Sunday, August 28, 2011


I have just finished reading Westwood, one of a whole series of Stella Gibbons novels recently republished by the fabulous Vintage Classics.

Gibbons (1902-89) has never been forgotten.  That said, she is remembered for only one novel, one of the greatest first novels ever published and probably the best loved of all literary satires, the wondrous Cold Comfort Farm (1932).

In fact, Gibbons published continuously and successfully for the better part of half a century.  There are two further Cold Comfort novels, also now in Vintage.

Westwood is a wartime novel, published in 1946 but set (and I suspect written) a couple of years earlier.  My guess would be 1944, with the air raids continuing but the Blitz itself long over.  It certainly has to be after the beginning of 1942 because the Americans are established participants in the war.

Westwood has this wartime background but is in fact a gentle satire of the pretentious Hampstead set – notably the overweening and justly forgotten West End playwright Charles Morgan – couched in the form of a comedy of manners.

The paperback has a quote from the Times on the back cover, citing Gibbons as a 20th Century Jane Austen.  This is exactly right, with the heroine, Margaret ‘Struggles’ Steggles more a Catherine Morland than an Emma Woodhouse.

What Gibbons has, which Austen does not particularly possess, is a gift for effortless incidental description. Take this for example, culled at random from one of the later chapters.  The dramatic point of the chapter is a party at the big house to which Margaret has been invited as a very peripheral adjunct to the gilded circle.  But Gibbons takes the time to describe the garden which Margaret passes through on her way in.

“It was a calm evening, grey and still.  Soft plumes of violet cloud lay along the west, where a little golden light broke through, wave on wave of cloud lying beyond the clear reaches of the light.  Not a leaf stirred, and the pansies and roses, lifting their motionless faces in the flower-beds, looked as if their eyes were shut.  There was a sweet cool smell in the air of freshly mown grass.  A trail of blades and severed daisies had escaped as Cortway was carrying the heaped bin over the paths and lay along the ground; his sight was not so good as it used to be, and he had overlooked them when he was sweeping.”



Saturday, August 20, 2011

Still hope for BBC World Service drama

Reading the Radio 4 blog led me to an article in the Guardian (probably the last national newspaper to devote any real attention to radio drama news, although they all do a certain level of reviewing).

John Dryden and Matthew Solon, the pair behind 2008’s The Day that Lehman Died, are working on a drama doc for the World Drama strand about England’s failed bid for the 2018 football world cup.  Not in itself particularly interesting – corruption in an international sporting organisation entirely dominated by non-sportsmen from non-sporting minor nations (wow, hold the front page!) – it is interesting that a channel and an art form both pretty much despised by the current, hopeless Director General continue to flout intimations of mortality.

Worth looking out for.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Celebrating Radio 4

Great piece by Gillian Reynolds in today's Sunday Telegraph extolling the virtues of BBC Radio 4. This extract particularly resonated with me:

"Speech radio costs lots of money: it recently proved too expensive for Channel 4, when it tried to develop a rival service. Indeed, much brainpower and money have been spent on trying to build commercial alternatives. It can’t be done: Radio 4 exists only because it is protected by the licence fee, with the freedom to grow, change shape, try new things, and refresh old favourites.

"Above all, what keeps it on the air is quality. And the big news is that there seems to be a new market for it. Radio 4 now has 10.85 million people listening to it every week, an increase on the last quarter, and an increase on this time last year. Its drama reaches a weekly audience of 7.14 million, comedy 5.67 – both the highest figures ever. The Archers, having dipped after the death of Nigel, are now back up, reaching 5.08 million fans a week (although perhaps the current E coli scandals will dent the next set of ratings).

"Radio is also adaptable: it suits new listening technologies. Programmes from Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time to The Archers fit the podcast as well as the broadcast. Radio knows how to grow writers. Is there any new comedy on TV as good as Cabin Pressure, on Friday mornings? It knows its audience, respects its intelligence."
I couldn't agree more.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Good old Norway…

“Good old Norway,” he said, and stroked his country with his finger, from north to south.  “For many years now we’ve talked about what a colourful society we are and what a multicultural country we’ve become, and allowed ourselves to be lulled into a sense of security, peace, innocence – that we were somehow different.  We’re always saying that the world is pressing in on us from all sides, yet at the same time we get extremely offended if that very same world doesn’t see us in exactly the same way that we have always perceived ourselves to be, as an idyllic place on earth.  A peaceful corner of the world, rich and generous and kind to everyone.”

It was hard not be moved, after the actions of one sociopathic Nazi in Norway last week, when I found this in the novel I’m reading.  “Death in Oslo” was published in 2006.  Even five years ago someone intelligent and empathic could see how vulnerable the idyll might be.  The passage has particular resonance when you realise that the author, Anne Holt, was briefly the Norwegian Justice Minister.

Norway is still the ideal social democracy.  Outrages happen.  No one can predict mass murderers.  When the worst problem your system of governance has on its plate is finding a means to keep this subhuman in prison for more than the maximum twenty years, be assured your nation is doing everything right.

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