Pullar’s of Perth War Memorial

We were in Perth a few weeks ago and discovered the memorial to the employees of the famous former Dye and Cleaning Works, Pullar’s of Perth, who died in the two World Wars. It’s set into the wall of Pullar’s House in Kinnoull Street. We don’t normally walk past it so it was serendipitous.

For close-ups of the memorial and the names on it see the Scottish War Memorials website.

Woodstock War Memorial

After Harwich/Dovercourt we headed to Blenheim Palace which is close to Oxford, specifically by the village of Woodstock. The journey took much longer than Google Maps had suggested it would so we didn’t really have enough time there. Though we saw most of the rooms on show the Palace is huge and the grounds enormous; so much so we’ll have to go back to take it all in. (The entry gives you the option of free return within a year. Maybe in spring.)

We wandered round Woodstock itself – the buildings are made from Cotswold stone, very warm in appearance.

The War memorial is situated in the churchyard and has a simple elegant cross design on a plinth inscribed, “To the Memory of the Fallen 1914-18 1939-45 In Sure and Certain Hope.”

That Summer by Andrew Greig

faber and faber, 2000, 261 p.

That Summer cover

Scot Andrew Greig’s first book contained poetry. He has since published more poetry collections, non-fiction books on mountaineering and golf, short stories and, so far, seven novels. That Summer (also known as The Clouds Above) was his fourth novel and the first work of his I have read.

The summer of the title is the one of 1940, a fact which could be divined from the book’s cover, showing as it does a Hurricane in flight over a country landscape (with a shadowy female head in the upper background.) There is an elegiac feel to the story from the start, as, sixty years on, a reunion of sorts takes place at a long abandoned wartime airfield; yet the figures seem insubstantial, ghosts of themselves, or of those who cannot come back.

As a novel, That Summer deals with those three perennial literary concerns, love, sex and death. The narration is trifold, with all three intermingled through the book. Two are in first person – from the viewpoints of (Flight) Sergeant Len Westbourne and RDF operator Stella Gardam – and there are intermittent third person passages, some of which describe the ongoing war situation. Len’s comrade Tadeusz Polarcyk and Stella’s friend Maddy feature prominently. We are treated to the relevant narrator’s own thoughts and their perceptions of the other three. All are eminently rounded people with strengths and flaws, feeling entirely real – as do the minor characters.

The scenario could be over-familiar from all those 1950s black and white films – exercises in national myth-making – part of the long shadow which that war cast over those who experienced it (who themselves grew up in the shade of the earlier war, “I begin to think to see why our parents had kept their war to themselves. It was too horrible yet precious, it had gone too deep,” an all too present absence passed on in turn to their children (ie my generation) but in Greig’s hands it is far from hackneyed or clichéd. He captures well the transience and randomness of air combat, the dangers of losing sharpness on leave, the arbitrariness of becoming a casualty of bombing (the mangled, eviscerated, blown-apart bodies,) the heightened perceptions, the snatching at life in the midst of death.

That Summer could have been a mere love story but the quality of the writing elevates it beyond the mundane. It is subtle of Greig to have Len flying Hurricanes rather than the more iconic and glamorous Spitfires. It somehow grounds the story, makes it real. Of the veterans it is observed that, “They were there but even they couldn’t see the true losses.” Len comes to see that, “Everything we have, we lose. So to want something, anything, someone, is the beginning of tragedy. And yet, and yet.” After a particularly gruesome kill he thinks to himself, “What have I done? Nothing. Nothing at all.” Stella realises of Evelyn, a former boyfriend whom she sees one night, “He really does love me. Me, for who I am, not what he gets from me, and with (a) slight shiver (I) knew this would always be rare in my or anyone’s life.” Later in the book she muses, “Wartime is like real life but more so,” and, “How can we love anyone, when they’re just going to die?” but “there’s nothing else to do but love, nothing to be regretted but not loving.” Her first (pre the events of the novel) lover, Roger, whom she meets again accidentally, tells her there is not much more than beauty and sacrifice, “We must take what beauty there is, and sacrifice is all around us.”

A few hints of the author’s Scottishness make themselves felt. Stella spent a couple of schoolyears in Scotland. Len’s squadron is posted to Aberdeenshire for a rest period and he spends three days walking in the Cairngorms.

For those who survived the war, its long, nigh-on six years, these were the days of their lives; what followed, a slow descent. And 1940 was the crux. (“In a way it was all rather exciting, being bombed.”) By accumulation of detail Greig shows us this and, by doing so, also shows us what it might have felt like to be alive in Britain, that summer.

