Author: bookssnob

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

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When Vintage republished a large proportion of Stella Gibbons’ back catalogue a couple of years ago, I was delighted. I’d read and loved the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm as a teenager, but it was impossible to get hold of any more of her novels and I was very keen to try more. Vintage’s jazzy, retro cover designs promised fun and plenty of 1930s period detail, and I snapped up Westwood as soon as it came out. Obviously because I am a book hoarder, it has taken me two years to get to it, and I was quite surprised by what I found. Westwood couldn’t be further from Cold Comfort Farm: rather than arriving in the depths of the countryside, I was transported to wartime London, and the world of a troubled young woman with a heart full of desire.

Margaret Steggles is a twenty something teacher living in Highgate with her unhappily married parents during WWII. She is earnest and romantic, and longs for a life more exciting than the dull and often disappointing one she lives. Plain and unattractive to men, as her unsympathetic mother often tells her, she despairs of finding the joy and happiness her idealistic and sentimental soul seeks through its love of music, literature and art. She is mocked for her seriousness by her pretty, free spirited and fun loving best friend Hilda, who has a queue of boys outside her front door and is batting off proposals like flies. Margaret, however, can’t help but feel things too deeply, and she can’t face life with the unquestioning and simplistic viewpoint Hilda adopts. Desperate for something more than the miserable existence of her parents, Margaret tries to channel her energies into teaching her students, but this just isn’t enough. She longs for adventure, for glamour, for excitement…but where can someone like her find such things?

On Hampstead Heath, it would transpire. For, one misty afternoon, while enjoying a walk over the Heath, Margaret happens to find a lost ration book belonging to Alexander Niland, a famous young painter who Margaret much admires. Full of all sorts of fantasies of what might happen when she meets him, Margaret goes to his house to deliver the ration book, but finds only his pretty and capricious young wife Hebe at home, who then promptly leaves for a party, asking Margaret to stay and babysit the children. She is relieved by Grantey, Hebe’s mother’s maid, who then asks Margaret to come and have tea with her at Westwood, Hebe’s parents’ mansion in Highgate.

This unlikely event causes Margaret to become drawn into the world of the Nilands and the Challises, Hebe’s parents, who happen to be famous playwright Gerald Challis and his celebrated beauty of a wife. Margaret admires Gerald’s work enormously and can hardly bear to be in the same room as him, so great is her awe. She cannot believe her luck at being welcomed into the Challis’ home, and when she becomes firm friends with their eccentric Jewish emigre maid, Zita, a whole new world of colour, culture and vibrancy is opened to her. Margaret begins to neglect her former life entirely, dropping everything to spend as much time at Westwood as possible, which seems to her the epitome of the life she has always dreamed of. However, the arrogant and philandering Gerald is not as perfect as he seems, and neither are Hebe and Alexander. The more time Margaret spends at Westwood, the more she realises that this world she always longed to be a part of might not be an idyll after all…

This is an absolute doorstop of a book, at around 500 pages, and there are so many sub plots involving a whole maze of characters that it would take me far too long to unpick and explain them all. However, Margaret is at the centre of it all, and it is her journey from ingenue to experienced woman of the world that provides the narrative arc throughout, and she is a fascinating and highly empathetic character to follow. Gibbons is marvellous at character portraits, and the world of the Nilands and the Challises in all of its arrogance and eccentricity is marvellously drawn. The real star of the show however is London, which is beautifully and atmospherically described amidst the background of the Blitz. I loved the focus on my old stomping grounds of Hampstead and Highgate, and Gibbons manages to capture the unique charms of these two neighbourhoods perfectly. Her opening description of a mistily autumnal Hampstead has to be one of the finest depictions of London I’ve ever read.

Westwood is not a perfect novel; it is over long, over complicated, and contains some very questionable morals, especially considering the context of when it was written. It is no Cold Comfort Farm, though it is certainly very funny, and while entertaining and enjoyable, it lacks the gravitas it could have had were it a little more focused. I was pleased to read it and experience a different side to Gibbons, but I’m not sure if I feel particularly compelled to read more. Was she a one hit wonder? I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions of her back catalogue!

