Heaven Lies About Us by Howard Spring

When I read Memories and Gardens by Marion Howard Spring I wanted to renew my acquaintance with her husband.

He was Robert Howard Spring, known professionally as Howard Spring, and he was a very popular novelist in the mid to late twentieth century. I remember reading one of his books, Fame is the Spur, a long time ago, on my mother’s recommendation, and I liked it very much. But I didn’t pick up another and he fell out of fashion and out of print.

It was only a few years ago the I learned that the Springs had moved to Cornwall, fulfilling a long-held dream, when his success gave them the means. And that many of his later novels were set here.

I picked up a few elderly paperback editions but I must confess that because they were rather hefty and the print was rather small I hadn’t begun to read when I came across Memories and Gardens.

Once I had read the wife’s memoir I thought I should read the husband’s. His comes in three parts, the first being this childhood memoir, Heaven Lies About Us.

It wasn’t conceived as a memoir. Not long after he became a published novelist Howard Spring was asked to speak at a fundraising event in his home town. He spoke about his childhood and his first steps as a writer and, some years later, his lecture became this little book.

He opens with recollections of boyish escapades to draw his audience in. Tying lengths of string to door knockers, tugging on that string, and then running away at top speed. Tricks played on the owner of the local sweetshop, who proved himself able to give just as good as he got. And, maybe best of all, a wonderful tale from the school playground:

“Mr. Flegg, the headmaster, had made a rule that when he appeared on a balcony overlooking the playground and blew his whistle, sound and motion must on the instant cease. On the second blast, everyone must fall into his own rank in front of his teacher. It need hardly be said that watchful eyes were on Mr. Flegg as soon as he appeared on the balcony. The raising of the whistle to his lips was the signal for monstrous attitudes to be assumed, and when the whistle had sounded the schoolyard took on the appearance of a vast lunatic asylum struck to petrification. Mouths gaped open; fingers were pushing noses into strange distorted shapes, boys lay flat on their backs, or standing upon their hands, had their feet against a wall; couples were engaged in grotesque wrestling attitudes; or, caught in the middle of a run, remained with one leg lifted in the air. Mr. Flegg never knew that the whole schoolyard was a howling derision; it seemed to give him a god-like sense of power to be able, with one expulsion of his breath, to strike life suddenly into the silence and immobility of death.”

But there was much more here than entertainment. There was the story of a family that tempered the perception of childhood with the understanding of adulthood.

Howard Spring was the son of the jobbing gardener. He’d had a difficult life and was often remote, but he loved his books and that was what drew him and his children together. He read to them from the Pickwick Papers, and his youngest boy was entranced. Howard decided that when he grew up he wanted to be a writer like Charles Dickens.

But when he was just twelve his father died and he had to leave school. He became a butcher’s boy and he hated it. Much better, he advised, to work for a greengrocer. His mother, who worked so hard to keep her family together, who in later years would find it impossible to stop working, even getting up early to tidy the house before the maid her family employed for her came to work, was horrified when he quit.

Howard fell on his feet. His parents were not church goers, but they told their children that they must go somewhere on a Sunday. Howard fell in with the Plymouth Brethren because they offered trips to the country and the seaside. He loved that, he was less sure about the rest.

His love of the country, the sea, the open air really shone when he wrote of those trips, and of wonderful outings with his brother and sisters.

“In the long school holidays we would be up early and away into the dewy fields which lay then much nearer to the city than they do now, and we would seek mushrooms, though I do not remember that we ever found one, or gather the flat bunches of elderberries that stained our fingers an exciting purple, and from which our mother concocted wine. Or, making a whole-day job of it, we would set out with a few slabs of bread and butter and a bottle of water; and in those inexacting days these simple provisions answered to all that we knew by name of dinner. We took with us a book on natural history, and discovered much joy in identifying this and that; and in a stream at Fairwater, crossed by a railway bridge whose embankment was at time like a long snowdrift, so thickly the dog daisies grew there, we would fish by the hour, tirelessly turning over the stones in search of millers’ thumbs.”

One of Howard’s  friends from the Plymouth Brethren found him a job as an office boy and he was on his way.

