A series of essays inspired by books that I own, talking about their history, some reviews and also how they came to be on my shelves. With over 6,500 books here and several more arriving each week I doubt I'll ever be short of a topic.
By profession Dora Saint was a school teacher but is best known for her portrayals of English village life under the pen name of Miss Read and the work on her numerous novels and short stories largely took over her working life after WWII. Miss Read is not only the author of the books but in a lot of them she is also a character as a schoolmistress in the fictional village of Fairacre. Although this story is set in Fairacre Miss Read herself does not actually appear instead we are concerned with the ageing spinster sisters Margaret and Mary Waters and the family that had moved in over the road a few months earlier in September.
Initially the Waters sisters were somewhat wary of the new family as they lived a very quiet life and suddenly having three small children and a mother clearly pregnant with a fourth moving in so close was disconcerting. Mrs Emery’s personality was a bit too outgoing for their taste but also to the sisters eyes she was also rather badly dressed so they were unsure what to make of her, the children however were unfailingly polite so there was clearly something being done right in the new household. The story leaps on over the three months to Christmas morning when the sisters are interrupted at breakfast by one of the Emery girls coming for help as their mother is having the baby early and their father had been called away as a relative had had a stroke. Now two spinsters are not ideal midwives and the nurse or doctor couldn’t be contacted so we are taken through their rising panic as they realise that very little preparation had been done as Mrs Emery had clearly not expected to give birth on Christmas day.
One goes over to help Mrs Emery, who is easily the least concerned of everyone, whilst the other sister takes the children back over to her house to keep them entertained and fed and most importantly out of the way whilst trying to contact the nurse and also Mr Emery to let him know what is happening and get him back to Fairacre. It’s a delightful story of how the Waters sisters had a very different Christmas to the one they expected and this was the first time I had read any of Miss Read’s works. I think I’ll definitely tackle another somewhat longer book for my next go at her books, after all there are a lot to have a go at with twenty books set in Fairacre, thirteen novels set in the nearby village of Thrush Green, ten children’s books and a few other titles not set in the two main villages or of a factual nature rather than fiction.
Village Christmas was first published in 1966 although my copy of the book was published in 1995 as part of the Penguin Books 60th anniversary celebrations and it is also available with the two other Christmas tales Miss Read wrote as a single volume, these being Christmas Mouse (1973) and No Holly for Miss Quinn (1976). Confusingly this combination book appears to also be called Village Christmas.
This Christmas I have chosen another of the Allen Lane Christmas books, in this case the first of them which was printed in a limited edition run of just 250 copies in 1928 with wood engravings by Clarke Hutton for Allen and Dick Lane to distribute as Christmas gifts. At the time the brothers were working at what was their uncle John Lane’s publishing house The Bodley Head in London and this book, unlike most of the others is published by The Bodley Head. John Lane had died in 1925 and Allen and Dick were now running the business when they revived his idea of a Christmas gift book which he had first done when he set up the company in 1887. My copy is slightly damp stained on the spine and foxed on the dedication page, but it is such a rare book that I was happy to be able to get this copy for my collection.
This collection is a slightly odd one for a Christmas gift as the three poems are certainly not full of the Christmas cheer. The Elegy is, by its nature, quite sombre as the poet reflects on the past lives of those in the graves around him. ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ is also looking back to Gray’s own childhood there but also to the difficulties that will be faced by the current pupils as they grow up and enter the adult world. The final poem gives away its downbeat theme from its title ‘On a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’.
The only Christmas link to these works is that Gray was born on Boxing Day (26th December) 1716. Whilst he lived to be 54, he only published thirteen poems during his lifetime; his best known work is undoubtedly ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and this would go on to influence poets and other writers over the following centuries, not least Thomas Hardy who got his title of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ from the nineteenth stanza.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray; Along the cool sequester’d vale of life They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Stanley Kubrick’s great anti war movie ‘Paths of Glory‘ also gets its title from this poem where the full line is ‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave’.
‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ consists of ten stanzas each of ten lines and is probably best known for its penultimate line which is the first use of the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ which sums up the happiness of the boys whilst they are at school as they are ignorant of the problems they will face as they grow up.
