Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Inspirational Quotes 76

Wilhelm Reich
We create our own reality, we're in control of our destiny, we're ruled by our subconscious, confidence comes from within, yeah, yeah.  Live in the moment, be yourself, you’ll be stronger on your own, yawn.
Wilhelm Reich – shaped by his personal experience of war and poverty – believed that suffering was caused by external, socioeconomic factors. (Psychologist, Dec 2014)

Henry Stapp of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California is one of the few physicists that still subscribe to this notion: we are ‘participating observers’ whose minds cause the collapse of superpositions... There are many objectors. (New Scientist Sept 2012)

Don’t please think about your subconscious mind.  All the filthiness of this psychoanalysis does unspeakable harm. (family planning pioneer Marie Stopes)


Arrive with three amazing or entertaining stories. At the very least dress beautifully, smile gleefully and be gracious. (Cleo Rocos on surviving parties)

Now most people know that verse and we use that out of context to say 'this the college I want to go to, this is the boyfriend or girlfriend I want and this is the job I want, so those are my plans and now God declares that.' (poet Jefferson Bethke on Jeremiah 29:11)

The trouble with women is that they mistake symbolic gesture for effective action. (Simone de Beauvoir)

I've seen a number of men make mistake of assuming feelings are performances to get a response; not things that are a fact. (@MarkOneinFour)

Literature's powers of subtle signification are too often over-read as proof of the impossibility of signification. (Byzantine Ambassador ‏@byzantinepower)

The EU are doing that thing – when you go out with someone and they want YOU to dump THEM, so they start behaving really badly. (HIGNFY)

Just marry SOMEBODY! (Patricia Hodge as Miranda’s mother in Miranda)

Parents like to see that you’re doing well and earning money. (Fern Britton Dec 2014)

As Cicero said, "If it's idiotic, it probably wasn't said by Plato or Einstein”. (@oldandrewuk)

Some themes deep in the heart of Toryism just never go away. Up they pop, over and over. Control the lower orders, stop them breeding, check their spending, castigate their lifestyles. (Polly Toynbee, Dec 2014)

There’s still a culture of disbelief when it comes to rape. (BBC Breakfast, January 2014)

Dinner parties: meetings of bourgeois anonymous. (Nirpal Dhaliwal)

The Two Marks, who used to juggle and unicycle in the old school Arts Council style. (wherediditallgorightblog.wordpress.com But it was so avant garde!)

The Govt of the USA is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. (John Adams)

Business books are basically romance novels for men. Silly fantasies, terrible writing, large type, cheap paper and one good idea per book. (@BenedictEvans 27 Nov 2011)

Dec 24 The birth in a slum of a homeless family's son who preached peace & resistance & was killed by cowards, the state & the police. #Christmas (Greg Carr @AfricanaCarr)

Only eating and sleeping could be said to have a stronger grasp on the steering wheel of our daily behaviour than the thing in our heads that is constantly urging us to find love and have sex... If they are hot, the girls can pick and choose which men they interact with. (jonmillward.com on an internet dating experiment)

Person on #r4today: 'The one thing that despots fear is laughter.' Well, sort of. They also fear Soviet shock armies & strategic bombing. (Dan 'Let it' Snow @thehistoryguy)

More here, and links to the rest.


Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Ruth Rendell Mysteries



I promised to review the Ruth Rendell mysteries for Past Offences' 1987 challenge, but second time round couldn't get through Ep 1 of Series 1. An eccentric young woman has gone missing, and her hopeless myopic artist brother looms large - literally. His bottle-bottom glasses fill the screen.

Rendell's series characters are established. Gruff, older Reg Wexford (George Baker) is the liberal one, and skinny, younger Mike Burden (Christopher Ravenscroft) is the uptight conservative. He complains of the missing woman "She's 28! Why isn't she married?" He is also repelled by her lack of housekeeping skills (her cottage is a filthy tip, and this is too much dwelt on by the director).

In the 80s, we were going to remake everything - gender roles, housework and all. (Just like we tried to in the 70s and 60s.) I feel Rendell is struggling to be relevant. I wish the series had started with From Doon with Death, her first book. (Her early books are wonderfully snobbish – perhaps her editors asked her to tone it down, and keep up with the times.)

