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Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle
Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle
by Anthony Russell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Growing Up at Leeds Castle, 23 April 2015
'Outrageous Fortune' is Anthony Russell's memoir of his childhood years, part of which he spent growing up in Leeds Castle in Kent, a romantic moated castle, set in 500 acres of beautiful parkland, owned by his maternal grandmother, Lady Baillie. Referred to as 'Granny B' by the author throughout his memoir, Russell's grandmother, an Anglo-American heiress, bought the castle in 1926 (for the then vast sum of $874,000) and, with the help of architects and designers (most notably Stephane Boudin, whose wonderful interiors can still be seen at Leeds today), completely restored the fabric and structure of the building. Although the castle was not the author's main home (his parents had a house in London) Russell, his parents and his siblings (along with his adored nanny) spent most of their weekends, high days and holidays at Leeds, living in unparalleled comfort and style, ably looked after by 'Granny B's' wonderful castle staff. When 'Granny B' was not at Leeds Castle, she rented a villa in the South of France, or she could be found, during the coldest of the winter months, in her home in the Bahamas, where Anthony Russell and his family were invited for glorious holidays. However, grand as Lady Baillie's life undoubtedly was, it was Russell's paternal grandmother, Christabel Hulme Hart (referred to as 'Granny A' by the author) a very independent and unusual woman, who I felt was the more interesting character. Married to John Russell, 3rd Baron Ampthill, Christabel only agreed to marry on the condition that her husband would not consummate the marriage. Her husband agreed to the condition, but when Christabel became pregnant (although technically still a virgin) she and her husband were involved in a notorious divorce case which became a battle over legitimacy, succession and honour.

Less wealthy than 'Granny B', 'Granny A' lived in the rugged Dunguaire Castle, situated at the mouth of Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland, and whereas 'Granny B' employed fifty people on a full-time basis to keep her estate running smoothly, 'Granny A' made do with a cleaning lady who came in from the local village twice a week. However, as the author did not spend very much time with his paternal grandmother, his memoir centres mostly on life at Leeds Castle, and although Lady Baillie surrounded herself with interesting people, the author did not really come into close contact with these people and his memoir focuses on his life in the nursery with his nanny, his schooldays and, during his teenage years, his intense interest in the 1960's music scene. I do have to admit that apart from reading briefly about the people who stayed and lived at Leeds Castle, Anthony Russell's own life experiences unfortunately didn't come across as interesting or as noteworthy as I would have expected, and although he comments on more than one occasion that growing up amongst the opulence of Leeds did not prepare him for life outside the castle walls, he does not explore or discuss this in any depth. That said, there were some enjoyable aspects to this easily readable memoir which worked quite well as an undemanding bedtime read, and reading this has made me interested in learning more about the author's paternal grandmother, Christabel Hulme Hart, and the case of the Ampthill succession.

3 Stars.


Out of the Girls' Room and into the Night
Out of the Girls' Room and into the Night
by Thisbe Nissen
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Out of the Girls' Room and into the Night, 19 April 2015
'Out of the Girls' Room and into the Night' is Thisbe Nissen's award-winning debut story collection and is composed of twenty five unusual, offbeat tales which linger in the mind. The stories focus on life, love, loss and yearning, and are set in various states of the USA, where we meet a cast of characters (most of whom are women) facing a variety of situations and dilemmas. In one story we read of a young dancer who wishes that life resembled musical theatre, with people breaking into song and dance as if they were in 'West Side Story', who almost misses out on a 'crazy cosmic love' due to a misunderstanding. In another, we read of a middle-aged woman at a party in a restaurant, watching her Parkinson's Disease affected husband struggling to lift his food to his mouth - and as she looks on, she remembers 'the masterful things of which his hands were once capable' before turning to an attractive and attentive fellow diner. We read about a teenager whose mother is dying and who escapes their apartment to slip into the bed of her best friend's brother; and we meet a group of eight young women sharing a house while they are at college and of the strange, almost other-worldly events that occur in the weeks leading up to their graduation. We read of young women trying to find their place in the world; of girls falling in love and into bed with boys, and of girls falling in love and into bed with girls; we read of young women suffering from anorexia, others from anxiety or depression; and we meet women who have to leave behind what they know and brave the outside world.

