Archive for the ‘Humour’ Category

When one thinks of the literature of the 1920s (as we’ve had cause to do recently thanks to the 1929 Club last week), we think of a world still coming to grips with the devastation of the First World War and the societal upheaval it caused.  We think of escapist mysteries with war-damaged detectives, and bleak memoirs of the Western Front, and women – loudly, angrily – asserting their place in the world.  We do not always think of ditzy debutantes but, joyously, that is what we get in The Trials of Topsy by A.P. Herbert, a collection of satirical pieces from Punch which was first released in 1928.

The dispatches, written with breathless illiteracy by Lady Topsy Trout to her dear friend Trix, record her navigation of London society – and, loathsomely, the country – while her parents eagerly await her selection of a spouse.  Topsy certainly has an active social life but, as we can tell from the opening, her ambitions may not be exactly aligned with her parents’ yet:

Well Trix darling this blistering Season is nearly over and I’m still unblighted in matrimony, isn’t it too merciful, but you ought to see poor Mum’s face, my dear, she’s saturated with the very sight of me poor darling, not that I don’t try…

Young Topsy is sage enough to recognize that an endless whirl of parties and over-the-top extravaganzas, while providing material for her letters to Trix, is no way to live, especially after meeting Mr Haddock (“only I do wish his name wasn’t Albert”) who has no shortage of down-to-earth interests.  He admits to writing a little and soon Topsy too finds herself writing for a paper.  When he takes up campaigning for a seat in Parliament, Topsy becomes a devoted campaigner – and an incredible hit with the proletariat in Mr Haddock’s humble riding.  He even engages her in good works, to her amazement:

Well, Trix, my partridge, I’ve just had the most drastic adventure, well when I tell you that Mr Haddock used to do good works at some settlement oasis or something in the East End and every now and then a sort of nostalgia  for Whitechapel comes over him or else it’s a craving for goodness or something, so he goes down to some morbid club and plays Halma with the poor, which I think is so confiding of them because I’m sure he can’t play Halma well one day he asked me if I’d care to go with him, but my dear the very thought of Halma merely decimates me, and my dear you know I dote on the poor but I never can think of a thing to say, well then he said would I help send some poor children off to the country, and that sounded more adequate because if you can’t think of anything to say to children you can always tell them to stop doing what they’re doing, and anything that means sending children somewhere else must be doing a good action to somebody, because I do think that children are a bit superfluous, don’t you darling, and besides I wanted to show Mr Haddock that I have a good heart really though I will not play Halma if it means a Revolution.

All these un-deb-like activities clearly have an impact on her many admirers.  Though Topsy claims to repel the most attractive of her suitors – “my dear the rows of men who’ve departed to India and everywhere just as I was beginning to think they were rather tolerable, really darling in my humble way I’m quite populating the Empire, because my dear I do seem to have a gift for dissipating the flower of our youth to the four corners” – some are determined enough to follow her changing interests and adapt themselves to her.  Just not always successfully:

Well my dear it seems poor Terence has decided I’m a high-brow and my dear since we last met he’s been reading a book, my dear too unnatural, my dear one of those cathartic female novelists who adulate Sussex and sin and everything, and my dear they’re always bathing in no-piece costumes, and of course my poor Terence was utterly baffled because it seems there isn’t a white man from cover to cover and no horses and scarcely a hound, well I must say I thought it was rather a lily-white gesture for a subaltern in the Guards to read a book for my sake…

While Topsy’s sense of grammar (if someone ever taught her how to use a period, she has long forgotten the lesson.  Thank goodness she seems not to have been introduced to exclamation points) is in doubt, her charm and energy never are.  She dashes through life with good intentions but her youth and ignorance generally lead her into trouble – all the better from the reader’s perspective.  This is classic Punch, making gentle yet still affectionate fun of an oblivious character and her class while still making her loveable.  And despite her ditzy moments, Topsy’s judgement is clearly excellent as evidenced by her review of a play – she arrived late so didn’t catch the title – she was sent to review:

…it was the most old-fashioned mellodrama and rather poor taste I thought, my dear all about a black man who marries a white girl, my dear too American, and what was so perfectly pusillanimous so as to make the thing a little less incompatible the man who acted the black man was only brown, the merest beige darling, pale sheik-colour, but the whole time they were talking about how black he was, my dear too English.  Well of course the plot was quite defective and really my dear if they put it on in the West End not a soul would go to it except the police possibly because my dear there were the rudest remarks, well this inane black man gets inanely jealous about his anaemic wife the moment they’re married and my dear she’s a complete cow of a woman, my dear too clinging, only there’s an obstruse villain called Yahgo or something who never stops lying and my dear for no reason at all that I could discover, my dear it was so unreasonable that every now and then he had to have the hugest solilliquies, is that right, to explain what he’s going to do next, well he keeps telling the old black man that the white girl has a fancy-friend, well my dear they’ve only been married about ten days but the black man merely laps it up, one moment’s he’s Nature’s honeymooner and the next he’s knocking her down, and what I thought was so perfectly heterodox he was supposed to be the world’s  successful general but my dear I’ve always understood the sole point of a real he-soldier is that they’re the most elaborate judges of character and always know when you’re lying, and if this black man couldn’t see through Yahgo it’s too unsatisfying to think of him winning a single battle against the Turks.

