Series 2 – 27: Unsatisfactory Times


 

Every year since 1984, I’d taken a week off in early September to go walking in the Lakes, but not this year. The instability of my professional career hadn’t yet taken hold: I’d finally gone to my bosses and, highly nervously, put forward my case that, despite their promises, I had not been properly rewarded for what I had done the previous year to save their bacon when they’d had to abruptly let another Assistant Solicitor go.
They agreed (knowing, as I did not, that negotiations for the ‘merger’ were already under way, that I was wanted as part of the package, and that it was little skin off their nose to pay me more), and gave me a 25% raise in salary. That amount of money coming in made this the ideal time to take on, with minimal pain, a mortgage.
In the first week of September, when I would normally be up a fell, I took the possession of the keys to my first house.
A month later, with things a little more settled, I took a late week off, headed for the Lakes. But October was a poor time for weather and walking. I managed a cold and bleak walk whose highlight was the ascending ridge, to Steel Fell, and remember the sudden attractiveness of the sodden Greenburn valley, as weak sun glinted off a hundred runnels, filling the eye with light, but the only real pleasure of the return ridge was that it was the one I had seen from Helm Crag, on my return to the summits years before. I’d looked at it then, lacking the plan or ability to explore it, and now it was underfoot, and a return to Helm Crag to conclude.
The next day, even more gloomy, I paid a brief return to Latrigg and, without removing my boots, made an awkward segue into the Eastern Fells, stopping twice in different locations to climb each of Great and Little Mell Fells: grassy humps at the outer edge of the wild country, and of little or no interest. So much for October.
I would miss out on a September week away again the following year, again due to my house: I took a week off to decorate and returned to the beginning of the end with my new firm, my senior partner having taken my absence as a chance to go through my room with a fine tooth comb, demanding I deal with everything within seven days, on pains of an implicit threat of dismissal. I’ll admit to having underperformed in certain areas, but to nothing like this extent. What finished it for me was that, whilst I was gone, he had moved my desk to a more ‘efficient’ position in the room: i.e., square to the wall, not at an angle.
I got everything done as he demanded. But I also started looking for another job.
That’s taking a step out of sequence, for I did have an April/May break, and one with mainly good weather, although I made a foolish mistake that spoilt the week for me.
I had done my leg-stretcher, and by a pleasant route not depicted in Wainwright, this being because, as I discovered when I returned some years later to introduce a lady-friend to delightful little Gowbarrow Fell, it was across private ground, and the gate giving access was now padlocked.
The following day, I set off on what should have been a glorious expedition. From Seathwaite-in-Borrowdale I would ascend by the glorious highway into the hills that is Esk Hause, paying my first visit to that crossroads in the sky, the tilted platform that carries Lakeland’s highest Pass and a confusion of routes that demand ultra-care in mist.
And I would return along the northernmost extension of the Scafell Range, over unnoticed Allen Crags, and the sonorously named Glaramara.
My mistakes were compound. It was too high, hard and long a walk to tackle so soon in the walking year and I was tackling it on a day of surprising April heat, a burning sun, a lack of wind. Sense should have made me turn back from Esk Hause, but Allen Crags was only a hundred feet of climbing. And I really should have retreated then, but, come on, that’s a longer way round than going over Glaramara, so let’s get on with it.
I have little or no memory of the walk. I was exhausted under an unmerciful sun, dehydrated, head aching, trying to shield my head by tying my sweatshirt into a makeshift turban. I was nauseous and stumbling, as close to heatstroke as I’ve ever come. My only liquid was a single can of Coke, which it seemed unwise to drink given how my stomach was churning. Yet, on the final descent into Borrowdale, with a long field-path walk yet to come, to the car, I had no choice but to succumb and drink it.
It was warm, and ‘furry’ to the tongue, but the biggest surprise of all was that it settled my upset stomach down and enabled me to get back, safe, but seriously debilitated.
And that was it for walking the next day, no matter how good the weather. I did get out again the day after, in Langdale, aiming for the Central Fells’ High Raise, the flat centre of the Lake District. It meant another ascent of good old Mill Gill, and then a hugely enjoyable scramble up the narrow confines of Bright Beck.
In defiance of the heat, at the tiny head of the valley, a gigantic snow pudding had formed. Left over snow, in a shaded corner, on a lacing of vegetation that a complete idiot might have wriggled under, to be passed to get onto the ‘ridge’. What a contrast to Glaramara.
I still planned a Big Walk, but it was denied me. Between unbearable heat and haze – even the nearest fells were like pale blue cardboard cut-outs – and a twisted ankle (my left, the usual suspect) early in the ascent, there was no prospect of the Mosedale Horseshoe that year.
The picture is of Allen Crags with Glaramara behind, taken on what seems to be an equally bleached out day, from Ruddy Gill, at the head of the approach to Esk Hause via Grains Gill. Of course, I don’t remember any of this!

