The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

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This was not the book I intended to read this week, I normally have a rough plan for the next two or three weeks, but when my friend Anna said she had just read and enjoyed a Catalan translation I was inspired to get my copy off the shelf. This is my original childhood copy from 1975 and was published in Purnell’s ‘de luxe classic’ series, yes they do spell de luxe that way it’s not an error on my part. I still have half a dozen matching volumes such as Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood etc. and I know that there were at least thirty five titles in the set. Other than when I’ve moved house these books have probably not come off the shelves they have been hibernating on for forty years, so it was good to actually open one and read it again for the first time since the 1970’s.

There are eight colour plates along with numerous black and white drawings through the book but the plates are not well placed as they often precede the text they refer to and several effectively work as spoilers for the plot, especially the frontispiece as that not only gives away the existence of Colin but also his true medical condition before you even start reading. The plates and drawings are all by Jenny Thorne although my original impression that two different artists had worked on the book as she employs quite a different style for the two sets. Confusingly there is another illustrator called Jenny Thorne working in Cambridge, which is the one a Google search will bring up, although she has only been working over the last ten years.

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On to the story itself, it is basically a morality tale about two spoiled brats who gradually through the book learn to have some thought about the people around them and was originally published in 1911. Mary had been brought up in India where she was used to Indian servants who did whatever she wanted them to, until at the age of nine the household was struck down by cholera, her parents died, and those servants who survived fled leaving Mary alone in the house. The fact that nobody thought about her is used to underline what a thoroughly unpleasant child she had become. Discovered a day or so later she was sent to England to stay with her uncle and only known relative, a recluse who lived in a huge house surrounded by moorland in Yorkshire.

Archibald Craven accepted his responsibility to take the child in but was not interested in her, in fact he spent very little time at Misselthwaite Manor, preferring to travel ever since his wife had died ten years ago. It was a strange and secretive house with a hundred rooms that had been shut up for years, two of which were made ready for Mary to live in but she was told not to go in the others. There was a large series of gardens surrounding the manor but also a ‘secret garden’ one that had been locked ever since Mrs Craven had died there when a tree seat had collapsed and she had hit her head. Mary became determined to find a way in to the garden, but there was another secret, an even bigger one than the garden and that was Colin, the Craven’s son, who turns out to be an even more spoiled horrible child than Mary was. The slowly developing friendship between the two of them, the rescuing of the garden and the rehabilitation of the children into ones you would actually want to meet through the following months are the main themes of the book. The growth of the garden as it is finally being nurtured is a constant metaphor for the emotional growth of the children helped along by the down to earth Dickon

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The use of the Yorkshire dialect is very important in the book, it becomes a language that bonds the children together and is roughly phonetically written so that you can see the development of it’s use. Mary first hears Martha the housemaid using it but it is not until she meets Martha’s brother Dickon that she really embraces the dialect herself. This is the passage with Mary talking to Dickon just before she introduces Colin to the local sound.

“Just listen to them birds—th’ world seems full of ’em—all whistlin’ an’ pipin’,” he said. “Look at ’em dartin’ about, an’ hearken at ’em callin’ to each other. Come springtime seems like as if all th’ world’s callin’. The leaves is uncurlin’ so you can see ’em—an’, my word, th’ nice smells there is about!” sniffing with his happy turned-up nose. “An’ that poor lad lyin’ shut up an’ seein’ so little that he gets to thinkin’ o’ things as sets him screamin’. Eh! my! we mun get him out here—we mun get him watchin’ an listenin’ an’ sniffin’ up th’ air an’ get him just soaked through wi’ sunshine. An’ we munnot lose no time about it.”

When he was very much interested he often spoke quite broad Yorkshire though at other times he tried to modify his dialect so that Mary could better understand. But she loved his broad Yorkshire and had in fact been trying to learn to speak it herself. So she spoke a little now.

