A Shropshire Lad – A E Housman

I have lived in Shropshire for the past eleven years and have seen copies of A Shropshire Lad numerous times in various bookshops across the county but never bought it. I think mainly because I knew that Housman never visited Shropshire before writing this collection of poems celebrating the county and he only came here briefly after becoming permanently associated in the public’s mind with Shropshire so doubted that he would have much insight into this extremely beautiful part of England. Sure enough whilst reading it became clear that even geographic details, which he gleaned from a tourist guidebook whilst writing the poems in London, were incorrect but the poems are not really about Shropshire anyway but about war and the untimely death of youths both in conflict and otherwise, including suicide. It cannot be described as a cheery read.

Let’s tackle a couple of the poems with more glaring geographic issues first just to get these out of the way, starting with one of the few poems to have a title rather than just a number, XXVIII The Welsh Marches which starts

          High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
          Islanded in Severn stream;

Well Shrewsbury may be built in a loop of the river Severn but it certainly isn’t on an island, indeed Shrewsbury castle stands guard on the northern side of the river defending the land entrance to the town. The poem continues in it’s fourth verse with

          When Severn down to Buildwas ran
          Coloured with the death of man,

Buildwas is roughly seventeen miles (27½ km) from Shrewsbury and the river has a significant volume by then so there is no way that blood from a Saxon battle, which would have involved hundreds rather than tens of thousands of combatants at that period of history, would still be visible in the water by the time it got there. The most obvious error though is in poem LXI Hughley Steeple, I don’t even need to quote the poem as Hughley church has a timber framed belfry but it certainly doesn’t have a steeple. But that doesn’t stop Housman giving it one with a prominent weather vane on top, which it also doesn’t have.

Ludlow gets mentioned in five of the sixty three poems and Wenlock Edge, which is a nineteen mile (30 km) long escarpment appears twice. Although even in, probably the most famous poem from the set, known as ‘On Wenlock Edge’ although not actually titled, geography isn’t Housman’s strong point as it mentions the Roman city of Uriconium, the ruins of which are fifteen miles (24 km) from Wenlock Edge. But the poem is a really good example of the style of the collection and has been set numerous times to music, most notably by Ralph Vaughan Williams who included other poems from the set as well in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge.

          XXXI

          On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
           His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
          The gale, it plies the saplings double,
           And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

          'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
           When Uricon the city stood:
          'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
           But then it threshed another wood.

          Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
           At yonder heaving hill would stare:
          The blood that warms an English yeoman,
           The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

          There, like the wind through woods in riot,
           Through him the gale of life blew high;
          The tree of man was never quiet:
           Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

          The gale, it plies the saplings double,
           It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
          To-day the Roman and his trouble
           Are ashes under Uricon.

As said above most of the poems don’t concern Shropshire in particular but rather the perils of war and death. The collection was first published in 1896 but didn’t really start to sell in significant numbers until the start of the Second Boer War and massively rose again during the First World War when the death of young soldiers was so keenly felt across the country. The overall body count across the series of poems is surprisingly high and it is nearly always young men who are speaking from the grave (a common theme of the poems) to those yet to die. I don’t really know what I expected from the poems as I genuinely didn’t know anything about them apart from the title before I came to read the book but I can’t say they particularly appealed to me. There is however a brief glimpse or two of albeit grim humour amongst the largely unrelenting gloom.

          XXVII

          "Is my team ploughing,
           That I was used to drive
          And hear the harness jingle
           When I was man alive?"

          Ay, the horses trample,
           The harness jingles now;
          No change though you lie under
           The land you used to plough.

          "Is football playing
           Along the river shore,
          With lads to chase the leather,
           Now I stand up no more?"

          Ay, the ball is flying,
           The lads play heart and soul;
          The goal stands up, the keeper
           Stands up to keep the goal.

          "Is my girl happy,
           That I thought hard to leave,
          And has she tired of weeping
           As she lies down at eve?"

          Ay, she lies down lightly,
           She lies not down to weep:
          Your girl is well contented.
           Be still, my lad, and sleep.

          "Is my friend hearty,
           Now I am thin and pine,
          And has he found to sleep in
           A better bed than mine?"

          Yes, lad, I lie easy,
           I lie as lads would choose;
          I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
           Never ask me whose.

