The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

This is a superb story from Alan Bennett. As I read this, I was able to imagine listening to an audiobook of this story narrated by the author and loving the inflections of his voice.

The story is about Rosemary and Maurice Ransome who come home from the opera to find their flat has been stripped bare, everything is taken including the casserole in the oven as well as the oven. The couple have to decide how to react to this sudden act and work out who they are without their possessions as well as making decisions about what to buy to replace their losses. What does the order of their purchases say about them?

Half way through the story they receive a letter indicating they owe money to a storage facility in Aylesbury about 40 miles away. Upon investigation, they find all their possessions have been laid out in the facility exactly as they were in the couple’s flat.

Who has done this and why?

Rorke’s Drift by Neil Thornton

I’ve read a few books about Rorke’s Drift and this is one I will be keeping in my library. The book covers aspects of the battle not previously covered in anything else I’ve read, such as the defence and the withdrawal from the hospital and who was where and when during this time.

Rorke’s Drift was the defence of a mission station by 155 British soldiers against at least 3,000 Zulus, possibly more, over the afternoon, evening, and night of 22-23 January 1879. The British survived with 15 dead (2 later dying from their injuries) and the Zulus lost between 600 – 900. The defenders were down to their last boxes of ammunition when Lord Chelmsford, with a column of soldiers, turned up early in the morning of the 23rd to stop the Zulus attacking again otherwise it would likely have been a different story.

The book includes all the citations for the 11 (yes eleven) Victoria Crosses earned over the 12 hours of fighting. The fighting was hand-to-hand at times, with bayonets being used against spears in the night time.

The attitude of Garnett Wolseley shines through. He despised the two lieutenants, Chard and Bromhead, who lead the defence, writing about Chard after presenting him with his VC

“A more uninteresting or more stupid-looking fellow I never saw. Wood (a subordinate of Wolseley) tells me he is a most useless officer, fit for nothing.”

This is sheer class bias written about a man who’d recently organised the greatest defence of a place by the British army there’s ever been. Chard was very modest, almost shy, and unassuming. His actions did the talking and his men admired him.

14 hours prior to Rorke’s Drift, the Zulus had massacred 1300 British soldiers at iSandlwana, about 6 miles away. Survivors from this massacre passed by Rorke’s Drift as they were fleeing, telling the men there what was coming their way.

The soldiers stayed where they were.

Partisans by Alistair MacLean

This is a book mainly set in The Balkans in the middle of World War II. Three Yugoslavs set out from Rome to warn The Partisans about the German battle plan that will soon be launched against them. They are accompanied by a number of strange people who are not what they seem.

In fact, no one in this book is who they seem and it’s really quite difficult to work out who are the good people and who aren’t. Even an innkeeper turns out to be a spy. It’s a real mystery, which is unusual for Alistair MacLean as his stories are almost always action thrillers where sharply defined characters are willing to sacrifice their lives to save others or to find out a big secret.

Metroland by Julian Barnes

This is Julian Barnes’s first book and it’s in three parts.

The first and third sections are set in Metroland – a strip of suburbia in outer London – in 1963 and 1977 respectively. The middle section is set in Paris in 1968.

The first section chronicles the development of a friendship between Christopher and Toni, two boys at an all-boys school who as adolescents make fun of the adult world. They love and art and French writers and show of their knowledge of these subjects whenever they can. They determine not to live the traditional life of Metroland and buy a house, get married, and have children.

In 1968, at the age of 21 Christopher goes to Paris to continue his studies, has his first love affair, misses all the major events of that year of uprisings, and meets his future wife Marion.

Back in Metroland in 1977, we find Christopher married to Marion with a young daughter Amy. Toni continues to try and live the ideals of his younger days and chides Christopher for giving in and becoming like the people they used to make fun of in their younger days.

Diary of a Nobody By George and Weedon Grossmith

The original text for this book first appeared in Punch magazine but was turned into a book and published in 1892.

Weedon Grossmith drew the illustrations that illuminate this book.

This is the diary of Mr Charles Pooter who takes himself too seriously and is rather self-important. He has a habit of having small accidents – he hits his head on window frames, smashes mirrors, and slips over when wearing his best clothes. He picks arguments with other people lower down the social scale in his perception over unimportant matters on a regular basis and becomes the butt of many a joke.

The style of writing is so good that these apparently mundane events seem all the more absurd when you read them – why would anyone write down such apparently trivial happenings?

His long-suffering wife Carrie supports him as best she can, whereas his son Willie Lupin Pooter regards him with disdain.

This book generated the word Pooterish which means taking yourself far too seriously and believing your importance and influence are greater than they actually are.

Pigs Have Wings by PG Wodehouse

I really do appreciate the Blandings Castle books of PG Wodehouse.

The characters are larger than life and magnificent in their individual traits.

Here both of the pigs vying for the Silver medal at the Fat Pigs event at the local agricultural show are stolen at different times but are returned in the nick of time before the police get too heavily involved.

