Blandings book 1 – Something Fresh

Although it is the first novel in the Blandings Castle saga, Something Fresh was one of the last that I read. As someone who had come to Wodehouse as he was approaching his prime (Heavy Weather, the first novel I read was published in 1933) initially I found the writing style of this one, which was published in 1915, only 12 years after he began writing, slightly less fluent. Not there’s anything wrong with the writing, but it does not quite have the free flowing narrative style of the Master in his pomp.

There are shades of the more erudite and conversational narration that became his style, particularly in the Jeeves and Wooster books, and occasionally he slips into the first person narrative, amongst which this is a favourite of mine:

“One of the Georges – I forget which – once said that a certain number of hours’ sleep each night – I cannot recall at the moment how many – made a man something, which for the time being has slipped my memory, and Baxter agreed with him”

Something Fresh starts in London and introduces us in the first chapter to the main characters of the story, Ashe Marston and Joan Valentine. In terms of character Joan is the most noteworthy and she is often considered to be one of Wodehouse’s finest heroines. She is clever, forthright, dynamic, resourceful and could fit right into a novel written a hundred years later in her arguments for women’s equality. She is not quite my personal favourite Wodehouse heroine, as that is Anne Benedick in Money in the Bank, (see my previous blog on that book) but she’s definitely in the top three.

Chapter Two introduces the Honourable Freddy Threepwood and his father, the Earl of Emsworth, both of whom are to become staples of the entire saga. There is a superbly humourous scene in the dining room of the Senior Conservative Club (a location that crops up occasionally in other books), before the action switches to Blandings Castle where all the subsequent books are set. And it is at Blandings that we are introduced to one of the saga’s most notable characters, the man we love to hate, the saturnine, bespectacled Rupert Baxter, who when we first meet him is Lord Emsworth’s secretary.

A further note on the writing: Wodehouse devotes five pages on the arrival at Blandings station to describe the moment of Ashe falling in love with Joan. It’s lyrical, tender, insightful and, as ever, slightly comic. And it is worthy of note because though described as a light and even comic writer, Wodehouse most certainly knew and could handle the finer aspect of human emotions when he wanted to.

The main thrust of the story of this book is to do with the accidental purloining by Lord Emsworth of a very rare ancient Egyptian scarab from Mr Peters, the father of Freddy’s fiance, and Mr Peters’ attempts to get it back. As ever with Wodehouse, the fun comes not so much from the events of the story but from the people who get caught up in it. Ashe and Joan meet up, both get conscripted separately to retrieve the scarab and end up falling in love. Freddy starts off being engaged and fearing a breach of promise case, and ends up as single, but relieved. The book shows an apparently well informed view of the hierarchy of life below stairs, and gives us our first introduction to Mr Beach, the butler. Interestingly, considered across the whole saga, Beach is the character that changes most in the writer’s mind and pen. In Something Fresh he is shown as a figure of immense superiority, aloof, ponderous and wholly separate. Within a couple of books he is shown as having a beer in the Emsworth Arms (one of the village pubs), and towards the end of the saga he is winning a darts tournament!

The final aspect of this book that becomes a common feature of almost all the Blandings book is the imposters. Joan and Ashe are the first of many. I can’t think of any Blandings books that don’t have at least one imposter.

It’s a fun book to read. It was written as a standalone novel in 1915 (none of the characters appears again until the second novel, Leave it to Psmith eight years later) and is very interesting to read it in that context. Emsworth, Freddy, Beach and Baxter are presented as characters with whom the reader is entirely unfamiliar and if Wodehouse fans can forget all the subsequent character development reading it is quite an exciting intellectual exercise.

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Blogging about books, with particular reference to PG Wodehouse

Some time ago I set off with the intention of writing a blog a week about books. It went fairly well for the first few months of 2017 but then my daughter’s wedding intervened and knocked me out of my stride and sadly the whole enterprise staggered to a halt. Shortly after that another daughter announced her intention to marry, and that plus my personal project for 2018 (I’ve become a runner! Something that might well have a blog of its own at some point.) have managed to defer all thoughts of blogging.

Until now.

I want to start again, though in a manner that is less prescriptive, particularly in terms of time. I’m going to read all of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle books in chronological order, and will write about each one as I go.

I was introduced to Wodehouse at the age of 10 by a friend of my father’s who, it transpired, had pretty much a complete collection of his books. He lent me A Wodehouse Miscellany, consisting of short stories, extracts from books and innumerable quotes. I greatly enjoyed it so he then gave me my first Blandings book, Heavy Weather. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this is actually the fourth volume in the canon and directly follows on from Summer Lightning, so some of the events and characters were a touch confusing. But I loved that book! The humour, the place, the style of writing and the characters all made an impression on my young mind and I was hooked. As I grew up my collection gradually expanded; I met Jeeves and Wooster; explored the wacky world of Psmith and devoured the thoughts and remembrances of both Mr Mulliner and The Oldest Member. All these books I read and re-read – still do.