With some explicit language and some beautifully descriptive writing, these wide-ranging stories almost defy classification and most will benefit from at least more than one reading. Although (in common with most short fiction collections) some of these stories are stronger than others, they are all well worth the read, and some of them are quite brilliant. I should perhaps mention that some of these are a little unsettling to read, and if you are looking for a cosy, undemanding collection of bedtime stories, these quirky, edgy tales may not suit; however if you are looking for some unusual, off-beat and thought-provoking pieces of short fiction, then this collection might well be one for you.

4 Stars.


Echoes
Echoes
by Kim Hargreaves
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Patterns to Make you Keen to Get Knitting, 17 April 2015
This review is from: Echoes (Paperback)
As commented in a previous review of mine for Kim Hargreaves knitting books, I have been buying and knitting from Kim's books for many years (including the Rowan Knitting books where Kim was one of the main designers) and I have always been pleased with the finished results - her designs and the yarns she uses produce garments which have a lovely hand-crafted look rather than looking like a homemade effort! Now I am back at work full-time, I must admit that knitting has taken a bit of a backseat in the last couple of years - however, Kim's latest summer knitting book 'Echoes' is full of stylish patterns knitted in a range of beautiful cotton and linen yarns (and a couple in Rowan's gorgeous 'Kid Silk Haze') and I should imagine that most knitters, like me, will be able to find more than one project that they will be keen to start.

Although I most probably won't get around to knitting as many of the patterns as I would like to during this spring/summer, I have already chosen several garments that have made me keen to make a start: 'Lagoon' - a simple, drapey sleeveless top in garter stitch; 'Harbour' - a cardigan with a soft, ruffled hemline; 'Coral' - a cropped cardigan textured with shadow stripes; 'Splash' - a raglan sleeve sweater with a lovely wide neckline and 'Ocean' a classic over-sized garter stitch sweater. (I think I'll maybe give the textured mini skirt with swishy fringing a miss though). If you want to see all of the patterns contained in this book in detail, visit Kim's website - also English Yarns based in Shoreham, West sussex, have a great website where you will be able to see all of the patterns in detail and they also sell the materials needed to knit the designs. John Lewis now also sell a wide range of Rowan Yarns online. Time to get knitting.

4 Stars.


Mischief: Fay Weldon Selects Her Best Short Stories
Mischief: Fay Weldon Selects Her Best Short Stories
Price: £4.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Making Mischief, 17 April 2015
No Spoilers - however, if you don't want to know anything at all about the stories, then you might just want to read the first and last paragraphs.

Fay Weldon's attractively presented 'Mischief' is a collection of twenty one short stories and includes a recently written novella 'The Ted Dreams'. In her introduction to the collection, Fay Weldon tells the reader that during the four decades over which her stories were written, the relationship between men and women in the West has changed out of all recognition; she continues:"In the early seventies women still endured the domestic tyranny of men, in the eighties we found our self-esteem, in the nineties we lifted our heads and looked about, and in the noughties - well, we went out to work. We had to." To compile this collection, the author read through the hundred or so stories that she has written during her long career, and found it a disturbing, almost painful experience, but for this reader it was an entertaining and absorbing reading experience and even though many of these stories have appeared in previous collections, there were some here that I had not read including the 130 page novella.

In the first story in the collection: 'Angel, All Innocence' we meet Angel, a young woman in love with and married to a selfish and manipulative artist who thinks only of his own needs and desires. When Angel becomes pregnant, she has to hide her pregnancy from her husband until it is too late for the abortion she knows he will want her to have. Soon Angel begins to worry about her future and that of her unborn child, however it is not until she meets the ghostly figure of a battered woman on her attic stairs, that Angel realises that she has to be proactive and do something about her situation herself. In 'Alopecia' we meet Erica, another woman bullied by her husband, Derek - except Derek's abuse of his wife is both physical and mental - and although, unlike Angel in the first story, Erica has several female friends to confide in, unfortunately only one of them takes any real notice of her predicament, the others preferring to believe her successful and seemingly affable husband. So where is the sisterhood? In the story 'Weekend' we are introduced to Martha, a wife and mother of three, who works herself into the ground running the family home, the country cottage and a demanding job. On a yet another weekend in the country which, as usual, she has shopped and prepared for during the previous week, Martha finally begins to lose her patience, when her husband and the friends he has invited for the weekend, take her hard work for granted and make her feel that she is making a martyr of herself. But what does Martha do about it?