As the book ends, Topsy is contemplating a more active role in politics after assisting Mr Haddock’s campaign alongside the redoubtable private secretary Taffeta (“there’s simply nothing she doesn’t know except the love of a clean-limbed Britisher, my dear it’s rather poignant, but if you will wear pince-nez and brown boots and the badge of the Guild of the Godly Girls it does make it difficult for Destiny doesn’t it darling?”) and we can only quake with delight at the prospect of what she could get up to.  Thankfully, that is chronicled in Topsy, MP and I’m eagerly awaiting my library copy now.  Even better news is that Handheld Press is releasing a collection of the Topsy stories next year called The Voluble Topsy to bring joy to the masses – though no doubt headaches to Kate and co who have to proof all of Topsy’s characterful typos.

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For me and many other Canadians (and enlightened Americans living near the border), one of the much-anticipated pleasures of the holiday season for many years was listening to Stuart McLean debut a new Christmas story on his CBC radio show.  You knew you could tune in and spend half an hour that would lead you from collapsing with hysterical laughter to blinking back surprisingly emotional tears.  It was a wonderful tradition.

Stuart passed away from cancer in February 2017 so intellectually I know there are no more stories coming.  But emotionally, I know nothing of the sort.  I long for his characteristically humorous and touching stories this time of the year and, even if Stuart is no longer around to read them, we still have his books to keep us company.  And so, earlier this week, I found myself reaching for Home from the Vinyl Café.

Published in 1998, this was Stuart’s second volume of Vinyl Café stories.  The Vinyl Café was the name of his radio program but it was also the name of the record shop run by Dave, the hapless hero of his stories.  Dave, his wife Morley, and their children, Stephanie and Sam, were the focus of twenty-odd years of radio stories as Stuart chronicled their lives in a normal Toronto neighbourhood with stories of neighbourhood rivalries and friendships, social faux pas (something Dave was particularly subject too), Stephanie and Sam’s growing pains and Dave and Morley’s nostalgia for their own childhoods.  They were wonderful stories and this book is a particularly wonderful collection of them.

It begins with the first – and one of the very best – of the Vinyl Café Christmas stories: “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  This appears to be available on the CBC website (here – this story starts around 24:30) so if you’re able to listen, go now and do so.  It will be time well spent.  Just make sure you’re somewhere you can laugh uproariously without alarming too many people.  Dave’s wife Morley, after years of carrying the burden of all the holiday preparations as well as the day-to-day administering of their busy family, accepts Dave’s offer to help with Christmas this year: Dave can cook the turkey.  He commits, happy to make a small offering towards marital harmony, but realises only on Christmas Eve that he has forgotten to buy the turkey.  Determined to have the perfect Christmas dinner ready for his family (who are conveniently out of the house volunteering for most of Christmas day), he uses all of his ingenuity to acquire and cook a bird.  But the path he takes is far from conventional and the results are hysterically funny.

The next story in the collection is one of my all-time favourites and could not be more different from “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  “Holland” tells the story of how Dave and Morley met in the 1970s and their early married life.  It’s a story about the struggles to combine lives and traditions, and the work – and love, and patience – that is required to make that happen.  It’s a beautiful story and one that has stayed fresh in my mind ever since I first heard all those years ago.  Someone has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube so you can listen here (it’s been split into two parts).

There are some other equally classic stories in this book – “Burd”, about what happens when a rare bird decides to winter in Dave and Morley’s backyard, and “Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party”, which involves an awkward neighbourhood gathering and a mix up with the eggnog bowls – but others I’d forgotten.  So many of the stories look at the anxiety Dave and Morley feel as parents, worrying about Sam and music lessons, or Stephanie and teenage romances, and they show what Stuart could do so well: make fun of the little things while always staying true to the heart of the matter.

I love these stories.  I have read them countless times and I will read them countless more, alongside all the other volumes of Stuart’s books.  They bring me great pleasure at this and any other time of year and I hope, if they’re not already a part of your life, you will give them a try.  I can’t imagine them not bringing you joy.