My copy is from the 2009 series of twenty books by Penguin called ‘English Journeys’ and I do have the complete set, all of which have very attractive covers. If there is any of these that you would like me to cover in a future blog entry then please send me a comment.

The Yellow Wall-Paper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The story that provides the title of this collection of three short stories is easily Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s best known work, it is beautifully written and is also a very difficult read. It deals with the descent into madness of a woman who suffered from a severe bout of postpartum psychosis, a range of mental illnesses which occur soon after childbirth. Gilman was perfectly aware of how this could be as she suffered from very bad attack of some form of postpartum psychosis after the birth of her first child so the story can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Unfortunately for Gilman this collapse of her mental health wasn’t recognised by the medical profession back in 1885 when she had her daughter and she was largely seen as simply needing to pull herself together and rest and recuperate physically after the birth, but in fact she didn’t really start to recover her mental well being until 1888 by which time she had separated from her first husband and was resting in Rhode Island with a female friend.

It was in 1890 that she wrote The Yellow Wall-Paper and the story is told first person from the point of view of the unnamed female narrator as she gradually becomes more and more obsessed with the wallpaper in the bedroom she is in. At first all seems well, her husband, who is also a doctor ‘treating’ her condition has taken a large house in the country for three months to see if the air would help her recover from the psychosis she is suffering from but slowly she reveals to the reader, if not herself, the true position she is in. The room that he puts her in is a large one in the attic that has a bed screwed to the floor and initially no other furniture so some random pieces are brought up from the rooms below. There is also a gate at the top of the stairs up to this room so initially she assumes that the room had been for the children of a previous resident but it gradually becomes clear to the reader that she is a prisoner in this room, with its terrible, faded and partly pulled off the walls wallpaper. Oh the wallpaper, the pattern is odd, not quite matching and making a satisfying design but maddeningly elusive and the missing pieces along with the faded patches make finding the pattern even more difficult. The colour is also coming away from the paper, brushing up against it leaves yellow stains on your clothing and that blurring makes it even more difficult to interpret.

The colour is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

She is also told to rest after meals and not to do any work, even writing is forbidden so she hides her notes on the changes of the wallpaper that she perceives in different lighting conditions. This was also the fate of Gilman herself, a writer told not to write and this greatly prolonged her own mental collapse. Gradually, as the weeks progress, our narrator starts to see movement behind the wallpaper and is convinced that some malevolent creature is behind the paper, small at first but the creature grows as the nights pass until she sees a woman loping behind the paper and determines to release her. This has to be one of the most disturbing short stories I have ever read, you are drawn totally into this woman’s world and you can feel the paranoia rising. The Yellow Wall-Paper is rightly regarded as a classic of feminist literature and a few years later Gilman sent a copy to her own doctor to try to persuade him away from the stifling treatment she had received at his hands.

The other two stories in the book are also interesting, ‘The Rocking Chair’ is another beautifully written story where two friends take rooms in an old property having been drawn to it by the sight of a beautiful young woman rocking in a chair by the window, but all is not as it seems. The girl is almost never seen by either of the two men although one catches a glimpse of her one day but both of them are convinced that the other has been talking to her, indeed they have each seen the other standing by her at the window when approaching the house. Both are disturbed at night by the incessant rocking of the chair which is in one of their rooms but both deny having been in the chair at night. What is going on and what will be the ultimate result of their gradual loss of friendship for each other as they refuse to believe the others story of not seeing the girl?

The final story is for me the weakest of the three, ‘Old Water’ is another story of obsession this time of a young poet for the daughter of an acquaintance. The daughter is however not in the least interested in him as she likes sports and the outdoor life and his attempts to join in with her simply highlights his inadequacies in her eyes. You know it isn’t going to end well but the final twist is unexpected but strangely satisfying as a conclusion.