Then there is 'Out of Love in Sarajevo' where we meet a young woman holidaying in Sarajevo with her much older lover, Peter, a Professor of Classical History, who is supervising her thesis. Whilst Peter prevaricates about leaving his wife of twenty four years, his young lover wonders about the assassin who shot the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914 and "lit the spark which fired the timber which caused World War I." But what is it that lights the spark that enables this young woman to see her older lover in a different light? In the unsettling 'Smoking Chimneys' we meet Ishtar, the rather unreliable narrator of the story who finds herself in a prison cell on a charge of murder. Over the next few pages of this involving short story, we read of the events that took place over the Christmas from Hell and which led up to Ishtar's predicament. But how much of her story is true? These are just a few of the twenty one stories in this collection, but I shall leave the remainder of these for prospective readers to discover for themselves.

Finally in the novella 'The Ted Dreams', Fay Weldon mixes science fiction with the supernatural, when we are introduced to Phyllis, mother of identical twin girls, whose husband, Ted, dies suddenly in bed. Before the following year is out, Phyllis has remarried and is now the wife of the handsome American Robbie, who has a rather mysterious job as a psycho-pharma-scientist. But then Phyllis - who is receiving visits from her dead husband, is telepathic, and has indulged in telekinesis - is not without her mysterious side herself; however even she, with her powers of telepathy, is surprised when she discovers there is much more to Robbie and his scientific work than she would ever have imagined.

With Fay Weldon's trademark themes of feminism, sisterhood and the role of women in modern society, these vivid, witty and unsettling tales are maybe not ones to choose if you want to settle down for a nice, cosy read; however, if you appreciate good quality writing and original and perceptive stories peppered with black humour, then this collection should make for an entertaining and enjoyable read for you.

4 Stars.


The Iron Necklace
The Iron Necklace
by Giles Waterfield
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Iron Necklace, 16 April 2015
This review is from: The Iron Necklace (Paperback)
Giles Waterfield's fourth novel 'The Iron Necklace' begins in 1910 where, in St Paul's Church in Knightsbridge, we meet the English Benson family and the German Curtius family, who have gathered together to witness the marriage of the young and beautiful English artist, Irene, to the handsome and very proper German architect, Thomas. At the reception following the wedding, we are introduced to Thomas's brothers, Friedrich and Paul; Irene's brother, Mark; her sister, Sophia; their cousin, Edward, and various other friends and relations, including Irene's artist ex-lover, Julian. Soon after the wedding, Thomas takes Irene to Berlin, where they make a home for themselves near to Thomas's family and Irene does her best to settle in. However, she does not find this easy - Thomas is an exacting husband and although Irene knows that he adores her, she begins to question her love for him and she also wonders whether she still has deep feelings for Julian. In addition, as Germany and Britain edge closer to war, Irene begins to feel out of place in a city filled with potential enemies and becomes very uneasy at the increasing hostility between the two nations.

Meanwhile, Irene's brother Mark's ambitions are rewarded when he is accepted into the Diplomatic Service and, keen to rise in the service as far as he is able, he applies himself to his work; however, Mark has a secret life, which he is struggling to come to terms with and which, if revealed, could detrimentally affect his future as a diplomat. And whilst Irene and Mark are involved with their own problems, their younger sister, Sophia, spends a year in Paris perfecting her French, and mindful of her Curtius in-laws, also studies German. When she returns home, and later war breaks out, Sophia surprises her parents with her decision to train as a VAD and work in an army hospital in France, instead of taking up her hard-won place at Cambridge to study languages. Once trained, Sophia's knowledge of German helps her when she is required to nurse wounded German soldiers in France, but after a tragic incident which leaves her feeling shocked and drained, she is returned to England to rest. And it is back in England that she falls deeply and utterly in love. There is, of course, more to this novel than I have revealed here - there are also more characters involved in the story than I have mentioned and, as the war progresses, those characters' loves and loyalties are put to the test, but I shall leave the remainder of the story for readers to learn for themselves.