“Aye, that we mun,” she said. “I’ll tell thee what us’ll do first,” she proceeded, and Dickon grinned, because when the little wench tried to twist her tongue into speaking Yorkshire it amused him very much. “He’s took a graidely fancy to thee. He wants to see thee and he wants to see Soot an’ Captain. When I go back to the house to talk to him I’ll ax him if tha’ canna’ come an’ see him tomorrow mornin’—an’ bring tha’ creatures wi’ thee—an’ then—in a bit, when there’s more leaves out, an’ happen a bud or two, we’ll get him to come out an’ tha’ shall push him in his chair an’ we’ll bring him here an’ show him everything.”

When she stopped she was quite proud of herself. She had never made a long speech in Yorkshire before and she had remembered very well.

“Tha’ mun talk a bit o’ Yorkshire like that to Mester Colin,” Dickon chuckled. “Tha’ll make him laugh an’ there’s nowt as good for ill folk as laughin’ is. Mother says she believes as half a hour’s good laugh every mornin’ ’ud cure a chap as was makin’ ready for typhus fever.”

However this got me wondering how the Catalan translation worked, was there an equivalent dialectic variation in Catalonia? Apparently there was, Anna told me that they had used Valencian, presumably all translations of the book have to find a regional dialect and impose that on Yorkshire for the structure of the book to make any sense as you have to know when they are speaking ‘standard’ English and when they have switched to dialect.

I’m glad I was prompted to read the book again it wa reet graidely.

Link to Anna’s review in Catalan

How to Lie with Statistics – Darrell Huff

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I bought this book many years ago when I was employed by the accounts department of a large UK firm to analyse the figures and produce reports for the board of directors on performance of all aspects of the business not just financial. Now you may think that purchasing a book entitled How to Lie with Statistics would suggest that these board reports may not have been entirely accurate; but in fact I got it for the same reason as it was written because if you know how things can be done badly then you can avoid making the same ‘mistakes’. Unless of course you are trying to show something, or more likely hide something, in the numbers, in which case the book becomes even more useful as a source of helpful hints. Rereading it at a time when we are bombarded with statistics and graphs (oh how a lover of selective data loves graphs) relating to the global pandemic of Covid-19 adds a useful dose of cynicism which we could all do with and the cartoons by Mel Calman are as pointed as they so often are.

Averages and relationships and trends and graphs are not always what they seem. There may be more in them than meets the eye and there may be a good deal less.

The book is full of examples of misleading statistics either real ones or created data to illustrate a point, for example just what is an average? Now the lay person reading that the average of something is say five will assume that tells you something, but which definition of average is being used? There are after all three main types all of which can give wildly different results depending on what you want to prove. The mean is what most people assume is an average that is add up all the numbers and then divide by how many numbers are in the sample. But then there is the median which is simply the middle number if you write out the data in numeric order, now this is useful for getting rid of weird data in the sample, the series 1, 3, 3, 5, 7, 9, 147 has a median of 5 which is ‘probably’ more useful than the mean of that data set which would push the ‘average’ much higher than all but one of the numbers in the set but it can also be misleading if that answer of 147 turns out to be important and you have simply ignored it. The only other average most people will come across is the mode, now that is simply the number that occurs most often so in the previous example that would be 3. So is the average 3, 5 or 25? Well it depends what you want to prove all of them are legitimate averages. In the book Huff uses a similar example where the data is household income, if my sample is also monthly income in thousands of pounds then all we have proved is that this particular group probably includes a professional footballer on £147,000 a month. Saying that the average is £25,000 a month is meaningless unless you want to imply that this is a particularly wealthy neighbourhood to property investors that haven’t been there but under one definition it is the average income, so should they build a Waitrose or an Aldi supermarket?

Each chapter features different ways of presenting data starting with samples with built in bias. A postal survey asking if people like filling in postal surveys may well show that 95% do, but unless you also know that they sent out 100,000 surveys and only got 250 back you don’t see the 99.75 percent of people polled that so dislike filling in postal surveys they simply threw it away. A famous real example of this mentioned in the book is The Kinsey Report on the sex lives of Americans in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. This report claimed to be revolutionary and is still cited but how many people back then were going to be willing to take part in the survey? By the nature of the responding sample we have another self selecting group biased towards people who are more open about their sex lives and preferences and may also on that basis be more experimental therefore skewing the results.