Interzones 254, 255 and 256

The Seventh Miss Hatfield cover
 Irregularity cover

Interzone 254 has been out for a while and includes of course my review of The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano. Jim Steel’s blog has a BIG picture of the cover. It’s a special Nina Allan issue. See here and here for my thoughts on her longer works.

My latest review book is Irregularity, a collection of short stories based around the Age of Reason. Since that has arrived I suppose it won’t be long until Interzone 255 hits the doormat.

Friday on my Mind 106: Buona Sera (RIP Acker Bilk)

I had been meaning to post more of my elder brothers early 60s singles (see my Friday on my Mind category nos. 53-56) in this slot anyway but the news of Acker Bilk’s death tipped my hand towards the only one of Acker’s records he bought. Not Bilk’s signature tune, Stranger on the Shore, but the much jazzier Buona Sera.

Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band: Buona Sera

Bernard Stanley “Acker” Bilk: 28/1/1929 – 2/11/2014. So it goes.

Dovercourt (Harwich)

We spent the first night back in Britain in Harwich and in the morning had a stroll into Dovercourt which is cheek by jowl with Harwich but whereas Harwich is on the southern bank of the River Stour opposite Felixstowe, Dovercourt lies to Harwich’s south and lines up NNE to SSW (pointing ESE) where Harwich is more E to W (pointing N.)

These 1930s houses hinted at Art Deco.

We walked on towards the town centre past this building which looked as if it might have once been a garage but I have since discovered was the Regent Cinema. Strong horizontals, delicate upper window.

At the bottom of a slight hill there was a football ground, the home of Harwich and Parkeston FC. The sign says Ridgeon’s Football League but the Wiki article says they’re in the Essex and Suffolk Border League and also illustrates that the club has seen better times than at present. The ground is the Royal Oak Ground. Good stepped Art Deco styling to the entrance here.

There’s a photo of the club’s stand here.

In the town itself was what was in its prime surely a Woolworths.

This was up a side street. Minor deco but definitely has it in the roofline. I’d like to have seen the original windows.

Almost next door was a defunct? bingo hall (also once a cinema?) It was morning so I couldn’t tell if the restaurant on the ground floor is still a going concern.

Up another side street I found an old Co-op. This has all the hallmarks of deco but again has seen better days. There’s something drastic has occurred to the building. The facade is distinctly bent – focused on the rightward central pillar.

Rising Sun by Robert Conroy

Baen Books, 2012, 343 p.

I spotted this when the good lady was returning Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel to the local library. As a sucker for altered histories I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Rising Sun cover

The set up here is that Japan won the Battle of Midway. Hawaii is withering on the vine, Japanese forces have invaded Alaska, raided the Panama Canal and occasionally bombard the US west coast. The sole substantial US aircraft carrier remaining is the Saratoga.

The novel focuses mainly on US Navy officer Tim Dane (who speaks and reads Japanese as a result of a pre-war visit there) though other characters – particularly his nurse girlfriend, Amanda Mallard – are given viewpoint scenes. The plot involves the lack of knowledge the Japanese have of the Saratoga’s whereabouts. A sub-plot involving a German saboteur, Wilhelm Braun, a former official in their embassy in Mexico, folds into the main narrative towards the end. We are given two token sympathetic Japanese characters (one belatedly sympathetic) and one German, Johann Klaas; but neither are all the USians in the book noble, good and true.

The scenario doesn’t really tell us anything new about the Pacific War nor illuminate history to any great degree. Effectively we spend the book waiting on the inevitable (given the author’s nationality and the publisher’s address) US victory.

I must say that for me Japanese Admiral Yamamoto’s tactics in the final battle of the book did not quite ring true; but had it been otherwise the novel would have had to continue well beyond its 343 pages.

This is the sort of thing that Harry Turtledove seems to perform effortlessly. Conroy’s prose is as efficient and his characterisation may (I would put it no higher) be slightly better but the immersion in the milieu feels less deep. I doubt I’ll read any more by him.

Pedant’s corner:-
There are several instances of omitted or repeated words. Britain is named as “England” (though the adjective used for the UK’s forces is “British.”) In a scene involving Johann Klaas, his name is mistakenly given as Braun in one sentence.

Dutch Motorway Landscapes

For some reason there are art installations studded along Dutch motorways. This one shows a concrete elephant.

There are several of them!

No visit to the Netherlands is complete without a photo of a windmill. This one is right beside the motorway we travelled back by.

This is the same windmill from the reverse angle.

This is not quite typical of modern Dutch commercial buildings but they do seem to like curves.

The same building from the side is revealed to be inhabited by KPMG.