'The Iron Necklace' is a well-written and easily readable novel which glides effortlessly over fifty or so years of the lives of the Benson and Curtius families, but it's also one that I found did not enable me to become as caught up in the characters' lives as I would have liked or expected, especially given the emotive period of time that the novel is set in. In a series of very short chapters, the story moves continually from one character to another, from one country to another, and no sooner did I become interested in one person and scenario, then the story moved on to another. I also felt that I didn't get more than a glimpse of any of the characters' inner thoughts and feelings, or felt that I was in sympathy with, or was convinced by, their behaviour and some of their reactions to certain situations - but I cannot explain further without revealing spoilers. Also, as another reviewer here has mentioned, the amount of untranslated German in the text was a little irritating - I can manage with French or a little Spanish, but I have virtually no German, and although I could usually make a 'stab' at what had been said, I didn't feel it should be necessary for the reader to have to either guess or stop reading and find their own translation. All of that said, the concept of the story was a good one, there were parts to the novel that I enjoyed and it worked rather well as a bedtime read for a couple of evenings after two busy days at work. Also Giles Waterfield's first novel: The Long Afternoon has been recommended to me by someone with similar reading tastes to my own and I would, therefore, be happy to try something else by this author.


Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War
Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War
by Julie Summers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Wonderful Women Who Had to Make Do and Mend, 13 April 2015
Would you like a coat made from a blanket? A blazer fashioned from the jacket of your husband's or father's old pyjamas? What about a headscarf made from a duster? Your bra and knickers fashioned from a piece of faulty parachute silk? Or how about some clumpy-looking shoes made with hinged wooden soles? Welcome to the world of women's clothing during World War Two.

Although the Second World War began in September 1939, the rationing of clothes did not begin until 1941 and the austerity measures which followed, referred to as the Utility Scheme, did not take real effect until 1942; however this still meant that the British population had to 'make do and mend' for the remaining years of the conflict and, indeed, for some time afterwards, once the war had ended. As the author states in her introduction, the Second World War wrought almost incalculable destruction, but it also produced astonishing bravery, great leadership and determination, in addition to creativity and inventiveness - and one of the ways in which the British showed their creativity and inventiveness was in the arena of fashion.

As the war progressed and Britain was hit by shortages, fashion designers had no other choice than to work with the materials they could obtain, and this meant that clothes were designed to be simple, streamlined and made with the utmost economy of material. Therefore, pleats in skirts were restricted, as were buttons on coats and jackets; women's dresses were unadorned (no 'frills or furbelows'); men's socks were reduced in length, turn-ups on trousers were forbidden (a deeply unpopular move, apparently) and men's shirts were reduced by two inches in length (which, with the elimination of double cuffs, saved four million square yards of cotton annually).

British women had to make do with altering and mending the clothes they already had from their pre-war wardrobes, supplemented with what they could manage to buy with their clothing coupons, and with the dearth of shampoo, soap and cosmetics, it became even more difficult for women to present themselves in the way they would have liked as the war progressed. And when you take into account food rationing, and the queuing, preparing and cooking of food, and then learn that by 1943, at least 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women between the ages of eighteen and fifty were contributing in one way or another towards the war effort, you become aware of just how busy and resourceful these wartime women must have been.

Written to accompany the Imperial War Museum's exhibition 'Fashion on the Ration' (which runs until 31st August 2015), historian Julie Summers has used diaries, letters and personal stories to enrich her research and, in doing so, has produced this attractively presented and very readable account of fashion in the Second World War; however, it's not just about wartime clothing, but about the people who designed, made and wore those clothes, and it's this that makes this book such an interesting and engaging read.

4 Stars.


Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske
Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske
by Julia Blackburn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Delicate Life of John Craske, 10 April 2015
Julia Blackburn's 'Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske' focuses, as the title suggests, on the life of fisherman-turned-artist, John Craske - however, this beautifully presented book looks at a lot more than its subject, and the author's own life also has a role to play within its pages.

John Craske was born in Norfolk, in 1881, into a family of fishermen and, at the age of eleven, he was out on the fishing boats working as a fisherman himself. In 1917, during the First World War, after being twice rejected from the army on medical grounds, he was accepted on his third application and was sent for training. During his training, Craske underwent some kind of mental and physical breakdown (maybe not the first of its type) and was put into an asylum. His devoted wife, Laura, came to take him away, and she took care of him for the rest of his life, taking him down to the sea in a wheelchair, propping him up in bed when he was so weak he could not lift himself, and supporting him mentally and physically until his death in 1943. During the twenty six years of their life together after the major breakdown, Craske would experience periods of total collapse, where he drifted in and out of what was described as "stuporous states" which could last for many months; at other times he was able to sit up and be aware of what was going on around him, and it was during these periods that Laura was able to take her husband down to the sea which, as Julia Blackburn tells us, was in Craske's blood and where he felt most at home. During his more aware periods, Craske began to carve toy boats and he then took up painting, using whatever materials were to hand - the lid of a bait box, pieces of cardboard or brown paper, windowsills, mantelpieces and doors. Needing to recreate and hold onto the images that floated through his mind, Craske's painting theme was the sea - life in, on and around the sea - and his pictures teemed with the life and energy of the ocean. When Craske was unable to stand and paint, he sat, and when he could no longer sit, he lay in bed and turned his attention to embroidery, with a wooden frame propped up in front of him.

