Springtime for Miss Read (and Mrs Griffin)

Cover of Mrs Griffin Sends her Love

A Country collection…

This latest post is going to be a spring-themed blog post, to continue the recent seasonal bent on The Landing’s sister blog, Curiously Creatively. It is also another of those literary digressions where I sideline my TBR Pile in favour of a library discovery (or in this case a re-discovery of sorts). For anyone who came across the Miss Read (real name, Dora Saint) ‘Thrush Green’ or ‘Fairacre’ books many years ago, to discover a relatively new publication is a great find. As is my wont, I was browsing in the local library despite the presence of plenty of unread volumes on my shelves. Having spotted Mrs Griffin Sends her Love in my favourite section for serendipitous discoveries (AKA the ‘Just Returned’ shelf), I threw caution and the TBR pile to the winds. I may have also picked up a couple more books in addition, but let us not go into that little matter now.

Mrs Griffin Sends her Love is a collection of short pieces and articles compiled by Dora Saint’s daughter Jill and her former editor Jenny Dereham, to mark what would have been Mrs Saint’s 100th birthday in 2013. Some of the pieces were originally published elsewhere, some only discovered after Dora Saint’s death. They are a mixture of essays, humorous articles and extracts from longer works. The anthology includes articles on education (originally for the Times Educational Supplement), as well as pieces taken from Tales from a Village School and Time Remembered. Included also is part of a projected book on ‘The Village Year’ only discovered after Dora Saint’s death and some diary extracts from 1963, begun while Dora and her husband were housebound due to the heavy snow that winter. Just for the record, it has to be said that Mrs Griffin does not get a very big part, given that she provides the collection’s title

My favourite pieces are the ones about village school life: particularly the extracts from Time Remembered and a set of articles gathered under the heading ‘The Joys and Perils of Teaching’. As you might imagine it is the telling of the perils that is the most entertaining to read. In one article entitled ‘Scriptural Matters’ one youngster observes ‘Why didn’t God make us knowing everything? It would have saved a lot of trouble’. Saint describes her own early years as a pupil at a village school after her family moved from London to the Kent countryside. She reminds us how boring school life could be, and how the smallest things could be a fascinating distraction to pupils: ‘Small pieces of pink blotting paper, torn from the precious three-by-four allowed, were surprisingly nice to eat, and occasionally an obliging fly would settle on the arid desk top and create a diversion’.

Dora Saint had a real love of the natural beauties surrounding her on her walk to school as a youngster new to the countryside. The descriptions of the flowers and fauna are a joy to read and it is clear that Saint loved the country sights from a very young age. She recalls her very first experience of arriving in Kent, ’I discovered dog violets and harebells in the North Downs countryside, as well as old friends like buttercups and daisies’. However, Saint was not enamoured of all aspects of country life. She disliked seeing, ‘poor dead rooks hanging upside down from sticks among the crops, their black satin wings opening and shutting macabrely in the wind.’ I can’t say that I blame her, it must have been an unnerving sight for a young child.

Cover of The Year at Thrush Green

Two more Miss Read books …

Having picked up this library book inspired me to have a root around on The Landing shelves and see what Miss Read books I could come up with to re-read. Miss Read is one of the authors that I discovered many years ago, courtesy of my mum’s reading tastes and I borrowed several from our local library as a teenager. We have a couple of Miss Read titles here on The Landing, so I have just been dipping into The Year at Thrush Green, looking at the seasonal changes that she describes. Taking the February entry, here is her observation of signs that spring is beginning in Thrush Green,

Soon yellow primroses would star the woods, and the daffodils would blow their trumpets in the gardens of Thrush Green. Yellow, gold and green, spring’s particular colours, would bring hope again after the bleak black and white of winter.

Miss Read also has an eye to the spring garden, as she describes the vicar wandering in his garden one bright March morning, seeking respite from a particularly trying parishioner. Blackbirds and thrushes are busy looking for food, while daffodils and narcissi promise better things to come and ‘polyanthus plants turned their velvety faces to the morning sunshine, bright yellow, orange, red and a deep mauvish-blue’. Add an almond tree scattering blossom and you have a very inviting seasonal snapshot.

Her evocation of the colours and imagery of spring scenery is delightful. By the merry month of May, ‘the roses were showing plump buds’, wisteria ‘drooped massive tassels against the Cotswold stone’ and along the lanes was ‘cow parsley frothing each side as far as the eye could see’. I particularly like the wisteria analogy as it is one of my favourite climbing plants and there are some lovely examples to enjoy around my part of Dublin.

I think that I will now head into June (in a literary sense if not in reality) and see what is growing in the hedgerows and gardens. I might even catch up with a few Thrush Green inhabitants at the same time. There sure to be a bit of gossip circulating…

Drop a line in the comment box if you are a Miss Read fan!

