The Story of Twenty One Books

That’s the sum of this month’s book shopping – it was an exceptionally good month.

This may be a long post, but I resolved to record all of my purchases this year.

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20150328_171336These were ‘library building’ purchases. I have a dozen or so authors whose books I am gradually collecting as and when affordable copies appear.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to give back the library’s copy of The Flowering Thorn back until I had a copy to keep – that’s always the way with Margery Sharp – and I spotted a Fontana edition that was if not cheap then at least much less expensive than many. I do like Fontana paperbacks, but I have to say that in this instance the image and the tagline suggest that the artist and the writer haven’t read the books.

And the rather nondescript book that one is resting on is an first edition of ‘Return I Dare Not’ by Margaret Kennedy!

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The next round of shopping was not at my expense – because I won £50 of books from Harper Collins! At first I was overwhelmed by the choice, but when I saw Vintage on the list of imprints my path became clear.


  • ‘A Long Time Ago’ filled another gap in my Margaret Kennedy collection.
  •  Remembering Darlene’s words of praise, I picked ‘Here Be Dragons’ to add to my Stella Gibbons collection
  •  ‘A Street Haunting and Other Essays’ by Virginia Woolf looked too lovely to resist
  •  Several people recommended ‘The Black Count’ by Tom Reiss after I fell in love with The Count of Monte Cristo’ so I took their advice.
  • And of course I was going to have a copy of Victoria Glendinning’s much lauded biography of Anthony Trollope!

I’d say that was £50 very well invested.

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Visits to two charity shops I hadn’t been into for a long time paid dividends.


I remember my parents reading Nevil Shute and Howard Spring, I loved the books from their shelves that I read years ago, and so I was delighted to find two titles I didn’t know in lovely editions.

I saw ‘Death of an Avid Reader’ by Frances Brody in the library and though I liked the look of it I didn’t pick it up because I knew that I had copies of earlier books in the same series at home unread. But when I spotted a like new copy I had to bring it home.

I was always going to pounce on a book by Francis Brett Young that I didn’t have on my shelves. I love his writing. I hesitated over this one because it’s a history of England in verse, but in the end I decided that I didn’t pick this one up I might never see another copy and I might live to regret it. When I came home I remembered that I loved the extract I knew, and I knew that I had made the right decision.

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I picked up two more books when I dropped off several bags of books to another charity shop.

20150328_171629A lovely hardback edition of the collected stories of Jane Gardam that was only published last year for £2 was a wonderful bargain.

I don’t know much about R C Hutchison – and the dust jacket of this book doesn’t give much away – but I picked the book up because it was in condition and it clearly dated from one of my favourite eras. I found some 1950s leaflets from the reprints of society, that somebody must have used as bookmarks inside, adverting authors including Winifred Holtby, Somerset Maugham, Howard Spring and Margery Sharp. I too that as a sign that I should buy the book. When I got home and looked up Hutchinson I found that he had been reissued by Faber Finds and by Bloomsbury Reader, which has to be a good sign.

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And then there was the Oxfam Shop.


I can only assume that someone with very similar taste to me had been clearing out, because among lots of books I already own I found:

  • Two more by Jane Gardam
  •  Two British Library Crime Classics I I hadn’t meant to start collecting but now I have four and I think maybe I am.
  • Childhood memoirs by Marcel Pagnol, whose books inspired two of my favourite films – ‘Jean de Florette’ and ‘Manon Du Source.’

I looked in again next time I was passing, just in case there were any more. There weren’t, but I found this.

I know the library have copies, but it was such a nice set.

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Just one more – a brand new hardback that I just had to run out and buy – another  ‘library building’ purchase.


“The winter of 1924: Edith Olivier, alone for the first time at the age of fifty-one, thought her life had come to an end. For Rex Whistler, a nineteen-year-old art student, life was just beginning. Together, they embarked on an intimate and unlikely friendship that would transform their lives. Gradually Edith’s world opened up and she became a writer. Her home, the Daye House, in a wooded corner of the Wilton estate, became a sanctuary for Whistler and the other brilliant and beautiful younger men of her circle: among them Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Tennant, William Walton, John Betjeman, the Sitwells and Cecil Beaton – for whom she was ‘all the muses’.