Recognising Robert Neill: The Shocking Miss Anstey


There was a gap of four years between Wonder Winter and Robert Neill’s ninth novel, The Shocking Miss Anstey, but the moment the book opens, in Regent Park in the autumn of 1815, with the long Napoleonic War at last ended, with Waterloo a present and very recent memory, with England in the process of changing from war to peace, there’s a sense of restoration. This is the Neill we know, and already the calm, assured detail begins to pile up as he describes a scene none of us will ever see, bringing its reality back into our sight.
The Master is back, where he belongs.
But it only takes a handful of chapters before we’re very rudely apprised that this is not the Neill of old, and that The Shocking Miss Anstey is to take an unanticipated course, throughout which the England that is adjusting to the dramatic change of times becomes almost wholly irrelevant, and what is central to the story in this novel can be summed up in one word: sex.
For Anice Anstey, young, beautiful, forthright, the Talk of the Town, the Shocking lady of the title is, from the outset, openly a Cyprian. Or, to use words more recognisable to this century than the early Nineteenth, she is a courtesan, a harlot: a prostitute.
True, Miss Anstey (who not that long ago was merely Ann Atkins, village girl from Dorset, granddaughter of a witch) is at the top of her profession, one who chooses as much as is chosen, and who receives the favour of Prinny in Brighton (the Prince Regent, the future George IV). And Captain Richard Grant, fifteen years at War, uncertain ashore, but with £30,000 prize money to his account, is not of the fashion, the ton, where Miss Anstey’s trade is plied, but he captures some part of her heart, and she his, even before he is climbing into a bed to which she has led him, naked.
This isn’t the Robert Neill we are sure of. And, from a critical reading, looking at the book’s merits on a continuum of his whole output, it’s not a book of which I’m sure either.
Once again, the story is a purely personal affair, without a substantive plot. Indeed, for most of the book, there’s no sense of anything that requires resolution. So Fair a House had the mystery of the ghost story to unravel, Wonder Winter had Helen Ireby to unpick, but The Shocking Miss Anstey never gives any real idea of where it is going, and its ending is less a conclusion than a off-stage manipulation to give Richard Grant the best of both worlds.
To understand that, let’s try to lay out the course of events. The Anstey sets herself out to make a big splash, advertising her trade but takes a somewhat inexplicable shine to the inexperienced Captain Grant. They can each only be their real selves with each other, but that isn’t going to stop Anice carrying on her profession among a class to whom, it appears, the idea of fidelity is nonsense.
Richard bumps into John Wickham, an Army Captain with whom he was acquainted during the Wars, and is invited down to stay in Dorset, where he meets John’s sister, Mary, the widowed Lady St Hilloth, and his uncle, Lord Barford. Richard finds himself very attracted to Mary, and she to him, which makes Anice something of a complication.
When he returns to London, Richard discovers Anice has moved on from the easy-going Lord Hildersham to the Corinthian, coachy, out-and-outer, the reckless, deeply unpleasant and highly chauvinist Sir Thomas Luttrell. When Anice rejects Tommy, the latter forces a duel upon Richard, in which Richard generously aims over the head of a helpless opponent. Anice then drives off to Brighton with Tommy Luttrell whilst Richard finds himself exiled to Bath for the winter.
The novel picks up again with the first of several changes of viewpoint, mostly to the elderly Mr King, Master of Ceremonies in Cheltenham. With the highly popular Spring season coming up, a host of characters descend on Cheltenham, both of the ton, and former village girls seeking to make a career as Cyprians.
Into this mix come Mary, Lord Barford, Lord Hildersham, Tommy Luttrell, Richard Grant and Anice Anstey, at one point or another. Social scandals of all kind threaten, but the clever manipulations of the Anstey eventually secure (in slightly deus ex machina fashion) the goodwill of Lord Barford, a home for Richard to live in with Mary when he marries her, and a home for herself, to which Richard can sneak off every now again to shag her senseless, behind the compliant back of Mary who, despite having registered strong opinions about such things when married to the late Lord St Hollith, will turn a blind eye to Richard and Anice because they won’t be shagging as often as Charles used to, and besides, it’s very heavily implied that she’s got nothing to talk about because she did it with Tommy Luttrell, and when she was married, not that Tommy remembers it.
In short, when you get down to it, everybody’s a cheat, nobody actually believes that a relationship actually means anything, and the bloke gets both the girls, even the one who’ll fuck anyone who’s got enough money.
Now there are writers who can sell that worldview to me and I’ll take it because I’ll believe it, and given that the story is set between in the Regency Period, it’s doubtless a true reflection of the times, but it doesn’t work coming from Neill (who doesn’t try this sort of thing again in the remainder of his novels), and it’s an awful slight peg on which to hang so many words.
There may be some of you, with retentive memories, who will recognise the name Wickham from So Fair A House, and you’d be right to do so. Neill makes no bones about it: these Dorset Wickhams are direct descendants, grandchildren in fact, of the John Wickham and Mary Marlow whose relationship caused George Marlow’s death, and Ann Atkins, the future Anice Anstey, is the granddaughter of the witch girl Ann Hart who influences the final confrontation.
It’s an amusing link-up, but as Neill doesn’t use this trick anywhere else in his writings, it’s also a bit jarring. It’s the contemporary doings of John and Mary that matter, and little is gained by tracing their tempers to their namesakes two generations earlier, especially when the laxness in morals of the current John and Mary aren’t mirrored in their ancestors.
There is time for one more racy revelation, and an oddly modern one at that. Quite a lot of stories in the past decade have turned on the discovery, close to the climax, that two passionately shagging people are, shock, horror, brother and sister. Personally, I’m getting bored with such revelations, and would rather they came out earlier in the story, so that we can at least have some cheap perversion to titillate us, but that’s exactly what this almost forty year old story gives us.
Ann (Anice) Atkins’ grandmother is Ann Hart, who was caught in bed with Squire Harry Wickham in So Fair a House, and he is her (unacknowledged) grandfather. But her father was Squire Harry’s son: yes, Anice is the product of incest! Shocking!
When all’s said and done, this is a well-written, beautifully researched, convincing historical novel, of the kind Robert Neill made his reputation on. But I find it hollow, in want of a decent story to keep the end-papers properly separated, and I’m not impressed by a conclusion that sets up a relatively undistinguished bloke to have wife and mistress to shag, for him to enjoy and wifey to put up with.
That might have gone down well in 1965, when I was turning 10, but it doesn’t wash with me now. However, better was to come as Neill’s tenth novel marked a genuine return to form, and to those characteristics that had made him famous in the first place.