When the poet and long-term partner of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland, visited Norfolk, she discovered John Craske's work and persuaded her friend, and sometimes lover, Dorothy Warren, to exhibit his art in Dorothy's new gallery in London. Although some art critics found Craske's work childishly naive, the exhibition was well-received and, after time, examples of his artwork found their way into the homes of not just Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, but also Peter Pears, John Betjeman and others. However, although Craske produced hundreds of pieces of art, culminating in his hugely ambitious embroidery of the evacuation of Dunkirk ("a sort of modern-day Bayeux Tapestry") his work remains largely unknown to the general public and, as Julia Blackburn discovered once she had set out to write his biography, details about his life and work have not been easy to find. However, on her travels and in her quest to discover more about the artist, Ms Blackburn shares with the reader all sorts of intriguing little snippets of information about the people she met or learnt about on the way - such as information on men who embroider, about Einstein and his short stay in Norfolk in the 1930s, and of the museum-owner whose grandfather managed the Elephant Man. And alongside all of this, Julia Blackburn also shares with the reader certain details about her own life and of events which happened while she was carrying out her research and, interestingly, she mentions how writing this book was rather like working on an embroidered tapestry, where she jumped from different sections and filled them in, before returning to the central line of her story. This is a beautifully presented book, printed on thick, glossy paper and filled with photographs of people, places and with examples of John Craske's paintings and embroideries. It's also a beautifully written book, full of marvellous descriptions of the Norfolk coast and one that makes you feel as if you are travelling alongside the author. I will mention that if you are looking for a conventional biography, then this book with its meandering narrative may not suit, but I found this an unusual, engaging and very enjoyable read and one I would recommend if you are looking for something a little different.

4 Stars.


The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and The Secret History of Wonderland
The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and The Secret History of Wonderland
by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Study, 9 April 2015
Oxford don, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, has followed his highly acclaimed literary biography of Charles Dickens: 'Becoming Dickens' with this beautifully presented book focusing on Charles Dodgson, or Lewis Carroll as he is more widely known, and on Carroll's creation of the Alice who tumbled down a rabbit hole and encountered a series of wonderfully bizarre and dream-like experiences in the hugely popular novels: 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking-Glass'.

The inspiration for Carroll's fictional Alice was Alice Liddell, one of the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, where Carroll was a mathematics don. A reticent young man with a stammer, Carroll took up the post of Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church in 1855 and was ordained as Deacon in 1861, but never took full orders to become a priest. Shortly after Carroll took up his post, the new Dean, Henry Liddell, his wife, his son and his three daughters moved into the newly renovated Deanery. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst tells the reader how Carroll most probably first saw the girls through the window of Christ Church's library, where he worked as sub-librarian, and where from his office on the top floor, he had an excellent view of the Deanery garden. A keen photographer, Carroll was soon taking pictures of the three girls, one of which was the now well-known 'The Beggar Maid' where a barefoot Alice was photographed in a tattered white dress, the top of which has slipped off her shoulder. Over the next few years, Carroll became a regular visitor to the Deanery, and on the 4th of July in 1862, Carroll and a friend named Duckworth, took the three Liddell girls on a boat trip up the River Thames to Godstow. When they reached their destination, they all had a picnic tea on the bank, after which the girls demanded that Carroll tell them a story. And so Carroll began to spin his fantastical fairytale-like story that later became 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' or 'Alice's Adventures Under Ground' as it was originally titled.

