Monday, May 28, 2012

An Oasis in High Park

It took me all of ten seconds early Saturday morning to convince R to drop the garden tools for a few hours and enjoy a mini-break.  We have been driving past High Park in Toronto for years and each time we pledge to stop by one day.  The sun has been blazing and the humidity is already making the air thick so we brought Deacon along to enjoy the cool paths.  Finding a car park in the bustling city and crossing four lanes of traffic we entered in on a dirt path amongst a grove of trees and within minutes the sound of the cars was replaced by birdsong.

Colburne Lodge is a Regency-style cottage built in 1836 by John George Howard.  The idea behind the design is for the structure to be as spare and plain as possible so the focus remains on the garden and surrounding nature.  John and his wife, Jemima, had no children and bequeathed the house to the City in return of a small pension.  Most of the articles in the home are just as they were when the couple lived there.
Peeking through a window in the kitchen it looks as though someone will be back any minute to fetch a basin. 
There were areas of High Park that reminded me of Waterlow Park in Highgate, London and it didn't take me long to have a quick daydream about being back there.  We were naughty and clicked Deacon off of his leash so he could jump into a filtered pool to cool off.  It was all fun and games until we realized it was at least a three foot jump down and a wet dog Deacon's size couldn't shoot back out without a set of steps.  R had to reach down and grab hold of a soaking wet coat and heave ho.
And what sort of oasis would be complete without a baby Llama?  High Park has a zoo that is just the right size to excite an elementary class without taxing them.  This little one was making little repetitive groaning sounds which I'm sure meant he wanted his harness off, poor thing.  But oh couldn't you just give him/her a big cuddle?

The rest of the weekend was spent clearing weeds and patching with grass seed, mowing the lawn and R is still clearing an island of tree roots and feels like he is digging his way to China.  He wasn't all that cheered up by my attempt to reduce the situation by mentioning Victorians clearing massive fields of trees and stone.  Oh well, I would be the first to admit that not all of my ideas are good ones.

Friday, May 25, 2012

White Cliffs and Women During Wartime

A few days ago The Heiress took herself off for an adventure and sent me this photo of a small section of the iconic white cliffs of Dover.  There was an eerie moment when I opened the file as just two hours earlier I had been thinking of asking her to send me some pictures should she ever find herself going out that way.  My train of thought came from being completely engrossed in the book Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson.  This is a brilliant work of non-fiction from the World War II era and despite not even hitting the halfway mark yet I thought I would share a few anecdotes....

Lady Diana Cooper, married to Duff Cooper, would carry a bag stuffed with some of her diamonds, 200 GBP in cash, make-up essentials and passport to a cubicle in a subterranean Turkish bath.  Popping a sleeping pill she would spend the night and when the all-clear sounded in the morning she would head home.  Her staff would bring a breakfast tray to her room and she would enjoy The Times, have a nap and then it was off to The Ritz for drinks. 

The Henreys were living in Normandy with their infant son when the Germans crossed into France.  As they watched the coastline burning they knew escape was their only chance for survival.  Madeleine took a last look around the house, gathered a few things and with her husband, their baby and her mother they left for the British Consulate.  She had a British passport, her son had a British father but her mother was barred entry despite their pleas.  Can you just imagine how heartbreaking a scene it would have been for mother and daughter?  I was so relieved to find out that five years later they were reunited, thank goodness.

As Frances walked home, dressed in her first-aid uniform, after a heavy night of bombing, she passed the remains of a building.  A doctor, a nurse and some other wardens shouted for her assistance as they stood over a gaping hole leading down to the basement.  Frances were very tiny, just the right size to squeeze into an opening to administer aid to a man they could hear below crying out in agony.  The space was so tight she had to remove her dress to be lowered into the opening, head first.  The poor man's injuries were so horrific that she vomited repeatedly when she was pulled back up.  The doctor gave her a cloth soaked in chloroform and Frances was lowered once again to end the man's suffering.  It was euthanasia but the poor man welcomed it as he inhaled deeply from the cloth.

Mrs Milburn, like many other women, blew apart the culture of womanhood and began cursing as they never would have dreamed of before and using the word 'hate' with such passion.  I did have to laugh when she wrote that the vermin eating the vegetables in her garden were given names like Hilter, Goering and Himmler before being dispatched.  One woman working in an aircraft factory in Bristol broke three hammers as she worked on Spitfires, each blow she delivered was with Hitler in mind.

