Noel Coward’s Diaries edited by Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley

I have been reading 
The Noel Coward Diaries edited by Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley  (1982) and am nearly at the end of this large volume of over 650 pages. The diaries extend from 1941 (several years before my birth) to 1969 when Noel Coward was about to be knighted.
Cole Lesley and Noel Coward.

I found this a fascinating book which gave a clear view into Noel Coward’s busy and successful life. I dare say that he might have had a fair inkling that these diaries would be published after his death, but despite this, he did not pull any punches in what he said about people he met;  plays, films, concerts and operas he attended; and books he read.

He was a hard worker. He took roles in films and plays, performed in cabaret, and was always busy writing a new play or novel. He travelled extensively, and although he had many famous friends in theatre and royal circles, his inner circle of intimate friends was small and he remained loyal to them throughout his life – Cole Lesley, Graham Payne and Lorn Lorraine. The last-mentioned was his secretary and manager from 1924 until her death.

By the time his diary reached the nineteen-sixties his health was deteriorating. He was sad that Graham Payn was not making a success of his stage career and wrote a touching entry about Graham on 24 November 1966, “He has a loving and loyal heart and no future anywhere but with me… ”

I saw Noel Coward in his last West End performance in 1966 – Shadows of the Evening and Come into the Garden, Maud at the Queen’s Theatre. His co-stars were Irene Worth and Lilli Palmer. Apparently Irene Worth could do no wrong, while Lilli Palmer presented him with numerous irritating problems during the run of the play. I will always remember seeing a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce arriving at the stage door to fetch Noel Coward after his performance. He waved graciously at the hoi polloi as the car drove off.

Noel Coward died in 1973. On the day of his death, British tenor, Webster Booth was in East London directing The Mikado. He and I were having tea and cream scones at Marina Glen that afternoon and spoke of him.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the inner workings of the theatre. Noel Coward’s diary is beautifully written and gives fascinating insights into the theatre,  the critics, and the vagaries of a number of famous performers, by a multi-talented performer, writer, and composer who certainly deserved the title of The Master.

Jean Collen 17 January 2019

A VERY PRIVATE EYE: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters – BARBARA PYM

A Very Private Eye: The Diaries, Letters And Notebooks Of Barbara PymA Very Private Eye: The Diaries, Letters And Notebooks Of Barbara Pym by Barbara Pym

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have only recently discovered Barbara Pym’s novels so this book gave me an excellent insight into her life, her work and her friendships. I was very sorry that such an excellent writer should have had such a struggle to have her early novels published in the first place and after a steady acceptance of them in the fifties suddenly had An Unsuitable Attachment rejected by her regular publisher twelve years later. It took many years before she became a published author again although she continued to write her excellent novels in her spare time while working as assistant editor at the International African Institute.

It is very sad that her health deteriorated just at the time when her work was acknowledged by critics so that she only managed to enjoy a few years of the success she should have been enjoying during her entire literary career.

Jean Collen

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Front cover small-01Four years ago, I received a lovely letter about the book from a gentleman in Ireland. I share it with you  on the fourteenth anniversary of Anne’s death.He had recently read my book, Sweethearts of Song: A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth. He attached various photos of Penrhyn Bay, North Wales which he had taken during his trip. Ashampoo_Snap_2015.10.07_16h06m30s_002

  • Part of his note reads as follows:

  • “All thanks to you, I spent a really moving day rambling the highways and byways of Penrhyn Bay. To be standing outside Anne and Webster’s house was an extraordinary feeling and for me a real privilege. Looking at the house, and then walking on the beach, all the time internally hearing their wonderful music, and feeling a real sense of gratitude to them both for all the joy they brought to countless millions over the years with their unique gifts, their unique talents. And yes, as I looked out on Penrhyn Bay, and then further East to Rhos on Sea, Colwyn Bay, Llanddulas and Abergele, I would see in my mind’s eye, the beautiful Anne in her youth, as well as her undoubted beauty in her later years. It is, as you well know, a spectacular landscape: Snowdonia to the South, the Ormes to the West, and to the North the Irish Sea stretching as far as the eye can see—–all quite something, and a beautiful and moving backdrop to remember both Anne and Webster. 
So once again, many thanks, not only for your wonderful book but also for a memorable windswept day in Penrhyn Bay.”

It was good to know that my book had given him pleasure and had motivated him to pay a visit to Webster and Anne’s final home.
Jean Collen 13 October 2017.