The day after the boat trip, Douglas-Fairhurst tells the reader, Alice pestered Carroll to write down his story and 'kept going on and on' until he agreed. The next day he jotted down some headings, but it was several months before the text was completed and almost two years before all the illustrations were ready. Before publication of the book, Carroll took another boat trip with the girls in June of 1863, after which, we learn, Carroll broke off "all significant social contact with the Liddells - or they broke it off with him - for several months." The reasons for this are not entirely clear, and Carroll's entry in his diary for around this date has been removed - however, Douglas-Fairhurst looks past the 'Oxford gossip' and puts forward theories for what might have happened to have caused the rift. Moving on, the author takes us through the rest of Carroll's life - of the publication of his sequel to his first 'Alice' book; of the publication of his nonsense poem: 'Jabberwocky' and 'The Hunting of the Snark'; we learn of his continued interest in photography and of his many photographs of children, some of which were naked studies (although we are informed that Carroll's nude studies formed only a tiny proportion of his child photographs); we read of Carroll's resignation of his Mathematical Lectureship and of his term of office as the Curator of the Common Room at Christ Church; and we read of Carroll's love of the theatre and, later, of his illness and his death from pneumonia in 1898 at the age of sixty-five. However, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst does not end his biography with the death of Carroll, and throughout the book we are kept informed about Alice's life after the publication of the 'Alice' novels.

This is a fascinating and meticulously researched literary biography where the author deals very fairly with his subject, acknowledging that Carroll's fascination with young girls leaves him open to censure, but Douglas-Fairhurst also places Carroll firmly within the context of his time, when the age of consent was twelve years old, when it was not unknown for girls under sixteen to be married and even less unusual for them to become engaged - in fact Carroll's own younger brother, Wilfred, was romantically involved with the young Alice Jane Donkin, whom Carroll photographed, when she was eleven years old, climbing out of a bedroom window depicting an elopement scene. This, of course, does not make these things acceptable, but does explain why Carroll's behaviour may not have seemed so inappropriate at the time. Douglas-Fairhurst also looks at the rumours of Carroll's possible homosexuality, but comments on the lack of evidence and also comments that "our need to make his sexuality fit into established modern categories...cannot be satisfied by anything we know." The most probable conclusion, the author comments, is that Carroll's feelings were sentimental rather than sexual, but I shall leave further discussions for prospective readers of this book to learn for themselves. And, of course, there is a lot more to this biography than Carroll's interest in children, and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has infused his biography with his own love of Carroll's fiction, and like the best biographies, this is one that makes the reader immediately want to put all other reading matter aside and make time to re-read the marvellous 'Alice' novels.

5 Stars.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 15, 2015 1:24 PM BST


The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books
by John Carey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Oxford Life in Books, 7 April 2015
During his long life, John Carey has been a professor of English Literature at Oxford University, a published author, a critic, a book-prize judge and is the lead book reviewer at 'The Sunday Times'. In his introduction to this memoir, John Carey tells us that the idea for writing it originated when a friend suggested he write a history of English literature, and although Carey thought it an attractive idea at the outset, he soon realised that something more personal was called for. Therefore, instead, he has written: "a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on and what became of it." Carey goes on to tell us that his book could be read as a short introduction to English literature, although "admittedly a selective and opinionated one" - and whilst that may be true, this book is also an interesting, amusing and very readable memoir of the author's life, of his time at Oxford University and, most importantly, of his passion for literature.

The son of an accountant, Carey was born in 1934 in Barnes, in London, and although the family moved to Radcliffe in Nottinghamshire during the war, they returned to London in 1947, where Carey attended Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School for Boys. At Richmond and East Sheen where, Carey tells us, he was taught by the kind of teachers who change you for life, he applied himself to his work and, helped by his love of literature, in particular poetry, he did well enough academically to win an open scholarship to St John's College, Oxford. However, before Carey could head off to university, he had to carry out two years of National Service and finding himself posted to Egypt, he did his best to "pretend to be a good soldier" and, in this part of his memoir, he shares with the reader some amusing stories of his time the army. Back in England Carey took up his place at Oxford and, as an ex-grammar school boy amongst a predominance of ex-public school boys, he felt like an intruder and was "prepared to be detained or even ejected if spotted." Class-conscious and quite rightly proud of his grammar school education, Carey nevertheless soon settled in, and once settled at Oxford, he never left, moving from one position and college to another and, at the age of forty, was appointed to the prestigious post of Merton Professor of English Literature.