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I love A Century of Books, I really do.  But I hate the feeling of doom that encroaches as I slack off and my list of books to review grows ever longer.  (On the plus side, this means I am reading from years that are part of my Century and not going entirely off piste again.  Hurrah for me!)  The only way to silence this dread is with action and so I give you three very brief reviews of three very different and not entirely memorable books.  They vary from not at all good to absolutely delightful but all three are guaranteed to disappear from your memory relatively fast.

Let’s start in 1948 with the instantly forgettable Pirouette by Susan Scarlett.  Scarlett was the pen name under which Noel Streatfeild wrote a dozen light and extraordinary gentle romances.  They are all formulaic and trite but generally enjoyable.  Unfortunately, this one was just trite and formulaic.  It’s the story of Judith Nell, a young ballerina (and young means very young – only 18), who has just been offered a big professional break.  At the same time, her boyfriend accepts a job in Rhodesia and asks her to marry and go with him.  In the background are discontented ballerinas – one of whom is more than happy to go out dancing and drinking (and who knows what else’ing) with Paul while Judith struggles with her decision – and young men who see no future in England, only in Africa.  As we know, that’s not going to end at all well for anyone.  There are class struggles, career struggles, and familial struggles and yet it all manages to be quite dull.  The only good thing about it is the portrait of Judith’s family and how all its members struggle because of Mrs Nell’s stage mother ways.  It’s a bit overwrought but essentially good, especially the conspiracies that spring up between the other members of the family as they try to out manoeuvre Mrs Nell.

Much better but still forgettable was Meet Mr Mulliner by P.G. Wodehouse from 1927.  Mr Mulliner is a slight variation on The Oldest Member, here to regale unwilling listeners with stories of his family’s comic exploits (rather than The Oldest Member’s golf-focused yarns).  While I was delighted by the career of Mr Mulliner’s nephew Augustine, a once meek curate whose entire life is changed thanks to an extraordinarily effective potion created by his relative Wilfred Mulliner (whose tale is also told), the rest of the stories were a bit too repetitive and never truly caught my attention.  That said, a little Wodehouse is better than none.

And in the entirely satisfactory category of “frothy and forgettable but enjoyable” we have Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland.  First published in 1961 and recently reissued, this is a very amusing little book of de Havilland’s observations as an American among the French.  Shortly after divorcing her first husband, de Havilland met a charming Frenchman while attending the Cannes film festival.  Soon enough she was moving to France with her small son and marrying her Frenchman, taking on both a new spouse, a new country, and an entirely new culture.  Her stumbles as she finds her way are recounted with an impressively light touch and it’s delightful to see her enjoyment of the country.  And it’s one an enjoyment that hasn’t faded – she moved there in the mid-1950s and is there still at age 102.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Laughing All the Way to the MosqueI had the perfect book for my daily commute last week, but for one thing: Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz had me laughing, out loud, all the way to work.  This was vaguely unsettling for my fellow commuters, but, aside from a slight fear that they would band together to force the crazy giggling woman off the bus, I couldn’t have cared less.  There is no better way to start – or end – your day than with a laugh and this book provides many of those.

Nawaz, a Canadian filmmaker, is most famous as the creator of the television series Little Mosque on the Prairie, a sitcom about the Muslim community in a quirky small town in Saskatchewan.  It attracted a lot of attention when it premiered and, reading Nawaz’s memoir, it is interesting to see how some of the show’s characters and episodes are inspired by her real-life events.

If you are looking for a serious, respectful observation of what it is like to be Muslim in Canada, this is not the book for you.  Nawaz is irreverent and slightly kooky and definitely talks herself into trouble more often than she needs to.  Which is what makes her so likeable and this book so entertaining.  For example, her great teenage act of rebellion was to become more religious and to begin wearing the hijab.  This was done partly out of religious feeling and partly, like any action taken by a teenager, out of the desire to outwit her parents:

…the best thing about the hijab was that I had discovered it on my own – my parents had nothing to do with it, which meant that I could beat them at their own game: religion.  I wanted so desperately to be different from them.  Hijab was the answer.  Some people think hijab is used to oppress people.  It’s true.  I used it to oppress my parents.

Nawaz fumbled her way through her B.Sc. undergrad, working diligently towards medical school.  When the med school rejection letter came, it prompted a rethink about her entire future – for both her and her parents.  Nawaz’s mother – who is portrayed as being just as spirited and quick-witted as her daughter, through a little more together – views it as opportunity to find her daughter a husband:

Her biggest fear for me was that too much education might result in old, dried-up ovaries.  Until the letter arrived, my father had squashed her matrimonial dreams for me, because he believed marriage was for women who failed to get into medical school.  I had officially become one of those females.

