Darwin in Malibu – Crispin Whittall

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This play by Crispin Whittell was premiered by The Birmingham Repertory theatre in Birmingham, England in May 2003, it opened on the 9th May and finished its scheduled run on the 31st, I attended the performance on the 21st. The copy of the book I possess was bought at the theatre and includes several pages relating to the performance including biographical details of the performers along with details regarding the theatre company and the theatre itself. Presumably these pages are not present in later versions of the book as it is replacing the need for a programme at this particular performance and is not relevant to any later production.

The entire play takes plays on the deck of a beach house in Malibu, California and is viewed as though the audience are sitting on the beach looking towards the house with the sea behind them. It is clearly the present day from the attire of the young woman who appears on the stage as the play opens. Already seated on the deck is an old man with a white beard wearing a Hawaiian shirt and reading a book, which turns out to be Malibu by Pat Booth. Already I was intrigued by the set-up, as presumably this was Charles Darwin, and nobody had said anything yet. Sarah and Darwin chat aimlessly for a while, she is clearly a little ditsy and missing her boyfriend whilst Darwin appears to have discovered a rather unlikely liking for horoscopes.

The two are joined by Thomas Huxley who was Darwin’s friend and public champion of his theory when it was published in 1859 whilst Darwin himself had stayed at his home in Kent most noticeably at an acrimonious  debate at the British Association’s Oxford meeting in 1860. It soon becomes clear that both men are well aware that over a century has passed and that they are both dead. They are also puzzled as to why in that case they are sitting in a beach house in Malibu and also why they are joined by Sarah who is clearly not a Victorian ghost. Nevertheless they chat about the Oxford debate and also technological discoveries since such as DNA which shows how Natural Selection (as Darwin called it) works.

Then suddenly from along the beach the bishop of Oxford from that same debate, Samuel Wilberforce, arrives. It was with the bishop that Huxley famously, and possibly apocryphally, disagreed most. Apparently back in 1860 Wilberforce facetiously asked Huxley whether his ape ancestors were on his grandfather or grandmother’s side. Huxley replied that he would rather have an ape for a grandfather than a man with an impressive brain and considerable influence who chose to employ those facilities in the ridicule of science. The three of them attempt to continue the debate on stage and although it is now 143 years later it is clear there will be no meeting of minds, just as we also slowly find out who Sarah is and why she is there.

Now if that all sounds a little dry and overly intellectual for an evenings entertainment I have to say that nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst not a laugh a minute it is very funny when it wants to be and poignant when appropriate. I still have the flyer for the show I saw which is tucked into the book as a bookmark and the quote from Darwin’s lines in the play printed on it sums up the effect of California on the great thinker. The play is seldom performed although it has had a few revivals not just in the UK but America as well, if it ever on near you I recommend it.

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Wind, Sand and Stars – Saint-Exupéry

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I think most people come across Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupéry, to give him his full name, via his massively popular novel The Little Prince which is one of the most translated books ever written, only beaten by The Bible and, depending on where you look, Pinocchio. Once you have heard of his work then quite often you discover that he was a French pioneer aviator, flying mail planes from 1926 and that he died in mysterious circumstances during WWII whilst on a reconnaissance flight looking for German troop movements in mid 1944. This lovely Folio Society edition concerns some of his flying experiences from a student through the 1930’s. He was to write another book covering his wartime flying called Flight to Arras and having finished this book I now need to get hold of a copy of that.

I’m not sure what I expected from this book, tales of daring do, a man against the elements in what was still very primitive machinery perhaps, what I had not allowed for was how much the philosopher and poet would shine through. Indeed near the beginning in the chapter called ‘The Elements’ which describes being caught in a storm in the Andes Saint-Exupéry makes it quite clear that my first thoughts are not to be realised

And so, in beginning my story of a revolt of the elements which I myself lived through I have no feeling that I shall write something which you will find dramatic.

In reality the story that follows is dramatic, but not because of excitable reportage which may have been the style selected by a lesser writer, but for the calm descriptions of each problem thrown at the pilot as the storm winds batter his plane around the sky. The various chapters whilst maintaining an internal consistent time-frame are not placed chronologically in the book. Chapter one does cover his days as a student pilot, or at least the preparations for his first flight as the pilot on a mail plane rather than his student days and as the book progresses you find him in South America and later the Sahara although in reality his three years as a desert pilot preceded his time across the Atlantic.