The book lost its way a little there, moving quickly to bring the story up to date and the lecture to a close.

I didn’t mind because I knew what the future held. The office boy would rise to become a reporter. The reporter would be sent to London, and he would meet Marion. She had spent childhood holidays there, and when she took her husband back to the places that held so many happy memories he fell in love with them too. Moving to Cornwall became a shared dream, and when the reporter became a novelist, when the novelist became a great success they were able to make their dream come true.

I knew the end, and I am so pleased that have learned a little more of Howard Spring’s beginnings from this book.

It’s very short, less than one hundred pages, but there was enough there to allow me to understand the man he became a little better.

That was very simple, and very lovely.

Just one more thing I must add. The title comes from a poem by William Wordsworth and it suits both book and author perfectly. It’s too long to add to this post and so you’ll find it on my Tumblr instead.

Isn’t it wonderful where books can lead you?!

Mr Lucton’s Freedom by Francis Brett Young

It’s not often that I get to meet a fellow chartered accountant in a book and so when I spotted one, as I cross checked the list of works provided by the Francis Brett Young Society with my library’s catalogue, I had to invite him home.

His name was Owen Lucton and when we met, towards the end of the 1930s, he had risen from humble beginnings to become the senior partner of a successful accountancy practice in North Bromwich.

He enjoyed the luxuries and the privileges that his success had brought him, but he loved the simpler things in life , and he was very proud of where he had come from.

But Mr Lucton was troubled, as his son wanted to modernise his business and his wife wanted to move to a new modern home and leave everything from the past behind.

Maybe that was why, when he crashed his new car into the River Avon, when he saw it sink into the mud, he saw a wonderful opportunity. He could escape!

He walked over the Malvern Hills and into the Welsh countryside. And he had some wonderful experiences along the way.

He enjoyed the community spirit in a village pub. He lent a hand on a farm, helping to bring in the harvest. He picked up tips from a dedicated rambler. He was recruited for a village cricket team. He learned how to fish for salmon. He even learned a little about modern poetry.

Yes, Mr Lucton happily turned his hand to many new things. His lack experience and expertise sometimes got him into trouble, but his genuine interest and enthusiasm, and his good manners and gentlemanliness generally saved the day.

But he could never settle, because he knew that sooner or later somebody would realise that he was the missing accountant. He had to keep moving.

Francis Brett Young pulled all of his adventures together into a lovely story. Sometimes it was a little slow, a little uneventful, but there was always something to hold the interest. Beautifully drawn characters. Lovely descriptive passages. Comical and dramatic incidents.

I had no doubt that the author had taken his hero into a world that he knew and loved.

He is a rather old-fashioned hero, and some of his attitudes may raise an eyebrow, but he was a man of his times and his character always rang true.

The day did come when he found a place where he could stay and a community he could join. And that’s just what he did

But it wasn’t the end. One day Mr Lucton found himself faced with a difficult choice. He could help two dear friends in dire straits, but to do so he would have to reveal his true identity and return to his old life.

My heart was in my mouth as I watched him make his decision and take action. And then we parted company.

I saw the decision, but I was left to wonder what all of the consequences might be. And that was exactly right.

Though I was sorry to leave an entertaining piece of escapism, with serious underpinnings.

And I’m sorry that Francis Brett Young’s books seem to be out of print, because they read beautifully and I’m starting to think that they might make wonderful Sunday night television.

Thank goodness the Cornish Library Service saw fit to add a good number to reserve stock!

The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston

“I bought the book and read it; even then I recognised how unashamedly sentimental it was – novels were sentimental at the turn of the century, and this was a love story – but, in spite of that, it’s evocation of Venice cast such a spell that it has been with me ever since…”

When I read those words, in Rumer Godden’s introduction to Pippa Passes, I knew that I had to try to find a copy of the book she wrote about: The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston.

I did find it – in a later Penguin edition – and now that I have read it I can understand why it such an impression on the girl who would grow up to be a wonderful author.

The love story began in a London church, after an evening service. A number of the congregation remained, to light a candle before they left. Eventually two people were left: a young man and a young woman; but only one candle.