Nawaz is definitely not onboard with this idea, especially as she overhears unsettling conversations about one-eyed accountants.   She can’t understand why her mother is so determined to see her married.  Her mother’s answer to that, “because you’ll be lonely after I die”, is eminently sensible and true, but I can understand how a twenty-two year old might not see it that way.  Nawaz enrolls in journalism school instead of marrying immediately and, a few years later, ends up engineering her own marriage to Sami, then a medical student, now a child psychiatrist, and moving to the Prairies to be with him.

The years that follow are busy ones, filled with the births of four children and the start of Nawaz’s career as a filmmaker, first with low-budget short films, then documentaries, and finally Little Mosque on the Prairie.  But, thankfully since I’m not much interested in filmmaking, her career track is very much in the background here.  Instead, we hear about what it is like explaining to a Canadian contractor how a Muslim bathroom needs to be laid out or how a not-particularly-accomplished chef (Nawaz) finds herself cooking an Eid dinner for dozens of people.  One of my favourite chapters described Nawaz’s experiences on Hajj, when her father-in-law took all his children and children-in-law (grandchildren stayed home) on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Most of all, this book is funny.  It is full of hilarious dialogue, with all of Nawaz’s family members, particularly her mother and husband, portrayed as the long-suffering straight men to her unrelenting comedienne.  I laughed more than I have in months while reading it and I loved every page.


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Switzerland for BeginnersIn just over a month, I will be back in Switzerland.  I’m only going to Europe for two weeks this year – fair enough after last year’s month-long vacation – but am spending the bulk of that in Switzerland and, more specifically, in the mountains.

I remember looking for books about Switzerland before I visited for the first time in 2012.  Aside from Heidi and travel guides, pickings were slim.  But I did hear about a book called, perfectly, Switzerland for Beginners by George Mikes.  I wasn’t able to track it down then but, thanks to the wonders of the inter-library loan system, I got my hands on it earlier this year and had fun giggling my way through this all too brief book.

Mikes, Hungarian by birth but English by choice, had a successful career writing humourous guides to various countries, observing the ways of the English, French, Germans, etc for the edification of befuddled outsiders.  An early Bill Bryson, if you will.  His books are much quoted, especially his How to Be an Alien, which seeks to explain the English to foreigners: who hasn’t heard (and laughed at) “Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot water bottles”?  But, until now, I had never read even one of his books.  Switzerland for Beginners was the perfect place to start.

The Swiss are not a race that excite much interest from the rest of the world.  They are not sexy or dangerous, they are not cruel or fascinating.  They are adorably, endearingly boring.  This is perhaps why there are so few books about them.  A few years ago, I read The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, a chronicle of the author’s travels to the happiest places on earth.  One of the happy places he visited was Switzerland, where the steady predictability of life was at the root of the population’s general happiness: “happiness,” Weiner concluded, “is boring.”  I kept thinking about that as I read this book.  Mikes’ book was published in 1962 and Weiner’s in 2007 but their observations are consistent.

Mikes has fun with his book.  His writings are based on his entirely subjective observations and the real charm of the book comes from how much of his personality is injected into it.  It is very much about how he feels , what he thinks, and how he experiences the country:

Whenever I go to Switzerland in the winter, my chief problem is how to avoid winter sports.  It is not an easy task.  Dangers lurk in every corner.  In November or so, the whole country is transformed into one vast – well, not so terribly vast – ski-run, and few of your kind and hospitable Swiss friends seem able to grasp that your main purpose in life is not to run down a mountain slope at fifty miles an hour as if you were a sixty-horse-power motor-car with faulty breaks.

He does not pretend any scientific approach to his observations.  Instead, he is just a man dropped into a foreign society, observing it with all the attendant prejudices (some put on for comedic effect) of the foreigner.  And one can’t argue with the amusing results:

The Swiss, indeed, are hard-working people and this devotion to work is one of their most repulsive virtues.  Altogether, it is the virtues of the Swiss which I find a bit hard to bear.  Coming from England, I regard work as some sort of nuisance you must pretend to be engaged in between cups of tea.  But the Swiss take work seriously: start early, finish late, and are even proud of it.  They are paid for it handsomely – more handsomely than the English – and their old-fashioned idea is that they ought to play fair.  The employer is not simply the chap you organize strikes against: he must pay, to be sure, and pay a lot, but he must also receive value for his money.  This attitude is, of course, quite outmoded in the second half of the twentieth century.

Oh Switzerland, I miss you.

Oh Switzerland, I miss you.

