Tag Archives: John Verney

My Favourite Books of 2015

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2015 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I finished reading 81 books this year, which doesn’t include the two terrible books I didn’t finish, the novel I’m currently halfway through, or the small pile of books I brought home from the library for the holidays.

Types of books read in 2015

I read lots of non-fiction books this year, because I was researching 1960s England for a series I’m planning to write. This would also explain the following information:

Writer nationality 2015

Gender of writer for books read in 2015

Women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower and A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. I also became hooked on Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

I found myself engrossed in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of T.H. White, Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason, and Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I also liked Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia, edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren, a collection of autobiographical stories by twelve Australian Muslims. And for sheer entertainment value, I can’t leave out The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, edited by Noel Streatfeild.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart was an exciting middle-grade novel in which four gifted children foil the plans of an Evil Genius. It reminded me of the early Harry Potter novels, except it was science fiction rather than fantasy and had fewer jokes (although it did contain lots of fun puzzles, codes and riddles). I also enjoyed Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead and Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

'The Arrival' by Shaun TanShaun Tan’s The Arrival was a beautiful wordless story about a refugee starting a new life in a strange, confusing country, with a message particularly relevant to the world right now. On a lighter note, I enjoyed Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony, about a young warrior princess who hopes to receive a noble steed for her birthday but instead finds herself stuck with a small, round pony with some unfortunate traits.

Thanks for being part of Memoranda in 2015. I hope you all had a good reading year and that 2016 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014

The Years of Grace: Your Home

In my previous discussion of the opening section of The Years of Grace, I neglected the fabulous illustrations, so I’ll make sure to include some here. Each section of this book has an introduction by Noel Streatfeild, and in this second section, ‘Your Home’, she admits that she was a “menace” as a teenager, “scowling round the house, saying ‘Why should I?’ about everything I was asked to do” and bringing home an unsuitably un-English friend called Consuelo (“Girls from Latin countries grow up faster than girls from cold countries. Consuelo probably held the record for fast growing-up even in a Latin country.”).

The first chapter, by Margaret Kennedy, discusses the difficulties of sharing a house with parents and siblings:

John Verney illustration from 'The Years of Grace'

“The mother must manage to make room for her daughter’s wider life without letting the others feel that the whole house now belongs to an ENORMOUS GIRL who seems to be everywhere at once – locked in the bathroom when her brother wants to shave, telephoning in the hall at the top of her voice, pressing a dress on the kitchen table and dancing to the radio in the sitting-room.”

(By the way, I thought that illustration’s dense cross-hatched style seemed familiar and it turned out to be the work of John Verney, author of Friday’s Tunnel.)

Margaret Kennedy provides some sensible advice about reaching compromises with parents, including the need to be nice to your parents’ dull old friends (“It is highly mortifying for a mother if the refreshments at her bridge party are brought in by a daughter who looks as though she were dispensing alms to a colony of lepers”) and having to explain your own friends to them (“Parents do not always understand their daughters’ friendships or see where the attraction lies”). This is further explored in an article by Richmal Crompton, who gives useful tips for being a good friend (you need tact, generosity, lack of possessiveness, common but not identical interests, and a shared sense of humour).

Next comes Magdalen King-Hall with a chapter about community service and social justice, even if she doesn’t call it that. Although the examples she provides are a little dated (Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale), the message is still relevant today:

“We are linked together, not only with the other people in our own country, but with all the other people in the world. It is like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples spread out in widening circles – you, your family, your school, your community, your country, your world. This feeling of world citizenship is only in its infancy, but it has been born, and two devastating world wars have not destroyed it.”

She even mentions The League of Nations. Veronica FitzOsborne would approve. But Veronica probably wouldn’t think much of Mary Dunn’s article, ‘The Queen Was in the Kitchen’. Mrs Dunn explains that men reserve their greatest admiration for a girl who can cook:

Anna Zinkeisen illustration from 'The Years of Grace'

“Pretty, helpless women are very nice in the fiancée stage, to take to the pictures and to dance with, but after marriage, unless a girl is feminine in the right way, not just to look at but a homemaker, there is going to be trouble. Of course, after he has married her a man still wants a girl to look pretty and to have time to do things with him, but he wants as well to be quite certain that she looks after him better than the wives of all the other chaps in the street, and that he can brag that he is the best-fed man he knows.”

