Monthly Archives: July 2018

The Recent Past by James Ravilious

Sometimes you just have to own a particular book. No matter that it is a hardback, large and heavy. No matter that it costs more than four paperbacks. No matter. I had book-longing.

In my case it was The Recent Past by James Ravilious, not exactly a catchy title – it could mean anything. But in fact it is a book of photographs of the recent past in rural North Devon. James Ravilious was a photographer whose commission was to document the North Devon area for the Beaford Arts Centre (today Beaford Arts). He began in 1972 and continued for 17 years to photograph the rural neighbourhood where he lived.

The photographer

James was born in 1939, son of the artists Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood. Both parents died during his childhood, and he was originally heading for a career in accountancy. He switched to art and a visit to an exhibition of the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson helped him decide to become a photographer. He married Robin and they moved to the North Devon area and set up home there.

North Devon Archive

Soon after their arrival John Lane, director of the Beaford Arts Centre, employed James Ravilious to create a photographic archive of the local rural area. Change in rural areas was inevitable and happening fast in other parts of Britain, but the North Devon area was somewhat cut off from the changes of the 60s and 70s and slow to alter its ways. John Lane saw the changes coming and wanted to set up a photographic record to capture life in the area as it was then, and ‘to show the people of North Devon to themselves’.

And so, armed with his Leica M3, his sandwiches, light meter, spare rolls of black and white film and his lenses, James Ravilious would set out each day to find what he could photograph. He took pictures of everything: everyday life, special occasions, his neighbours, the farmers and other workers, the farms themselves, the animals, the landscapes, the schools, everything. And in the evening he would work in his darkroom on the day’s haul.

The Legacy

James Ravilious died in 1999. His work is preserved, much of it online, in the archives of Beaford Arts. 1700 images have been preserved and many can be purchased. People who view his work, all in black and white, respond immediately to the affection and directness of the photographs.

The Book: The Recent Past

The Recent Past by James Ravilious, published in 2017 by Wilmington Square Books.

There are 75 images in this large format book. It is beautifully produced and smells as good art books should. The photographs are all given James Ravilious’s titles, locations and dates and notes have been added by Robin Ravilious which add to the pleasure of the viewing.

See also:

James Ravilious – a life by Robin Ravilious published in 2017 by Wilmington Square Books

Long Live Great Bradfield by Tirzah Garwood, her autobiography, published by Persephone Books.

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Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. (21).

So begins Rachel Carson’s influential book, Silent Spring. But something happens to this idyll and one spring the town wakes up to silence.

It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh. …

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves. (22)

In 1962, with this dire warning, Rachel Carson launched into her attack on the unbridled use of chemical pesticides. We have reached the 1960s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury.

Summary of Silent Spring

It took me a long time to read this book. At times I wondered that life on earth exists at all considering the scenario being built up by Rachel Carson about the use of chemical pesticides. She marshals her evidence. She had to in order to convince people for whom much of this was new. Science was expected to solve all problems, not create them.

Her argument is that nature is interconnected, that insects are part of a complex natural relationship affecting birds, soil, trees, and ultimately humans. Her fear was that we would alter natural life, including the birds, making for a silent spring.

She also reveals how unreliable the pesticides are, how often their use means that the pests return in force, and that scientists are disingenuous for not researching the unintended consequences of the uses of pesticides that they develop. She also blamed the big chemical companies. In her sights were DDT, but other chemicals as well.

The Impact of Silent Spring

This book is often credited with initiating environmental awareness.  Certainly she wrote persuasively about the interrelation of all living things on this earth. The chapter on soil, for example is lyrical in its appreciation of the soil and its inhabitants, especially the humble earthworm.

The soil exists in a state of constant change, taking part in cycles that have no beginning and no end. New materials are constantly being contributed as rocks disintegrate, as organic matter decays, and as nitrogen and other gases are brought down from the skies. At the same time other materials are being taken away, borrowed for temporary use by living creatures. Subtle and vastly important chemical changes are constantly in progress, converting elements derived from air and water into forms suitable for use by plants. In all these changes living organisms are active agents. (62)

The idea of Gaia was not popularised until James Locklock used it in 1979. But the concept is evident in Rachel Carson’s work: a dynamic system involving organic and inorganic material that shapes the whole biosphere.

