Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas

I've been to the cinema to see the utterly wonderful film 'The Man Who Invented Christmas', and am in Victorian mode (even more so after finishing the Christmas decorating the night before too). I recommend this film to everyone, a very fine story with excellent acting and such lavishly splendid sets and costumes, it was a treasure to watch and I didn't want it to end, it's beautiful. It is about Charles Dickens writing 'A Christmas Carol', with the fantastical device of each character coming to life as he creates them and gives them a name. It has happy bits, sad bits, funny bits, it's touching and fascinating and is a visual feast. Give yourself a treat and make sure to see it before Christmas, you will be so glad you did. It will make you want to don a paisley dressing gown and settle down by a crackling fire with an enormous Victorian novel and a hot mulled drink...

Monday, 30 October 2017

Spooky Books

This time of year, when it turns cooler and the nights draw in, is ideal for indulging in a bit of spooky reading.  Nothing too awful or gruesome, one just wants to that certain kind of atmosphere and a good story that perhaps sends a chill, but doesn't freeze the blood to ice!   So generally that means old tales (though there are modern writers such as Susan Hill, who fit in with the classics), such as classic ghost stories and stories of suspense, these tend to have everything you are looking for.  Modern settings and everything that comes with that do not do anything for me. 

M.R. James was a master of the ghost story and one can't go wrong in choosing him.

  An anthology of various authors in this genre is a good way to enjoy spooky tales too, as you can read through or pick and choose.   Despite not believing in ghosts, I enjoy reading ghostly tales and legends.

Two books I found this year on eerie Scottish tales:

Of course, with it being Halloween, 'Hallowe'en Party' by Agatha Christie, is ideal. 

Settle down comfortably and lose yourself in a thrilling tale or two, just be sure all the doors and windows are locked...

Saturday, 30 September 2017

September Reading: Getting Lost In Wonderful Vintage Fiction

September's reading for me this year was full of vintage fiction, mainly crime fiction; just getting a bit lost in stories after a rather stressful time around the middle of the month.   I finished John Bude's excellent, 'The Cornish Coast Murder' and then went on to 'Appleby's Answer' by the ever-witty Michael Innes (a most unusual mystery indeed).  Then onto the next three selections: 

Firstly there was 'Adele And Co.' from 1931 by Dornford Yates. Dornford Yates has become a favourite author of mine within the last two years, and this was his fourth book I've read, I'm collecting them. He was very popular in his time, but is not too well known these days. "Here is a superior blend of excitement, drama, danger, intrigue and nostalgia... When Jill, Duchess of Padua, had her priceless pearls stolen, along with Adele and Daphne's jewels (and Berry's cufflinks), Berry and Co. face an impossible task in their attempt to recover them-particularly when they discover that Auntie Emma, a ruthless professional criminal, hopes to beat them to it. Throwing caution to the wind, Berry, Jonah and Boy embark on a thrilling chase which takes them from Paris to the Pyrenees..." This is an amazing book with lots of humour (Berry is so very funny), following on from 'Berry and Co.' and 'Jonah and Co.'

After that incredible adventure, the next choice was 'The Club of Queer Trades' from 1905 by the great G.K. Chesterton, an incredibly entertaining and eccentric little book consisting of six short stories filled with mystery, humour, and intrigue. "Eccentric sleuth, Basil Grant is deftly portrayed by Chesterton: mystic, enigmatic and often considered mad by his brother Rupert-the over-zealous private-eye- and by Charles Swinburne, gullible narrator of the six tales... Like Chesterton's more famous hero, Father Brown, Basil Grant detects crime by intuitive rather than conventional means." I enjoyed this one tremendously and some bits were very funny, and I need to get many more G.K. Chesterton books; he was a writer of great wit and wisdom.

The third book of that particular week that I found hard to put down, was 'The Crime At Black Dudley' from 1929 by Margery Allingham, her first mystery to feature Albert Campion. This one concerns a house party of bright young things gathered in a remote, ancient house full of secret passages, who become trapped in the house by a gang of ruthless criminals. Try this if you are in the mood for a great vintage Golden Age crime classic. Vintage Books has republished Margery Allingham's books in an attractive softcover edition and, after buying three of them, I'd like to get them all in that edition.