What else do I remember from the series (which I enjoyed when it was first screened)? It captures the atmosphere of ordinary English people leading ordinary lives in ordinary flats, houses, pubs, offices – thanks to real locations. The top-rank actors like Imelda Staunton, Sylvia Sims and Lesley Joseph.
I was annoyed as usual by soapy details about the series characters. In A Sleeping Life (great plot), we get way way too much of Wexford's daughter, who's quit her husband thanks to some ill-digested feminism. Why must fictional feminists be stroppy all the time? Couldn't they be coldly rational? In this episode Wexford quite unnecessarily visits France (as do the film crew, lucky them). There's a lot of faff about oysters and chablis. What's that all about? Eighties middle-class aspirational lifestyle?

More mystery here.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Is Sex Necessary? by James Thurber

Is Sex Necessary? By James Thurber
Written in 1929, this is an obvious pot-boiler churned out in response to the contemporary fad for psychoanalysis, and the changes in mores since the war (World War I). The humour is lumbering, the satire is passé, and the padding is egregious, but Thurber sprinkles some acute observations among the “jokes”.

He describes female “types”. Beware the Quiet Type, he warns. But still worse is the Button-hole Twister. She is the cutesy kind of girl who sticks a finger into your lapel buttonhole and twists it, while standing on one leg and putting on a “wistful, far-away look”. Other options are the Outdoors Girl, or the Clinging Vine. Do they have modern equivalents?

Young ladies come to New York in droves, telling their mothers that they are drawn by “concerts, new plays and the opera”. They don’t tell their mothers that they want to find a man – but what will happen if they all do it? The young ladies spend many evenings at home making parchment lampshades (fashionable at the time).

The average young lady can’t decide whether emancipation means drinking gin and “talking freely of exhibitionism and voyeurism” or “being the recipient of some overwhelmingly beautiful passion which... she knew couldn’t exist because she was so widely read”.

“Unable to decide whether sex was the poem she half believed it to be or the casual episode she had schooled herself to think it was” she practically gives up on the whole thing. She gets a job and ends up with lots of lampshades. She’s ready to “step placidly into a good old-fashioned marriage when the right man came along. And he usually did, the poor yap.” She spends the first few weeks of marriage decorating, and the man begins to feel “trapped”. She has to explain guest towels to him: “They are hung up for lady guests to look at and are not to be disturbed.”

But a man may be put off his fiancée by her favourite slang, her excessive height, the suspicion that he could do better. And inviting someone else into your life causes complications, including: “telephone conversations, arrangements, plans, sacrifices, train arrivals, meetings, appointments... delays, dinners, small pets...”. “Many men have told me that they would not object to sex were it not for its contactual aspect... they would be perfectly willing... if it could be done at a reasonable distance – say 50 paces.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.





Film and Literary Genres

I was literally petrified
FILMS Watched the Titans movie. It's a classical mash-up. A bit 'tell Perseus that Helen's cyclops is riding a Minotaur in a trireme.' (Dan Snow)

The "for people who hate forrin muck films" breed of lazy remake. (@woodo79)

amazing dreck from beyond the galaxy (Dan Auty in the late 70s when rep cinemas screened old scifi and you could even see it on telly sometimes. He is now Den of Geek, and his brother Chris is a well-known film producer.)

The decade was finally starting to show the growth of the post-war economy and shine, so were the movies, even the noirs, and it was the beginning of the end for the genre. The look was not the only thing that started to "lighten up", the characters were becoming less cynical, more perky, and frankly more boring. This can be exemplified by the room-mates here that are so spunky and aloof that they seem to glide and float through this mystery/thriller. Low-brow blues and jazz was replaced with the nonthreatening pop softness of Nat King Cole. (Anonymous imdb commenter on Blue Gardenia nails it again.)

