Oct 312014

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81, J.B. Morrison, Macmillan, 2014.

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 tells the story of a year in the life of an elderly man who lives alone an English seaside village. On his eighty-first birthday, Frank is run over by a milk float and fractures his arm and foot. His daughter, who lives in America, is concerned about his ability to take care of himself when he is released from hospital, so she engages the services of a home care company and pays for twelve weekly visits. At first, Frank is upset by the prospect of a strange woman bossing him around, but he soon realises he has hit the jackpot when Kelly Christmas turns up. She might be a very bad driver but she is kind and considerate, and soon Frank is looking forward to her Monday morning visit as the highlight of his week.

Frank Derrick is an endearing character. He is one of life’s dreamers and chancers, the sort of man who would spend his last $20 on lottery tickets rather than food. He is heartbreakingly lonely and terribly bored, but he is resilient and takes life as it comes. His big passion in life is movies and he once harboured the notion of setting up a cinema in his garden shed, but like most of Frank’s other ideas, nothing ever came of it. His wife died, his daughter moved away, and he finds himself living amongst strangers who fill their days washing their cars, trimming their lawns, or twitching the net curtains and spying on their neighbours. Frank wears his hair long, is a Sex Pistols fan, and still young at heart. And this is Frank’s big problem, because although he is still young in his mind, his body tells him otherwise.

The tone of the book is poignant, whimsical, and sometimes funny. I found Frank quite heartbreaking at times because he misses his wife and daughter and only has one friend, who has MS and lives in residential care. A lack of money means that Frank cannot do the things he would like to, and the quiet village he and his wife moved to years ago has become much larger and less community-minded. Poor Frank spends most of his time at home with his cat, watching television, sorting through his junk mail, and trying to dodge the many cold-callers who land on his doorstep and attempt to sell him things or talk him into having his roof fixed. He longs for companionship and something meaningful to do with his days, but daily visits to the local charity shop and rides on the bus to visit his friend are about as good as it gets.

When Kelly Christmas comes to care for him, Frank’s quality of life improves but he knows her visits are numbered, and this is very hard for him to bear. I felt sad when I was reading about Frank’s schemes to raise some money so he could pay her to continue visiting. His quiet despair was all too palpable on the page and I think Morrison has done a wonderful job of capturing that with words. I know there are a great many older people who feel lonely and lost living in our communities, maybe next door to us. Boredom and loneliness are terrible afflictions, especially when you are old. As Frank says, young people have no reason to complain about being bored:

Bored. Ha. Really. Bored. They didn’t know the meaning of the word. Frank could teach them something about boredom. What did the young have to be so bored about? They had slides and swings, they had computer games, football and kiss chase. They could run and jump, skip, hop, somersault and cartwheel. They could make fists and punch each other. They could chew gum. They had their own television channels and virtually all the radio stations. They had the Internet and bicycles, mobile phones and skateboards. If kids were so bored they should try and spend a couple of hundred afternoons in a row sitting on their own watching repeats of Murder She wrote. Then we’d see what they’ve got to be so bored about. It was the elderly who should be smashing things up.

Frank has quite a lot to say about how elderly people are seen by others and how they are treated by society in general. He is not asking for pity; he wants to be seen and heard, and not be written off as a silly old bugger who is just cluttering up the place. Frank’s life may be extra ordinary but he is desperate not to go back to sitting alone, day after boring day, watching repeats on television and eating tinned spaghetti. Even at eighty-one, as the narrative shows us, Frank wants to live rather than exist, and he wants to have purpose and meaning in his days.

I enjoyed The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81, even though it has come in for some criticism for supposedly jumping on the ‘uplifting books about old people’ bandwagon. So, there is only allowed to be one book with that theme? How presumptuous and condescending it is to imply that one book can encompass all elderly people’s experiences, but I am not surprised that some people do think that way. No, the more books about elders the better, I say. In a world obsessed with youth, it is refreshing and interesting to read about older people and their lives. There should definitely be a lot more books like this on bookshop shelves.

