Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Literary byways

I've acquired a few books recently. And a map of the Chilterns from 1967 from a bin. Amongst them is a fascinating, odd little book written in a beautifully naive mode.

Here's the first paragraph, which sums up the tone pretty well:
Last night I went to a cocktail party, and somebody suggested that I should write another book. I said "My dear, how could I? I can't be born again, it sounds so biblical somehow". But she didn't care, and somebody else remarked, "After all, no one need read it," which comforting thought seemed at the time to impress us all as a good reason for writing a book. I gave way and started; quite inexcusably really, as I hadn't even drunk a cocktail, being unfortunately unfitted by nature to swallow strong drink of any kind, but do I get any credit for this abstinence? Not at all. My sister Susan says, "What a good thing you don't drink, because if you did you would drink such a lot," which remark inclines me to believe that any good points I may possess are purely negative… Quite a lot of people seem to like me for some obscure reason which even they cannot account for, but nobody ever approves of me, and I long to know why, just out of curiosity. 

It's Lady Clodagh Anson's Another Book, sequel to her smash hit Book: Indiscreet Memoirs. I haven't done more than dip into it, but it looks like a lovely refugee from a vanished time, place and culture. Anson (1902-1992) was (as her name suggests) a member of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy. In her world, the struggles between the two nations were over: her life consisted of privilege, fox-hunting, delightful Irish mansions surrounded by cute Catholic peasants and the London townhouse, from which she'd sally forth to Society Balls. Though to be fair she did minister to 'Down and Outs' in London. All this, despite publishing Book in 1931 and Another Book in 1937, well after the Rising, the Civil War and the burning of the Big Houses. On the 1911 census, she lists her occupation as 'Lady Clodagh', something I'm sure my Aunt Clodagh would appreciate having the luxury of doing!

It's an odd piece of work: it has a price (12/6), but it's PRIVATELY PUBLISHED as the frontispiece puts it, on lovely thick creamy paper, and obviously addressed to a very restricted readership. Amongst them of course is her friend the Duchess of Devonshire (Deborah Mitford as was), who lists Anson as one of her very favourite authors in her own scatty delight, Counting the Chickens:

I suppose our friends are as honest as the next lot, but it is odd how books disappear. Not the fat and heavy biographies of politicians in two volumes, which no one could read in bed (or out of it), but the attractive ones you pick up over a weekend and don't have time to finish. They vanish like summer snow and although I sometimes search every room in our huge house I never find the missing loved one. So I have resorted to selfishness, gathering irreplaceable volumes in my room where it is unlikely that anyone would bag one, even from the pile on the floor.
Perhaps my unstealables would not appeal to everyone. Fowls and Geese and How to Keep Them (1935,1/6d and worth every penny); Book by Lady Clodagh Anson and Another Book by the same author - classic descriptions of Anglo-Irish life before the Great War; nice, thin 1930s Betjemans, Continual Dew and Mount Zion; the real Oxford Book of English Verse on India paper; the poems chosen by that professor whose name is a mixture of duvet and sofa, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch; What Shall We Have Today? by X Marcel Boulestin (what did X stand for?), and The Life of Ronald Knox given to me by good, kind Evelyn Waugh, who knew I can hardly read, so mercifully the pages have no words on them. They are all blank.
A book that would disappear by next Monday if left in a visitor's room is A Late Beginner, Priscilla Napier's autobiography. Brought up in Egypt and seeing pyramids against the sunset from her nursery window, she asked, "What are they, Nanny?" "Tombs, dear. Where's your other sock?" You can't do better than that and I do not want to lose it. The works of George Ewart Evans are next to The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre, White Mischief, The Prince, The Showgirl and Me, The Day of Reckoning, Rio Grande's Last Race and books with pages covered in print, dash it, by E Waugh, P Leigh Fermor and J Lees-Milne. Most precious is The Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. If that goes I give up.

So what's it like? Well, it reads like a mix of P. G. Wodehouse and Joyce Grenfell: amusing, slight anecdotes appreciated by the toffs. The only reference to Irish independence I've found so far is a not very funny anecdote about the Irish not wanting to join the British Army in WW1, and the rather hasty 'as I left Ireland in 1921' in the midst of a story about a delinquent dressmaker ('Time has no limit in Ireland, there is no hurry about anything'). 

What I like about this stuff is the sense that absolutely nothing, whether her role in the colonial occupation or the slaughter in the trenches, is allowed to interfere with having a jolly good time. 

Here's a taste, courtesy of The Ardmore Journal and the Waterford County Museum:

She came back to London to have me, and Nanny and I were left at Curraghmore with my uncle and his wife while she went back to the ranch for a year. Nanny was very good at talking to babies and I learned to speak very early. When mother arrived back at Curraghmore I was 10 months old. I was in my pram and she came towards me making baby noises. I sat up held out my hand and said "how do you do". She was so astonished that she cried. 
We then took to bathing in the boat cove, at high tide, with our friends, and this didn't go down at all well, as mixed bathing was considered very fast in Ireland at that time. There was an article in the Dungarvan Observer saying "The disgusting British practice of mixed bathing is being carried on in Ardmore, corrupting the morals of the children in the nearby houses".
The next week they wrote again "In spite of our protest of last week, this disgusting practice is still carried on." 
I know you'd love to get a copy, but I can't find Book or Another Book (even in the later public version, Victorian Days) online anywhere, so it looks like my copy is pretty rare. If anyone comes across Book, let me know. I hate not having a complete set.


David Wells said...

Weirdly enough at work I fairly recently found (and unfortunately sold) a copy of 'Book'.

It was an ex-library copy and it went for £200. Most expensive book I've sold.

The Plashing Vole said...

Ah well, ships that pass in the night. The most I've ever paid for a book is £165 - for one of the very rarest Left Book Club issues: a science fiction novel set 1000 years into the victorious Third Reich.