pig opera: dramas starring cute pigs (Babe, Private Function, Betty Blue Eyes)
doll horror
desert road trip
(popular in 70s)
French-window froth (imdb)

mama drama
wire-fu
berserk pensioner
(Marigold Hotel and spin-offs)

four-quadrant tent-pole movie (Dan Auty – whatever that means!)

inspiration porn (Amy Dentata – films about cute maths genii)
found footage (Bit like a “found diary” book.)
low-tech Steampunk Victoriana (Greg Jenner on Dr Who)

Upmarket romance – girl gets the guy, but, boy, does it take time. (@JonnyGeller)


LITERARY
creative writing class prose:
present continuous, banal detail and no authorial spin. Do they teach you to write badly? Do you have to appeal to the senses? (Per writer Elif Batuman – they stick religiously to Strunk and White and tell you to be concrete and kill your darlings.)

ghostwriter’s prose: It was a lovely hotel… suddenly a man in a Stetson hat appeared… On top of page after page of this mind-numbingly boring and irrelevant filler, the paint-by-numbers ghostwriter's prose is also dull and grating – "correct" in construction but utterly devoid of any creativity, style or interest. (Amazon review of The Best of Friends. Ghost writers also tend to say “he was my rock” and “his smile lit up the room”.)

More here, and links to the rest.

Styles and Genres 4

Welcome to Croydon
ARCHITECTURE
Off to take some photos of Croydon's 'New York built in Poland' skyline. (John Grindrod ‏@Grindrod)

Oh, so a 1791 building containing jukebox, baseball photos, a fibreglass rhino & Egyptian cat is "Dickensian"? (Douglas Murphy ‏@entschwindet)

ghost modernism: “Devoid of its own ideas, this ghost modernism plundered the 1920, 1930s and 1940s but drew the line at Brutalism, which it replaced, reclad or had demolished.” (LRB on Jonathan Meades on Blairite modernism, March 2013)


Arts and Crafts baroque
decorated shed

cheap sh*t pomo (now looking weirdly lovely)
nondescript City fringe Postmodern offices (Hugh Pearman)
high-mo/po-tech (Douglas Murphy)
manga-high-tech-pomo (Adam Furman)

council pomo:
Noddy hat roofs, that odd mix of yellow, red and blue brick, and a rather silly, jolly classicism...  pagodas, baubles, new vertical circulation cores, and a district housing office. (Douglas Murphy @entschwindet – But the pomo additions included useful things like obvious, well-lit entrances, lockable front doors and entryphones, and boxed-in staircases that had been open to the weather. Noddy-hat roofs? Noddy wore a long stocking cap with a bell. But “houses the public might have designed” were always called “Noddy boxes”.)

call-centre/ leisure centre chic (Joe Preston/ ‏@upthewoodenhill on proposed cladding for Guy’s Hospita)
military sublime (Corinna Dean)

FASHION
the "gigolo who stabs somebody to death in a Genet novel" look is back (a chris from a rose ‏@randlechris)
normcore: the creators of normcore now say that dressing in Man at C and A isn’t what they meant – they claim they meant moving from tribe to tribe and dressing appropriately. What we all think of as normcore is really called Acting Basic.)


ANTIQUES ETC
airport tribal/departure lounge (Thomas Plant and Bargain Hunt contestant)
Ashcan School (late 19th century American painters)

birdcage bandstand

brewery-ana
Byzantine wheat (It’s a kind of chain.)

Camden Town tat (from the market)
crumpled-paper aesthetic (in wax or oil paint): It’s what Daily Telegraph readers go for when they’re not buying views of the South of France with too much ultramarine and violet. Includes work where the material is the thing – paintings on rusted vintage tin trays, heads sculpted out of calcite stalagmites, origami old music paper.

féerique (art about fairies)
interesting: According to Flickr, “interesting” pictures are HD photos of nature, Thomas Kinkade meets 80s watery Zen landscapes. Long exposure, colours made more vivid.