Mikes speaks fondly of the Swiss: of their deeply ingrained but benignly-expressed regional prejudices, of their devotion to hospitality, of their careful money habits and insistence on quality…in short, of all the wonderfully undramatic things that make the Swiss so endearing.  And, as a bonus, there is a final, perfect essay – one that proved, to the author’s delight, to be controversial for a brief period after its publication – about the too-often neglected principality of Liechtenstein.  The book is all too brief – not even a hundred pages with illustrations included – but there is something to amuse on every one of those pages.  And I certainly feel more prepared for my trip back next month!

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Mike and PsmithIn the way of many of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels, Mike and Psmith has a complicated history.  In 1909, Wodehouse published a lengthy (some people *ahem* might call it overly long) novel entitled Mike.  The first half detailed Mike Jackson’s entirely dull experiences as a school boy; the second half introduced the extraordinary Psmith, who made Mike’s remaining school days decidedly less dull.  Wodehouse reissued the second half (with a few changes) as Enter Psmith in the 1930s.  In 1953, the two parts of Mike were rewritten and reissued as Mike at Wrykyn and Mike and Psmith.  For those of us who, though fond of Comrade Jackson, have no interest in his solo adventures, Mike and Psmith is an ideal distillation of the story begun back in 1909.

When his father pulls Mike out of Wrykyn after too many poor reports from his teachers, Mike is aghast.  His dreams of captaining the cricket team have been shattered and it is with a heavy heart that he sets out for his new school, Sedleigh, determined to dislike it and to never play for its inferior cricket team.  Almost as soon as he arrives, he meets the school’s other new arrival: the exiled Etonian, Rupert Psmith, who, as he tells Mike, has just decided that morning to distinguish his patronym with the addition of a silent P.  Even as a youth, Psmith is deeply interested in those around him and within moments is attempting to discern Mike’s allotted role in the school:

“Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?”

“The last, for choice,” said Mike, “but I’ve only just arrived, so I don’t know.”

The teenaged Psmith is already as elegant and composed as a statesman, comfortable leaning against the mantelpiece and admiring newcomers through his monocle.  Already he is “…one of those people who lend dignity to everything they touch.”  Within a few hours of his arrival, he has seized Mike as his boon companion, commandeered a study, and set up a retreat that sounds exceeding comfortable.  He is much at home by the time the other students realise what has happened.  Once they appear, Psmith is only too happy to host them:

“We are having a little tea,” said Psmith, “to restore our tissues after our journey.  Come in and join us.  We keep open house, we Psmiths.  Let me introduce you to Comrade Jackson.  A stout fellow.  Homely in appearance, perhaps, but one of us.  I am Psmith.  Your own name will doubtless come up in the course of general chit-chat over the tea-cups.”

Mike is rather swept along by the brilliance of Psmith, as Psmith thwarts pranksters, allies with influential school figures, and determines the best way to keep both himself and Mike from having to play school cricket.  Mike, a cricket addict, sneaks off and plays for the village team; Psmith feels no such desire, though he is happy enough to watch.  As he so beautifully puts it: “Cricket I dislike but watching cricket is one of the finest of Britain’s manly sports.”

Psmith’s method of escaping school cricket is to sign up for the school’s archaeological club, run by his and Mike’s housemaster.   Psmith is capable of cultivating an interest in anything and so it is with archaeology.   Rather like a royal prince bound by duty to pretend an interest in the quaint hobbies of the peasants, Psmith throws himself into the club:

…Psmith followed his leader with the pleased and indulgent air of a father whose infant son is showing him round the garden.  Psmith’s archaeological research struck a new note in the history of that neglected science.  He was amiable, but patronizing.  He patronized fossils, and he patronized ruins.  If he had been confronted with the Great Pyramid, he would have patronized that.

I have just realised that my fondness for Tony Morland owes no smart part to his similarities with Psmith; namely, their amazing sangfroid, their passionate interest in other people and things, and their extraordinary gift for condescending to others.  Fascinating.

Unfortunately, the book does rather revolve around cricket, which I have always found far too tedious to learn the rules of.  All I know of cricket has been learned through the pages of P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne books and, as far as I am concerned, I know far too much.  By the end of the book, both Mike and Psmith have proved themselves heroes on the cricket pitch.  Before that can happen though, there are a few awkward moments when, with the school leaders hot on Mike’s trail after a misdeed, Psmith must do his best to confound their efforts.  Of course, being Psmith, he does this by talking circles – of sense and nonsense – around everyone.  Unsurprisingly, the headmaster finds it all a little bewildering:

The headmaster seemed to have some difficulty in proceeding.  He paused again.  Then he went on.

“Er – Smith, I do not for a moment wish to pain you, but have you – er, do you remember ever having had, as a child, let us say, any – er – severe illness?  Any – er – mental illness?”

“No, sir.”

“There  is no – forgive me if I am touching on a sad subject – there is no – none of your near relatives have ever suffered in the way I – er – have described?”