But to really lie with statistics you need a graph which is why politicians and marketing departments love them so much, one of the examples in the book is reproduced below and shows a oft repeated trick to make figures look more impressive, truncating the vertical axis, both graphs show the same data but have a different title to reflect what the story is.

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Another popular trick with graphs is to start or stop the range displayed to avoid including inconvenient data, if a graph based on monthly figures doesn’t start in January or maybe starts in 2007 (which seems an odd year to choose unless mapping something that did actually commence then) always ask the question what were the figures that preceded those displayed, likewise if it appears to stop at a random point then that is probably where the data stopped matching whatever the person drawing the graph wanted to prove.

Percentages are also to be looked at carefully, percentage of what precisely is always a good question. If something is £10 now and £15 next year it is 50% more expensive but the reverse isn’t the case, something £15 and £10 next year is 33% cheaper however it’s amazing how often you see the figure of 50% being used, an example is of the president of a flower growers association in the US who claimed flowers are 100% cheaper than they were last year, what he meant was that the price last year was 100% higher than now, if they were really 100% cheaper they would have to give them away. There are lots more examples in the book and you don’t need any mathematical knowledge to understand any of them, Huff is really good at explaining just why you should be always looking twice at any statistic and the more simplistic the way it is presented then the more cynical you should be.

Darrell Huff wrote this classic back in 1954 and it was then published by Victor Gollancz and first editions now sell for many hundreds of pounds. This is the 1973 first Pelican Books edition and it was Pelican that commissioned Calman’s drawings and is much more reasonably priced. It doesn’t appear to still be in print but copies are easy to find on the secondhand market. Now more than ever this book is needed.

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Making Waves – Duncan MacGregor


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Like another artist whom I featured before in this blog, Sir Robin Philipson, Duncan MacGregor has painted a lot of the art on my walls at home, I like his almost abstract seascapes where with a few apparently simple lines he can express the scurrying movement of a yacht in full sail. In 2013 he wrote this book which along with examples of lots of his work includes a fascinating biographical sketch as to how a boy from the English midlands ended up as a seascape painter and nowadays living for the most part in Scotland away from his native Birmingham. The book is published by DeMontfort Fine Art and is 34cm x 28½cm and came in three editions:-

  • Standard edition, unlimited book at £65
  • Limited edition, book in a box with a signed limited edition print and certificate numbered between 151 and 595 at £165
  • Deluxe edition, book in a box with a signed limited edition print along with an original sketch and certificate numbered between 1 and 150 at £495.

The box for the special editions, both limited and deluxe which is the version I have, has a frame built into the lid which held the print and if appropriate the original painting.  The print that came with all 595 limited or deluxe editions is shown below.

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I have left this with the book in the box however I have framed the original sketch as I wanted that on my walls.

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Although there is quite a lot of text, this is primarily an art book so it is the lovely photographs that draw the reader in and despite the relatively large size of the book there are some fold out pages as well so you can really appreciate the paintings featured

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Paintings also extend over the central page boundary at times so that they use the full height of the page and spread if needed to show the full image whilst included photographs are much smaller. Below are a couple of double page spreads showing Duncan with a couple of his boats. Note the doodled fish in the margins of the lower image, there are little bits of humour like this throughout the volume.

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I particularly like the use of multiple fonts throughout the book which complement the artworks beautifully and there are also some double page images with doodles and handwriting in white on a black background just to play with the print format further

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At the time the book came out MacGregor was experimenting with painting direct onto glass and one of the illustrations shows him at work seen through the panel he was painting. This is obviously complex as effectively the artwork is done backwards, with the foreground and highlights painted first and then gradually covered with the subsequent layers of paint until he reaches what would normally be the first layer of paint on a canvas which is applied last. It does produce an amazing glossy effect though in the finished piece.

