Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs – Paul Carter

Or to give the book its full title “Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs: She Thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whorehouse”. A series of real life stories of life on oil rigs around the world in some of the most dangerous places you could ever hope not to go to.

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Carter has written a really funny summary of some of his exploits in fifteen years working on oil rigs around the world and the scrapes he has got into whilst doing it. The book has a prologue with an extract from chapter nine which has him in business class on a scheduled flight from Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea; unfortunately with Amoebic Dysentery which strikes just after take-off. Now there is definitely nothing inherently funny about an explosive attack of dysentery, especially in a crowded aeroplane, but the way he writes about it is so vivid that you cannot help laughing at the situation.

The first chapter relates to his childhood and initial links to oil, He had a rough time in his early years with a domineering father who was in the RAF, eventually his mother left him taking the two children with her. She moved the family to Aberdeen and got a job in the oil industry where she would meet her second husband and subsequently got posted to Australia which is where Carter spent his adolescence and eventually some dead end jobs but he wanted to work on rigs. Ironically after his father left the RAF he also started working on rigs and Carter would sometimes meet people who had worked with him. As he says the work is all over the world but the actual people doing the work form a surprisingly small community and there are regular characters that keep turning up no matter where he is working.

In amongst the stories about offshore and land rigs, crazy holding accommodation and the horror stories you also get to learn a little about the oil business and definitely a lot about why being involved may be lucrative but also extremely dangerous. Carter has worked on all sorts and after proving his abilities has been freelance for four years at the time he covers in the book. He is obviously good enough at what he does to be wanted by numerous companies no matter what type of rig is involved.

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We go on a bounce around the world starting in Australia with a land rig in the Western Australia goldfields back in the early 1990’s where he learnt the trade as a labourer, or roughneck, and worked his way up and then mainly in the Asian oilfields. Apart from the dysentery, and the local wildlife trying to kill you this was relatively safe until it got to time away from the rig when men who work in a dangerous and frequently deadly job chill out by doing dangerous and sometimes deadly ways of not being at work. The wilder the country the more dangerous it was, not just from the locality but also the often poorly maintained equipment such as ancient helicopters.

Every time I read Upstream, an oilfield newspaper, there’s an article like this

Bumfuck Nowhere: all nine passengers and crew died yesterday, when a twelve seater Sikorsky helicopter operated by Doom Air crashed in a really big ball of flames shortly after take off from Bumfuck Nowhere regional airport. Witnesses say the helicopter fell for, oh wow, ages before vaporising into the jungle at 1592 miles an hour.

He also worked the Gulf and South America but the stand out awful places were Russia which  was cold, so very cold and really primitive and worst of the worst Nigeria which was so dangerous to work in that getting out alive was regarded as a bonus. Nowhere in Nigeria was without armed guards when not on the rig especially on the trip to and from the airport, his two predecessors for the job he had there had both been killed by fake taxi drivers before they had even made it to the camp for the first time.

But it’s not just about the oilfields you also get the ups and downs of his personal life and the surprising sideline he ended up doing which was in advertising in Sydney in his downtime between jobs. This is probably what honed his way with words and makes the book such a pleasure to read.

This is not a book for the easily shocked or offended, but you probably guessed that from the prologue so at least you have been warned. I loved it and need to get his follow up “This is Not a Drill”

My Name Escapes Me – Alec Guinness

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Subtitled “The diary of a retiring actor” this book takes us from the 1st January 1995 to the 6th June 1996. 1995 is treated rather episodically with large gaps in the diary but there are much more frequent entries for 1996 at least as far as that year goes. The book is quite a gentle read, ideal for a quiet afternoon where you just want something to entertain rather than educate. Guinness is in his eighties by the time he wrote this and effectively has retired although he does do a couple of very small parts for films and a short voice-over during the 18 months of the diary.

There are the expected reminiscences scattered through, not just of stage and screen but also of his conversion to Roman Catholicism forty years earlier. Through most of the book his wife Merula is having problems getting about leading to hip surgery and a long slow recovery and he clearly dotes on her, with various changes of plan wrapped around her current health. He is an inveterate name dropper and chides himself several times in the diary for long convoluted stories he tells at dinner parties probably boring everyone else in the process, a habit Merula sometimes curtails by commenting, with the punchline that he is slowly working up to, during the story. People expect actors, especially ones of his seniority, to be able to talk in public but Guinness is quite clear several times that having him give a speech is doomed to failure from the start, it always has been and age has not improved his ability.