Mrs Dunn despairs because British housewives are letting down the side, compared to their glamorous counterparts in France, Scandinavia and especially the United States. You might think those Hollywood films depicting pretty housewives creating beautiful meals in dazzling kitchens are just Hollywood fantasies. But you would be wrong:

“Most American kitchens are like that and nearly all American girls really are splendid cooks, and really do whisk up superb meals and appear five minutes later in their living rooms looking too glamorous to be true. This business of looking smart when doing housework or cooking is something that we in this country really ought to turn our attention to … I feel sorry for tradesmen; how depressing when they call, to be greeted by a bedraggled object …”

Fortunately, the next article, by Janet Farwell, involved a vet talking to a family about the advantages and disadvantages of various pets (dogs, cats, rabbits, tortoises, fish, hamsters, budgies, silkworms) and included some adorable puppy illustrations, so my blood pressure returned to normal.

Finally, Elizabeth Cadell gave a lot of practical advice on hosting teenage parties, including hints on venues (turn your bedroom into “a very attractive bed-sitting room” by scattering cushions on the floor and covering the dressing table with a tablecloth), refreshments (sausage rolls, trifle, ice-cream, cider cup and “in cold weather, provide Bovril”) and games (cards, Tiddlywinks, charades). Which leads nicely to the next section of The Years of Grace: Leisure.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

‘T. H. White: A Biography’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

It took me a while to read this excellent biography of the author of The Once and Future King – not because it was lengthy or written in ‘difficult’ prose (quite the contrary), but because it often made me sad and I kept needing to put it down to have a bit of a think about what I’d read. Terence Hanbury White had an awful childhood – born in India in 1906 to feuding parents who frequently threatened to shoot one another, and him, and who then bitterly separated in an era when divorce was a great scandal. His father abandoned the family, and his mother alternately smothered and maltreated her only child. White was sent to a sadistic English boarding school, then worked as a private tutor until he had enough money to put himself through Cambridge, with his studies interrupted by a life-threatening bout of tuberculosis. After achieving a First Class with Distinction, he worked as a schoolmaster for a few years, then spent the rest of his life writing, interspersed with various short-lived enthusiasms – for hunting, fishing, falconry, gardening, flying aeroplanes, sailing yachts, making documentary films about puffins, learning everything there was to know about Irish Catholicism or Arthurian mythology or the Emperor Hadrian …

'T.H. White: A Biography' by Sylvia Townsend WarnerBut as passionate as he was about facts and technical skills, he was not very interested in most people (“How restful it would be if there were no human beings in the world at all”) and he lived a hermit-like existence in various remote cottages for many years. His friend John Verney (author of Friday’s Tunnel), who wrote the introduction to this biography, noted that, “With strangers he could be quite odious; rude and suspicious if he thought they were lionizing him, still more so if he thought they weren’t; shouting down anyone who disagreed with his more preposterous assertions or even ventured to interrupt.” White himself admitted he was “a sort of Boswell, boasting, indiscreet, ranting, rather pathetic” and admitted to “trying to shock people” (to repel them?), although he also had very old-fashioned ideas about modesty, women and sex. Another writer friend, David Garnett, accused White of having a “medieval monkish attitude” and White didn’t disagree. He wrote to Garnett, “I want to get married … and escape from all this piddling homosexuality and fear and unreality.” He tried to fall in love with a barmaid who had a “boyish figure” but this was unsuccessful, as was a later engagement to another young woman. She (sensibly) called it off; he wrote her anguished letters, but his biographer says “his torment in so desperately wanting something he had no inclination for is unmistakable”. He tried psychoanalysis and “hormone therapy” as a cure for homosexuality, which also didn’t work; then he tried to blot everything out with alcohol (“I used to drink because of my troubles, until the drink became an added trouble”). Unfortunately, he wasn’t attracted to men (which would have been bad enough at a time when homosexuality was illegal) but to boys, and he spent years obsessing over a boy called Zed:

“I am in a sort of whirlpool which goes round and round, thinking all day and half the night about a small boy … The whole of my brain tells me the situation is impossible, while the whole of my heart nags on … What do I want of Zed? – Not his body, merely the whole of him all the time.”

