Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

There is something about the experience of birth that never grows tiresome and it's all the better if someone else is going through it!  Knowing this series is airing over in Britain at the moment with an audience even larger than the first few episodes of Downton Abbey my interest was piqued.  My husband was given strict orders to return from his trip to London with a copy of the book.  My life (and his come to think of it) would be so much simpler if I lived on the OTHER side, don't you think?  I digress. 

Jennifer Worth died less than one year ago but left behind a legacy of stories about her time as a midwife during the 1950s.  Her language is plain but through evocative storytelling she turned some of the most dire living conditions and unsavoury behaviour into a page-turner.  Not all of her stories are such though and despite abject poverty some families basked in strong values with plenty of love.  Wearing her starched nurses uniform and the stiletto heels so much in fashion while making her rounds on a bicycle, Nurse Worth attended women in the east end as they progressed through their pregnancy.  Called upon to perform an antenatal visit at one home, Jennifer was sure the notes were recorded incorrectly as it said the pregnancy was the woman's twenty-fourth.  Surely the nun from St Nonnatus meant to write fourteen but no, upon arrival the basement laundry was chock full of happy offspring helping Mum with the wash.  And not a scuffle, argument or brawl amongst them!

Young girls ending up pregnant as a result of prostitution, women fearful that the moment of birth will reveal their relationship with one of the recent black immigrants and stories of the workhouse are heartbreaking.  These were the days when social assistance meant a bowl of hot soup or some clothes donated by the church.  One character in particular though never failed to make me laugh out loud.  Chummy was born into an aristocratic family and christened Camilla Fortescue-Cholmeley-Browne but at six-foot-two with size eleven shoes she carried off her nickname brilliantly.  The poor woman was a bull in a china shop but her positive spirit and upper class cheers of "what-ho" and "good show" were so endearing that I beamed at each of her appearances.  In the series Chummy is played by the fabulous Miranda Hart and once the book was finished I had a peek at her in action on youtube, she's brilliant!

Social history fans will absolutely gobble up this book.  A lack of interest in the blood and guts of labour and delivery may weed out the odd reader but if the other novels by Worth are half as riveting then you're spoiled for choice.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

In Search of The Shooting Party

Other than a night out to see Danny Bhoy's comedy routine last weekend (which we quite enjoyed) it has been all work and very little play lately.  So with the forecast calling for warm temperatures and sunny skies, R and I noted three second-hand bookshops we haven't been to yet and set off.

A few titles were on my 'look for' list but The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate was going to be my coup find of the day if I could spot a copy.  It all began with an enthusiastic review by not only a blog friend but a reading enthusiast I hold in high esteem.  When Rachel says drop what you're doing and get your hands on a certain book right this very minute I usually do.  Well, there was this thing with Willa Cather that I tried to ignore but one of her novels landed in my mailbox anyway, courtesy of you-know-who.  Book Snob is passionate about spreading the word when it comes to a good read let me tell you!

So R and I visited Re: Reading where I browsed but didn't buy, Balfour Books (above photo) where I bought a much-read copy of Jenny Wren by E. H. Young and Indifferent Heroes by Mary Hocking.  This is the second in a trilogy but sounds so fantastic that I'm willing to spend the rest of my days in search of the first and third books in the series.  The very astute owner noted my choices and pointed out The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman to which I replied "Read it and loved it!".  Next up was Ten Editions with impossibly high shelves stacked with so many books, mostly non-fiction, that it's going to be saved for another day.  Less than a mile away was my go-to shop, BMV Books, and my last hope to find The Shooting Party.

Not only were several copies in stock but I found a pristine edition that had been reduced by almost half!  They also had very reasonably priced copies of an Elizabeth Bowen I don't have and an L.P. Hartley which has been on my wishlist for ages.  It's all about the hunt and delayed gratification, right?  Then, lo and behold, I spied a copy of Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett which I'm quite sure is a first edition and priced at only $2.  Thinking of Simon from StuckInABook I had to snap it up as he's a fan and would have cheered me on no doubt.  I've never read anything by this author so I'm curious to discover the appeal.

Being more than pleased with my finds it was time to get out and enjoy the sunshine and buy my long-suffering husband and book search partner some lunch.   

Friday, March 23, 2012

Persephone-Inspired Decorating

It has been seven months since The Heiress left for campus life overseas, a respectable time lapse before mulling over what to do with her room.  She had the second largest bedroom with a double-sized bed while a Queen languished in the smallest room, not literally but you know what I mean.  It just made sense to switch the beds around and one thing lead to another.  Out came the paint swatches and honestly, while we tried to keep it fun the anguish of handing your final choice over to the paint mixer...well it's gut-wrenching! 