One running commentary relates to the Star Wars films and the fan mail, usually with photographs they want signing that he gets all the time.  As in this entry from 16th December 1995 which gives a good flavour of the style of the book.

Today I have felt querulous. Behaviour has been spiky; largely due, I think, to our affable postman dutiful pushing piles of junk mail through the letterbox daily. It gets worse near Christmas. The rubbish, the charity appeals (often in duplicate) and worst of all, the photographs from Star Wars demanding autographs. They mostly come from America and as often as not enclose a stamped addressed envelope – the stamps being US stamps are useless her. The English usually make their demand without photograph, envelope, stamp or money. The nation has got acclimatized to asking something for nothing. Bills in the post are welcome in comparison. It’s mean and hard of me but from 1 January 1996 I am resolved to throw it all in the waste bin unopened (bills excepted, of course); I no longer have the energy to assist teenagers in their idiotic, albeit lucrative, hobby.

He makes a good point here, that a lot of the signed pictures are probably destined for Ebay or some such autograph trading site, where they would make a significant profit for the person who sent them and that is the reason for the contact in the first place. This is something that Sir Terry Pratchett was also somewhat wary of, threatening to sign any book where no dedication was requested “To Ebay purchaser”. Terry does actually make a slight appearance in the book in the 13th June 1995 entry where Guinness praises the Jungle Quest episode from the previous night which featured Terry and his PA Rob in Borneo with Orang Utans.

The diary ends on the 56th birthday of their son Matthew (also an actor) soon after a much needed holiday at Lake Como, not just to mark his birthday but also the anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 1945. Guinness was in the opposite side of Europe, in Italy, at the time having taken part in the attacks on Sicily and Italy several days before, designed not only to take that area but also to divert German military forces away from Dunkirk.

It’s a good read, if a little light, and has an excellent index which reveals that Alan Bennett is mentioned twelve times, The National Theatre four times whilst the National Lottery gets five. Shakespeare or his plays are name checked forty five times whilst the second highest is his wife Merula at twenty nine (although much longer entries) and third comes dogs at twenty one times. I think this says a lot for his priorities. Sir Alec Guinness died in August 2000 and Merula only lived another couple of months afterwards.

An Unsung Hero: the remarkable story of Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer – Michael Smith

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Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean. The first three Antarctic explorers listed are household names but Tom Crean is, as the title of the book implies, largely unknown. But he should be celebrated, as he took part in three of the main British Antarctic expeditions during what became known as The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration during the first two decades of the 20th century.  He  was with Scott and Shackleton on the Discovery Expedition from 1901 to 1904 which at the time set the record for furthest south at 82° 17′. He was then with Scott on his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition from 1910 to 1913 and Scott’s attempt on the South Pole, where he was beaten to it by Amundson and died on his way back to the ship. Crean was later with Shackleton on his failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition on the Endurance from 1914 to 1917 where the Endurance sank early in the venture. Shackleton walked his men to Elephant island and then chose four to go with him for help in an open boat across over eight hundred miles of the South Atlantic to South Georgia and Crean was one of those who was part of possibly the greatest feat of seamanship seen in the last hundred years.

So why is he so barely known, apart from those of us with a fascination with Polar exploration? Well part of the reason is that Crean was really only semi-literate, so he left no diaries or any other documentation for posterity; he also never gave any interviews and the four medals he earned in the Antarctic weren’t displayed. Apparently he never even told his daughters about his exploits in Antarctica. The sole hint that here was a man with his background in exploration was that when he left the navy in 1920 he opened a pub in his home town of Annascaul in Southern Ireland which he called The South Pole Inn. The pub is still called that and in 2003 a statue of Crean was erected in the town, so maybe wider recognition is finally happening for this quiet and self-assuming man and it may well have been helped by this excellent book which was originally printed in 2001, my copy is the first paperback edition from 2002 also published by Headline.

