Some Tame Gazelle

A review of Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

To my shame, I had never come across the early 19th century poet, Thomas Haynes Bayly, before I picked up Barbara Pym’s first published novel, which appeared in 1950. Bayly’s couplet “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:/ something to love, oh, something to love!” provides the book’s title and also gives a sense of the themes of this entertaining, sometimes funny, always acutely observed story of life in a quintessentially English village set before the Second World War.

I have come to Pym late, first dipping my toes into her works with Crampton Hodnet, which she pulled because she considered it to be out of synch with the times. Frankly, Some Tame Gazelle is also a nostalgic throwback to a more innocent world that existed, perhaps or at least in the minds of the literary set, before the horrors of the Second World War. Maybe you need to experience horrors to appreciate the calm of a world that has disappeared and which we will never know again. Whether that is an altogether bad thing is debatable, but there is very little in tone and subject matter between the two books, save one of timing.  

The principal characters are two spinster sisters, Belinda Bede, the demurer of the two, and Harriet, the more outgoing and domineering. Their life is a round of social events, afternoon teas, soirees, gossip and feeling lovelorn. Belinda has been in love with the rather unworldly and lazy Archdeacon for over thirty years, sharing a passion for the English poets, while Harriet sets her sights on the string of young curates who have been employed to help the Archdeacon deal with the nitty gritty of parish life. The latest fly to enter her web is Mr Donne.  

Belinda’s passion for the Archdeacon has been thwarted ever since he decided to marry Agatha, the daughter of a bishop. Still, their marriage appears to be a loveless one and hope springs eternal. Agatha’s departure for a spa holiday brings two new characters to stay at the vicarage, two librarians, Mr Parnell and Mr Mold. Mold threatens to disrupt the sisters’ ordered life by proposing to Harriet. Harriet, who is also being courted by the Italian Count Bianco, whose proposals she routinely spurns, rejects Mold whose immediate reaction is to go to the pub and count his lucky stars.

Donne thwarts Harriet’s designs on him by marrying Olivia Berridge, while Agatha’s guest from her holidays, Dr Grote, one of Harriet’s earlier proteges, astonishes the couple by proposing to Belinda. She too rejects him and on the rebound he marries another elderly spinster, Connie Aspinall, his intention merely to grab a wife before going back to his duties as the Bishop of Mbawawa.

These affairs of the heart with several tame gazelles add spice to the Bede sisters’ otherwise humdrum lives, but it is clear that they are not willing to take the plunge into matrimony. Harriet is content to drag curates under her large, protective wing – a new curate has replaced Mr Donne – and Belinda finds what solace she needs in the English poets, gardening, and doing good works, while secretly hoping that Agatha will do the decent thing and die before the Archdeacon.

The humour is gentle and whimsical, the characters are sharply drawn, Pym basing several on people she had encountered at University, the Archdeacon, in particular, being the epitome of what was wrong with the Church. It is a comedy of manners, a tale of two women who are trapped by the constraints and social mores of their existence and who lack the courage and even the desire to make any radical change, a wistful stale of regret and a paean to a world now gone. In style and tone, it is reminiscent of E M Delafield and E R Benson, funnier and more satiric than the former, but less waspish than the latter. It is worth seeking out.

Who Was St Dwynwen?

If there was a woman unlucky in love it was a princess from the 5th century AD, Dwynwen, the prettiest of King Brychan Brycheiniog’s twenty-four or 36 daughters, the number varies depending upon the version of her tale you choose. She fell in love with Prince Maelon Dyfodril, but her romantic plans were thwarted as her father had promised her hand to someone else. To add to her woes, Dwynwen received a visit from an angel who brought her a sweet potion designed to erase all thoughts of Maelon and to turn the unfortunate beau into a block of ice.

In distress, Dwynwen fled into the woods and pleaded with God to help her forget all about Maelon. He granted her three wishes. Her first was that Maelon be thawed, her second that the hopes and dreams of all lovers were to be fulfilled and, finally, that she would never marry. Her wishes were met and in an expression of gratitude, Dwynwen dedicated the rest of her life to the service of God.

The area around Newborough on the south-western corner of the Isle of Anglesey has something for everyone, including a forest, home to red squirrels and ravens, who appropriately mate for life, and a Warren which contains one of the largest areas of sand dunes in the UK. The headland offers spectacular panoramic views of the Llyn peninsula and the towering peaks of Snowdonia across the Menai Straits and the mountains of Wicklow over the Irish Sea, rain and mist permitting.

The jewel in the area’s crown, though, is the three and a half mile long sandy beach, awarded Blue Flag status in recognition of the cleanliness of the sea and its soft, fine sand, which leads to a tidal island. Perhaps more accurately, it should be described as a peninsula as only the highest of tides cuts it off from Anglesey. Accessible only on foot, Llanddwyn, meaning Church of St Dwynwen, was where Dwynwen chose to settle and found a nunnery, where, on her death in around 465 AD, she was buried.

Dwynwen’s story touched the hearts of many in Wales, and she becaame their patron saint of lovers. Her shrine on the island was a place of pilgrimage, visitors anxious to divine the faithfulness of their lover by visiting Dwynwen’s holy well, in which several eels lived. After sprinkling breadcrumbs into the well, an anxious woman would place a handkerchief on the surface. If the eels rose to the top of the well and disturbed the handkerchief, she could take it as a sign that her lover would be faithful.

So popular was it that Dwynwen’s shrine became the richest in the area, leading, in the 16th century, to the building of a substantial chapel on the site of her original chapel. The ruins of the structure can still be seen today. Nearby there is a Celtic cross, which was erected in Dwynwen’s memory in 1903, replacing an earlier simple cross from 1879.

