Childhood favourite: The Sea Witch Comes Home by Malcolm Saville

This novel by Malcolm Saville (1901-1982) represents another dive into my literary past, as Saville’s Lone Pine adventure stories were once great favourites of mine. I have previously written about the Dimsie books after I retrieved Dimsie Among the Prefects from my mother’s house (call it the Landing Book Shelves Annex). Similarly, I picked up this book on my most recent visit. It is the only Lone Pine book still knocking around the family home but I can’t remember exactly when I obtained it. As far as I remember I read most, if not all of the adventures in the series and used to save up my pocket money to buy the paperback editions or else borrowed them from our local library.

This edition of Sea Witch is a blue cloth-bound hardback, bought as a second-hand copy and with the previous owner’s name stamped inside. It appears to be a first edition (1960) but sadly the jacket’s condition has deteriorated over the years and as you can see from the photo, is quite damaged, so that part of the spine has faded. The book is otherwise in nice condition and the pages have worn the passage of time well. It is a pity that my copy isn’t in better nick as according to ABE Books, a good first edition could sell for as much as eighty-odd pounds. Oh well.

I never read the Lone Pine series in chronological order, the first being Mystery at Witchend (1943), but as each book contained a complete adventure, that never seemed to matter. The books followed the activities of a group of friends who formed a secret society called the Lone Pine Club. The club’s oath was sworn in blood, which was guaranteed to appeal to a child’s love of secret societies. If you recall from a previous post, Dimsie Maitland was a member of the Anti-Soppists society, though I don’t think that any bodily flids were involved in those initiation rites.

On re-reading Sea Witch many years later, I can see both why it appealed to me and why the Lone Pine mysteries followed naturally for me after Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventure series. The idea of kids having lots of adventures largely without adults (girls got to be part of it too) greatly appealed to me at the time. And as for the thrill of solving mysteries that defeated more experienced hands, well that was the icing on the cake. Now as an adult, it’s slightly mind boggling to re-read and see just how much the kids got up to with just instructions to be home for tea. No mobile phones either!

Several of the Lone Pine books were set in Shropshire, some in Rye in Sussex. My fondness for the Shropshire countryside has its roots in the Lone Pine Stories; I even loved the place-names and wanted so much to visit the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones. Sadly, although I have been to Shropshire on several occasions, I’ve never yet got around to visiting Rye. With its connections to Saville, EF Benson and Henry James, I do feel that a visit is long overdue. The recently installed Blue Plaque, reported in the Rye News, to honour Malcolm Saville provides a fresh incentive to do so.

But, returning to The Sea Witch Comes Home, here is a brief plot summary to this Lone Pine adventure for the uninitiated amongst you. This East Anglian-set novel only features three of the club’s nine members, founder member David Morton (16) and his siblings Mary and Richard (Dickie) who are 10-year-old twins. The three head off to a village called Walberswick at the behest of David’s schoolfriend Paul Channing. Paul and his sister Rose are worried about their father who has gone off in his boat The Sea Witch without saying where or why. (And Mrs Morton calmly lets them go off to a house where no adult is around to keep an eye on them!).

As the children try to find answers, they realise that they are not the only ones trying to find Richard Channing. What is he involved in? As well as contending with inquisitive strangers while seeking answers to the mystery, the friends have to deal with a far more dangerous foe: the sea. The climax of the book features a coastal emergency, when the sea breaks through defences in several places, threatening lives and homes. In his foreword, Saville admits to cheating a little in his timing, as the high tides of the autumn equinox occur a bit later than early September, the time period of the story. It does make a dramatic plot element though. I won’t plot spoil, but of course the young detectives win the day and solve the mystery.

I suppose I can blame both Blyton and Saville for a life-long love of crime and mystery novels. The next stop was Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and the rest was, as they say… history. If anyone is interested in Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine stories, as well as the many other books that he wrote, then take a look at the website dedicated to his books, Also, if you are interested in reprints of some of the stories, check out Girls Gone By Publishers to see their current list.


Georgian Dublin Walking Tour

Following on from the Birmingham related topic of the last post, here is a Dublin flavoured piece to continue the city theme. This is one of those ‘out and about’ pieces that I haven’t done for a long time, though it does have a connection with a book. Inspired by the new Bank Holiday for St Brigid (spring in the air, etc) I began to think about what cultural and historical activities I might undertake this year. A sort of spring resolution as opposed to the New Year variety. This in turn reminded me about one activity that I did with a friend over a year ago, but never got around to mentioning on the blog.