He never told Zed of his true feelings, or acted on them (“I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I loved”), but Zed’s parents grew wary and eventually the boy himself broke off contact. To further complicate matters, White told Garnett that he (White) had managed to destroy every relationship he started because he was a sadist and “the sadist longs to prove the love which he has inspired, by acts of cruelty – which naturally enough are misinterpreted by normal people … if he behaved with sincerity, and instinctively, he alienated his lover and horrified and disgusted himself.” Whether White actually acted on his “sadistic fantasies” is unknown (he had a great talent for self-dramatising and might have been trying to shock Garnett), but he blamed it all on his mother and his boarding school experiences.

The greatest love of his life, though, was Brownie, his red setter. She slept in his bed, was fed elaborate meals, wore a custom-made coat and accompanied him everywhere. (There’s a photo here of Brownie with White, the two of them looking as though they’re posing for a formal engagement portrait.) Brownie eventually became as eccentric as her human:

“She used to kidnap chickens and small animals and keep them as pets, and insisted on taking her pet rabbit to bed with her – in White’s bed. The rabbit bit him freely, but he submitted. She had geological interests, too, and collected stones which she kept under the kitchen table.”

When she died, he sat with her corpse for two days, then at her grave for a week, wrote her an anguished love poem, and forever after kept a lock of her hair in his diary, next to her photo.

White seems to have been a mass of unhappy contradictions. He railed against the British Labour government because he hated paying tax, and he moved to Ireland, then the Channel Islands, to avoid taxes, but he could be very generous with his money and time when it came to charitable causes. He claimed to hate people, but hosted week-long parties at his house in Alderney each summer and his friends all seemed to love him, despite his many faults. He was often miserable, but was “always capable of being surprised by joy” and his writing is full of humour. He announced in his forties that he was done with “forcing myself to be normal” and he gave up drinking – but not for very long, and he died at the relatively young age of fifty-seven of coronary heart disease, probably exacerbated by his drinking and chain-smoking.

This biography includes a discussion of each of White’s books, but I don’t think you need to be familiar with his work to find this book fascinating. I’d only read The Sword in the Stone (which I liked because it was full of animals), but I’m now curious about The Elephant and the Kangaroo, a satire set in Ireland. White, according to his Cambridge tutor, was “far more remarkable than anything he wrote” and his biographer seems to have agreed.

Dated Books, Part Nine: Friday’s Tunnel

A note for the benefit of those new to this series: ‘dated’ means ‘of its time, not ours’. ‘Dated’ books can be horribly offensive to modern sensibilities, or they can be charmingly nostalgic, or they can simply be a bit . . . odd. Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney falls mostly into the charmingly nostalgic category, with the dated bits generally being amusing, rather than annoying. It was recommended to me by Debbie during my search for 1950s schoolgirl books, so thank you, Debbie – I thoroughly enjoyed this book (and took careful notes on the schoolgirl slang, hobbies, clothes and other useful information contained therein). But first I ought to show you the lovely old hardcover I purchased from Rainy Day Books:

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

This was once a library book at the ‘City of Collingwood Junior Library’ and the following letter to ‘Junior Borrowers’ is pasted in the front:

'Junior Borrower' letter

I wish all the adults who borrow books from my local library would follow that advice.

I should also point out that my 1959 (first?) edition includes lots of great illustrations by the author, as well as a detailed map (which certainly came in handy, given the complicated plot).

Friday’s Tunnel is narrated by February Callendar, who we learn is “stuck in bed for ages with a broken nose, a broken pelvis and a broken several other things” and is therefore at leisure to write down the extraordinary story of how she managed to save the world during her summer holidays, when she’d actually planned to spend all her time practising show jumping for the district gymkhana and improving her overarm tennis serve (both of which turn out to be very useful skills when dealing with the villains). She also explains that she intends to write “the sort of book I like to read, which means one with a map and drawings, and talk on every page and not one with long descriptions about the sun’s early rays touching the feathery beech-tips with gold and gossamer quivering in the dew, because I think dew is soppy and anyway I’m usually still asleep when all that sort of thing is going on”.

February’s adventure reminded me quite a lot of the Tintin books, even though she herself never actually leaves England. It involves, among other things, a world crisis triggered by a (possibly fake) coup d’état in a small island kingdom called Capria, a mysterious mineral that might be capable of blowing up the world, a millionaire businessman and his vulgar wife, a mysterious plane crash, a missing journalist, a dead body in a canal, a celebrity racing car driver, secret tunnels, a sinister sweet shop owner and a newspaper cartoon strip that may (or may not) contain vital coded messages.