In 1957 the US Department of Agriculture launched an attack on fire ants across 20 million acres in nine southern states. Like many such programmes there were terrible consequences and the fire ant was not even a major pest.

Never has any pesticide programme been so thoroughly and deservedly damned by practically everyone except the beneficiaries of this ‘sales bonanza’. It is an outstanding example of an ill-conceived, badly executed, and thoroughly detrimental experiment in the mass control of insects, an experiment so expensive in dollars, in destruction of animal life, and in loss of public confidence in the Agriculture Department that it is incomprehensible that any funds should still be devoted to it. (148)

The description of this and many, many other pesticide attacks mount throughout the book. At the time, her evidence undermined the confidence in science and scientists as neutral and beneficial; in the Department of Agriculture who ran these chemical programmes; and the companies that manufactured and sold the pesticides.

Rachel Carson focused on chemical pesticides, noting that not only were they dangerous, but they were ineffective as they destroyed the balance in nature. She advocated more research into biological forms of pest control. Today she would no doubt include the manufacture of plastics and a broader picture of the damage we are doing including contributing to climate change.

It is not surprising that her work was attacked, especially by the chemical companies. This is a story familiar from battles against smoking and sugar consumption. And as I read her book I came across an article in the Guardian (10thJuly): Monsanto ‘bullied scientists’ and hid weedkiller risk, lawyer tells court. The weedkiller is Roundup.

She was denigrated for being a woman without children (what did she care for genetics?), not a formally qualified scientist (she gave up her doctoral studies to work to support her family) and for writing for the general reader. She was attacked for saying truth to power. She died of cancer in 1964.

And then …?

Joni Mitchell in Concert 1974 by Paul C Babin via Wikicommons

Things began to change. President Kennedy and others were impressed, and the US began enacting the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), The Natural Environment Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act (1972) and to set up the Environment Protection Agency in 1970. In 1970 Joni Mitchell composed Big Yellow Taxi, which also referenced the blight of pesticides.

Hey farmer farmer –

Put away the DDT

I don’t care about spots on my apples

Leave me the birds and the bees


Environmental campaigning continues. Chemical companies also continue to seek profits.

Here’s a link to Brain Picking’s Maria Popova’s appreciation of her life and work, especially her moving letters to her long-term friend Dorothy Freeman: The writing of ‘Silent Spring’.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carsonwas published in 1962. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition. 323pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Testament of Youthby Vera Brittain (1933)

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank (1947)

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen (1950s)

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Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading by Lucy Mangan

What is this strange pleasure of reading about people’s reading habits? It’s as good as talking with people about books and reading, and yet it has its own pleasures. In writing about her childhood reading obsession, Lucy Mangan has captured much of what I felt as a child as I escaped again and again into books. She has also given me some new books to read and so provided some new pleasures in anticipation.


Lucy Mangan describes the pleasures of discovering books and being read to, and takes us all the way through her reading historyto her late teenage years. She focuses on book for children, but I am sure she would be as interesting on the subject of adult reading. I hope she will write more.

From the very first, reading was her chief pleasure, shared with her father and indulged in in the public and school libraries of her childhood. Brought up in Catford in the 1980s, she read all the books I read plus those that my daughter read.

She too had an Enid Blyton binge and loved Noel Streatfield and noticed the large output of the Pulleins. My own Enid Blyton binge lasted about two months. I had been sent away to boarding school when I discovered a huge collection of her stories on the shelves of Judy Lovell who had not yet joined us after the holidays because she was ill. Her absence allowed me to wallow. We had a theory about how these books were churned out, and it turns out we were not far off the idea of the Sweet Valley High production line.

She [Francine Pascal] is named as author of the first two of what would become a 143-strong core series plus innumerable spin-offs. The rest were entirely produced by a host of freelance ghostwriters.  … They used a bible (notes on themes, character, settings, and so on, compiled by Pascal) to ensure consistency, and worked to outlines she provided. They were a band of typing postgrad monkeys stretching from sea to shining sea, producing for a fixed fee 140 pages every six to eight weeks. (284)

We believed that that was exactly how Enid Blyton produced so many repetitive books, only I think we believed her writers were elves.