So, several months too late here goes:

On a very pleasant autumn Sunday afternoon I found myself strolling in Dublin city centre, taking part in one of the Henrietta Street walking tours. In case you haven’t come across these Dublin City Council tours before, they focus on the city’s northside Georgian architecture, beginning with Henrietta Street where Georgian Dublin first began to take shape. This street was the earliest development by the Gardiner family, laid out in the 1720s and was named for Henrietta, Duchess of Grafton. The historic building walk was a first for me (thanks Natalie); it was a good introduction to Henrietta Street, somewhere I had never visited. You can book tours of the restored 14 Henrietta Street, which is something that is still on my ‘to do’ list (see above!) Have a look at the museum website for further information as there are usually various events on during the year.

In their heyday, large properties such as those on Henrietta Street housed the families of Members of Parliament attending to their duties and enjoying Dublin’s social whirl. However, changes came about after the Act of Union, which moved parliament from Dublin to London. So the seasonal demand for townhouses was lost; gradually the area’s residences housed members of the legal profession instead. Large Georgian houses such as 14 Henrietta St eventually ended up being divided into tenements for multi-occupancy in the late nineteenth century. The Henrietta Street Museum charts these changes and tells the stories of those that lived there over 300 years of habitation.

The Georgian architecture tour was an excellent introduction to the layout and growth of the Georgian northside, from an engaging and knowledgeable guide. Afterwards I did wish that I had taken notes along the way, but at the time it was enjoyable just to stroll along and listen. We covered quite a bit of ground (literally as well as historically) so I think that stroll probably counted as my daily exercise.Thankfully the weather was kind to us too.

Later on, after getting home, I had a delve into my copy of See Dublin on Foot: An Architectural Walking Guide (Julie Craig). I’ve mentioned this walking guide previously on the blog, when I bought it way back in 2012. It was published by Dublin Civic Trust in 2001, so some of the information is now a little out of date (think Clery’s demise to start with) but I don’t think that an updated edition is available yet.

I was able to read up a bit more on those northside city streets and to plot out on the map where we had been walking. If you look at the map that I have scanned in you will see that we had a good tour of Gardiner’s Dublin (the route I have marked isn’t entirely flowing, but you get the idea). The architectural guidebook gives details of who originally lived in Henrietta Street, so reading that was a nice supplement to the tour. I’ll just mention a couple of residents noted in Craig’s book: Number 7 was built and lived in by Nathaniel Clements, Teller of the Exchequer and MP (1730); he also built numbers 4, 5 and 6. Apparently the first recorded occupant of number 14 was Richard, Third Viscount Molesworth in 1755. However, since that book was written further research may have identified an earlier resident. This house was built by Luke Gardiner as part of a terrace block with numbers 13 and 15 in the early 1740s.

Further Reading

In the Henrietta Street website shop, three new books on the area are now available, published by Dublin City Council Culture Company. Between them, the books cover the rise and fall of Henrietta Street and the people who lived there (from 1750-1979). Each book is by a different author: Georgian Beginnings by Melanie Hayes; Grandeur and Decline by Timothy Murtagh and From Tenement to Suburbia by Donal Fallon. I haven’t yet had a look at them, but plan to do so.

I will let you know if I manage to make a visit to see the interior of 14 Henrietta Street. Has anyone else been to see it? I would love to hear your thoughts on the experience.

The Birmingham Art Book

In this post, I’m featuring a new resident on the Landing Book Shelves, a Christmas gift no less. The book is the Birmingham Art Book: The City Through the Eyes of its Artists edited by Emma Bennett (who also created the cover art and wrote the preface). Joe Lycett has contributed a foreword, setting the tone for the book by declaring, ‘Birmingham, as I’m sure you’re aware, is the best city in the world. And the art here is the best in the world too.’

Front cover of The Birmingham Art Book, showing an image of the Council House by Emma Bennett

This book is the seventh title in a series of city art books published by UIT Cambridge Ltd. I hadn’t come across this series before, but I notice that Dublin and Edinburgh are included, so I might have to explore further. If you remember, I did a post some while ago about the Silent Traveller in Edinburgh, so I am following a favourite city theme here. It could build into a whole new sub-collection (as if I needed another one).

