Friday 19 April 2024

'The Secret Vanguard' by Michael Innes


Michael Innes is a favourite author of mine and I've managed to collect nearly all of his Inspector Appleby mysteries (and there are many of them). 'The Secret Vanguard' from 1940 is one of the books that was missing from my collection, and after reading a good review of it on a book blog a few months ago I had to seek it out. I read it very quickly a few days ago and it was quite a gripping adventure, with many similarities to John Buchan's 'The Thirty-Nine Steps', which I'd also recently re-read during my John Buchan reading marathon this Spring. I seem to have read several stories this year with someone being pursued by up-to-no-gooders!

Here is a brief description from the back of the book:  "Our lovely heroine and her various accomplices are the object of a superb chase across Scotland by a scheming band of undercover Nazis.  Sir John Appleby of Scotland Yard-a master craftsman in the art of crime and counterespionage-comes to the rescue, and the British empire stands secure once more."

Friday 11 February 2022

Books Read In 2021

 Books Read In 2021:  Not the longest list...

A Shakespeare Motley:  An Illustrated Compendium   2020

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

Midwinter by John Buchan   1927

Secret Sceptre by Francis Gerard   1937

An Eye For A Tooth by Dornford Yates   1943

Handmade In London by Andrew Lawson   1978

The School for Husbands (play) by Moliere

Fu Manchu’s Bride by Sax Rohmer   1933

The Cheyne Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts   1926

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief by Maurice Leblanc   1906 (I was compelled to read an Arsene Lupin book after utterly enjoying watching the entirety of the 1970s series with the charming Georges Descrieres as Arsene Lupin).

Old Wives’ Lore for Gardeners by Maureen and Bridget Boland   1976

Sennelier:  A History In Color by Pascale Richard   2012

A Garden of My Own:  An Anthology with Wood Engravings by Yvonne Skargon   1996

Unquiet Landscape:  Places and Ideas in 20th Century British Painting by Christopher Neve   1990  (A very interesting art book that became increasingly melancholic as it progressed, rather sad in parts)

Call in the Night by Susan Howatch   1967

Gardener’s Delight by John Seymour   1978

Notes From Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin   2008

Between Two Worlds by David Ward   2011

Rides Round Britain by John Byng   1790s

The Weight of the Evidence by Michael Innes 1943

The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham   1938  (Another good Campion story, though I didn't enjoy this one as much as some others)

Spirit of Place:  Artists, Writers & The British Landscape by Susan Owens   2020  (A lovely and fascinating book that is worth re-reading in the future)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling 1997 (first time reading this, I suppose because it was so popular I shunned it, though loved the film)

The Folklore of Sussex by Jacqueline Simpson  1973

Legends and Romances of Brittany by Lewis Spence (began)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling   1998

Christmas:  Penhaligon’s Scented Treasury of Verse and Prose, edited by Sheila Pickles   1989

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper   1973 (a re-read)

The Secret Shoemakers by James Reeves 1966

Friday 22 January 2021

Books Read In 2020


I never end up reading as many books as desired in the space of a year, but after all this time I seem to have an instinct as to whether a book will suit, and my choices seldom disappoint (though disappointments do happen here and there).  The year is always filled with as many excellent, interesting, and fascinating books as possible; from mysteries to history to even vintage children's books; there's an endless array of captivating titles always waiting to be discovered and opened.

