8 September 2017

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

There was a time when I would pick up a book, and should there be even a hint of a despicable character, the book would be set aside.  Reading should be for pleasure, to enhance idle moments.  I had little time for manipulative ne'er do wells or spoiled brats as characters.  I've since come to realize that I was an immature reader.

Being slightly obsessed with London as a backdrop in my reading material, Patrick Hamilton stood out as an author who supplied not only a novel rich with scenes of London, but evocations of the inter-war period as well.  I bought two of his books, The Slaves of Solitude and Hamgover Square.  A few years ago I read the former title and was put off by the copious amounts of drinking, surly behaviour and the bleakness of a dreary boarding house.  Needless to say, Hangover Square was then sentenced to neglect, continuously passed over for something more cheery or domestic.  I have now been enlightened.

'Click!...Here is was again!  He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again...Click!...'

This story begins on Christmas Day in 1938 and George Harvey Bone is visiting his aunt.  It's not out of kindness or affection, but rather for the £10 note coming his way as his annual gift.  At thirty-four George leads a down at heel existence in a shabby Earl's Court hotel.  He's been aware of the 'click' in his head ever since he was a boy, leading the reader to interpret some sort of personality disorder, perhaps schizophrenia.  When George feels the 'click' on Christmas Day he's driven by an intense urge to kill Netta, a manipulative slattern if ever there was one.

So far, not very cosy, is it?  And yet Patrick Hamilton's writing is absolutely brilliant.  He had me standing on the street corner with breeze-blown newspapers and cigarette butts, sitting right there in a smokey pub, walking up the filthy stairs of a run-down bedsit, and you can just about taste the gin.  The mention of an odd cup of tea came as a relief....and I was riveted by what would happen next.

George Harvey Bone worships Netta, who in turn uses George for his casual acquaintance to a man connected with a movie company.  Despite knowing his time and precious money is being wasted, George finds Netta is every bit as addictive as alcohol.

'...in spite of her intelligence and quick wits she couldn't act for nuts (he had ascertained that): but principally because she was spoiled and lazy, and drank too much - because she had expected success without having to work for it, and now drank and was lazy in a sort of furious annoyance at the fact that success was not to be had that way - a vicious circle of arrogance, and laziness and drink.  In other words she had never got out of being the bad-tempered, haughty tyrannical child she was at the beginning.  She lacked the imagination and generousity to do so.  And that brought him to the present Netta he had in front of him - the one who was making use of him in order to be near a man who might be of use to her.  For the moment he was sorry for her, and rather happy.'

As the situation with Netta and a peripheral crowd of punters in Earl's Court leads George further down a path of demoralization and depression, he turns to an unyielding plan of revenge.  And I couldn't be torn from the last pages of the book for anything.

Published in 1941, I never fail to be in awe of writers accomplishing such stellar pieces of work while bombs rained over England, buildings lay in ruin, and there were petrol and food shortages.  I was also saddened to learn that much of Patrick Hamilton's childhood was spent living in the type of boarding house he wrote about, with an alcoholic father of limited means.  He left school at fifteen and as an adult, Hamilton faced his own struggle with alcoholism, dying of cirrhosis of the liver in 1962.  

Hangover Square couldn't be further from my usual preference of a cosy read, but Patrick Hamilton shares the distinction of many of my favourite authors from this era in that their books fell out of favour.  I'm sure I could mention Patrick Hamilton to any number of readers at my library and be met with a blank stare, and that is a great shame.

Publicity photo from Hangover Square (1945) starring Laird Cregar and Linda Darnell.   

4 September 2017

Visiting the Penguin Random House Shop

It's the Labour Day long weekend, but I worked on Saturday and my husband is working today so Friday was 'fun day'.  We took the train to Toronto, along with scores of people attending Fan Expo and the Canadian National Exhibition.  It was like being in a Star Wars film; a quarter of the train was filled with costumed characters from all sorts of video games and films, which certainly bumped up the fun factor!

Our destination was BMV on Bloor for second-hand book shopping and if we had time, a stop at the Penguin Random House office tower at 320 Front Street.  We made time.

The Penguin Random House shop is on the ground floor, watched over by staff from the office on a rotation basis.  A nice diversion from desk work, I'd say!  The space isn't very large but it's cleverly stocked with sliding shelves to maximize space.

The eye-catching colours and beautiful cover art, complete sets of tempting novellas...well, it's enough to make a bibliophile's pupils dilate.

This micro-shop also stocks mugs, tote bags, cards, pins and t-shirts.  You could manage your Christmas shopping while on your lunch break.  Rather enticing....

Between BMV and Penguin Random House, we came home with four books each.  In my case, one book containing two stories, two novellas and one short story.  Yes, it's still all about Virginia Woolf.

If you live in the GTA and didn't know about this micro bookshop, I hope you're encouraged to add it to your list of places to visit.

28 August 2017

The Duchess of Jermyn Street by Daphne Fielding

Serendipity played a hand in my reading this book, but a session of dusting the bookcase in the spare room can have that effect.  Seeing 'Jermyn Street' on the spine brought to mind my time spent walking there while on holiday in July.  Although, Rosa Lewis occupied this part of Mayfair long before congestion charges, it was the horse and carriage moving people from place to place.

Rosa Lewis was born on 26 September, 1867 in Essex, the fifth of nine children.  Leaving school at the age of 12 to work in domestic service, she soon progressed from washing floors to an interest in cooking.  Honing her skills while working for the exiled Comte de Paris in France, it wasn't long before members of the upper classes were eager to taste her creations.  Once back in England, Rosa was in demand to prepare meals for society balls.  At the peak of her catering career, she prepared food for 29 balls in a single week.  A regular customer of Covent Garden, Rosa was there each morning at 5 am to choose the very best of what was on offer.

