Careless writing and an Eton mess – UPDATE

A few years ago, in a book which wasn’t really about Sherlock Holmes, I read an assertion that (to paraphrase slightly) The Hound of the Baskervilles was commonly believed to be set in the 1870s. As there are clear indications in the book’s first few pages that the year is 1889 (or 1890 at a pinch), this belief can only have been common among people who had never read it.  The author compounded their error by asserting that Arthur Conan Doyle was sometimes careless with facts. Oh, dear. Author, heal thyself.

Perhaps rashly, at the end of the book the author invited readers to contact him to advise of any errors they had found in his book. So I did.  The evasive, patronising response told me, in effect, not to worry my ugly little head about it as I would only get confused.

A few years later I received a standard email on behalf of the same writer, encouraging me to buy his latest book.  I didn’t. But, today in a branch of Waterstones, I came across the book – and found that a large part of the chapter on Buckinghamshire was devoted to Eton College and also mentioned Slough. The trouble with this is that Eton and Slough are in Berkshire, and have been for some time.  True, they used to be in Buckinghamshire; Slough was the location of South Bucks District Council (whose customer service levels extended to leaving an answerphone on during lunchtime, but that’s another story). But this wasn’t a book about historic Buckinghamshire.  And in a book which sells in the travel section, putting a town in the wrong county is a bit of a howler.

Perhaps chastened – even if not admitting it – by his Baskervilles blooper, the author has not asked readers to let him know of any errors in his latest book.  The shame is that, before my email correspondence with him, I admired his writing. But then it wouldn’t be the first time that a writer in real life didn’t live up to the writer on the page.  I can’t promise that our Slow Guide won’t have any howlers in it – though, knowing the Bradt team, I’d bet against it! – but I hope we might be a bit more gracious if someone pointed one out.

Update: the author apparently believes that border changes in 1974 (which include Buckinghamshire/Berkshire) were “almost all terrible” and so he has based his book on an AA Handbook from 1955.  At a minimum the publicity does not point this out and hence is misleading; and a book published in the past five years would be expected, by most readers and people with any sense, to observe the current borders.  Unless, of course, the author is happier living in 1955…

Image of Eton College courtesy of Elliott Brown via Flickr.

Behind the green(e) door…

Before we go any further… if you’re a Shakin’ Stevens fan who has stumbled on this post by chance, I’m sorry it isn’t meant for you. If you want to find out what was behind the green door Shaky sang about, try this theory.

This door is in a quiet corner of Hertfordshire, in the town of Berkhamsted. Specifically it’s in Berkhamsted School, which is not too far off its 500th anniversary.  Today, it links the School’s impressive archival display with the Old Hall.  But around a century ago, it loomed large in the schooldays of one Graham Greene, whose father was the headmaster and who spent his schooldays on either side of the door: firstly while living with his family in the headmaster’s lodgings, and secondly as a boarder.  These were miserable times for the young Graham, especially when he became a boarder.  The green baize door separated the school from the headmaster’s lodgings.  It symbolised two sides and Graham never knew which side he was on.

“I was on both sides,” he said years later. “I could never choose between the saint and the sinner.”

This duality and doubt informed much of Greene’s later writing. Even today, while it’s easy to be impressed by the School’s trappings (in both senses), its impressive Chapel and cloisters as well as the Old Hall and the sense of history, it is also easy to sympathise with the young Graham.  He was, as his biographer Norman Sherry puts it, “isolated, disliked and distrusted since he was the headmaster’s son”.  Graham’s natural sensitivity and the circumstances conspired to produce a toxic combination, which led him to attempt suicide several times.  Anyone who has ever heard a nostalgic older person describing school as “the happiest days of [their] lives” will be on the young Graham’s side; that is to say, on both sides.