It had been years since I'd read one of her books, and I enjoyed 'The Crime At Black Dudley so much that it was followed by another Margery Allingham one,  'Look To The Lady', which I'll finish reading in a day or so, another great one from a great mystery writer; and they are best read in order to get the most out of them.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Dorothy L. Sayers: The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries

Dorothy L. Sayers is of one of the greatest and most literate mystery writers of all time, prolific during the "Golden Age" of crime fiction along with Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and many more.  She created Lord Peter Wimsey, the famous aristocratic sleuth, and penned wonderful and highly intellectual mysteries that are popular to this day.  Being so familiar from having watched both excellent television adaptations with Ian Carmichael in the 1970s, and Edward Petherbridge in the late 1980s many times on television, video, and DVD, and reading some of the books many years ago before I had started keeping a reading record, I'm a bit muddled as to which ones I've actually read, and should probably just start from the beginning and carry on.

Featured here is my collection of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I collected the large batch of secondhand paperbacks below many years ago, found a few and liked the cover design and artwork so much that the others in that edition were sought out.


A collection of all the Lord Peter Wimsey short stories:

A few titles in another edition, also with good cover design:

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Lothian Run by Mollie Hunter

'The Lothian Run' by Mollie Hunter was first published in 1970 and concerns the adventures of a young apprentice (by the name of Sandy Maxwell) in a lawyer's office in Edinburgh in 1736.  He is bored with his job and doesn't think he can stand it any longer, but his dull occupation soon changes when he gets involved in tracking down some dangerous smugglers when helping Deryck Gilmour, an officer of the Special Investigations branch of the Customs service.  There is spying, kidnapping, murder, mobs, Jacobites; plenty of intrigue and adventurous scrapes.   I enjoyed this lively historical fiction tale very much, found it hard to put down, and definitely recommend it.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Lillian Beckwith's Tales of Life On a Remote Hebridean Croft

I was trying to recall what first put me on to the books of Lillian Beckwith many years ago, most likely it was by happening to find a library book once that captivated me.  Whatever it was, I'm glad I made their acquaintance and collected them (though am still missing some other titles outside of this series), as they are a joy to read and have much humour and warmth and are filled with completely down-to-earth characters and amusing mishaps.  Despite the hard work and sometimes hardship, there's something alluring about someone taking off to a remote island or countryside and being free and getting by on their own, or nearly on their own, though this usually involves being blessed with the help of others (which is always reciprocated in the small community-people care about each other and don't want others to go without or be neglected).  Taking off to an old stone cottage in the remote Hebrides in Scotland for a doctor-ordered rest is just what Lillian Beckwith did in the beginning of this series, with book number one, 'The Hills Is Lonely', first published in 1959. 

At the beginning, when reading the offers for lodgings, in reply to her advert posted in a paper, this first one from a certain Hebridean crofter was the start of her new life: 

Dear Madam,    Its just now I saw your advert when I got the book for the knitting pattern I wanted from my cousin Catriona.  I am sorry I did not write sooner if you are fixed up if you are not in any way fixed up I have a good good stone house and tiles and my brother Ruari who will wash down with lime twice every year. Ruari is married and lives just by.  She is not damp.  I live by myself and you could have the room that is not a kitchen and a bedroom reasonable.  I was in the kitchen of the lairds house till lately when he was changed God rest his soul the poor old gentleman that he was.  You would be very welcomed.  I have a cow also for milk and eggs and the minister at the manse will be referee if you wish such.   Yours affectionately, MORAG McDUGAN
P.S. She is not thatched. 

 She loved it so much that she decided to stay and buy her own croft.  Her rest cure was abandoned as she found herself drawn in to working harder than she ever had in her life, and getting very healthy in the pure island atmosphere! And so this series continued on.

Here I will feature the lovely art on the dust jackets (for seven of the books) by Douglas Hall, which perfectly suits the stories. 

'The Sea For Breakfast'

'The Loud Halo'

'A Rope- In Case'

'Lightly Poached'

'Beautiful Just!'

'Bruach Blend'

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Man Behind The Glass: A Victorian Gothic Tale by Greg Howes

I was recently kindly sent a copy of this 2014 original and fascinating story, 'The Man Behind The Glass' by Greg Howes, the author.  It is a unique book, I've never read anything like it. It is richly immersed in the atmospheres, sights, sounds, and (sometimes very unpleasant) scents of Victorian London.  His writing is highly descriptive to all the senses, the scenes are vividly brought to life, almost as if you are experiencing them yourself, a sensation that can be lacking in many modern tales.  The use of lavish descriptions are one of the elements that I love about Victorian writers, and Greg Howes does have a strong Victorian influence which shines through.  The novel keeps you intrigued throughout; one continually wonders where things are heading and what will be the outcome.  It is hard to put down, though I did slowly take my time to finish it, slowly digesting what had just happened.