“Here you have a man, a woman, and a candle destined for the altar of St Joseph, all flung together in an empty church by the playful hand of circumstance and out of so strange a medley comes a fairy story …”

They share the candle, and it brings their hopes, their dreams, their lives together.

The young man is John Grey, a struggling writer, and when he leaves the church the story follows him. And it follows the details of his life, showing that he is such a compassionate and thoughtful young man. A young man who deserves a happy ending.

John and Jill, the young woman he met in the church, continue to cross paths. Sometimes by chance – or maybe fate – and sometimes by contrivance. A friendship, and then a romance, grows oh so quietly.

The story is slow and quiet, and it is sentimental, but I was charmed. By the wonderful old-fashioned storytelling, and by a narrator who was so eager to share his love for the young writer. He had a tendency to ramble, but he was engaging, and so the pages turned quickly.

And throughout the story he picks up so many lovely details, makes astute observation, and manages some lovely moments of gentle humour.

John dreamed of taking Jill to Venice.

“You’ve got to see Venice. You’ve got to see a city of slender towers and white domes, sleeping in the water like a mass of water lilies. You’ve got to see dart water-ways, mysterious threads of shadow holding all those flowers of stome together. You’ve got to hear the silence in which the whispers of lovers of a thousand years ago, and in the cries of men, betrayed, all breathe and echo in every bush. these are the only noises in Venice – these and the plash of the gondolier’s oar or his call ‘Ohé!’ as he rounds a sudden corner. You’ve got to see it all at the night, when great white lily flowers are blackened in shadow, and the darkened water-ways are lost in an inpenetrable depth of gloom. You’ve got to hear the stealthy creeping of a gondola and the lapping of the water against the slimy stones as it hurries by. In every little burning light that flickers in a barred window up above you must be able to see plotters at work, conspirators planning deeds of evil or a lover in his mistress’s arms. You’ve got to see magic, mystery, tragedy and romance, all compassed by grey stone and green water …”

She shared his dream, she loved him as much as he loved her, but she knew that the dream could not come true.

But that wasn’t the end. Because there was another couple – John’s mother and father. They loved each other dearly and they had retired to Venice to lie in genteel poverty. All they wanted was for their beloved son to be happy.

John couldn’t  to tell them that he had lost his happy ending.

Jill couldn’t let go of the dream of Venice, or of John.

And so they would meet again, they would see Venice together, and they would try to somehow give John’s parents the happy ending they so wanted.

But how? Could it be real?

When the story moved to Venice it opened out.  And the narrator was clearly captivated and told the story and described the city quite beautifully.

” A great white door divides the front of gey stone, up to which lead steps from the pathway – steps in the crevices of which a patch of green lies here and there as a perfect harmony of contrast to the well-worn slabs. This door is always closed and, with no windows on either side, only the broad stretch of masonry, there is a stern appearance about the place, suggesting a prison or a barracks in its almost forbidding aspect. But when once that wide, wooden gate is opened, the absence of windows upon the ground floor is partially explained and  the mind is caught in a breath of enchantment. It does not give entrance to the hall, but to an archway – an archway tunnelling under the house itself, at the end of which, thorough the lace-work of wonderful wrought-iron palings, you see the fairy-land of an old Italian garden, glittering in the sun.”

The real ending was a wonderful mixture of happiness and sadness. And exactly right.

The City of Beautiful Nonsense is a wonderful love story. It is terribly sentimental, and rather old fashioned but, if you can accept those things with an open heart, it can take you on a wonderful emotional journey.

Ten Days of Christmas by Gladys Bronwyn Stern

It was a plain red hardback sitting on a shelf in a secondhand bookshop. There was no dust jacket, no adornment at all, just the title and the author’s name on the spine.

I knew the author’s name. Two of her books were reissued as Virago Modern Classics, and she wrote two books about Jane Austen with Sheila Kaye-Smith, another Virago author.

And I wondered, why ten days of Christmas instead of the more usual twelve?

It was, I found, because this is a house-party novel, set over ten eventful days at 1948.