Oct 282014

The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald, Fourth Estate, 2014.

First published in 1978, The Bookshop is a clever and compact novel about a woman who decides to open a bookshop in a small town in East Suffolk. Florence Green has been living in Hardborough for ten years. We do not know why she is living there, and apart from a couple of references to a dead husband, we do not know much about her life prior to her taking up residence in the somewhat Gothic town. Florence is not sure the townsfolk will support a bookshop, but she is passionate about the necessity of books and reading. She decides to buy the Old House, built in the fifteenth century and now dilapidated and damp which, with the assistance of the local scout troup, she turns into a shop, albeit a bookshop with a resident poltergeist. Yes, the ‘tapper’ is a bit of a fanciful addition to an otherwise impeccable cast of characters, but it gives the book atmosphere and a slightly whimsical slant that I enjoyed.

Those who had lived in Hardborough for some time also knew that her freehold was haunted. The subject was not avoided, it was a familiar one. The figure of a woman, for example, could sometimes be seen down at the landing-stage of the ferry, about twilight, waiting for her son to come back, although he had been drowned over a hundred years ago. But the Old House was not haunted in a touching manner. It was infested by a poltergeist which, together with the damp and an unsolved question about the drains, partly accounted for the difficulty in selling the property. The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though he perhaps alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.

The Bookshop is underpinned by black humour, which is my favourite kind of funniness, but there are also some unsavoury and downright nasty characters in the book who made me sharply draw in my breath. One such person is Mrs Gamart who, together with her husband, the General, lives at The Stead, the poshest house in town. However, as incomers they are not accepted by the oldest residents and there is a stand-off as Mrs Gamart attempts to climb the social ladder and the established families attempt to keep her at bay. Florence rather gets caught in the middle of the fray when one of the oldest residents takes a shine to her and her idea of starting a bookshop. Mrs Gamart knows people in higher places still, and she has Florence squarely in her sights.

The best-drawn character in the book is ten-year-old Christine Gipping whom Florence eventually employs to help out in the shop:

Her skin was almost translucent. Her silky hair seemed to have no substance, ruffling away from her forehead in the slightest draft. When Florence, still anxious not to hurt her feelings, smiled encouragingly, she smiled back, showing two broken front teeth.

They had been broken during the previous winter in rather a strange manner, when the washing on the line froze hard, and she was caught a blow in the face with an icy vest. Like all the Hardborough children, she had learned to endure.

Christine is ten-going-on-thirty and knows a thing or two. She rules the shop, and the subscription lending library Florence sets up, and woe betide anyone who breaks her rules. I must admit that I could see quite a bit of my child-self in bossy and tactless little Christine, who was given to saying the wrong thing:

‘You haven’t any children, Mrs Green?’
‘No. I should have liked to.’
‘Life passed you by in that respect, then.’
Without waiting for explanations, she bustled round the shop, opening drawers and finding fault with the arrangements, her faint hair flying.

There are quite a few similarities between Penelope Fitzgerald and Muriel Spark’s writing, but Fitzgerald is warmer towards most of her characters, I think. They both wrote about outsiders and oddballs, and they both wrote with a similar streak of bleak darkness underpinning their satire. Fitzgerald (1916-2000) wrote non-fiction at first, and when she was fifty-eight, published her first book, a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. After writing a second biography, she switched to writing semi-autobiographical novels, and in 1979 won the Booker with Offshore. She seems to have had a fairly interesting, if somewhat difficult, life. Apparently she had a lot of promise as a young woman: she graduated from Oxford with a first and was a renowned beauty. Marriage to a feckless and alcoholic Irish Guards officer, and having three children, soon put paid to all that and her life hit the skids. She worked in a bookshop for a while, and lived on a houseboat which sank, an event she portrayed in Offshore. She also worked at the BBC and as a teacher, and seems to have been resilient and resourceful throughout all her trials. Her The Blue Flower is a gorgeous historical novel which set me on the path of discovering more of Fitzgerald’s writing, and now I have a line of books with her name on the covers sitting on a TBR shelf. Also, I am looking forward to reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Fitzgerald, which was published in 2013.