I will leave the rest of this to the synopsis on the back of the book, as I couldn't sum it up any better:

"The Man Behind The Glass is based around a character called Septimus Blackwood, a Victorian photographer with a difference.  The tale is set in London's East End in the year 1860.  A mysterious Gothic adventure of a man's quest to capture life and cheat death through photography.  Septimus races against time to discover his family's long lost legacy buried deep amongst the forgotten rivers and cellars of old London.  Unbeknown to him a mysterious old woman looks on..."

"The story, along with its highly satirical characters escort the reader on an emotional journey into a world of intrigue, suspense and the supernatural.  Atmosphere seeps out of every gulley of this twisting and ever turbulent road; darkness and light, creation and calamity.  Encounter magical discoveries that will pick the pocket of your dreams for now and evermore."

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Here Be Dragons

 As Sunday was St. George's Day, it brought to mind two very interesting books on dragons that I read last year, both being started at the same time.  'British Dragons', from 1980 by renowned folklorist Jacqueline Wilson had me annoyed at the beginning, with the scepticism (of any at all ever existing) and unnecessary theories in the opening chapter.  There are actual descriptions of dragons in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, which she did not seem to credit, but I do. Getting past that though, the book is quite in-depth and full of interest, containing such chapters and sections on:
Serpents and Sea-monsters in Classical Myths; The Northern Dragons; Treasure Guardians; The Cockatrice; Saints as Heroes; Heroes From Medieval Romances; Village Heroes; Heroic Combats; Dragons In Plays and Pageants, etc...  There is also a very funny tale of 'The Knucker of Lyminster', where a greedy dragon gets his comeuppance via a big pudding or "pudden" from a clever peasant. 

Here's a bit of the book description from the inner jacket: 
"Over 70 villages and towns in Britain still have a tale or a song about a dragon.  The Lambton Worm, the Dragon of Wantley, the Knucker of Lyminster and the Muckle Mester Stoor Worm are among the most celebrated, but there are many others, ranging in form and temperament from the benevolent King Snake in Wales to the voracious monster with a taste for maidens at Cnoc-na-Cnoimh.  Most dragon tales involve a dragon slayer.  It might be a saint, a knight or a local lad who saves the day by despatching the dragon, either, like St. George, in a straight fight, or by an underhand trick: a piece of treacle gingerbread put an end to the dragon at Filey."

From a humourous old Sussex tale:  Thisyer ole dragon, you know, he uster go spanneling (traipsing) about the Brooks by night to see what he could pick up for supper, like- few horses, or cows maybe- he'd snap 'em up as soon as look at 'em.  Then bimeby (by-and-by) he took to sitting atop o' Causeway, and anybody come along there, he'd lick 'em up, like a toad licking flies off a stone.

This book made a great addition to the other Jacqueline Wilson books I've collected.

The other book is 'Here Be Dragons' by Ralph Whitlock, a prolific writer on country life and folklore.  This one, from 1983,  also went into the history and wild, fanciful tales of lore and legend, but a large section of the book is a Gazetteer of nearly 200 places, mentioning sites all over Britain, giving the historical insight into carvings, sculptures, and monuments. 

A bit from the inner jacket:
"Dragons are everywhere in the British countryside!  They are woven into the folk history of villages and hamlets, they snarl from church decorations and they survive in mumming plays and other pageants.  Tracing their remains, in whatever form they are to be found, is not only a fascinating pastime but a glimpse into how our rural forefathers thought and behaved, for dragons played the vital role of representing evil and destruction in the pantheon of the country dweller."

Both books are quite good and worth looking for for anyone interested in folklore and legendary beasts!