To each his suff’rings: all are men, Condemn’d alike to groan, The tender for another’s pain; Th’ unfeeling for his own. Yet ah! why should they know their fate? Since sorrow never comes too late, And happiness too swiftly flies. Thought would destroy their paradise. No more; where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise
‘On a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’ is based on a true story and the cat apparently belonged to Horace Walpole who featured in a blog of mine from May this year about The Age of Scandal by TH White. It is basically a morality tale where the cat dies through its own greed and again has a famous line, although this time Gray is not the originator but has adapted a phrase created by William Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, ‘All that glisters is not gold‘. Thomas Gray’s version is the last line of this poem and sums up the cautionary tale extremely well.
From hence, ye beauties, undeceived, Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved, And be with caution bold. Not all that tempts your wandering eyes And heedless hearts, is lawful prize; Nor all that glisters gold.
To repeat Allen and Dick, With Greetings and Best Wishes for the Coming Year. Merry Christmas.
At the beginning of 1967 Kaye Webb had launched the Puffin Club to great success, in fact more success than anticipated as demand for membership soared, which for a club dedicated to the children’s output of a publisher was unheard of. The quarterly magazine that members received was full of stories, reviews, puzzles and things to make and in 1974 it was decided to produce a larger version, for sale not just to club members, and make it an annual. This post is going up on the 1st December so just about when the annuals were hitting the shops when I was a child. I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, probably the heyday of the annual in the UK. What had started as simply a reprint of the weekly child’s magazine with The Boy’s Own and The Girl’s Own papers had expanded via The Rupert Annual (started in 1936 and still going strong) along with The Beano and Dandy comics and of course the much admired The Eagle annuals from 1950 to the late 1960’s all of which featured new material especially for the annual. TV shows got in on the act, Blue Peter has had an annual every year since 1964 and most other children’s shows followed suit especially Doctor Who. Even films spawned annuals, I have The Star Wars annual from 1977, the year of the first film. The Puffin Club had to have an annual, the problem was Penguin Books had never done anything like this before.
The title page of Puffin Annual number 1 gives a feel for the contents but also the style of the book, this was going to be fun and it really was going to have the look and feel of Puffin Post, the quarterly club magazine only in a much more durable hardback and the same size as all the other annuals out there competing for the eyes of children and the purses of their parents and grandparents, you could rarely go wrong with a Christmas gift of the annual relating to a favourite comic or TV show. This blog is going to be rather image heavy I want to give an impression of just what sort of publication these were.
The contributors page of number one is a very impressive name check, including stories by Roald Dahl, Norman Hunter (Professor Branestawm), Tove Jansson (Moomins) and Michael Bond (Paddington Bear) but also artists and illustrators of numerous children’s books, and oddly the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and HRH The Prince of Wales both describe their favourite paintings. Puffin was definitely in the high brow end of the market and that was where it liked to be.
Michael Bond’s contribution was an introduction to his other, now largely neglected, character Olga da Polga who did get a series of books but never really caught on in the way Paddington Bear did. The thinking was sound, children can’t have a bear but they could, and did, have guinea pigs so maybe stories about their adventures would sell, well they sort of did but at a fraction of the sales of Paddington. Whilst Tove Jansson had a short story called The Cat, which she also illustrated.
Roald Dahl however could write about anything and children lapped it up. What you have probably noticed is the major failing of this first annual, there is very little colour. Despite the bright and enticing cover the contents are almost entirely black and white, but that was to change for the next year.
1975’s Puffin Annual was a very different beast to that of 1974. Still the same sort of mix in the contents (see below) but not just the cover had colours, this was much more in keeping with the competition and should have given the Puffin Annual every chance in the marketplace and it had to. This was Penguin’s first attempt at this section of the book business and it had to live or die on it’s performance, Penguin has a history of killing off series if they don’t perform and this was a much more expensive undertaking than the previous years effort. But again the list of people contributing and the variety of material was impressive.
Again though this is aimed squarely at children of better off families, no knockabout comic strips so loved by fans of The Beano or The Dandy, this is much more like a book than a comic but there are more things to do in this edition, not just games and instruction as to how to do simple magic tricks but also a model to cut out and make that takes up eight pages and illustrates one of the stories especially written for the annual.