Webster Booth-Anne Ziegler Site

I am removing all posts concerning Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler from this site to my new site about Webster Booth-Anne Ziegler

It will probably take me some time to do this. Please bear with me!


The Atrocity in Rhodes Park, Kensington – 17 October 2015

The lake at Rhodes Park. Photo: Errol Collen

The lake at Rhodes Park. Photo: Errol Collen

Kensington residents were shocked and saddened to hear of the atrocity committed in Rhodes Park, Kensington on Saturday evening. Two young couples were strolling around the lake after having a picnic in the park when they were set upon by a gang of 12 barbarians. One of the women was gang-raped, while the men were tied up, dumped in the lake, and drowned as they could not free themselves from their bonds.  The second woman managed to escape from her attackers and was able to raise the alarm.The gang of 12 has not yet been apprehended. Apparently they made their escape through a stormwater drain.

Kensington residents, both past and present, have fond memories of going to this beautiful park over the years – to the library, to the recently refurbished swimming pool, to the restaurant, where many couples held their wedding receptions when the place was functioning, to listen to the various brass bands which played in the bandstand once a month, or just to go to the park for a walk, to relax after a stressful day, to play or to walk their dogs. Latterly, as there have been a number of muggings and robberies there, many of us only went to the park once a year – to attend the popular Spring Fair in early September.

The Spring Fair, Rhodes Park. 2012

Kensington Spring Fair, Rhodes Park. 2013

Kensington Spring Fair 2012

The park has been maintained by the City Parks department, but there are no attendants present to ensure the safety of visitors. The derelict buildings apparently house hoodlums, drug addicts and drug dealers, and possibly homeless people into the bargain.

Now that this shocking incident has taken place there are vain attempts to make the park a safer place – too little, too late, in my opinion.  I think the following things should be done immediately:

  1. Demolish the derelict restaurant if nobody is going to refurbish it. It has been standing empty for years so I do not think anyone is ever going to turn it into a restaurant again.
  2. The Johannesburg City Council or the South African Police should provide park attendants to keep order in the park – not just for a few months until people forget about this atrocity – but for good.
  3. Nobody entering the park should be allowed to take alcohol, firearms or drugs in with them. Everyone should be searched by the attendants before entering the park.
  4. The storm water drain should be closed  with iron girders so that nobody can enter or leave the park by that means.
  5. Someone suggested charging a small entry fee to go into the park – R2 was suggested.

An official said that people should be “vigilant” when going into the park. People in this country have to be vigilant from morning to night – vigilant when they drive in or out of their driveways in case they are attacked and held up; vigilant on the roads for fear of being hijacked; vigilant at shopping centres in case there is an armed robbery; vigilant in their homes in case burglars break in to steal their possessions, or worse. Crime is all around us these days in South Africa. Surely it is not too much to ask that we should be able to go to the park and know that we are safe, that we will not be mugged, raped, robbed or killed?

Tomorrow a memorial service will be held at noon for one of the young men who was drowned by these barbarians last Saturday. This service is for Mr Z P Kella who was a teacher at Westbury Secondary School. I have seen a beautiful photo of him and his partner. It is a tragedy that this shining young man and his friend were killed in such a brutal manner, and that their partners will never recover from the unimaginable experience. This incident reminds me of some of the brutal terrorist behaviour of ISIL members in Syria. I sincerely hope that the gang of 12 is caught and punished appropriately. I’m afraid that “rotting in jail” is too good for these monsters.

Jean Collen


BILL CURRY (26 March 1931 – 28 July 2015)

Bill Curry 26 March 1931 – 27 July 2015

Bill Curry and Denise Newman in a play in 1981.

Bill Curry and Denise Newman in a play in 1981.

The late Jonathan Rands, Michael Richard, and Bill Curry (1981)

The late Jonathan Rands, Michael Richard, and Bill Curry (1981)

Many years before I met Bill Curry I saw him in a play at the Laager in the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. The play was called The Indian Wants the Bronx, a three-hander with Michael Richard, Jonathan Rands, and Bill as the eponymous “Indian” being brutally harassed by two yobs at a bus stop in downmarket New York. A few years later I saw him again in Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes, with Marius Weyers and Sheila Holliday. On both occasions I was deeply impressed by his fine acting.             Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg

St Andrew's, Ocean Street, Kensington. Photo: Rev. Fr. Stewart Peart

St Andrew’s, Ocean Street, Kensington. Photo: Rev. Fr. Stewart Peart

It was an unexpected pleasure to find him reading the lessons at the 7.30am service. He and I had arrived at St Andrew’s at about the same time in 1993. I had been appointed as the music director there and after the Nine Lessons and Carol Service, he had congratulated me on the choir’s singing. I discovered that he had played the organ in Cape Town many years before my early fumblings on the instrument as a piano-organist. He was always willing to play the organ if I was ill or away. Later still he joined the choir, first as a bass, later as a tenor. He often took the men in the choir for special rehearsals when we were working on something difficult. I do not know how I would have managed without his constant support, kindness, and enthusiasm.