Notes from the Classroom

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It’s been a challenging year. For much of it, I had utterly fallen out of love with teaching and decided that it wasn’t for me. The crushing workload and constant onslaught of soul destroying government changes to the system made me feel like I was on a hamster wheel: constantly exhausted, stressed and completely unappreciated. Paperwork and observations took up increasing amounts of my time as the prospect of an Ofsted inspection loomed (and never eventually came…roll on next term!). I always had marking to do, always had a lesson to plan, a new text to read and work out how to teach, a new scheme of work to create, a parent complaint to deal with, some paperwork to fill out, a student to console or chase…there was never a moment of rest, reflection or completion within a day. There was always more to do and never a tidy desk to look at and feel a sense of achievement. I often found myself wondering why I was putting myself through it all.

I had plenty of dark days, beating myself up for making yet another bad career decision, for ruining my twenties with aborted career plans, for being a failure at everything I set my hand to. I cried myself to sleep, wondering what I was going to do with my life, where I could go next, when all I had ever wanted to do was be a teacher and now that had all turned to dust.

But slowly, as the evenings grew lighter, the weather grew warmer, and the exams loomed, I began to emerge from my despair and view things from a different perspective. Putting aside the paperwork and the pressures, the actual act of teaching itself is extraordinary. It is endlessly creative, exciting, interactive and full of possibilities. Every lesson is an adventure; a journey of discovery not just for my students, but for me, too. I get to experiment, to try out new methods, to hone existing skills and to develop my own knowledge of literature through listening and responding to the insights of the young people in my classes. Every day I learn something new, and every day I am exposed to fresh ideas and intellectual challenges. In the process of doing this, I get to build relationships with hundreds of fascinating and utterly unique young people, who all come to my lessons with entirely different perspectives. Over time, I get to know them individually and find out what makes them tick. I enjoy teasing out their personalities and being welcomed into the turmoil of their lives. I can see when they’re not happy and need a quiet word of encouragement or commiseration. I take pride in their achievements and give them the praise some of them will never get at home. I laugh with them and cry with them and have a bloody good time with them. They are my joy, my pride, my inspiration and my reward. They are worth every tear I have shed this year, and it took me nearly leaving them behind to realise it.

It makes me sad that teachers have so little respect in our society. It makes me sad that the government treats us with contempt, and treats our children like cogs in a machine. It makes me sad that our pay system is based on the results our children achieve in their exams, as if that is the only worthwhile measure of what we do on a day-to-day basis. It makes me sad that our curriculum is constantly being tampered with to suit the whims of an unqualified and unexperienced government minister who thinks that teachers can’t be trusted to use their expertise and experience. It makes me sad that so much of my time is taken up with pointless paperwork that has nothing to do with giving children a good education. There are so many things that make me sad about our education system and there are so many things I wish I had the power to change.

However, ultimately, I can choose to let these things ruin teaching for me, or I can choose to focus on why I became a teacher in the first place. I became a teacher to make a difference to childrens’ lives. I wanted to be a positive influence. I wanted to open their eyes to the wonders of the written word, and empower them to use language to express themselves creatively. All of these things I get to do on a daily basis, plus so many more wonderful things that I never even imagined would be part of my job description. Yesterday I received a card from one of my most talented pupils, who wrote ‘thank you for teaching me that anything is possible.’ It made me cry because when I read those words I knew that despite all of the difficulties I have faced this year, I have still managed to achieve what I set out to do in my classroom. I couldn’t ask for anything more, really. Being a teacher was never going to be an easy option. That’s why all those people who say teachers are slackers and they wish they got our holidays aren’t queuing up to train to be teachers themselves. But something I have learned this year is that sometimes taking the hardest road is the most rewarding. As my summer holidays start, I am exhausted, mentally and physically, but I already can’t wait to do it all over again.

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

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Furthering my mission to read the many unread books on my bookshelves this summer, I plucked the very seasonally appropriate The Greengage Summer out of its dusty oblivion last week. I bought it for mere pennies a few years ago in a tiny secondhand bookshop in Woodstock, Oxford, after being enchanted by its lovely cover. I know plenty of bloggers love Rumer Godden, but I’ve never read anything by her, so I was excited and intrigued to find out whether she was going to turn out to be an author I liked. I knew from the very first page that I had found something wonderful; atmospheric, lyrical and exquisitely written, the novel launched me directly into the oppressive heat of a glorious French summer ninety or so years ago.