Mockintash: You got it – pseudo Mackintosh typeface plus endless roses and designs that look vaguely like stained glass. (80s, 90s.)

papillon glass (iridescent)
ronde bosse enamel (blobby)

shedwork
(a bit crude and naive, unless you're Sean Greenhalgh)

singerie (art involving monkeys, especially satirical)
Soviet product design (bad printing that looks a bit like a potato cut, very fashionable a few years ago)
sub St Ives: schoolof Mary Fedden

vermiculated finish
(Flog It!)
whiplash curve (on art nouveau ceramics and furniture)

More here, and links to the rest.

More Music Genres



My new favourite genre is 80s southern sci-fi synth-gospel (Andrew Male)

Electro & psychedelic rock mixed with Moog Afro electro funk moves that will have your head spinning. (via Twitter)

There's only one kind of music that isn't bollocks and that's trance garage hippy house metal with overtones of hip-hop snatch reggae, a brief undercurrent of dub-rap classical convertive pop in an avant-garde revival bluegrass stylee topped off with a liberal smearing in the midrange and the inclusion of massed (150+) harps. (LP)

Ethereal, Glo-Fi, Chillwave, Ambient, Lush, Dream-Pop, Atmospheric, Soundscape (group on Soundcloud)

Glitch Hop / Whomp / Midtempo / Bass / Ghetto Funk / Hop / Global Bass / Trap / Moombahton / Electro Soul / Future Funk or any Swing / Blues / Balkan / Tropical / Cumbia / Gypsy Jazz / Circus / Funk and Soul INFLUENCED BASS MUSIC (group on Soundcloud)

chilled-out jungle
Christian metal
deep house
drone rock (via @sumit)
Dronescape, Dark Forest (These seem to be bands.)

epic emotional electronica
jukebox musical (like Mamma Mia)
Korean trance pop

math rock
minimal ambient
modern melodic metal
nuanced dirt-pop

plunderphonic (Gareth Rees)
psych folk

space house
space rock
stoner doom

surf creep
Synth Wave, OutRun and Dream Wave (synths)

More here.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Snobbery, Racism and Josephine Tey


Snobbery and racism in Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles.
Not one of Tey’s best (try The Franchise Affair or Miss Pym Disposes), this is an episodic melodrama which races around the country, taking in some unusual characters on the way. Some of them disappear from the story just as we’ve got to like them. It is enjoyable for many of the wrong reasons, and the usual disclaimers apply: it was published in 1936, it is of its time, the attitudes belong to the characters, not the writer. Women come off best: most of the female characters have careers or at least jobs, and the romantic interest is such a tomboy she’s oblivious of her role.

A film star is found murdered on a beach. The police open the front door of her rented cottage and see “the gleam of a brass warming-pan on the wall. The cottage had been ‘discovered’.” (Once utilitarian items like warming pans had ceased to have a function, lovers of all things rustic hung them on the wall as decoration. This was an error of taste – a bit like hanging up carpet beaters as we did in the 70s.)

They meet the murdered woman’s servant, a small woman with “scanty hair drawn to a knob at the back of her head, and a round bird’s nest affair of black satin set insecurely at the very top”. This elderly lady is still wearing the fashions of 1880 - she’s only about 50 years out of date. (There’s a caricatured landlady later in the story who seems shoved in for a cheap laugh.)

Sergeant Williams “flung sugar violently into his black tea”. Black tea was Indian tea (which the upper classes didn’t drink), rather than tea without milk.

Inspector Grant generalises about a sympathetic and likeable Jewish character, Jason Harmer: “Just a rather ordinary American Jew from some poor corner of Europe; ill-educated, emotional, and ruthless, like so many of his race... He apparently had the subject races’ ability to be all things to all men... He spent his life, that is to say, ‘putting on an act’." (Even though Harmer is a suspect, he and Grant become quite friendly.)

Later, Harmer explodes: “Oh yes, you don’t have to say it all again. I know it by heart. England’s a country of complete tolerance. She makes no difference between races. It doesn’t matter to an Englishman what creed you believe in or what the shade of your skin is... Did it ever occur to you, Inspector, that you’re the only people who’ve really kept us out? Kept us in our place. That’s your pet expression, and that describes it... Infra dig to marry a Jew if he has less than a hundred thousand. And not so hot then.” (“Infra dig” is short for Infra dignitatem curae, beneath the dignity of the court. Middle-class people used it to mean “not the done thing”.)

