Thursday, August 22, 2013

{misc.} trains and buttered toast

John Betjeman Trains and Buttered Toast (2006)

Trains and Buttered Toast is my current on-the-go non-fiction book. I haven't actually finished it, but last night I read a chapter that I can't resist mentioning here. The book is a collection of Betjeman's radio talks for the BBC mostly from the 1930s to 1950s. The talks cover a nice range of interests - modern architecture, urban planning, the pleasures of the seaside, churches, famous men and women, wartime life, and so on. It is a lovely book to dip in to, and quite funny in places (his views on modern town-planning are pretty snarky). 

But the chapter which caught my eye was the transcript of a talk called 'Yesterday's Fiction', delivered on the Home Service on Monday 21st August 1944:
Instead of telling you about the best of this week's latest books, because there are so very few being published just now, I am going to review some old favourites. I am going to review some Edwardian novelists - the sort of people who were very popular before the last war.
Of course my ears immediately pricked up at that!
The names I shall mention are probably to be found on the back of a book within three miles, possibly within three yards, of everyone listening this evening who lives in these islands. I shall choose authors who have never produced a wholly bad book and often produced a very good one. And while you are are going away to get a pencil to take down the new names I mention, I will indulge in a short background sketch of Edwardian novelists.
So who does Betjeman rate? First up is Anthony Hope ("top of my list... for consistent high standards") - I do indeed have him on my shelves within three yards (or close!), as I really rate his The Prisoner of Zenda as a classic tale of adventure and chivalry. I have also read the sequel Rupert of Hentzau (Rupert is a very naughty young man indeed), but the rest of Hope's novels have passed me by. Betjeman already notes that only these two seem to be still read, and recommends The King's Mirror and The Dolly Dialogues (the latter he suggests is a combination of Kipling and Wilde!).  

And then - another favourite I want to explore further - George Gissing. His The Odd Women is indeed as Betjeman describes, "a deeply agonizing book". He suggests Gissing's The House of Cobwebs (short-stories) as a taste of something different. 

Next? Someone I've not heard of, but surely some of you keen explorers of lost classics will know the name of the "lighter and totally forgotten author" Miss S. MacNaughton [sic - it is in fact MacNaughtan]. Betjeman tells us he was recommended her books by "Miss Elizabeth Bowen and Miss Rose Macaulay", which is a pretty good recommendation!
Miss MacNaughton specializes in good, kindly people in fairly easy circumstances and her novels have happy and probable endings.
(He suggests A Lame Dog's Diary, available free at project gutenberg; but the one which caught my eye was "The Fortune of Christina McNab, the story of a raw Scottish heiress let loose on smart London society" - that sounds just my cup of tea.) 

Who else?
...Conan Doyle, Booth Tarkington, Leonard Merrick (always good), E. F. Benson (nearly always), N. and A. M. Williamson, Rider Haggard, Stanley Weyman (according to taste), Seton Merriman (often good), 'Q', Somerville and Ross (to me, always good), H. A. Vachell, A. E. W. Mason and many, many more.
Of these, Conan Doyle will likely never be out of favour. I thought Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Amberson's was a good read (I reviewed it here). Benson still has plenty of fans (myself included). I've not read any Rider Haggard for what feels like a century, and really should revisit him. 'Q', of course, was reintroduced to a new generation by 84 Charing Cross Road. The only other one who rings a bell is Mason, with his The Four Feathers (and who knew there'd been what sounds like a ghastly Heath Ledger remake?).

Betjeman notes two other highly recommended reads: Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands as a classic spy story (true: but too much messing about on boats, and anything involving reading maps or train timetables is always wasted on me! - "there has probably never been written so alluring an account of the delights of the amateur yachtsman"); and - unknown to me - Mary Cholmondeley's (I assume that's a "Chumly" pronunciation?) Red Pottage. He adds the rather telling comment that "autobiographical novels are often an author's - and in particular an authoress's - best novel": apparently Red Pottage is "a picture of rectory life and mental cruelty and frustration and stupidity therein among the lush, lovely and uncaring landscape of Shropshire." Oh dear... 

(the Cholmondeley cover is an Arthur Rackham drawing and you can buy it for a mere $1750)

This was a nice little essay, which gave me quite a few ideas for future reading, and I am happy to note that the next chapter is 'Wartime Tastes in Reading', which I hope to find just as useful.


  1. I have this on my shelves too, and remember dipping into parts of the book at random. But clearly I have missed out on this delightful piece. Thanks for highlighting it here! Will definitely look up on "Miss Bowen & Miss Macaulay's recommendation" soon. ;)

    1. It is true that not every chapter is as gripping for me, and some have aged quite badly, but a chapter like this makes it worth persevering.

    2. It is true that not every chapter is as gripping for me, and some have aged quite badly, but a chapter like this makes it worth persevering.

  2. I always think Edwardian fiction is my blind spot but clearly not since I recognise all but one of those names and have read several. Yay for Betjeman, his scripts are perfect for dipping into when you're in need of good cheer. :)

    1. He does confess that he thinks, strictly speaking, some are a bit Victorian. He is great when he gets going about what makes him passionately angry - that chapter on Swindon is a blast!

  3. Excellent - already trying to forget the title as I have too many books and I am not allowed to buy any more for a long long time. I do love that title though.

    PS I have wanted to read Red Pottage for a while - another book I'm not allowed to buy *sigh*

    1. Well, even if a new book is a no-no, you could always cheat with a free e-book of one of the classics he mentions! Or does that still count as an acquisition?! ;-) (Red Pottage is definitely available as an ebook for free, btw - just downloaded a copy onto my kindle)

  4. Red Pottage is great fun, it was one of my favorite books of last year. Only part of the book is set in that dreadful rectory, and besides there's a lovely Bishop to offset the cruel vicar. I've never read Rider Haggard, though I know Elizabeth Peters enjoyed his books and played them off a bit in the Amelia series. I can see that I need to find a copy of Bejtman's book!

    1. I see now that quite a lot of people are fans of Red Pottage, so I'm really anticipating a great read. Re Rider Haggard: I'm thinking of reading 'She', as I've read the more famous King Solomon's Mines.

  5. What a wonderful list of authors! The few names I know are ones that I really like. I'm inspired to pick up the copies of Red Pottage and A Chair on the Boulevard (Leonard Merrick) that I have been meaning to read for a while now.

    1. I'd never heard of Merrick at all, so I'll be keen to know what you think. One delightful consequence of reading the Betjeman chapter is that I have gained at least six free e-books (including A Chair on the Boulevard) to occupy my time (as if I needed anymore occupying!).

  6. What a delightful post. I think I would love this Betjeman book. I'll have to scout about for that one!

    1. It is a real treat for Anglophiles, for sure. I can imagine reading it on a nice slow country train in the English countryside - a real picture of a lost age.

  7. I know we've a copy of it on our shelves somewhere (in my case the three yards is to the Betjeman book itself). I didn't realise it wasn't another book of poems, as it's not my book, but transliterated talks sounds nice and informal, so I might have to given it a go. A book about books (or a part of a book) is always welcome.

    1. Books about books are such delightful traps. You remind me that I haven't read any of his poetry for a long time. He has such a wicked eye!

  8. Very interesting! This book is going on my list of Books to Check Out,

    1. It's definitely a nice book to dip into - lots of varied themes with something for everyone. And all beautifully written, of course.

  9. I have the first two authors on my shelf to read, too, and must read the others! And this collection sounds great- thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    1. I liked too that he included such a blend of material -- the pure escapism of Hope as well as the despairing voices of Gissing. It is a nice selection.


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