Continuing our lockdown armchair travel memories, we’ve now come to S which is for – amongst other places – Singapore. I went there for a week as a stopover en route to Australia in 1985, and then Mrs Chrisparkle and I went with Lady Prosecco in 2013 as a stopover on the way back from Australia! Poor Singapore, never the main item on the itinerary. That’s a shame because it’s a wonderful place. Asia lite, if you want to be a little pejorative, but sometimes lite is just what you need. So what do you think of, when you think of Singapore? Maybe you think of this chap.
The Merlion, the city symbol of Singapore, which was moved from its original position to the new Merlion Park on Marina Bay in 2002. Marina Bay sums up everything that’s glamorous about Singapore.
The Gardens by the Bay are home to some beautiful greenery – plus a few unusual constructions!
It’s also home to the extravagant Hotel Marina Bay Sands with its extraordinary infinity swimming pool
and a luxury shopping centre in the round
Another of Singapore’s hotels constitutes another of its iconic sights – Raffles Hotel, with its sumptuous gardens and colonial atmosphere.
I had a look around it back in 1985 too. It hasn’t changed!
Well, perhaps the sun loungers are posher! I remember my first day walking around Singapore on my own back in 1985. It was a blisteringly hot and humid day. I was fascinated by the sights, never having been anywhere like it before. But after a few hours, it all felt a little overwhelming, and I started to feel slightly vulnerable being a) so exhausted and b) so far from home. Fortunately my next sight to see was St Andrew’s Cathedral – I went inside and just sat down for an hour in the calm and the cool. It was the perfect rest cure! This is the only photo I took of the cathedral that day:
So when I went back in 2013 I was delighted to spend some time there and get a few more (better quality) pictures!
We also visited the very impressive little Armenian Church
It had some odd people outside though
It was fascinating to compare the city from how I remembered it 28 years earlier. The waterfront had places like this:
and I visited a traditional house on stilts.
Not much of that survives nowadays. Even the old architecture that has been preserved has been very well preserved.
Of course, some history remains. I saw the cenotaph in 1985
And the cricket ground stood out as being a little haven of green being encroached on by skyscrapers!
I always thought this photo below was of the cricket club, but now I realise it’s the Old Supreme Court!
When I visited in 1985, I took some tours thus seeing a little more of the surroundings. I didn’t get further than the outside here – not that you’d want to go inside!
I took the monorail over to Sentosa Island, which was proudly being developed as a tourist resort
To be fair, it wasn’t an extraordinarily interesting place, although I did snap this view of guys jumping into and out of trees. No idea why they did it.
I also enjoyed the Jurong Bird Park, which was good fun
And not only featured birds, but also those beautiful Singaporean orchids.
I visited some wonderful temples as well. I’ve no idea of their names or locations but they were very exotic.
Our 2013 trip stayed firmly within the confines of the city. And also included a few temple sights.
This is the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes
And this is the Glorious Masjid Sultan mosque.
Eating out is fun – expect to dine off banana leaves (literally)
Or some fruit at a temple
And you can join the tourists at the Long Bar at Raffles, the originall home of the Singapore Sling
But don’t be tempted to have too much
I think one’s overriding memory of Singapore is of the amazing modern architecture combined with a few glimpses of yesteryear.
Plunder – Oxford Playhouse, some time in October 1996
Uncertain of the date of this one, because when we got there – disaster – they had run out of theatre programmes. So all I have as a memory of this show is a photocopied cast list – and as a result the ticket stubs have been lost in the sea of time. I remember the show though; a very enjoyable revival of Ben Travers’ Aldwych farce, starring Griff Rhys Jones as D’Arcy Tuck, and with Kevin McNally, Sara Crowe, Pamela Cundell and Hugh Sachs also glittering in the cast.
An Inspector Calls – Garrick Theatre, London, 28th December 1996
Stephen Daldry’s hugely successful revival of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls had already been packing them in at the Garrick for over a year and would continue to do so for a long time after. Pip Donaghy and Suzanne Bertish headed the cast at the time, and I had very high expectations of this show, but sadly they weren’t met. Row S of the Garrick stalls is an awful long way away from the stage and I never really felt involved in the performance at all.
Trainspotting – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 21st January 1997
G & J Productions’ staging of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was a thrilling and absorbing event. Adapted and directed by Harry Gibson, who was a script reader at the Citizens Theatre Glasgow, its cast of four threw themselves into the show in all its visceral glory (and gory). Gerard Butler played Mark before going on to have a huge film career.
Rambert Dance Company Spring Tour – Apollo Theatre, Oxford, 13th February 1997
Only three months had elapsed since we’d last seen Rambert, but we were determined to go back for another treat, primarily so that we could see Rooster again! First up was Kim Brandstrup’s Eidolon, which we had seen in October; then it was Christopher Bruce’s Stream, which I remember was stunning – Steven Brett heading up a remarkable physical presentation of amassing water; and it all ended up with Bruce’s indefatigable Rooster, and a magnificent performance from a group of people who were born to dance it. The amazing company included Simon Cooper, Steven Brett, Rafael Bonachela, Didy Veldman, Glenn Wilkinson, Vincent Redmon, Marie-Laure Agrapart, Hope Muir, Paul Liburd and Sheron Wray.
Dance Bites – The Royal Ballet at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 8th March 1997
Another visit from the Royal Ballet, and another stunning programme. Starting with Figure in Progress, choreographed by Cathy Marston, then the quirky and funny Cry Baby Kreisler, choreographed by Matthew Hart and danced by Gillian Revie and Jonathan Cope; then Room of Cooks, with music by Orlando Gough, choreography by Ashley Page and featuring Adam Cooper. After the first interval, we had Pavane pour une Infante Defunte, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and danced immaculately by Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope. Then it was William Tuckett’s The Magpie’s Tower, before another interval which led into Tom Sapsford’s All Nighter and finally Ashley Page’s Ebony Concerto. It was such a privilege to see.
Absent Friends – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 10th March 1997
I don’t normally include plays I’d seen before in these blogs, but this very enjoyable production of Alan Ayckbourn’s cringe-making play about people pussyfooting around confronting the reality of a bereavement was the first play I saw by myself when I was just 15 in 1976. So I was keen to see it again as an adult, and it certainly came up trumps. The excellent cast included Shirley Anne Field, Peter Blake and David Janson, who directed it.
Bound to Please – DV8 Dance Company at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 3rd April 1997
Our next production was more dance at the Wycombe Swan in the shape of DV8’s Bound to Please. DV8 had built a reputation of strong and challenging dance narratives and I was keen to see them for myself. The production was notable for the graceful and bold presence of a naked Ms Diana Payne-Myers (at the time 67 years of age) dancing with wonderful control as a beacon of calm against the harshness of the narrative, which involved Wendy Houstoun challenging the audience directly at the curtain call (rather unsubtly I felt, but it was interesting to witness – and it was part of the script!)
A Passionate Woman – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 10th April 1997
Ned Sherrin’s production of Kay Mellor’s hard-hitting comedy had a great performance by Stephanie Cole in the main role, but I remember the matinee performance being rather ruined by an audience member’s hearing aid constantly whistling at high reverberation throughout the whole of the first act. That’s what happens in live theatre! I believe this went on to enjoy a West End run.
Charles Dickens’ Hard Times – Good Company at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 14th April 1997
Dennis Saunders’ adaptation of Dickens’ grimy and gritty novel had a great cast led by Philip Madoc and Fenella Fielding. Director Sue Pomeroy was Artistic Director of Good Company who adapted many classic novels into plays – not always to great acclaim. I can’t remember how good this production was!