Inspector Grant goes to the murdered woman’s funeral, at Golders Green crematorium, and wonders why it distresses him. “The suburbanity of it, he supposed. Sensible, and all that.” Many fans turn up too, and her husband remarks: “Those women. I think the end of our greatness as a race must be very near... That sub-human mass of hysteria... made me ashamed of being human, of belonging to the same species.” News photographs show: “Medusa-like heads... dishevelled Furies with streaming locks and open mouths clawing each other in an abandon of hate...” So the “Dianification of society” is hardly a new phenomenon?

Sgt Williams announces a visitor who wishes to confess to the crime. Grant is furious: “How dare some sensation-mad female waste his time in order to satisfy her perverted and depraved appetite.” The would-be confessor is an actress and colleague of the dead woman: “Grant thought how Borstal she was in spite of her soignée exterior.” (That’s “elegant”, and Borstal was an institution for delinquent teenagers. She turns out to be accusing herself for the best of motives.)

The tomboy complains that high heels are hard to walk in, and Inspector Grant tells her:

One must conform to the taboos of the tribe.”
“Why must one?”
“Because an unquiet life is a greater misery than wearing the badge of conformity.”

The story darts from the country cottage to a dubious community of Brothers to a grand hotel on the South Coast to a London lecture hall where a crowd has gathered to hear a talk on astrology. Sprinkled around the audience are “duchesses up for a day” and a good many cranks. “There was no mistaking them: their pale eyes rested on the middle distance, their clothes looked like a bargain basement after a stay-in strike, and it seemed that they all wore the same string of sixpenny beads round their thin necks.” The speaker makes a surprising announcement and the audience tries to make a hasty exit: “With most of them it began as a desire to escape from a tense situation; they belonged as a class to people who hate ‘awkwardness’.

Grant penetrates the strange Brotherhood and finds more of the breed: “Some were cranks (one saw the same faces at ‘anti’ meetings and folk-dance revivals)...” The Brothers lead him to a dubious lady, and he surmises that she is “not all white. Something in her movements, in the texture of her hair, was – what? Negro? Indian?”

Then it’s back to the seaside: “Whitecliffe is a continuation of Westover: a collection of plutocratic villas set on the cliff beyond the cries of trippers and the desecration of blown newspaper pages.”

A strange tale, but not as strange as To Love and Be Wise.
More mysteries here.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Euphemisms about Banter (in Quotes)



Jeremy’s a character. (ex-Stig, in week of Clarkson sacking)

Adjectives to Describe Women: A Pocket Reference. Brassy: Speaks. Bold: Speaks. Feisty: Speaks. Brave: Speaks. Outspoken: Speaks. (@ABCnewsIntern)

Women in the workplace exist to be fun and a good sport – that is, not to resist the men’s sexual advances. (LRB on Mad Men (paraphrase) March 2015)

[rants using a bunch of slurs and stereotypes] *profile describes person as "champion of reason"* (@AmyDentata)

I don't know when 'straight-talking' came to mean being an inconsiderate a***hole. (Karl Sharro ‏@KarlreMarks)

AprilFool jst makes me v anxious as I asociate it with a masive escalation in bulying undr the guise of "aBitOfFun" tht alwys hapnd @ school (AdamNathanielFurman ‏@Furmadamadam)

Some people call it having more self-esteem. Others call it not being a doormat. Some call it standing up for your own beliefs. Some call it making your voice heard. I was told it's "tending to my own needs"... (@koenfucius on bullying. You could call it assertiveness, too.)

Parody UKIP pledge: “Downgrade ‘racism’ to ‘banter’” (Many think that once they've renamed "racism" as "banter" they've had the last word. They also think they have changed the phenomenon and it now IS banter. Rinse, repeat.)