I recommend The Bookshop to anyone looking for a short, beautifully-crafted, novel. Her prose is spare and her characterisations are spot-on. I very much admire her style of writing and am glad I still have more of her books to savour for the first time.

Oct 222014

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor, Virago Press, 2013.

Mrs Palfrey is a reasonably well-off widow who takes up residence at the Claremont Hotel in London. She has one daughter who lives in Scotland and a grandson who works at the British Museum. Apart from them, she has no family or current friends. She chose to live at the Claremont because it offers attractive off-season rates for long-term retired residents. The book is set in the late sixties or early seventies – it was published in 1971 – and reflects a world where nursing homes were the last stop before death, and elderly people feared them.

At the Claremont, Mrs Palfrey has a small room with a view of a brick wall, and shares a bathroom with other guests on her floor. She takes her meals in the dining room, and spends her evenings in the hotel lounge with the other residents and passing-through guests. She is crushingly lonely and more than a little lost after her husband’s death. Mrs Palfrey was an excellent wife who dutifully followed her husband on his overseas postings and adhered to social conventions. Now she finds herself adrift in the world and hopes the Claremont will be a safe harbour.

Elizabeth Taylor was a brilliant writer and this, her last novel, is one of her best. She perfectly captures Mrs Palfrey and the other Claremont residents. They are old and wobbly on their feet, and some of them are good haters. There is a boorish gentleman, the product of a public school, who writes complaining letters to the newspapers and bails up the hotel staff and tells them rude jokes. There is an outrageous flirt, a dipsomaniac, a vicious gossip, and a woman so frightened and anxious that she constantly second-guesses herself at every turn. Mrs Palfrey finds herself parachuted into this alien milieu and sets about trying to make a life for herself.

The thing Taylor does in her writing, the way she unfolds characters, like smoothing out a ball of crumpled paper, is so impressive. You can see the characters, hear their voices and, most importantly, you can really feel their pain. Some readers find the narrative funny, but I fail to find much humour in the book. I found it to be beautifully written, but ever so melancholic. I suppose you could laugh at the characters’ foibles and their petty worries if you were of a mind to do so, but I felt such sadness for them all. They are so trapped inside themselves, so trapped within the bounds of what is ‘proper’. Their sense of propriety, their class snobbery and good manners make them all so rigid and I found this ineffably sad. If they had pooled their resources they could have had a good time together, but they were mired in their pettiness and it made me feel claustrophobic on their behalf. It is hard to read about so much despair written so realistically.

The narrative seemed to me to be dark, unflinching, and slightly vicious at times, but Taylor’s writing is often like that. Somehow she manages to make her characters seem so real and emotionally raw and vulnerable, but at the same time they behave in ways that make them appear appalling and fascinating at the same time. I have no clue how she was able to get right to the heart of things the way she did, but it seems to me that she was unafraid to look life in the eye and report back on the loneliness and despair she saw.

Mrs Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January. Rain had closed in over London, and her taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road past one cavernous porch after another, the driver going slowly and poking his head out into the wet, for the hotel was not known to him. This discovery, that he did not know, had disconcerted Mrs Palfrey, for she did not know it either, and began to wonder what she was coming to. She tried to banish terror from her heart. She was alarmed at the threat of her own depression.


This is the gorgeous ‘other’ Elizabeth Taylor. I really want to read Nicola Beauman’s bio of her.

Oct 162014

Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns, Virago, 2013.

First published in 1947, Sisters by a River is an autobiographical novel that tells the story of Barbara Comyns’ childhood. She and her four sisters (and one brother who is only mentioned once in the book because he would ‘hate to be in it’) grew up in a large Gothic pile dating from the sixteenth century. The house itself is almost the main character in the book and is described in great detail throughout. Situated beside a river that sometimes flooded the garden so that the children had to walk around on stilts, the house is also probably the most stable character in the book. The sisters’ parents, and the members of their extended and very dysfunctional family, are really quite grotesque.