On the first page I met fifteen year-old Claire, who had arrived from America to spend Christmas with friends and family she hadn’t seen since before the war. Her American-born mother had whisked her family across the Atlantic as soon as war broke out. Younger siblings were born in America, but Claire remembered her English roots, and so her parents were persuaded to allow her to visit.

I was drawn in by lovely prose and storytelling, and I noticed that Claire was an exact contemporary of my mother.

Claire barely remembered her hosts, Anthony and Dorothy, but it didn’t matter. She was quickly caught up in a big gathering of adults and children, extended family and friends.

Upstairs the children planned to put on a play, to honour Claire’s Uncle Ted. He was Lal’s uncle too and he was acting in a highly successful West End revue, which would delay his arrival until after Christmas.

It was lovely to watch the preparations. Which play to choose? Who should do what? Where should the performance take place?

And downstairs the adults enjoyed each others company, caught up on news, and made preparations.

The writing was lovely, the characters were beautifully drawn and that post-war era was captured beautifully. The war was over, the past was done, but the future was uncertain.

The joy was in the details… Nineteen year-old Rosalind leaving the children to join the adults… William, Anthony’s elderly father, complaining about people who gave him one present for Christmas and his boxing day birthday… Sixteen year-old Terry, arriving a little later than the others, commissioned to bring copies of the chosen play and arriving with stars in her eyes… Nick and Tan, from different sides of the family, neither settled into post-war lives, good friends who maybe could be something more …

I thought I was just going to float along, watching a happy house-party and seeing a play, but then something changed.

It was such a small thing that started it. A duplicated gift. The recipient, Rosalind, didn’t deal with the situation as well as she might. Terry, who idolised Rosalind, was upset when her gift was given back to her. Sorrel, the abandoned wife of Dorothy’s errant brother, was upset for her daughter.

There were cross words between children and adults. Old recriminations were spoken aloud. Secrets were revealed. Words that should be left unsaid were spoken aloud.

It was horribly believable.

The play was cancelled. And it seemed that the house-party would come to an end sooner than had been planned.

Then Ted arrived, happy and quite unaware of the disharmony in the house. His warmth and enthusiasm changed things again. he helped to build bridges, and adults and children built new relationships, on better understanding.

That sounds a little contrived. And maybe it was, but it felt right.

Because the author so clearly understood how families work.

And because in what seemed to be a simple story she said so much about two generations and the times they lived in.

An afterword, two years later, made me catch my breath.

I am only sorry that Ten Days of Christmas is out of print.

It would suit a dove grey dust jacket very well …

The Golden Waterwheel by Leo Walmsley

I fell in love with Leo Walmsley’s two autobiographical, Cornish novels – Love in the Sun and Paradise Creek – last year. But there were missing years between the two books, and I so wanted to learn what had happened in those years. The Golden Waterwheel is my first step towards finding out.

“When at last Dain and I decided to leave our Cornish home where we had lived for nearly four eventful and happy years, and make a new home on our well-beloved and remembered Yorkshire boast, burning our boats, for it seemed likely we should never be able to return, we thought of all the things we had against living in Cornwall, and all of the things that were in favour of going north …”

Life by the water, in a converted army hut, had been idyllic, but things had changed for the couple. A second child had been born, their finances had improved, and the awkward circumstances that caused then to pull up their roots no longer seemed important.

Home was calling.

The opening pages of The Golden Waterwheel explain all of this, and recall the life captured by Love in the Sun, perfectly.

I was captivated again. By a very human story, and by writing that was emotionally involving, simple and utterly believable.

And I was caught up by a wonderful new dream.

“We were going to build there, or have built for us, because we were only amateurs, an ideal house, preferably of Yorkshire firestone, with a red-painted roof like the farm buildings and cottages of the district. We didn’t want another army hut, or any other sort of existing building. We wanted to start from the beginning, design it and watch it being built exactly to our own ideas of what a home should be.”

Watching that dream come true, living through the progress and the setbacks, was a joy, and rather like catching on the exciting news of an erudite and articulate friend.