Forty Years On – Mobil Touring Theatre at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 22nd April 1997
For my birthday treat we saw this superb revival of Alan Bennett’s brilliant play set in a boy’s school where the lads are having to perform a pageant. Tony Britton was on cracking form as the Headmaster, with Christopher Timothy and Tony Robinson also in the cast. It includes one of my favourite joke lines from a play; when the Headmaster is leading morning prayers in Assembly, he is interrupted and loses his place. When he finally comes back to his text, he resumes, “now, as I was praying…” Lovely stuff from Bennett. One of the boys was played by Steven Kynman, who today is the voice of Bob the Builder.
In which the intellectual but ineffectual schoolteacher Monsieur Sala switches from zero to hero as he takes on a terrible flood and leads his boys on to safety!
Flood Warning was first published in 1960 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title La Grande Alerte, which translates literally as The Great Alert, with a cover design by Peter Barrett, and further illustrations inside by Charles Keeping. Born in 1935, Peter Barrett would go on to illustrate many children’s books over a long career – this job, designing the cover for Flood Warning, must have been one of his first! Charles Keeping was mainly associated with illustrating the children’s books of Rosemary Sutcliff, but he also illustrated Folio Society books and Oxford University Press books, and enjoyed a long and successful career. He died in 1988 and there is a blue plaque outside his house.
As “Flood Warning”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1962, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is an undated Puffin edition, bearing the price 3/6. A quick check online suggests there are quite a few second-hand copies for sale at varying prices, so if you haven’t got a copy there shouldn’t be much difficulty getting hold of one. Incidentally, Berna thought the title “La Grande Alerte” was, frankly, silly. He had proposed the much more obvious and accurate “Le collège englouti” (The Engulfed College). Flood Warning isn’t a bad name for it though. Along with One Hundred Million Francs and The Clue of the Black Cat, Berna named this book as one of his three favourite children’s novels.
We’ve seen Berna write about gangs like Gaby’s and Charloun’s (in The Knights of King Midas), loners like Frederick in Magpie Corner, and middle-class children like Daniel and Manou in The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man. In Flood Warning he goes back to middle-class – and indeed upper-class – children, this time those who attend the exclusive Château-Milon boarding school. Of course, dormitory pranks can be seen as an equivalent to the kind of fun and games a gang gets up to, and you can see how this book reflects very similar gang structure to Berna’s earlier books – although there isn’t one obvious leader. The boys – and they are all boys, which might well be a disincentive for girls reading the book – are all referred to by their surnames, which is a first for Berna, who normally uses his children’s first names or indeed nicknames. The school was based on a Mariste college (run by a religious order dedicated to the Virgin Mary) in Fribourg, Switzerland, which the young Berna (or rather the young Sabran, as he hadn’t yet acquired this nom-de-plume) attended after his father was killed in the First World War in 1914. Much like Château-Milon, the college had one building for the older pupils, one for the middle and one for the youngest.
This is a complete page-turner of a book; once the fear of the oncoming storm turns into a flood, and the flood becomes real, and threatening, Berna never lets up the action-packed narration, gaining suspense and excitement from the intense detail of every stage of fighting the rising tide, and from all the main characters’ viewpoints. The book shows how, when danger is imminent, petty arguments and jealousies are cast aside in the more important issue of survival. Boys and adults work hand in hand as a team to combat the flood waters, each relying on the other to be brave, make innovative decisions and to go beyond whatever they’ve experienced before. The disaster is a great leveller, and as the book progresses, the status difference between masters and pupils becomes less relevant and less noticeable. It’s only when there is a return to some kind of status quo at the end, that the old structure begins to come back.
Flood Warning gives us Berna’s most interesting adult yet. He’s not a parent, he’s not a policeman and he’s not a villain. He is a teacher, whom we first meet truly struggling with his job. Monsieur Sala is an intellectual, and does not possess the ruthless skills to keep order in class, a weakness of which the naughtier and more reckless boys take great advantage. Brossay, the headmaster, is having to fire him for being truly useless at the job; and Sala looks bitterly on the ringleader of the bad boys, Chomel, as a truly evil influence – not only is he making his life a misery, he’s making him lose his job and his accommodation. As schoolkids, the emotional harassment that playing-up and misbehaving can have on a teacher who lacks that hard edge simply never occurs to us. It’s just a laugh, an excuse to play around. However, Berna openly reveals the extent to which Sala is upset and disturbed by the way he is treated. Nevertheless, cometh the hour, cometh the man; Sala blossoms into a hero, rising to the challenges of survival against the floods.
His ascendancy is matched by that of the senior boy Vignoles, a Frederick-type character (see above) who has been a fish out of water for many years but finally finds a role for himself. Five years before the story starts, Vignoles had been deposited at the school by his father, who was too busy with business to look after his son. The boy was taken in by the Brossay family and looked after. But he never felt like he was at home, and he resented the abandonment, constantly dreaming up ways to escape. Like Frederick, he lacks a guiding father figure, and has to make his own way as best he can.
It’s not until he starts volunteering to help protect the school against the rains that he finally starts to feel an affection for his surroundings. “”The seniors are itching to help,” Vignoles answered. Monsieur Brossay was struck by the feeling behind the boy’s words. “I thought you didn’t like Château-Milon,” he said gently. “I’ve changed my mind since last night,” Vignoles retorted in his most icy tones. Monsieur Brossay did not press him. Despite the fact that he had been treated as one of the headmaster’s family during the long time he had been there, Vignoles had remained almost a stranger to him, enclosed in a wall of introspection which resisted all approaches.”
When the floods are worsening, and their situation becomes more desperate, Vignoles opens up to Sala, who is now, also, beginning to find his feet. “It’s taken me six years to realise what the school means to each one of us; safety, order, a breathing-space before we go out into the world, a place where we can be happy, study and learn how to live with other people. When I came, I had the bad luck to play up to the wrong set and win the disapproval of the decent sorts. But that’s all over and done with and I need my friends around me as much as the air I breathe.”
It’s fascinating to read how differently the senior boys are treated (and indeed look after themselves) at a French school as opposed to a British equivalent at the time. For example, the senior boys drink cider with dinner – can you imagine that in Enid Blyton?! Charpenne smokes in bed. Nor do you get the impression that these are moments of “naughty” behaviour; they are merely symptomatic of how much more adult French boys were treated than British. As a curious aside, Charpenne has to reuse old drawings to create new ones – because “paper was scarce” – was this a continued post-war shortage?
Like The Mystery of the Cross Eyed Man, this is another book full of real locations. The actions of the book are all centred on the area around Angers on the Loire, and the river Authion, a tributary, on the broad plains of Anjou. The Day Boys go home to La Bohalle. The nearest explosives factory is said to be “fifty or sixty miles away, near Châtellerault.” Local areas under water include Belle-Noue and La Ménitré. The airfield, to which some of the boys are eventually evacuated, is at Avrillé. You can plot virtually all of the locations mentioned in the book easily against a map.
As always with Berna, the book is littered with beautiful language and evocative passages. For example: after that first, ominous, puff of wind: “Vignoles looked up. The last dead leaves were raining down from the tall plane trees, revolving slowly like a swarm of butterflies as they were caught in the light which streamed in bars of gold from the windows.” When the flood reaches its most dangerous height, “a muddy sea billowed down the drive, poured through the gate like a millrace, foamed against walls and trees, shivered windows and made matchwood of doors, and flooded gurgling into buildings.” When the wind causes the school bell to ring all by itself, it’s “mournfully ringing like the bell of a fogbound schooner.” Not only is the story full of exciting narrative, but there are constant opportunities to let Berna’s words – as deftly translated by Buchanan-Brown – wash over you.