Mystifying that women who complain vociferously about anything are FEMINAZIS; men who threaten violence are just engaging in BANTER. (Lee Jackson ‏@VictorianLondon)


A***hole signifiers in Twitter handles & bios: "truth", "hypocrites", "banter/bantz", "liars", "tells it like it is", "no filter", "Mensch". (Barfe of Millbrook ‏@LFBarfe)

"Comedy Terrorist" is another good one. Well, I say "good". (Walter Dunlop ‏@waltydunlop)

"Disrespecter of the Thought Police." (Gormlessghast ‏@Trim_Bachelor)

"Dom Jolly". (chinnyhill10 ‏@chinnyhill)

Also either "atheist" or "friend of Jesus". Esp. if both in same bio. (Stephen Coltrane ‏@sjcoltrane)

Also anything at all about "political correctness". (JDMC ‏@MotoClark)
More here, and links to the rest.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Demon Drink III




Couldn't we make alcohol as invisible as tobacco? We might save the NHS billions. For starters, we could stop this kind of thing:
You weren’t drunk when you bought it? (a wine bottle)
David Harper: No, but I think I need to go and have a drink now!
All: HA HA HA HA HA!
(Bargain Hunt)

That one’s going that way, and that one’s going that way.
I haven’t had a drink, but I think you’re right!
(Flog It!)

The best part of the hiking is that we always finish at the pub. (Bargain Hunt)

Enjoy the summer with your love one and maybe a glass or two while relaxing in this new design hardwood love chair. (Ad from Groundlevel)

Have a few friends round for cocktails, get sloshed... (property programme)

Are you a wine drinker, sir?
I wouldn’t say no to a glass of red.
Anything to do with wine is quite popular, particularly with me.
(antiques programme)

Plenty of red wine for Rob. (Home Away From Home)

Paul Martin to older lady: What’s your favourite tipple?
Lady: Champagne!
Will Axon: Buck’s Fizz for breakfast.
Paul Martin: You know, it does nothing for me, champagne.
(Flog It!)

After three days I could murder an amphora of wine, meself. (Tony Robinson on Time Team)

Are you a bit of a drinker, Flo?
I like a drink, yes.
What’s your favourite tipple?
Not Guinness!
I reckon you packed these, Flo, after your three halves of cider!
(Flog It! She’s selling some rather bashed Guinness promo figures.)

More here, and links to the rest.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Headlines 3



Sometimes headlines are ambiguous:
More Time Granted to Murder Police (BBC Sept 2013)
Deadly British plant thought to be extinct is discovered by a lighthouse (Daily Mail)
Synod to rubber stamp women bishops
Turkey Extends Hand to Norfolk Eastern Daily Press
Mystery of pre-historic whale graveyard solved by toxic algae (The Week)
Doctor Who amputated Oscar Pistorius’ legs
Traffic Stopped by Giant Octopus


And some are bizarre:
Gastropub landlord guilty of chasing eccentric American to death with ironing board (Evening Standart)
Woman gives birth, fights off bees, starts wildfire in Northern California (via LA Times)
Police warned angry goat on roof “only respects one man” (Metro, Nov 2014-11-20)
This woman dunked an egg beater in lava and got arrested (Huffpost)
Race to save beetle-threat clothes
Wandering turtles clog runways at JFK
Rogue cabbie tells police 'I've had a hair transplant' (2013 Manchester Evening News)
Turnips will be grown on the Moon (Times 2013-11-30)


Some are fascinatingly dull:

Hunt for washing line thief who stole Primark tracksuit bottoms on Beverley Road (Hull Daily Mail)

Kate Middleton Just Took Her Pregnancy Fashion To The Next Level With This Chic Maternity Peplum (Nov 2014-11-20)

Lollipop lady's garden shed gets national treasure status DT March 2014 (It’s a former hat workshop.)


Sometimes typos are an improvement:
Huge crow attends fireworks display
Inhumane laughter of the gannets must be ended (Glasgow Herald)


Or subs make terrible puns:

Chelsea embarrassed by their Basel brush-off (Mirror, 2013, among several)
Basel brush past Chelsea but Londoners advance (Reuters, 2013)
Women sought for Neanderthal surrogacy? Not yeti, thankfully


While adjectives pile up:
Mark Rothko Tate Modern painting damage man jailed (BBC News)

More here.