Despite the lack of much documentary evidence from Crean himself Michael Smith has done an excellent job of research to piece together his life from lots of sources. Sixty six books are listed in the bibliography, quite a few I already have in my small Polar library and this list has pointed me to others that sound worth adding to my collection. There are also numerous letters, unpublished diaries and other documents that have been consulted. All this has made a beautifully illustrated book of over three hundred pages which tells not only the story of Tom Crean but also the expeditions that he took part in.  He was in the group of the last eight men on the Beardmore with Scott when he chose the last five to make the final push for the pole. That Scott decided not to chose him may well have been an error as Crean was still fit and strong unlike Oates who had an injured leg and Taffy Evans’ badly cut hand, both of which for reasons of his own Scott decided to take with him. That this undoubtedly saved Crean’s life and allowed him to continue his polar explorations with Shackleton a few years later. What can only be wondered is if Scott had taken the fitter Crean then would his party made it back to the food depot they were aiming for when they died on the ice. We will never know, Michael Smith makes it quite clear where his opinion lies:

Scott, it must be said, made two basic mistakes in selecting his final party to reach the pole. First, he chose the men at the wrong time and second he chose the wrong men.

Shackleton on the other hand greatly valued the taciturn and powerful Irishman, not only selecting him for the crew of the Endurance but picking him as one of the four to go for help with him in that open boat when the expedition became a rescue mission. I’ll cover this in a later blog as I have been in awe of that journey since first reading about it as a child. After returning from the expedition Crean joined the war effort and Shackleton encouraged him to get promotion, along with writing to the First Lord of the Admiralty personally recommending his promotion. This he duly got and after the war ended up with a reasonable pension, which along with money sent to him by Shackleton enabled him to open the South Pole Inn. Shackleton tried to convince Crean to join him again on a trip south but by this time he was a family man with two daughters and declined, his exploring days were behind him.

Michael Smith has written a hugely enjoyable book about one of the lesser known great Polar explorers and even if you know nothing about the history of the time it is well worth reading.

Robin Philipson – Elizabeth Cumming

This is the first of my ‘what I got for Christmas’ posts and this book was a wonderful surprise from some very good friends. I first saw Robin’s art at their home and loved it straight away so that I have bought several pieces over the ensuing years, some of which I am using to illustrate this essay rather than images from the book itself.

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Sir Robin Philipson RA RSA FRSE RSW to give him his proper title was a major name in Scottish art through the second half of the 20th century; not only as a creator of beautiful works but as a teacher for many decades at the Edinburgh College of Art. There have been a couple of biographies before, along with pamphlets to accompany exhibitions, but this is easily the most comprehensive biography so far. Cummings has spoken to lots of members of Robin’s family including his widow Diana and also his nephew who gave me this lovely book.

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As this was a Christmas present it is appropriate to start with a couple of Robin’s Christmas cards on my walls. What can be immediately seen is his bold use of colour, as Dr Cumming says in her book.

…colour was always a principle tool in Robin’s art, and it evolved throughout his career; he was one of Scotland’s major colourists. It was this as much as technical experiment which drove all his work; whether easel painting, printmaking or his involvement in textile enterprises…

Robin produced a Christmas card every year from the late 1960’s, not only painting the original but also printing the cards, en masse they look fantastic, I only have three but hope to add others to my collection as time goes on.

The book’s cover picture is entitled Brenda Spring Portrait, she was his first wife, they married in 1949 a couple of years after he took up his first role as lecturer at the Edinburgh College, and he painted her several times. The Summer and Winter portraits are also included in the book along with a very interesting study for the Spring portrait. One of the joys of this volume is the inclusion of studies for works along with pictures of Robin in his studio which gives an opportunity to see how he went about some of his pieces.

The book is split into several sections, part one looks at his early life and how he came to be in Scotland in the first place; he was born in Cumbria in 1916. Part two is the longest and takes us from starting teaching and his marriage to Brenda, to his discovery of the joys of print making and the introduction of three of his main themes, cock fighting, kings and cathedrals.

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My largest piece and one that hangs above my desk can be seen above, limited to 50 and signed by Robin it is also my favourite in it’s bold use of colour and dynamism of the subject.

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The book is copiously illustrated and includes a significant number of works that are held in private collections so not generally seen, it also gives me a chance to roughly date the art I have collected as style and themes develop through the book as we move through Robin’s career.

He designed the posters and programme covers for the Edinburgh Festival in both 1958 and 1959, the book includes examples of both programmes and in my collection I have an original (and highly fragile) poster for 1959 which is a really good example of his style at the end of the 1950’s.