The island nowadays is dominated by the tapered tower of Twr Mawr, a lighthouse which saw service between 1845 and 1975, one of two abandoned structures which bear testament to the treacherous nature of the waters nearby. There was a lifeboat stationed there from 1840 which within seven days in December 1852 rescued thirty-six sailors from three separate wrecks, and the cottages which remain were once used by pilots who guided ships through the Menai Straits.

January 25th, St Dwynwen’s feast day, is celebrated with the exchange of cards and other tokens of affection, offering the Welsh an early opportunity to say “Rwy’n dy garu di”, I love you. As their patron saint of love reputedly said, “nothing wins hearts like cheerfulness”,

I for one hope that this uniquely Welsh tradition continues to flourish and that Raphael makes a comeback. Why should St Valentine hog all the limelight?

Dydd Santes Dwynwen Hapus[1] to you all.   

[1] Happy St Dwynwen’s Day

Danger Point

A review of Danger Point by Patricia Wentworth

My love-hate relationship with Camberley’s finest, Patricia Wentworth, continues. Danger Point, which also goes by the alternative title of In The Balance, is the fourth in her Miss Silver series, first published in 1941, is a curious affair, more of a psychological thriller than a whodunit and one in which her amateur sleuth, Miss Silver, adopts a very low key role.

True enough, she appears right at the start of the story and makes intermittent appearances throughout the book, but her sleuthing is minimal, allowing events to play out as they will. Miss Silver does offer advice and dire warnings as what is to come, although she does little to either stop a tragedy playing out or bringing the culprit to book.

In comparison with Wentworth’s contemporaries, the plot is wafer-thin, with little in the way of complexity. It is easy to see what is going to happen and, frankly, who the culprit is. Charitably, Wentworth does maintain the fiction that it could be one of two to the book’s finale, but my money was always on the one who turned out to have done it. All that said, Wentworth’s strength is in her storytelling, her ability to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear, and her ability to deliver an entertaining, if undemanding, tale, and her understanding of the position that her heroine, Lisle Jerningham, found herself in.

To survive one life-threatening escapade is fortunate, but when you seem to attract danger, perhaps someone is really out to get you. Initially, Lisle is almost drowned, out swimming with her husband, Dale, and Dale’s cousins, Rafe and Alicia. They do not hear her cries for help – or were they deliberately ignored? – and it was left to a stranger to fish her out. The book opens with her on a train in a state of shock, after overhearing a conversation at a country house she was staying at, that Dale’s former wife had met with an accident and her money had saved the family pile and that as Dale had married another woman with money, Lisle, perhaps she too would meet with an accident.

Sharing her carriage is Miss Silver who lends a sympathetic ear and proffers her business card, if Lisle wanted any assistance. Lisle’s position is precarious. Her family was in America, and she was on her own in Blighty with no one to turn to. Her money is in trust, Dale wants to get his hands on it to save the family home from having to be sold, and Lisle cannot persuade the trustee to open the coffers.

Inevitably, she meets with more danger. The steering on the car she is driving snaps and it smashes into a brick wall. Fortunately, Lisle has the sense to jump out and is rescued by Rafe who is near the scene. Then, she gives a coat to a maid, who is pushed over a cliff edge while wearing it. Dale, Alicia, and Rafe were all near the scene at the time, but the police, led by Inspector March, arrest her boyfriend as he had had an argument with her at the scene of the crime.

A cancelled appointment puts Miss Silver on high alert. She goes down to see what is happening, but the headstrong Lisle ignores her advice. Inspector March, in charge of investigations of the murder, receives some helpful guidance, but her role is reduced to that of an interested observer. The book’s denouement sees Lisle pushed over a cliff. The identity of her assailant is clear, but the excitement is whether she will survive. The culprit does away with themselves in a novel and thoroughly modern fashion.

Love interest is a stock ingredient of Wentworth’s and appears in this book. Her characters are sharply drawn and are believable, as is Lisle’s predicament, although a stronger woman would have just cut her losses. All in all, it is a harmless piece of entertainment and good enough to persevere with.

Onion Of The Week (2)

Do you hate peeling onions? Are you fed up of an onion releasing synpropanethial-S-oxide, an irrititant which affects the glands in your eyes and makes them water? If so, the Sunion may just be what you are looking for.

After being developed over the last thirty years, the Sunion, available from Waitrose from this week, is described as a brown, tearless, and sweet onion. Unlike other onions where volatile compounds cause the tears to flow and produce that pungent smell, and get increasingly more volatile over time, those self-same compounds do the opposite in the Sunion, reducing to create a sweet, mild onion that gets sweeter and milder by the day.

The only tears to flow will be when you see the price. They retail at over three times the price of Waitrose’s essential onions, but you will save on tissues.

That’s shallot, you might say.

Game Of The Week

I am a bit out of touch with digital games, but Pokemon Go, a sort of augmented game played on mobiles involving people frantically searching the environs on the hunt for various Pokemon characters that they “just had to” collect.

In April 2017, two police officers. Lozano and Mitchell, from the Los Angeles Police Department were intently on the chase for Snorlax, when, rather inconveniently, a message came over their radio that there was a robbery happening at the local Macy’s store.

As the opportunity to snare a Snorlax does not come very often, they chose to continue their pursuit which was successful. They then had reports of a Togetic, which they pursued and captured. It was only then that they turned their attention to the robbery, which are, after all, ten a cent in Los Angeles.

Their employers took a dim view of their devotion to pursuing Pokemon characters rather than villains and after putting them on several disciplinary charges, eventually fired them, after their appeal failed.

So, they now have their cards, just not Pokemon ones.

Books, words, gin and much more