This is a fascinating coming of age story, narrated by Cecil, who, at the time of the events, is 13 years old. Cecil and her gaggle of siblings live in a dull British seaside town, supported by their equally dull Uncle William, as their father has turned out to be rather a failure and spends most of his time abroad on expeditions to find rare horticultural species. Their vague and often harrassed mother is pushed to make the sudden decision to take the children to France on a holiday she can’t afford when their ungrateful behaviour makes her determined to teach them a lesson by showing them the battlefields of WWI.  However, the trip is doomed from the start when the childrens’ mother gets septicaemia from an infected insect bite, and is clearly dangerously ill by the time they arrive at the coolly glamorous hotel, Les Oeillets, in the heart of the Marne’s golden countryside. With their mother taken to the local hospital and the oldest of the children, sixteen year old Joss, incapacitated by ‘the curse’, Cecil and her three younger siblings are left to their own devices, much to the annoyance of the hotel’s proprietors, Mademoiselle Zizi and Madame Corbet, who resent having to be responsible for them. However, Mr Eliot, an enigmatic and handsome British guest, who is in a tempestuous relationship with Zizi, agrees to step in and oversee their care, much to the horror of Zizi, and the delight of Cecil and her easily awed siblings.

Lazy days of pleasurable picnics, bathing and roaming the local medieval town with Eliot follow, with Cecil and her younger siblings forgetting their poor mother entirely in their happiness at such freedom. They adore the charming Mr Eliot, who is so smart and handsome and indulgent, and speaks French with such flair. His mysterious trips to Paris and his volatile relationship with Zizi only add to his air of glamour, but everything changes when Joss recovers from her week of illness and appears one night at dinner, radiant in her delicate beauty. Mr Eliot cannot take his eyes off her, and soon makes every excuse to accompany the children on lavish days out, revelling in the opportunity to be close to Joss. The other adults at the hotel are quick to notice Mr Eliot’s evident admiration of Joss, and Mademoiselle Zizi can hardly contain her fury at being supplanted by a teenager. With the temperature rising both inside and outside of the hotel, the children begin to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the position they are in. Mr Eliot’s behaviour becomes more suspicious with every passing day, and he displays moments of anger that are highly unsettling. The children begin to wonder whether Mr Eliot is really who he says he is, and whether Les Oeillets is the safe haven their Mother imagined…

This initially seems to be a novel about every child’s secret dream; the opportunity to run free without any adult supervision, spending all day simply pursuing your own pleasures. However, as the plot develops, it becomes increasingly clear that the adults at Les Oeillets cannot be trusted, and their intense, secret and passionate lives impress themselves strongly upon Cecil, whose innocence is slowly eroded by seeing the baser side of human nature. Alongside this, the reader is treated to an intriguing mystery in the form of Mr Eliot, who is an absolutely fascinating and appalling character in equal measure. Rumer Godden writes with such style, perfectly evoking the languor and faded beauty of post-war provincial France, and the emotions of an impressionable teenage girl. An entirely absorbing world is created on the pages, and I was transported effortlessly back in time through Godden’s ability to write with such vivid detail of the dusty, pastel coloured French streets, flower filled gardens, crisp linen, silver cutlery, and cool shaded rooms that form the setting of this remarkable tale. It really is a must read, and should be a classic of young adult literature. I think it’s definitely time for a Godden revival.

 

West of the River

 

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portobello road

I rarely go far into West London, but this weekend I decided a trip to somewhere different was well overdue. Intrepid university friend Emma and I therefore met up at Notting Hill in the unexpectedly tropical heat, and had a pleasant stroll through the market on Portobello Road, stopping to browse at some of the stalls until we had enough of the crowds and branched off onto a side street. We popped into an interesting looking, wonderfully musty smelling church, went into an excellently serviced public toilet (worth remembering if you’re visiting Portobello Road for the day) and thoroughly enjoyed marvelling at the beautiful, colourful architecture that makes up so many of the streets and squares in the area. 

kensal green canal

We then headed off towards Kensal Green, walking through the stately streets of Lancaster Gate, Ladbroke Grove and along the canal that was full of brightly painted narrow boats, until we reached the gate of Kensal Green Cemetery. It is my mission to make it around all of the ‘Seven Sisters’ cemeteries in London, and to date I have only managed three, which isn’t a very good tally. Highgate will always be my favourite, thanks to its romantic air of neglect, but Kensal Green is a very close second. I much preferred it to Brompton, which is rather conventional in its layout and contains few interesting monuments. Kensal Green is actually the oldest cemetery in London, having been founded in the 1830s, and is still very much in use today.