Here’s my in-depth chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any more spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading! By the way – this is Paul Berna’s first children’s novel where the chapters don’t have individual titles.
Chapter One. It seems like a normal day at Château-Milon school. Headmaster M. Brossay is delivering his lesson, and the sixth form students are ignoring him. Muret is organising the school football team for their match against Cunault. Vignoles, the dreamer, stares out of the window, lost in the countryside and his thoughts of how to escape. Boisson de Chazelles, the Vicomte, is planning how he could get expelled, as he had done from all his previous schools. Guillon and Montaigu appear to be working but are in fact passing notes with the shock news “Rabbits’ Eggs has got the sack!” That’s their nickname for the kindly but ineffectual M. Sala. Apparently the rumour goes that the lout Chomel, together with the class clown Sardine, shut Mme Juillet (the cook)’s cats in his desk, and when he opened the desk they flew out much to his shock. Twenty-five children laughed their head off and Sala was driven to tears.
Meanwhile, Charpenne is drawing a picture of Brossay with a pimple on his nose. Charpenne is accustomed to writing love poems to Brossay’s daughter Edith, or rather adapting other writer’s poetry. However, Edith has been passing the poems on to Mme Juiliet – also an Edith! Next door, M. Lacour is teaching Maths to the Upper Fifth, one of whom, Jeantet, has the job of ringing the bell, Cunégonde, to signal the end of the lesson.
Muret and his friend Lalande go off for football practice. Guillon and Montaigu try to work out if there is anything they can do about Sala. Vignoles talks to M. Juillet, who warns that rain is coming from Biarritz. Meanwhile, a mix up means that Edith Brossay gets to see Charpenne’s portrait of her father than his love poetry. Although he sees the joke, Brossay writes on the portrait “my congratulations to the artist […] take 8 hours detention.”
Later Brossay confirms to Sala that his inability to hold discipline can no longer continue. He is to leave the school in a couple of days’ time. It will be a blessing for the awkward Sala. Brossay tells him “”none of the boys is really bad at heart and even the worst, I’m sure, are already sorry for the harm they have done you.” Monsieur Sala nodded politely. He thought otherwise, To him, Chomel was evil personified. Nothing he could do had been able to soften the boy’s natural unpleasantness or remove his ridiculous grudge against the timid little schoolmaster imprisoned in his own shyness.”
But it’s as the children are teasing him one last time that evening, that the noise from the howling wind picks up and blows open and breaks one of the windows. “Incisively Monsieur Sala rose from his desk. He could not explain it, but the wildness of the night had sparked in him, for the first time in his life, a terrible courage. He banged the window shut and turned to the astonished boys. “Back to work all of you! Anyone how moves or makes a sound will be in trouble!” Chomel challenges him by not moving. Sala has the last word of the chapter: “Monsieur Chomel […] you are very big, and very nasty, and your nastiness seems to have attracted the worst elements in the form. But there is many a slip between cup and lip, and so do not be too sure that I shall leave this school before you do.”
Chapter Two. When Jeantet sounds Cunégonde at 7 pm, and all the external lights go on, they realise just how the wind has torn all the leaves from the branches. Over dinner, the extraordinary wind is the talk on everyone’s lips, both boys and masters. It doesn’t prevent the hungry Picard from enjoying his “cannon-balls” (one of Mme Juillet’s heartiest dishes) – finishing off everyone’s left-overs, he eats 16 of them!
Chomel and Sardine plan to let off a few more “thunder-flashes” that evening to scare M. Sala. But in the meantime, Messieurs Boris and Sala decide to work together to round up the juniors before bedtime. Boris is sad that Sala will be leaving. Sala tells him of his plans, to return to his parents’ house in Savoy for two weeks’ rest and recuperation, after which he’ll attempt some coaching, maybe at the University of Grenoble.
With the boys safely all in bed, Sala turns his attention to his books and his card indexes. He doesn’t hear the whispering Chomel and Sardine, placing the thunderflashes outside his door, with a fuse leading to Chomel’s bed. However, unknown to them, Kiki Dubourg and little Jozas have their own plans to protect Sala, without spoiling the fun of the explosion – they reposition the flashes under Chomel’s bed! He still has the fuse, but has no idea that it will be his posterior that will be attacked. Meanwhile, in La Vallière, the senior house, Vignoles, Charpenne and Boisson de Chazelles all go up to the bedroom they share. Vignoles cannot sleep, worried about the weather. At the same time that he gets up to look out of the window, M. Sala puts out his light, which is Chomel’s cue to start timing the fuse. Sala, meanwhile, has a nightmare involving angry animals, one of which looks like Chomel. But in reality, one of the juniors’ dormitory windows had blown in. “Outside the gale burst its bonds. Its first shock fell upon Château-Milon with a noise like thunder. Driven before it, a hail of flying débris battered the walls and roofs with a ceaseless rattle.”
Sala goes to check, but at the same time another gust blows against Kiki’s bed, covering it with pieces of broken glass. The boy isn’t hurt, just terrified. He, Jozas, and another boy are moved to empty beds at the other end of the dormitory. However, on the first floor, a branch crashes through a window, “the wind howled through the hole, blowing in a rain of dead leaves, bits of straw and other garden refuse and filling the room with a choking cloud of dust.” Sala tells Martin and Desbois to watch guard. Outside, the wind had started Cunégonde the bell to sound all by itself, “mournfully ringing like the bell of a fogbound schooner.” Boris and Lacour make their way outside but the wind is perilously dangerous, picking up bits of fencing and hurling it everywhere. They’re joined by Brossay, Juillet and the Trévidic brothers. The men all tried to board up the windows with planks and nails, whilst the wind continues to hiss and bring down trees. With the damage mitigated, the order is to go back to bed and they’ll assess the ruins in the morning.
Chomel, meanwhile, is terrified about his thunderflashes. He prays that somehow the fuse had burned out. But at that very moment…. Bang! “A shattering explosion lifted his mattress and deposited him on the floor, gasping like a fish out of water. The gale which raged outside was drowned in a roar of laughter. Chomel was a pitiable sight as in his crumpled pyjamas he got unsteadily to his feet and gaped, green with fright, at Monsieur Brossay, Monsieur Sala, Monsieur Boris and Monsieur Lacour, who were ranged like judges behind the partition.” And for that, Chomel gets six whacks of the slipper, much to Sala’s vengeful delight.
At 1 am comes the first power cut. The wind has started to die down, only to be replaced by rain, “unbroken heavy, steady, filling the countryside with the dull roar of a waterfall.” The next morning they could all see what had happened out there. The boys get soaked, just getting to breakfast. At least Charpenne doesn’t have to spend his detention alone. Never have so many attended one of Father Fabien’s Sunday masses. But it carries on raining, until just before supper, when the gale starts up again. Sala, meanwhile, spends Sunday packing his cases for his Monday departure.
