Thursday, 10 May 2012

Book reviews: 11 May

Culture-Books-Hedge-Britannia-176OUT NOW

HEDGE BRITANNIA Hugh Barker (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

This affectionate and informative book is rather like a hedge itself: sprawling in places, concise in others, with small treasures in the footnotes and unexpected views. Barker's crusade is to raise awareness of the hedge's importance in mankind's survival throughout history, and to ensure its preservation. He offers a definitive history – as well as top tips on gardening, many photographs and illustrations, and even a recipe – and clearly adores his subject. Using both practical and academic research, he has assembled a potent case for a 'product of human activity', which has adorned the land since time immemorial.

Chapter six is sublime, dealing with the creation of garden hedges from scratch, with advice on which plants to use and why. Barker mines fairytales for further source material and visits hedge layers and gardens to further his cause. Barker drives home the point that hedges were made to keep people and animals out as well as in, make a boundary and in some instances, to provide food. To him, 'hedge-fringed' suburban gardens epitomise the British character – innocuous looking but with hidden depths. An eccentric subject, maybe, but, as Barker says, 'Hedges are so ubiquitous in Britain, they have become wedged in our subconscious'.

Sarah Crowden



Culture-Books-Lost-london-176LOST LONDON: AN A-Z OF FORGOTTEN LANDMARKS AND LOST TRADITIONS Richard Guard (Michael O'Mara Books, £9.99)

'A series of rapid expansion and terrible disasters have stripped the capital of its age-old monuments...' Thus Richard Guard begins this fascinating book about the missing sights of London – buildings and landmarks that, were it not for the Great Fire of 1666, the Blitz and, latterly, intense but insensitive urban development, would still be part of the London landscape. It's a great, if depressing subject.

Guard arranges his lost buildings alphabetically, starting with Ackermann's on the Strand; one-time art school (1750, attended by William Blake), then, in 1813, the first art library in England and the first to be lit by gas. Ackermann sold books, prints and artists' materials until his business ended in 1858 and the site was taken over by Simpson's in- the-Strand, which remains there.

Further north, Hanover Square Rooms, an 800-seat concert hall, decorated by Thomas Gainsborough and opened in 1774, was a hang-out of George III. Bach played here, and masques were given by Beau Brummel. The building was demolished in 1900. Newgate Prison, now the site of the Old Bailey, dates from the 12th century. It was rebuilt after 1423 and then burnt down in the Great Fire, after which it was rebuilt again in 1672. Henry Fielding thought it a 'prototype for hell'. It was finally demolished in 1902.

The last page in the book is devoted to Wren, and contains a sad list of demolished and gutted churches, as well as those destroyed between 1940 and 1945 in the Blitz – Christ Church, Newgate Street; The Cloisters, Middle Temple; St Augustine, Watling Street; St Mildred, Bread Street; St Stephen, Coleman Street; and St Swithin, Cannon Street – a roll call of lost architectural gems.

Carolyn Hart



Culture-Books-Ignorance-176IGNORANCE Michèle Roberts (Bloomsbury, £14.99)

In the 1990s, Michèle Roberts published a book of essays entitled Food, Sex And God. All three, in varying proportions, are present here. Set in a Catholic village in France before and during the occupation, the central fi gure in Roberts's novel is Jeanne, the daughter of a Jewish mother who has converted to Catholicism. But Jeanne knows she's not really a Catholic, as do the nuns at the convent where she boards. And her best friend, Marie-Angèle, knows too.

As the years pass and the war progresses, so the girls' paths diverge. Marie-Angèle achieves the rich husband and life she desires, but Jeanne is caught up in another kind of fairytale romance, this one involving the ogre-like artist who captivated her as a child. Meanwhile, the wolves in the story, the Germans, are a constant threat, and survival a daily struggle.

In many ways, Ignorance feels like a companion to Roberts's 1992 Booker-shortlisted novel, Daughters Of The House. It is also as sensual, impressionistic, immersive and vital as anything Roberts has produced. As a stylist, she is unafraid to take risks, but the end result here is grippingly readable and, in its moving conclusion, hard to forget.

Stephanie Cross

Culture-Books-At-Last-176MUST READ

Funeral rights

AT LAST Edward St Aubyn (Picador, £7.99)


This is the fifth in the Patrick Melrose series. You don't have to have read the previous four, however, to enjoy this blast of mordant wit, farce, tragedy and funny social encounters that take place in a single day at the funeral of Patrick Melrose's dreadful mother, Eleanor. This paperback edition comes with an avalanche of praise from the critics, who describe the series variously as 'one of the major achievements of contemporary British fiction', and 'a bizarre, baroque and irresistible quintet of aristocratic family romances...' Read it and you'll be hooked. The publishers, having considered that eventuality, have produced a limitededition box set of all five novels for £39.95.

Lola Sinclair


Stormy weather

Family life unravels as estranged siblings get together in Mark Haddon's new novel, says Jon Canter


THE RED HOUSE Mark Haddon (Cape, £17.99)

Richard, 'expecting something to be resolved or mended', rents a house in Herefordshire for a week and invites his estranged sister, Angela, her husband and children to join him there, along with his new wife and his stepdaughter. Together, they'll be one big, temporary (and unhappy) family.