“There isn’t a lunatic on the list, sir,” said Psmith cheerfully. 

For me, these exchanges are so far preferable to Wodehouse’s descriptions of incomprehensible sporting achievements.  This is what Psmith does best (as can be seen in those other fine novels Psmith in the City, Psmith, Journalist, and Leave it to Psmith) and it is why he will always be my choice for fictional character I would most like to have with me in a troubling situation.  Or, frankly, any situation.  You can keep Uncle Fred and Gally, Jeeves and Lord Emsworth.  To me, Psmith will always be Wodehouse’s greatest and most charming creation.


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Letters from EnglandGiven my love of travelogues, books about British identity, and humourous writing in general, it is no wonder that I loved Letters from England by Karel Čapek.  During the 1920s and 1930s, Čapek wrote a series of “Letters from” books detailing his travels in Italy, Spain, Holland, Scandinavia, and, of course, the United Kingdom.  Written to his fellow countrymen, Čapek tries to interpret what he sees on his journeys for his Czech readers and the results are truly delightful.

There are two impressions which are completely fantastic: to discover something unexpected, and to discover something altogether familiar.  One is always taken aback to meet an old acquaintance unawares.  Well, in the same way I was astonished when I discovered the Houses of Parliament by the Thames, gentlemen in grey top-hats in the streets, two-metre bobbies at the crossroads, and so on.  It was astonishing to find that England is really so English.

Though an admirer of England and the English, Čapek is not immediately impressed by his surroundings when he arrives in London in 1924.  In fact, he is (quite rightly) horrified by the monotonous architecture of London’s sprawling suburbs:

At last the train bores its way between houses of a curious sort; there are a hundred of them entirely alike; then a whole streetful alike; and again, and again.  This produces the effect of a fashion craze. The train flies past a whole town which is beset by some terrible curse; inexorable Fate has decreed that each house shall have two pillars at the door.  For another huge block she has decreed iron balconies.  The following block she has perpetually condemned to grey bricks.  On another mournful street she has relentlessly imposed blue verandahs.  Then there is a whole quarter doing penance for some unknown wrong by placing five steps before every front door.  I should be enormously relieved if even one house had only three; but for some reason that is not possible.

London proves a disappointment for Čapek.  He finds the size and bustle of the city overwhelming, the people reserved and the public places cold and impersonal.  He is duly impressed by the tall policemen but he finds the city impersonal and lacking in the warm communal spirit he is familiar with in continental Europe:

Only the people here are quieter than elsewhere; they talk to each other half-heartedly, and their aim is to get home with the least possible delay.  And that is the strangest thing about the English streets: here you do not see respectable ladies telling each other on the kerb what happened at the Smiths or the Greens, nor courting couples strolling arm-in-arm like sleep-walkers, nor worthy citizens seated on their doorstep with their hands on their knees (by the way, here I have not yet seen a carpenter or a locksmith or a workshop or a journeyman or an apprentice; here are nothing but shops, nothing but shops, nothing but Westminster Bank and Midland Bank, Ltd.), nor men drinking in the street, nor benches in the market-square, nor idlers, nor tramps, nor servant-girls, nor pensioners – in short, nothing, nothing, nothing; the London streets are just a gulley through which life flows to get home.  In the streets people do not live, stare, talk, stand or sit; they merely rush through the streets. ..In our country, in Italy, in France, the street is a sort of large tavern or public garden, a village green, a meeting-place, a playground and theatre, an extension of home and doorstep; here it is something which belongs to nobody, and which does not bring anyone closer to his fellows; here you do not meet with people, and things, but merely avoid them.

He does acknowledge that an Englishman’s silence has a certain sort of dignity and power – “A man from the Continent gives himself an air of importance by talking; an Englishman by holding his tongue” – but still it is not a silence that he could ever be comfortable with.

When Čapek finally leaves London though, he is delighted by what he sees: Where are you to pick words fine enough to portray the quiet and verdant charms of the English countryside?  Green pastures dotted with contented sheep and  majestic oaks scattered across the landscape leave Čapek with nothing but affection for pastoral England, though he is slightly confused by the lazy agricultural practices of the English, who leave so much good land unfarmed and seem to just leave their horses grazing in fields all day rather than putting them to work.  After visiting a few, he becomes particularly enamoured of the English country home, which, in 1924, represents all that is comfortable and gracious: …tennis and warm water, the gong summoning you to lunch, books, meadows, comfort selected, stabilized and blessed by the centuries, freedom of children and patriarchal disposition of parents, hospitality and a formalism as comfortable as a dressing gown…

Čapek travels northward through England, up into Scotland (where he finds himself much more at ease among the Scots than he was with the English), down to Wales, and out to the South West, where, already a bit irritated by the piety of the English, he finds himself stranded in Exeter on a rainy Sunday:

An Exeter Sunday is so thorough and holy that the very churches are closed, and as regards creature comforts, the wayfarer who despises cold potatoes must go to bed with an empty stomach; I do not know what particular joy this causes to the Exeter God.