I was delighted when he asked me to give him some vocal tuition. He visited me each week at my home in Derby Road, Kensington and he worked diligently at everything I gave him. We played Schubert duets on the piano and often interesting conversation got the better of us and we would find that considerable time had passed without a note of music being played or sung. He told me about an amusing encounter at the Festival Hall when he was studying at the Central School in London in 1956. He had gone to hear a recital by the great contralto, Marian Anderson. The woman next to him assumed that he was Indian and asked what he thought of Western music. Bill replied in his pristine actor’s voice, “Madam, I have known no other!”                                                                                    Marian Anderson (contralto)

St Andrew’s presented a Christmas in July dinner and he gave some infectious performances for the entertainment of the guests with him singing and me accompanying him.

I was very sad when he told me he had decided to sell up in Kensington and return to the Cape where he had been asked to stay in a cottage on the property of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones who ran the Handspring Puppet Company in Kalk Bay. He had been instrumental in helping them when they were launching their company in the 1980s. In recent years the Handspring Puppet Company have become internationally famous with their creation of the War Horse for the play and film. Before he left Johannesburg he gave me his vast collection of LPs and a number of books and scores.

I missed his warm presence and his life-enhancing personality when he moved to the Cape. He appeared in a play at the Kalk Bay Theatre for Nicholas Ellenbogen and played the grandfather in the film, A Boy Called Twist, a South African adaptation of the Dickens’s book. We exchanged letters and phone calls for a while and I had hoped to visit him in his new home, but that visit did not materialise.

Earlier this month I was sad to hear that he was ill and in the frail care section of a home for the elderly. Yesterday I had news of his death at the age of 84. I will never forget our wonderful friendship. May he rest in peace.

30 July

I had a call from Jill in Cape Town to let me know that Bill’s Memorial Service will take place on Tuesday, 4 August at 4pm at Holy Trinity Church, Kalk Bay.

Jean Collen (29 July 2015)

Recollections of Paddy O’Byrne who died on 3 December 2013

On 4 December 2013 I heard the sad news that Paddy O’Byrne had died the previous night, shortly before his eighty-fourth birthday. People on social media and on radio remembered the man and his broadcasting skills with great affection, just as I do myself.

The Voice of South Africa competition 

I first heard of Paddy during the Voice of South Africa competition organised by the SABC in 1961. My parents and I sat in the lounge at 21 Juno Street, Kensington, in front of our large valve radio with the green cat’s eye tuner, listening to the weekly competition with interest. Paddy won that competition, with Michael Todd second, and Dr Tony Venniker in third place. Paddy was Irish, Michael Todd English, and Dr Tony Venniker was South African!

Paddy’s father was a high court judge in Eire and Paddy himself had studied law and was working for an insurance company in the city, but when he won the competition he began his broadcasting career on the English service. Michael Todd became a newsreader with the SABC, while Dr Tony continued practising medicine but made frequent broadcasts in an excellent series called Medical File with fellow medics, Professors Harry Seftel and Peter Cleaton-Jones. Sadly, Dr Tony died of advanced prostate cancer in 1989, and Michael Todd also died many years ago.

Paddy O’Byrne was a fine broadcaster. He had a beautiful speaking voice, a beguiling personality and had a wide musical knowledge. He and his wife, Vicky, who had a charming singing voice, had appeared in a pantomime with the Hungarian/South African singer, Eve Boswell, before coming to South Africa.

Gilbert and Sullivan series presented by Webster Booth – 1962 

The first connection between Paddy and Webster Booth began in 1962. Webster was presenting a Gilbert and Sullivan series of programmes when the copyright on Gilbert’s words was lifted. Unfortunately he was taken very ill during that year and spent some time in the fever hospital in Braamfontein with a mysterious virus which gave him myocarditis and threatened his life. He was away from the singing studio and unable to record the Gilbert and Sullivan programmes for some time. It fell to Paddy O’Byrne to read Webster’s scripts for several of these programmes, and he made a very good job of this assignment.