We wanted a fresh look and having already been down the road of taupe, greens and yellow we thought a blue/grey tone would make a nice change.  Several years of rejoicing over the sophisticated yet tranquil colour of a Persephone book cover provided the inspiration for a place to start.  We have since discovered that blue/grey is one of the hardest to nail down.  There are so many undertones in that spectrum that you could paint your perfect colour one day and walk in the next morning to a lavender whip.  A couple of disappointments over the years has taught us to ask the technician which colours are added and in what concentration.  You wouldn't think that brown would be in a blue/grey shade but in some cases it is which makes the tone a bit 'muddier' so out goes that choice.

Finally deciding that Behr's, Skyline Steel, was our best bet it was time to get out the rollers.  We love it!  It's one of those chameleon colours that changes throughout the day depending on light and at night still looks fresh but cosy.  If The Heiress ever graces our threshold again I hope she likes what we've done with her room.  Now the search is on for drapery....

Monday, March 19, 2012

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

Downton Abbey withdrawal symptoms have subsided ever so slightly with the storyline of Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple.  The book opens on Christmas Day in 1909, with everyone gathered together in a comfortable house surrounded by snow.  There isn't anything like the controlled chaos of a 'downstairs' in this adaptation of Whipple's Edwardian family but you get the idea.

The Ashton's saga is a scaled-down version but several of the storylines from Downton Abbey are recognizable.  An older generation holding steadfast to tradition, a younger set trying to break free from the mold, letters calling young men to war and bandage classes for women.  And if men aren't always having the last word these days, society still dictates conscience and behaviour to quite a degree.

Louisa and her philandering husband, Robert, are parents to adult children who still run to them for advice on how to remove themselves from sticky situations.  With so many dynamics involving the core family, respective spouses and offspring they provide enough fodder for their own lively soap opera.  Whipple's restraint prevents Greenbanks from running to high drama but successfully brings the reader to a state of anticipation wondering how each event will conclude.

Affairs, illegitimacy, the female struggle for independance, World War I, money woes, sly financial dealings and yes, even a dishy vicar keep Louisa from growing too complacent about her family and staff.  Her one constant is granddaughter, Rachel, who prefers the spare room at Greenbanks to her bedroom at home.  And who could blame her with a father who scoffs at the idea of women filling their heads with knowledge.  I silently egged her on through each opportunity to achieve fulfillment and laughed when she used putty to fill the holes in her desk in an attempt at dentistry.

Greenbanks is a thoroughly enjoyable read, a cosy book.  My only issue with it came at the very end when a few words into the afterword I realized it wasn't the next chapter!  Surely an author I adore wouldn't abandon me right then and there, wondering about the impact of a certain character's absence at the breakfast table?  But she did.  I'm not overly ticked about it or anything, life goes on...which is the point Dorothy Whipple was making with this sort of ending.  I would like to think happily ever after comes into it but I'm not so sure.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My View of the Harbour in Oakville

With Elizabeth Taylor's evocative novel A View of the Harbour still fresh in my mind, R and I went for a drive to Oakville.  The temperatures have been way above seasonal which makes my heart sing for those of us who haven't flocked to Florida for March break.  For those interested in a snippet of history, this harbour played a part in the Underground Railroad.  During the 1800s, several captains hid slaves from the United States on their ships so they could escape to safe houses dotted throughout the region.
Deacon came along so naturally Just An Olde Fashioned Butchery was our first stop for sausage on a bun.  They are the absolute BEST!  The minute we parked the car on a sidestreet his nose picked up the scent wafting from the barbeque set up out front and we let him lead the way.  After a stroll up one side of the main street and down the other we grabbed something sweet and found a bench on the grounds of the Erchless Estate which houses the Oakville Museum.  And if you're a Canadian kid you play on the moose statue while cast-iron wolves stalk nearby.

The Black Forest Bakery always has a line-up on the weekend and it's a rare thing for us not to join the queue.  My jeans wore a dusting of icing sugar by the time my Empire cookies were all gone but what did I care?  The sun was warm and shining on our back, we had a content dog by our side and even though the calendar still says Winter, it couldn't have been more like the perfect Spring day.  Who needs Florida?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

'I am a bad mother', she once more told herself and fought back the feelings of shame and oppression which assailed her at this admission.  'When I have finished this book I will never write another word.  I'll devote myself to Stevie, get Prue married somehow, turn Robert's shirt-cuffs, have the hall re-papered.'

Beth Cazabon shouldn't feel so guilty.  If she stopped daydreaming about scenes for her latest book she would twig that her husband is having an affair with her best friend and neighbour.  She spends almost as much time peeking from behind the curtains as the other villagers but she is blind to this particular deceit.  Even the sweeping lamp atop the lighthouse acts as an eye, surveying all that goes on amidst the damp streets and neat houses in Newby.

Having a keen eye for observation herself, Elizabeth Taylor brilliantly evokes the mood of a claustrophobic community.  Even Bertram Hemingway, a retired naval officer and recent resident, notices how often Tory, elegant and divourced, quick steps back and forth between the Cazabons' and her own front door.  With his gallant offers to buy various women drinks at the pub or escort them home safely he soon becomes a favourite with Lily Wilson who has the creepy occupation of running the Waxworks Exhibition.  The latest attraction being the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who would be aghast to know that cast-off clothing and paraphernalia will constitute part of the wardrobe on their waxy frames.