On Monday morning there is another power cut, but life has to carry on. Sala wonders if Brossay might relent and withdraw his dismissal, but Juillet’s car is there waiting to take him to the station. He leaves with minimum farewells and off they drive. But shortly they return, as the road is completely under water! As everyone else gets on with their day, Sala stands “at the foot of the steps, like a piece of jetsam, firmly holding a suitcase in each hand. His thin face and enormous glasses were lost below his rain-soaked hat. “What shall I do?” he asked bewilderedly.” “Stay, of course! That’s all you can do,“ Monsieur Brossay went on impatiently. “We’ll see later…””
Chapter Three. Sala returns to his desk but with new-found confidence, “and the conviction that crises can sometimes be to the advantage of the weak and the despised.” The masters listening to the radio weather forecasts are annoyed that the announcer concentrates on Nantes and ignores the low-lying countryside. The announcement does confirm, however, difficulties in communication in the environs of the school. The day boys are not able to get in, nor can Edith return to her boarding school in Nantes. “At seventeen, it was fun to be thrown into something that smacked of adventure with plenty of males to share it.”
Vignoles reports that the Authion has flooded over the football pitch. He offers to help as much as he can – also promising the help of the other seniors – and Brossay is impressed at how the boy seems to be finally feeling at home. First job is to dig up the basketball pitch in order to fill sandbags to dam the breach of the garden gate. A watch is organised to keep an eye on the water level. Over lunch, everyone talks animatedly – and Sala confirms that the juniors – confined to the house – are behaving themselves, all reading The Three Musketeers together; even Chomel! Sala confesses he’d sooner be helping with the practical work; M. Boris assures him he soon will. At that point comes the third power cut – and the last; there would be no restitution of electricity to Château-Milon.
Vignoles tells M. Brossay that the dam will need to be raised by three feet to stop the water flooding up to the back door by the morning. Juniors and seniors work together to get the job done. But everyone is quietly worried for their safety. M. Juillet fears that they’re in for a repeat of the great floods of 1820, where the top of the Mérovée Tower was the only man-made structure visible. “If Monsieur Brossay let you boys inside the ruin I could show you a funny sort of calendar cut into one of the roof beams. Mérovée, his wife and his man were cut off by the floods and spent a week perched up among the beams and cog-wheels with only a pair of owls and a dozen rats for company.” Meanwhile, Charpenne dreams that life at Château-Milon had turned into a scene from Morte d’Arthur – he was Lancelot and he writes a poem to Edith, who, as Guinevere, was busily helping out with even the most unpleasant tasks.
Vignoles advises that the Authion has only risen an inch or two in the last three hours; but Brossay informs everyone what he has heard on the news, that thousands of homes in the area are in danger, and the Civil Defence volunteers are overwhelmed by calls for help. Further plans are drawn up to keep guard over all the buildings. This includes partnering up two people of balanced strength, usually one master with one student. Once the pairs have been selected, Vignoles is left without a partner. Would M. Sala step up to the challenge? Of course he will. Vignoles and Sala have the 2am – 4am watch, and Vignoles advises Sala that he is certain something is going to happen tonight. “I know I’ve never seen a flood before, but when you’ve watched every detail of a disaster there are some signs which are unmistakable. One thing alone could have saved this corner of the valley, if the weather had cleared at lunchtime and the rain had stopped. It’s too late now. Nothing can hold back the floods.”
Chapter Four. That evening the senior boys speculate as to how the water levels might change overnight – interspersed with laughs about Father Fabien’s stories, and Hubert Boisson de Chazelles’ prissy behaviour. Just before midnight the sky is lit up with red flashes. “The troops are blowing a quarter-mile gap in the embankment. The floods from the Authion are threatening Angers.”
It’s time for Vignoles and M. Sala to go on watch. The diminutive Sala is almost completely hidden by his oilskin raincoat. Brossay, Juillet and Father Fabien discuss the conditions – Brossay notes that his telephone line to the town hall at Longué went dead at the end of their conversation. Sala and Vignoles go off with their instructions. They meet M. Boris at the top of a ladder who informs them that Muret is patrolling the walls, as cracks have been appearing. Boris warns Vignoles that he must stay away from the flood waters, no matter what.
As Vignoles and Sala talk, both of them open up about their feelings – especially Vignoles, who explains that the flood has been a shot in the arm to make him come to his senses. When they realise that the battle against the water is lost, Sala goes to tell Brossay whilst Vignoles keeps further watch. Brossay tells Sala that everyone should go back into their houses – no one is to remain outside. But just as Sala approaches Vignoles to tell him to leave, “there was a dull crash and then the drumming of the rain was drowned by a roaring which increased in volume and came from behind the trees.” Going off to investigate, the water cascades over the garden wall, and Sala throws himself against the sandbags, trying to hold back the flood. Vignoles manages to grab Sala from the sandbags as they both flee for their lives, whilst a wave, ten feet high, pursues them. But they manage to escape to their houses, and in a moment of surprising calm, Boisson de Chazelles takes Sala a cocoa – and they end up playing chess all night long.
A brief respite the following morning allows for a council of war. Fabien and Juillet are in favour of an evacuation; Boris rejects this because of its impracticality. Brossay considers both arguments, but Fabien insists: “there should be one motive behind your decision: we have been entrusted with forty children and we are responsible for their safety. No one will blame you if you have been overscrupulous of that. We must go, and go as soon as we can!” Brossay asks Sala’s advice. Sala agrees with Fabien – his experience of the previous night has convinced him of the danger they are in.
So everyone is bustled into Brossay’s vehicles and driven towards the Arcy Woods – taking several perilous journeys. But the last car doesn’t return. “A muddy sea billowed down the drive, poured through the gate like a millrace, foamed against walls and trees, shivered windows and made matchwood of doors, and flooded gurgling into buildings.” With no knowledge of what has happened, Sala gets everyone left behind to go upstairs – Vignoles, Picard, Charpenne, Boisson de Chazelles, Job Trévidic, Sala himself and… the pathetic Chomel, who cried that no one wanted him to go with them. Meanwhile, the water laps against the foot of the staircase.
Chapter Five. The seven look after themselves the best they can. Yes, they are cold, but they have food, and no concern that the building could collapse. Vignoles and Sala exercise their influence to calm down arguments. Vignoles’ chief fear is that the disaster of 1820 is about to recur. Sala quietly proposes to Vignoles and Charpenne that they should build rafts and sail towards the high land behind Longué. They use bed frames, chair seats, planks and such like to build the first raft. For the second, they adapt the hot water tanks in the bathroom. Vignoles and Sala propose waiting until morning to make their escape, but the others call it cowardice.
However, they also discover two strong ladders, and it occurs to them to use them to cross the virtual bay outside and reach the mill, where they’ll be much safer. Disagreements over what to do turn into a fight, with Charpenne attacking Chomel and Boisson de Chazelles disowning Vignoles as a friend. Nevertheless, the ladder bridge is constructed, and one by one they cross over into the mill – until it’s Chomel’s turn. The bully is nowhere to be seen until he is found hiding under a bed. Vignoles and Chomel get across just in time before the flood engulfs the dormitory. In the mill, they discover the calendar that M. Juillet had mentioned.
They are all able, finally, to sleep. Vignoles awakes from his dream hearing a knocking sensation. It’s the rising water level. They have to ascend another ten feet. Once again they rest, but Chomel can’t stop crying. VIgnoles tells him to forget his past, “you’re a different person now.” With relief, they notice the rain stops; the levels start to fall. “Boisson de Chazelles saw the red canoe first. It floated along on a slight current, upside down, and straight for Mérovée’s Tower.
Chapter Six. Using plaited sheets, Boisson de Chazelles climbs down to the water level, stops the canoe in its tracks, upends it, tests its sturdiness, and proves he’s a natural when it comes to manoeuvring canoes! After a discussion as to who should be the first to be evacuated, Chomel also gets on board and the two of them set off for the Arcy Woods, where they can make contact with M. Brossay. The others, unexpectedly think they’re going to be rescued when a launch appears noisily out of the fog; but it’s packed with other survivors and drives off past them, apparently not noticing their frantic shouts for attention.