 

Wallingford: why they didn’t ask Agatha

Some years ago, in a little market town on the cusp of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, a lady used to go shopping. Her house was set back from a road just outside the town, and she used to take that road into the town centre. She might stop at the Nag’s Head for a cup of tea, before visiting the department store and possibly the chemist.  In the evenings, she might go to the Masonic Hall for a play or a pantomime; she had been persuaded to become the President of the local amateur dramatic society, as long as she didn’t have to make any speeches.

If this doesn’t sound like the best-selling novelist of all time, you might be surprised. The lady in question was known in Wallingford as Mrs Mallowan; to the rest of the world, she was Agatha Christie.  In a pre-internet, pre-email, pre-Twitter world, Agatha found her perfect space a few miles from Oxford and some way west of London, with relatively poor transport connections meaning she was unlikely to receive many visitors. Here, where she bought Winterbrook House in 1934, she could write on her latest murder mystery or romantic novel, and relax with her second husband Max Mallowan. Max was already a well-known archaeologist and Agatha loved accompanying him to digs in the Near East for several months each year.  But Wallingford was something else and, as Max acknowledged many years later, fellow residents helped Agatha to enjoy her new home by treating her as Mrs Mallowan, respecting her privacy and enabling her to get on with writing.  It’s hard to imagine, in our era when JK Rowling tweets her thoughts most days to millions of followers, that a famous writer could crave privacy, but Agatha did, and it’s to the great credit of Wallingford that she found it here.  Agatha and Max lived at Winterbrook for 42 years and now share a gravestone in the church in nearby Cholsey.

Nowadays Wallingford has another connection with the world of fictional crime, appearing regularly on TV as Causton, capital of the county where all those Midsomer Murders take place.  But, with the help of occasional organised walks between Wallingford and Cholsey and a sympathetic display in the town museum on the High Street, you can still find traces here of the lady who became known as the Queen of Crime.

Image courtesy of cyclonebill via Flickr.

When life gives you damsons…

“Would you like any damsons?”

It wasn’t what I was expecting to hear as we walked through a water meadow at Streatley on a typical November day in August.

Our plan had been to do a circular walk from Goring, taking in part of the Chiltern Way and the Thames Path, as recommended by our wildflower book, but the grey drizzle was discouraging and my feet hurt.  A re-think over coffee in The Chocolate Café and we decided to take things more slowly.

We strolled over the bridge towards Streatley, pausing to visit the church. The current church mainly dates from 1864, though the tower is fifteenth-century, but there has probably been a church on the site since Saxon times. The churchyard contains the remains of a Saxon warrior, perhaps one who fought with Alfred at the Battle of Ashdown in 871. His remains were found together with an iron spearhead and knife, bronze buckle and blood-stained tooth in 1932 by a local resident whilst working on the site of the old Bowling Green, and later re-interred in the churchyard. I’m sure Jerome K Jerome would have had a good story to tell about him, had the remains only been discovered fifty years earlier.

Following a sign from the church to the Thames Path we found ourselves in a water meadow where we had no difficulty in spotting the purple-loosestrife and common fleabane the book had told us to expect.  We also saw some non-native but very pretty orange balsam.

As I watched a barge slowly make its way down the river, my husband drew my attention to a little fruit stand with an honesty box, intended to raise funds for the conservation of the area.  Would I like any damsons? Of course I would.  The only problem was that the fruit was a pound a bag and I didn’t have change for a five pound note.  So that is how we ended up carrying two bags of damsons, two of pears and one of apples on our walk.

Returning, we decided to emulate the Three Men in a Boat and lunch at the Bull.  I don’t know what J, Harris and George (to say nothing of Montmorency the dog) would have made of jalfrezi pie, but I enjoyed it.

That’s the thing about Slow Travel.  You never know quite what to expect, but must take things (and damsons) as you find them. Now, where was that recipe for spiced damson chutney?