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As a final view here are three of his original paintings that are hanging here. Click on an image to see it larger.

Maigret Travels South – Georges Simenon

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This book arrived in the post yesterday having taken almost fifty days to get here from the USA and it occurred to me that I have never actually read anything by Simenon. I wanted it as this is the first edition of the first Maigret book published by Penguin and came from the New York operation set up by Allen Lane and Ian Ballantine during WWII when transatlantic exports were not possible.  It was published in September 1945 whilst the UK parent company didn’t get to Maigret until January 1950 and this title would eventually appear in the UK in January 1952 printed along with nine others as part of the Simenon Million (10 books each in an edition of 100,000 published simultaneously).

Simenon’s novels are quite short so Penguin, along with other publishers, have normally put two together in one volume and this contains ‘Liberty Bar’ along with ‘The Madman of Bergerac’ and even then the book is only 250 pages. Both stories were translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury who translated several of the early Maigret novels printed by Penguin. As they are separate novels only linked by Maigret not being in his regular Paris haunts but much further south I will review them separately.

Liberty Bar

The seventeenth Maigret novel sees the great detective sent off on a murder investigation which apparently requires great tact, something he keeps repeating to himself whenever he gets frustrated by the progress of the case. It’s set in Cannes and Antibes and you can tell straight away that Maigret is not comfortable here. He makes no concession to the location wearing his black coat and bowler hat regardless of the heat and so dramatically stands out where presumably in Paris he would be much like anyone else in the capital. William Brown has been murdered is another mantra he keeps repeating, but his first problem is who was William Brown? Because without understanding that there is no way to work out what had actually happened and why.

My first surprise was nothing to do with the plot but how much alcohol is consumed right from Maigret’s arrival and introduction to the local detective whom immediately suggests going to a bar. Every time we see Boutigues he is either drinking or about to open a bottle and Maigret gets through plenty in his own right especially when he finds Liberty Bar. The characters we are introduced to are wonderfully drawn by Simenon, the four women in particular, the mistress, her mother, the alcoholic bar owner and the prostitute and the time when they finally meet at the funeral, which is engineered by Maigret whist he claims to not know anything about it, is poignant but also funny as they manoeuvre for precedence.

Right up until almost the end I had no idea who had done it and you are cleverly pointed into various dead end possible solutions. My first Maigret story was an absolute delight.

The Madman of Bergerac (Le Fou de Bergerac)

To my surprise the next novel included in this book was written earlier, being number fifteen in the Maigret series, but just emphasised that you really can read any of the seventy five novels plus numerous short stories pretty well in any order. If anything it was also a better story with Maigret solving the murders and the mysterious past of some of the most important characters in Bergerac all from his bed after being shot. I’m not really giving anything away here as that happens very early on in the novel and provides a reason for the Inspector not being able to see for himself what is going on but having to piece everything together from conversations in his room at the hotel where he goes to convalesce.  This plot device is fascinating as Simenon tells the reader Maigret’s thought processes as he slowly unravels the tangled web of lies and half truths surrounding the people he suspects.

The novel starts with Maigret having to go to Bordeaux just to tidy up some loose ends on another case and he takes the overnight train. However the upper bunk of the couchette he ends up in is occupied by a restless man whom in the middle of the night sits up, nervously pulls his patent leather boots over knitted grey wool socks, climbs down the ladder, slips out of the compartment leaving the door open and after waiting for the train to slow down jumps from the carriage. This wait had alerted Maigret as he hadn’t closed the door behind him so he saw him about to jump and got up and followed him being shot by the stranger when he realised he was being pursued.

Who was the mysterious man in grey socks? Why did he jump from the train? And is he anything to do with the murders of women who are strangled and then a long needle inserted in their hearts that has so rattled the town of Bergerac? All this Maigret solves from his bed in one of the best murder mysteries I have read for a long time.

One thing is certain I need to read more Maigret.