Wodehouse aficionados will argue long into the night as to which parts of the Master’s oeuvre are the funniest. Some (well, ok, many!) will support the Jeeves and Wooster stories as the highest form; others are supportive of the golfing stories, the Blandings saga or the adventures of Ukridge. And I will freely admit to hugely enjoying all of these. But for me the stories of Blandings Castle, its dreamy owner Lord Emsworth, his numerous nieces and their suitors, his array of formidable sisters, his brother Gally (now there’s a bloke to go for a drink with!) and the supreme pig, the Empress of Blandings. These are the ones that pull me back most, time after time and I am greatly looking forward to reading them all again and sharing my thoughts in this blog in the weeks to come.

Book 16 – Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson first came to England in 1973, settled here in 1977 and has become probably our only American National Treasure. He has written books on the English language (Mother Tongue is superb!) and then developed into a travel writer with an idiosyncratic style that makes him always a joy to read.

After marrying here and bringing up a family, he decided in the mid-nineties to move back to the USA but before going he wanted to write a farewell to Great Britain. Notes from a Small Island is Bryson’s tribute to this country, written with an eye to detail, a command of language and a heartfelt love of the place that has long been one of my very favourite books. It is funny; it is accurate; it is perceptive. He shows us both the faults of the people and the systems and all that makes them so wonderful.

He packs the book with incidental facts about places that were (and still are) a surprise to me. There’s one part when writing about the Cotswolds where he gives just enough detail for an determined enquirer to find a genuine roman mosaid floor hidden away in a wood. Armed with an ordnance survey map and his hints we managed to find it too!

His perceptions on the way we think here are spot on. The first chapter contains a near parody of a pub discussion about how to travel somewhere that is side-splittingly funny and deadly accurate.

It is quite simply one of the best books about this country that’s ever been written. And as an aside, he has moved back here and now has a followup volume called The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island that is high on my list of Books To Get Very Soon.

Book 15 – The Tin Princess

I think I’m going to have to read some more Philip Pullman. Some years back I got hold of the His Dark Materials trilogy, partly because I wanted to see what the fuss was about, and partly because Pullman was quoted as saying that he wanted to use the trilogy “to kill God” – spoiler alert: he doesn’t! The books were a thoughful and entertaining read with some wonderful characters – who could not fall in love with Serafina Pekkala? – but left me somewhat dissatisfied as in the end it all seemed to peter out somehow.

A year or so ago I found The Tin Princess in a secondhand book sale, thought it was a very different looking Pullman novel and therefore decided to try it. But again, it seems to not really have much of an ending and all the anticipation leads to nowhere in particular. As with the trilogy, some of the writing is superb. There’s a description of a small battle in a developing snowstorm that is wonderful and evocative to read, but overall I was left feeling “is that it?”.

This could be because the book is part of a series for young adults (something I was not aware of when starting it) and thus there is a back story of which I knew nothing. And perhaps these days modern young adult fiction is not for me. As I said at the beginning, I’ll have to try some more Pullman before definitely making up my mind.

 

 

 

Book 14 – The Leveller Revolution

It was Margaret Thatcher that I hold responsible for my political awakening. Growing up in a small C conservative Catholic family and attending a Catholic public school I was slightly too young for the political upheavals of the late 1960’s (though in the later years at school and then at university I enthusiastically followed the changes in the Church, but was slow to come to recognise the social and political changes that they implied) and followed my parents and most fellow students in becoming a supporter of the Conservative cause. In my defence I must point out that in the late 1970’s the left in this country was a mess and (at least as portrayed in most of the press) the Labour Party was in hock to a trade union movement that was running amok. So, in 1979 at the first General Election where I could vote my mark was placed against the Conservative party.

I hasten to add that that was the only time in my entire life where I did so. Thatcher hadn’t  been in post for long when I began to see the damage that unbridled  implementation of policies based mainly on market forces could do to society and to smaller communities. And at that point I began to put together the social teaching of the Church and my changing political outlook. I never joined a political party but for the last 35 years I’ve definitely been on the left in my political views.  I refuse to accept blindly the accepted concepts of capitalism and the view that the best answer to everything is “the market”.  I suppose that the nearest label that could be applied to my viewpoint is “Christian Socialist”, with an equal emphasis on each word.