The Birmingham Art Book features the work of sixty-one artists, some having more than one piece included creating a collection of wonderful images of the city. The views included here are depicted in a wide range of styles and media, giving the collection a very vibrant feel. It’s a book for dipping into over and over again as each time you browse the images, another detail from the Birmingham landscape is revealed. I’m a Brummie born and bred and despite having moved away years ago, I do go back to visit regularly. This book is a lovely souvenir to have, a reminder of all the myriad buildings, parks and features that make up the city. It’s also a very nice addition to my Brummie collection. I haven’t added to it since buying This is Not Your Final Form, a poetry collection from Emma Press.

Back cover of the Birmingham Art Book, showing some images from the book and other titles in the series.

But of course, I never get chance to mooch around the city as much as I would like. I therefore found that the book’s city depictions had a huge nostalgia value for me. I kept spotting things that made me exclaim, ‘Ooh, I remember that!’ However, I have also been scratching my head at other images, not being quite able to place something that I feel I ought to remember. I’m also reminded of places that I haven’t re-visited in ages, such as the Barber Institute and the Electric Cinema.  

It is nice to see that the suburbs get a look in too. More nostalgia here; Cadbury’s, Kings Heath, Moseley and Cannon Hill Park. There are so many great images in this collection that it would be hard to pick out a shortlist of favourites. I will just name check a few though I could easily end up listing the entire contents:

  • I smiled at the close-up depiction of the gargoyles on St Martin’s Church looking with what seems to be an expression of amazement at the Selfridges Building (Graham Leonard King).  
  • Robert Geoghegan’s picture of Cannon Hill Park full of Canada Geese. The tagline on the painting reads: ‘Today:Cannon Hill Park. Tomorrow: The World’. I also like his portrait of ‘Old Joe’ at the University of Birmingham, The Owl and the Clocktower. I love the owl!
  • Alexander Edwards (Brumhaus) has a graphic-style view of the Jewellery Quarter, especially pleasing to me, as I was around that area for the first time in ages before Christmas.
  • I include in my picks a couple of city centre views, as I was busy spotting buildings that I recognised: Bird’s Eye New Street by Chris Eckersley and Memories of Birmingham by Martin Stuart Moore.
  • And finally, a mention for the travel poster/Art Deco inspired peices by Milan Topalović. The view of China Town is gorgeous.
  • And finally, finally let’s not forget the differing depictions of the Library of Birmingham, the Rotunda, the canal scenes, the Floozie in the Jacuzzi, The Bull and the Grand Central.

Highly recommended to Brummies past and present! Go out and buy one (and no, I’m not on commission).

Books on the Bus

Cover of Anthony Horow.itz novel The Word is Murder
Crime on the commute

I noted in the last blog post that I was listening to The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz (read by Rory Kinnear) on my commute. My daily dose of audio book listening has become a travel fixture since December, after I followed a colleague’s suggestion to give them a try. As I said before, I have been using the handy little mp3 editions from the library. The audio book listening has been a useful tool in adapting to an unaccustomed bus/train commute; one that started in the unforgiving winter months, which certainly didn’t add a cheer factor to the tedious bus wrangling. I may have mentioned once or twice here, my penchant for crime fiction, so I keep an eye out for new (or indeed, old) ideas that appear in audio format. It is entirely possible, that having discovered the joys of audio books, I will increase my intake of crime novels considerably. Would that be such a bad thing? Don’t answer that one.

Crime has certainly become the genre of choice for my travelling books over the last couple of months. I have however, tried a couple of other ideas. For instance, I have long taken an interest in Bertie Pollock’s daily trials in Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books, so I tried one out as a commuting book.  Alas, it was too easy going, calm and philosphical to suit my journey to work. Maybe it would have suited my homeward trip better? Perhaps I should try a touch of crime in the morning and catch up on Scotland Street on the homeward ride.  Having said that, the rush hour frustrations of the evening commute might be better suited to the distractions of a juicy crime novel… It’s a work in progress, as they say. I also ventured to listen to Helen MacDonald’s Vesper Flights a few weeks ago, but for me it didn’t work as a bus book. That is a book that I will return to in print form as I think it is really one to be savoured at leisure, making notes of anything I want to follow up on.

Cover of the Christopher Fowler Bryant & May story, The Burning Man.
London crime

Of course, maybe the detective audio fiction urge will prove to be just a winter thing. Fragrant spring mornings and sultry summer evenings may well encourage quite different listening habits. Let’s wait and see, shall we? For now, I am generally pursuing a criminal course each morning and evening, which has led to my introduction to some new crime writers. One of those is the above-mentioned Anthony Horowitz, who has long been a name that I passed while shelving adult fiction A-M. I always meant at some point to give his adult fiction a go but I never got around to him. I’m not that sure that he’d appreciate that my impetus for doing so was that I needed something lively to distract me from interminable road works.