Friday, 3 July 2015

So, really, was Agatha Christie anti-Semitic?

Long, golden hair

Giant's Bread, by Agatha Christie, 1930
I came across a reference to a straight novel Agatha Christie had written with a Jewish musician as hero, so I bought it and read it. The uneappealing title is Giant’s Bread, and she published it in 1930 under the name of Mary Westmacott. A friend, Nan Kon, dropped a hint that she had guessed the book’s true author. Not surprising, since Christie used chunks of her own experience.

The central character, Vernon Deyre, does indeed become a composer, but his father is a decayed English gentleman who has married a button-shank heiress from Birmingham in order to hang onto his ancestral home, Abbots Puissants. Christie is good on the stifling boredom of childhood. Vernon is from a “privileged” background, all right, but he hardly ever sees his parents, or the rest of the enormous house. He spends most of his time in a small nursery with “Nurse”, or being led on sedate walks around the gardens or along the road. He develops a vivid imagination and many imaginary companions.

His life changes when his cousin Josephine comes to live with them. The two become great friends, and one day they meet the boy next door – Sebastian Levinne. He too becomes part of the gang, and another girl, the rather drippy Nell Vereker, is accepted on sufferance.

The book drags rather until the characters grow up. Vernon’s father dies in the Boer War and his mother moves back to Birmingham and lets the house. The Levinnes are portrayed sympathetically, but today we would not harp on Sebastian having a “yellow” face, or a slight lisp. Fortunately Christie stops indicating this, but poor Mrs Levinne is burdened with lines like “Teath ready, dearths”.

“Jet dangled and twinkled on her immense bust. A large black hat with feathers sat on top of her elaborately arranged coiffure.” Later Vernon reflects: “Funny, fat, old Mrs Levinne with her jet and her diamonds and her greasy black hair, managed to be more understanding than his own mother.” It’s rather hard to tell which year the story is set in, but we can work out that the young characters are the same age as Christie herself, who was born in 1890. In 1905 jet was old-fashioned, and diamonds during the day were a no-no, but would Mrs L really be wearing a feathered hat indoors at teatime? And would Sebastian really say “Personally I’m quite satisfied with Jehovah”? Later, they discuss a possible buyer for Abbots Puissant. Nobody wants “a vulgarian who will fill it with gilt and spurious old masters”.

The four young people throw themselves into Edwardian life, determined to be modern. Josephine (Joe) becomes a suffragette. Sebastian is in love with her, and becomes a theatrical producer. You long for Christie's usual satire, wit and snappy dialogue. Dramatic events happen offstage, and characters converse in long, stodgy speeches about their purpose in life. She’s even sometimes guilty of this kind of thing:

“‘You wouldn’t have him accept it?’ flamed out Joe.”

Vernon meets Nell Vereker again and finds that she has become exceptionally pretty. Her mother is launching her in society in the hope that she will make a “good marriage” – code for “marry a rich man”. They haven’t much to live on. “‘Someone devoted is always useful,’ said Mrs Vereker, reverting to her utilitarian standpoint. ‘He mustn’t, of course, spoil your chances with other men.’” Mrs V reflects on “The ease with which friends dropped you if you ‘couldn’t keep up with things’, the slights, the snubs – worse – the galling patronage!”

Christie is quite down-to-earth about the marriage market. Her own family lost most of its income through mismanagement and trusting the wrong people, and her father died when she was young. Her mother was nothing like the shallow, grasping Mrs Vereker, but Mrs Miller did not hide hard facts from her daughter. Christie also grew up in a beloved house with a big garden – not a “historic house” with ruins as in the book, but a  massive Victorian villa.

A fifth character joins the gang: singer Jane Harding. She has a light, lovely voice, but pushes herself to sing Wagner and Strauss. She says to Nell: ‘If you like to come round to my flat, I’ll try your voice, and I can tell you in two minutes just what your voice is good for.’ ‘Would you really? That’s awfully kind of you.’ ‘Oh, not at all. You can trust me. You can’t trust someone who makes their living by teaching to tell you the truth.’ (Good tip, by the way.)