There were so many wonderful details, moments of anxiety, moments of contentment, and moments to catch my breath …

“Of the many stages in the evolution of a house none is more dramatic than when the actual building is finished and the workmen have packed up, and the place stands completely empty and silent. There are no curtains, no floor coverings, no furniture, and the walls are bare. This can happen only once in its history for whoever lives in it will make marks on its structure which nothing will ever completely erase and those marks will as inevitably be evidence of the character and behaviour of the occupants.”

Wrapped around all of this were wonderful stories of life and family. A chance find in the mud leading to a new friendship; fishing trips, and an extraordinary catch; a gate left open and a pony going walkabout.

And I found lovely echoes of the Cornish years. They inspired so much in the new family home, and they inspired a book. A book that I knew would become Love in the Sun.

I worried a little. That there here seemed to be a conflict in the roles of writer, husband and father, and that at times the author seemed distant from his family. I hoped that love and acceptance would win the day.

Life went on, and I was happy to follow. Because the people, the incidents, the countryside had come alive for me.

The Golden Waterwheel is a simple story, a slice of life, caught perfectly by lovely writing. It seems natural, almost conversational, and yet when I looked closely every paragraph, every sentence, was perfectly constructed.

That quality of writing, and masterful storytelling, make this a book I could happily read over and over again.

The story ended when war came, and changed everything.

Time for another dream … and another book …

I’m a Librarian ….

… well I’m still an accountant actually, but I have just got myself upgraded to Librarian status on Good Reads.

Why?

Mainly so that I can add covers and descriptions to the books in my collection that are out of print and missing those things.

Partly to make my own collection look nice, and partly from wanting to be evangelical about books that aren’t as well-known as they should be.

Tonight I added covers to the out of print Virago Modern Classics editions of Winifred Holtby’s books.

And then I noticed that the book I’m reading at the moment –  Winter Rhapsody by Dorothy Edwards – was missing a cover. So I added it, and as there wasn’t a description either I added the one on the back of my copy.

It’s strangely addictive … which is why, I’m afraid,  the book I was going to write about tonight will have to wait until tomorrow.

Paradise Creek by Leo Walmsley

“A book of mine with the rapturous title, Love in the Sun was published in this country in August of the fateful year 1939, three months before the start of Hitler’s war.

It was the story, based closely on fact, of how my wife and I, then very poor, found an empty and derelict army hut on a lonely creek near Fowey in Cornwall, rented it for three shillings a week, and made it into a home, making our own furniture, chiefly from driftwood and ships’ dunnage, growing or catching most of our food …”

I was both confused and entranced by those opening lines. Leo Walmsley’s novel, Love in the Sun, was everything that he says, and quite wonderful, but what was this book. It read like fact, and yet it stood next to Love in the Sun on the Cornish Fiction shelf in the library.

It was fiction, I discovered as I was propelled forward by Leo Walmsley, but clearly fiction that was just a whisper away from fact, and written in a very different world.

Love in the Sun ended with the birth of a child and the publication of a book. Since then, I learned the couple had prospered, moved back closer to their roots in the north, and their family had grown. But there were dark shadows. The war, of course and the couple’s relationship deteriorated. Different attitudes to life, to how to bring up their children took their toll.

It was an utterly real story, one that must have been told so many times, but I was drawn in by the emotional honesty and the simple clarity of the storytelling.

Eventually she took their children and left him.

He retreated to Cornwall, to the army hut by the river where the couple had been so happy. To lick his wounds. To make a holiday home for his children. And maybe, just maybe, to win his wife back when she brought the children down.

The restoration of that home echoes the first book beautifully.

When the children come they love it.

So many lovely small details bring a simple story to life, and real emotional honesty makes it sing.

The children grow up, of course, and so over the years summer holidays in Cornwall and their father’s role, change.

But then maybe a different future calls ….

At the beginning of Paradise Creek I was disappointed that the idyll of Love in the Sun had ended. But I was quickly caught up, emotionally involved, as the story of that end unfolded and I was taken on a very different journey.

The storyteller was flawed, but I saw into his heart and I recognised a real, fallible human being.

Everything rang true. And as I read on I realised how cleverly the structure of this book echoed its predecessor.

It works as a companion piece, and it stands up on its own. Because it is a wonderful piece of storytelling: emotionally involving, simple and utterly believable.

This is a book that will remain in my heart.