I have also discovered Christopher Fowler’s detectives Arthur Bryant and John May from The Peculiar Crimes Unit in the adventure, The Burning Man (read by Tim Goodman). Not for the first time in lighting on a new discovery, I have begun well into the series so at some point I need to back track to the earlier books. I really enjoyed this story, both the main characters being agreeably quirky in the chalk and cheese vein. The wealth of historical detail about London’s layers of history is woven into the detective action in a way that brings London vividly to life, as Bryant is a veritable fount of information about the city he loves. I will certainly read more of this series (not necessarily in order of course!)

Now all I need is a steady supply of AAA batteries to fuel my travelling crime fest. And maybe I should treat myself to some decent headphones. Does anyone else relish a good audio book on the bus?

The New Year Resolution that wasn’t

The germ of this first blog post of 2022 is a resolution that I probably ought to make this year, should have made in previous years and in all likelihood will never in fact make. And if I was mad enough to make it, I would almost certainly have broken it before the end of the first week in January. So what is this dread resolution then?

It is: Not to start another book before finishing the one I’m reading and therefore not to end up with several books on the go most of the time. I would just read one book at a time, finishing it before starting the next one in the pile (or the next one that I came across). I could go as far as to say that I wouldn’t even borrow or buy another book until ready to read. (Of course, there are still many unread books here on The Landing, but that’s another resolution altogether, for another year entirely).

It does sound a very simple proposition, but I’m afraid one that would be doomed to failure were I to attempt it. Moreover, in all honesty, would I really want to make and stick to such a draconian resolution?  I do have moments of frustration when I feel that things are getting a bit silly and that I have too many books underway, but most of the time it works for me. I do generally enjoy reading in this way, moving between different genres. Though sometimes I get ‘stuck’ as it were with one book, so that it slips further and further down the reading pile as my attention moves elsewhere. It may then languish on the side-lines for a while as another book makes the running. Occaisonally I give up on a book, but mostly I come back with renewed interest.

Many of the books that leap ahead in my reading programme are library books, spotted while I shelve my section. I have recently begun to feel that I should cut down on library borrowing and return to the reading matter in hand. But feeling hasn’t yet been transformed into action. It is just so tempting to borrow yet another book, that I know that I will then start reading at lunchtime or tea break and thus add into the bookish merry-go-round.

The multiple reads situation has been compounded by my recent move into audio books. In particular, the mp3 Playaway versions that I have taken to listening to on the bus. I find that I cannot read on buses so audio books have proved very successful as an alternative. My commuting books tend to be mostly crime fiction as I find that this genre tends to liven up the tedium of travel. However, it can be irritating to have to try to zone out the travel announcements during the crucial plot points.

Here is a rough list of my current partly-read stash:

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman. This is one that I’m reading in the evening, alternating with Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert (1950) as a lunch and tea break read. The Victorian history is a fascinating trip through Victorian domestic life from a historian who has tried out many of the household chores herself, wearing an authentic corset to boot. The author has also tried making up some of the homemade toiletries and remedies, with some success apparently. I’d be a bit dubious about some of the medicinal preparations though!

Smallbone Deceased is a murder mystery set in Lincoln’s Inn Court, with a dead body discovered in a deed box. I have read quite a few novels from the British Library Crime Classics series, snapping them up whenever I spot one. I’m afraid that these crime novels are a big driver of my multi-read habit! Before I had finished Smallbone, I had requested (and begun reading) a copy of Seven Dead by J Jefferson Farjeon (1939). As the title suggests, this locked room mystery (always a favourite type) begins with the discovery of seven murder victims in a country house.

I have been listening to The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz on my morning and evening commute this week. It’s the first in the Hawthorne and Horowitz crime series and is also the first of any of Horowitz’s books in my reading history. This is very entertaining, so I think I will follow the series a little further. The next one is now on reserve, again in an audio version. Rory Kinnear is the series narrator, doing a fine job of bringing the characters to life.

The Morville Hours: The Story of a Garden by Katherine Swift. This has been on the part-read pile since before Christmas, a victim of a new glut of library books. The book tells of the development of Swift’s garden at the Dower House of Morville Hall (a National Trust property) in Shropshire, begun in 1988. I hadn’t read very far before I decided that I would like to visit it one day.

The Comforters by Muriel Spark (1957) was her first novel. This 2009 edition has an introduction by Ali Smith. Are you entitled to say that you’ve started a book if you’ve only read the introduction? Just asking.