She found some books that I have not read: for example The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – and spurred on by her I believe it should be read. It was only published in 1961 and I might have thought I was too old for it.

Other delights she refers to I only discovered in my 30s. I came across MacDonalds, Charlotte’s Web and The BFG. My pleasure in finding the chips and the milkshakes has not endured, but my delight in EB White’s classic spider/pig story and all of Roald Dahl has lasted well. Not only did I share it with my daughter but Roald Dahl’s books are a favourite with my grandchildren.

In her assessment of her reading material and habits she explores the importance of reading to children, to develop a sense of change, otherness and other worlds. And, of course, the importance of libraries to support these.

Once a bookworm …

There is so much pleasure to revisit here and with such an accomplished and amusing writer. I’ve wanted to read this since I first saw it announced.

It has reminded me how I want to reread books, many from my childhood. And to reclaim others, such as At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, a book that frightened and enthralled me at the same time. The illustrations (I think they were by Arthur Rackham) terrified me. It was a gift from my grandfather and I treasured it through the first months of my life at boarding school.

And, unlike Lucy Mangan, I loved historical fiction, especially Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece before moving on to Georgette Heyer. Like her, I read every moment I could, especially with a torch under the bedclothes at night, or in the toilet. It was there that I consumed most of Oliver Twist and even today can never contemplate Dickens without thinking of the cold floor and the ridge on my cold bottom.

Perhaps I’ll institute a new series on Bookword: rereading childhood favourites. What do you think? And what would you recommend?

Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading by Lucy Mangan. Published in 2018 as a hardback by Square Peg 322pp

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Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf

What I like about reading fiction in translation is that everything is questioned; everything familiar about fiction written in English is made unfamiliar. I find that exciting and unsettling and I finish these monthly forays into Women in Translation always a little chastened, wondering at the stretching of my ideas about fiction, life and the world.

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf is my choice for July in this series. Among many things, she makes me ask myself, what is fiction? For here one finds diaries (fictional or not?), reports, photographs, line drawings, diagrams, memoir and reflections, particularly on the subject of the polar explorers and on ice. It was published in Barcelona in 2015 as Germa de gel and was translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

A Summary

First it was the tabular icebergs, which appeared floating in the local pool. Narwhals got in through a crack in the tiles at the bottom. In the chlorinated water, I squeezed a bit of white ice in my hand, making a game of sinking it and letting it resurface. A dream. Later, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I saw icecaps in the blue tutus on Degas’s ballerinas. (15)

I found this to be a strange novel, difficult to get into. I have quoted the opening paragraph. It does not obey many of the rules for hooking the reader. In fact, it is quite obscure. But the reader is soon offered so much information, so many ideas, (I love the ballerina tutu image), so that many of us have stuck with it. The themes of ice and polar exploration soon emerge.

Part of the novel is the story of the writer’s struggles as an artist, in Barcelona, with galleries, her work and so forth. Some of it is about her youth, and especially growing up with an autistic brother. Alicia tells us about her family, how her father left, her mother became fixed on her work at school and care for her son, who cannot do the simplest thing without being instructed. Her writing, about the her (?fictional) past, is down to earth, authentic.

The Alicia of the novel makes her way gradually as an artist, often poor, often doing awful jobs, sometimes in a relationship sometimes not. Life is hard and she questions all the time why she is writing this.

She also offers us riffs on her many experiences, on ideas that emerge. For example she produced a taxonomy of gifts (poisoned gift, regift, betrayal gift, apology gift, crap gift etc), and makes observations about the necessity to read the language of nature to learn more about the natural world.

And there is a great deal about the compulsion of the polar regions for the explorers who wanted to be first to the poles, about the trials of their expeditions.

What I liked

I enjoyed the accumulation of all this. And I was captivated by the central idea of the impermanence and unfixed-ness of things – of ice, the poles, life, love, the family, one’s ideas and achievements. I also like the idea that the writer and the reader is something like those polar explorers.