There is surprising little flying in the book at all, the longest chapter ‘Prisoner of the Sand’ starts out with a proposed flight from Paris to Saigon in December 1935 and does indeed have Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic in the air for several pages until the inevitable crash presaged by the chapter title has them down in an unknown part of the desert. The main part of the chapter concerns their attempts to attract rescue and treks away from the plane wreckage to seek water and nourishment almost all of which had been lost in the crash. But even here Saint-Exupéry deflates the tension pointing out early on that he is writing the story so they must have eventually found help, even  though it was at the last possible chance as they were almost dying from lack of water. This for me is the best chapter of the book, closely followed by ‘Men of the Desert’ which again is chiefly not concerned with flying but rather the people on the ground that he comes into contact with and almost half the chapter regards the freeing of a slave held by desert nomads and returning him to Marrakesh.

The final chapter, entitled ‘Barcelona and Madrid (1936)’ covers some of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. His involvement in this conflict was never as a participant unlike George Orwell whose time there led to his book Homage to Catalonia. In fact it is not clear exactly what he is doing there as he manages to be on both fronts and is vitriolic regarding the futility of the conflict.

There was not much to choose between Barcelona and its enemy, Saragossa; both were composed of the same swarm of communists, anarchists and fascists. The very men who collected on the same side were perhaps more different from one another than from their enemies. In civil war the enemy is inward; one as good as fights oneself. What else can explain the particular horror of this war in which firing-squads count for more that soldiers of the line?

and a little later

Here in Spain a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard. You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas were not our ideas.

Here again Saint-Exupéry is dealing with mankind as his subject, the title of the book is probably a little misleading, you expect Biggles but you get Descartes.

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On the 23rd July 1944 Saint-Exupéry’s most famous work The Little Prince was published for the first time. Eight days later he set off on a routine reconnaissance flight in a P-38 Lightning looking for German troops and was never seen again. Indeed no trace of his plane was to be found for over fifty years, first a bracelet was discovered in the nets of a Marseilles fisherman and that led to the discovery of a wrecked P-38 off the coast. Checking a recovered serial number proved the wreck to be his plane but there was no body. Near the end of The Little Prince the eponymous hero has to return to his own planet and amongst his last words are

I shall look as if I were dead; and that will not be true…

For over fifty years fans of Saint-Exupéry wanted that to be true of him also…

 

Mortimer Also – Jo Rice

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I was lucky, I was introduced to books at an early age and was a confident, and voracious, reader by the time I was five and around that time my parents subscribed to the Children’s Book Club which supplied a hardback book every month from a selection they provided in a catalogue sent with the previous month’s book. The book club was run by the famous London bookshop Foyles, at least going by the address printed in the books I still have of 121 Charing Cross Road, there is no mention of the owner of the club in any of the books I still have from them. As well as books reprinted for the club there were also books from other publishers included in the selection and all editions were offered at a significant discount to the listed price. I know I was a member for at least five years judging by the dates of the books I retain and memory of the significant shelf space they took up and this weeks blog subject is one of the earliest from when I turned six years old.

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It was great fun to read Mortimer Also again, probably for the first time in over forty years. Over those intervening decades the only time it has come off the shelf was to be packed in a box and then unpacked again after each house move. It was one of those not reprinted by the book club so this is the 1968 first edition printed by Worlds Work and sadly it would appear to have been the only edition as a search of abebooks and biblio only revealed this version. It seems odd it never got reprinted, the story is well written and beautifully illustrated by David Knight and I’m sure would have found a wider readership if it had been picked up for a paperback reprint, at 21 shillings for the hardback (roughly £18 in today’s money) it was quite expensive if not bought through the book club.