We have all read stories or watched films in which young lovers marry in the blink of an eye during wartime but I am still amazed by just how quickly some went about binding themselves in holy wedlock.  In some instances a call for duty after a couple of evenings out dancing with a young girl was enough to have a man down on one knee.  There were also loads of young women and girls sitting through a night of bombing in a tube station vowing to have sex at the first chance they got.  There was no way they were going to die virgins!  Less exciting perhaps, but hilarious, were the two friends who made a pact not to die in their curlers so with every air-raid siren they whipped off their headcover and unrolled their hair, no matter how tired.  Once the all-clear was sounded their curlers were put back in to place.

This is such an addictive read and I can't count how many times I have said to myself 'just one more page and then I'll get going'.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

'I would not have gone to war for a kindness, perhaps, but for a grace I would, and did.  For I had no doubt, as my voice floated upwards, who was going, or why.'

L. P. Hartley was edging toward his sixties when he wrote The Go-Between but he certainly had not lost the capacity to remember what it was like to be a child.  As Leo Colston travels through the story, Hartley keenly reminds us how it felt to go unnoticed by adults and ignorant as to what so many things are about.  There is charm though in the swirl of wonder and curiousity amidst so many unknowns and it can be one of the best times of our lives.  Hartley poignantly defends the idea that ignorance is bliss, at least in childhood.

The story begins with Leo as a mature man routing through an old red cardboard box full of the sorts of things a small boy would call treasure.  Finding a diary from the summer of 1900, when he turned thirteen, he recalls being bullied but also the most fantastic case of coincidence resulting in his becoming something of a hero to other bullied youth.  Reading more from his past, Leo finally processes the events of an unusually hot summer spent with the Maudsley family as a playmate for Marcus,  a friend from his dormitory.

Brandham Hall is a world apart from Leo's modest home and upbringing.  In this upper class mansion, clothes are changed often, meals are formal, servants pick your things up from the floor, appearance is everything and sticking to your class in relationships matters.  The Maudsleys seem to relish in the project of 'bringing up' Leo to their standard and outfit him in expensive garments in cooler fabrics rather than see him suffer in his hot, scratchy wool.  The colour they choose for him is green which is rather symbolic and intentional on the author's part I'm sure.

While staying at Brandham Hall, Leo develops quite the crush on Marcus's older sister, Marian.  When she asks if he would mind delivering a note to a nearby farmer, Leo jumps at the chance to serve.  He then becomes a go-between but a rewarding feeling of being useful turns to one of jealousy and dread.  Just what is going on between the farmer and Marian that requires such secrecy?  Rather than enjoy all the wonders of an idyllic summer holiday spent frolicking in cool ponds under a blazing sky, Leo agonizes over things he can't fully understand until a dreadful day of reckoning.  His blissful ignorance of the adult world has vapourized and he is changed forever. 

The library I work for is in the midst of a massive weeding campaign and last week I snapped up a discarded copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  This story is included as one of them.  The Go-Between and The Hireling are two books by this author that I have thoroughly enjoyed but be prepared, not only will L. P. Hartley's writing grab your heart but he goes for your guts as well.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My American by Stella Gibbons

'It was autumn.  Kenwood House, the eighteenth-century mansion on the edge of Hampstead Heath, had been recently opened to the public by King George the Fifth and its beauties were still sufficiently unfamiliar to attract crowds and admire the collection of pictures inside the building.'

Amy Lee is a scruffy little girl when she happens upon Robert Vorst who is slightly older at thirteen years-old.  He is visiting England with his mother and aunts and biding his time in the courtyard until they emerge from their tour of this magnificently situated historical home.  Cheekily asking if he could loan her six pence for the fare home, Amy puts out her hand for a coin and tucks it into her glove for safekeeping.  Shortly afterwards she pulls it out to have a look and is more than a little hurt to discover a buffalo head staring back at her, it's an American coin and useless to her.  It is not the last she sees of Robert though.