The Stockport Steps War


Every working day, I have to go up and down the steps out of Mersey Square, Stockport, at the side of the Plaza Theatre/Cinema, to get to work.
Mersey Square is in the centre of Stockport, which, in turn, is in the centre of the Mersey basin, the same Mersey that Liverpool claims as its personal property. To get out of it, north or south, means a long climb.
There are fifty four steps up beside the Plaza, and it’s a point of pride for me, no matter the weather nor my state of generalised exhaustion, to climb them in one. They’re built in a series of twisting and turning flights.
The bottom section consists of twelve steps, eight of them broad and sweeping, the top four quite narrow, between projecting bays, and the space is further divided by a metal rail splitting this flight in two.
About two months ago, a stone rim slab broke on this flight. It was at the top of the broad steps, central to the narrower space above, and obviously dangerous to anyone coming down in a hurry, especially at night when the street lighting isn’t of the best. It would be very easy to step on this missing slab, and fall head first down into the Square.
So the Council blocked it off to enable them to make repairs and render the stairs safe again. Hazard tape was strung across the top and bottom of this half-flight, with the other side unobstructed. Within a day, it had been torn down.
The Council re-affixed it. It was torn down again. It brought in barriers, metal and plastic barriers, to straddle the approaches and close them off, with additional tape for those bits that weren’t covered. The tape was torn away and people forced their way past the barriers to go down the damaged section.
The Council kept trying. Every couple of days, it would come back and re-position the barriers, trying to indicate that this short section of stairs, twelve steps in total, was cordoned off for being dangerous, and every time these barriers were shifted, toppled over, folded up, moved, to open up these steps to traffic past this potentially dangerous, broken step.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the steps were closed and people were being forced to go a longer and less convenient way round. All that was closed, in theory, was the left hand half of the steps. The right hand half was open at all times. But, and this is what appears to be the point at which the rebels took offence, the right hand half was further away from the town centre. To use it meant going round the other side of the railing, at the cost of possible four or five extra steps having to be taken, and a delay of as much as two seconds in their progress up or down these steps.
And this war waged for weeks. Every time the left hand path was blocked off, the forces of opposition would unblock it again, refusing to accept this shackle upon their convenience, insisting on running the risk of tripping and breaking their ankle, or the ankle of any person happening to be below them when they were precipitated from the heights.
Or was the protest political? Was it a stand for libertarianism, and the right of the people to make their own decisions, free from the nanny state and its attempts to hinder their natural freedom by guiding them in this fascistic course? After all, the time and effort involved in continually breaking or shifting those tapes and barriers far outweighed the time and effort saved by not having to go round by the detour.
No, I think it was sheer, misguided laziness.
At the moment, the War may have come to an end. The barriers have not been reinstated. A preliminary layer of tar, already being kicked down the steps, fills in the gap of the missing slab brick. It looks ugly as anything, a cheap, tatty bodge, but maybe it’s what it takes to bring the war to an end and let both sides get on with something that makes a modicum of sense.
If it doesn’t, you’ll hear another report on this conflict.
For Author for Sale Blog, this is Martin Crookall, in Mersey Square.