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The story concerns Henry Lester, a leading cricket umpire about to start on his final season before retiring with the highlight being the Lord’s Test Match, The Ashes, England v Australia. Certainly in the 1960’s when the book was written this would have been the standout game of cricket that year however Henry has a problem, his eyesight is failing him and he occasionally has double vision so he is planning on quitting before his career grand finale. He also has another concern which he makes some notes of before going to bed one night and to his surprise finds replies added to his piece of paper the next morning

1. A mouse has taken up residence in the skirting board of my parlour
THAT'S RITE!
2. Clean, tidy, quiet, no trouble at all
THANKS I'M SURE
3. Listens to wireless, only on Saturday evenings
SEE B.B.C. 6:30pm
4. During Summer
WHO PLAYS CRICKET IN WINTER?
5. Sits in entrance to hole - backwards!
YOUR FAULT?
6. Makes strange scratching noises and occasionally twitches tail
SEE 5.
7. The sports page of my evening paper disappears every Saturday night
YOU GET IT BACK ON SUNDAY
8. I am worried
AWRIGHT I'LL GO.

And so Henry gets to meet Mortimer Also, a family name “Grandfather Mortimer; father – Mortimer Too; yours truly – Mortimer Also” a cricket mad mouse who notes the scores down on old bus tickets, hence scratching noises and sitting in his hole backwards to prevent them being blown about, and is also perceptive enough to spot Henry’s secret eyesight problem. He talks Henry out of resigning and between them come up with a plan where Mortimer Also will hide in his hat, observing the game through tiny holes and signalling to Henry what decisions he should make. The story is full of gentle humour with Mortimer reacting to the Australians initially in a highly partisan way especially after the fast bowler sees him on the ground and tries to hit him with a bat. Gradually though he settles down and the plan succeeds in getting Henry through the five days of the game with only a few incidents. In the final few pages where Mortimer Also steps up to defend the ruse to the Lords Committee after Henry confesses all after Mortimer was knocked out by a stray ball are beautifully written and that is probably why over fifty years after I first had this book it is still on my shelves unlike most of my original childhood library.

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The book includes a few very thinly disguised actual cricketers including a large framed Australian fast bowler called Kelly who was probably based on Graham McKenzie and the captains of England and Australia from the early 1960’s, Ted Dexter and Richie Benaud respectively. Dexter is simply referred to as Ted Baxter but there is a quite an accurate summary of Benaud as Henry describes him to Mortimer before the start of the game.

Archie Renaud, Captain; all-rounder; slow spin bowler; lively bat; goes in 6 or 7.

This dates the year that this is based on to probably 1961 as by the 1964 series Benaud was no longer captain. Ah the serendipity of cricket, whilst looking that up I found that the Australian touring team in 1961 included a slow left-arm bowler called I Quick. Although he never played in the Test Matches I love that fact almost as much as I loved reading Mortimer Also, now will somebody please reprint it so that more people can discover this little gem of a book.

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McCarthy’s Bar – Pete McCarthy

The eight rule of travel states: “Never Pass A Bar That Has Your Name On It”

For someone with roots in the west of Ireland, even though he was born in England, McCarthy spent a lot of time during his childhood in Ireland and was familiar with just how ubiquitous the McCarthy name was in the west and so how many bars there were with his name. As this is being posted on New Years Eve being in a bar is an ideal subject.

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A little background on Pete McCarthy first, he originally made his name as a comedian but where I first came across him was as the presenter of Travelog, a Channel 4 (UK television) quirky travel programme which started in 1990 and then from his numerous appearances on BBC Radio 4 shows both comedy and travel based. Sadly he died of cancer in 2004 aged only 52 and left us just two books to enjoy his gently humorous writing. McCarthy’s Bar was the first and was published in 2000, my copy is the paperback from 2001. The book starts on St Patrick’s Day and “McCarthy’s Bar was heaving”, he goes on to describe not only his own steadily more drunken state but that of the very international clientele of pub and his growing realisation that he really felt Irish, the punchline at the end of the chapter is typically Pete McCarthy.

Outside I stood under the green neon shamrock and looked up at the sign. ‘McCarthy’s’ it said. ‘Hungary’s top Irish pub’.

I turned up my collar. Budapest can still be quite chilly in March.

Sod this I thought. Next year I’ll go to Ireland.