kensal green tomb

 

kensal green cemetery

The large chapel buildings and colonnades are rather dilapidated, and made from a weathered stone that looks rather Southern European, especially in the sunlight. There are a fair few areas of mainly modern graves, but there are also several clusters of fantastic Victorian graves that have a real air of Highgate about them; crumbling angels intertwined with vines, elaborate mausoleums in Egyptian and Gothic style, and a range of urns, broken columns and weeping women, all of which would be familiar to those of us who haunt cemeteries for fun. I was most fascinated by the grave of Wilkie Collins, one of my favourite Victorian authors, and also that of Princess Sophia, daughter of George III, who was not afforded a spot in a traditional Royal burial ground due to having had a child out of wedlock. I couldn’t find the grave of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which was a shame, but it is in there, so if anyone wants to go and find it and send me a picture, I’d be grateful! 

putney bridge

After a thorough explore, Emma and I parted ways. I headed off to Putney to meet my former flatmate, and as usual, wondered why I have never lived in such a beautiful part of London as I revelled in the gorgeous view across Putney Bridge. We were out partying in Fulham on Saturday night, but on Sunday morning I arose bright and early and caught a bus that took me on a lovely journey through the streets of West London and all the way to Regent Street, from where I walked to the National Portrait Gallery to see the new exhibition on Virginia Woolf. It is absolutely marvellous. I was fascinated by every exhibit and marvelled at the photographs that have been unearthed; they reveal a very different side to the Virginia popularised by the rather romanticised images taken of her when she was in her early twenties. It was very moving to see the final two letters written before she died, where her tiny handwriting expresses her terror of having to face yet another breakdown. The sheer variety of exhibits is wonderful; from copies of the newspapers Virginia and her siblings created as children to first editions and manuscripts of the novels, this is a must see for any Woolf enthusiast. I already can’t wait to go back again; it was the perfect end to a lovely London weekend.

Fair Stood the Wind for France by H E Bates

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This is one of those rare war novels actually written and published during the war, bringing with it that crackling sense of tension that can only be created by the author’s ignorance of when – or if – the conflict will end, and how much worse it will get before it does. It is also unusual for me as I have never read a war novel that is set in occupied France, and focuses on a British pilot trying to escape to freedom with the help of a French family. I found this take on the experience of living during WWII both enlightening and thrilling, and I was absolutely engrossed from the first page.

As the novel opens, John Franklin is flying over France with his crew on a now-routine journey back to base in England. Franklin is on autopilot; he has survived years of flying amidst the skies of Europe where enemies swarm like flies, and has seen many a friend disappear in a ball of flames. He knows what it is to feel terror, but surviving this long has given him a sense of immortality; he cannot conceive the possibility of his own death, and has even begun to find many of his flights rather mundane in their repetitive nature of trundling back and forth over familiar territory. So, when his plane malfunctions and he is forced to bring it down in a French field, Franklin and his crew find themselves in a situation they have been well trained for, though have never had to face. With no idea where they are or what they might be walking into, and with Franklin nursing a severely injured arm, the group of pilots are forced to take their chances on a remote farmhouse. There they find a young girl, her father, grandmother and the family’s hired man, who, due to their own wartime experiences, are eager to help. However, with the Germans on the prowl and Franklin’s condition growing more serious by the day, the pilots know they can’t afford to stay put for long.

Much to Franklin’s distress, his crew mates are forced to leave without him, and the family take on great risk by keeping him and obtaining medical help from the local town. Meanwhile, Franklin has grown to love the beautiful and pure young French girl who has a frank and unwavering certainty about everything she does, and the thought of placing her in danger tortures him. As the days go on, the situation gets progressively worse. The Germans harden their grip on the local community, plunging everyone into a state of fear. Franklin knows he must go, but disabled and cast adrift in the middle of unfamiliar territory, how will he be able to find his way across the border and back to England alone?

This is where things get really exciting, and I won’t say what happens, because it would ruin the adventure of reading it. The ending is wonderfully gasp inducing and the evocation of a war-battered, exhausted France is haunting and powerful. I found this perspective on the experience of war utterly fascinating, and the bravery of the French citizens in risking everything to support their comrades was awe inspiring. So many ordinary people did so many extraordinary things, without record and without recognition, and reading Fair Stood the Wind for France has given me a real desire to find out more about the experiences of civilians who risked their lives to fight against the enemy’s most sinister weapon; fear and intimidation of the wider populace. H E Bates might not be the most eloquent writer in the world (as a fan of lexical variety, his tendency to repeat the same phrases did grate on me ever so slightly), but this is such a fantastic story full of genuine suspense that it really is a must-read for those wanting to experience what it was to be at war.