I especially enjoyed the final section of the novel, set in Iceland. The airline looses her luggage, she goes to visit the waterfalls and the valley of the first Icelandic parliament on excursions. I recognised the country I have visited. Of the Gullfoss (Golden Falls) she writes:

Its energy and ferocity combined with the purifying power of the water exert a magnetic pull on me that I can’t quite rationalize. (221)

The novel won the English Pen Award and came to me through the Asymptote club. My name appears in the list at the back, because I supported the publisher.

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf, published by And Other Stories in 2015. 256pp

Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated from the French by ModupéBodé-Thomas

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

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Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Dear Reni Eddo-Lodge

Please do not stop talking about race. Please do not stop talking about race to me (a white person). And please do not stop talking about race to anyone. I can see your arguments, and understand why you may need a break every now and again, but please do not stop talking about race. We need to talk.

Best wishes Caroline

The Argument

The argument of the book is that white people on the whole do not accept that racism is structural; that to be a person of colour means you are cumulatively disadvantaged; that by default people are assumed to be white unless indicated otherwise. To be black is to be different. Moreover, racism and discrimination are seen as belonging to a fringe group, or to those rather nasty people who aren’t a bit like us.

And because this is the reaction, it’s hard to go on beating your head against that proverbial brick wall, repeating the arguments, noting the small victories but seeing very little change in the big picture.

It began as a blog. Feeling oppressed and tired with it all Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote her blog called Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race in February 2014.

So I can’t talk to white people about race any more because of the consequent denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others? (xi)

It proved to be provocative, after all white people do not like being excluded (any more than black people do) and not addressed by stroppy bloggers. And to allow that a system benefits one group at a cost to others implies the necessity both for action and for a possible loss of privilege.

What other people have said

It’s only a small minority of people who are racist. The fringe groups such as the BNP, Combat 18, National Action are just that – on the fringe, some proscribed.

I’m not part of the problem. I’m not a racist. I’m colour-blind.

Many black people are very successful in British society and life. If one can be successful all can be successful.

Structural disadvantage is a myth. Remember Mrs Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’? In 1985 Oliver Letwin, one of her advisers and now a Tory MP, said much the same: ‘Riots, criminality and social disintegration are caused solely by individual characters and attitudes.’ (53). Which is a way of saying that bad people cause problems not poor social conditions.

My reactions

I did not find the argument about structural disadvantages by Reni Eddo-Lodge new. In part, this is because so much of my adult life has been conscious of the structural disadvantages endured by women. And because I have worked in inner-city education for most of my professional life.

Even so I accept that being a white feminist puts me at an advantage over black women/feminists.

And Reni Eddo-Lodge is right to be critical of those who do not act. Above all action should be taken by you and me, our institutions, organisations and our mouths should be forever open.

I got into political commentary because I wanted to change the consensus, to widen the narrow confines of political ideas that were deemed acceptable. But over the years I have realised the futility of this job. Attempting to challenge the racism deemed acceptable in political discussion istacitly tolerated, but making white people feel uncomfortable is impermissible. (220)

And there will be pushback when action is taken. The book was published before the recent Penguin Books incident. Lionel Shriver made some doubtful comments about Penguin’s actions to improve diversity in their publishing. It caused a furore. But it’s a classic. There were suggestions, by Toby Litt for example, that it was a bit much to dilute quality to satisfy some perceived need to diversify. Did someone say political correctness gone mad? The dilution argument ignores the possibility that current practice excludes many excellent black people from the publishing (and other worlds and other achievements). And that this exclusion operates at many levels. Penguin are choosing to act at their level.

I repeat, according to Gunter Grass, it is the job of citizens to keep their mouth open. That includes you Reni Eddo-Lodge. Write on.

This book, Why I’m no longer taking to white people about race is a prizewinner.




Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, published by Bloomsbury in 2017. I used the updated edition, which includes a chapter on the election of Trump and the EU referendum. 261pp

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As good as a book in Bayeux

I first saw the Bayeux Tapestry 50 years ago. I vividly remember looking at it, but nothing about getting there or who else was present. On this trip people like to tell me about it. It was in the Bishop’s palace then, I am told more than onceThank you, I know. I remember the room, walking slowly around the walls on which the famous tapestry was displayed. It’s much smaller than you think. Thank you, yes, I’ve seen it before. Why do they still say that Harold was killed by an arrow in his eye? That was disproved a long time ago. I did know this had been challenged, but it is a compelling image. History is written by the victors, you know. Yes I know.