I hadn’t heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman before but I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

The Midnight Folk – John Masefield

John Masefield was the UK Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967 the second longest period of time of any of the holders of this office since its creation in 1668, he is only exceeded by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. However this book is not a collection of poems, but is instead a wonderfully imaginative work for children written in 1927 and still in print to this day. My copy was published in this Puffin edition in March 1963 and is beautifully illustrated by Rowland Hilder with not only large pictures but smaller images within the text. Masefield packs in the characters in this story from pirates, witches and wizards, talking animals, mermaids, King Arthur and his knights, moving and talking paintings, hidden treasure, a flying horse and even a crooked gamekeeper and his henchmen to name just a few. But so to our hero, nine year old Kay Harker who is trying to solve the mystery of the lost treasure with the help of some and the major hindrance of the others in this huge cast. He is apparently an orphan, no parents are mentioned except his mother in passing right at the end, and the large house he is living in is equally not very clear, did it belong to his parents or is it the property of his guardian who doesn’t live there? The only residents of the house other than Kay are the servants and his unpleasant governess, who turns out to be one of the coven of witches casting spells and causing mischief as they also search for the treasure.

The story positively races on as we alternate from Kay’s dreary schoolwork set by the governess and tedious meetings with her friends and his guardian to exciting overnight chases both on the ground and in the air on broomsticks or the flying horse which always find him fast asleep back in his bed just before the maid comes round to wake him up; but the mud on his slippers or other traces of the previous nights activities prove that this is not dreams. In many ways this reminded me of ‘The Cuckoo Clock’ which I included a few months ago as part of my look at the early days of Puffin Books, but the stories are far more fantastical than those by Mrs Moleworth in her Victorian adventure. The choice of words and the wide vocabulary used betray this book as the work of a significant poet who was to receive the highest honour for poetry in the country just three years later and the hunt for Kay’s great grandfather’s wrecked ship and the lost treasure he was trying to protect from a South American uprising is carried on in beautifully crafted adventure stories. Will Kay work out where it is before the wizard Abner Brown and the witches get to it and what will happen to the evil governess once Kay has worked out that she is one of the witches and therefore his enemy? Maybe a peek into the past will give the final clues.

Masefield wrote a sequel to this book in 1935 entitled ‘The Box of Delights’ which if anything is better known than this original story and has been adapted for radio, television, theatre and even as an opera by Robert Steadman with a libretto by Masefield. It was also available in Puffin Books in the 1960’s so I may see if I can track down a copy to match this edition, it’s been a really fun read.

The Case of the Gilded Fly – Edmund Crispin

Just for a change this book was recently acquired as part of my collection of the first thousand Penguin paperback books and a quick perusal of the humorous biography on the back (see below) moved it rapidly up the to be read pile. The opening chapter not only introduces the eleven main characters as they all travel from London to Oxford by train but also describes the trials and tribulations of making that trip especially with the apparently random delays from Didcot onwards and is very funny, not something you expect in a mystery novel. Crispin’s amateur detective, Gervase Fen, is a professor of literature at Oxford university who is friends with the Chief Constable of Oxfordshire who has a hobby of writing literary criticism. Both enjoy dabbling in each others chosen career but recognise that they wouldn’t want to do it all the time as they wouldn’t cope with the more tedious aspects of the job. The majority of the other characters are involved in putting on a play which will have its opening night at a theatre in Oxford. The final sentence of the first chapter sets the expectation for the rest of the book.

And within the week that followed three of these eleven died by violence.

The plot is somewhat complicated and the reader can get a bit irritated by Fen who says he has solved the case of the first death almost immediately but won’t tell anyone what he has found but just drops clues to the other characters without the reader being informed. For example he mentions to one character that as well as the gun being taken from where it was stored something else was as well which they agree was the case but the reader isn’t told what it was. Having said that the book is fun to read and there are quite a few clues dropped into the readers lap which only make sense right at the end when the murderer is revealed. Although I did find the solution to the first death somewhat far fetched, it was certainly possible but required more skill on the part of the murderer than would probably be expected by the character as described in the book.

The descriptions of the play being rehearsed are well written and are probably from first hand experience as Edmund Crispin was actually the composer Bruce Montgomery who specialised in film music especially for the long running British comedy series of ‘Carry On’ films. As Edmund Crispin he wrote nine crime books of which The Case of the Gilded Fly was the first, dating from 1944, and I have to say it’s an impressive start. One other title by him was released by Penguin within their first thousand books so I’m now on the hunt for Penguin number 974, Love Lies Bleeding, his other books were also published in paperback by Penguin through the 1950’s.