Here is the 2020 list: 

Winterthing and the Mooncusser’s Daughter by Joan Aiken 1972/73

Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome 1916

The Dark Forest by Raymond Foxall 1972

English Folk Heroes:  From King Arthur To Thomas a’ Becket by Christina Hole

Popinjay Stairs by Geoffrey Trease 1973

Blind Corner by Dornford Yates 1927

Life In The Castle In Medieval England by John Burke 1978

The Art of Medieval Manuscripts  1997

The Medieval Menagerie:  Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages  by Janetta Rebold Benton 1992

Medieval Crafts:  A Book of Days by John Cherry 1993

Nun’s Castle by Jennie Melville 1973

Blood Royal by Dornford Yates 1929

Tarot’s Tower by Jennie Melville 1978

In The Beginning:  The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture by Alister McGrath 2001

Old English Household Life by Gertrude Jekyll 1925

A Country Still All Mystery by Mark Valentine 2017

Death Of A Ghost by Margery Allingham 1934

A. A.Milne: Winnie The Pooh- 1926/Now We Are Six-1927/The House At Pooh Corner-1928

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson 1920

Dancers In Mourning  by Margery Allingham 1937

Lord Of The Sorcerers by Carter Dickson 1949

London’s Curse:  Murder, Black Magic and Tutankhamen In The 1920s West End  by Mark Beynon 2011

The Daughter of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer 1931

The Mask of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer 1932

The Dower House Mystery  by Patricia Wentworth 1925

Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner 1898

Raven’s Forge by Jennie Melville 1975

Run! by Patricia Wentworth 1938

Herald of the Hidden and Other Stories by Mark Valentine 2013

A Harp of Fishbones and Other Stories by Joan Aiken 1972

The History Of The Kings Of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

King Arthur by Norma Lorre Goodrich 1986

Rides Round Britain by John Byng, Viscount Torrington, late 1700s

(begun, half-finished )

Folk Song In England by Steve Roud 2017 (1/3 read so far-huge book)

Alan Garner:  The Stone Book 1976/Granny Reardun 1977/Tom Fobble’s Day 1977/ The Aimer Gate 1978

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (short story) by Washington Irving 1820

The Annam Jewel by Patricia Wentworth 1924

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie 1931


Wednesday 2 September 2020

Wisdom From Gertrude Jekyll's 'Old English Household Life'

"It is a strange thing, and one of the most regrettable, but it seems to be a law with hardly any exception, that the new order that replaces the old bring with it unsightliness in place of the former comeliness. And though the re-awakening of a sense of beauty in matters concerning architecture, house decoration and furnishing and the arranging of gardens, among people of the more well-to-do classes has arisen to a new and better life, yet in all that pertains to the simple necessities of life and their production, is changing from its older beauty into something, in most cases, of positive ugliness. It is now rare indeed that, passing along country roads and through villages, anything new is to be seen that has any kind of attractive appearance. So it is also in and about the farm. If a new farm building is wanted it is roofed, if not wholly constructed, of corrugated iron. What a miserable contrast to the simple old building such as the one shown with granary above and shelter for carts and waggons below. In the more advanced farming, mechanical traction is taking the place of horse power. Perhaps a few years hence we shall no longer see the jolly teams of horses starting out for the day's work or see them at work in the field or carrying the loads of farm produce along the roads. Are we to expect the extinction of those splendid breeds of heavy horses-the grand Shires and the powerful Suffolks? Is all this living strength and beauty to give way to dead contrivances of unsightly iron?"
From 'Old English Household Life' by Gertrude Jekyll, 1925

Tuesday 2 June 2020

The Merry Adventures Of Robin Hood: A Collection, And Some Ballads

Here is my modest collection of Robin Hood books and a record with the album title of 'A Tapestry of Music for Robin Hood & his King' by Early Music group St. George's Canzona. The two books on the left are both editions of  'The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood' by Howard Pyle, a delightful book with fine illustrations, for Howard Pyle was one of the greatest illustrators of all time, and wrote great storybooks too; I highly recommend it, it's one of my favourite books.  This is part of the wonderful preface to that story:

 'You who so plod amid serious things that you feel it shame to give yourself up even for a few short moments to mirth and joyousness in the land of Fancy; you who think that life hath nought to do with innocent laughter that can harm no one; these pages are not for you. Clap to the leaves and go no farther than this, for I tell you plainly that if you go farther you will be scandalized by seeing good, sober folks of real history so frisk and caper in gay colours and motley, that you would not know them but for the names tagged to them...there are a whole host of knights, priests, nobles, burghers, yeomen, pages, ladies, lasses, landlords, beggars, pedlars, and what not, all living the merriest of merry lives, and all bound by nothing but a few odd strands of certain old ballads...which draw these jocund fellows here and there, singing as they go.'