A visit to Bayeux

So what am I doing writing about the Bayeux Tapestry on a book blog? I’ll make the case that the tapestry is as good as a book. It tells a good story and there are good stories to be told about it too. In June I spent a few days in Normandy in northern France and the highlight of the trip was the visit to Bayeux.

The story of the Bayeux Tapestry (1)

The story told by the tapestry is an historical account of the conquest of Anglo-Saxon England by William of Normandy. The cast of characters are strong: holy King Edward, Duke Harold who fought two major battles in a matter of months and Duke William the Bastard. The story is told that King Edward, being without a son, decides to recommend that William of Normandy will succeed him. Harold, an English duke, sails to France to tell William, but is captured and rescued by the William. Harold swears to support William on Edward’s death, but breaks his promise soon after. William creates a navy and sails across the Channel with his army and defeats Harold in the Battle of Hastings.

The story of the Bayeux Tapestry (2)

Who made the tapestry and why? The conventional story is that Odo, bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William, made it to celebrate the conquest in which he had taken part. It is thought that it was made in Canterbury, probably in the last years of the 11thcentury. The first authenticated reference is not until the 15thcentury, when it was reported that it was displayed annually in July in the Cathedral at Bayeux. The tapestery survived fire at the cathedral, pillaging in the 100 years war, and an attack on the cathedral by the Huguenots in 1562. Napoleon sent it to his museum, later the Louvre. It returned to Bayeux in 1804 where it remained until 1941 when it taken to safety in the Louvre again. It is said that the Germans planned to transfer it to Berlin – perhaps because it was a good example of defeating the English – and were on the point of doing this immediately after the D Day landings in 1945. The plan was detected by the decoders at Bletchley, the Resistance were warned and sent armed men to guard it. It was returned to Bayeux in 1945, and is now housed in a former seminary, converted into a tourist centre for those who want to view it today. There is a copy on display in Reading Museum, made by Victorian embroiderers. President Macron has agreed to lend it to the British Museum, probably in 2022 when the Bayeux museum will be refurbished.

The Bayeux Tapestry

It is not a tapestry at all – tapestries are created on frames. This would be better described as an embroidery – the designed made by stitching in wool on canvas.

The story is told in one long bande desinee, 68.5 metres long; the central panel that tells the story is about 33cms high and has been numbered to 58, probably in the 18thcentury. The central panel is decorated top and bottom with friezes of about 7 or 8 cms. It has been damaged and repaired over the years.

Some details of the Bayeux Tapestry

As we say, history is written by the victors. Women did not feature. There are only 4 women on the tapestry, three of them in the main panel.

  1. One woman is being abused or chastised physically. It is not clear what is happening in this episode, nor even who Aelfgifu was or why she was being cuffed by the cleric. Or what the man below her is doing.
  2. When Edward died, it was recorded elsewhere that Queen Edith was present, and an unnamed woman is depicted kneeling and weeping in the tapestry (see above).
  3. Later we see a woman leading a small boy as they escape a manor set alight by William’s men.

  1. There is a tiny naked woman with a tiny naked man on the lower frieze below the meeting of Harold and William in France (panel 13). According to my book, it is ‘an erotic scene, the significance of which is a mystery here’.

My favourite detail, among the many beautiful and historically useful illustrations, are the bare legs of the men as they wade in the sea, load horses, build ships, launching, land and so forth. At other times leggings are worn.

There are theses to be written about the illustrations in the friezes. We do not know the significance of the animals, some mythical, birds, snakes, naked men, artisans, farmers, centaurs, amputated limbs, archers, weapons, shields and so forth. The layer under the battle is particularly violent, while the upper row depicts bird after bird interspersed with indeterminate beasts, some of which seem to be shouting at the warriors.

So when I say it’s as good as a book, I mean there is a strong plot, lots of detail, some characterisation of the main players and plenty to argue about. The details of the telling test my O level Latin: most people can understand ET HIC DEFUNCTUS EST. The words are less important than the pictures. Everyone has seen the pictures.

