Diet Of The Week

While I’m happy to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday I have rather given up on giving up things for Lent. So, I am in awe of Del Hall from Cincinnati who has given up solid food for 46 days, relying on beer for the majority of his sustenance, topped up with water, black coffee and herbal tea. I have been on a bender like that but not for so long.

This is the third year that he has followed this unusual diet and claims that not only did he lose between 40 and 50 pounds in weight each time in 2019 and 2020 but also saw an improvement in his blood pressure and cholesterol levels. He is restricting himself to between three and five beers a day, he says, and is going to change the type and brands of beer he quaffs regularly so that he does not get bored with it.

As well as hoping for some health benefits, he had already lost just over 5 pounds after three days, he is raising money via a crowdfunding initiative called Sgt. Del’s Virtual Tip Jar to help local bars and restaurants that have suffered through the pandemic.

More power to his elbow!

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Cantering Through Cant (20)

The rich have always been with us and will almost certainly always be so. A cant term for the rich, according to Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), was rhinocerical, a term derived from rhino which meant money.

Ribaldry, “vulgar, abusive language”, has not changed its definition over the centuries, but our lexicographer gives an interesting insight into its derivation. He declares that it was used “by ribalds”. He then goes on to explain that ribalds “were originally mercenary soldiers, who travelled about, serving any master for pay, but afterwards degenerated into a mere banditti”.

Giving a gift is always tricky and many of us feel that we should reciprocate with a gift of equal value or worth. Had we lived in the Georgian era, we might have said that we were giving a Rowland for an Oliver. This, Grose explains, refers to two knights famous in the Romance period, Rowland and Oliver, whose achievements could not be separated.

A ruffian was the devil. An oath Grose uses to illustrate this definition went, “may the ruffian nab the cuffin queer, and let the harmanbeck trine with his kinchins about his colquarron”. It sounds more impressive when read out loud than in cold print but loosely translated as “may the Devil take the justice, and let the constable be hanged with his children about his neck”. A bad cook was described as “ruffian cook ruffian, who scalded the Devil in his feathers”.  The ruffian cly thee meant the Devil take thee.

More from Georgian Romeville aka London next time.

Grey Mask

Published in 1928, this is the first novel penned by the prolific Patricia Wentworth that I have read. Wentworth is the nom de plume of Dora Amy Elles, who spent most of her writing career in Camberley, no more than a cock’s stride from Blogger Towers. It introduces her most enduring, although sadly neglected, detective creation, Miss Silver. Most critics compare Miss Silver with Agatha Christie’s better-known female sleuth, Miss Marple, but Wentworth got there first, a couple of years ahead of Christie. Apart from a penchant for knitting and being female, it is hard, at least from this book, to see much more in the way of similarities.

Miss Silver, in truth, is a rather ethereal character, always there at the right place, ahead of the game with her deductions and not afraid to get stuck into action when the occasion calls. Behind the image of a dowdy spinster there is a figure of steely determination. She flits in and out of the action and it is difficult to determine quite how she came into possession of certain information or made a deduction that enhances the prospect of unmasking of the culprit. For those of us who like to see the mechanics of deduction take more of a centre stage, although perhaps avoiding the tedium that R Austin Freeman and, on occasion, Freeman Wills Crofts can bring to the process.

That aside, this is a rollicking tale, one that shows its age for sure, but its sheer entertainment value makes up for that. It has everything you would want; international criminals led by a masked Mr Big, heiresses who go missing, intrigue, snippets of letters, a drama played out in an atmospherically foggy London.

The plot is suitably ludicrous. Charles Moray has returned from a sojourn abroad after being jilted at the altar by Margaret Langton. Returning to his unoccupied house unannounced, he finds a suspicious meeting in progress, chaired by a man wearing a Grey Mask who receives reports and snippets of information from people who are known only by a number. Charles is shocked to recognise one of the agents, his former fiancée. What’s more, the subject of the discussion is a girl who will be “removed” if a “certificate” is found.

It transpires that the girl in question is the naïve, unworldly Margot Standing is set to inherit a sizeable fortune from her now deceased multi-millionaire father, if only her legitimacy can be confirmed. The gang, led by the man in the Grey Mask, are anxious to prevent this from happening and, if there is the prospect of Margot’s legitimacy being confirmed, will stop at nothing to eliminate her. The unfortunate girl at one point is almost thrown under a tram.

In a foray into Trollope territory, part of the resolution of the problem lies in the difference between the treatment of matrimony north and south of Hadrian’s Wall. I will not say more to avoid giving too much away but, needless to say, Miss Silver with the assistance of Charles Moray ensures that the tangled web of a case is resolved satisfactorily.

I will read more of Wentworth, if only to see whether Miss Silver takes more of a centre stage in later novels.

Artists In Crime

Artists In Crime – Ngaio Marsh

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been struggling with Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn books. This is the sixth, published in 1938, and is the best so far. Perhaps it is because it is almost as much a love story as a piece of detective fiction. We are introduced to Agatha Troy, later to become Mrs Roderick Alleyn.   

The book starts with Alleyn making his way back from his sojourn in New Zealand, a busman’s holiday as he was dragooned in to solve the murder featured in Vintage Murder. It being the 1930s he makes his journey by boat and after leaving Fiji the sleuth has an awkward encounter with a young artist, a Royal Academician no less, who is painting a scene of the harbour. Despite the awkwardness of the first encounter, they strike a friendship of sorts and discover that they will not be too far from each other when they get to Blighty. Troy has an art school at her country home, Tatler’s End, which is near the home of Alleyn’s home with whom he will be staying to complete his recuperation.