Most of us strongly disapprove of robbery and law breaking, yet these old tales and ballads continue to be loved and are eternally popular; most everyone loves Robin Hood!  We tend to think that the Sheriff of Nottingham was a bad fellow who deserved what he got, and the same goes for those other naughty types who also received the same treatment.  The struggle between liberty and the oppression of the peasants in these tales grip people, and the adventures of those hearty, robust men living hearty robust lives in the forest, nearly always being clever enough to be a step ahead of the tyrants, and we mustn't forget the humour, the jolly good times they have and the tricks they heartily laughed at; the manly comradeship the characters enjoyed.   There are many appealing elements in these tales, whatever version you encounter (though I imagine one should probably steer clear of any new modern retellings).

Since the above photo was taken, some time ago, three more Robin Hood books were later added to the collection (though I haven't read these yet):

For your enjoyment, here is a selection of good recordings of Robin Hood-themed songs:

'Robin Hood and the Tanner' by St. George's Canzona:

'Gamble Gold/Robin Hood' by Steeleye Span:

'Robin Hood and the Pedlar' by Barry Dransfield:

'Robin Hood & the Bold Pedlar' by The Owl Service:

Thursday 30 January 2020

An Entertaining Selection: Books Read In 2019

Hello again.  Despite taking a break from blog-writing, a rather long break, I have been reading though, and this past year's choices were full of mystery, adventure, fantasy; a lot of entertaining stories indeed!   Here they are, in order of finishing, with many photos.

1.  Fairy Gold:  A Book of Old English Fairy Tales-ed. by Ernest Rhys, 1912

2.  Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis, 1951

3.  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, 1952

4.  J.R.R. Tolkien, Architect of Middle Earth by Daniel Grotta

5.  Secret Chambers and Hiding Places by Allan Fea, 1901

6.  The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, 1925

7.  Weekend With Death by Patricia Wentworth, 1941

8.  The English Ghost-ed. by Peter Ackroyd, 2010

9.  The Coldstone by Patricia Wentworth, 1930

10.  Fear By Night by Patricia Wentworth, 1934

11.  The Red Lacquer Case by Patricia Wentworth, 1924

12.  The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham, 1937

13.  English Fairy Tales:  Retold by F. A. Steele, 1918

14.  Manalive by G.K. Chesterton, 1912

15.  Haunted By Books by Mark Valentine, 2015

16.  Islands by John Fowles, 1978

17.  The Four Men by Hilaire Belloc, 1912

18.  The Mystery of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, 1913

19.  The Devil Doctor by Sax Rohmer, 1916

20.  The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, 1910

21.  Trains and Buttered Toast by John Betjeman, 2006 compilation

22.  Brandy For the Parson by Raymond Foxall, 1970

23.  The Loch Ness Story by Nicholas Witchell, 1974

24.  The Si-Fan Mysteries by Sax Rohmer, 1917

25.  Gryll Grange by Thomas Love Peacock, 1896

26.  Folk Revival by Fred Woods, 1979

27.  Gale Warning by Dornford Yates, 1939

28.  Living Legends by Richard Barber, 1980

29.  Song of the Harp:  Old Welsh Folktales by Linda Barrett- Osborne, 1975

30.  Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould, 1866

31.  The Folio Book of the English Christmas, Folio Society

32.  The Box of Delights by John Masefield, 1935 (a re-read)

*began months ago and halfway though: 

William Morris by Fiona MacCarthy

A Degree of Mastery by Annie Tremmel Wilcox

*still reading occasionally from the year before:

The Journal Of A Tour To The Hebrides by James Boswell, 1786

Visions & Beliefs In The West Of Ireland by Lady Gregory, 1920

I intend to make this year's reading at least as interesting, varied, and entertaining as this past year's reading, with perhaps a bit more History added to the mix, and, as usual, a mix of favourite authors and authors I haven't yet read anything by before; so far it is going well, and there are many titles I plan to get to in the upcoming months, though there are no set plans, which makes it more fun.  