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Missing by Alison Moore

Missing. We use the word missing to mean both a feeling – I am missing you – and a state – My keys are always going missing.They are connected, of course. In Alison Moore’s new novel both uses are in evidence. Jessie has mislaid just about everything, and everyone, and she misses them: earrings, wedding ring, and other everyday objects, but also people. She has no close friends and has lost two husbands, a son and a niece.

A summary of (some of) the plot

Jessie works as a freelance translator, based at home just north of the border in Hawick. At the start of the novel Jessie (45) attends a conference for translators in London. She makes no meaningful connection with the other participants, or the content of the workshops, and one feels that there is more to this than her ears being blocked. Soon she is making the long trek home where the dog and cat wait for her.

In the house where she has been living for 13 years she picks up the rather desultory life she has been living. The dog, named The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, has been left with Jessie by her second husband on his departure the year before. He has disappeared after leaving a message in the steam on the bathroom mirror in the condensation. There are unexplained noises in the house, the door of the spare room keeps opening, neither the dog nor the cat will enter, a window cracks. She wonders if she has a ghost. And she receives brief unsigned postcards announcing that someone is on their way back to her.

She meets Robert, who is described as an outreach worker. This seems an appropriate partner for someone as distant from the world as Jessie, but, as their relationship develops, he is revealed to be as detached as she is. He too disappears.

In flashback, and in Jessie’s mind too, she constantly revisits the events and the place where the worst disappearance of all took place.

My reactions to Missing

Alison Moore is excellent at creating a rather disturbing atmosphere. Things aren’t quite right. People aren’t who they seem to be. Jessie finds it hard to engage strongly with the world. Here is the opening paragraph that sets everything slightly askew.

Jessie cut her old wedding dress down to size, hemmed it just below the knee, and dyed it blue. It made a serviceable frock. (1)

As we follow Jessie through the next few days we read a number of details of her life; where Will left her the message; how she began using her own name again; her relationship with her sister and brother-in-law; where the animals sleep and so on.

What we do not get until the final few pages are any definitive explanation, clues, or unravelling of what is happening now and in the past. Even her occupation, translator, provides no certainties and always allows for many meanings and possibilities.

It seems that Jessie’s life is on hold, her ties to the past are all compromised (son, niece, sister, parents, husbands) and relationships in the present go wrong: Robert, her neighbour who suddenly doesn’t want to speak to her any more.

Life is like this, I remind myself, not clear. Disappearances are sometimes explained, but not all. Relationships fade away. The ghost, it seems, is probably not a ghost, but it just may have been.

I enjoyed the writing, the communication of a character who is lost, almost alienated, alone, parts of her life missing. The rather spooky edge to the writing is very effective.

Salt Publishing

Salt Publishing recently asked readers to help them by buying one book. I was glad to support this excellent publisher and this was my choice. I have already read The Lighthouse (2012), The Pre-War House and other stories (2013),He Wants (2014) and Death and the Seaside (2016). There is a murkiness, strangeness to all these, and a sense that not all has been clarified. She is an excellent writer. The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Missing by Alison Moore, published in 2018 by Salt Publishing. 176 pp

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Elizabeth Taylor – still neglected?

Elizabeth Taylor was included in a list of underappreciated lady authors. I’m not so sure that she should be there, for she has a loyal and vigorous following among readers, writers and book bloggers. Among the writers are Kingsley Amis, Anita Brookner, Anne Tyler, David Baddiel, Antonia Fraser, Hilary Mantel and Philip Henscher.

When he accepted the Whitbread Prize, posthumously awarded in 1976 for outstanding achievement over her lifetime, her husband remarked

I just can’t help thinking how nice it would have been if my wife could have received this recognition while she was still alive.

In her lifetime she was dismissed as a rather chintzy lady writer from the drawing-room tradition. Those who know her writing believe that she should be celebrated for her wit, delicacy, carefully wrought sentences as she ‘made it her business to explore the quirky underside of so-called civilisation’ (according to Anne Tyler, who inhabits similar territory).