Montgomery was also the great uncle of one of my favourite fantasy authors Robert Rankin although they never met because his father didn’t approve of Montgomery as he considered him ‘far too snooty’ according to a recent facebook post by Robert Rankin.

Puffin Story Books – the beginning

I somehow missed the eightieth anniversary of the start of Puffin Books last month as they launched in December 1941 but let’s somewhat belatedly look at how this massively important children’s imprint from Penguin Books started with five books, Worzel Gummidge, Cornish Adventure, The Cuckoo Clock, Garram the Hunter and Smoky and I have to say that the only one of these to have stood the test of time is Worzel Gummidge by Barbara Euphan Todd. I do have first editions of the Puffin books for all five so let’s take them in turn, starting each description with a quote from the title page where there is a brief introduction to the book.

Worzel Gummidge – Barbara Euphan Todd

This clever, fantastic story of the mysterious scarecrow who – when the mood took him – came to life and engaged in the funniest, and most alarming adventures, has become universally popular since the B.B.C. gave it to a wide and enthusiastic public.

The reference to the B.B.C. adaptation was a serialisation of the radio during Children’s Hour before the start of WWII and this was to just be the first of many adaptations that the book and its sequels have had over the years. I clearly remember the television version from 1979 to 1981 starring Jon Pertwee on ITV and there is a new TV adaptation running on the B.B.C. which started in 2019 starring Mackenzie Crook, which although I haven’t seen is introducing the character to a whole new generation. In the book two children, John and Susan, come to stay at the farm where Worzel is one of the scarecrows and start getting into all sorts of trouble as they are the only ones who see him move around and do things so they keep getting blamed for what he does. It’s a good story and you can see why Barbara Euphan Todd wrote nine sequels as Worzel Gummidge grew into a much loved character.

The book was first printed in 1936 and the Puffin edition is the first paperback, it is illustrated by Elizabeth Alldridge

Cornish Adventure – Derek McCulloch (Uncle Mac)

The setting, of small village, rocky cove and smuggler’s cave, is ideal for the plot that develops. The mystery breaks into the peaceful picture as the boy sails home on August morning with his fisherman friends

Derek McCulloch was best known as Uncle Mac on BBC radio where he presented Children’s Hour for seventeen years from 1933 but was also head of children’s broadcasting for the corporation throughout that time so would have been extremely familiar to his readers. It’s a classic children’s adventure yarn along the lines of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven or Famous Five stories although these appeared much later than Cornish Adventure. ‘The boy’ referred to in the introduction is Clem and he is fifteen and has been coming to Cornwall through the summer holidays for the last five years and has got to know the local people over that time. He was out with a couple of fishermen collecting the crab pots when he spotted a dinghy going into a cave in the cliffs where they had never seen anyone before, what were the people doing there? Clem is determined to find out especially after swimming into the cave and finding it went back quite a way in the dark but he didn’t see the dinghy or the men.

The book is illustrated with drawings based on McCulloch’s own photographs but the artist who turned them into simple line drawings is not identified, it was first published in 1937.

The Cuckoo Clock – Mrs Molesworth

Griselda was only a little girl when her mother died, and she went to live in a big house with two great-aunts… She might have been lonely but for the cuckoo in the clock.

First published in 1877 and to my surprise still in print although no longer with Puffin, this book is definitely aimed at the younger reader; Griselda’s age isn’t given in the book but I’d guess at six or seven and Phil, the boy she meets near the end, is even younger and it is reasonable to assume that the target audience is around the same age as the protagonist in this case. Despite that it was a fun read with Griselda making friends with the cuckoo in the clock in scenes that could be interpreted as dreams except for the small invasions into real life afterwards such as finding the shoe from the land of the nodding mandarins in her bed (a large oriental cabinet in the room by the cuckoo clock turns out to be a gateway to where the carved figure live) or getting a message to Phil that she won’t be able to meet him the next day. The book is illustrated with several charming drawings by C E Brock.

Garram the Hunter – Herbert Best

Garram the boy is a fine vigorous character, cool-headed, bold and resolute, a skilful hunter, calculating his chances well and leaping swiftly into action. His adventures are lively and sometimes terrifying.