Friday, 17 March 2017

An Old Irish Miscellany: From Artistic Dress to Fairy Tales

Portrait of Lady Lavery as Kathleen Ni Houlihan, by
Sir John Lavery
Lady Wilde:  "The everything that is artistic-the fascinations of life, beauty of form, music, poetry, song, splendour, and noble pleasures.  Their kings in ancient times were elected for their personal beauty as much as for their chivalrous qualities. No man with a blemish or deformity was allowed to reign.  Then, their appreciation of intellect proved the value they set on the spiritual and ideal above the material and the brutal.  The poet ranked next to the princes of the land. His person was sacred in battle; he was endowed with an estate, so that his soul might be free from sordid cares; and his robe of many colours, and the golden circlet on his brow at the festivals, showed his claim and right to rank next to royalty, and to sit at the right hand of the king.  Poetry, learning, music oratory, heroism, and splendour of achievement-these were the true objects of homage and admiration amongst the ancient Irish.
There was nothing brutal in their ideal of life; no hideous images or revolting cruelties; and the beautiful and graceful Sidhe race, with their plaintive music and soft melancholy, and aspirations for a lost heaven, is the expression in a graceful and beautiful symbol of the instinctive tendencies of the Irish nature to all that is most divine in human intellect, and soft and tender in human emotion.

Ireland is a land of mists and mystic shadows; of cloud-wraiths on the purple mountains; of weird silences in the lonely hills, and fitful skies of deepest gloom alternating with gorgeous sunset splendours.  All the fantastic caprice of an ever-varying atmosphere stirs the imagination, and makes the Irish people strangely sensitive to spiritual influences.  They see visions and dream dreams, and are haunted at all times by an ever-present sense of the supernatural...They are made for worshippers, poets, artists, musicians, orators; to move the world by passion, not by logic. Scepticism will never take root in Ireland; infidelity is impossible to the people.  To believe fanatically, trust implicitly, hope infinitely, and perhaps to revenge implacably-these are the unchanging and ineradicable characteristics of Irish nature, of Celtic nature, we may say; for it has been the same throughout all history and all ages.  And it is these passionate qualities the make the Celt the great motive force of the world, ever striving against limitations towards some vision of ideal splendour; the restless centrifugal force of life, as opposed the centripetal, which is ever seeking a calm quiescent rest within its appointed sphere.
The very tendency to superstition, so marked in Irish nature, arises from an instinctive dislike to the narrow limitations of common sense.  It is characterized by a passionate yearning towards the vague, the mystic, the invisible, and the boundless infinite of the realms of imagination. ...the Irish love youth, beauty, splendour, lavish generosity, music and song, the feast and the dance. "

Riders of the Sidhe

The mid/late Victorian era was an extremely creative time in the artistic world.  There were many forms created and revived, from Medievalism to the Pre-Raphaelites, the Aesthetic Movement, etc...  One important movement in Ireland and Scotland that was related to the Arts & Crafts Movement was the Celtic Revival.  Suddenly artists and craftsmen were looking back to traditional, regional design and reviving and reworking them in a blaze of rich creativity, after so many years of the culture being repressed in every way.  From traditional crafts, to painting, literature, music, and theatre-this movement kept growing in the years that followed.

In 'The Oxford Book of Ireland', there is a delightful story recounted by Mary Colum in her book 'Life and the Dream', from 1928, of herself and her friends who adopted the theatrical artistic Irish dress, which went unappreciated by some of the locals...they just didn't understand these girls with their lovely noble tendencies!  I give them full credit for trying: 

"In decorating themselves in a traditional Irish manner, the female sex were not behindhand, especially the youthful members thereof.  It may be doubted, however, if the women's garment which really had been concocted from pictures was especially Irish:  it was probably simply the costume of the Medieval European lady with a few fancy Celtic fixtures attached.  A girl poet, friend of mine, Moirin Fox, never wore any other garb. She would appear in the Abbey in gorgeous purple and gold, a torc on her forehead, a Tara brooch fastening her brath, and various other accoutrements of the ancient Irish, including the inevitable amber.  The rest of us only occasionally appeared in Gaelic costume, which, of course, had to be Irish manufactured material.  For dressy wear I had a white garment with blue and green embroidery, a blue brath, copper brooches, and other archaeological adornments.  For more ordinary wear I had the Irish costume in blue green, a brath of the same colour with embroideries out of The Book Of Kells.  These, as I remember, were chiefly of snakes eating one another's tales.  With this went a blue stone necklace, a little silver harp fastening the brath, a silver Claddagh ring, and a silver snake bracelet which I'm afraid was early Victorian rather than early Celtic.  This getup was alright for the Abbey Theatre of Gaelic League dances, but once when myself and a friend, Siav Trench, in a similar getup and a more striking colour scheme, walked down a street where the fishwomen were selling their fish, we were openly derided.  The fishmongers called out, 'Will yez look at the Irishers trying to look like stained glass windows?  What is the country coming to at all, at all?  Them Irishers are going daft!'  We were not too sensitive to ridicule, but we did not again wear such garments in parts of the city where anything out of the ordinary was mocked at so vociferously." 

