Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Scold's Bridle by Minette Walters

The mark of a good yarn is surely when dust starts to accumulate on the furniture and the dishes start to pile up by the sink. I have just finished reading a whodunnit which had this effect upon me.

The Scold's Bridle by Minette Walters is a murder mystery in which the elderly victim is found naked in her bath, an apparent suicide, wearing a scold's bridle that has been festooned with nettles and daisies. The protagonist in this tale is Sarah, the young and naive village doctor, who at one point has the finger of suspicion pointed in her direction. The book is well written and well characterised, liberally sprinkled with Shakespearean references and quotes. My only criticism is that the physical pain inflicted on people who were forced to wear the particular instrument of punishment featured in the book seemed to be overlooked (though I suppose that drawing attention to this may have turned the book into a horror story, and I wouldn't have carried on reading) .

The Scold's Bridle won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger in 1994. Ms. Walters donated the prize money to the establishment of a library project in Zimbabwe. Her publisher donated a similar amount and together they were able to open several bush libraries and stock them with books for children, written in local dialects.

Wikimedia Commons Licence. A scold's bridle aka brank

Minette Walters is an award winning crime writer who since 1992 has published a dozen internationally best selling psychological suspense novels. Several, including  The Scold's Bridle, were translated into disturbing television dramas. Find out more on her website -

Minette Walters

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Britain's Favourite Poems

Running my fingers across my bookshelves I came across a copy of The Nation's Favourite Poems (1996), a publication that was the outcome of a poll conducted by the BBC programme The Bookworm in 1995 to coincide with National Poetry Day. If by Rudyard Kipling was the winner of the poll, gaining twice as many votes as the runner up - to the consternation of critics in some newspapers. However, that is not the subject of this blog.

Griff Rhys Jones writes in the foreward to The Nation's Favourite Poems of an extraordinary occurance that was outside the scope of the competition but coincided with it. It interests me because it centres on a poem that I recently read at the funeral of my father. I found the poem by chance when looking for a suitable eulogy and at the time was unaware of the story behind it. The poem -  'Do not Stand at my Grave and Weep' - was left in an envelope addressed by a soldier on active service in Northern Ireland. It was addressed to his parents and was to be opened in the event of his death. At first it was thought that the soldier himself had written by the poem, but this was not the case. Various claims were made for it but the author remained an unsolved mystery for a while. The poem was eventually attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye, an American housewife and florist who wrote it in 1932. She never claimed copyright for her poetry, hence the difficulty in establishing authorship of Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep.

Once the poem came to public attention 30,000 requests for copies flooded in to the BBC, and it was subsequently published in The Nation's Favourite Poems. The words of the poem have been a great comfort to me and I hope that it may help others who are missing the presence of a loved one:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Neville Shute:Round The Bend

I'm still reading my way through the collection of books that we found in my father's loft when clearing his house. My bedtime reading this week was Round The Bend by Neville Shute.

Round The Bend was written in 1951, shortly after the author emigrated from England to Australia. The themes of the novel include racism and the importance of private enterprise. The background of the narrative is the establishment of an air freight business in the Far East in the years after cessation of WWII hostilities. It is written in the form of a first-person biography by the narrator Tom Cutter, but the central character gradually throughout the course of the narrative becomes Constantine Shaklin, a Russian/Chinese aircraft engineer who unwittingly becomes the centre of a religious cult that is based on the merit of good work, and which transcends existing religions. I found some aspects of the opening chapters quite surprising in so far as terminology used by some of the characters to describe non-Europeans would not be regarded as politically correct in the 21st century.

Certain aspects of the characterisation of Tom Cutter are, in my opinion, unconvincing. He is a working-class character and the voice allocated to him early in the book attempts the reflect this. But as the book progresses the vocabulary that he uses becomes far more extensive and the syntax far more accurate than one might expect from someone with this background  - betraying the Oxford University education of Mr. Shute.

What interested me most was the depiction of air travel across vast distances in  1950's aircraft and the depiction of cultural differences in the Persian Gulf and beyond, where Mr. Cutter's business was operating. Neville Shute Norway (Neville Shute was his pen name) was an aeronautical engineer so the reader interesting in aeronautics will find the details relating to aircraft maintenance and flight accurate and particularly interesting.

Mr. Shute's body of work is extensive. His novel On the Beach was made into a film; and the public library at Alice Springs was named the Neville Shute Memorial Library in honour of his work.

Like his protagonist,  Shaklin, Mr Shute has become something of a cult and has a website dedicated to his work.

Neville Shute Foundation

P.S. 'Round the bend' is an English euphemism for crazy.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

An Impossible Marriage

Occasionally I become aware of yawning gaps in my knowledge. This week, still reading my way through the books that I found in my father's loft, I came across a copy of Pamela Hansford Johnson's An Impossible Marriage, published in 1955 for The Companion Book Club.

I had never before come across the author and was impressed and intrigued by the book to the extent that I delved into the internet. I found to my surprise that Pamela Hansford Johnson once enjoyed what we might nowadays call celebrity status. In fact, her life was so interesting that a biography has recently been written about her - 'Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times', by Wendy Pollard.

Ms. Pollard divorced her first husband in 1949 in order to marry the novelist C.P. Snow and eventually became Baroness Snow. The couple are described in the Spectator's leader to a review of Wendy Pollard's biography as Literature's least attractive power couple. I won't go into detail of here, as if you are interested you can find out more by clicking the link to the review.

Pamela Hansford Johnson 1912-1981

I wonder if to some extent Ms. Hansford Johnson drew on personal experience when writing An Impossible Marriage, which gives a fascinating insight into what life was like for middle-class girls and married women in the first half of the twentieth century. The novel's narrator and protagonist lived at a time when the man was the head of the household, and his word was law. He could control whether or not his wife could hold a job outside the home, which of her former friends she was allowed to see, and took little part in raising children of the marriage (young women nowadays can thank the development of the contraceptive pill and likes of Germaine Greer for their emancipation ). The story is of a young girl who marries a man despite lingering reservations and quickly realises that she is not in love. The reader is taken through the stages of the breakdown of the marriage.Yes, the modern reader will find the language dated and euphemistic but, nevertheless, an interesting glimpse at social history.

In addition to 27 novels the writer produced literary criticism and much more. She received numerous literary accolades and a CBE.