Sunday at Home – 1963 

In 1963 Paddy presented a series on the English Service called Sunday at Home. He visited the homes of different celebrities to interview them. On one particular Sunday, Anne and Webster entertained a young Paddy in their home at 121 Buckingham Avenue, Craighall Park. It was a charming, informal interview and I liked it so much that I ordered a tape of it from SABC Enterprises some years later.

To the UK and back to South Africa 

I went to the UK in 1966 for several years, and some time later Paddy and his family went to live in Croydon in the UK. During that time Paddy worked at the BBC as a broadcaster on Radio 2. The family returned to South Africa in 1980 when Paddy launched a new radio station, Channel 702, which initially had a licence to broadcast from the South African “homeland” of Bophuthatswana.

Shortly after the launch, Paddy returned to the SABC, succeeding Peter Broomfield and Ken Marshall in a weekday morning programme called Top of the Morning with Paddy O’Byrne. On this programme he chatted to listeners about a variety of topics which interested him, played a wide selection of music and the occasional request from listeners, and also interviewed guests. I particularly remember him interviewing John Robbie, the Irish rugby player, who is a long-established talk show host on what is now called Talk Radio 702, broadcasting from studios in Sandton.

By this time I had been married for ten years and had two children. Anne and Webster returned to the UK in 1978 and, for a time, established a third career on stage and radio. Webster was not in the best of health and his voice was a shadow of what it had once been, so it was very sad that he had to get up on the stage and sing in public. The only news I had of them in 1983 was a comment from Paddy on his programme to say that he had heard that neither of them was very well and “needed looking after”. I wrote to Paddy asking for further news as I was worried that I had not heard from them for so long. No doubt he thought I was some loony fan for he did not reply to my letter! Later that year I had a letter from Anne telling me that Webster was very ill and was now in a nursing home in North Wales and unlikely to return home. He died on 21 June 1984.

 I Bless the Day (De Jongh)and Brian Morris 

Paddy O’Byrne continued his regular morning programme on the English Service and I listened to it regularly. One day, he had a request from Brian Morris, a former student of Anne and Webster’s. When I was Webster’s studio accompanist I had often played for Brian at his lessons. He had a very good baritone voice, reminiscent of Peter Dawson’s.

Brian asked for Webster’s recording of I Bless the Day by De Jongh. The SABC in Johannesburg had got rid of its collection of 78rpm records years before, so there were few of Anne and Webster’s recordings in the SABC library at that time. I had the recording Brian had requested on a Canadian Rococo LP, and also I Leave My Heart in an English Garden by Harry Parr-Davies, which was on the flipside of the original 78rpm. I wrote to Paddy, offering to lend him my precious recordings so that he could play the song Brian had requested. This time he did get in touch with me. His daughter, Jane, who lived near us, collected the records and Paddy duly played Brian’s request and some other recordings from my LPs over several days.

I was rather worried when Paddy didn’t return my records so eventually I phoned his home. Paddy was out, but I spoke to his wife, Vicky. She was charming and realised that I was concerned about my records and said she would make sure that he returned them very soon. Paddy called at our home unexpectedly one Saturday morning to return my records and was fascinated by the photographs of Anne and Webster which adorned my music room. I had a duplicate copy of the LP The Golden Age of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth and gave it to him so that he could play a wider selection if listeners requested one of Anne and Webster’s recordings. Because of Brian Morris’s request for I Bless the Day Paddy and his wife, Vicky, became personal friends of Brian and his wife, Denise. Someone contacted me on my blog a few years ago to tell me the sad news that Brian had died.

Paddy was writing articles about music and broadcasting, so after our initial meeting he often phoned me if he needed to verify information about Anne and Webster. He was always charming and friendly, and I enjoyed our chats together.

He continued as a broadcaster with the SABC, and in 1995 he did a combined afternoon programme with Vuyo Mbuli. I think this was the first time Vuyo had done any broadcasting. Sadly he died suddenly a few years ago, still only in his forties. By that time he was a top TV presenter and very popular with the South African public. Their musical taste differed widely, so it was often a case of hearing Thomas Hampson one minute, and Michael Jackson the next!

After Paddy retired from the SABC he joined the community radio station of 1485 Radio Today and was as popular with listeners as ever. Return to Ireland He and his family returned to their native Ireland towards the end of the last century. His beloved wife, Vicky, died some time ago, and in June this year Paddy came to South Africa to attend a Requiem Mass for her at the Catholic Church in Rosebank where they had worshipped while living here. He and Peter Lotis were guests on Clare Marshall’s programme Morning Star on 1485 Radio Today, which broadcasts from a beautiful plant nursery in Jan Smuts Avenue. It was good to hear his voice once again, although I could hear that he was not very well.