I read somewhere that Barbara Comyns’ writing reads like Beryl Bainbridge on acid, which seems like a fair estimation, although I would not want to take anything away from Comyns. I think her writing and that of Shirley Jackson probably have some things in common, and Angela Carter had a similarly inventive and warped imagination. Anyone who likes We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Magic Toyshop would probably feel at home reading Sisters by a River.

It was in the middle of a snowstorm I was born, Palmer’s brother’s wedding night, Palmer went to the wedding and got snowbound, and when he arrived very late in the morning her had to bury my packing under the wallnut tree, he always had to do this when were born – six times in all, and none of us died, Mary said Granny used to give us manna to eat and that’s why we didn’t, but manna is stuff in the bible, perhaps they have it in places like Fortnham & Mason, but I’ve never seen it, or maybe Jews shops.

I have seen reviews of the book where the narration is described as being from a child’s point of view, but I do not agree with that. The narrator, Barbara, who is the second-youngest sister, is clearly an adult reminiscing about her childhood, and at one point mentions that she married one of the other characters. The narrator sounds childlike because she is relatively uneducated: her idiosyncratic spelling and grammar is proof that all the governesses who made the sisters’ lives a misery were not very proficient teachers. Apparently Comyns was upset when the publisher chose not to correct the spelling mistakes in her manuscript but instead added in some more because it was thought the book gained charm by being ‘unlettered’, and I think this holds true. Barbara narrates her story in a matter-of-fact way, even the violent and cruel bits, because having grown up in such a dysfunctional family it all seemed rather normal and unremarkable to her. Her father was cruel to animals and not very kind to people, and her mother distant and disturbed, which rather reminded me of my own parents, and I certainly related to the children’s untrammelled roaming, their hiding in secret places to keep out of the way, and their dispassionate witness of the grown-ups’ crazy antics.

The new year wasn’t nice at our house, the grown-ups got simply frightful, they all drank too much and got depressed, I can’t think why they did it, if it made them unhappy. Daddy was the worst, he would get all sentimental and morbid and keep saying this was the last year we would spend in the house, and we could expect the bailiffs any day now and Granny and Mammy would cry and have another drink to help them to bear up, then Granny and Daddy would both say, ‘This is the last New Year we shall see, they could feel Death coming nearer’ and Granny would cry more than ever and say no one wanted you when you were old, and they never told you anything, and young people were hard and looked like strumpets anyway.

That sounds a lot like my own memories of Christmas en famille; I never knew until I left home that other people had fun family gatherings without adults crying, screaming and throwing plates of food at the wall. Fun times! I would love to read a biography of Comyns if I could find one, because she sounds like a really interesting woman. Apparently, the things she describes in Sisters by a River are true(ish). Her father did have a tenant who was a widow with seven stillborn sons and one living daughter. One day he saw the daughter playing and declared to her mother that he would marry the child when she grew up. He was a fairly wealthy industrialist and brewer who ended up losing his money, but at the time he was a good catch despite his rumoured ‘touch of the tarbrush’, as Comyns puts it. So, when the daughter was seventeen he married her and she had six children in quick succession. During her last confinement something went awry and she became stone deaf. Comyns went to art school, married young and had two children, but the marriage failed. She then became involved with a black marketeer and made a living by breeding poodles and renovating pianos, amongst other things. Comyns’ second husband was a friend and colleague of Kim Philby, the spy, and was sacked by the Foreign Office when Philby was unmasked. Strapped for cash, Comyns and her husband went to live in Spain for eighteen years, long before it was fashionable to do so. Seriously, you couldn’t make up stuff like this.

I wish the cover art for this book was more apt; it just seems insipid to me, considering the powerful and sometimes macabre nature of the book. Oh well, here is a picture of the gorgeous Ms Barbara Irene Veronica Bayley, as she was born, who lived from 1907-1992. She was an artist as well as an author, but I have not yet found any images of her art online.