He leaves happy to have visited (the final section details some of the prominent literary figures with whom he spent time during his visit) but very happy to be going home.  As much as he finds to admire in the English – they are courteous and absolutely trustworthy – he still finds them “hard as flint, incapable of adapting themselves, conservative, loyal, rather shallow, and always uncommunicative”.  It is with relief that he heads for home:

The Continent is noisier, less disciplined, dirtier, madder, subtler, more passionate, more affable, more amorous, fond of enjoyment, wayward, harsh, talkative, more reckless, and somehow less perfect.  Please give me a ticket straight away for the Continent. 

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Another Part of the WoodAlmost exactly a year ago, I bought a Kobo Touch e-reader.  I have been thankful for it many times since then but probably never so much as when I recently discovered that my library’s e-book collection included a copy of Another Part of the Wood by Denis Mackail.  I have been eager to read more by Mackail since discovering the charms of Greenery Street in 2010 and especially since becoming a wee bit obsessed with the many books written by his elder sister, Angela Thirkell.  Though Mackail was a busy writer (you can find his full bibliography here) his books have fallen sadly out of print.  Greenery Street is readily available from Persephone and, thanks to Bloomsbury Reader, Another Part of the Wood can also easily be got, albeit only as an ebook right now.  And it is well worth getting.

When eighteen-year old Ursula Brett, known to most as Noodles, leaves her respectable but unexceptional school (the kind that is very proud that it has never trained a girl for higher education), she is excited to have (in her mind at least) passed from schoolgirl to proper grown-up woman.  But neither St Ethelburga’s nor Noodles’ disinterested guardian have done anything to prepare the pretty, friendly young woman for a world full of men.  Almost immediately after leaving school, she runs into trouble:

For though no one seems to be quicker than Noodles at identifying rather awful men when they cross her path, experience suggests that no one is less capable of dealing with them once they have done so.

First, she finds that she has attracted the unthreatening but determined attentions of a ne’er do well neighbour.  She is properly horrified by his interest but not so horrified as her guardian, who packs poor Noodles up and humiliatingly sends her back to St Ethelburga’s.  (Coincidentally, being sent back to school after having graduated has been one of my more intriguing recurring dreams since I left my own school, though I think my dream self views the whole exercise as less traumatic than poor Noodles does.)  After a few disastrous weeks back at school, where it is discovered that she has forgotten most of what they taught her before she left, Noodles finds herself running away to join a seedy variety show in a seaside town.  As you do.  Noodles remains remarkably plucky (an adjective I don’t get to use as often as I’d like) throughout her adventures , even as her innocent approach to the world undergoes a necessary change: Noodles quickly learns that her polite ideas about being nice to everyone who is nice to her isn’t always the best or safest approach.

Meanwhile, as Noodles is bouncing around from school to home to school to seaside, her brother Beaky and his flatmate Snubs are toiling away at unimportant jobs in London.  Beaky is struggling with his passion for the lovely Sylvia Shirley while Snubs, the more level-headed of the pair, takes an usual amount of interest in the updates Noodles sends her brother.  When she disappears from St. Ethelburga’s, the two young men set off in search of her, with their adventures (and misadventures in poor Beaky’s case) proving just as amusing as Noodles’.  The story bounces between them, Noodles, and, on occasion, Sylvia, tracking the parallel activities of all the characters until they all come together for a very happy ending.

This is a fun and funny book and for me half the joy was seeing how Mackail’s work fits in with that of his friends A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse, two of my favourite authors.  The characters’ nicknames are certainly Wodehousian: how well I could imagine Drones members or visitors to Blandings called Noodles, Snubs, or Beaky.  And there are definite flashes of A.A.M.-esque frivolity:

‘Oh, look at them all!’ says Sylvia – meaning the human beings.  ‘Aren’t they marvellous!’

They are.

‘Oh, look at that fat one!’

The fat one is really a splendid example.

‘And that one with the bare legs!’

The one with the bare legs might not appeal to all tastes, but is distinctly worth looking at.

Published in 1929, Another Part of the Wood is a comic novel very much of its time.  In other words, it is perfect for me.  I dearly hope more of Denis Mackail’s books are reissued soon.