Meanwhile Boisson de Chazelles and Chomel are heading towards the wood, when they discover a helpful signpost peeping out above the water level, proving they’re on the right course. Eventually they see a number of cars parked, including those from the school – but not a soul in sight. Eventually they spot Brossay and creep up on him, startling him with delight. Relieved that everyone is accounted for, Brossay explains their treacherous journey.
Brossay is horrified that Boisson de Chazelles intends to turn back and get the others – threatening him with expulsion if he refuses to stay. But he sets off anyway, and gets back to the Tower without too much difficulty. This time Sala insists that the canoe hero stays in the tower, but instead he takes Trévidic and Charpenne on board and heads back to the woods. However, something is wrong. Somehow they get caught in the mainstream of the Loire, and they miss the woods completely. As the canoe heads for a cross current with tree trunks and brushwood, they paddle furiously to escape the danger. They survive this disaster, but Boisson de Chazelles is exhausted. The others take control as he drifts off into oblivion. And next thing they know – they’ve arrived in the outskirts of Angers!
Rescued by the police, Boisson de Chazelles tells them as best he can of the numbers and location of the people bivouacked in the Arcy Woods, plus those remaining at the Mérovée Tower. The weather is expected to clear in half an hour!
Chapter Seven. Meanwhile, Sala is concerned that the canoe didn’t return, but satisfies himself with the thought that they must have stayed with Brossay. Vignoles is not so certain. When “the Vicomte” first arrived at the school he kept on finding ways to escape. He’s not the kind of person who would stay in the woods. They comfort themselves with opening a tin of sardines, and sleep eventually takes over.
They awaken to the beautiful sight of the fog clearing and their new water-filled environment surrounding them. Many more vessels are now driving past; they hope that their rescue will come soon. Helicopters appear, picking up and dropping down the rescued, creating beautiful patterns in the sky. But none of them comes to the Tower. Sala has the great idea to use the discarded sardine tins as mirrors, flashing the reflected sunlight into the sky, so that the pilots can see them.
And it works! Eventually a helicopter hovers over the tower, lets a nylon ladder down, and Picard is the first to depart. Sala insists that when the helicopter returns, Vignoles will be next to be evacuated. Sala has a moment of pure self-discovery. “Monsieur Sala was quite bewildered. Kant now seemed an old driveller and his Critique of Pure Reason a mass of nonsense. “Good gracious, that’s right, my thesis is a monumental blunder!” the little man thought frankly to himself. “There’s plenty of other things for a keen observant brain: all you need do is keep your eyes open to the world around.” At this very moment, he thought, men overwhelmed by a great disaster had not been left to perish. In one night their suffering had awakened the sympathy of an entire nation, a sympathy expressed alike in the smallest as in the most heroic service. This fight to the death against the misfortunes of others was indeed the only war worth waging nowadays.”
Vignoles is rescued and taken to the airfield at Avrillé. There he is given a number, to find a bus that will take him to join the rest of his schoolmates, in Château-Gontier. Picard is waiting for him. The helicopter returns for Sala, but the bus cannot wait for him – there will be more buses later that Sala can catch. Brossay is there to meet the buses, and his thoughts are a mixture of relief and how he can best describe the bravery of his boys and staff as a future marketing ploy!
Picard and Vignoles reflect on how the experience of the past few days has changed people. Brossay couldn’t wait to get rid of Sala, but now is waiting to welcome him back as a hero. Vignoles himself admits “a couple of days ago I couldn’t have cared less about Chomel, and yet when we had to get out of La Vallière in a hurry, I was more worried about saving the idiot’s life than I was about my own.”
At the makeshift school, everything quickly goes back to normal. Only one thing – person – is missing. Sala wasn’t there when the helicopter returned for him. There’s no trace of him having been rescued by anyone else. What can have happened?
Chapter Eight. A few hours later, the Loire starts behaving again; after three days, the Authion returns to its normal course. Brossay arranges for all his pupils to be sent home. His wife and daughter go off to Nantes, leaving just the Juillets, the Trévidics, and Vignoles, who is determined to see in the return to Château-Milon. It would be six days before that was possible. And there is still no news of Sala.
When Brossay finally reaches the old school, all he could see was wreckage. Until he sees a figure leaning out of a skylight. It’s Sala! He’d been locked in the Tower all this time, and he didn’t want to try to break the door down, because “the school’s suffered enough damage as it is.” Sala confesses he wasn’t picked up by the helicopter because – he had lost his glasses! He’d had an accident with the cogwheel, and when he came to, his glasses were missing – and without them on, he couldn’t find them! He knew he would be a danger to himself and others if he attempted the evacuation without them, so he pretended to be dead. But all’s well that ends well!
Exploring the wreckage, Brossay determines that the school will reopen for the summer term. One by one, the masters return over the next fortnight; whilst Sala takes up the manuscripts for his thesis, Modern Survivals of Kantian thought, and throws them on the bonfire burning all the other wreckage. He also sacrifices his copy of Critique of Pure Reason.
Come February, it’s Vignoles who’s accompanying Edith around the estate, showing her the work in progress. She confides that only thirty pupils have committed to returning, but Vignoles is convinced more will follow. As they walk, they realise how they have both changed – particularly Vignoles. ““You’ve been here six years,” the girl went on, “and I can remember times when we didn’t say a word to one another for months on end. And yet you were one of the family; Father told you that often enough.” “I know,” Vignoles answered, “but I had to go through all this to realise what he meant.” They walked off hand in hand to see how the kitchen garden was doing. “I’ll end up cutting my best friend out,” thought Vignoles when they came back from their stroll. He appreciated the irony of the situation.”
The first day of the summer term finally dawns. Masters are dressed in their Sunday Best; vehicles await at the local stations to pick boys up to take them to the school. Vignoles feels more at home than ever before. Sala greets the juniors and takes them to the dormitory – and confronts the returning Chomel. “Are you proposing to go on ragging me this term? […] If it’s something you can’t help, if it’s vital to your physical wellbeing, you’ve only to tell me now and we’ll come to some arrangement.” “Oh no, sir! Never, sir!”
Eventually Vignoles’ closest friends arrive; first Picard and Charpenne, and then finally, out of the blue, Hubert Boisson de Chazelles, still full of arrogant cheek. Everyone who was expected to return, has returned, plus a few more. Brossay reflects: “the peril which they had surmounted together had changed them all. It had revealed unexpected strength of character, it had dissolved foolish enmities, it had strengthened the ties of friendship, it had cured the selfish and stirred the sluggards.”
The book ends by considering the future for all the major characters. “In a matter of hours Vignoles had learned to love a school where he had so long rejected the family life that had been offered to him. The butterfly Charpenne had realised that real feeling is expressed not in plagiarised sonnets but in the anxiety felt for someone dear to you. The appalling Chomel had in one night of peril cast off his old stupid and mischief-making self. That rolling stone Hubert Boisson de Chazelles had at last realised that team spirit counted for more than rank or wealth and that one unselfish action did more to inspire true comradeship than weeks of showing off. In short, every one of the boys, from tiny Kiki Dubourg to gigantic Picard, had come in his own way through the ordeal. Not one had failed. Through them and for them their school had survived the floods and recovered its physical and spiritual being.
And this was just as true of the amazing Monsieur Sala. That night, as he crossed from La Vallière to Mérovée’s Tower on two shaky ladders, he had shed his shyness and made sure that, despite his disastrous beginning, he would find in Château-Milon the haven of sympathetic security best suited to his unpretentious, scholarly way of life.”