While having definitive ideas about worldly dishes, Rosa regarded herself as 'one of the lads' and would lace her Cockney accent with a torrent of expletives.  An early marriage to a man she wasn't in love with ended quite early, leaving her to shoulder a large debt.  Working all hours of the day and night, she cleared those debts and saved ownership of the Cavendish Hotel.  Running the hotel as though it were her home, rather than a business, Rosa would do as she pleased.  She would sometimes short the bill for poorer clients and then tack those charges on to the bill of someone financially better off.  She would decide when it was time for a guest to leave or refuse a customer altogether, particularly if those potential guests were writers.  Also, during the Great War, Rosa distributed white feathers to gentlemen as she saw fit.

While writers were persona non grata at the Cavendish Hotel (for some unknown reason of her own), the welcome mat was most definitely rolled out for artists.  The likes of Whistler, Sickert, Orpen and Sarpent were visitors to the hotel as were royalty and the aristocracy.  When Doris Delevigne was mentioned for her famously gorgeous legs and list of rich suitors, a quick Google search proved my suspicion...she's the paternal great aunt of Cara Delevigne.

Doris Delevigne (Viscountess Castleross) and painter, Sir John Lavery

Having come a long way from the Edwardian era, Rosa was aging and becoming increasisngly confused.  A lack of leadership at helm, as well as some serious damage sustained during the Blitz resulted in the beginning of the end for the original Cavendish hotel.  As early as 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote in a letter...
'It was like staying in a run-down country house - large comfortable rooms, but everything shabby and a bit dirty.  We were not bibulous, so much have been a disappointment to Rosa Lewis.  However, she put up with us.  Once, I remember, a young man in what the lady novelists call 'faultless evening dress', top hat and all, came swaying into our bedroom at almost 2.30 am., and had to be pushed out.  How sad, but how inevitable, that the hotel should now be doomed to destruction.'

Rosa Lewis died in her sleep in 1952.  Her funeral was held a short walk from the hotel at the Georgian church of St. James's, Piccadilly followed with burial at Putney Vale Cemetary.

The Duchess of Jermyn Street by Daphne Fielding is a fascinating read.  As Evelyn Waugh writes in his preface...'It was most desirable that a definitive study should be made before she passed into legend'.  While Waugh didn't feel he was close enough to the situation to writer Rosa's story, Fielding was a close friend and many of the details in the book are first-hand accounts. 

And coincidentally, as so often is the case, a new book features Rosa Lewis as one of its subjects (thanks, Mary)!

Rosa Lewis at the end of the Edwardian era.

20 August 2017

The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume 2 1920 - 24

My Rose Macaulay book has been put aside for the moment, in favour of Virginia Woolf's diary entries.  With Monk's House still on my mind since my visit there, I placed an inter-library hold on Caroline Zoob's beautiful book Virginia Woolf's Garden.  Once it arrived, the pressure of a due date loomed so a good bit of spare time has been spent on the patio enjoying it.

As National Trust tenants, Caroline and her husband lived at Monk's House for ten years, beginning in 2000.  I enjoyed and so appreciated the intricate embroidery that illustrates various locations of the property before realizing they were all done by Caroline herself.  A loving tribute that I would love to see as an exhibit in itself one day.  Could it ever happen?

The Woolf's purchased Monk's House in 1919.  A date that reminded me of owning a volume of Virginia's diary (a more decrepit copy you'd be hardpressed to find) that begins in 1920.  One peek at entries describing the comings and goings at Monk's House in Rodmell, Gordon Square in London and Hogarth House in Richmond and I couldn't stop.  While sympathizing with Virginia's fragile mental health and physical ailments, the ability to switch back and forth between city and countryside sounds appealing.  Although, there were times when the feeling of being settled took days, and then the guests appeared.  Sometimes stimulating, but also intrusive for someone wanting a quiet mind in order to focus on work.

Reading this volume of Virginia's diaries before venturing too far into her fiction has widened by view of her situation and mindset.  It's also incredibly readable!  Nothing missed her gaze and sometimes the remembrance was both brutal and vivid, such as describing soldiers at Waterloo station, missing limbs, as 'spiders propelling themselves along the platform'.  But with wonderfully restrained humour she wrote ' Lytton stays at home with Lady Strachey, who has taken to fainting on the floor'.

No other author seems to consume Virginia Woolf, at least in this volume, as Katherine Mansfield.  She praises her work, then cuts it, and questions a feeling of relief at her death...'a rival the less'.  Virginia continues to mention Katherine at intervals throughout the diary but I was shocked by a comment towards the end of this volume.  Despite being dead almost two years, Katherine was still hovering in Vriginia's consciousness as something of a threat or competitor....

'The thought of Katherine Mansfield comes to me--as usual rather reprehensibly--first wishing she could see Southampton Row, thinking of the dulness (sic) of her death, lying there at Fontainebleu--an end where there was no end, & then thinking, yes, if she'd lived, she'd have written on, & people would have seen that I was the more gifted--that wd. only have become more & more apparent.'

Usually I would find that sort of arrogance off-putting but the many facets of Virginia Woolf make me want to learn more about her.  For all of the images I've had of this remarkable author, not one of them involved her in the kitchen making bread but she was quite good at it.  Thinking of Virginia as having days of happiness while enjoying the garden, walking the fields in Rodmell with their dogs, canning fruit from their trees balances the stories of a complex writer struggling under the weight of depression.  Now to track down the other volumes of her diaries.

The experience of visiting Monk's House has certainly lingered and if I could, I would line up today to take it all in again.

Leonard and Virginia at Monk's House