I did my best to demonstrate this outlook to my daughters as they grew up, and Marianne, the middle daughter, gave me John Rees’s The Leveller Revolution as a Christmas present.  She thought I’d enjoy reading about some of the very earliest left wing thought in English history,  and in that she was absolutely right. 

The English Civil War was one of the areas of history that I studied for O’ Level but it was at a fairly superficial level.  I have absolutely no memory of the Levellers ever being mentioned and though the name has cropped up in my general reading over the years I knew practically nothing of them. I knew more about the Diggers, famous from the Leon Rosselson song The World Turned Upside Down. After reading this book I am far more aware of some of the major undercurrents that formed the revolution that brought about  the execution of Charles I. Moreover I am in awe of the sheer courage of many of those involved and their steadfastness in the face of overwhelming power.  The establishment of the networks of illegal printers that allowed the promulgation of pamphlets showing the literally revolutionary new ideas was a bit of an eye-opener. There is so much in this book to admire.  The people,  their strength,  their enthusiasm, their ideas all in the end had an influence that extends down the centuries to form the country as it is over 350 years later. If you’re interested in the radical history of England I  think you’ll enjoy this book. 

Book 13 – The Chalk Pit

My mother introduced me to detective stories when I was,  I think,  around 11 years old.  She’d borrowed Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced from the local library and passed it on to me as she thought I’d enjoy it.  It was the first time I’d read a story where things were discovered through reasoning rather than by accident or were planned, and I found the concept thrilling.  I also rather enjoyed the book!

Having found detective books I read lots more Christie, being captured by Poirot in particular, then branched out into John Creasey (the Inspector Roger West books) Dorothy L Sayers (the Lord Peter Winsey books) and many others.  In later years Ian Rankin hugely impressed me by the sheer quality of the writing in the Rebus books.

Then, shortly after we moved to the Fens we were browsing in Toppings in Ely and under “Local authors” saw a book called The Crossing Places written by someone called Elly Griffiths. The premise looked interesting so we bought it.  It was about a female archaeologist named Ruth Galloway who lecturers at the university of Norfolk in Kings Lynn who is consulted by the local police inspector in regard to some child’s bones that have been discovered.  It’s an unusual book with a very human cast of characters and I enjoyed it.  And as subsequent novels in the series have been published we’ve bought them;  The Chalk Pit is the latest. 

The things that marks these books as different is partly the love of place – they are set in and around the salt  marshes of Norfolk. But another strong attraction is the way the lives of the people involved – Ruth herself, the local police and the other local people who are in the books – are all slowly developing as themselves and with each other.  They are growing in popularity and if you like the idea of a police procedural with a difference then I suspect you’ll enjoy the Ruth Galloway books.

Book 12 – Night Watch

Some time in 1986 I saw a pair of books in a bookshop.  They seemed to be an amusing and intriguing new fantasy set on a place called Discworld and captured my attention.  Titled The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic they were by an author I’d  never heard of,  named Terry Pratchett and proved to be a entertaining read. The following year two more books were published and the flow continued for 41 books, almost all of which we bought soon after publication – quite a few of which were birthday presents. 

The Discworld  books mostly fall into three main categories though these are not exclusive. The first books were about the Wizards, then came the Witches stories (which can be further subdivided into the Lancre and The Chalk witches). And then came the Watch books.  There are also various books that do not fit into any of these categories,  but they all fit into the main Discworld milieu. 

The first few books were mainly humorous but as the writing developed the themes of the books became deeper, the personalities became richer and the stories more complex. The humour remained of course; in some books (Soul Music and The Truth in particular) there’s a huge number of in-jokes, and many of the books have very funny footnotes.

The books about the Watch are those which are most grounded in humanity, with the Discworld magic more in the background rather than being part of the life experience of the people as is the case with the wizards and witches. And the exploration of humanity and self and and what it means to live in an ordered society grows through these books. At the same time Pratchett’s writing developed over the years. Night Watch is The 29th Discworld novel, the 6th in the Watch series and in my opinion shows Pratchett at his very best. It has a young Sam Vimes, young Fred Colon and a very young Nobby Nobbs, and also introduces a promising student assassin named Vetinari. It deals with tyranny,  civil unrest,  and great evil at both the individual and societal level and because of what it deals with and what Vimes discovers is the least funny of the Discworld books. Terry thought that humour just would not be appropriate given the subject matter. 

For me it ranks with I Shall Wear Midnight as his very best books,  even if the lack of humour is atypical. It is powerful, thought-provoking, engaging,  and at the same time gives an insight into some of the history of Ankh-Morpork. It’s a book that leaves the reader in a slightly sombre frame of mind but at the same time content with the outcome.