HM

1984 Live: a doubleplusgood production

One of the themes which runs through the Chilterns and Thames Valley is that of power and dissent.  You can find Chequers, Dorneywood and Windsor Castle on one hand; the Amersham Martyrs, the Jordans Quakers and John Hampden on the other.  The region was also home for a time to one of Britain’s greatest 20th century writers. The young George Orwell (or Eric Blair, to give him his real name) grew up in Henley-on-Thames and nearby Shiplake, and studied at Eton.

Today saw a special event centred on Orwell’s most famous work.  Senate House in London hosted a special reading/performance of 1984 – appropriately, as Orwell’s wife Eileen worked there for the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information, experiences which informed Orwell’s depiction of the Ministry of Truth in the book.  (Senate House also inspired The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, who lived in Berkhamsted.)

Today’s performance – on the anniversary of the D-Day landings, a significant day for freedom if ever there was one, and in the week of a General Election – was part of the UCL Festival of Culture.  A company of players recreated the scenes from the book as various actors, politicians and others read from it.  The performance started at 9am and concluded at 10pm; the extracts I saw involved readings by Alan Johnson, perhaps Labour’s best leader who never was of recent years, and actors Harriet Walter and Guy Paul.  The production excelled in bringing out the power of Orwell’s words:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

“Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else.”

“We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.”

In the light not only of today’s anniversary and this week’s election, but recent events, Orwell’s words could scarcely be more relevant.

Evelyn Waugh drank here, often

For some pubs, ninety years is barely a snap of the fingers – they’ve been around a lot longer than that.  For the Bell at Aston Clinton, it might be an eternity for all that the casual visitor would know.

Their website certainly doesn’t reveal any information about the heritage of the place, simply describing it as a unique country pub.  Once you’re inside, the dark wooden alcoves of the front of the pub lead you towards the lighter, airier restaurant area at the back.  The food is very good – try the sticky toffee pudding for an excellent indulgent treat – but it’s modern informal, not the upmarket, silver service destination it used to be. Near the toilets, a few pictures of ducks give a hint of history; the pub was renamed the Duck Inn for a while, some years back, before reverting to the name deriving from the large bell outside.

But you’d never guess that one of Britain’s most famous novelists spent his evenings in here, drinking away his despair. He was filling in time as a schoolteacher and writing the book which would make his name.

When he came to Aston Clinton in 1925, Evelyn Waugh had spent just over a year teaching at Arnold House at Llandulas in Wales.  Waugh had been hoping for a job in Tuscany and had resigned from the school – only to find the job was no longer available. A friend told him that a ‘crammer’ school in Aston Clinton was looking for a teacher of English, History and Art at a salary of £160 a year.  Waugh got the job; the location was agreeable, being within easy reach of family and friends in London, where he had grown up, and Oxford where he had studied.

Waugh’s stay in Aston Clinton got off to an inauspicious start. His diary entry for 24 September 1925 records that he arrived at the school very late for dinner, due to problems with the car in which two friends had given him a lift:

“After a wretched dinner we took Richard’s car to have the wheels mended and sat for a little huddled over the fire at the Bell, all three of us deeply depressed. Soon Elizabeth drove back to London and left us to a house of echoing and ill-lit passages and a frightful common-room.”

Waugh remained at the school for just over a year.  For a summary of his time there, the diary entry for 2 October 1925 serves well: “Taught lunatics. Played rugby football. Drank at Bell.”

In the end, he and a fellow master got the sack, for a combination of persistent drunkenness and making a pass at the school matron.  But Waugh hadn’t wasted his time; using his experiences at Arnold House, he had worked on the novel which became Decline and Fall, published to great acclaim in 1928 (and the subject of a very good recent BBC drama adaptation).

No doubt the Bell, like society itself, is very different now from its 1920s incarnation.  And that’s a good thing, in almost every respect; a family-friendly pub and restaurant is probably more useful today than a watering hole of the old type, where men could take refuge from women (or, in Waugh’s case, his day job) and talk about manly things.  Even so, it’s just a little sad that the Bell seems to have airbrushed its history so completely. Even a small plaque could do the job: “Evelyn Waugh drank here, often – 1925-7.”