Series 2 – 26: A Time of Confusion


My relationship was going so well that, on my birthday in 1988, we got engaged secretly. Then, between Christmas and New Year, we abruptly, and on my part unwillingly, broke up. The relationship was restored, by accident, on New Year’s Eve, but the stable times had gone. The engagement was never restored, the relationship was never again stable. My career was entering a time of instability: my firm would ‘merge with’ (be taken over by) a more modern rival, my seeming position of professional strength would be undermined by a megalomaniacal senior partner who I distrusted intensely, and when I made a move to advance myself, I unwittingly placed myself in the worst environment I have ever experienced, under a senior partner even more hateful than the first.
Such chaos could not be kept out of other aspects of my life. Walking in the Lakes became bitty and awkward, and after the peak of 36 summits in the single year of 1988, I would add only 21 more tops in the next two years, and nothing more than a four peak day in those times.
Those years are not without memories that outshone the general discomfort of the times. There were no signs to begin with of the coming disruption, in a low-key May holiday that saw me move into the second half of the Wainwrights: a leg-stretcher with unexpectedly superb views of Crummock Water, another clean-ridged expedition into the North Western Fells on a sultry day, when the view I was expecting to see turned out to be absurdly accessible, coming less than a hundred yards from the end of the walk, by the car.
I took myself off for the second time to remote Longsleddale, my target being the Lakes’s two most easterly summits, Grey Crag and Tarn Crag. Grey Crag offered views inward that barely stretched past the other side of the valley, yet its overview over miles of moorland, looking out to the Howgill Fells and the Northern Pennines was potentially limitless. But the fell’s lack of height and the difficulty in getting good conditions made it a disappointment.
Descending from Tarn Crag to the lonely depths of another of Lakeland’s Mosedale’s (there are six: it means ‘dreary valley’, and this was not the one that is misnamed) I extended the walk to include Branstree, overlooking Mardale. It meant a long, dull trudge uphill by a wall to the infinitely flat summit, and an equally  long, dull trudge downhill by another wall to, to the top of Gatescarth Pass, from where I returned down Longsleddale to the car.
The easiness of the descent left ample time to contemplate the scene. The only other time I had been there was in my last family holiday. We had ascended Gatescarth from Mardale, and climbed Harter Fell from there. To reach the summit we followed an old fence uphill from the Pass, onto the subsidiary Adam A’ Seat, and thereafter over pathless grass, meandering onto the summit ridge near the third cairn, with its spectacular view of Haweswater.
They say that the hills are eternal. I understood it a different way on that walk: that the days we spend in them are eternity themselves. They don’t count in our lives, they are each and every one of them the same. I hadn’t been here in almost fourteen years: an overgrown teenager about to enter his last year at University, an overweight, bearded Solicitor aged 33, with a crumbling relationship. But no time had passed between those two days, because they had been spent in eternity that wouldn’t change if I were to return in 23 years time (I wish!)
This strange feeling was so strong that it overwhelmed the evidence that those two days were not one: the wide, obvious track slanting directly from the head of Gatescarth, ignoring the rise and fall of Adam A’ Seat, and heading directly for the ridge and the third cairn.
It looked as if it had been there for centuries. Fourteen years ago, there was no trace. It was my first real understanding of what people like me were doing to the fells.
The next day I made a steep-sided ascent of one flank of Caiston Beck, on the opposite side of Patterdale to the Hayeswater valley, crossing Scandale Head Pass and ascending to Red Screes, high above Kirkstone Pass. It was a fell that would become important to me years later, scene of the climax of the comic novel that finally grew out of that foolish manuscript I’d written several years ago.
The descent was equally knee-crackingly steep, but I had things on my mind. For some years, half a decade in fact, I had been an eager, and somewhat respected, contributor to British Comics Fandom, a BNF (Big Name Fan). I’d written articles, letters and reviews with eager if occasionally naïve enthusiasm, attended Conventions and Marts, mingled with similar-minded folk, and been a mainstay of the two highest-circulation fanzines of the day, FA and Arkensword.
But I’d also gotten a life when I began my relationship. And even if that was in trouble, I was changing. I wanted to direct my writing more towards my own inventions, rather than praise or criticism for other people’s work. I was no longer on such good terms as I had been with a number of my fandom friends, including the editors of those two ‘zines. And I was astute enough to recognise that I had more or less run out of things to say. I had commented on virtually everything I felt worth commenting upon, I had expressed all my opinions by now.
Descending over Middle Dodd, staring deep into the heart of Patterdale, I came to the conclusion that it was time to let go, to ignore the petty feelings and general irritability, and retire. So I went home, and did.
The picture is of the path from the top of Gatescarth Pass, towards Harter Fell. Tarn Crag and Grey Crag form the background. I don’t know the date of this picture, which is of no part of the walk I took that day, but sit and stare at it for a long time, and reflect that when I passed that way in the year of my 20th birthday, there was nothing but thick grass, and a wire fence to guide the way.