Wednesday 9 January 2019

Books Read In 2018

Last year, for the first time, I posted my list of books read during the year, and am doing so again.  I had intended to finish more books than I did, but there were about three months where I barely read any books, though escapism was just what was needed.  I try to finish reading books I'm in the midst of before the year ends (for some reason) but there are always unfinished ones.  The list is mainly a mixture of mysteries, fantasy, vintage children's stories, and history; the books are not listed in the order they were begun, but the order in which they were finished.  I don't think I could pick a favourite, so many good ones in there, most of them were excellent.  I don't have any particular reading plans for this new year (though am beginning the year reading vintage children's fantasy classics), just the usual eclectic and often antique or vintage mix with a newer title thrown in here and there, and it surprises me to see that I've read nine books from the 2000s, not a usual thing for me.

The Maidenswell Folly by Greg Howes  2017

The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis  1955

Mystery On The Moors by Barbara Michaels   1967

The Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott   1805

Drawn From Life by William Thackeray

The Little Ferret by Raymond Foxall  1968

Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit  1902 

The Borrowers by Mary Norton  1952

The Return of Don Quixote by G. K. Chesterton  1927

A Floral Fantasy In An Old English Garden by Walter Crane  1899

Jacob's Room Is Full Of Books by Susan Hill  2017

The Silence of Herondale by Joan Aiken   1964

The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken

Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham  1933

Mystery On The Isle of Skye by Phyllis A. Whitney

The Black Veil & Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths, ed. by Mark Valentine  2008

The Faerie Handbook  2017

The Adventurous Four by Enid Blyton  1941

The Heir by Vita Sackville-West  1922

Seasons They Change:  The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk by Jeanette Leech  2010

A Hotel By Clachan by Sybil Armstrong  1978

From London Far by Michael Innes  1946

He Arrived At Dusk by R.C. Ashby  1933

Men Of Iron by Howard Pyle 

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield  2006

Samuel Palmer by Timothy Wilcox  2005

The Sanctuary Sparrow by Ellis Peters  1983

The Collected Connoisseur by Mark Valentine & John Howard  2010

Medievalism:  The Middle Ages In Modern England by Michael Alexander  2007

And some books begun in 2018, but not finished by the year's end:

Visions and Beliefs In The West of Ireland by Lady Gregory
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border Vol. 1 by Sir Walter Scott
Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott
The  Journal Of A Tour To The Hebrides by James Boswell
King Arthur by Norma Lorre Goodrich
Fairy Gold:  A Book of Old English Folktales, chosen by Ernest Rhys

Monday 25 June 2018

'The Heir', A Dreamy Tale by Vita Sackville-West

'The Heir', written in 1922 by Vita Sackville-West, is a story that has haunted me since reading it two weeks ago.  I have a love of stories where someone inherits a country house; in many of those stories it is often a poor, orphaned young woman, like in Mary Stewart's 'Thornyhold', but that is not the case in this one, as the main character is a man, though not at all wealthy.

On the death of an aunt, Peregrine Chase (who works in an insurance company in the city of Wolverhampton) inherits an unspoilt, romantic Elizabethan manor house, with moat and lush gardens and various properties rented out to farm workers and such.   At first it is assumed that he will want to just sell up right away, as there is much debt; and indeed he feels that he would be better to just rid himself of the place and the responsibility, but after spending more and more time there, and more and more time around the locals who immediately accept him as the lord of the manor, he undergoes a change and something hidden awakens inside.  The house and landscape seem to almost be living characters, such is the prominence of their presence, their romantic atmosphere.  The summer air seems to exert a sweet and fragrant allure, irresistibly luring him under their spell. 

