Saturday, 26 July 2008

Only on Sundays by Katharine Whitehorn

A collection of Whitehorn's columns from the Observer, put together in the late sixties. I picked this up from the Sunday market at Brighton railway station, having recently read her memoirs Selective Memory. This has been an entertaining bedtime read; Whitehorn is witty, with a good hand for a literary pun, and a compassionate and tolerant observer of others. What struck me is that lots of these columns could be published now and still tap into current anxieties; about parenting, about gender roles or about social interaction. Either Whitehorn was able to identify enduring, persistent areas for debate, or we have moved on remarkably little in forty years.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

A World to Build by David Kynaston

A fascinating history of 1945-48, drawing on published accounts, diaries and letters, and the Mass Observation archive. The use of unpublished material gives the text a fresh, vivid appeal and conveys very effectively the miseries of living during this period. The writing is peppered with Kynaston's own wry humour and some very good jokes: my favourite was the story of the Minister for Housing, a Mr Silkin, getting barracked by the people of Stevenage at a meeting intended to convince them that the new town development was a good thing, and finding, when he came to take his leave, that the local youth had let down his tyres. The book is intensely evocative of the tiredness everyone suffered, having struggled through the war; the cold and the squalor; but also the strengths of the dreams of social improvement and the sense of opportunity amongst those with the energy and power to undertake that improvement. I can hardly wait for the next volume.

Dorset Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner

A collection of STW short stories set in Chaldon and Maiden Newton. The Chaldon stories consider the cruelties of rural life in the 1930s, especially for the poor and the sick; the lonely death of Mr Kidd stands out among these. The Maiden Newton stories are centred around World War II's domestic front; the work of the WVS is mocked and celebrated. Two stories emphasise the rarity and value of domestic servants during this time; in Tabbish, a family treasure gains the upper hand of her mistress who relies on her not only for care and housekeeping, but uses the clothing coupons Tabbish never spends to curry social favour. The stories often expose the twists of power in apparently imbalanced relationships, the minor rebellions which perhaps make a general opression easier to bear. The pleasure of this book was rather marred by several printing errors, including one which changed a Miss to a Mrs halfway through a story, and had me leafing back to try and work out who she was.

Girl meets boy by Ali Smith

The reviews quoted on the paperback of this retelling of the Iphis myth stress its enjoyability, and indeed I did find this deeply enjoyable. Smith's prose seems ideally suited to this shorter form; its archness does not pall here as I found it did in The Accident. The alternating interior monologues that tell the story are well-sustained and support the definition of the characters of the two sisters. The story of Imogen's transformation from corporate drone to rebel, running alongside Anthea's metamorphosis through love, is moving, although I wondered if she had changed her mind rather quickly about her sister's lesbianism. The blossoming of surpressed selves gives the novel its joyful quality, supported by the breathless use of language, the long sentences piling experience on experience with only a comma to divide them.

Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light

In her introduction, Alison Light makes plain that an overarching History of Domestic Service would be impossible to achieve, as service was such a pervasive form of work and servants' lives were so little documented. This book focuses on domestic service between the wars, when the status of women, the types of work they could access, and relations between the classes all underwent significant change. In particular, Light has made use of Virginia Woolf's writings about her own domestic servants, and traced their history outside of those writings; this gives them solidity and status, and relieves of them the role of irritants in Woolf's life. Woolf's own efforts to understand her feelings about her servants, and the master-servant relationship, are acknowledged and explored; she is not simply the oppressive mistress of the house. The rescue of Sophia Farrell and Nelly Boxall for posterity, the exploration of the reliance of modernist cultural experiementation on conservative ways of life, and the subtle exploration of the nature of service, from both perspectives, makes this a deeply satisfying and provocative book.