Six Degrees of Separation - September 2020
Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate of booksaremyfavouriteandbest.com.
The idea is that each month all participants begin with a nominated title and from there find connections to five others books. I've not tried it before, so this is my first attempt.
The first book this month is Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham, which I haven't read, but which is a fictionalised account of how the life of Hilary Clinton might have turned out if she had not married Bill.
All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward is a riveting account of two Washington Post journalists' investigation into the Watergate scandal of President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972.
Men who broke into the Democratic Party's National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington, probably in an attempt to carry out illegal wire-tapping, were eventually traced back to the president himself, who was proven personally to have authorised a cover-up of their activities. Until the President was forced by the Supreme Court to release tapes of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House, he and his officials had repeatedly denied all involvement. Eventually a constitutional crisis arose and Nixon was forced to resign before he was impeached. (These days, as one of my daughters pointed out, these shenanigans would seem like pretty small fry compared to what is now seen as the routine behaviour of many governments.)
I read this book when I was still at school, and probably didn't understand a lot of it (not sure I even would now - the whole affair was very complicated) but I found it fascinating. It led me to attend a weekend workshop on the topic at the University of Sussex; I enjoyed this so much that a part of me still wishes I had gone to that university to study American Literature.
Sussex is of course the setting for Brighton Rock, Graham Greene's masterpiece. In 1938, when this novel was published, Brighton was a seedy, run-down seaside resort, home to underworld figures such as the book's terrifying anti-hero Pinkie and his criminal gang. The town had only partially improved when I was a child, but we liked it and sometimes had day trips there, spending time on the pier, hurting our feet on the pebbly beach, and finally walking up the long road to the station, buying fish and chips on the way to catch the train back to London. Now, of course, Brighton has become smart, trendy and very expensive, but you can still wander around The Lanes, buy rock (does anyone actually like that stuff?) and enjoy an ice-cream as you stroll along the famous pier.
RC Sherriff's wonderful novel The Fortnight in September, published seven years before Brighton Rock, is also set at the seaside, but no gangsters sully these golden pages It's about an ordinary London family's annual summer holiday at Bognor (also in Sussex). A reviewer for the Spectator said
'There is more simple human goodness and understanding in this book than in anything I have read for years.'
and I agree. The narrative opens as the Stevens start preparing to set off from their home in Dulwich - packing the bags, getting the pets looked after, cancelling the milk - and continues on through their trip on the train (changing at Clapham Junction), their arrival at their usual boarding house, their daily trips to the beach, and the surprise of hiring their own beach hut, which Mr Stevens has managed to afford through careful saving throughout the year.
Sherriff looks into the thoughts and feelings of each member of the family, and portrays them so accurately that we identify with each one. They are all such kind, decent, people. There are charming details; cricket on the beach; the barrel of beer purchased as a treat for Mr Stevens; the way in which the family notices that their landlady is struggling, but are far too tactful to mention any failings in their accommodation; the parents wondering how much longer their two oldest children will be prepared to come away with them; those same children not wanting to hurt their parent's feelings.
A holiday of a rather more exotic nature forms the basis for Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk? in which wealthy young widow Charity Selbourne and her friend Louise take themselves off to the South of France for a break from post-war London. Louise plans to spend her time painting, but Charity wants to see the cultural sites of Avignon. Before long, however, she is embroiled in a dastardly plot involving murder, kidnapping, a wicked stepmother, car chases, and people who are not quite what they seem. Charity tears around Provence in her touring Riley as she attempts to save the life of an innocent young boy, David Byron. David's rescue dog Rommel is an added bonus. And as this is Mary Stewart, the eventual happy ending includes love, marriage and all round happiness (except for the villains, of course.) I've just finished listening to the BBC's wonderful new adaptation of this novel (available on BBC Sounds until 23 September) and I can't recommend it highly enough; Scarlett Courtney is a perfect Charity; spirited, clever, brave, moral and kind - and it's so good to find a heroine who loves nothing better than to put her foot down in a classic car rather than wait for a man to do it for her.
A stepmother who isn't at all evil forms part of the menage in Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle (again set in the 1930s.) Topaz has married the narrator's father after the death of his first wife, and lives with him and his family in a run-down castle in Suffolk. She is a Bohemian artist's model who likes to commune with nature and is given to swimming naked in the moat by moonlight. We are told that there are two portraits of her in the Tate Gallery, and her style has been described as;
Grace Coddington-meets-Veela (Esme Hogeveen, Garage, 24 November 2019)
Topaz (brilliantly played by Tara Fitzgerald in the 2003 film) has a good relationship with her stepchildren, and is determined to help her husband to overcome his 10 year writer's block so that the family can be returned to some sort of solvency. She's a fabulous, independent, generous, character.
So I have travelled from Washington to East Anglia via Sussex and the South of France. When I started writing this post I didn't even know where it would end up - it's great fun to see where things can lead.
If anyone else wants to join in, the next book (on 3 October) will be Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.