There is much in this that seems to reflect some of Vita Sackville-West's deep love for her childhood home of Knole, which she had to leave due to it being inherited by a relative, and which, I gather, she never got over; in her soul, Knole belonged to her.  I was rather captivated reading this dreamy little, beautifully written book, and worried and anxious right before the end.  I like to imagine what could have happened after it, I like to think that Peregrine found love and married a nice country girl.

The Rose Garden, Balcaskie by George Samuel Elgood

Thursday 31 May 2018

Two newly-found vintage books on Scottish Travellers and Irish stories

May was an unusual month, with illness and then a holiday in the midst of beautiful woods, mountains, and streams.  I was hoping to come across a good secondhand bookshop somewhere along the journey, but it wasn't to be; though I did find two lovely-looking vintage books in an antique shop.  The first is 'A Time from the World' by Rowena Farre, an author that I have another book by (that I've yet to read and it looks charming) called "Seal Morning'.  This book, from 1962, looks fascinating, it's about her befriending and joining up with Romanies, the Travellers, and others; she shares her experiences from being around those characters, and their lore, customs and beliefs in Scotland decades ago. The cover art by Douglas Hall is delightful.

On my way out, with two records in my hand as well, part of the book cover (which had some object sitting on top of it) of an attractive and vintage-looking book caught my eye, and it was an interesting book of Irish stories from 1963 called 'A Journey To the Seven Streams' by Benedict Kiely.   It was nice to find these somewhat obscure books with the dust jackets still in good condition, and I look forward to reading these sometime.

Monday 30 April 2018

Delightful New Books: Walter Crane, Edward Burne-Jones, The Faerie Handbook, Susan Hill, G.K. Chesterton

Being so neglectful with posting recently, I'm posting two at once to make up for it.  The subject of this one is on some recent book presents for my birthday, ones I'd been wanting for awhile and was very glad to get them! 
We will begin with this new Pook Press facsimile edition of Walter Crane's exquisitely illustrated 'A Floral Fantasy In An Old English Garden' from 1899. This is a beautiful book, the cover alone is very lovely.  I read it in no time, but it is one to return to again.

Fiona MacCarthy's big, fascinating-looking tome on the great artist Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists, and although I have other biographies about him, this is surely the ultimate Burne-Jones biography.  I was browsing through it and lost track of time.

'The Faerie Handbook', a newly published book that is absolutely stunning, packed with such beautiful art and images, one I couldn't wait to own, and all romantics (particularly romantic females) should have. "The Faerie Handbook is for all those fairy lovers who want a delicious escape, who see that old-world oak with its moss-grown trunk, who love to read poetry and sip herbal tea on a fainting couch on a rainy afternoon in front of a fire, or walk in long dresses over dewy lawns, feeling the wet grass on their feet and watching the light break over the landscape. This is a book that is meant to stir up childhood wonders..." (from the Introduction). A gorgeous book that I'm in the midst of reading and poring over the splendid images.

This is Susan Hill's 2017 companion book to her 'Howard's End Is On The Landing' from nearly a decade ago. It is a hodge-podge of her recollections and opinions on literature, life and literary figures. As with 'Howards...' this one was read through quickly and there are many topics of interest. 