Illustration by Katherine Cameron, from 'Celtic Tales' by Louey Chisholm

Some centuries-old Irish verses, very lovely and expressing complete delight in nature:

The Hill of Howth
Delightful to be on the Hill of Howth, very sweet to be above its white sea; the perfect fertile hill, home of ships, the vine-grown pleasant warlike peak.
The peak where Finn and Fianna used to be, the peak where were drinking horns and cups, the peak where bold O'Duinn brought Grainne one day in stress of pursuit.
The peak bright-knolled beyond all hills, with its hill-top round and green and rugged; the hill full of swordsmen, full of wild garlic and trees, the many-coloured peak, full of beasts, wooded.
The peak that is loveliest throughout the land of Ireland, the bright peak above the sea of gulls, it is a hard step for me to leave it, lovely Hill of delightful Howth.      Irish 14th century

The Wayside Fountain
Cenn Escrach of the orchards, a dwelling for the meadow bees, there is a shining thicket in its midst, with a drinking-cup of wooden laths.

The Blackbird's Song
The little bird has given a whistle from the tip of its bright yellow beak; the blackbird from the yellow-tufted bough sends forth its call over Loch Loigh.

The Hermit Blackbird
Ah, blackbird, it is well for you where your nest is in the bushes; a hermit that clangs no bell, sweet, soft, and peaceful is your call.

The Spring
Spring of Traigh Dha Bhan, lovely is your pure-topped cress; since your crop has become neglected your brook-lime is not allowed to grow.
Your trout out from your banks, your wild swine in your wilderness; the stags of your fine hunting crag, your dappled red-breasted fawns.
Your nuts on the crest of your trees, your fish in the waters of your stream; lovely is the colour of our springs of arum lily, green brook in the wooded hollow...

Sliabh gCua
Sliabh gCua, haunt of wolves, rugged and dark, the wind wails about its glens, wolves howl around its chasms' the fierce brown deer bells in autumn around it, the crane screams over its crags.

The Storm
Cold is the night in the Great Moor, the rain pours down, no trifle; a roar in which the clean wind rejoices howls over the sheltering wood.

Look before you to the north-east at the glorious sea, home of creatures, dwelling of seals; wanton and splendid, it has taken on flood-tide.

There is a great wealth and treasure of folk legends and fairy tales from Ireland.  W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory laboured intensely at gathering material in this area and re-telling these imaginative tales; and so did Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, Oscar Wilde's equally eccentric mother, of whom I relayed some of her observations of the Irish at the beginning of this blog.

In Irish fairy tales, the fairies were not pretty little creatures of a generally kindly disposition, they were tricky and easily offended, and having a darker and more sinister nature, and were not to be crossed.

'A Donegal Fairy' by Leticia Maclintock:
"Ay, it's a bad thing to displeasure the gentry, sure enough-they can be unfriendly if they're angered, an' they can be the very best o' gude neighbours if they're treated kindly.  My mother's sisterwas her lone in the house one day, wi' a big pot o' water boiling on the fire, and ane o' the wee folk fell down the chimney, and slipped wi' his leg in the hot water.  He let a terrible squeal out o' him, an; in a minute the house was full o' wee crathurs pulling him out o' the pot, an' carrying him across the floor.  "Did she scald you?" my aunt heard them saying to him.  "Na, na, it was mysel' scalded my ainsel', quoth the wee fellow. "A weel, a weel," says they, "If it was your ainsel' scalded yoursel', we'll say nothing, but if she has scalded you, we'd ha' made her pay."

'The Dance', Robin Flower, Poems and Translations, 1931:

On the white wall flickered the sputtering lamp
And lit the shadowy kitchen, the sanded floor,
The girls by the painted dresser, the dripping men
Late from the sea and huddled,
These on the settle, those by the table; the turf
Sent up faint smoke, and faint in the chimney a light
From the frost-fed stars trembled and died and trembled again in the smoke.
'Rise up now, Shane', said a voice, and another:
'Kate, stand out on the floor'; the girls to the men
Cried challenge on challenge; a lilt in the corner rose
And climbed and wavered and fell, and springing again
Called to the heavy feet of the men; the girls wild-eyed,
Their bare feet beating the measure, their loose hair flying,
Danced to the shuttle of lilted music weaving
Into a measure the light and the heavy foot.

One of my all-time favourite television series adapted from the humorous Somerville & Ross Irish R.M. books: