In Search of England – H.V. Morton (1936)

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In a conversation with my lovely mum the other month, we were talking about books (I know – shocker!), and she happened to mention that one of her favorite travel books when she was growing up was “In Search of England” by H.V. Morton.

So – with my mum coming out to the U.S. for a visit in a couple of weeks and with the intention of passing this edition on to her, I pulled this title off the shelf to have a look at. (As an aside, this particular book was also published in the year that my mum was born, which is a nice overlap, I think.) Anyway, I’m always up for some armchair traveling…

This volume is one of several in Morton’s sweetly old-fashioned “In Search…” series, and it’s a narrative that was written as Morton takes a leisurely drive around England on the 1930s.

Published in 1936, it’s been twenty years since the scars of the Great War were cut, and England has recovered from the trauma that the war engraved on the national psyche. Another war seems to be out of sight, and it’s really a much more innocent England than it is now. Few realize that World War II is really just around the corner, and so life seems to be pretty cheery for the most part. (It’s only in looking back that you realize that the spectre of the second war was on the horizon…)

Morton takes a circuitous driving route starting out from just below Scotland, going south down the left-hand side (touching Wales and the West Country), swings across the bottom, and then loops up on the right-hand side of the country to return almost to where he started from.

It’s a gentle journey, and as Morton travels, the reader gets to meet some of the people and some of the places that he stops at. It’s a very charming book, and was a perfect read for me after the latest frazzling national news. It definitely calmed the nerves.

If you’d like a really lovely read of an England in the 1930’s, then I think that you would not go wrong with this enjoyable journey with Morton. It’s a product of its time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I bet you will too.

 

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Can You Pls Pass Me the Catch-Up?

catch_upI’m not quite sure what it is, but I seem to be in the midst of a Summer Snoozefest when it’s a bit too hot to really do anything major, and nothing seems to be perking my reading fancy. Fussy, I know. Summer time in Texas is underway and in full swing.

I’ve finished some middling reads, although I’m at a loss to explain why these weren’t great as lots of other people have thought just that.

The first is Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. I fully accept the blame for this read not being that satisfying as I’d gone into it thinking it was a collection of short stories, when actually it’s a pretty clever complex novel about WWII.

It’s strange how just one expectation about your book read can impact your real experience of actually doing a read, but it can. Ahh well. You win some, you lose some. I’ve read some of Doerr’s work earlier and had thought it was the Bee’s Knees (see The Shell Collector review), and All The Light You Cannot See continues that trend of being extremely well written. He is a craftsman of a writer, to be sure, and so I think that what threw things off was the rather complicated tapestry structure of the plot when I was rather hoping for a more straight-forward short story read that would compliment my Monkey Mind instead of having to, umm, actually work for the plot. :-)

I know loads and loads of Very Important Readers have loved this book, so perhaps don’t take my word for it…

I also finished up Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett. A short novel – perhaps a long novella – this featured a fairly normal Bennett plot of Haves and Haves Nots up in the Potteries, except this one focused more on the theme of religion a fair bit. The role of the church (and the people who attended) was a central theme, but it wasn’t too heavy-handed. Still well written, but again, I think it was me expecting something else when I was reading it as it took forever for me to finish, and that’s usually a sign of trouble for me, Will Robinson.

So now I’m wheeling around thinking about my next read… 

I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History – Brett Harvey (1993)

book323Here’s a quote from an early 1950’s Life Magazine trying to convince women to give up the best war jobs now that the men had come back and women should really be back in the house now (or only in certain jobs suited to her female constitution):

“Household skills take her into the garment trades; neat and personable, she becomes office work and saleslady; patient and dexterous, she does well in repetitive, detailed factory work; compassionate, she becomes teacher and nurse.”

Fashion Advice from 1953.

Fashion Advice from 1953.

With current fashions having a focus on Mid-Century Modern (or MCM) – furniture, fashion, cars etc. – it’s interesting to look at how the U.S. really was back then, politically, socially and others. It seems to me that the decade has been idealized somewhat or perhaps that people have this large stereotypical image of how life was back then when it was really much more complicated than martinis and cigarettes. This book addressed some of these issues from the perspective of how it impacted the women who actually lived in this time. It was really fascinating.

The 50’s had a lot going on, worldwide, and the U.S. was smack in the middle of the Red Scare and the arms race between U.S. and Russia. Add to that set-up a frenzied fear about being infiltrated with Communism, and the country was smothered in paranoia on several levels: uppity women who weren’t always satisfied to go home and be a good wife, returning military men (mostly) who had been exposed to radically different viewpoints and now brought that back to infiltrate American communities, the government idea of the Soviet Union taking over the world, the civil rights movement just starting…  and it all turned into a rather weird time.

mccarthyismHarvey, the author, brings up an extremely interesting perspective on this world view, comparing the nation’s political perspective of containment (i.e. keep the Communists out and keep the “American” way of life in) to the societal containment view of the role of women (i.e. keep women out of the workspace and keep women in the domestic arena). It’s as though everyone was very uncomfortable with anyone getting out of their boxes while, at the same time, everyone needs to stay to their allocated historical place in the world.

As American servicemen were still returning from tours overseas from WWII and Korea, women were expected (and sometimes forced) to give up their independent lives (and to hand over the jobs that they had been doing just fine) to the returning troops. That was the patriotic thing to do and the right thing to do, and if anyone didn’t conform to that pattern, then it was seen as almost dangerously rebellious by the Establishment. Quite a few women who had been working were not happy having to go back and try to fit their former lives into a very small box just because people (mostly men) said so. Obviously, this led to a few problems.

The majority of women settled back into their routine, but some didn’t, and these are who are the book focuses on – oral histories of women looking back from present time (well, the 1990’s) to their younger selves and the decisions they made. It was clear that this forced domesticity, if you will, did not sit well for all, and as I read some of the recorded conversations in this book, the common theme was one of regret of chances not risked and paths not taken.

woman_workWomen had been working for many decades, and with two world wars under their belt, the American women knew that they were capable of working many jobs usually considered only to be suitable for men. However, society was such that the expectation was that the women who worked in these formerly unsuitable jobs were temporary and should return to their domestic lifestyles once peace arrived. Women knew that there were jobs out there that would be workable and were not necessarily the usual format of nurse/teacher/shop assistant/menial factory worker, and yet so many elected to fit themselves silently back into their reduced roles post-war. And this is what the book reports: the featured modern older women look back on their younger selves and ask themselves “why?” Why did they give up their foothold in the men’s worlds?

It’s interesting to think about: what would you have done if you were a woman in the 50’s in this set-up? Would you have gone back and fit the accepted mold: college degree/wife/home/children? Or would you have been brave enough to break free and do your own thing? Several women in the book did exactly that, but faced friction almost everywhere, both from men and women, in their early careers. Most continued with their careers and ended up doing just fine, but imagine where these pioneers would be if they hadn’t had to overcome these obstacles. (And the same question would clearly fit with other disenfranchised groups throughout history as well.)

Anyway, as you can see, this book set me off going down several trains of thought and was a fascinating read. Not every woman regretted what they did – some were very happy to remain in the domestic role – so there was a good mix in the book. I have another topic related to this book which I’ll chat about next time, but I’ll keep this post a manageable length. Obviously, this was a good read in that I’m still thinking about it days after.

More to come.

Of Love and Hunger – Julian MacLaren-Ross (1947)

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Saw this novel somewhere on the interwebs, and it sounded just like something that I wanted to read at this point in the year when I am usually pining for autumn, cooler temps and a bit of rain. “Of Love and Hunger” has it all and it was great: cold, rainy, seaside, UK, 1940’s, realist, dingy bedsits, disaffected young men type of novel. (A bit early to be considered an “Angry Young Man” novel, but you can definitely see the beginnings here.) All of this sounds hideous, but it was a great read at the right time.

Richard Francis Fanshawe has been returned to England from his stint in India as a journalist for quite some time, but he is having a tough time finding work that fits him. (He’s not what I would call “the greatest employee in the world” though.) He finds himself working as a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner sales person in a rather run-down seaside town, living in a grimy boarding house, drinking and gambling after work and constantly being hounded by creditors and his ongoing debts.

Fanshawe makes friends with another cleaner sales person who ends up being fired and who takes a job as a worker on a three-month cruise line at sea. The friend asks Fanshawe, quite innocently, to “keep an eye” on his fairly new and young wife whilst he’s at sea, and the story goes from there.

Of courses, shenanigans ensue…

julian_mrWhat I really enjoyed about this novel was how it was written. It’s in first-person from the POV of Fanshawe, and the reader only knows and sees what Fanshawe knows and sees. The reader is also treated to the accent of this character and his way of speech – North (Norf) London and full of idioms and other dialect characteristics.

By the end of the read, I could really “hear” how Fanshawe talked, and found that this was a really well-drawn fleshed-out character for me. It rains a lot, he wears shabby macs (raincoats), he has to walk the pavement carrying a heavy box to demonstrate his wares, is behind with his rent, and is generally unhappy with his situation. Although he hates the whole set-up, there seems to be little determination to change his circumstances. He’d rather just float through life at this point (and complain about it to others in a similar situation). It’s a sense of lassitude with a heavy touch of fatalism. The war is coming, conscription is on the horizon and moving this way fast, so why try to change things even if he could?

Set in 1939, England was on the brink of war with Germany (war was declared in September of that year), conscription was just about to be introduced, and child evacuations and blackouts had started to take place. At the same time, politically speaking, there were ripples of Communism, Stalinism, and the implementation of the Great Terror in Russia where Stalin systematically killed “enemies of the people”. England was on edge, Hitler was moving west fast, the future was uncertain, unemployment was increasing, prices were rising, and this feeling of unease is really well described in the undertones of this book.

Julian MacLaren-Ross was a man who enjoyed drinking, social discourse, and not working, and who would rather hang out with others who also had a similar philosophy at the pubs in Fitzrovia, so it was rather a debauched group of friends that he had. He seems to have been a rule-breaker and rebel-without-much-cause, and after conscription, he was kicked out of the British army after deserting and going AWOL with a female friend. (It doesn’t sound like military life was a life he would enjoy much…)

In fact, even his biographer has referred to him as “the mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent,” due to his preference for lounging around and drinking than doing something productive. He published some books and articles, but his reputation as a professional layabout would precede his literary output for years. (I imagine that there was a DSM diagnosis in there somewhere. He just happened to live at a time when that wasn’t widely in use or as generally accepted as it is now.)

So – overall this was a really good read, and thanks to whoever it was who brought it to my attention. I’d never had found it otherwise.

Remember, Remember: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know about British History with all the Boring bits taken out – Judy Parkinson (2009)

An intriguing book that my sister gave to me last Christmas, this was, quite honestly, the perfect re-introduction to British history from way back to the Vikings through to the close of World War II. Obviously not an in-depth look at these historical events, but it does do exactly what it says on the tin: “a comprehensive overview that gives you all the key facts without any flab.”

As any British schoolchild will know, there is just so much history to cover when you learn British history, that it all ends up as a jumble of dates, kings and queens, and various wars. The editors developed this book as an answer to all the gaps we have in our heads from school day history lessons. There are 150 entries, each about 250 words long, and with just enough information for you to get the facts. Obviously, there is a lot more detail to the history, but to give you a taste of things, this was great.

For example, at my old school, we covered Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Romans, some Vikings, the history of Native Americans (why?) and women’s emancipation (obviously a biggie for a large private girls’ school from Victorian times). So, I don’t know if teachers were “teaching to the test” as they do here in Texas or just how the time periods were selected but it seemed very random and unconnected to me.

“Remember, Remember” is divided into several different time periods: Roman Britain, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Tudor Britain, Stuart Britain, Georgian Britain, Victorian Britain, Edwardian Britain, WWI, the Interwar Years, and WWII. There is an easy to access list of Monarchs (lots of Edwards, Henrys and Georges for some reason), and a time line of the larger events. What worked so well, actually, was the logical chronological order of one event leading to another so you could see the flow and continuity of history, as different monarchs had different areas of interest.

I also found it interesting to see how long the battle between the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England (CofE), and how it all played out over time, Additionally, it cleared up my confusion over the Northern Ireland/Ireland division and who the IRA were and how it all fit in. I was a school girl during the 1970’s, and we grew up with regular bomb threats, bomb drills, avoiding left luggage etc, but not completely understanding what was really going on. Now it’s a little clearer.

I might be gushing a bit, but this was one of the most fascinating (and helpful) books that I have read in a long time. Now, I wonder if there is one for post-WWII to the turn of the century. I have some gaps there as well….

Added later: I found one in the series that covers US history, so will delve into that when it arrives in my post box. 🙂