This is quite an elaborate model and includes basic instructions for fitting small bulbs so that it can be lit up at night. A peep show of the Adam and Eve Gardens in reality would have probably been far too much for a book aimed at children as by the time this park in London was closed down in the 18th century it was a haven for theft and prostitution. There is also a section on paintings although not as formal as the example in the first annual. This book has a lighter touch more in keeping with Puffin Post, I really need to do a blog about that magazine sometime next year.
There are a couple of single page ‘introduce the author’ articles and of course lots of artwork by that stalwart of the original magazines, and favourite children’s illustrator, Quentin Blake, who drew the fun end papers which are also the index and also provided pictures for the story of J. Slingsby Grebe – Boy Genius.
This was such a dramatic improvement on the first annual, lightening up the tone and bringing in so much colour but had they done enough to save the Puffin Annual? 1976 would indicate that they hadn’t, when instead of the expected annual number 3 the rather oddly named Puffin’s Pleasure appeared in time for Christmas and styled itself as number one.
Now even a brief glance through this book shows that it was clearly intended to be the third annual, it was even assigned the catalogue reference number that such a book would have had. Annual number one was Puffin Story Book number 700, annual 2 was number 800 and this is number 900. So what happened? Well it appears that although the annuals were assigned to the Penguin scrapheap of failed series so much work had already gone into annual number three with writers and artists commissioned that it may as well be printed. Kaye Webb was apparently unhappy with the name Puffin’s Pleasure but calling this The First of its kind was wishful thinking as this was to be the only edition published.
The contents list is definitely varied and getting an author of the standing of Ursula Le Guin to supply a short story means that Webb and Bicknell certainly had ambition for their publication but it was not to be. There simply wasn’t a big enough market for such a book and Penguin’s lack of experience in such titles led to nervousness and not enough time would be allowed for an annual series to properly establish itself.
Ironically there is a four page article by Nicholas Fisk about the history of comics, the very things that were massively outselling this book and would therefore contribute to its demise. The popular astronomer Patrick Moore provided a single page on space oddities and there was a six page article about the history of the British Canal network.
All very worthy stuff but just who was this aimed at, it feels more like the target audience was the parents who were paying for it rather than the children who would hopefully enjoy it. I must admit reading these three books as an adult has been great fun, but would I have thought so when they came out and I was just leaving ‘young childhood’ and becoming a teenager? Possibly as I was a very bookish child, more often to be found curled up reading than playing outside, I know I didn’t have them as a child even though I was presumably exactly who they wanted as a reader.
I’ll leave you with the very last item in Puffin’s Pleasure, a maze printed on the endpapers, see if you can get the lighthouse keeper from his rowing boat to the lighthouse, have fun.
This post is going up on Christmas Eve so I thought it would be good to look at one of the Christmas books sent as occasional gifts by Allen Lane (the founder of Penguin Books) and his family. This isn’t a review of one of the greatest works in English literature, rather I want to look at the book itself and how it came into existence.
The Ancient Mariner was the gift in 1945 from Allen and his brother Richard, sadly the third brother John had died during the war, and this was the first one published since 1930. The tradition of an occasional privately printed limited edition book was started by Allen’s uncle, John Lane, who founded his company The Bodley Head in 1887 initially to sell antiquarian books. In 1894 he started publishing in his own right and that year sent a small volume of the autobiography of Sir Thomas Bodley as a Christmas present to family and friends. It is not known how many copies were printed but it is rarely seen so presumably the print run was quite small. I featured this book in my first ever post on this blog. There were three books printed as gifts from 1928 to 1930, the first was from Allen and Dick Lane, the other two were from Allen, Dick and John Lane and then whilst there was a gap in the production of books, there were some interesting Christmas cards printed instead in some of those years.
As mentioned above John Lane (Allen’s brother as opposed to his uncle of the same name) died during the war so this restart of a tradition came from Allen and Richard (no longer calling himself Dick). The resultant volume bears the mark of being a little hurried, after all it was only a few months after the end of the war and it was presumably also a little celebration that the conflict was over and normal life could start to return. The cover is full dark blue Niger leather with a medallion stamped in gold and looks rather fine (although it does fade quite badly) however the title page in particular is a bit of a mess with five different fonts and type sizes used in just seven lines.
After that unprepossessing start though the presentation of the poem itself is rather lovely, the paper is hand made with a gilded top edge, the illustrations by Duncan Grant are also quite atmospheric and whilst better than the original attempts which were rejected by the artist were apparently not as good as they might have been.