The stage is set for revelations, confrontations and misunderstandings, for the family is like a boat in which everyone sails 'under a different sky'. The four adults and four children all have (or acquire) secrets, which do not remain secrets for long. There are sexual high jinks, which do nothing to resolve or mend anything. But don't mistake The Red House for yet another Aga Saga, even though we're 'a hundred miles from the nearest branch of Jack Wills'.

Haddon is sharp – the scoffing of an ice cream, alone in a café, is described as 'discomfort eating', while Richard's discovered on a hill, 'half appreciating the view and half pretending to appreciate it' – but he's intensely compassionate about his characters, trapped in a house over which hangs 'an air of mild emergency'. He peppers his text with biblical and Shakespearean references, aware he's creating his own Midsummer Night's Dream, which is more of a midsummer week's nightmare.

He's especially acute on contemporary parents, whose 'job is to be completely and utterly in the wrong', but who are obliged to be friends with their children. It's those children who are his most memorable creations: the imaginative eightyear- old Benjy, who walks down the street doing wobbly pirouettes, which are, in his mind, the opening dance from West Side Story; Alex, the teenage boy who's more of a man than the men; the magnetic and manipulative Melissa, a 'hoarder and user of secrets', with her adolescent inability to give or receive kindness; and Daisy, Haddon's most heartfelt creation, a Christian who may (or may not) be about to leave the church now she's discovered she may (or may not) be gay.

For Daisy, adolescence is a 'pinball zigzag from one accident to another'. After a disorientating start, this is a wonderfully entertaining, and often profound, novel.


THE LOVERS OF POUND HILL Mavis Cheek (Arrow, £7.99)

Shiny-booted archaeologist Molly Bonner is all wrong for village life, thus causing a stir when she arrives in Lufferton Boney. This is Mavis Cheek's 14th novel, a very amusing concoction of village life, pagan sex and men outclassed by their female neighbours.

BEAUTIFUL FOR EVER Helen Rappaport (Vintage, £8.99)

True story of con woman Madame Rachel, who began life as a fi sh fryer in Victorian London and ended up with a cosmetics shop in New Bond Street, luring women in with false promises of eternal beauty. Love affairs, scandal and blackmail feature.

DON'T SWEAT THE AUBERGINE Nicholas Clee (Black Swan, £8.99)

Updated edition of the excellent cookbook that explains kitchen conundrums such as why mince goes grey instead of brown when you cook it, why you should wash rice, and what happens when you sweat an onion. Nigel Slater calls it 'a gem' of a book.

WE SHALL NEVER SURRENDER: WARTIME DIARIES 1939-1945, edited by Penelope Middelboe, Donald Fry and Christopher Grace (Pan Macmillan, £8.99)

Wartime survival and suffering recounted through the diaries of those who lived through it. Contributors include Vera Brittain, Alan Brooke and Naomi Mitchison.


HOME Toni Morrison (Chatto, £12.99)

Morrison continues her moving exploration of the black experience in America with the story of Lotus, a settlement in rural Georgia whose young men are casualties of the Korean war.

THE SPIRIT OF VENICE Paul Strathern (Cape, £25)

Brief portraits of the extraordinary, charismatic individuals (Marco Polo, Bartolomeo Colleoni and so on) who shaped this most beautiful and most ruthless of city states.

Chronicles of village life

Dora Saint, the author who wrote under the pen name of Miss Read, has died aged 98

Culture-Books-Dora-Saint-176Miss Read began publishing her vivid, though gentle, accounts of village life in the mid-1950s. They were based on her own childhood in Chelsfield, Kent, where she attended the village school.

Her books describe the goings on in two villages – Fairacre and Thrush Green – with wry affection. Miss Read specialised in storms in teacups and village greens populated by an eccentric cast of vicars, spinster teachers, farmers' wives and well-scrubbed children. They hold the same kind of involving charm as TV soaps. Indeed, anyone who has spent time in a village will be familiar with the kind of battles that inform life in Fairacre and Thrush Green: how to tidy up the cemetery and what to do about a leaking school skylight. A crisis occurs when an elm tree falls and damages the church; the distant threat of nuclear war is mild by comparison.

Ironically, Miss Read might have achieved blockbusting status had she begun writing today – her subject matter is ideal fuel for Twitter. As it was, she never topped the bestseller lists and was ignored by the literary establishment. But she had a loyal following. Her books were seldom out of print, and much loved in America. Her publisher noted that, 'Miss Read wrote wonderfully about the things she held dear: good friendships, the countryside through the seasons, and harmless tittle-tattle on the green. She did not shirk from writing about the downs as well as the ups of village life... but good always prevailed.'

Carolyn Hart



Dora Saint wrote her first piece for Punch in 1947. It was entitled On Buying A Teapot. She was spotted by Robert Lusty at Michael Joseph and her first book, Village School, came out in 1955, marketed as the autobiographical account of a spinster schoolmistress. Fifty more books, including children's stories and a couple of volumes of autobiography followed. Three of her novels – Village School, Village Diary and Storm In The Village – were adapted into a musical. She was appointed an MBE in 1998.

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