Recognising Robert Neill: Wonder Winter



Like So Fair a House, Wonder Winter is a novel set in the modern day, written in the first person and set in a geographically unspecified but isolated location, this time somewhere in the North, not that you’d get that without being told. Unlike So Fair a House, it has no historical element whatsoever, and the only ghost in it stays firmly out of sight. It has the usual romance, which is one of only two strands that go to make up the story, but what ought to be the most important element of the book, psychologically, never attains true life, which is why, for all that it is well-written, smooth and easy to follow, Wonder Winter is, for me, a failure.
The story is remarkably easy to summarise. Hugh Burnett, the narrator, is an advertising agent in his early thirties. By chance, staying overnight at a country hotel, he encounters Helen Ireby, an attractive widow of similar age, with whom he falls in love. Despite Helen’s insistence that he not pursue her, Hugh takes the first opportunity to take an advertising job for the very firm in Monksbridge where her late husband worked when he died in a seemingly mysterious car crash. Over the course of a few months between November and February, Hugh deals with the advertising of the company’s new washing machine, and with getting to the bottom of Helen’s bitterness.
Yes, advertising a washing machine. This may be a book about an advertising agent, but we are not talking Mad Men here.
Of course there’s more to the book than this bald summary, but the inconsequential nature of the big issue does depress the importance of the story overall. The washing machine, and the associated issues with office politics in Leroy Electricals Ltd – a company whose founder and Managing Director will soon have to retire due to his health, leaving all the executives anxious about their futures – ought to be the background to the real story, of Hugh and Helen’s relationship, of what the brooding and bitterness of five years since her husband’s death has done to her, and where it threatens to take her, set against Hugh’s attempts to bring her to redemption and a restoration to life. The problem is that this element is definitely second banana.
Instead, Leroy’s, its people, their jockeyings for position, and even personal issues such as a wedding being hijacked into a business display, are allowed to overwhelm at every point.
The washing machine also deflects us (and Neill) from what ought to be the book’s third strand, being Hugh’s attitude to his job. We learn, at the outset, that he basically does not believe in his job, that he thinks advertising is at heart a process of lying to people, trying to get them to buy things they don’t want and can’t afford and, even at its very best, persuading them to buy a particular model that is no better than any of its competitors.
It’s an opinion that is considerably more prevalent now than in 1961, when the book was first published, and just as in So Fair a House, there’s a lot of Priestley about it, though thankfully not in tones so directly reminiscent of him.
But Neill is completely unable to allow, accept or show that there is any glamour in advertising, even if you have better things than washing machines to plug, and therefore he cannot give the profession any appeal at all. Hugh is only in his early thirties, still too young to be jaded and cynical, which makes his opinion a statement of principle, and one that lacks any sign of being developed out of experience. So what possessed Hugh to enter a profession that he holds in such contempt, quiet as it may be? The real problem is that it’s clearly Neill’s opinion, and not that of his character: a man who’s at least twenty years older than Hugh and whose opinions formed before the Second World War.
You’ll notice, by the way, that I keep talking about Hugh, and not about Helen. It’s impossible not to: Hugh can’t drag himself out of Leroy’s issues, and when he does we only see Helen’s reflection in his eyes. This is a serious weakness of the story. Wonder Winter should be about Helen, and it’s simply not.
Helen’s a psychologically damaged woman at risk of destroying herself. It’s understandable that she would keep Hugh at a polite and respectful distance, from which he can move closer as he starts to unravel the puzzle about her. But Hugh adopts that position of his own accord and stays there. There’s no romance and even less physicality than in the oldest of his historical settings – unless you count helping Helen on and off with her coat!
The key to everything is the death, five years ago, of Helen’s husband, Peter Ireby, then an employee of Leroy’s. Helen won’t talk about it. Any time the talk veers in that direction, she retreats and cannot deal with it. Everybody else who was there at the time is, however, perfectly willing to talk, and to explain what really happened, but for the fact that Hugh doesn’t actually stir himself to enquire about this blatantly obvious issue until so far into the book that the ending is threatening to arrive first.
Peter Ireby died five years earlier, on his second wedding anniversary. He had asked for confirmation of promotion to Chief Assistant in the Sales Department, which was refused. In a distracted state, he crashed his car and was killed. The job went to his junior collague, Dick Goodwin, Ireby having been unsuited for the role he sought anyway.
All of this is true, and is known to Helen, along with the similarly true fact that her husband was in such a state of shock that he was no more fit to drive than if he’d been blind drunk. Helen blames Leroy’s in general, and Dick Goodwin and Bill Moresby, the Sales Director who turned Peter down, in particular.
Since Peter’s death, Helen, an ex-model, has successfully run a dress shop in Monksbridge that caters largely for the wives of Leroy men, who have to dress to occasion and conform, whether their pocket fits or not. Most bills are paid in instalments. But Helen has allowed Jill Goodwin, a former friend, to build up an impossible debt. When January comes, Helen will have her revenge by suing Jill for debt, publicly humiliating and destroying her and Dick.
(Yes, I know, it’s hardly the depths of villainy, or desperate cruelty, is it?)
Except that Hugh saves her from herself, keeping her from taking this vindictive step, a course born of five years bitterness and brooding. He saves Jill from herself.
Partly, he does this by showing her that she’s got everything arse about face. All she knows is true, but it’s not the whole of the truth. The whole of the truth is that Moresby knew Peter was out of his depth, and had negotiated a transfer for him to a role that would suit his abilities down to the ground, full of potential and at no loss of salary. Peter just didn’t listen to that bit. And if Helen suspects that this is some face-saving excuse, absolutely everybody who chips in on this story has documentary evidence to hand for this five years ago incident.
You see, all it takes was to show the hysterical little women that she’s got every little detail wrong in her pretty little head.
Actually, that’s a bit heavy-handed and overdone. The effect is the same, but it’s all done out of honesty and affection, and regret, and thankfulness that years of unpleasantness can be undone almost on the spot.
But that is to give too little credit to Hugh, who has already deflected Helen away from her long-held purpose. And he’s done this by telling her, with manly firmness, that she has to rescue herself by giving up this bitterness, by going to talk to Jill, her once friend, and dissuade her from the foolish purchase that is all Helen wants in order to set off her scheme.
So when Helen hears how misguided she’s been, she is already on the road to recovery, and a recovery that culminates in her agreeing to marry Hugh, despite the fact he hasn’t so much as held her hand, let alone kissed her. Truly is she cured!
Overall, Wonder Winter is a bland book, and though Neill has, naturally, researched the advertising industry sufficiently to be able to construct the requisite inspiration behind successful ads, his lack of belief in the necessity, even the propriety of advertising underlies all the novel, which does little for the appeal of the major strand. As for Helen Ireby, Neill frankly fails on the personal and psychological novel this really out to be, and we end up seeing her as only a reflection in Hugh’s eyes and not as herself. We never get into her head, because Hugh’s is in the way, and most of his head, sadly, is invested in advertising a washing machine.
As for the title, this is symbolic of the book’s failings as a whole. It’s an enticing title, suggesting an uplifting experience. And the book does take place in winter. But the Wonder of the title is that bloody washing machine again, informally and internally known as ‘the Whizzing Wonder’. Another disappointment.
As I’ve previously said, I’ve no information whatsoever as to any of Neill’s sales figures, but I’d wager Wonder Winter was his lowest seller. It’s certainly a failure, artistically, and I presume that Neill recognised that himself. For his ninth novel, he returned to his metier in historical fiction, and continued in that vein until the end of his career.