The poor thing is a bit of an urchin, growing up without a mother and barely cared for by a father who really didn't want her in the first place.  Through circumstance, Amy, ends up living with the Beeding brood where another child about the place is simply a case of the more, the merrier.  But for a girl who counts the seconds until she can be alone with her pen and notebook to create her stories the hustle and bustle sometimes proves to be a bit maddening.  Sharing her deepest secret desire with a teacher, Amy, is allowed to hide her notebook away in a filing cabinet at school and write in solitude after class.

It all sounds absolutely delicious doesn't it?  My American felt a bit like a three course meal to me in that it has a tempting appetizer, the meat of the story follows.  And then, just when I was really looking forward to the dessert things got a bit weird and the book turns into a dime store crime novel!  Now I am quite sure that in 1939 when this was published there were hoards of fifteen year-old girls just lapping up every episode of illegal activity and sexual innuendo but I found it a bit of a struggle and almost lost the will to continue at one point.  Where was her editor?  But, I did persevere through almost 450 pages for the sake of those who might still be reading my post at this point.  The dessert does finally arrive but my goodness, what a wait.

This is the third Stella Gibbons book that I have read and found to be enjoyable enough but I would be hard pressed to shout from the rooftops about any of them.  So now I am wondering whether it would be worth my time to give Cold Comfort Farm a try, am I missing the jewel in the crown?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors in Burlington

One Man, Two Guvnors was the show that disappointed so many visitors to London of late because you could not get a ticket for love nor money.  Last September, while walking along the Strand to meet up with Claire (Paperback Reader), I passed The Adelphi and sighed knowing that the inside of that theatre and the play would remain a mystery. 

Thursday night, my husband and I were passing the time with some reading material when he shouted out "Hang on....!".  There was an advertisement from one of our local movie theatres declaring that One Man, Two Guvnors would be playing on Saturday afternoon as part of a series to bring Broadway and West-End theatre to people around the globe.  This was great news!

Twenty-four people congregated around the centre seats of the vast theatre and we laughed our way through the next three hours.  There was a fifteen minute intermission and everyone chatted to their neighours about how we liked the play thus far so it did feel just like being at the theatre...minus the massive curtains, balconies and glasses of wine.  James Corden was perfect, ditto for Oliver Chris, Jemima Rooper was not only wonderful but adorable too.  We spilled out of the theatre and into the lobby mixing with the throngs of kids holding buckets of popcorn waiting to see The Avengers.  Not exactly the Strand but we had a fabulous time.

Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch, is scheduled for next month!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Books, Buck House and Buckets

Last weekend we were in Toronto and with a quick 'see you soon!' shouted over my shoulder at my husband I made straight for the 'H' section of BMV for another L P  Hartley title.  Poor Stella Gibbons has been sandwiched between one excellent read, The Hireling, and another, The Go-Between, reported to be even better.  While My American is lovely I really can't say it has me rushing home from work to pick up where I left off or flicking on my bedside lamp in the middle of the night to sneak a few pages in.  Who knows though, the ending may just have me eating my words.

I also wanted to stop in to Nicholas Hoare after receiving an email reporting the closure of two of his shops, one in Montreal and one in Ottawa.  The rents are rising by a ridiculous amount and I heaved a sigh of relief that one of my favourite bookshops in Toronto hasn't been affected, yet.  Too many times have I enjoyed all the glory of this fine establishment and then bought the titles that caught my eye on The Book Depository to save money (mind you, their prices are creeping upwards since Amazon's buyout).  I can't continue to have my cake and eat it too so I dished out for Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson, a book I've been coveting for quite some time.  A few weeks ago I pulled out my copy of Sisters at Arms about nurses during several conflicts and was so upset by the treatment and rape of these brave women at the hands of the Japanese that I had to set it aside.  Usually I wouldn't shy away from tales of horror but in that book it was unrelenting, hopefully Nicholson's book will have a lighter side at least some of the time.

Oh, and I had an email yesterday from The Heiress.  She was in London with a friend and the Duchess of Cornwall rode past in a car just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace.  And not one mention of what she was wearing, nor any description of a feathered hat or shiny brooch.  I will just have to use my imagination while giving the floors the wash they need so desperately and then there is the weeds to see to.  This exercise in procrastination has come to an end.  Happy Friday!