I think that’s enough to be going on with for the time being. Of course, I haven’t mentioned the stack of library books yet to be begun, nor my Christmas gifts, nor yet, the books that I bought last autumn from The Last Bookshop in Camden Street, Dublin which still lie unread on my bedside table…

Does anyone else enjoy having several books on the go at once?

Pondering on those interminable book lists

Cover of my book of books
Book of Books

Yet again, I have to account for a long blogging gap on the Landing Book Shelves, as it has been a few months since my last optimistic post. Yet again, I am trying to get back into a reasonable writing routine. In fairness it’s not that I haven’t been writing (or reading for that matter) but that I have been writing letters and emails instead of blog posts. In addition to that are bits of writing for work so I have been attempting to keep my hand in. Sadly, it means that the Landing has been getting neglected and dusty once again. And of course, as I mentioned in my last post, technically the Landing Book Shelves doesn’t exist anymore, being now an imaginary landing. No stairs, no landing, but of course still book shelves, which is the main thing. As is inevitable in a move, much has been relocated and many books are still not really in their ideal place. 

As a form of book blogger procrastination, I have recently been downloading my library borrowing history for the last few years. It’s as good an occupation as any for an autumn evening and my rationale (excuse?) for doing this is that I am going through a phase of puzzling flashes of déjà vu about odd bits of plot and conversation. Had I read this particular book before and forgotten most of it? It is unnerving to think that I may have completely forgotten having read a particular book, so I thought that I would remind myself of what I have read (or at least what library books I have read) in recent years. It’s taken me a while as I have been combing through the list taking out DVDs and books for my fellow readers in the house (they know who they are!)

In addition to this list, I used to jot titles in a couple of old notebooks, of my reads each year but that lapsed as a regular habit a few years ago. Hence my interest in my library account history. Having downloaded the library list, I am now not quite sure what to do with it. Somehow, retaining a digital list doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the original notebook list going back into the early 1990s. It lacks a certain bookish charm shall we say. But, the thought of transcribing a couple of hundred or so titles into a notebook is daunting. To add to this digital list, I am accumulating yet another digital list (footprint?) of the audio books that I have downloaded from the library website. Now this list only dates back to earlier in the year so it is much shorter (at least at the moment!).

And finally, let me not forget to mention the list of books that I have yet to read. This is worse than the TBR pile, but it has at least the advantage of taking up less room in the house than a physical stack of books. It does however exist in a variety of places, which makes it a rather slippery thing to audit. I have an official notebook for titles that I come across, but in reality, I tend to jot them down in any notebook that comes to hand. This means that I come across random jottings, months or even years after the fact. Occasionally these notes can be very cryptic, if I only had a bit of information to hand and not complete title, author, publisher etc. Even more cryptic are the dread scraps of paper and Post It notes tucked away for safe keeping!

So, what purpose these lists? And should I just stop keeping them up?  Who is going to be interested in my reading archive? The problem is that I think I would miss compiling my reading lists, even if keeping them up has become patchy in recent years. The lists provide a literary trip down memory lane now and again. It amuses me to remind myself of what I was reading for instance, in 1993, which is the year of my earliest entries. Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what I read in any given year, but once I look at the list, it all comes flooding back to me. Well mostly. Sometimes I simply have no recall of a particular book. I was also relieved to pin down one suspected case of déjà vu: I had previously caught snatches of the audio version at my mum’s house.  Phew!

To sum up the situation, I have lots of lists about books (both actual, virtual, read and unread) and I have no idea whether this is a good, necessary or sensible thing or not. Any thoughts?

A Brief Notice: The Landing Book Shelves is on the move!

You may think that things are never-changing here on The Landing, but that is not in fact the case. There is always a certain degree of book shuffling going on in addition to new arrivals taking up their rightful place. Rarely of course, is there a literary departure! Now however, we have to contend with a much bigger upheaval; a major event in the Landing’s ten year plus history. The entire landing book realm has been relocated, not merely away from its location on the turn of the stairs, but to a new abode altogether. At the moment the un-boxing stage is yet to be completed but the core of the blog’s material will not be on a landing, for the simple reason that there is no landing here.

Yes, the crucial fact of the matter is that in a bungalow, there can be no landing and therefore no Landing Book Shelves. I have contemplated changing the name of the blog to reflect the new surroundings. So far, I have only come up with ‘Front Room Book Shelves’ or perhaps ‘The Study Book Shelves’, neither of which really work for me. If you recall, the blog gained its title partly from the fact of there being books on the landing, but it was also inspired by the title of Susan Hill’s literary memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing. That makes it as much a metaphorical book shelf as a real one (I think).