In Praise of Folly – Erasmus

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Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote this, probably now his most famous work, in 1509 in Latin and the Folio Society edition that I have uses the Latin title as its cover design Moriae Encomium. By intention this title can also be read as In Praise of More because he dedicated it to his friend Sir Thomas More whom he was staying with in London at the time.

The book is split into sixty seven sections in this edition, although looking at other translations it is not always the case that these are numbered. The text I have was originally produced  for the Penguin Books edition translated by Betty Radice, used by permission by Folio. For a while this use of Penguin texts was relatively common at Folio so presumably they had a formal arrangement to do this. I liked the numbered sections in this text as it gives an easy way of referring to parts but as this is apparently not a standard I will use the opening line of a section if I need to specifically mention it along with the number. This translation also has short footnotes, when Erasmus wrote the book anyone likely to read it would have known the classical examples he refers to but nowadays this is far less likely so a quick guide as to where the quotation has come from and the relevance to the text is extremely useful.

Erasmus decided to make Folly the equivalent of a Greco-Roman goddess addressing the reader as though in a forum or theatre. She introduces herself and her faithful companions

And as for such my companions and followers as you perceive about me, if you have a mind to know who they are, you are not like to be the wiser for me, unless it be in Greek: this here, which you observe with that proud cast of her eye, is Philautia, Self-love; she with the smiling countenance, that is ever and anon clapping her hands, is Kolakia, Flattery; she that looks as if she were half asleep is Lethe, Oblivion; she that sits leaning on both elbows with her hands clutched together is Misoponia, Laziness; she with the garland on her head, and that smells so strong of perfumes, is Hedone, Pleasure; she with those staring eyes, moving here and there, is Anoia, Madness; she with the smooth skin and full pampered body is Tryphe, Wantonness; and, as to the two gods that you see with them, the one is Komos, Intemperance, the other Negretos hypnos, Dead Sleep. These, I say, are my household servants, and by their faithful counsels I have subjected all things to my dominion and erected an empire over emperors themselves.

What follows is, at least at the start, a gentle satire of the foolishness of mankind pointing out how Folly and her companions lead people astray but at the same time saying that the only truly happy people are babes, aged citizens in their dotage and others not fully in control of their mind because only they are not worn down by the cares and realities of life. There are many examples of how her or her companions have affected people for good or ill depending on how you interpret the results, and if the book remained in this vein it would still be well worth reading for the way it pokes fun at pomposity and self-indulgence, greed and wilful ignorance is as relevant today as it was back then. However by section 53, which in this translation begins ‘Then there are the theologians’ you can sense the tone changes. Erasmus is on tricky ground especially in 1509, Martin Luther was still eight years away from writing his Ninety-Five Theses and setting in train the Reformation with his attack on the Pope and other members of the Catholic hierarchy  for the selling of indulgences amongst other things that he regarding as debasing the Christian faith for profit, but Erasmus got in ahead of him.

This was in a time when the office of Pope could certainly be bought, and it cost a lot of money and contacts to work your way up the greasy pole, however the rewards were huge for those that got there. The selling of indulgences was a massive money spinner for the church and ultimately for the Pope himself and this was spreading discontent. What was surprising was that Erasmus felt safe to attack this at the time and not only turned out to be safe in the clever way that he presented his arguments but that his work was the equivalent of a best seller. Erasmus was not an early protestant but he recognised the excesses of the Catholic church and through this book was highlighting the problems that it faced. That he built up to this slowly is of no surprise bearing in mind the recriminations that he could have faced and the power of the church in enforcing discipline in the early sixteenth century.

What starts out as a harmless satire of mankind’s foibles turns into a denunciation of the money grabbing nature of the church at the time, but it is worth noting that Erasmus, and his friend Sir Thomas More, did not support the Protestant breakaway from the Catholic church, and in a roundabout way this would cost More his life as he did not attend King Henry VIII’s wedding to Anne Boleyn which marked the break of England from the Papacy. Erasmus however would be safe back in The Netherlands and would die of natural causes in 1536 having lived though the schism in the church the reasons for which he highlighted in this book but which he couldn’t have foretold.