Lord Emsworth’s butler, Beach, has a niece, Maudie, who in her younger days was well known to Galahad Threepwood (Lord Emsworth’s brother), but is hired to look after The Empress of Blandings. She was jilted at the altar by Lord Emsworth’s neighbour Sir Geoffrey Parsloe-Parsloe and means to vent her feelings to him about this event, but ends up falling in love with him. This happens just after Sir Gregory is dumped by Gloria Salt to whom he’d recently become engaged with the proviso he lose at lot of weight which he doesn’t want to do.

Gloria really wants to marry Lord Orlo Vosper but he’s in love with Penny Donaldson who accepts his proposal of marriage after Penny sees her beau Jerry Vail being affectionate towards Gloria Salt in a London restaurant when Jerry things Gloria can help him obtain 2,000 pounds towards the start-up costs of a gentleman’s gymansium and health club.

Add into all this intrigue the regal presence of Lady Constance Keeble, who treats most of her family members with disdain, Cyril Wellbeloved the pig-man for Sir Geoffrey Parsloe- Parsloe who likes a drink and used to be employed at Blandings Castle, and the much put upon Sebastian Beach, the butler at Blandings who is required to steal pigs, deliver messages, and provide drinks to various members of the household in his pantry.

Life on the Golden Horn – Book Review

This is number 6 in the ‘Great Journeys’ series by Penguin.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu travelled to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1716 with her husband who had been appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire by King George I. This idea didn’t turn out very well and they were recalled in 1718.

I’ve not seen any of the other books in the series in a second-hand bookshop anywhere, so I must try harder as this was an excellent book and really well edited because there’s hardly any repetition of information in the letter in this book.

They travelled through modern day Holland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria before arriving in Adrianople where they stayed for a number of months before reaching Constantinople.

Between Vienna and Belgrade they passed through the town of Peterwardein (now part of the city of Novi Sad) where 7 months previously there’d been an almighty battle between the Austrians and the Ottomans which the Austrians won. The detritus of battle and the skeletons of men, horses, and camels were still visible to the travellers.

However, this book is fascinating mainly because of the author’s descriptions of the lives of the ladies of the Ottoman Empire and the riches of their dress and jewellery where no expense was spared with emeralds, diamonds, pearls, and other precious stones worn on a daily basis.

Lady Montagu is quite taken with certain aspects of the architecture of buildings, the design of the clothing, and the lifestyle of the ladies and cheerfully admits that some things are better than in England and in Western Europe, although slaves are of course ever present in the background, so you have to bear that in mind.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

This just might be the best fiction book I read in 2022.

It’s utterly brilliant and yet I can’t work out why. In a way, it doesn’t matter.

It combines a heroine who has wisdom in dealing with people beyond her years together with a cast of support characters who might live quite close to Blandings Castle and be influenced by the pig-worshipping Lord Emsworth. Except the Starkadders live in rural Sussex not Shropshire.

Flora Poste is a privately educated young woman who descends on her relatives, the Starkadders and their close associates, at Cold Comfort Farm. The cast of characters is borderline believable and includes Judith alone with her grief, Amos the bible-bashing amateur preacher, the smouldering Seth who’s only really interested in talking films, Elfine the graceful, beautiful woman-in-waiting who bounds around The South Downs with wonderful abandon, and Aunt Ada Doom who saw “something nasty in the woodshed”.

By the end of the book, none of these characters still live at Cold Comfort Farm thanks to the brilliant observational skills and exemplary people skills of Flora Poste.

Does Flora find happiness for herself? Well, there’s only one way to find out.

Read the book. Recommended.

The Masque of Anarchy by PB Shelley

Well better late than never for me to discover this poem about non-violent opposition to the oppressors, a message that will be taken up in increasing numbers as governments become more and more unpopular over the next year or so.

This poem of 91 stanzas was written in response to the Peterloo massacre of 1819 in Manchester.

Shelley was a fierce advocate of non-violence and vegetarianism. He drowned in 1822 at the age of 29 in Italy.

I make no apologies for repeating these lines:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fall’n on you:
Ye are many – they are few.

Remember them when you’re feeling there’s nothing you can do.

Heavy Weather by PG Wodehouse

For some reason I adore these books about Blandings Castle and yet I don’t like the Jeeves and Wooster books.

I think it’s because everyone in the Blandings Castle books is so thoroughly human and has faults. Lord Emsworth only ever thinks about his pig The Empress of Blandings, his sister Connie is always telling him off for some reason, Beach the Butler is not indisposed to have a glass or two of brandy in his pantry when he thinks no one is watching and the young men are in love and incur the wrath of their elders.

And then there’s Galahad Threepwood who’s written some Reminiscences that will scandalise the great and the good of England. Some characters in Heavy Weather want the memoirs published for monetary gain, others do not and would prefer them to be destroyed.

Everyone knows where the memoirs are kept and they pass through various pairs of hands before the denouement.

Superb and recommended as an outstanding example of a humourous book with clearly defined characters who all interact with each other so well.