Part three takes us from the early death of Brenda from a brain tumour in 1960 which led to a period where very few works were produced and those that did appear are dark and angry in tone to meeting Thora Clyne who was to become his second wife in 1962. This seems to have led to a blossoming of Robin’s art and he also took up the appointment of head of Drawing and Painting in the early 1960’s so became very busy.

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I have a couple of versions of Peasant, which dates from 1958 and are different sizes, only one of which is signed, I really like this happy character and he also hangs above my desk where I am writing this.

He did manage to fit in a trip to Colorado in the summer of 1963 as a visiting Professor of Art in Colorado. During this time he became influenced by native paintings and also Mexican churches, there is a truly beautiful painting of a yellow altar towards the end of that section.

The fourth section of the books sees another theme emerging in Robin’s art as we complete the 1960’s and that is depictions of crucifixion. This is a logical extension of his works depicting church interiors , specifically rose windows, and the altars he had started painting in the early part of the decade. Again Cummings takes us through the change in his art against the changes happening in his life and explains how they fit together.

The fifth part covers most of the 1970’s, from his surgery for colonic cancer whilst on a trip to France to study tapestries through his divorce from Thora and marriage to Diana. This was a period not only of great creativity and more new themes to his work such as ‘human kind’ which depict inter-racial couples in various settings to his numerous paintings of ‘women of pleasure’; but also of much greater recognition in the world outside of the Scottish Art scene. He became president of the Royal Scottish Academy, a post he held for a decade and from that a fellow of the Royal Academy in London. In 1976 he was knighted for services to art and all whilst heading up the Drawing and Painting department at the Edinburgh College of Art. He would continue to have bouts of illness throughout this period but his workload and artistic output hardly seemed to let up.

The final section deals with the last fourteen years of Robin’s life up to his death in 1992, this was still a highly busy and productive time with yet another theme to his art appearing, the wonderfully delicate poppy still life paintings.

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I have a couple of these prints, both signed, as my representations of this period and there are three originals reproduced in the book with various backgrounds which demonstrate his total mastery of colour. Sadly the cancer first detected in the 1970’s was to claim him just when it looked like he was reaching another peak in his creativity. I have more pictures by him than I have used in this short review and am always looking for more to add to my small collection especially now I have seen some of the works in this beautifully illustrated book.

All in all this is a major retrospective of the life and work of a man who became very important figure in Scottish art for several decades and hopefully it will help raise his profile again twenty five years after his death. The main body of the book (excluding chronology, notes and index) is 138 pages long, sixty nine of which are made up of full page (and indeed double page) illustrations and a large proportion of the text pages also have a picture or two on them, this really is a magnificent review of Robin’s works and for the most part is extremely readable. My one criticism is the impression you get that Cummings wants to prove she has done her research which leads to whole paragraphs which seem to consist of nothing but lists of names and dates which you hit like boulders in the stream of an otherwise flowing tale. Having said that I very much enjoyed the book and will finish this overview with my only Philipson original, a small pastel still life.

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The Great Beanie Baby Bubble – Zac Bissonnette

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The subtitle on the cover of this 2015 Penguin hardback first edition is no longer featured on the current paperback edition as can be seen below. The change of illustration to a bald eagle toy shot with an arrow is, if anything, more disturbing than the staring bear on the original cover.  I miss the line about mass delusion though as it really sums up the book in just eight words.

Although I now own one of the largest specialist teddy bear shops in the UK I first discovered the world of collectable bears right at the end of the Beanie craze and never started collecting them, as I was far more interested in the products of the Steiff company at the time. I do have a small number, but only of penguins, puffins and a pelican to sit on the shelves with the book series of the same names. This book therefore was an instant purchase when it came out, I knew some of the history but really wanted to know what and how it happened. How could a $5 toy sell for $10000 just a few short months after it was released? Talking to my staff members who had worked in the shop for many years before I took over and remembered the queues outside if word got round there was a delivery there was clearly something special, a self perpetuating dream that here was an investment for all as the initial outlay could be so small.