I probably enjoyed this book the most of the five I have read this week so it’s a disappointment to find that unlike the others it is long out of print with the Puffin version being the last I can find. Garram is the son of the chief of his tribe and is falsely accused of stealing and selling goats from one of the village elders by a rival for his fathers position. He manages to prove that the goats were in fact taken by a huge leopard but although this saves him at the time his enemy Sura continues to plot against both his father and him. Ultimately he is persuaded by The Rainmaker of the tribe to leave in order to protect his father as Sura would then fear his return as an adult to avenge any attack and so begins his adventures in lands beyond his tribes domain heading for the famous walled town of Yelwa, which is a real place, and where Garram would make his career before returning to his tribe and defeating his fathers rivals years later.

Despite being an American Herbert Best worked as an administrative officer for the British Civil Service in Nigeria and published several children’s books. First published in 1930, Garram the Hunter was shortlisted for the Newbery prize in 1931, the Puffin edition is illustrated with lino-cuts by Erick Berry which were ‘made on the spot’ so presumably in Nigeria and are the same as those in the hardback first edition rather than new illustrations for the Puffin book.

Smoky – Will James

Smoky is the story of a wild horse, told with exceptional vividness. It is also a real hot cowboy yarn, a grand adventure story told by a man who had lived in the saddle almost since infancy.

Well with an introduction like that who could fail to be intrigued? It is at many times a sad and yet ultimately fulfilling tale as Clint, who first trains Smoky after capturing him as a wild horse loses him to a horse thief. Smoky however, whilst perfectly obedient to Clint, will not allow the thief to ride him and is beaten repeatedly until eventually he lashes out and kills the thief. So begins his next life as an un-rideable bronco horse under the name of Cougar which eventually leads to career ending injuries. Sold off, this time as Cloudy he end up with yet another abusive owner who neglects and starves him before being spotted and recognised by Clint who eventually gets him back and nurses him back to health and a quiet retirement. Yeesh it was a hard read for a lot of the time.

Smoky is illustrated by the author although he isn’t credited in the book and it is easily the longest of the books in this set of five at 192 pages. Smoky won the Newbery medal for American children’s literature in 1927, a year after the book was first published, much to the surprise of Will James who considered it a book for adults, probably assuming the hard life Smoky has to be too upsetting for a younger readership.

Eleanor Graham was the series editor for Puffin Books from 1941, when they started, through to 1961 when she retired and was replaced by Kaye Webb. She did a remarkable job, especially dealing with paper rationing during the war and then building the imprint once paper started to become more available in the early 1950’s and adding titles such as Heidi, The Borrowers stories by Mary Norton and the first Moomin book. Webb inherited a series which by then ran to 150 titles which she was to vastly expand during her time in control including creating the Puffin Club and its associated annuals.

Village Christmas – Miss Read

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.

A Tall Ship – ‘Bartimeus’

Originally published in September 1915 by a by then well known author of naval stories I was expecting tales of daring do on the high seas so was quite surprised that with the exception of the first and last stories in this collection the actual war didn’t really impinge on the stories being told. It all starts excitingly enough with the short story ‘Crab-pots’ which begins with the torpedoing of a ship and the unusual revenge that one of the sailors manages to take some time later. This sailor will become part of a recurring group through most of the other nine stories in this collection but this isn’t clear at the start as he gains the nickname Torps by story number two ‘The Drum’ which is also one of the odder tales as it has two parts with no link between them. This story starts with a couple of Cornish fishermen repairing a boat by hammering out an old boiler to make a plate to cover worn out timbers and then jumps to Torps and Margaret (who had nursed him after the sinking of his ship) on a hillside looking out to sea and not really getting anywhere as to a relationship that he clearly wants but she is not sure about.

I don’t want to work my way through all the tales but there is one which just consists of recounting the morning work of a naval captain, doing his paperwork and dealing with requests from the sailors under his command. Another has the ships officers arranging a children’s party on board which has one of the funniest lines in the entire book which takes place between two of the children on the harbour side waiting to be picked up on a small boat in what looked like choppy conditions

“My daddy’s a Captain” continued Cornelius James “and I’m never sick – Are you?”
She nodded her fair head. “Yeth” she lisped sadly.
“P’raps your daddy isn’t a Captain” conceded Cornelius James magnificently.
The maiden shook her head. “My daddy’s an Admiral” was the slightly disconcerting reply.