So what you will of Marsh, but her murders are nothing short of ingenious. The artist’s model, Sonia Gluck, is impaled on a knife driven through the modelling dais in a reconstruction of a scene that one of the artists is illustrating for a book? There is the usual collection of suspects each with a set of plausible motives. Was it the down-on-his-luck, drug addict sculptor who had an eye for Gluck? Was it one of the female artists in a fit of jealousy because of Sonia’s apparent success with the men? Was it even Troy herself? Blackmail, poison and red herrings galore make for a tricky puzzle for the police to solve.

Inevitably, Alleyn, even though he is on sick leave, is dragged in to investigate, presenting him with a considerable dilemma. Will his growing affections for Agatha Troy cloud his judgment and impede his investigations? What if she is the murderer?

Inevitably, Nigel Bathgate puts in an appearance. As a member of the fourth estate Bathgate has access to some pretty sensitive information which, surely, no senior police officer would allow to happen, and is deployed to interrogate the suspects in an unofficial and clearly inappropriate manner. Nevertheless, Alleyn and his team, with Bathgate in tow, get their collective minds around the problem, sort the wheat from the chaff, and unmask the culprit.

Marsh keeps the mystery going and there are enough twists and turns to satisfy all but the most demanding reader. I had guessed who the likely culprit was but was not quite sure until the denouement. That is the hallmark of a successful crime novel.

The love interest progresses apace and it is fairly easy to anticipate the eventual outcome of that strand of the story. A heart-warming aspect of the story is Alleyn’s relationship with his mother, that sheds a light on a different and softer side of his personality. The characterisation of Alleyn seems to have moved on and he seems a more rounded individual than in earlier books. Again, another reason to like the book.

Surprisingly, for a writer who went out of her way to denigrate the racist attitudes of her country folk, she hailed from New Zealand, in Vintage Murder, Marsh lapses into lazy stereotyping and unfortunate racist language early on in the book. Perhaps she wrote it in a hurry and her lapses failed to be picked up by her editor. Unfortunately, these things go with the territory of books from the early 20th century and if you are going to be offended to the point of throwing the book down in disgust, you perhaps would be better off not reading fiction from this era. Literature opens a window to the attitudes of the time, not those that prevail today.

I enjoyed this book.

A Chelsea Concerto

A Chelsea Concerto – Frances Faviell

It is a common trope when politicians or the media want to describe the indomitable British spirit to summon up the spirit of the Blitz. We are exhorted to revive it in our fight against the pandemic. At least then, my last surviving relative who remembers the war years and was bombed out three times remarks, you could see and hear who you were fighting against. So deeply ingrained is this phase of history in the psyche of many that it is instructive to learn what it was really like to live through the period.

A book which does this admirably is Frances Faviell’s A Chelsea Concerto, originally published in 1959 and then long languishing in obscurity before being reissued by Dean Street Press. Faviell, the pen name of the painter and writer, Olivia Faviell Lucas, was an interesting character, well-travelled, living in India, Japan and China before fleeing from the Japanese and returning to London. There she met and married her second husband, Richard Parker.

Living in Chelsea, she became a Red Cross Volunteer and as the area was one of the most heavily bombed areas in London and she and her colleagues were heavily involved in dealing with the repercussions of the raids. The book, her memoir of the period, is a fascinating and vivid account, one which does not spare the reader the assault on the senses that the air raids engendered. Her account is laced with small acts of heroism, self-sacrifice and determination.

As someone with an artistic eye Faviell is adept at creating a word picture, sparing the reader none of the small details that add to the verisimilitude of her tale. As well as the human carnage and the rubble, we get to appreciate the stench of humans who have not bathed and of burnt and rotten flesh and of sewage as water supplies are ruptured. Her image of coming round after her house had been bombed to find the severed arm of one her friends on top of her will long live in my mind. This was not a Hollywood-style sanitised conflict. It was grim, horrible, a living nightmare and Faviell captures this well.

The book is not all doom and gloom. During the book, which falls into two unequal parts – the phoney war with its endless and seemingly pointless drills and practices and the bombing raids through to the middle of 1941 – she gets married, eventually has a baby and her dachshund, nicknamed Little Hitler, picks up an ardent admirer. There are moments of humour, joy and laughter, and even fun to be had chasing and extinguishing incendiary bombs.

Faviell’s fluency in Dutch lands her a role in dealing with the groups of Dutch and Belgian refugees who have arrived in the area and her tales of their struggles to make a new life, their petty squabbles and disagreements make up a good chunk of the book.  The leitmotif of the book is her Green Cat, a Chinese statuette, which stands on her window sill as its protector. A sense of foreboding enters the narrative when her husband’s clumsiness damages it.

There are days when it all gets too much for her. “There were days when I felt I didn’t want to do one more thing for one more refugee or one more bombed-out person, although they compelled my compassion. I didn’t want to enter one more hospital or smell the stench of one more shelter. then I would look out the window and see the wardens and the AFS men and women running to their posts and I would put on my tin hat and scrub my hands in anticipation of more dirt and go with a sigh for the rapidly fading memories of the lovely travels which I enjoyed before Hitler had upset the world.

This is the perfect corrective to the rose-tinted view of the Blitz that we are fed and should be required reading for all those who reminisce about that period of our history. Our ability to overcome adversity is astonishing and when it is absolutely necessary we all pull together for the perceived common good, but the reality is that these were dark, dreadful, tragic times the like of which I trust we will never see again. In comparison the current lockdown is a stroll in the park.

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