JB Priestley: A Yorkshire Grumbler’s Delights

JB Priestley

1894-1984

After my break from reading essays to tackle Vanity Fair (inspired by the John Sutherland essay collection), I am now reading yet another essay collection, having been inspired to do so by reading a novel. A nice bit of circular inspiration I feel. To make all clear, I recently read JB Priestley’s Angel Pavement that I bought second-hand in Blessington, which reminded me that I had his essay collection Delight tucked away on our shelves, unread since 2009. After finishing Angel Pavement, I had an urge to re-read something of Priestley’s (English Journey perhaps) but then remembered I had the essays. As always, it’s amazing how often serendipity comes into play when deciding what to read next. At least, by reading Delight, I am actually reducing the TBR Pile (which of course, I had previously increased by buying Angel Pavement etc). At this rate, there will always be a humongous TBR Pile (but then you knew that already, didn’t you?)

To return to the book in question however, Delight is a collection of short essays, originally published in 1949 by Heinemann. The edition I have is an attractive sixtieth anniversary edition, published by Great Northern Books with an introduction by Priestley’s son Tom. There are 114 short pieces, varying from three to just one page in length. The background to the essays is that Priestley wanted to write something to help to cheer up the post-war gloom. He also had something to prove to his family and friends about the perception that he never found pleasure in anything. JB Priestley’s preface is subtitled ‘The Grumbler’s Apology’ and he goes on to explain how he acquired a reputation for being a bit of grumbler.

I have always been a grumbler. All the records, going back to earliest childhood, establish this fact. Probably I arrived here a malcontent, convinced that I had been sent to the wrong planet. (And I feel even now that there is something in this.) I was designed for the part, for I have a sagging face, a weighty underlip, What am I told is ‘a saurian eye’, and a rumbling but resonant voice from which it is difficult to escape. Money could not buy a better grumbling outfit.

In the West Riding of Yorkshire, where I spent my first nineteen years, all local customs and prejudices favour the grumbler. To a good West Riding type there is something shameful about praise, that soft Southern trick. But fault-finding and blame are constant and hearty. The edge of criticism up there is sharpened every morning…I have grumbled all over the world, across seas, on mountains, in deserts. I have grumbled as much at home as abroad, and so I have been the despair of my womenfolk.

As I don’t hail from Yorkshire, but the Midlands I was intrigued by this portrayal of the Yorkshire attitude. I have always viewed Yorkshire folks as a no-nonsense breed and the idea that they were sparing of praise makes sense to me. But any Yorkshire people out there are welcome to put me straight. Since I’m not of ‘soft Southern’ breeding either, I will keep out of the argument. The only thing I will add is that I do feel that having a good old grumble can be quite therapeutic in its effect. Oh, and furthermore, that I tend not to go overboard on praise either (‘not too bad’ is high praise in my book); but whether that is a Midlander’s trait or not I cannot say with any certainty. I can say that I enjoyed roving through Priestley’s many and varied delightful experiences.Delight

In Delight then, Priestley set out to prove that despite being a right old Yorkshire grumbler, he was still able to find pleasure in many things. Not only that, his aim was to share his ‘Box of Delights’ with the post-war readers who wanted something to smile about. The collection of short essays mainly focuses on the small, simple things in life that give us delight. A Guardian review of the reprint points out that some of the ‘delights’ would most likely be lost on a modern audience, but that many would still resonate. I’m not sure I agree with that, after all I have never been a pipe smoker but I can appreciate Priestley’s fondness for choosing just the right tobacco mixture.

Part of the pleasure in reading in these pieces comes from a sense of recognising and sharing the emotion caused by the sight of fountains, waiting for the curtain to go up or buying books. I can also understand and share Priestley’s delight in the pleasure of unearned income, whether it is a small windfall or his profit from selling review copies to a local bookshop. The rest of the pleasure comes from Priestley’s writing style, which is clear and simple but not ‘dumbed-down’. His voice has humour lurking just behind it as he talks about the comparatively ordinary delights of life. This humour may however, harbour a spike should the occasion demand it, such as in recalling a critic who told Priestley that his writing ‘always seems to me too simple’. Priestley referred to this man as a ‘youngish fellow whose personality (though not his values) I respect’. He went to say that to the critic and his ilk, ‘Writing that was hard to understand was like a password to their secret society’.

Priestley genuinely wanted to be able to reach anyone and everyone with his ideas and clearly felt that writing in a clear style that excluded nobody, was the way to do it. He wrote, ‘Some contemporary critics would be better occupied solving chess problems and breaking down ciphers. They are no customers of mine, and I do not display my goods to catch their eye’. Well, you can’t say fairer than that, I suppose that’s the Yorkshire sharpness coming out. Priestley seems to have written for real readers and not fashionable literary critics who thought that you couldn’t be an intellectual without making things complicated. He sounds like my kind of man (and writer) despite the grumbling…

 

Additional picture credits: Wikipedia, with thanks