While Beth may be oblivious to her husband's affair their twenty year-old daughter, Prudence is not.  Her inability to broach the subject with her mother means showing up red-faced with shame at Tory's front door when, as the village doctor, her father's services are required.  Struggling herself with the idea of being on the cusp of womanhood Prudence spends a considerable amount of each day boiling offal for the cats' dinner and enjoying the sensation of their fur against her bare skin at night.  Barely able to express herself, even the howling winds that blow in from the sea steal the words from her mouth at times.  There is also a younger daughter, Stevie, 'the fifteen years between Prudence and Stevie, suggested that they were haphazardly conceived' who screams when she doesn't get her own way and acts quite silly causing no end of  frustration for her impatient father.  I love it!   

Elizabeth Taylor's also drops in some fabulously comic moments when you least expect them.  Towards the end of the book I found a scene reminiscent of something from Catherine Tate's collection of characters and it made me laugh out loud.  After hours and hours of concocting death scenes and funeral services for a character in her book, Beth is frozen with fear at the thought of having to attend a service for one of the villagers.  'But, Robert, I couldn't!  I have never been to a funeral in my life.  I shouldn't know what to do.  I should hate it.  Oh, hate it!' 

Most of the time A View of the Harbour is quite subtle, its characters go about their business and the reader bears witness.  But Elizabeth Taylor brilliantly illustrates that regardless of how banal or tedious our day-to-day lives may seem, a profusion of thoughts and emotions keeps us constantly engaged even when we are silent or solitary.  A zinger of a last paragraph left me wishing there was a sequel.  My highest praise is reserved for Taylor's later novels but I quite enjoyed the time I spent reading this book and most definitely recommend it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Hidden Family Treasure

Winter blahs can be a blessing in disguise.  While my husband was away last month and the house was as quiet as it can be with a busy dog in residence, I dug out the family Bible.  Being the eldest makes me the keeper of this precious piece of my history and ever more curious about the people who came before.  Hidden between the pages, and by whose hand goodness only knows, are little bits of treasure.
The other side of this newspaper clipping from Saturday, August 1, 1959 is a poem to commemorate a visit to Canada by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (I'm not the only anglophile!).  But there was a bonus treat on the reverse side, baseball stats featuring Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

The front of an envelope addressed to my grandfather when he was ten years-old.  Who could have sent it and what did they write about?
Someone was trying their hand at a touch of needlework.  The message above is touching but the one below is worrying....
A couple of years ago I tucked in some theatre tickets but the crisp digital print looks vulgar in comparison.
Most poignant has to be the bits of flower and fern pressed between so many pages.  I would love to think this ages old lily was part of a bridal bouquet but it may very well have been part of a funeral wreath.  My great-grandfather drowned while out in a canoe and his grandson died at the age of four, that death isn't explained.

Following the line of descendants backwards, I was able to pinpoint a man named Samuel who was born in 1678 and lived in or near Exeter, England.  Woolcombing was named as a family occupation so it is fun to imagine that perhaps ancestral roots are calling this anglophile home, or responsible for the balls of wool stashed in my closet.  He left England's shores for America in 1700, a journey the likes of which I can't even imagine.  Samuel married a woman several years later with the family name of 'Sweet', delightfully one of her family members bore the name....wait for it....Valentine!  How charming.

Flipping through pages of recorded births and deaths my heart broke for Samuel's grandson and his wife.  Their two year-old son died on December 12, 1777 and then exactly one year later, to the day, another son was delivered stillborn or died later that day.  What are the chances and how cruel is fate?  It would be two and a half years before another baby was documented.  It is also interesting but not unexpected to watch the number of children born to families dwindle from double digits to just one as in our case.

I can't imagine there will be very much guessing about my life required by my descendants, what I get up to on weekends or read before bed is on my blog.  But how cool is it to have over 300 years of existence, concrete proof of a life lived before, stored cosily in my closet amongst my sweaters?  It is both fantastic and humbling to play my part.  As for that 'Watch and prey' mini-sampler, there is a great aunt who had a bear skin from her very own kill but she is from the other side of the family.  And yes, despite the pretty shoes and Cath Kidston bags, I can stack a mean cord of wood.

Friday, March 2, 2012

All Work and No Play...

(the Artist's Niece, 1934)

Today will be my eleventh day in a row of going off to work and there is yet another shift tomorrow.  All work and no play...well, that's not entirely true.  I did whip in to the Reuse Centre (horrible dusty place but a treasure trove for books) and found a first edition of Bond Street Story by Norman Collins.  Having a peek at the first few paragraphs before marching off to the circulation desk at the library brought a huge smile to my face.  And our new stove is being delivered later this afternoon!

In the meantime, I thought it was time to change the scenery a bit.  This portrait by Harold Harvey (1874 - 1941) of his niece captures a look of complete serenity.  Something I hope to achieve on Sunday with a day of complete nothingness.