Recognising Robert Neill: So Fair a House


So Fair a House was Robert Neill’s first novel to be published in the Sixties, in 1960 to be precise, but it is very much a book of the Fifties, in a manner that makes it a fascinating record of an era as lost to us now as any of his historical periods. For this book is an almost total departure, in every respect, from Neill’s usual fare.
It’s set in the present day, between 1958 and 1959, it’s told in the first person, by Solicitor and Churchwarden Charles Torey, and its ‘romantic’ couple are not fresh young people setting out to establish themselves in the world but rather a middle-aged pair, a year short of fifty, one of whom is already married. Its setting is the village of Oakley Priors, five miles out of Winborough, but in reality it stands in a geographic nowhere, in no County that is named or could be presumed, except that it’s not Yorkshire. That it’s somewhere in the amorphous south and not close to London is all we get.
Which is apt, in a way, for a book that is, in essence, a ghost story, and in which a history of two and a half centuries before is not merely a curious puzzle to be unravelled, but also the catalyst for the disruption of a contemporary setting that, if not prompted in this fashion, will remain unhappy, and self-destructive.
In this aspect, it reminds me of nothing so mucg as Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which was still eight years away from being written: the past is replayed in the present, but in So Fair a House, it is done without destruction, and without the intimation that the ghosts will rise again to trouble others. Indeed, rather, the sense is that the ghosts manifest themselves in order to change the course of the future so it should not repeat the past.
The House in question is the vicarage, an architecturally splendid building but impossible to maintain. The Church want to sell, to buy the Vicar something easier to handle, but the chances of a buyer seem slim until Charles is approached by thrusting businessman, Jack Evening, who is eager to acquire the house.
There’s no meeting of minds with Evening (pronounced with a short e at the start, as in ‘heaven’), not by Charles nor anybody, including his business partner Brent, in the first part of the book. Evening lives for business: he’s highly intelligent, ambitious, intent on rising in the world, with an eye for any opportunity, which is what the house represents.
The criticism of Evening is not merely near universal, but its expression is so familiar to the distaste with which J B Priestley held for the post War world, that I started wondering exactly whose novel I was reading here.
But to Charles’s surprise, Evening’s wife Joan is an old friend: they were at University thirty years ago, friends but not lovers, who haven’t seen each other in all that time. Joan is dubious about the vicarage, which most people find a depressing, off-putting place but the presence of Charles next door keeps her from opposing her husband’s plans, and thus a wholesale transformation of the property begins. This includes the construction of an extension, for Evening’s study, to be built and furbished in Georgian fashion – on the site of a former extension of the house that was not merely torn down but which had its very foundations destroyed.
So there’s a mystery to The Prospect, as the old Vicarage, awakening its original name. We’re also invited to anticipate that the reunion of Charles and Joan is going to lead to, well, complications. Which it does, but in the meantime, the house starts to reveal further mysteries.
Charles’s study of the deeds, followed by the Vicar’s combing of Parish Records, exposes a curious situation. The house’s second owner, George Marlow, died young, leaving The Prospect to his widow Mary, nee Wickham, a poor relation of the local Squire’s family. Mary then married John Wickham, her cousin, who was the Vicar, and a former Captain of Infantry, only three weeks after George’s death. After her death, she willed the house to the Church, as a Vicarage.
If that is not intriguing enough, there are two further details to consider. John Wickham was already known as an absentee priest, leaving all his duties to a Curate and never living in the Parish. But prior to Marlow’s death, Wickham was  fully attentive to his duties. The first actual lapse is the recording of Marlow’s death, which is not in Wickham’s hand, and his departure from the Parish was clearly unplanned.
There’s also a marginal note on the Certificate of Marlow’s death. It’s in Wickham’s hand, though it’s very shaky, not bold and confident as before: Da himi veniam, paenitento.
Neill doesn’t translate, and the on-line Latin translators are useless, but the little Latin I know prompts me to read this as “For my sins, I repent.”
Whilst all of this is being ferreted out, a more direct problem asserts itself at the Prospect: ghosts. Evening, in his study, hears a woman’s voice where there is no woman. Charles, seeking respite from the noise of a house-warming dominated by Evening’s business contacts, is overwhelmed by some powerful force in the same room: overwhelmed enough that when Joan comes in search of him, he seizes her and starts kissing her passionately. Nor does she resist.
Thus we are presented with what was clearly some sort of three-cornered mystery whose general shape appears ripe to happen again in 1958.