All in all though the book was remarkably dull and it’s no surprise to see that it and the other works by Bartimeus are long out of print. He was definitely popular in his time though but it’s hard to see why, this is the second book by him in the first 110 Penguin books a feat only matched by Agatha Christie and Andre Maurois (excluding two part books) but none of his other works have ever appeared in Penguin unlike the two other authors so it is clear he was waning in popularity even in the mid 1930’s.

As can be seen from the rear flap of the dust wrapper there are quite a lot of clues as to who the pseudonymous Bartimeus actually was. A little digging finds that the author was born Lewis Anselm da Costa Ricci in 1886; although he anglicised his name to Ritchie by deed pole in 1941. Joining the Royal Navy in 1901 he trained to become a naval officer, however while still young, he contracted Malta Fever (brucellosis); this cost him the sight of one eye and damaged the other. Unable now to pursue a career at sea, he remained in the Navy, initially in the accounting branch, but began writing stories about naval life. He finally left the Navy at the start of the Second World War retiring as captain of the Royal Yacht and became press secretary to King George VI from 1944 to 1947. He took his pen-name from the Bible, ironically hinting at his reason for leaving the career he loved by naming himself after Bartimeus, the blind beggar of Mark 10, 46-52.

The Book of Tea – Kakuzo Okakura

From the second series of Penguin Books little black classics this charming book was first published in 1906 and seems to have been in print for most of the time since with a succession of publishers bringing out editions over the years all over the world, this edition was published in 2016. Kakuzo Okakura was born in Yokohama in 1862 and lived his whole life in Japan although travelled extensively promoting Japanese arts and working to preserve traditional techniques at home. Unusually for a Japanese writer of the time he mainly wrote in English and this, his most famous work outside of Japan, is no exception thus helping to spread his insights into Japanese life and arts to a wider audience. This short (109 pages) book is ostensibly about tea but it is in reality so much more.

The opening chapter pulls no punches in his description of the misunderstandings between East and West and his conclusion that both sides see themselves as the height of enlightenment and the other as little better than barbarians

The beginning of the twentieth century would have been spared the spectacle of sanguinary warfare if Russia had condescended to know Japan better. What dire consequences to humanity lie in the contemptuous ignoring of Eastern problems? European imperialism, which does not disdain to raise the absurd cry of the Yellow Peril, fails to realise that Asia may also awaken to the cruel sense of the White Disaster.

Japan was unknown to the West until the sixteenth century and was therefore influenced by its neighbours, specifically China, where it got tea from originally, and its own cultural norms surrounding Taoism and Zen. Early in the seventeenth century and for two and a half centuries after that during the Edo period Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world and only regained a place amongst other countries when forced to open up by the United States navy in 1854. This enforced isolationist policy meant that Japan had developed very differently from the West especially in aesthetic traditions and the importance of tea and the ceremonial around drinking it is one of these art forms unique to Japan and which goes back millennia. Okakura refers to Teaism which he sees as developing from Taoism but wrapped in the sacred nature of the tea ceremony and more specifically the tea house where the ceremony takes place. The dimensions and layout of the tea house is vitally important as is the simplicity of its construction and decoration. The separate entrance for the guests and the tea master leading to a room where the only decoration is in the tokonoma, an alcove where items can be displayed, and the choice of decoration is normally minimalist to western eyes, maybe a single flowering branch or a finely produced scroll or hanging. The idea of a matching tea service as seen in the west is anathema to the Japanese ceremony where if the kettle is round the jug for the water will be angular, contrast is important.

Okakura also gives a history of the three ways tea has been prepared, two of which had fallen out of fashion by the time the west discovered tea so we only have the third method using the steeping of leaves as our means of producing tea. Initially back in the fourth of fifth centuries there was a sort of pressed cake of powdered tea

the method of drinking tea at this stage was primitive in the extreme. The leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, made into a cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes with onions! The custom obtains at the present day among the Tibetans and various Mongolian tribes, who make a curious syrup of these ingredients.

