, at best, recounting a dream sequence.
If it is a dream sequence, rather than a novel, then perhaps I would analyse it differently. But even then I do not find Mr Ondaatje's prose sufficiently engaging to want to complete what, for me (but clearly not for many others) has been something of a 'slog'. I kept reading a chapter, then putting it aside for a day or two in the hope that subsequent chapters might capture my imagination more. Regrettably, they didn't. Perhaps it's all my fault, and I am not sufficient of a romantic to enjoy a book like this.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 23, 2013 5:54 PM GMT


The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham
by Selina Hastings
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent biography, well researched and beautifully written, 11 Nov. 2011
My only quibble with this book would be its title. Many of Maugham's 'secrets' emerged soon after his death and are now well known, such that "Somerset Maugham - A Life" might have been a safer title.
Having said that, this book is first-class. Maugham was always at pains to cover his tracks, destroying letters and papers assiduously. Selina Hastings has done an excellent job in piecing together the complicated jig-saw of Maugham's life, without resorting to speculation. This is a biography of the first order, based on an intelligent interpretation of the established facts of Maugham's life.
Other biographers should perhaps take lessons from Lady Selina, who writes with a fluid, elegant and controlled style. There are no histrionics, or attempts to cast judgment. There is, however, a wonderful 'Summing Up' in the final chapter entitled "Betrayal". I will say no more about this, but leave other readers to discover it for themselves.
I think it would be impossible to find Maugham a likeable man, but this biography presents a beautifully balanced picture. Despite forsaking Britain for warmer climes, he was patriotic at times of War - working voluntarily for the Intelligence Services. With his incomparable facility for story-telling, he made a great contribution to 20th Century literature - albeit he was underestimated for much of his life. But, all the time working away within his body was the evil worm which finally destroyed him. It all makes up an utterly fascinating picture.
I read much of Maugham's work in my youth, but have not returned to it since, although many of his stories remain indelibly etched in my mind ('Rain', 'The Outstation' and 'Mr Know-All' are prime examples). I shall now make a point of returning, and re-reading his work.


Wait For Me!: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister
Wait For Me!: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister
by Deborah Devonshire
Edition: Hardcover

234 of 237 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Debo's Delight, 14 Sept. 2010
The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire's eagerly awaited autobiography arrived last week and I am delighted to submit the first Amazon review.
Wisely, the nonagenarian Duchess has found the time to write the book herself, rather than subject herself to the vagaries of a biographer. The result is a delightful personal memoir of a long, varied and interesting life. Her vivid recollections of the years before the Second World War give us an insight into a way of life long since gone.
She chronicles the good times and the bad; the happy and the sad (three infant children died prematurely).
The lives of the Mitford sisters are well documented, but this book is different. It brings us right up to the present time with the Duchess now living a well-deserved, happy and contented life 'in retirement' on the Chatsworth Estate.
Just as Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon who, when she married Prince Albert, never expected to be Queen, so The Hon. Deborah Mitford when she married Lord Andrew Cavendish never expected to become Duchess of Devonshire. Andrew Cavendish's elder brother died in action in the War in 1944 and as a result caused him to become heir to the Dukedom. He inherited in 1950 when his father, the 10th Duke, died prematurely.
Faced with crippling death duties, the new Duke and Duchess heroically rescued Chatsworth from an uncertain future. I suspect that the Duchess underplays the role she took in all of this, and I am sure that her guiding hand has been a major factor in the renaissance of this great house. She lived in the house for 47 years and left an indelible impression on what we see today.
The book runs to 350 pages, but that could easily have been 1,000. It must have been difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. There are some delightful vignettes. I loved the description of the evening spent at Calke Abbey in the early 1960's with the eccentric Harpur-Crewes. At dinner the first course was melon, followed by cold beef and melon again for pudding! Similarly the description of the 90th birthday party for Sybil, Marchioness of Cholmondeley is wonderfully descriptive.
What I so enjoyed about the book was that I could hear the Duchess reading every word to me. I do hope she can be persuaded to record some or all of it. It would be a marvellous 'Book at Bedtime'.
I could go on, but instead urge you to buy and read the book. Nothing about the Dowager Duchess could ever be described as dull or boring, and every page in this book entertains. It is very well written and I have no hesitation whatever in awarding 5 stars.
On Woman's Hour on Radio 4 last week, the Duchess was interviewed about the book. In conclusion the interviewer asked her what she thought the next decade might bring. In her typical matter-of-fact way the Duchess said brightly "Oh, I suppose I shall die". Let us hope that, for once, she is wrong and that in ten year's time we are celebrating her centenary.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 19, 2011 12:27 PM BST


Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography
by William Shawcross
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great, scholarly, work, 9 Sept. 2010
This is an excellent scholarly work. It is well-written and clearly painstakingly researched. It paints a vivid picture of the life and times of the late Queen Mother and will be an important reference work for generations to come. It is a long read, but I was thoroughly absorbed by the author's words and never tempted to skip a single page.
This book is based on fact, not conjecture. If Queen Elizabeth's views about a particular matter required the author to speculate rather than to draw on known facts then those matters have been omitted and he has passed on to the next.
I, for one, am glad that a slight veil of mystery and magic about the Queen Mother remains un-lifted. This is thoroughly appropriate. Everyone deserves a little privacy in their lives. Now that most of the senior members of her Household have also passed on (and they were never going to reveal their secrets anyway), it is likely that the mystique will remain for ever.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 13, 2010 12:37 PM BST


Waiting for Princess Margaret
Waiting for Princess Margaret
by Emma Tennant
Edition: Hardcover

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I tried so hard to like this book.........., 5 Sept. 2010
....but failed. I had seen the five 5* reviews and thought that I would enjoy it. I struggled with the constant shifting of the time between the past and the present and the entry onto the stage - often fleetingly - of so many characters. At the end of the 'Princess Margaret' episode we are then suddenly thrust into a 'search for Oliver Hope' - an assumed illegitimate member of the Tennant family - which proves inconclusive.
At the end I felt wholly unsatisfied - as though more had been left unsaid than said, but perhaps that is the point of the book.
The irony was that, just after I began the book the author's eldest half-brother, Lord Glenconner - one of the main characters and the friend of Princess Margaret who brought her to the ancestral home - died (a week ago).


James Lees-Milne
James Lees-Milne
by Michael Bloch
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A first-rate read, 4 Sept. 2010
This review is from: James Lees-Milne (Paperback)
Michael Bloch has done a first rate job with this excellent biography of JLM. It is dispassionately written in an excellent style and kept me entertained throughout. It is well-structured with no 'longeurs'. As when reading the recent authorised biography of the Queen Mother, I was never tempted to skip a single page. Thoroughly absorbing and highly recommended.
It is good to see the book on sale in National Trust shops. JLM was the principal architect of the Trust which we know today and thereby left the whole country a priceless legacy.


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