Bissonnette does a remarkable job in following the history from right at the beginning and tells the story of Ty Warner, a man who can genuinely be called a self made billionaire and who is still the sole owner of Ty Inc. and his rise from failed actor to a man worth in excess of $2.4 billion. Warner himself is notoriously difficult to approach and will not give interviews but Bissonnette has managed to talk to a wide range of people ranging from his estranged sister to ex-girlfriends along with people who worked at Ty Inc. and numerous significant collectors. What shines through is a ruthless perfectionist never happy with anything that he doesn’t personally totally approve. All the designs were by Ty and he would go through huge amounts of fabric, eyes, etc. to get the look he wanted. Checking the posture of a cuddly to get it sitting just right and rejecting anything that was not to his high standards. The reason why Beanie Babies took off initially was down to this attention to detail they really were very well made, especially for the price.

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The problems began when collectors started to deal in a secondary market and convinced themselves that what they had was an ever appreciating asset. This has happened before, the most famous example being Tulip Mania in the Netherlands in the 1630’s. Individual bulbs would sell for more than the price of a house at the height of the bubble but the only thing holding them at that price was the bubble itself and when enough people realised this and stopped buying in March 1637 it suddenly collapsed. Much the same happened with Beanies, there was no real reason for the high prices, yes some were limited but there was still a lot of them around and Ty Inc. stoked the fever by creating artificial shortages to boost the price. Stock would be held back from one part of the world creating demand for what was seen as a rare item only for the blockage to be released and the market flooded. They did this several times and this contributed to the crash as people stopped believing in rarities so were not willing to pay the high prices.

A lot of people lost a significant amount of money, especially those who got caught up in the craze just before it all fell apart at the start of the year 2000, some people did make money from the early days and if they got out in time they did OK. The only person to make a lot of money was Ty Warner. He later would plead guilty to tax evasion and be fined $53 million but as he personally made over $1 billion from the business I doubt that bothered him particularly and as Bissonnette points out in the book the day after the judgement there were workmen painting the gates to his $150 million mansion gold.

This is a really good book, not just of interest to bear collectors but for anyone with an interest in boom and bust economics or just human psychology. The story of Ty Warner himself is fascinating and very well written in this account.

Raw Spirit – Iain Banks

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‘Hiya Banksie! Written any good books lately?’
‘Not if you believe certain critics, but I’m going to be writing one about whisky.’
‘A book about whisky?’
‘Yeah, malt whisky.’
‘You’re kidding!’
‘Not as such.’
‘This mean you’re going to have to do the “R” word?’
‘The “R” word? Oh! Research? Yeah basically. Goin to have to drive round Scotland, take trains, ferries, planes and such, go to distilleries, taste whiskies, that sort of -‘
‘And they’re going to pay you for this?’
‘They’ve already started.’
‘Right I see. D’you need a hand?’

So begins Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit: In Search of a Perfect Dram and those people familiar only with Iain M Banks the gritty science fiction writer or his even grittier ‘normal’ fiction written as Iain Banks are in for a surprise as this is a genuinely funny book interspersed with rants about the Second Iraq war which had just started as he set of in search of the “R” word. As a fan of both Banks and whisky, purchasing this book when it came out did not take much consideration and I recently pulled it back off the shelves as later this year I’m doing my own trip round some distilleries and like Banks I’m starting with Islay.

Rereading the book was a surprise, my 14 year old memory of what was covered is clearly faulty, yes there is whisky aplenty and distilleries also get pretty good coverage but a large part of the book is really about Banks’ love affair with Scotland and its “Great Wee Roads” or GWRs as they are referred to throughout. There is a lot more said about getting to the distilleries (both the roads and vehicle chosen to make the journey) than there is covering them or their production. There is also a considerable amount of reminiscences of past holidays, fun times in out of the way properties and time spent with old friends. The book is really as close as we ever got to an autobiography by Banks who sadly died in 2013 from cancer aged just 59. If you want a book about whisky then you are really better off with Michael Jackson’s definitive tome, but if you want a book about the joy of travelling around Scotland looking for whiskies and the friendships and fellowships that it can engender then this is for you.

Let’s take a random chapter and breakdown the coverage of each subject, “12: Porridge and Scottishness, Football and Fireworks” has a total of 20 and a bit pages:

  • Porridge, why he doesn’t like it and other Scottish institutions such as kilts – 2½ pages
  • Six distilleries visited and their whiskies – 7 pages
  • Memories of Monty Python (he was an extra in one of the films)  – 1 page
  • Memories of blowing things up (fireworks with mates) – 4½ pages
  • Travelling – 1 page
  • The joys and tribulations of following Morton Football Club – 4 and a bit pages

That seems to be a pretty average hit rate for the theoretical subject of the book, although the travelling to whisky ration is normally higher than that, at least after you get past chapter one where Banks does stick more closely to his brief. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, I very much did so, it’s an easy read and you want to follow Banks around the country as he enjoys the scenery, samples whisky and chats with old mates. You feel by the end that the Raw Spirit of the title is more the spirit of Scottishness rather than Scotch and it’s good fun.