Later on we have Luwuh in the middle of the eighth century who first wrote down and formalised the making of tea and this is the second method using finely powdered tea which was whisked with a bamboo whisk and Okakura extracts from ‘The Chaking’ his three volume book on tea

In the fifth chapter Luwuh describes the method of making tea. He eliminates all ingredients except salt. He dwells also on the much discussed question of the choice of water and the degree of boiling it. According to him, the mountain spring is the best, the river water and the spring water come next in the order of excellence. There are three stages of boiling: the first boil is when the little bubbles like the eye of fishes swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle. The Cake-tea is roasted before the fire until it becomes soft like a baby’s arm and is shredded into powder between pieces of fine paper. Salt is put in the first boil, the tea in the second. At the third boil, a dipperful of cold water is poured into the kettle to settle the tea and revive the “youth of the water.” Then the beverage was poured into cups and drunk. O nectar!

There is also a chapter on flowers in Okakura’s little book which given the significance of the decoration in the tokonoma and also in the garden approach to the tea house is not surprising however he turns it into almost a diatribe against the cruelty of people to flowers by picking them and watching them die in their homes. The book finishes with a chapter on tea masters of which the greatest of all is Sen no Rikyū (Rikiu in the book) from the sixteenth century who refined the tea ceremony and the tea room to how it is seen now and at the very end we have his final ever tea ceremony at the end of which he commits ritual suicide on the orders of his lord and master.

I’ve no idea what I expected from this book but it is much, much more than I could have thought. There is great insight into the Japanese traditions and the development over centuries of a culture so different to our own, it’s definitely worth seeking out.

Poems – St John of the Cross

For this, the 200th post in this blog, I have chosen a Penguin Classic translation of the poetry of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic christian and follower of Teresa of Ávila whose writings have also appeared in the Penguin Classics catalogue. The book is actually rather more than a translation as it is a parallel text edition with the original Spanish text on the left hand pages and the English on the right. Saint John (Juan de la Cruz in Spanish) was a Catholic priest and Carmelite friar involved in setting up religious houses in northern Spain but was also the greatest of the mystic poets in Spanish literature and indeed one of the giants of Spanish literature regardless of style or theme.

However, before discussing the poems, I would like to take a little time over the translator, much as the book does with a preface by his widow Mary Campbell. Roy Campbell was born in South Africa in 1901 and first came to England in 1919 where he met and married Mary in 1922 and they moved back to South Africa in 1925. He worked as an editor on a literary magazine whilst writing poetry but disagreed with the apartheid regime so moved back to London in 1927. On their return to England they fell in with the Bloomsbury Group and Mary started a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West at the same time as Virginia Woolf was also having an affair with Vita. Roy strongly, and reasonably, disapproved of his wife’s affair and to separate Mary and Vita the Campbell’s moved first to Provence and then to Toledo in Spain where Roy Campbell discovered the works of St John of the Cross and the couple converted to Roman Catholicism. It was in Toledo that St John had been imprisoned by rival Carmelite monks opposed to the very strict variant of the calling espoused by Teresa and John, he wrote most of his poems during his confinement. Roy Campbell, by the 1930’s, was becoming a well known poet in his own right and was fascinated by the poems of St John and whats more his heroic poetic style seemed ideally suited to the extant works of St John so he began work on a translation that was finally published by Harvill in 1951 and won the 1952 Foyle Prize. It is this verse translation that is reprinted in the 1960 Penguin first edition that I have, Roy Campbell having died in 1957 hence his widow penning the preface where she completely fails to mention the lesbian affair that took them to Spain in the first place.

The Spanish text is by Padre Silverio de Santa Teresa CD, and first appeared in an UK book in 1933 published by the Liverpool Institute of Hispanic Studies.Roy Campbell has done an excellent job of translating the poems as not only has he translated the text but found English words which allow the lines to largely scan and always rhyme as the originals do. A moments thought would tell you how difficult this is and why many poetry translations don’t attempt this.The longest work is ‘Songs between the soul and the bridegroom’ where the poem is in the form of a conversation between the two parts where God is gradually revealed to be the bridegroom that the soul or bride is conversing with. I really enjoyed this one as there is more time for development of the story within the poem as it goes on for seven pages, most are less than a page and a half and some are simply one verse.

Several of the poems use repetition of the last line of each verse such as ‘Song of the Soul that is Glad to Know God by Faith’ where each verse, apart from the eleventh, ends “Aunque es de noche” (Although it is night) although with this particular poem Campbell varies the last line between “Although by night” and “Though it be night” and I’m not sure why he made the change as reading it with “Although by night” seems to scan perfectly well with each verse. My favourite poem of the collection though is ‘Verses about the soul that suffers with impatience to see God’ and this is another where repetition of the last line of each verse is utilised although this time it is the sense of the last line that is repeated as the words vary between “Am dying that I do not die”, “And die because I do not die”, “The more I live the more must die” etc. culminating in the more hopeful “I live because I’ve ceased to die”.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this volume of poetry as I’m not remotely religious, let alone Catholic, so am clearly not the target audience. I suspect this is partly down to the way religion is handled in English schools where is is taught as a ‘normal’ subject and after all nobody asks you to believe in geography.

No Bed for Bacon – Caryl Brahms & S J Simon

Doris Abrahams and Simon Jacoblivitch Skidelsky, better known as Caryl Brahms and S J Simon respectively, collaborated on eleven comic novels and crime stories between 1937 and 1948 when S J Simon died suddenly at the age of just 44. No Bed for Bacon was their sixth book, first published in 1941, and is a comic retelling of Elizabethan England featuring William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth herself and numerous other famous characters from the period. Caryl Brahms was best known as a theatre, especially ballet, critic and S J Simon was a journalist but much more famous in the world of contract bridge where he was European champion and also the author of books on the subject.

Well this was a fun romp round Elizabethan London with lots of running gags including the one that gives the book its title which is Sir Francis Bacon’s desperate attempt to get hold of a bed that Queen Elizabeth had slept in during one of her many progressions around England which was seen as a major status symbol in ones home. In this he is constantly thwarted partly at the hands of the Master of the Revels who controls all such progressions but also bu Elizabeth herself who knowing of his desire for such an item of furniture ensures that it never goes to him. Other running jokes include William Skakespeare constantly trying out spellings for his name, which definitely has a basis in fact because all the known remaining signatures by Shakespeare are spelt differently. Sir Walter Raleigh keeps getting a new and ever more flashy cloak only for it to be ruined within a couple of hours, from the, probably apocryphal, tale of him using his cloak to keep the Queens feet dry when her carriage stopped by a puddle and in contrast Lord Burghley keeps being dressed in more and more shabby attire. Shakespeare also keeps trying to start a new play called Loves Labours Wonne as a companion piece to Loves Labours Lost which famously has not survived to the present day even assuming that he ever finished it in reality and the regular sections in terrible Elizabethan spelling also add to the joy of reading the book.

The opening character remains anonymous through the work yet appears regularly always doing a different job as he makes a rapid rise, and even faster fall through the ranks of the proletariat from horse holder outside a theatre, to watchman, soldier, manservant, prisoner and back to watchman amongst many other jobs too numerous to list. He invariably starts any chapter actually set in London and you get used to seeing what he has managed to become this time. The other main fictional character, most of the people in the book really existed, is the young Lady Viola who disguises herself as a boy in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. If this sounds familiar than you have probably seen the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love where Gwyneth Paltrow plays Lady Viola who disguises herself as a man in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. Just a reminder that the book was written in 1941 and Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote the film is known to have had a copy of the book but claims to have not been influenced by it despite even using the same character name and no credits to Brahms or Simon are given in the film.

The book does play fast and loose with historical accuracy (as does the film which nicked the plot) but one of the most poignant sections and indeed the longest chapter of the novel takes place on a boat on the Thames with Queen Elizabeth progressing down the river in the company of her famous military and naval commanders whilst reliving the routing of the Spanish Armada. From what I remember of my Tudor history lessons this does appear to be mainly factually correct although it does contain Sir Francis Drake completing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before heading out to meet the enemy which almost certainly didn’t happen. There are various sidelong comments regarding Drake being lucky with the wind which however was certainly correct.

Forsooth, tis a merrie romp Master Will and I definitely recommend the novel assuming you can lay your hands on a copy as it appears to have been out of print for a couple of decades but there are plenty of copies available on abebooks.

My copy is the first Penguin Books edition published in December 1948 five months after the death of S J Simon, Carly Brahms greatly outlived him and died just 3 days short of her 81st birthday in 1982.