Duncan Grant was not happy with the first illustrations we produced, so we did them again, adding I think two more colours
Quite what they would have looked like without the extension of the colour palette I can’t imagine as they are fairly restricted in colours used even as ultimately printed. Hans Schmoller, Head of Typography and Design at Penguin Books from 1949 to 1976, also felt that they were not as good as they might have been, although for a different reason.
I’ve always thought it a pity that Duncan Grant’s beautiful coloured drawings were reproduced photo-lithographically instead of as auto-lithographs.
Auto-lithography is definitely a far superior process and one that Penguin already used very successfully to give far more subtle colour grading and is also under control of the artist so would presumably avoided Grant’s original problem with the first version of the prints. Maybe it wasn’t done because of this extra work that the artist has to do, but anyway the illustrations are good but as Schmoller says, could have been better.
As can be seen above the actual text is very pleasingly done with the main part of the poem being in black whilst the commentary on the action is in Venetian red. There is also a lot of blank space round the text which makes it easier to read, this is especially noticeable after the cramped styling forced on publishers during the war when the need to conserve paper stocks led to small fonts and words as close to the paper edge as possible. Richard Lane again:
During the war the production of our publications was only moderate – very narrow margins and as many words to the page as we possibly could fit in – so in The Ancient Mariner we went to town on production
I like the book a lot, it is one of the more difficult Lane Christmas books to find as it appeals not only to collectors of these works but Duncan Grant is also very collectable and there were only 700 copies produced. This is a lot compared to the other Christmas books right up until 1950 when the first one with a print run of 1000 appeared but this does appear to be quite elusive, so was one of the last I have managed to acquire for my collection. I leave you with the image of the first appearance of the albatross that would cause so many problems for the Mariner and wish my readers a very Happy Christmas.
Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
As I post every Tuesday and 25th December 2018 is a Tuesday then there seems only one book that could be covered for the post going live that day. It’s become an annual tradition for me, I read A Christmas Carol every December and usually watch the 1951 Alistair Sim film Scrooge as well, which for my taste captures the flavour of the book best, it is also the most copied sometimes shot for shot in subsequent adaptations. If you want to see it you may need to buy the DVD as they are pretty good at taking down versions on youtube but at the time of writing this was working. It is particularly good at visualising the original John Leech illustrations, each of which are seen within the film. Now it does take several liberties with the original including inventing a character and moving another from one position to another but it does it without messing with the moral of the tale and it can be excused for adding back story to what is actually barely a novella at 28,857 words or just seventy five pages in the classic Nonsuch Press edition in order to make a film.
It’s not unreasonable to describe Dickens as the father of the modern Christmas, in his five Christmas books if he didn’t actually invent ‘traditions’ he did at least popularise family gatherings with turkey or goose and revived the moribund celebrations that had come to exemplify his time as people moved to the cities and families spread out losing contact. The Christmas tree was introduced to the UK from Germany by Prince Albert but it was Dickens referring to it in one of his other Christmas books and Leech’s etchings of fir branches decorating the house for the Ghost of Christmas Present that really spread the idea. The hale and hearty feast, the family gathering and the spirit of Christmas (dressed in green as this is before Coca Cola turned things red) a roaring fire and welcome to all, this is what Dickens has given us.
This isn’t an attempt to review the book, pretty well everyone knows the story and if you don’t you can read it for free on Project Gutenberg. The tale of a miser who comes to understand what Christmas is all about with the assistance of the ghost of his business partner and three spirits representing the past, present and future is the quintessential story for this time of year. The tale of why those that can help others should help others, especially at this time of year is one that bears regular retelling. I have two copies, one is the King Penguin edition which makes a good attempt to look like the original edition and I also have the Duckworth Press volume of all five Christmas Stories.
The original book was published 175 years ago today as I write this, coming out on 19th December 1843 and had sold out by Christmas Eve, it went on to be published in ever increasing numbers but Dickens never made much money from the printed editions. The printing cost was too high for the retail price that Dickens himself insisted on for him to make anything much. It was only when he took it to theatres and read the book as a performance that he started to cover the costs and actually profit from his work.
There is no better way to finish than as Dickens himself ended A Christmas Carol
He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!