To sum up; this is a thrilling adventure mixed in with some enlightening personal development journeys. The fearful rise up and take command, and the bullies cower (as they always do when threatened.) This should be a much better known book than it is – because it’s definitely one of Berna’s best. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Bout du monde, which wasn’t translated until ten years later in 1971, as Gaby and the New Money Fraud, but as we’re taking Berna’s books in the order he wrote them, rather than the year they were published in English, we’ll take that book next. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.
Having enjoyed the first two of these free online Sunday night gigs there didn’t seem much point not booking for the third one! And it was a very wise choice, as this was *possibly* the funniest of the three. This time Sally-Anne Hayward was in the MC Hot Seat – we’ve seen her many times before and she’s always incredibly funny. She kept last night’s show going at a terrific pace, and also chipped in with loads of great material; we particularly enjoyed her observations on Morris Dancing!
The running list featured five comics, although that’s slightly misleading, more of which later. But first up was Alexis Dubus, new to me, a delightfully dour presence with a hangdog expression that belies some ace observations and a penchant for extremely funny comic poems. He offers a great line in comically mixing up two totally different but similarly sounding words – sometimes it elicits a groan from the audience but it’s always very funny. I particularly liked the punchline of his Wookey Hole poem. We’d definitely like to see him for real sometime when we’re all allowed! This wouldn’t be last we’d see of Mr Dubus that evening.
Next up was Josh Pugh, whom we saw only last October at a Comedy Crate gig – how long ago that feels now! And once again, he’s full of brilliant and quirky observations about lockdown life, relationships and everything else. I particularly enjoyed his ideas of why he wouldn’t want to be Prime Minister and why he’s useless at bedroom role play. He uses his quiet, unassuming persona to great surprise effect, and his time went very quickly.
Then we welcomed James Dowdeswell, a Frequent Flyer at Screaming Blue Murder gigs of old, a master of the self-deprecation gag, and with great recognisable observations about subtle class distinctions – I loved the “two pints of lager” gag revisited in a craft beer environment. His relaxed style works very well for the intimacy of a zoom gig and he was fantastic as usual.
Our fourth act was, also new to us, the fabulously French and superbly sarcastic Marcel Lucont; also known as the alter-ego of Mr Dubus, whom we met earlier. As laconic as his name would suggest, he derides everything that isn’t French or has French aspirations. He also has a fantastically French sex life, for which social distancing doesn’t prove too much of a problem, has a wonderful sequence about discovering that your partner is a Covid denier, gave us a fine poem about stupid people, and ended with some of his Imbible material – discussing the problems that arise from Jesus turning water into wine. I was laughing pretty much hysterically all the way through.
Finally we welcomed Mark Simmons, whom we saw on this very online gig only two weeks ago, and I wondered if we would get a repeat of some of the material. I should have known better from Mr Simmons – he told us he had thirty new jokes to crack through and work out which ones worked and which didn’t. With a couple of notable exceptions, they were all up to the usual Simmons Standard! Our favourites included the diabetic ginger cake and his girlfriend’s request for how he could improve his sexual performance. It was a totally top notch way to end the show.
Same again next week? Oh go on then. Book here – it’s still free!
Dance Bites – The Royal Ballet at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 19th March 1996
Over a few years the Royal Ballet did a mini tour every Spring to certain selected theatres – and because the Wycombe Swan was managed by the balletomane Stuart Griffiths (who went on to manage Dance Consortium, amongst other ventures), our local theatre was always amongst the first to get good contemporary and classical dance. So Dance Bites became a regular show until the 1999 season. Never before had we seen such well known and well regarded classical dancers. The programme started with Signed in Red, choreographed by Emma Diamond, which included Deborah Bull, Adam Cooper and William Trevitt (of Balletboyz fame) amongst its line-up. Then we had the world premiere of Ashley Page’s Sleeping with Audrey, music composed by Orlando Gough, which I remember being thoroughly unusual, Souvenir, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, Odalisque choreographed by Tom Sapsford, a pas de deux by Ashley Page entitled …Now Languorous, Now Wild…, danced by Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope – a real crowdpleaser casting there, and finally William Forsythe’s Steptext, danced by Deborah Bull, Adam Cooper, Tetsuya Kumakawa and Matthew Dibble. Truly a night to remember.
Swan Lake – Adventures in Motion Pictures at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 30th March 1996
Matthew Bourne’s ground-breaking production of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece is still packing them in in theatres all around the world (that is, when theatres all around the world are allowed to reopen). It had opened at Sadlers’ Wells the previous November, and we saw it on one of its very first out-of-town performances, a Saturday matinee in High Wycombe. For me, this is the most impressive dance production I’ve ever seen – and I’ve gone back to it again and again over the intervening decades. Perhaps because this was our first time, we still look back on this production as featuring the dream team of casts: Scott Ambler as The Prince, Will Kemp as the Swan, Fiona Chadwick as the Queen, Emily Piercey as The Girlfriend and Barry Atkinson as the Press Secretary. If you haven’t seen it – mark it down in your diaries as soon as theatres come back to life. The Original and Best.
Dial M for Murder – Mobil Touring Theatre at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 13th April 1996
Frederick Knott’s classic thriller was given a smart and stylish production with Peter Davison and Catherine Rabett as Tony and Sheila Wendice. Best known as the Hitchcock film starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly, it’s an intriguing story that goes to prove that the perfect murder just doesn’t exist. Very enjoyable.
English National Ballet – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 24th May 1996
I have to confess that I remember very little of this programme of dance from the English National Ballet. I can see from the list of dancers that it featured Principal Dancer Josephine Jewkes, Senior Soloists Angela De Mello and Kevin Richmond, and Soloists Rebecca Sewell and Paul Lewis. The programme was Mauro Bigonzetti’s Symphonic Dances, Kenneth Macmillan’s My Brother, My Sisters, and David Lichine’s Graduation Ball. I’m sure it was all terrific. But I can’t remember a thing about it.
Victoria Wood on Tour – Apollo Theatre, Oxford, 25th June 1996
At the time, you probably couldn’t have gone to a more on-trend and must-see comedy show than Victoria Wood’s tour, when she was at her height of creativity. She knew exactly what her fans wanted – a mixture of old and new, so there was plenty of fresh stand-up, but still time for The Ballad of Freda and Barry and other old gems. Demand for tickets was very high and all we could get were two seats right at the very far end of the second row. It was great to be there; but I think I remember coming away with the idea that she was better on TV.
I Have Been Here Before – Middle Ground Theatre at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 29th June 1996
I remember that this show was booked for just half a week at the Swan – from the Thursday to the Saturday, so they couldn’t have been confident that it would have attracted those early to midweek bums on seats. One of J B Priestley’s more mysterious Time Plays, I remember it being absolutely gripping, and a thoroughly decent production to boot. Starring Nicholas Smith (Are You Being Served’s Mr Rumbold) and Frederick Pyne (Emmerdale Farm’s Matt Skilbeck) and directed by David Kelsey, Artistic Director of Middle Ground Theatre Company, who sadly died during the play’s tour.
Barnum – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 12th July 1996
Breaking my rule about not including shows in these blog posts that I had already seen, this production of Cy Coleman, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s fantastic musical was notable for a few reasons. I think it was the first national tour of this show since it left the Palladium years previously; secondly, it drew very little attention from audiences and critics alike; thirdly it was also directed by the late David Kelsey who had died during the tour of both this show and the one I’ve just written about above ; and fourthly it starred a big name on TV at the time, game show host Andrew O’Connor, who was surprisingly superb in the role. I really enjoyed it – and was shocked at how few people there were in the audience on a Friday night!