And as with Tintin, the attitudes are from the 1950s. The villains are all swarthy and “foreign-looking”, even if they’re British. The Caprian President, Umbarak, however, was educated at Harrow, so he is “a Christian and a highly civilised man with Western ideas who had enabled the Caprians to live free of fear for the only time in history”, whereas his half-brother Zayid, the coup leader, is “just a bandit like his Moslem forefathers . . . mixed up in every racket in the Mediterranean and the Middle East”. Umbarak has “a gentle, beautiful face like a prince in a fairy tale” and is described as a “saint”, while Zayid looks “splendidly fierce”. I don’t think Zayid is actually Muslim, though, because he drinks alcohol, gambles, sells dope and smuggles “Jewish emigrants into Palestine”. It must also be noted that February and her brother Friday are much more sympathetic towards Zayid (February thinks he sounds “more fun” and she “rather sympathised with him for shutting Umbarak up in the Jenin Palace”, while Friday thinks Umbarak sounds “wet” and that one of Zayid’s more ingenious dope-smuggling rackets is “a wizard idea”). A friend of February’s father, a Very Important Man in the War Office, later gives a pompous speech about how Britain ought to take charge of all the stock of the mineral caprium because “England is the only Great Power who could use caprium as it must be used if the world is to survive”, although his view is countered by the newspaper editor who says, “We happen to believe that if the world is to survive, Great Powers simply must stop grabbing everything they think they can get away with and try behaving openly for a change.” (Sadly, the current leaders of the Great Powers do not appear to agree with this last viewpoint. And I think the characters in this book are being overly optimistic to describe Britain in 1959 as a “Great Power”.)

But it was all the science-y bits that had me either groaning or laughing at their dated-ness. I’ve noticed during my recent 1950s reading that fiction writers of the time seemed obsessed with the notion that science was about to annihilate humanity (which I guess is understandable after nuclear bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945) and that all scientists, but especially physicists, were believed to be secretive, incomprehensible and slightly deranged. So I was not surprised to see that science plays a large role in this book. A schoolboy friend of February’s is “mad on chemistry” and is constantly doing dangerous experiments (which, by the way, cause no concern to his parents, even when he burns off his sister’s hair with acid). He buys a lot of different cigarette brands (one of which is supposed to be “non-cancer”) to test, and wonders why one is wrapped in paper that won’t burn. His father, the village doctor, thinks the paper is probably made of asbestos:

“No reason why it shouldn’t be used instead of tin-foil,” he said. “Perhaps it preserves the cigarettes better in some way.”

Then he wanders off (probably smoking his pipe). Mind you, this is the same doctor who cheerfully discusses his patients’ details with February, explaining that the old woman he’s about to see only has a fever because she “gets herself so excited with all the things she thinks are wrong with her” so he’s going to give her “the nastiest tasting medicine I can think of, which is asafoetida and bromide”. Which is probably an accurate description of the behaviour of doctors, in the days before anyone paid much attention to ideas like “patient confidentiality” and “evidence-based medicine”.

But the funniest part was when the War Office bigwig gave a solemn lecture on physics, explaining that uranium is “the heaviest” element1 and that Britain’s “top nuclear physicist has had a nervous breakdown” because the mysterious mineral caprium has “upset his confidence in himself” and he’s been forced to accept that “all his knowledge is no less ludicrous than was the flat earth theory in its day”. I’m pretty sure “top nuclear physicists” don’t usually go “round the bend” when they come across a new, interesting element (isn’t that what they hope for?) and in any case, the reported properties of caprium don’t actually seem to prove that the atomic theory is wrong. (Also, despite no one understanding what caprium does, the War Office bigwig straps a bag of (possibly radioactive) caprium to his abdomen to cure his duodenal ulcer, which, of course, has been caused by the stress of dealing with the caprium crisis.)

Overall, though, I enjoyed February’s story very much. Her voice is lively and often very funny, her eccentric family and friends are entertaining, and the dated bits are quite amusing. Recommended for fans of Tintin or for those who wish the Famous Five books had had more plausible characters and more complex plots.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

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  1. I was pretty sure that heavier elements had been synthesised during or just after the war, so I looked up the history of the periodic table, and yes, by 1959, there were at least five discovered elements heavier than uranium, with even heavier elements that had been theorised and were later observed. But then again, the author couldn’t Google this information in thirty seconds, as I just did.