Sadly McCarthy’s in Budapest no longer exists, but it is commemorated by the fact that next year he did go to Ireland and provided this wonderfully funny and also at time deeply thought provoking book as he sees how Ireland has changed since he was there as a child each summer holiday on the family farm, whilst visiting as many bars called McCarthy’s as he could find. There are two trips covered in the book, the first one uses a hire car for a week to set up a much longer trip using a beaten up old Volvo which he buys in England for less than the cost of hiring the original car for the week, cue a very funny passage which deals with the trials, tribulations and surprising hidden costs of hiring a car.

By the trip with the Volvo he has got into his stride with the style of the book and he also has a plan beyond the original premise of just travelling which is to finish with a pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory a notoriously difficult three days of fasting and prayer on an island in a lake in County Donegal. There is no real explanation as to why he chooses to do this, visiting all the pubs with your name on them makes sense as a plan for a trip round Ireland but as to why he wants to do the three days at the end not even McCarthy seems clear with the reasoning other than he picked up the leaflet about it and decided to go.

Another series of locations soon become obvious in the narrative, McCarthy is fascinated by the multitude of ancient stone circles and other monuments that litter the countryside in Ireland and regular diversions are planned to visit them between evenings (and quite often nights) in the various pubs. He examines the uneven way Ireland has become wealthy from the mid 1990’s with the Celtic Tiger boom and the huge increase in tourism outside of Dublin that has come with it, so there is a lot more to the book than simply funny stories. However there are plenty of those and one of my favourites concerns the town of Bunratty and the castle with the Folk Park. The park includes various buildings created to represent Irish history and a ‘pub’ called Durty Nellies where it turns out that at night the locals go to so as to avoid all the tourists that now fill their traditional bars. Creating the odd situation that the real pubs in town cater for the tourists and the fake pub in the theme park, which is aimed at tourists, is where you will find the actual locals at least after the park is officially closed anyway.

There are several laugh out loud sections and I loved the short passage on his trip to Killarney racecourse which he went to on the advice of his severely out of date guide which was written by William Makepeace Thackeray a hundred and fifty years earlier.

At the end of an astonishing long line of bookies is a chap called McCarthy. I go straight over and put £5 at five to one on a horse whose name closely resembles a TV executive I’d like to see run two and a half miles jumping fences while a fierce little Irish bloke whipped him.

The horse lost, but it’s a good story. That also applies to all the other stories in the book even including the three days on Station Island in Lough Derg where he manages to inject humour into purgatory.

The pub doorway featured on the cover is that of MacCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere, County Cork owned and run by Adrienne MacCarthy, the ‘a’ drops in and out of spelling Mac quite frequently in both Ireland and Scotland. However the sign was photoshopped for the cover to reflect the spelling of Pete’s surname. The nun by the way is not really in holy orders but one of the barmaids dressed up for the photoshoot. There is a really good write up about the real bar and the effect it had and continues to have on the business in the Irish Times from December 2014.

Misericords – Philip Sharpe and Andrew Judd

This lovely book wasn’t planned to be a post on this blog because until the 23rd November this year I didn’t even know it existed. On that day I was in Hay on Wye, which is the worlds first book town, and discovered a new shop that I hadn’t seen before. Balch and Balch (also trading as The Story of Books) specialise in books from Private Presses and although the main room was closed at the time as they were preparing for the Winter Festival to be held the following weekend Graeme kindly brought a selection of about eight titles for me to have a look at, top of the pile was this one. Now he couldn’t have known that I have a lifetime fascination with misericords and if ever I am in a medieval church or cathedral always check to see what delights are hidden away there in the choir stalls.

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So before reviewing the book, just what are misericords? The description as given at the start of the King Penguin book on the subject (written by M.D. Anderson and published in October 1954 as K72) is reproduced below.

An intelligent sightseer who wishes to understand the mentality of ordinary people living in the Middle Ages will find a rich reward for even a superficial study of the carvings on Gothic choir stalls, particularly those of misericords. The medieval priests, finding the physical strain of standing through a succession of long services beyond their endurance, devised a hinged seat with a corbel projecting from its under-surface which, when the seat was tipped up, allowed them to combine the comfort of sitting with the appearance of standing. In an age which was lavish in the use of fine craftsmanship it was natural that these corbels, although seldom seen, should be decorated with carvings and the work gave a rare opportunity for self-expression to carvers employed.