There’s a Girl in my Soup – Apollo Theatre, Oxford, 27th July 1996
Continuing to break my rule about not including shows in these blog posts that I had already seen, I was so excited at the prospect of a revival of Terence Frisby’s 60s smash hit that I had seen as a little kid and loved every minute of. So I was massively disappointed – but really shouldn’t have been surprised – that the touring production which we saw in the enormous Apollo Theatre Oxford on a Saturday matinee had one of the tiniest audiences I’ve ever seen. Whether it was the casting – with Love Thy Neighbour’s Jack Smethurst as Andrew (at a time when everyone believed that the content of that show was no longer something to be proud of) or whether it was just that the Swinging Sixties were an outdated concept, I don’t know. Despite them closing the circle and asking everyone in the Stalls to bunch up into the front five rows, this production had no hope of raising the tiniest of laughs and it was an embarrassment to be there. Not because it was bad, because it wasn’t. But because it was just wrong. I felt very sorry for Mr Smethurst – he was hoist by his own petard by being so good in Love Thy Neighbour that the general public couldn’t see that he was in fact an actor, rather than that bigoted character.
High Society – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 20th September 1996
Moving past that year’s offering at the Pendley Festival – The Merchant of Venice – our next show was a production of Cole Porter’s so-called champagne musical, High Society, which we saw with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle as we thought it would be her kind of thing. The musical version of the successful film, The Philadelphia Story, this excellent production was enormous fun, boasting a splendid cast including Tracey Childs, Michael Howe, Roland Curram and the one and only Miss Jackie Trent. We all had a swell party.
Rambert Dance Company Autumn Tour – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 10th October 1996
At a time when we simply couldn’t get enough Rambert, this was another superb programme. First was Christopher Bruce’s Moonshine, set to the music of Bob Dylan, and danced by Didy Veldman, Christopher Powney, Steven Brett and Sheron Wray. Next came the world premiere of Kim Brandstrup’s Eidolon, with Laurent Cavanna, Sarah Warsop, Simon Cooper, Daniel de Bourg, Rafael Bonachela, Patricia Hines, Elizabeth Old, Fabrice Serafino and Didy Veldman. After another interval it was Veldman’s own Kol Simcha, with the cast including Paul Liburd, Simon Cooper and Rafael Bonachela. Such great names, and such great performances.
A selection of five short stories, five with Hercule Poirot and one with Miss Marple, solving a miscellany of crimes. Of course, the usual rules apply; if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I shan’t spoil the surprise of any of the six revelations!
The book was first published in the UK on 24th October 1960; however, this particular selection was not published in the US. The stories had all been individually published previously in magazine format, two of them re-written and expanded versions of the originals. The book doesn’t begin with the usual dedication, but rather a foreword where Christie remembers the Christmases of her childhood, staying with her brother-in-law at Abney Hall, previously the inspiration for the settings of The Secret of Chimneys and After the Funeral. At the end of the foreword she dedicates the book “to the memory of Abney Hall – its kindness and its hospitality.” And you can certainly recognise Christie’s account of her own Christmassy fun in the antics of the fictional children Colin, Michael and Bridget, in the first story, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which we’ll look at first!
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
This is an expanded version of the story of the same name which appeared in The Sketch magazine on 12 December 1923 – so it took 37 years to get from stage one to stage two! It would first appear in the US in 1961 in the collection Double Sin and Other Stories (this collection not published in the UK) under the title The Theft of the Royal Ruby. Poirot is invited to the grand old house Kings Lacey, ostensibly to celebrate a traditional English Christmas with a traditional English family, but it is a front for him to investigate the disappearance of a priceless ruby, stolen from an eastern prince whilst sowing one last wild oat before committing to marriage.
It’s an entertaining little tale, with some interesting characters, and sense of fun; but I felt the two separate threads of the theft and the traditional Christmas didn’t sit particularly comfortably with each other, and for a long time you’re wondering how on earth Kings Lacey could possibly hold the key to solving the crime. There’s a nice piece of double-crossing by Poirot, as well as the occasional connection with a couple of other Christie books – the murder game in Dead Man’s Folly springs to mind. Whilst we know that Abney Hall was in Cheshire, the location of Kings Lacey is not mentioned, although the fictional town of Market Ledbury is close enough to go to the pub, and Desmond suggests leaving early and going on to Scarborough.
The story succeeds strongly in evoking the memories of long gone Christmases – especially the food. Mrs Lacey revels in continuing the traditions. “All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey – two turkeys, one boiled and one roast – and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it in it. We can’t have sixpences nowadays because they’re not pure silver any more. But all the old desserts, the Elvas plums and Carlsbad plums and almonds and raisins, and crystallized fruit and ginger. Dear me, I sound like a catalogue from Fortnum and Mason!” I confess I’d never heard of the tradition of the bachelor’s button; if a single man found it in his pudding, he would stay single for the following year. Similarly, the tradition of the spinster’s thimble, which is also mentioned in the book, and the ring, which indicated that you would get married during the course of the following year.
There are a few unmistakably Poirot/Christie observations and uses of language. Poirot is only convinced to go to Kings Lacey when he discovers there is central heating. Colonel Lacey gruffly disapproves of the Christmas invitation to Poirot: “can’t think why you want one of those damned foreigners here cluttering up Christmas? Why can’t we have him some other time? Can’t stick foreigners!” And twice Christie makes us smile with her use of the word “ejaculated”, as when the Colonel discovers the glass in his mouth.
The story includes one of Christie’s most famous sentences: “Mr Jesmond made a peculiar noise rather like a hen who has decided to lay an egg and then thought better of it.” I also loved the description of the old retainer Peverell; “he noticed nothing that he was not asked to notice”. And Poirot gives Mrs Ross, the cook, a five pound note as an expression of his gratitude. £5 in 1960 is worth £80 today, and at 1923, when the story was originally written, the equivalent would be over £200!
Overall, a decent little story. Not a classic, but not bad.
The Mystery of the Spanish Chest
This is an expanded version of the story The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest which appeared in the Strand Magazine in January 1932. In the US, the shorter version was published in the Ladies Home Journal in the same month and the expanded version appeared in the US in The Harlequin Tea Set (not a collection published in the UK) in 1997. Poirot’s attention is drawn to a case where a Major Rich has been accused of murdering a Mr Clayton, whose bloody body was discovered in an antique Spanish chest. Mrs Clayton is a friend of socialite Lady Chatterton who encourages Poirot to speak to her about the case, because she insists Rich is innocent. Poirot can’t resist but employ his little grey cells to get to the heart of the matter. This is a well-written, nicely crafted little tale, a detective novel in miniature, with clearly defined exposition, detection and denouement sections. On the face of it, only two people could possibly have committed the murder – neither of which is a satisfactory solution for Poirot; but, right at the end, he sees how there might be a third possibility.
The book features Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon, a terrifying creature with no imagination but boundless efficiency. It’s interesting that this story was published out of sequence in respect of Hickory Dickory Dock, which also includes Miss Lemon – but this time making mistakes, and also Miss Lemon’s sister, Mrs Hubbard. However, in The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, Miss Lemon’s sister in an unnamed lady who once bought a Spanish chest at a sale and keeps her linen in there. You don’t get the sense at all that they are the same person.