I am therefore working my way round to deciding not to change the title of the blog at all (of course changing that, would also mean changing the blog’s Twitter handle) and simply going along in the same old way. My only worry is that this action will make me guilty of misinformation of which apparently, there is a lot about these days. Do I wish to add to it? On balance, considering that the blog location has always been as much an imaginary book haven as a real set of shelves, I think I will leave The Landing Book Shelves name well alone…   

Ireland Reads Day: Squeezing in a read (or two)

Today’s Landing Tales post is written in support of the #Ireland Reads day, so I want to talk a little about my memories of my early reading life (once upon a time in Birmingham) going back to where it all started, with a quick delve into the Landing Book Shelves. I hope to give you a little insight into what started me off on a lifetime love of books and reading. And of course, today I will certainly be squeezing in a read. Though in fairness, it’s more a case of trying to stop me squeezing in a loooong read…

My relationship with books goes back a long way. Like many people, I can trace that love back to all those old familiar nursery rhymes and songs, many of which will never be forgotten. Then it’s a short step onto children’s poems such as those of AA Milne, whose ‘The King’s Breakfast’ was one of my early favourites. Nowadays, just like the poor old king, ‘I do like a little bit of butter to my bread’ in the mornings! Although, I am also of the view that ‘marmalade is tasty, if it’s very thickly spread’, so I’m at one with the Dairymaid on that issue.

Now, as Paddington Bear afficionados know well, he is also a confirmed marmalade fan, usually keeping a spare marmalade sandwich under his hat for emergencies. Apparently, it’s a well-known fact that bears who come from Darkest Peru like marmalade,

“Where was it you said you’d come from? Peru?”
“That’s right,” said Paddington. “Darkest Peru.”
“Humph!” Mrs. Bird looked thoughtful for a moment. “Then I expect you like marmalade. I’d better get some more from the grocer.”
“There you are! What did I tell you?” cried Judy, as the door shut behind Mrs. Bird. “She does like you.”
“Fancy her knowing I like marmalade,” said Paddington.

If I were to attempt to compile a top ten childhood favourites list, then Paddington may well be at the top. Not least because, as an adult of (ahem, mature) years I can still sit down and chuckle over one of his adventures, which really do stand the test of time. Take a bow, Michael Bond.

I think that I have probably mentioned on here before, The Treasury of Children’s Classics collection that I had as a child, which still survives, albeit in a very battered state, with the cover selotaped together. It contains a mixture of extracts from classic tales and several poems. It was my first introduction to the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Dickens, Shakespeare (via Lamb’s Tales) the Arabian Nights and Susan Coolidge, to name but a few.

book cover with Aladdin, Pinoccio, Don Quixote
A childhood favourite

But it was the verses that initially drew me into the book, when I was too young to appreciate extracts from Robinson Crusoe and the like. I enjoyed the humorous poems best, such as John Drinkwater’s ‘Washing’, which I am sure struck a chord with many a child. Here’s an extract:

What is all this washing about,
Every day, week in, week out?
From getting up till going to bed,
I’m tired of hearing the same thing said.
Whether I’m dirty or whether I’m not,
Whether the water is cold or hot,
Whether I like or whether I don’t,
Whether I will or whether I won’t.-
“Have you washed your hands, and washed your face?”
I seem to live in the washing place.

Of course, this poem seems particularly innocent and old-fashioned in our Covid era of required hand washing, when handwashing doesn’t just relate to a grubby child in from playing in the garden, who can’t see why a bit of dirt would hurt a jam sandwich.  Or in Paddington’s case it would be sticky paws from eating directly from the marmalade jar.

The themes of washing and general cleanliness link to my final choice for this post (though believe me, I could go on but I have to stop somewhere), which is The Family from One End Street written and illustrated by Eve Garnett (1937).  The family is the Ruggles family, father Joe is a dustman and his wife Rosie takes in laundry:

Mrs Ruggles was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. “Very suitable too,” she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.