As a final note my copy is the first edition hardback printed by Century in 2003, that also appears to be the only Century edition as by 2004 it was a paperback with a completely different cover published by Arrow. Both of these are imprints of Penguin Random House.

Orlando – Virginia Woolf – part 2

This blog follows on from Part 1 but goes through the entire plot line so should not be read if you have not previously read the book or do not mind knowing what happens.

The book is split into six chapters and each is effectively a stand alone tale dealing with a specific period in Orlando’s life. The first chapter makes perfect sense as you read it, Orlando is a boy when Queen Elizabeth I visits his fathers’ great house and so captivates Her Majesty that he is invited to court towards the end of her reign, where he grows up to be a young man about town and is still around the court when James I becomes king after the death of Elizabeth. By the end of this chapter you are happily reading a novel set in the time of the Stuarts where Orlando has loved and lost the Russian noblewoman Sasha and you are wondering what will befall him next.

Chapter two has him exiled from court due to the scandal with Sasha and spending time back in the family house attempting to write great works but being unsatisfied with them all and holding parties. This is a not so subtle reference to Virginia’s lover Vita Sackville-West who is also trying to write ‘a great work’ but Virginia doesn’t rate her as an author and doesn’t believe she is capable of achieving this ambition. Orlando also at this time meets Romanian Arch-duchess Harriet who attempts to seduce him but without success. Ultimately Orlando is getting bored stuck at home so that he requests a job from the King and is sent as ambassador to Turkey. This is also a reference to Vita as she lived in Constantinople (as it was then) when her husband was sent to the embassy there from 1912 to 1914.

If you know English history a few comments in the book may be ringing bells by now but the storyline still flows without many issues. The third chapter deals with his time in Turkey initially as ambassador but then the book takes a dramatic swerve. There are a few pages that read like sections of an ancient Greek play, with Purity, Chastity and Modesty introduced as characters parading through his bedroom with trumpet calls and overblown narrative until Orlando finally awakes as a woman. As a plot twist it is certainly unusual and gets odder as people seem relatively unfazed by the change and as the embassy had been attacked during an uprising whilst Orlando slept he/she goes off to live with gypsies for a while. This last part is again a link to Vita who had a highly romanticised view of the Romany people as free living and unconstrained by the pressures of modern life. The book has her living with them for a while and then realising that she is really an interloper and misses the green lands of her home, this is Woolf pointing out to Vita that for all she may fantasise about the gypsy life she would not cope with the reality.

Chapter four has her decide to return to London and her home in Kent where she again meets the Arch-duchess who reveals herself to actually be Arch-duke Harry and this time as a man tries to seduce the now female Orlando with much the same result. Again nobody appears to be surprised by this. She throws herself into London society and meets many famous writers before taking to disguises to explore the seedier side of London to stop life getting too dull. By the end of this chapter the aspect of the book that was ringing bells earlier has now been made explicit but without any explanation, I’ll get to it later.  The fifth chapter takes place entirely in the great house without providing much detail as to what goes on. By the end however the court cases started when she returned from Turkey as a woman and caused all sorts of issues with who owned what and if she really was Orlando are settled although they have used up most of her fortune and she marries somebody she has barely got to know just in time for him to leave to go to sea.

The book ends with her finally finishing her great work “The Oak Tree” and it being praised and even winning a prize before her husband returns to her from foreign climes and she rushes to greet him.

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This cover is a bit problematic for me as the inclusion of the aircraft gives away the one aspect I left out in the summary above and that is the time travelling aspect of the novel. You start reading the book and it is clearly set at the end of the 1500’s with the reign of Elizabeth I coming to an end. Orlando is mentioned several times lying under the tree so what is the plane doing there?