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Weird Things Customers Say in BookstoresI first heard about Jen Campbell about five minutes before I walked into Ripping Yarns, the North London bookstore where she works.  I was with Simon and he was telling me about Jen’s blog and her “Weird Things Customers Say” feature, where she quotes some of the bizarre conversations or questions she has or overhears in the bookshop.  I have never been so quiet in a bookstore in my life as I was on that visit.  That night, I checked out her blog and laughed my way through the archives.  The North American edition of her book, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores, came out last September and finally this week I got my hands on it.

Though some of the quotes are laugh out loud funny, most are funny-sad; reminders that some readers can finish The Diary of Anne Frank and want to know if she wrote a sequel, that customers think they can return books to one store purchased at another completely unaffiliated store, or that parents searching for books on the Enlightenment for their children think it was about the invention of the light bulb do not particularly restore your faith in the intelligence of the human race.  As far as I can tell, working in a bookstore must be like being trapped inside an absurdist play.

It is a very short book and not particularly suited to a traditional review so here are a few of my favourite quotes:

Customer (to their friend): God, the Famous Five titles were crap, weren’t they?  Five Go Camping, Five Go Off in a Caravan…If it was Five Go Down to a Crack House it might be a bit more exciting.

(What I wouldn’t give for Enid Blyton to have written that book!)

Customer: Doesn’t it bother you, being surrounded by books all day?  I think I’d be paranoid they were all going to jump off the shelves and kill me.


(You have to wonder how these people even find their way into bookstores, don’t you?)

Customer: It’s amazing, isn’t it, how little we really know about writers’ lives?  Especially the old ones.

Bookseller: I guess the lives of writers have changed a lot.

Customer: Yes.  And don’t forget about those women who used to write under male names.

Bookseller: Yes, like George Eliot.

Customer: I always thought Charles Dickens was probably a woman.

Bookseller:…I’m pretty sure Charles Dickens was a man.

Customer: But who’s to say?

Bookseller: Well, he was pretty prominent in society, lots of people saw him.

Customer: But maybe that was all a show – maybe that was her brother, while Charlene was at home, writing.


(this honestly made me laugh more than anything else in the entire book.)

More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops will be coming out this April and I am sure it will be just as entertaining!

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Revenge of the Vinyl CafeThere is an art to telling a simple story.  Some people cannot do it.  They need to tell you all about the inner lives of their characters, even the aspects that have nothing to do with the story; they must describe the setting down to the smallest drop of dew on a leaf in a forest that none of the characters ever enter; and they must make absolutely sure that you appreciate the brilliance of the them, the author, as much as you appreciate their creation.  But it is usually the simplest stories that attract me the most, which is why I was so happy to read Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean.

For almost twenty years now, McLean, a Canadian writer and broadcaster, has been telling stories on his CBC radio show, the Vinyl Cafe.  And for many of those years, I have been listening.  The highlight of any episode is the “Dave and Morley Story”, though these days the stories are just as likely to be about one of their children – university student Stephanie or preteen Sam – or neighbours.   They are humourous stories, particularly the ones focused on Dave (an enthusiastic record store owner who has never encountered a sticky situation he could not make infinitely worse), but they are so fondly and tenderly told that I more often than not find myself tearing up, sometimes even as I am laughing.

I love all the characters in Dave and Morley’s world and I love how their world is recognizable but also just a little bit different, a little bit nicer and warmer.  Nothing is perfect but everything is comfortable.  McLean is nostalgic but it is just the right level of nostalgia: for every story Dave recounts about his youth, there is a corresponding eye-roll from one of his children, wondering why dad has to tell that story again for the hundredth time:

Dave wasn’t fussed by that.  He knew he had told them before.  He knew what he was doing.  You have to tell stories over and over.  It is the creation of myth.  The only road to immortality.

It was the “road to immortality” stories in this collection that made me tear up.  For every screwball sketch about one of Dave’s antics (getting stuck on a treadmill, riding a bicycle on top of a moving car, finding himself trapped in the sewers, being mistaken for a patient when visiting a friend in the hospital) there was another story about memories and traditions being passed on to the next generation.  I cried over “Fish Head”, which does not seem a promising name for an emotional story but was, in the end, about Dave remembering his father and passing that memory on to Sam.  “Rosemary Honey” also got to me, a story about Dave and Morley’s ninety-year old neighbour Eugene.  Eugene longs to taste rosemary honey again, a flavour he remembers well from his Italian childhood, and enlists Sam and Sam’s friend Murphy to track the bees who congregate around his rosemary bushes back to their home.  And by the end of the book, exhausted by all the belly laughs and blinked backed tears from the previous stories, I had no energy left to withstand the final story, “Le Morte d’Arthur”, about the death of the family dog.  I cried when I first heard that story on the radio and I cried again reading it.  But they were good, healthy tears and I finished the book happy.

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