Mrs Ruggles has a sign outside their little terraced house proclaiming, ‘The Ideal Laundry. Careful Hand Work’ and the house is often full of clothes, steam and folded laundry. Joe and Rosie have seven children, the youngest still a baby so life is busy and full of activity and comic adventures. If you know Alan Ahlberg’s picture book Peepo!, then you would recognise these books as sharing the same working class world of the 1930s and 40s. Clothes drying by the fire, kids playing in the yard and the mother in her pinny doing the chores. Though in Mrs Ruggles’ case, working as we would now term it ‘from home’ as well as doing the family tasks. These stories could be sentimental, dealing as they do with a poor family whose children seem to be constantly taking boots to be repaired, yet who have a happy life. Yet, they aren’t at all saccharine sweet, merely very funny and thoughtful. And Eve Garnett’s black and white sketches speak volumes.

I’ll wrap it up for now, but I’d love to hear about your favourite childhood reads or what you’re reading for #IrelandReads, so drop me a line below if you’d like to do so. Now, I will just go and #SqueezeInARead!

Armchair Travelling: The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee

This book was a Christmas present from The Bookworm, so it hasn’t been on the Landing Book Shelves for long. In fact, it is more of a bedside table guest, before taking up its final place as a bona fide Landing resident. I had never before heard of the author and illustrator Chiang Yee (1903-77), or his nom de plume The Silent Traveller, so it was a new discovery as well as a lovely Edinburgh souvenir. The colour plates of the watercolour views of Edinburgh are of very good quality, beautifully reproduced and certainly make me long to visit the city again.

My copy of the The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh, according to a pencilled note inside the cover is a first edition (1948) with no name of any previous owner inscribed. It is without dust jacket, pale yellow cloth bound, in very nice condition, though my photograph probably doesn’t do it justice. I will just digress here to mention that I recently read Martin Latham’s The Bookseller’s Tale, which has a chapter called ‘Signs of Use’. Here, he talks about the various ways in which readers down the centuries have engaged with texts, writing in notes and comments. One thing I always look for in a second -hand book is the name of a previous owner or a dedication from the giver, perhaps; however, not in this case.

The first Silent Traveller book was published in 1936, when Chiang Yee brought out his book on the Lakelands, followed by London in 1938 and several more in the following years. The ‘Silent Traveller’ image was his own styling. He comments in his engaging ‘Unnecessary Introduction’ that, ‘It is perfectly natural to be silent when travelling alone’. But he went on to explain that the name originated with his Chinese pen name Ya-Hsin-Chê, which means Dumb-Walking-Man. He said that he chose this name for himself after spending several years as a civil servant and politician, which involved ‘talking night and day for five years or so’. However, I was amused to note that The Silent Traveller also mentions a Birmingham editor who once called him the ‘The Not-Too-Silent-Traveller’ so he obviously wasn’t averse to a chat at times.

  • The title page of The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh showing a painting of the Scott Monument
  • Pale yellow cloth hardback cover of The Silent Traveller
  • Painting of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh
  • Painting of St Anthony's Chapel & St Margaret's Loch
  • Painting of Lady Stair's House, Edinburgh
  • Painting of Edinburgh Castle

The author was an artist, poet, writer and calligrapher from a city called Juijiang (written Kiukiang at the time) on the banks of the Yangtze in Jiangxi province. By the time that his Edinburgh book was published, he had lived in Britain for several years, having left China to study in London in 1933. This book is based on a few visits Chiang Yee made to Edinburgh, the first being in 1937, then 1943 and 1944.

The Silent Traveller records his walks around the city, describing his impressions of parks, monuments and buildings. He delights in the effect of the weather and different lights on Edinburgh’s notable features with an artist’s sensibility. One thing that features very frequently in his walks is (perhaps not surprisingly) the rain. It seems that The Silent Traveller must have frequently been ‘The Wet Traveller’, but that never diminished his enthusiasm or curiosity for Edinburgh’s beauty or its history. At one point he remarks that, ‘My affection for rain increases each time I behold a familiar scene take on a new and enchanting aspect through a veil of rain’.

Alongside describing visits to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Botanic Gardens and so on, Chiang Yee discusses art, literature, philosophy and poetry from China and the West. He quotes verses from Chinese poets and includes a few short pieces of his own, inspired by a particular location. He also talks about the differences and similarities between Western and Chinese art; of materials, techinique and perspective. As he points out, ‘It [watercolour] is a point in common between our two countries’ going on to say that ‘Art is an international language which, unlike a spoken language can be understood by all peoples’.