In fact you slowly become aware of the drift of history through the book. As stated above Orlando was clearly a young man at the end of Elizabeth’s reign and much later on in the book we discover that the poem he has been working on since boyhood is dated 1586, so that would probably place him as born in around 1575, Elizabeth died in 1603 and we know he was at court during her reign for a period of years. The next monarch mentioned is James I (1603 to 1625) during whose time Orlando is largely banished from court after his relationship with Sasha at the frost fair. There were two of these during his reign (1608 and 1621) so Orlando is roughly 33 or 46 at this point. The first of these sounds more likely from his behaviour so let us say he retires to his country house in 1608, this is all quite plausible up to this part of the novel.

The next time period mentioned is when he goes to be Ambassador to Turkey after getting tired of being at home. I’m not surprised he was getting bored by then as the Monarch he asks for the job is King Charles II (he is described as being with his mistress Nell Gwyn so we know which Charles we are talking about). His reign was from 1660 to 1685 and he started his relationship with Gwyn in 1668 so as a minimum Orlando is now 93 and has spent at least the last 60 years holding parties at home. This is the first time that the time-scale appears to have stretched, as up until he goes home in 1608 it is quite believably a tale about a late Elizabethan gentleman, nobody appears to be surprised by this and he is still clearly a young man in the novel. Charles II is still on the throne when Orlando is made a Duke and subsequently changes sex. We then hit her time with the gypsies and this is also clearly several decades. On return to England she sees the dome of the new St Paul’s cathedral (consecrated 1697) and the captain of the ship refers to the late William III (died 1702) so we are now in the reign of Queen Anne (1702 to 1707) and this is explicitly stated later in the book as Orlando enters society as a young and eligible woman at the age of 130!

At last a positive date… Well sort of. There is a mention of 16th June 1712 being a Tuesday, it was actually a Thursday but never mind, it is the first specific date in the novel and this is when Orlando decides to quit society only to decide not to the next day due to an invitation that she really wanted to go to. There she meets Alexander Pope and through him various other writers such as Swift who quotes from Gulliver’s Travels, a book printed in 1726 so time is still moving on apace. She sees Johnson and Boswell (circa 1770’s) and chapter four concludes with the dawning of 1st January 1800 with a dark cloud over London. Chapter five includes a statement that she had been working on the poem “The Oak Tree”

… for close on 300 years now. It was time to make an end.

so that takes us up to the 1860’s. This is another huge leap in the time line of the book as it is only 8 pages into the chapter. It’s an odd chapter, using damp weather as a metaphor for the changes in society through the Victorian age, no more gay parties and bright lights, now the houses are cluttered and cold, the people withdrawn and everything is dark and covered up as society becomes more straight-laced and women are expected to be ‘the little woman at home’ safely married off. It’s also no wonder the court proceedings have used most of her fortune, they would have started in the early 1700’s and concluded roughly 160 years later as Lord Palmerston and Gladstone are mentioned with the court documents and Palmerston died in 1865. It is worth noting however that it does leave Orlando with the house, which as I stated in the previous essay on the book Vita specifically didn’t get as she was a woman so maybe this is a put in as a solace to Vita that although it may take 160 years a woman will eventually inherit what would be hers by right if she had been a man.

The sixth, and final, chapter brings us to the present day, well 1928 which is when the book was written anyway. It begins slightly before then at the end of the Victorian age as she finally gets her poem The Oak Tree published with the help of Nicholas Greene but most of the chapter is set on the 11th October 1928 starting in London with a very confused shopping trip. She drives out of London to the great house in Kent and is there as her husband finally comes home this time by aeroplane whilst she lies under the tree as she used to as a boy centuries earlier

It is not only Orlando who straddles time in the novel, several of the fictional characters fail to grow old with her, the Arch-Duchess/duke is also mentioned in chapter five as married and settled in Romania so he is also as old as Orlando and others survive well beyond a normal lifespan such as Nicholas Greene, the poet and critic who first met Orlando in the Elizabethan age and meets her again in the Victorian. Sasha from the frost fair in 1608 is also glimpsed during the shopping trip in 1928 and is described as late middle aged. Orlando’s husband, Shelmerdine, is also timeless, at least since coming into contact with Orlando, for they meet and marry in the 1860’s when her court cases have completed but he is clearly still only in middle age by 1928.

The book is complex and at times infuriating as it leaps about but still an enjoyable read, I’ve also had quite a bit of fun reading through it again trying to identify all the historical events that can be dated for this essay.