As implied there is a wide variety of subjects to be seen on misericords and a lot of the time you wonder what they are doing in a church, real and imaginary animals, people making beer or wine (and drinking it), various domestic scenes, knights in armour or even in New College Oxford a series depicting the seven deadly sins… What is rarely depicted is religious subjects. these carvings after all were intended to be sat on and it was not seen as suitable to have sacred images for that purpose. This brings us to the carvings in St Mary’s church at Ripple in Worcestershire, England which were used to inspire the illustrations in this book. Of the sixteen misericords in the church twelve depict ‘the labours of the months’ and Andrew Judd has produced some lovely linocuts of these to accompany not only a medieval poem but also twelve new works by Philip Sharpe that fill out the story.

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The book is printed in a limited edition of just 50 copies of which mine is number 45 by a private press called MKB Editions about whom I have unfortunately been able to find out very little other than it appears to be a Hereford based collaboration between Sharpe and Judd as everything I can find published by the press involves one or both of them. Of the 49 other copies of this book, two are held in libraries according to worldcat, at the University of Oxford and also, somewhat more randomly, the University of Arizona.

It really is a beautiful book, printed by letterpress on Zerkall paper it is quarter cloth bound with printed boards forming the cover. In total there are fourteen prints, one for each of the months along with one facing the anonymous medieval poem that formed part of the inspiration to the book and a further image making up the final page; all are based on the misericords in St. Mary’s. I admit to buying it for the prints rather than the poetry by Philip Sharpe which is OK but without the images I would not have looked twice at the book. There are several references to the River Severn (which flows roughly 100 yards from my front door) and also its propensity to flood, which living here I am all too aware of, so the verses ring true to my locality. But sadly other than the geographic recognition I don’t have a deep feeling for the text; but I will treasure the book nevertheless for adding to my love of the remarkable misericord and a chance discovery decades ago in childhood that has led to a fascination with old churches that I still retain today.

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Strange Pilgrims – Gabriel García Márquez

For my 100th post on this blog I have chosen one of the lesser known works by Gabriel García Márquez, in fact it is his last published collection of short stories. They were started during the 1970’s and 80’s but were not actually published until 1992 with an English translation appearing a year later. My copy is the Penguin books edition translated by Edith Grossman and published in 1994 with a bizarre cover by Matthew Richardson of Eastwing Design. The twelve tales are linked by being all about Latin American characters travelling or living in Europe, this was a familiar position for Márquez at the time as he lived in Barcelona for seven years in the 1970’s, going there after the success of his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”.

Born in Columbia, Márquez spent a lot of his life in Mexico, although his time in Europe clearly had a significant influence on these works. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 he is probably best known for his novels, three of which are also on my shelves along with three more books of short stories. However because there are so many reviews of his novels such as “Love in the Time of Cholera”and “One Hundred Years of Solitude”  and also as I have a soft spot for well crafted short stories this collection had to be the one to read this week.

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In the preface Márquez explains the long gestation of these stories, beginning with an exercise book in which he wrote sixty four tales none of which he was quite happy with, the dates each story was started is given after each one in the book and I have added this information as a date in brackets after each title below. He had several goes at rewriting but was never satisfied and the book was added to his papers to be looked at again when he might have a better idea how to work with the material. Unfortunately the exercise book got lost, presumably thrown out by accident, so he had a go at recreating them from memory. This reduced the total to about thirty and he is sanguine about this regarding the other half as clearly not good enough if he couldn’t remember how they went. The stories were still not right though and it was not until a final eight months of solid work finished the last ten included in this collection, which were all worked on simultaneously, that he finally had a book that he was happy to publish in the early 1990’s.

The twelve stories are each briefly reviewed below:-

Bon Voyage, Mr President (June 1979)

The first story concerns a familiar subject for Latin America, that of a deposed and exiled president finding treatment for illness in a foreign country, in this case Geneva in Switzerland. He is recognised by one of the ambulance drivers who comes from his original country and the driver plans along with his wife to get money from him by selling a fake insurance and funeral plan. The plot does not go as they intended and the development of the three characters makes an interesting twist.