G.K. Chesterton's imaginative fiction stories are rich, fascinating, and sometimes fantastical, and just irresistible to me; though I've not read many yet and in the past was only familiar with his Father Brown mysteries, and need to explore his wise non-fiction too, he had tremendous common sense about the world, and you just know when a character is expressing Chesterton's views.
 'The Return of Don Quixote' from 1927 is one that attracted me very much:

"Michael Herne is a librarian at Seawood Abbey, an estate owned by Lord Seawood. When Lord Seawood's daughter and some of her friends want to put on a play called "Blondel the Troubadour," the librarian is asked to play the part of a medieval king. Herne not only takes his role seriously by thoroughly researching the Middle Ages, when the play is concluded, he refuses to take off the costume. He remains in character, much to the befuddlement and consternation of the other players. With this device, Chesterton achieves a wonderful effect in contrast to the typical snide modern commentary on the past: he creates an opportunity for the past to offer a commentary on the present. Herne looks at his old clothes, that is, the modern clothes he once wore, with embarrassment. The modern world is embarrassing. It takes a previous age to see that." 

There is a lot more going on in this book than in that description, it's a very unusual and complex story and leaves one pondering with a haunting feeling over everything that occurred within. I was expecting it to be more lighthearted than it was, Chesterton presents some serious theories about life and society, and all the characters undergo great changes. There was an unfortunate word used a few times early in the book, but one must expect that sometimes in older books, and I can't abide this trend where people go around apologising for things in books from decades or centuries ago (there is generally more to be offended at in new books) and judging them with contemporary views.  Those that cannot think outside their own time should either leave old books alone or else read them, learn history and broaden their horizons, and develop a sense of proportion.

The character of Olive Ashley interested me from the beginning, as I identified with her pre-occupation with past times, the beauty and depth of art, her Romanticism and spiritual nature: 

"What I mean," she said, resuming the subject of microscopes, "is that all your science and modern stuff has only made things ugly, and people ugly as well.  I don't want to look down a microscope any more than down a drain.  You only see a lot of horrid little things crawling about.  I don't want to look down at all.  That's why I like all this old Gothic painting and building; in Gothic all the lines go upwards, right up to the very spire that points to heaven."

"In the old days people complained of young people breaking out because they were romantic.  But these young men break out because they are sordid; just prosaic and low, and wrangling about machinery and money-materialists.   They just want a world of atheists, that would soon be a world of apes."

Performing in the play 'Blondel the Troubadour,  makes the quiet antiquarian librarian Michael Herne undergo a tremendous life-altering experience and he refuses to change his costume for his normal clothes, and in fact he adopts a new persona that he didn't know was inside himself.
"No, I am never going to change."
After glaring a moment he went on "You all love change and live by change; but I shall never change. It was by change you fell; it is by the madness of change you go on falling.  You had your happy moment, when men were simple and sane and formal and as native to this earth as they can ever be.  You lost it; and even when you get it back for a moment, you have not the sense to keep it.  I shall never change."

..."I mean the old society was truthful and that you are in a tangle of lies," answered Herne.  "I don't mean that it was perfect or painless.  I mean that it called pain and imperfection by their names...but you dare not call anything by its own Christian name.  You defend every single thing by saying it is something else...It is all false and cowardly and shamefully full of shame.  Everything is prolonging its existence by denying that it exists."

"It seems to be a sign of education first to take a thing for granted and then to forget to see if it is still there.  Weapons are a very good working example.  The man says he won't go on wearing a sword because it is no longer any good against a gun.  Then he throws away all the guns as relics of barbarism; and then he is surprised when a barbarian sticks him through with a sword.  You say that pikes and halberds are not weapons against modern conditions.  I say pikes are excellent weapons against no pikes. You say it is all antiquated medieval armament.  But I put my money on men who make medieval armament against men who only disapprove of modern armament.  And what have any of these political parties ever done about armament except profess to disapprove of it?  They renounce it and neglect it and never think of the part it played in political history; and yet they go about with a vague security as if they were girt about with invisible guns that would go off at the first hint of danger.  They're doing what they always do; mixing up their Utopia that never comes with their old Victorian security that's already gone."
Yes, indeed...

So, a varied and interesting selection, and more book gatherings will be featured here as well, there have been many arrivals on many subjects.