Christie uses Jane’s character to relive her days as a student in Paris. I believe she desperately wanted to be a singer, though she was nervous of performing in public. Eventually she met the teacher honest enough to tell her the truth: that her voice just wasn’t good enough, and she’d never make it. (Later, she sought writing mentors with the same clear-sightedness.) She obviously loved the avant-garde composers of the day, and this book shows that she understood them thoroughly.

Vernon becomes a composer, intending to remake music entirely. He writes an opera based on a fairy story (I skipped a lot of this bit), and Jane stars in it, losing her voice as a result. Yes, the plot is preposterous and beyond melodramatic. I also skipped quite a lot about a modernist setting of the Peer Gynt story. “Great art” crops up now and then in Christie’s writing, and usually sounds dire – like sculptor Henrietta’s output in The Hollow. But I admire her for taking it on. Would we appreciate Vernon's masterpiece: a musique concrète depiction of the mechanisation of man? I think I would.

The war hasn’t even started yet, but “free love” is talked of, people “defy convention” and live together, or become “that kind of woman”. Sebastian has a futuristic moment: ‘I don’t think it’s got anything to do with ideals. It’s probably a question of transport. Once you get flying going on a commercial scale and you fuse countries together. Air charabancs to the Sahara, Wednesdays and Saturdays. That kind of thing. Countries getting mixed up and matey. Trade revolutionized. For all practical purposes, you make the world smaller. You reduce it in time to the level of a nation with counties in it. I don’t think what’s always alluded to as the Brotherhood of Man will ever develop from fine ideas – it will be a simple matter of common sense.’

War breaks out, and Vernon and Nell get married and live in furnished rooms while he trains for the army. He is sent to the front, and Nell becomes a nurse. Suddenly we’re back with the witty, observant writer we know and love: “Mrs Curtis was benign and affable. She was enjoying her importance and was convinced that she was a born organizer.”

We learn some details about Christie’s life as a nurse that didn’t make it into her autobiography. The volunteers disregard their backgrounds, usually so inescapable, and all muck in together, calling each other by their surnames. The professional sisters, however, are desperately trying to be genteel: “‘I only passed the remark, so to speak.’ ‘Pushing herself forward. Always the same thing.’ ‘Would you believe it, she forgot to hold the towel for the doctor’s hands.’ ‘I said to Doctor this morning …’ ‘I passed the remark to Nurse …’” I’d have liked to hear more about the “feuds, the jealousies, the cabals”. Entertainment is laid on for the wounded, and Christie gets in a dig at the untalented: ‘Anybody who thinks they can sing, but has never been allowed to by their families, has got their chance now!’

From this point on, the narrative revs up, and Christie casts her usual page-turning spell despite the crazy plot. Sebastian continues to be a good egg, though there are occasional lines like this: “A sudden quick suspicion came into his shrewd Jewish mind,” and “It was a feeling peculiarly and exclusively Jewish. The undying gratitude of the Jew who never forgets a benefit conferred. As a child he had been an outcast and Joe had stood by him – she had been willing to defy her world.”

Though the book lacks Christie’s usual beady eye for fashion and décor, at one point Nell looks at herself in the mirror: “She saw the waved and shingled hair, the manicured hands, the foamy negligee of soft lace, the cobweb silk stockings and little embroidered mules. She saw the hard cold beauty of the rose-coloured diamond.” And an ill Joe manages to parody Victorian literature: “This reminds me of the books one reads as a child. Edifying death-bed scenes. Friends and relations gathering round. Wan smiles of heroine.” (This paragraph is for Clothes in Books.)

Read it yourself if you want to find out what happens and who ends up with whom. It’s a romance, but there are no Mary Sue characters – everybody is flawed. Nell herself appears as a heroine out of Sir Walter Scott, with her slender shape and long, golden hair. Along with the Wagner-loving Jane, she also is Christie’s avatar: she had a moment as a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and strings of admirers, some of whom offered “safety”. She chucked them to marry Archie Christie, one of the first RAF pilots. And thereby hangs a tale.

More on Christie's alleged racism here, and links to the rest.
More Christie reviews here.