Obviously the author's love of literature forms the backbone of this book, and we read of how his tastes graduated from 'Biggles' and 'Swallows and Amazons' to Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Pope, and for leisure-time reading: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Stendhal and Zola; we also read of his admiration for the writing of D.H. Lawrence and of his particular regard (I was pleased to see) of George Orwell and his work; in addition we read of Carey's long period reviewing for 'The Sunday Times', and we learn of the famous living writers and poets he came into contact with (Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, amongst others). Carey also shares with the reader his thoughts on people who spend a lot of their lives reading books and comments that, after a time, they prefer reading about things to actually seeing them. He explains that because reading surrounds readers with imaginative allure, when the things they have read about are seen, they seem bald and ordinary - which is maybe why so many of us are sometimes disappointed with the film versions of books we have read and enjoyed. There is, of course, a lot more to this memoir than I have written about here, including mention of the author's personal life, but I shall leave the remainder for potential readers to discover for themselves - however, I will say that John Carey's passion and enthusiasm for literature is evident on practically every page, and although, naturally, I may not necessarily agree with all of his opinions, I found this an informative, amusing and very enjoyable read.

4 Stars.


Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s
Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s
by Virginia Nicholson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Off with the Rose-Tinted Spectacles, 5 April 2015
Virginia Nicholson's latest book of social history 'Perfect Wives' is a well-researched and very readable account which focuses on the lives of young women during the 1950s. Although this period in history was before my time (my mother was a teenager during the late '50s and a young wife in the '60s), I have always enjoyed watching films made during that era, admiring the clothes, the interiors and the seemingly straightforwardness of life - but, as Ms Nicholson's account shows us, being a woman in the 1950s was not necessarily as enjoyable as some of those wonderful films suggest. Among the pages of this book we meet young women for whom going on to further education was extremely unlikely (only 1.2 per cent of female school leavers gained places at university) - in fact many teenage girls, we are told, did not necessarily expect - or even want - to continue with their education and just looked forward to getting married and starting a family.

The author informs us that the aim of many secondary modern schools was to educate girls to become wives and mothers; some schools even had fully equipped 'flats' set up on the school premises and, in 1953, a school in West Sussex opened its doors to Pathe Cinemagazine cameras and filmed the girls practising to be good wives as they swept, polished, made beds, scrubbed the bath tub and made coffee. (The commentary that accompanied the film has to be read to be believed). Therefore, instead of focusing on improving their intellect, most girls were encouraged instead to improve their general appearance in order to attract a man. Monica Dickens writing in 'Woman's Own' advised her readers that: "Marriage is the goal of every female who seeks happiness... It was not intended by Nature that a woman should have to fend for herself." Another publication tells women: "However much women believe in emancipation...they all of them know that unless they capture a husband and have a child they have failed - as a woman." (Can you believe it?).

Virginia Nicholson peppers her text with quotations from the many women she interviewed and she weaves these experiences into her own commentary to make a very readable (if sometimes rather novelistic) account of what life was like for young women during the 1950s and, in this way, we read about women who were happy with their lot in life and those who weren't; we read about housewives, secretaries, beauty queens and prostitutes; we learn about Liz, a farmer's wife, who gave up many of the things in life she enjoyed because her husband disapproved of them and when, out of sheer frustration, she let out a swear word, he confiscated her pearl necklace (for years) until he felt she deserved to have it returned; we read about Eileen, the daughter of a devout Roman Catholic, who became pregnant by a Protestant and even though intermarriage was normally very much discouraged, she was forced to get married because, at the time, there was no other viable choice; we read of how abortion was illegal and how Jessie Butler, on finding herself pregnant with her sixth child, inserted a knitting needle up into her cervix and almost bled to death.

In addition, we read about the lack of sex education and of how some young women knew how babies came out, but had no idea how they 'got in'; and we also read about Janice, a young, gay woman, who had a nervous breakdown, and on confessing to a psychiatrist that she had feelings for women, was sent for aversion therapy, where she was given injections and made to feel physically ill at the sight of women. (Unsurprisingly, this "didn't make her like men and it wrecked her for months"). On a lighter note, we read about the sense of community and of the parade of shops just around the corner, where we would find a butcher, a baker, a fishmonger, a grocer, a tobacconist, a chemist and a confectioner; we read about the fashions of the 1950s - Dior's 'New Look', coned brassieres, roll-ons, suspenders and net petticoats - and we also read of how the advent of affordable (for some) labour-saving appliances made women's lives easier, but also encouraged many couples to strive to 'keep up with the Joneses'. All in all, an informative and entertaining read, and one to make me realise that in being born at the time I was, and into a family who, for decades, have regarded education and life choices for females as important as that for males, I am very fortunate indeed.

4 Stars.

Also recommended by Virginia Nicholson: Singled Out: and particularly: Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939.
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