The Saint (August 1981)

The Saint in the story is the incorruptible body of a seven year old girl from Columbia being taken round Rome by her father in an attempt to have her recognised as a saint. Well that is the initial premise anyway. In truth the story is more about the various characters staying in the hostel near the Vatican and their inter-reactions not only with each other, the saint and oddly the lion in the nearby zoo. The final two sentences of the tale though switch the meaning of the title in an unexpected way.

Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane (June 1982)

I’m not sure what to make of this story, it has a distinct voyeuristic tone that can be a little uncomfortable. The narrator sees a beautiful woman in Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris and then is pleased to see that he has the seat next to her on the plane to New York. The descriptions of watching her sleep next to him throughout the flight without any communication taking part between them throughout the journey makes odd reading.

I Sell My Dreams (March 1980)

Another tale regarding sleep, although this time the prophetic dreams of a Colombian woman who had come to Europe as a child and is first encountered by Márquez in Vienna. He sees her again many years later in Barcelona when he meets the Chilean poet Pablo Naruda and she is in the same restaurant and she is still making money from her dreams.

“I Only Came to Use the Phone” (April 1978)

The most disturbing story in the collection. A woman is driving on the way to Barcelona in a storm when her car breaks down. She is eventually picked up by a bus which drops her off at its destination so that she can use the phone. However the rest of the passengers are female mental patients and it is assumed at the asylum that she must also be a patient and she is prevented from calling her husband, sedated and admitted. The story describes her ultimate mental collapse as she tries and fails to explain her true situation.

The Ghosts of August (October 1980)

At less than four full pages this is the shortest work in the collection and is a really good ghost story, this time set in Tuscany and again involving a real person, in this case Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero Silva.

María dos Prazeres (May 1979)

Maria is a semi-retired prostitute in her seventies, originally from Manaus in Brazil but living for most of her life in the Gracia district of Barcelona. She now has only one client who has come to her weekly for decades and it is more a relationship than a business proposition. Convinced she is soon to die the story concerns her elaborate plans for her funeral and what is to happen with her belongings including her little dog afterwards. You really get to know her as the story unfolds and just as with other stories in this collection things suddenly change at the end.

Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen (April 1980)

The eponymous Englishmen are simply bit players in this tale of a Colombian widow who has travelled to Italy planning to see the Pope soon after the end of WWII. What it is more about is her reactions to post war Naples and her fears when she has to make her own way rather than the planned help she was expecting.

Tramontana (January 1982)

The Tramontana of the title is a persistent and powerful wind that the narrator of the tale experienced for three long days whilst staying in Cadaqués in Catalonia. He describes it as oppressive presence taking a personal affront to the presence of him and his family. It also clearly has a strong effect on all those who experience it.

Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness (1976)

Two young boys from Alta Guajira on the Colombian Caribbean coast are on the island of Pantelleria at the southern end of Sicily for a long summer holiday. For the first month they were with their parents and all was wonderful but they had left them in the care of a German governess called Miss Forbes whilst they went on a writers retreat elsewhere in the Mediterranean. She is very strict and the holiday had become intolerable to the boys, so much so that they resolve to kill her but the plot does not go as they intended…

Light is Like Water (December 1978)

This very short tale (around five pages) is positively surreal and again features two young boys around the ages that Márquez’s children would have been when he started to write it. As the narrator explains, he was asked how the light came on at a touch of the switch and replied “Light is like water, you turn the tap and out it comes”. Taking this seriously the boys break a bulb and sail a boat on the pool of light that cascades out of it despite being in an apartment on the fifth floor of a building in Madrid. But you should never play with liquid light.

The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow (1976)

Like the boys in ‘Light is Like Water’ the protagonists of this final tale are originally from Cartegena de Indias on the Colombian Caribbean coast but this time they are wealthy young adults recently married and travelling from Madrid to Paris overnight in a Bentley convertible that had been a wedding present. But Nena has cut her finger on a rose thorn and the bleeding will not stop.