Not that adultery is going to happen, however. Charles and Joan are  respectable, middle-class, middle-aged people. It may take the incursion of what, in time, proves to be Mary Marlow’s ghost to open up Charles’s recognition that he has deep feelings for Joan, which the early chapters intimate is mutual, but this is 1958, and though feelings may be politely recognised up to a point, they will otherwise be kept decently repressed and certainly not be acted on. Divorce being a legal and social nightmare, as indeed it was in those days, is only a part of it: Joan has a sixteen year old daughter, Susie, who’s pert, intelligent and perceptive (enough to be a Robert Neill heroine if this were two to three hundred years earlier), for whose sake things are, and will remain, impossible.
The issue having been opened, the remainder of the first part of the novel is devoted to, simultaneously, Evening’s complete estrangement from everybody else’s underlying nature, the puzzling out of as much detail of the Marlow/Wickham affair as possible, and Charles and Joan’s steadfast refusal to act on the inevitable.
In its middle section, Joan (the former history student) writes up the findings of them all as a report. It’s based on all manner of records, gleaned from many places, but it largely rests on the discovery of Mary’s personal diary. This accounts (somewhat feebly) for the tendency of this section to turn, at critical points, into a Robert Neill historical novel in miniature, as the true events of the past, and their tragic outcome, are revealed.
But there’s a third, and final section, in which Neill takes a very interesting step. The revelation of the old story acts as an anti-climax. Its parallels to the potential situation developing now serve to further push Charles and Joan into their decent, Brief Encounters-esque, non-resolution, whilst Evening’s dedication to his work, to the exclusion of all else, intensifies.
At this point, Neill introduces Anis King. She’s been referred to scores of times already, as Miss King, Evening’s long-term, utterly dedicated secretary. The continual use of ‘Miss King’, on top of the almost motherly role she seems to play at the office, creates the intended impression, which Neill now bursts by introducing her as a very attractive, and winning young woman, in her early thirties but looking much younger.
Charles finds himself almost becoming Anis’s patron, as she plans to move into Oakley. For a moment, she threatens to derail the course of the narrative, but of greater importance is the fact that she provides a voice in support of Evening. She values him, values his potential, and she provides a much-needed counterpoint, by suggesting that Joan is at fault too. For all that Evening has neglected Joan’s social and emotional needs, he’s been working with dedication to provide a life for her, and she has failed to give him support in her turn.
Now that’s an argument that feminists will resent, not without reason, true those it is to the times. But the point being made is that Joan has been as neglectful of Evening’s needs as he has of hers, and it’s a point that bears mention after the book has presented such a one-sided interpretation thus far.
And Anis is pivotal to the denouement. Joan is, expectedly, jealous of Charles’s burgeoning relationship with her husband’s secretary, but so too, out of the blue, is Evening. And both Joan and he are pushed towards the only possible outcome by interventions on the part of Mary Marlow’s ghost. The couples shift towards each other, emerge as pairs whose minds meet. It’s as in the past, except that tragedy, death and guilt are replaced by a civilised ending (especially as the mess of Divorce, Fifties-style will be left till after the final page).
So Fair a House is an unusual book, and there are arguments for finding it inconsequential. I found myself being fascinated by it. Though it was written as an unusual approach to historical fiction, over two-thirds of the novel is contemporary, but by the fact of the fifty plus years since its first appearance, the book has become by default a historical fiction throughout.
The picture of Fifties life, in the deference to decency and respectability not yet undermined by the change of tone since the massively disruptive War, determines the actions the characters take. On one level, Evening is unreal: he lacks humanity, and the ability to see how others may think differently to him. Yet he’s as much a product of his times as any of the others, who are shaped by a mindset formed before the Second World War, who may lack the ambition in Evening, but who will never bring about change in the manner he and others like him will.
And whether it was consciously intended or not, which I doubt, the novel draws more attention to its time period by virtue of the contrast from Neill’s historical settings. You’ll note that, apart from mentioning Evening’s full name at first, I’ve referred to him by his surname throughout. With the exception of his wife, Joan, virtually no-one calls him Jack. Men didn’t use first names: it’s Evening, Torey, Brent, throughout – as opposed to Charles calling Joan by her christian name from the first, which is a familiarity permitted only by their old acquaintance, as demonstrated by Charles’s use of Miss King to address Anis, until she insists on her unusual name.
Fifties formality is as much an historical curiosity as anything Neill has ever written, but it’s a strange contrast to those purely historical books, where, despite the far greater stratification of society back then, saw the use of first names, freely and frankly, and surnames paired with titles such as Mr.
The change of style in Neill’s work must have taken his audience by surprise. I have no access to sales figures for any of his books to prove or disprove theories as to how his fans reacted, but for his next novel, Neill chose to stay in the present, and this time to write without any element of historical bent at all.