My recommended first read of Elizabeth Taylor? Why not start with her first novel At Mrs Lippincote’s(1945). In this story Julia Davenport and her son seem out of kilter with the changes the war has brought to their family life. She makes an unlikely connection with the Wing commander (who knits) through literature. Her son is also a reder. When I reviewed it I pointed to its connections with Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel The Hotelin a post called Two Elizabeths, two first novels.

Happy Birthday Elizabeth Taylor.

7 Things I like about Elizabeth Taylor’s writing


The theme of loneliness can be found over and over again in the novels and stories of Elizabeth Taylor – the newly married, the couples who drift apart, the old and abandoned, those who have lost their loved ones, or never had them, or who suffer at the hands of others.

In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, the residents are all in the last years of their lives, and parked in the Cromwell Road hotel to be out of the way of their close family and relatives. Some have described these residents as eccentric, but I think that Elizabeth Taylor knew how people behave when they are lonely.

All six characters featured in A Wreath of Rosesare suffering from loneliness. It’s one of her darkest novels and one of her most interesting.


The children in her novels are authentically drawn. Here, from A View of the Harbourshe notes the physicality of young boys as a mother visits her son at boarding school:

Every boy who passed surreptitiously lunged at Edward, dug an elbow at him, crooked a knee at his behind. (142)

The monstrous author, the main character in Angeloutsmarted her teacher by knowing the meaning of the word empyreanand having great timing.

“It means,” Angel said. Her tongue moistened her lips. She glanced out of the classroom window at the sky beyond the bare trees. “It means ’the highest heavens’.”

“Yes, the sky,” Miss Dawson said suspiciously. (7)

And I recommend to you the children in At Mrs Lippincotes, Mossy Trotter, and in her many short stories.

The craft of her sentences

Elizabeth Taylor writes with great precision, and her reader is led into deeper understanding by her prose. Here is an extract from A Wreath of Roses, set on a sleepy country train station.

She issues a warning to the reader with this short sentence.

Then, with a collapsing sound, the signal dropped. (2)

Then comes this:

All at once, the man on the footbridge swung himself up on the parapet and, just as Camilla was putting out her arms in a ridiculous gesture as if to stop him, he clumsily jumped, a sprawling jump, an ill-devised death, since he fell wide of the express train. (3)

The reader and the three people on the platform, at the same moment understand the intentions of the man. As if this wasn’t enough for one sentence to carry she adds Camilla’s futile but understandable gesture (the reader almost makes the same gesture herself). And further, she includes the bathetic details of ‘an ill-devised death’.

Close observation of everyday life

Note how she conveys complex relationships in this scene of children returning to boarding school at the start of term from In a Summer Season.

All over Waterloo Station groups of schoolgirls flocked together – their cries, their movements birdlike, as was their way of keeping to their own kind. Other uniforms drew only glances of scorn. Schoolboys, returning too, were less gregarious. They stood alone at the bookstalls or thoughtfully put pennies into slot-machines, unimpressed by so much feminine gaiety. (206)

The plots of her novels are all different

Her short stories are a feast

The Virago green covers of her books were the best

12 things you should know about Elizabeth Taylor.

She was born 3rd July 1912 in Reading.

She wrote 12 novels for adults between 1945 and 1976, another one for children – Mossy Totter(1967) – and innumerable short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker.

Her novels and short stories have all been published by Virago Books.

She was a friend of Elizabeth Bowen, but was not drawn to the London literary circle.

Nicola Beauman wrote a biography called The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by Persephone Books in 2009.

Her husband owned a sweet factory. She had two children.

She was not a film star.

She had a long affair, 10 years, with Ray Russell. He was a pow during some of that time, and she wrote him many letters.

She was a member of the Communist Party for a while.

She died of cancer in November 1975.

Many of her heroines are called Elizabeth, Betty, Bess, Beth and other variations on her own name.

I have read all her books and reviewed each of them on this blog.


Her books are all in print. Bloggers I follow enjoy her work. SlightlyFoxedfeatured A Game of Hide and Seekin their most recent edition. BBC Radio4 extra dramatized In a Summer Season. Films have been made of Angeland Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. If she is less well known than she deserves it is not the fault of her many champions.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authorswhich caught my eye. She included Elizabeth Taylor.

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading, Reviews, short stories