A very enjoyable collection and if you have never read any Márquez it’s a good place to start. The stories do all feel that they belong together, possibly due to the simultaneous final rewriting yet are sufficiently different to highlight alternate aspects of his style. Highly recommended.

Summer Lightning – P G Wodehouse

A certain critic – for such men, I regret to say, do exist – made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’. He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.

The opening paragraph of the preface by Wodehouse to Summer Lightning is typical of the humour of the man and is a perfect example of why I love his works. I don’t care that you can often recognise bits of previous characters in some new ones. Frankly the world of which he writes of stately homes in the country and clubs in London all populated by the most bizarre yet oddly believable characters is what I’m looking for when I pick up one of his books. Of invariably rich and often foolish young men, sensible young women, wildly eccentric uncles and terrifying aunts is the Wodehouse world made and the occasional sensible male character such as Jeeves, the gentleman’s gentleman in the Wooster stories or Beach the butler at Blandings merely highlight the craziness going on around them by being a beacon of solidity. They are an escape from reality to a time and place that probably only ever existed in Wodehouse’s fertile brain but which is instantly recognisable as 1920’s England and could be nowhere else.

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Summer Lightning is part of the series of books and short stories that relate to the goings on at Blandings Castle and was originally published in 1929. For those people who only know Wodehouse through the ever popular Jeeves and Wooster stories we are introduced to a whole new collection of odd characters and yet more bizarre plots in this series of books. Summer Lightning is not the first in the series but it is a perfectly good place to begin as you are introduced to the population of the castle very well and don’t need the earlier volumes to know the dynamic between them. Head of the family and, theoretically at least, in charge of the castle is Lord Emsworth who would be quite happy if left alone with his library, the castle grounds and of course the love of his life, his prize pig The Empress. In reality the castle is run by his sister Lady Constance who as châtelaine makes certain that things actually get done, as long as they are what she wants doing. The two do not exactly get on and Lord Emsworth usually gets bullied into at least starting some of the things his sister plans although usually by his absent-mindedness they rarely end up as she intended. The other constant inhabitant of the castle is the butler Beach who invariably gets caught up in the shenanigans of the various family members and guests there.

As the novel starts there are three other significant people in residence, one of Lord Emsworth’s nieces Millicent Threepwood, his newly appointed secretary Hugo Carmody (who is secretly engaged to Millicent) and his brother Galahad Threepwood who is writing his scandalous (and possibly slanderous) memoirs. You can already see two plot lines that will be developed. Later on add in Ronald Fish who is one of Lord Emsworth’s nephews, a friend of Hugo Carmody who he ran a failed nightclub with and whom Lady Constance hopes will marry his cousin Millicent, along with Sue Brown, a chorus girl in a London theatre, who is engaged to Ronald but would definitely be regarded as unsuitable by the family and things really start to get mixed up. Throw in pig-napping, mistaken identity, rivalry with the neighbour Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, more pig-napping and a detective brought in who is also in love with Sue Brown although she dislikes him and it becomes quite complicated. Having said that Wodehouse is a master of this and you can always follow the various machinations of the characters as each tries to get to their desired outcome with greater or lesser success.

Beautifully illustrated by Paul Cox this 2004 edition of Summer Lightning is published by The Folio Society and as well as this stand alone volume it is available as part of a boxed set of six books which between them make up roughly half of Wodehouse’s output about Blandings Castle and it’s inhabitants. I now live within four or five miles of where the Blandings books are set in north Shropshire. Precisely which place gave Wodehouse his inspiration is not known but journey times and the fact that The Wrekin can be seen from the castle means that it has to be round here, local newspapers mentioned in the books although fictional also refer to local towns. The most likely house that the prototype for Blandings is Apley Hall and the sheer scale of this property fits in well with the descriptions of the castle in the books. This local link is what has encouraged me to re-read the books set round here and this had led to me exploring more of his works since moving to the area. He wrote over 70 novels and well over 200 short stories so is remarkably prolific and is possibly even more popular now than he was in his lifetime with a 1000 strong membership of the P G Wodehouse Society and deservedly so. His books are great fun, now which one shall I read next?