Series 2 – 25: A Full Year – Part 2


 

I made up for my lost day in May by a midsummer Saturday, bringing my love to the Lakes for the first time. Again, this story has already been told: standing guard as she whipped off her bra in order to breathe, summer afternoon naughties in a small and unobserved dell, her laughter captured as I balanced my camera on a handy rock, set the timer and hurtled myself into the frame beside her.
Angletarn Pikes was another tick on my list – trust me to maintain my concern for my own efforts – and I promised her Catbells, above Derwent Water, for her next summit. We got there, eventually, though not for some years yet. Our relationship, not that I realised, was heading towards a very prolonged and volatile period.
When I got away properly again, I had another concern: my walking boots were knackered. So, after booking in in Ambleside, before I could set out on my traditional leg-stretcher of a Sunday afternoon start, I needed to buy a new pair of boots.
This embarrassing task concluded, I headed for Stone Arthur, an outcrop on the Grasmere-facing flank of the Fairfield Horseshoe, deeply concerned with the newness of my footwear and the risk of developing blisters – from which I have, thankfully, very rarely suffered. I confessed my fears to a walker I met on the descent, and was given an unusual recommendation for breaking in new boots: Sunlight Soap Flakes.
There was a concept that went back to my East Manchester boyhood. Apparently, the first time you wear new boots, you should pack them with the Soap Flakes, insert feet, and find somewhere wet, and preferably rainy. Providing you can live through the embarrassment of foaming feet, you will emerge with leather softly moulded to the shape of your peculiar feet.
Even without soap flakes, I had no problems with my new boots. They took me on an expedition onto the southern rim of Great Langdale that took me to the beginnings of the royal road to Crinkle Crags and a glorious walk across the Langdale Skyline that, years later, would become one of my best days. The following day, I made myself another future promise, climbing the shapely Whiteless Pike in my lovely North Western Fells and discovering an enticing narrow ridge behind, positively demanding ascent, though not today, unfortunately.
Next came a gentle and peaceful day, “Back o’ Skidda’”.
The Northern Fells are, geographically, isolated from all the other fells of Lakeland. You cannot walk off them into another area at a high point, as you may traverse between Western and Southern at Sty Head, or Southern and Central at Stake Pass. And the Northern Fells are dominated by their two south-facing giants, Skiddaw and Blencathra.
But the region extends beyond, into lower, grassy fells, invisible to the tourists but also free from them. Those who want loneliness, who want to walk in peace, the world removed, may indulge themselves here. They will not die of excitement, but on the other hand they could break an ankle and still be able to get themselves back to the road running around its rim.
Excluding Binsey, I first came into this region driving blind. Skiddaw is a cloud magnet, frequently managing to hide its head behind a cloud when all the rest of the northern sky is blue, but this was a day of very low-hanging cloud, without risk of rain, but choking the fells off completely. To amuse myself, I set off to the east of Blencathra, circling around the back of this foreign region, via Caldbeck, and onto a road that felt as if it were an elevated causeway above a vast and empty plain. Nothing to see, and nothing to see.
It was northing like that this day: the sun hung uninterrupted. I strung the five fells of the Uldale group into a slightly awkward walk, easy walking, no rushing, five summits, and still back at the car after only four hours. It was the same again a decade later, when I repeated the walk: no matter what I did, I couldn’t stretch it out any longer than four hours!
Nor does it knock the fells to admit that the day’s best feature was not only not a summit but its first major feature, the natural railway cutting of Trusmadoor, a deep and steep sided channel between hills, from nowhere to nowhere, but a fascination nevertheless. And below it, an apron of land beside a meandering gill that immediately descends into a twisting gorge that was another day’s abiding memory.
The Fairfield Horseshoe had been a new record for me, but not a longstanding one, as I was to beat it on my last day, this time with a Big Walk of my own devising.
There’s no skill to devising Rounds: take any valley with fells on both sides and you have one. Some are more famous and popular, such as Fairfield or Coledale. I’d never heard anyone speak of a Hayeswater Round, so a walk that circled the narrow side-valley off Patterdale, that stretched deep into the highest fells of the Far Eastern area had its personal aspect, as well as another eight new summits.
The sun once again shone, too much so as the end of the day would prove, but the exposure of the tops was leavened by breezes for as long as I travelled above the valleys. I gained height quickly, and early, which is always best: get up above, stay above the world until the very end.
The centrepiece of the day was moving from west to east of Hayeswater, onto the High Street range, and onto High Street. The great Roman Road, from Ambleside to Penrith, the Legions striding through the fells in their armour, bearing their Eagles (Kidsty Pike, north of High Street itself, has long been home to England’s only pair of breeding Golden Eagles).
The Romans didn’t actually detour to High Street’s flat, wide top, but I did. So did others in history: the fell has the alternate name of Racecourse Hill, recognising centuries of summer meetings, the farmers of the surrounding valleys bringing their families and produce up here in summer, to met and greet, to talk, trade, wrestle and race in the only place all could reach.
I’d planned on eight fells, but as I reached my furthest point, I found myself a mile from High Raise, a fell distant from all valley bases. There was time, it was sunny, so I diverted there and back, celebrating my 100th Wainwright when I was there – only to learn of a miscount: that honour had gone ignored on Kidsty Pike.
It was downhill now, or so it seemed. The Knott (“ten minutes from the wall corner” said Wainwright, and again I could match him) was easy, but Rest Dodd, above the forbidden Martindale Deer Forest, was a steep descent and a tedious ascent. Then back to the Patterdale path until, in sight of Angle Tarn, where we’d sat in the late afternoon a few weeks back, I cut across rough ground to Brock Crags: the final summit and, thanks to my unplanned diversion, an unequalled ninth of the day.
Coming down, out of the breezes, the sun and sudden stuffiness gave me a splitting headache, one bad enough that, halfway back to Keswick, I had to pull in and dry heave at the roadside.
But it was a splendid year, my finest return, 36 summits, and to within a handful of the halfway point. I could call myself a serious walker now. Not that I ever realised that at the time.
The picture is, of course, of High Street, though it’s something of a cheat as it shows the fell’s much more interesting Mardale Face, outside the Round itself. It looks from the north east, showing something of the crags which are invisible from the expansive summit, and the descent to the Straits of Riggindale that led me into the latter half of the walk.