We are reminded of Poirot’s earlier inamorata, the exotic Russian Countess Vera Rossakoff, and of Poirot’s admiration for ladies with curves – unlike Miss Lemon, who’s treated in a rather sexist way by Christie. Mrs Clayton, it emerges, lives in Cardigan Gardens, precisely the same address as Harold Crackenthorpe in 4.50 from Paddington. It was obviously an address with which Christie felt comfortable! Lady Chatterton, however, lives in Cheriton Street, which sounds like it should be a fine London street, but is in fact a Christie invention.
We meet Inspector Miller, who’s in charge of the case; he’s described as “not one of Poirot’s favourites. He was not, however, hostile on this occasion, merely contemptuous.” Mrs Spence has a nice turn of phrase to describe Mrs Clayton: “she’s one of my best friends and I wouldn’t trust her an inch”. There’s an Othello motif to the story, which puts an interesting complexion on one’s own attempts to solve the crime before Poirot, plus there is the unusual situation in a Christie story where a servant is actually one of the chief suspects in the case. All this, plus a final denouement that reveals a clever and totally unexpected detective solution. I thought this was a cracking little story.
The Under Dog
This entertaining story was first published in the US in The Mystery Magazine in April 1926, and in the UK in The London Magazine in October 1926. Its first appearance in book form was in the UK in 2 New Crime Stories, published by The Reader’s Library in September 1929. Again, it would be more than thirty years before it was published as part of a wholly Christie collection. Bullying, angry Sir Reuben is found dead and his nephew is arrested for his murder. Sir Reuben’s widow, Lady Astwell is convinced they have arrested the wrong person and that his secretary is to blame. She hires Hercule Poirot to discover the truth.
This murder mystery in miniature contains everything you would expect from a full length work of detective fiction: lively characters, a full-scale denouement where the emphasis shifts from a pretend guilty party to the real one, unexpected motives and false clues. There’s also a surprisingly big hint from Christie in the name of the story – so try not to dwell on that if you haven’t read it yet!
The background structure to the story reminded me very strongly of that which precedes this one in the collection – The Mystery of the Spanish Chest – where one of the suspects hires Poirot to prove that one of the other suspects isn’t guilty. Indeed, we meet Inspector Miller again too, from that same story. There’s no love lost between him and Poirot. Poirot describes him: “he is what they call the sharp man, the ferret, the weasel.” Lady Astwell simply considers him “a bumptious idiot”. As for Miller, he “was not particularly fond of M. Hercule Poirot. He did not belong to that small band of inspectors at the Yard who welcomed the little Belgian’s cooperation. He was wont to say that Hercule Poirot was much overrated.” He clearly resents Poirot being brought into the case at the whim of Lady Astwell. “Of course, it is all right for you M. Poirot […] you get your fees just the same, and naturally you have to make a pretence of examining the evidence to satisfy her ladyship. I can understand all that.”
Poirot works with George his valet more than I have seen in any other of the stories so far. George, whom Christie describes as “an extremely English-looking person. Tall, cadaverous and unemotional” allows himself to be used by Poirot as a spy or as a dummy dead body; the relationship reminded me a little of that of Bunter to Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Poirot is particularly irritating in this story to the people around him, staying on longer than required, ostensibly making overwhelmingly thorough searches everywhere – but there is a method to his madness, as you can imagine. He calls on the assistance of a Dr Cazalet to run a hypnosis session on one of the suspects, which is nicely written and a thoroughly enjoyable diversion. His practice is at 384 Harley Street – in real life, Harley Street numbers don’t go that high.
At one point, Poirot makes use of a “thumbograph”, which was a book in which you kept the thumb print of someone you admired or were friends with – a little like an autograph book, but just for thumbs. I’d never heard of that before. The story is set in the fictional town of Abbots Cross – there is an Abbots Cross, but it’s in Northern Ireland, so it can’t be that one! And there is talk of a gold mine in Mpala; this is actually a wildlife reserve in Kenya.
There’s one sum of money that’s of interest – Victor accuses Poirot of hanging around so that he can continue to charge “several guineas a day”. One guinea in 1926 is worth an impressive £45 today; even so, Poirot’s charge out rate isn’t that expensive on the whole! And Christie gives us another of her hilarious comedy lines taken out of context. When Poirot is thinking deeply about a problem, then instantly comes out of his deep thoughts, she says “he came out of his brown study with a jerk”. That’s not a nice thing to say about someone!
A very good story – I’d say the best of the selection so far.
Four and Twenty Blackbirds
This little tale was first published in the US in November 1940 in Collier’s magazine and in the UK in the Strand Magazine in March 1941 under the title of Poirot and the Regular Customer. Christie describes this story as a sorbet in her introduction, but to be honest, it’s barely that; it’s a very slight tale and strikes you as a disappointment after the stronger stories that have preceded it. Poirot and a friend are dining at a restaurant, and remarking on how most diners – men at least – will always choose their same, favourite meals. But one day, an old man. who dines at the restaurant every Tuesday and Thursday, not only dines on a Monday but goes for completely different courses from his usual choice. Poirot smells a rat – and he’s right!
The London locations are all for real – the restaurant is on the Kings Road Chelsea, Mr Gascoigne lives on Kingston Hill; Dr Lorrimer lives on Dorset Road, which is in South East London rather than South West. Sadly there’s no such restaurant as the Gallant Endeavour, which is a terrific name for one. However, Augustus John dined there, and he was real enough!
Rather like The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, this story emphasises the importance of food, in particular, the importance that Poirot places on it – he’s never one to cut a course or not give it his full attention. It’s an interest that is associated with older men; women, it is decided, tend to like variety, whereas men don’t. The trouble with this story is that it relies on an extremely unlikely event that stretches credibility to the nth degree, and when you realise how the crime balances on that fact, you simply can’t take it seriously. The solution feels rushed, too. All in all, an unsatisfactory sorbet!
This story was first published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in February 1938. This curious tale starts a little uncertainly, then builds up to a very exciting detective section, when Poirot asks all the right questions and winkles out the truth – and then truth itself turns out to be a little disappointing, with a denouement not unlike that in the previous story, Four and Twenty Blackbirds. Poirot received a letter to visit the reclusive millionaire businessman Benedict Farley; and when he finally gets to meet the great man, Farley tells him of a recurring dream he has, where, at precisely the same time every day, he is required to take a revolver out of his desk drawer, load it, and shoot himself. Then he wakes up. Is this just a recurring nightmare, or something more sinister? Poirot does eventually get to the bottom of it all, but everything is not as it seems right from the start.
This is a difficult story to discuss without giving the whole game away; suffice to say that it is an enjoyable read, once it gets going; let down only by the fanciful ending. The case is handled by Inspector Barnett, “a discreet, soldierly-looking man” according to Christie, but his personality doesn’t shine through. Much more interesting is Dr Stillingfleet, a young doctor who looks after the Farley family, but was sidestepped when Farley appears to have consulted other doctors about his dream. Stillingfleet was mentioned in Sad Cypress, and will return in the much later Christie novel, Third Girl.
One or two interesting references; Stillingfleet wonders if Poirot would ever commit a crime. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case was probably written a few years later; I’ll say no more. Mrs and Miss Farley apparently went to see The Little Dog Laughed at the theatre on the night in question; there is a play of that name – but it wasn’t produced until 2006. And Miss Farley says that her inheritance in the event of her father’s death would be approximately a quarter of a million pounds – the rest going to her stepmother. £250,000 in 1938 would be approximately £10.5 million today – that’s quite a tidy sum.
All in all, not a bad story. I really wanted it to have a more satisfying ending. But the getting there is good!