Set against a backdrop of the madcap parties of the 1920s, the sophistication of the 1930s and the drama and austerity of the Second World War and with an extraordinary cast of friends and acquaintances, Anna Thomasson brings to life, for the first time, the fascinating, and curious, friendship of a bluestocking and a bright young thing.“

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I’ve stayed out of bookshops today, so that is definitely it for March.

It’s been a bit mad – some lovely review copies have landed too – but there won’t be many months like that.

Though we’ll be visiting one or two bookshops when we have a week’s holiday in Devon next month …..

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?!

Memories and Gardens by Marion Howard Spring

A few months ago I found myself in a bookshop with an almost impossible choice.

Two books. First editions with dust jackets in lovely conditions. Desirable titles that I might never see again. The prices were more than fair, but I could only justify buying one. What to do?

‘More Talk of Jane Austen’ by G B Stern and Sheila Kaye-Smith came home. It had to; it was just too perfect to leave behind.

Memories & GardensAnd so I thought that ‘Memories and Gardens’ by Marion Howard Spring (wife of the novelist Howard Spring) was lost to me. I tried to tell myself that it was probably mainly a gardening book, and I’m not really one of life’s gardeners. But I wasn’t convinced.

Some time later it occurred to me that the Springs had lived in Cornwall for many years, and that maybe somebody in the Cornish Library Service had thought to put a copy into reserve stock. Somebody had, and so I placed my order. It wasn’t a first edition, it had no dust jacket, but it came into my hands for me to read.

I realised when I read the introduction that Marion Howard Spring was a very near contemporary of my grandmother (my mother’s mother). She was born in the 1880s, she remembered Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, she saw the coronation of Edward VII, indeed she lived the reign of six monarchs, and through two world wars.

But this wasn’t a book about that …

“Now that I am an old lady, with grandchildren growing up, I am going to write about my life and gardens, an unhistorical subject indeed. The lovely thing about growing old is that the beautiful moments of life – the love of one’s family, music, gardening, poetry – all become more precious with the knowledge that they must soon be left behind. In spite of having lived through terrible wars, I can look back on much happiness. This, then, is nothing outstanding or spectacular; just the every-day life of an every-day person.”

Marion’s memoir begins with stories of her childhood. She writes with wonderful warmth of home, school, church and, best of all, summer holidays to Cornwall. She writes well, in a conversational style, offering much colour but not too many specifics.

I could believe that she was telling tales to entertain her grandchildren, but I would have liked to read a little more about her parents, her siblings, and her friends.

Marion went to art school, hoping to earn her living ‘by pencil and paintbrush’, but it wasn’t to be. Her mother died and when her father married Marion struggled to get along with a step-mother determined to do things her own way. And so she took a secretarial course and struck out on her own.

She went to work in the London office of the Manchester Guardian and stayed there right through the 1914-18 war. She notes that it was a sad time but she loved her job, and being at the centre of things.

And after the war she met a reporter from the Manchester office: Robert Howard Spring.

Reader, she married him! And they lived happily ever after!

Marion writes of a wonderful honeymoon on Dartmoor; of trips to the theatre when Howard wrote about theatre and music hall for the Manchester Guardian; of family holidays to Cornwall; of her homes and gardens; and of her husband’s growing success as a novelist.

It was obvious that she was so proud of him, and of her foresight in using her small savings to buy him a typewriter as a wedding present, and she quotes from his work in many places. The contrast between her warm conversational style and his literate, descriptive prose was rather nice.

His success allowed them to live their dream, and move to the coast of Cornwall.

Marion writes of their homes, of their gardens, of days out, of visits from friends, of their church, of life during wartime … but most of all she writes about her gardens.

There are chapters about trees, about shrubs, about borders, about greenhouses, about flower arranging …

It was engaging, and her enthusiasm was infectious, but for someone who lives in Cornwall and already knows what grows well here and what doesn’t the wealth of detail was just a little bit too much.

Though it’s only fair to say that the clue was there, in the title!

The book ends on a quiet note. Howard was in failing health and his wife knew he wouldn’t be with her for much longer. She knew though that they had been blessed.

I’m so pleased that I met Marion, and she has inspired me to read more of her husband’s work.  I’m going to start with ‘I Met a Lady’ now that I know that it uses a cottage we have often looked down on from the hill at Trencrom as a setting.

But I know now that I bought the right book, and I can easily say goodbye and hand this one back to the library.