Scorn, My Inheritance by William Graham

Scotsoun, 1997, 200 p, including 26 p glossary of Scots words.

Scorn, My Inheritance cover

The author information tells us Graham was a “Founder Member, Preses and Hon vice-Preses of The Scots Language Society.” He was editor of the Scots Word Book and The Concise Scots-English Dictionary has a dedication to him, “whose generous gift of manuscript material made this dictionary possible.” An award in his name is given every year for the best piece in Scots published in Lallans, the magazine of the Scots Language Society.

Scorn, My Inheritance is that rare thing, a novel written almost entirely in Scots. The very few exceptions are those parts where certain characters, due to their position or inclination, speak or write in English. The 26 page glossary may be necessary for those with little knowledge of Scots – and even for those with a greater acquaintance – but with some background the general gist can be got merely from the context. Even so some of the Scots words employed do not appear in the glossary.

Tommy Proudfuit lives with his Uncle Ben on a smallholding of four greenhouses growing tomatoes and chrysanthemums. For two or so years his life has been complicated by the presence in the house of Uncle Ben’s bidey-in Big Katie. The novel starts with Tommy discovering a piece of graffiti on the school lavatory wall which reads “Tommy Proodfit is a basturt.” The subsequent fight with the perpetrator leads to a belting from the headmaster Mr Fairservice (the book is set in the 1950s when such chastisement with a leather strap was an everyday – every hour – occurrence in Scottish schools) and a conversation where Fairservice says Tommy is wasting his potential by not sticking in at his schoolwork and arranges to visit Tommy’s home to discuss his shortcomings.

To avoid this meeting Tommy takes himself off to the cave up the hill where Neddy Bain, sometime assistant at the smallholding, is sheltering. It is here that the novel lurches into something beyond what the scenario up to then might lead us to expect. Tommy witnesses a confrontation between Neddy and Jake Carson where he finds the pair helped carry out a jewel robbery in Glasgow for which they have both been in prison and are seeking the loot which the third member of the gang – now dead, perhaps at Neddy’s hand – is supposed to have stashed in the area after he was released first. This is not a gratuitous scene. The connections between these gangsters and Tommy’s peculiar domestic circumstances are unravelled in the rest of the book.

Despite setting the book in the Clyde Valley Graham uses (among others) the words loun and quine which are North East coast specific and simply don’t appear in discourse in the Central Lowlands. I was well over thirty and working alongside a North-Easterner before I heard the word quine (as quinie) in everyday speech. This is the drawback of trying to impose a universal “Scots” language. To my mind (and ear) the Doric of the north-east is distinct in vocabulary from Lowland Scots. To mix the two injures verisimilitude.

The various set pieces in the novel, the confrontation between Neddy Bain and Jake Carson, the ongauns between Ben and Katie, the wild storm which damages the greenhouses show well enough that Scots can be an effective literary vehicle. The characterisations are agreeably complex. And the novel works as a novel even if the conclusion does seem somewhat rushed.

The introduction by George Philp is at pains to point out that he as editor has made great efforts to ensure that the spelling system used is consistent, uncontrived and eye-friendly – in order, he says, to help learners. To that end the “oo” sound is rendered as “ou” throughout (to avoid “dour” reading as if it were an entrance/exit) and the “ih” sound is given as “ui.” This is encapsulated in the spelling of Tommy’s surname as Proudfuit (hence pronounced Proodfit and not the “English” Proudfoot.) The trouble with this is that any learners are liable to read our, out, about and house and indeed the first syllable of Proudfuit in the same way as they do in “standard” English. And the “ih” sound in guid, wuid, shuin (and the second syllable of Proudfuit) they may still read as “oo.” Indeed many Scots speakers and readers pronounce the Scots word for shoes as “shoon” not “shin.” Also – against Philp’s stated spelling preference – we have “hure” not “whour” as the Scots for whore. As in English, such attempts to impose order may only serve to create more problems than they solve. It is relatively easy to spell stour as stoor, keep oor, oot, aboot, hoose as Scots spellings and still recognise dour as sounding the same. (In this regard I would submit it would simply not be credible to spell the cartoon character as Our Wullie rather than Oor Wullie.) Guid has a long provenance and is easily recognisable, wuid and shuin perhaps less so. And since this is a novel in Scots why is “Tommy” not “Tam?”

Reading Scorn, My Inheritance was an interesting and rewarding exercise nonetheless. But perhaps not really one for learners.

Aa Kerk, Groningen

Apart from the Martini Tower there is another building with a tower in Groningen city centre. This is the Aa Kerk. Photo taken from the edge of the Vis Markt.

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