Chiang Yee’s black and white sketches and his watercolour paintings of Edinburgh illustrate the larger tourist sites and beauty spots; also, odd corners and small incidents that he recalls. I look forward to being able to take it with me on a walk around the city and compare his views of the city with present day Edinburgh. And I definitely plan to track down a couple more volumes in this series, particularly his Dublin book. Chiang Yee also wrote several other books including children’s books and works on calligraphy and art. A biography came out in 2010, written by Da Zheng: The Silent Traveller from the East-A Cultural Biography (Rutgers University Press). I was delighted to discover that Chiang Yee has had the honour of a Blue Plaque on his former home in Oxford, where he lived from 1940-55. Something to look out for on a future visit.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has come across The Silent Traveller series, if so do drop me a line.

Recipes: from an Old Farmhouse by Alison Uttley

Cover of Recipes from an Old Farmhouse

An evocative image

I wanted to follow up on the last Landing post on foraging-related books with another foody feature. This book is part memoir of a Derbyshire country childhood and part recipe book by children’s writer Alison Uttley (1884-1976), who was best known for her Little Grey Rabbit series and also the Sam Pig books. The recipe book was first published by Faber and Faber in 1966 and I recently treated myself to the copy shown here, which is in very nice condition. Something to cheer me up during the spring Lockdown! It is a beautiful little hard back book decorated with black and white sketches by Pauline Baynes. The drawings complement the text beautifully. Recipes has been reprinted more recently, but I opted for a copy of the original edition and wasn’t disappointed.

Alison Uttley gives us recipes that her mother used in the farmhouse kitchen, including recipes given by friends and neighbours. These were named for the donor, for example ‘Mrs Lowe’s Parkin’. The book is divided into sections with anecdotes, reminiscences and recipes. If you wanted to try out any of the items, you would need to scale down and adapt the recipes as Uttley gives the quantities and methods as they would have been used by her mother at the end of the nineteenth century in the farmhouse oven. So, you would need to figure out the oven settings and alter the timings accordingly. The recipes aren’t laid out as recipes as we would find them in a cookery book nowadays, but they are easy enough to follow. I’m planning to try one or two of the cakes or puddings in smaller quantities.

I have found overlaps with my foraging post as in a few of the recipes given, Alison Uttley talks about foraged ingredients gathered by the family. I was particularly taken with her account of the annual cowslip gathering expedition with her mother. They took a clothes basket out with them to fill with blossoms. She describes it beautifully here,

Black and white illustration of the author's mother and the maid picking cowslips, with the children in the background

Picking cowslips

One morning in April my mother would announce that we would pick cowslips for cowslip wine. We would set off after breakfast, the servant girl, my brother, my mother and I, with a clothes-basket, and several smaller baskets. It was exciting to run down the first big field, deep down to the gate that led to the cowslip field. By the gate we left the clothes-basket, and we each took another basket and began to gather the flowers.

It sounds idyllic but it was also hard work for all of them, Uttley describing herself as ‘dazed with stooping to the ground’ after a few hours of picking. It sounds as though the children were allowed to go off and play though, while her mother and the maid carried on for the whole day. But of course, the work didn’t stop there. What Uttley refers to as ‘peeping’ was the next task: removing the flowers from the stalks and calyces. That task must have been mind-numbingly tedious as well as an instigator of repetitive strain syndrome. I find it bad enough picking stalks off fruit for a modest sized batch of jam, so I’m not sure how I would have coped with that mammoth preparation session.

Black and white title page illustration for the chapter on beverages, showing entwined branches with culinary equipment hanging off them.

Chapter title page

I’d actually love to be able to try making a small batch of cowslip wine, but cowslips are quite rare now in Britain and also in Ireland according to Zoe Devlin’s website, However, she does go on to point out that the plant has made a comeback in Ireland in recent years, so perhaps it will continue to spread.  In his foraging guide Food for Free, Richard Mabey suggests that the huge quantities of petals used in making ‘one of the very best country wines’ has probably contributed to the flower’s scarcity in Britain. He comments on the ‘devastation that some of these recipes must have wreaked on flower populations’. Thankfully now, you can buy cowslip seeds as well as other wildflower seeds to grow in your own garden and even up the balance a little. I somehow doubt that I will be able to grow enough flowers to make wine, though cowslip growing is to be one of my projects for next year (I have the seeds ready!) As far as beverages are concerned, I think I will have to stick to making elderflower cordial, the only problem there being that the best blooms always grow too high to reach!

I hope to return to the book for another Landing post, when I have had a go at some of the recipes. Meanwhile, I will decide where to go for August’s Landing Tales post when I have scoured the book shelves again!

Are there any Alison Uttley fans out there? Does anyone remember her Traveller in Time, televised by the BBC in 1978? I loved the series then, but wonder how it would stand up now.

(Pauline Baynes illustrations scanned from my copy of Recipes)