My sincere condolences to his family and friends. He will be sadly missed, but very fondly remembered by everyone who knew him and enjoyed listening to him on the radio.

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I wrote the bulk of this note some years ago on Facebook. I think it applies just as much today as it did two years ago. I will add a few more observations about Facebook here. Comments are welcome and if I have offended you by this post, feel free to unfriend me on Facebook!

I have made about 150 friends on Facebook. Some I actually know; others I have not met before, but we seem to have the same interests, and there is a certain amount of communication between us, even if it amounts to nothing more than liking each other’s posts, wishing each other a happy birthday and passing the occasional comment on something that might interest us.

I have always expressed my sympathy to Facebook friends who are going through some kind of disaster in their lives, such as bereavement, loss of a job, or a relationship breaking down. Recently we had some bad luck of our own when my son-in-law lost his job because of his company being placed under provisional liquidation. He and 7000 other workers were left without a penny – no payment for the time they had worked in July, no retrenchment money, and still no sign of the eight years of pension money.

To compound the problem is the fact that there is a huge number of unemployed in South Africa and the strict Black Empowerment policy which means that white males are at the bottom of the list as far as finding new employment is concerned. My husband and I have managed to help them financially at the end of July, but we are both semi-retired, so I’m not sure how long we will be able to go on doing this. Some of my Facebook friends were kind and supportive. One kind friend even offered to send some money, which we would never dream of accepting, but we did appreciate her kind offer!

It is very true that you find out who your friends are when you have a setback like that. I’m afraid I unfriended one of our relatives who blithely continued posting junk on her wall without as much as a “sorry”!

Other “friends” ignore me –  perhaps for reasons of their own –  but why did they befriend me in the first place? Just to add to my name to the hundreds of other Facebook friends on their list?  Surely they have the strength to click the “like” button if I wish them happy birthday, or even make a very occasional comment so that I know they are still there? In this category I include some “friends” I have known personally for years. Do they look at my posts with a superior sneer and conclude that I am silly for posting them on Facebook?

March 2011 was a bad month for birthday greetings and March 2013 has not been any better. Very few of the March birthday boys and girls liked or thanked me for wishing them happy birthday. How rude is that? They obviously don’t think my well-meant birthday greetings are worth the bother of a collective “thank you” or even a “like”. The occasional “like” or “thank you” would not go amiss. At least I would not have the feeling that I’m communicating with the ether.

I share recordings, news and blog posts about my former teachers and life-long friends, Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler. I also have pages for them on Facebook and I run the <a>Booth-Ziegler Yahoo Group</a> (with only 34 members!) Anne and Webster meant a great deal to me and my intention was to keep their names alive, but this is a losing battle. I realise that their recordings are not to everyone’s taste as one of my Facebook friends told me recently – at least he was honest!  Other friends who knew them very well – two are even related to them – ignore these posts.  Just as I could always sense whether an audience was enjoying my stage performance or thinking it  pretty awful, I have the same sense on Facebook, apart from a few obvious exceptions – I would have given up a long time ago without them! My one consolation is that my recordings of Webster and Anne’s solo and duet recordings on <a>YouTube</a> are warmly received, often by people who had never heard of them before.

On the plus side, I have made some interesting new friends, followed some fascinating pages, and rediscovered some old friends who do keep in touch with me on Facebook. I hope you are in this last category!

Jean Campbell Collen – original post written in 2011/updated 7 August 2013.


MORNING STAR on Radio Today 1485 and other PODCASTS

Since writing this post I have added several more podcasts and they may all be heard at the same place. The series: A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth tells of their lives and careers and my association with them from 1960 to 2003, the year of Anne’s death.

Photo taken in the early 1960s.

Webster Booth and Jean Collen. Photo taken in the early 1960s.

I am also doing a separate series about the more serious work of Webster Booth. These podcasts ar called On Wings of Song – Webster Booth as Soloist. Both series of podcasts may be heard at the following link, where there is one featured podcast, with links to the other podcasts to the right of the page:


I have also created a new blog called ZIEGLER-BOOTH RADIO where my own podcasts, the Morning Star podcast originally broadcast on Radio Today on 28 April 2013, and some of my YOU TUBE videos are embedded. My Soundcloud recordings are also included there.

Please let me know what you think of everything if you listen to them.

1940 AW

I have added a podcast at the following link:  A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth – Episode 1

This is the first in a series of podcasts about the lives and careers of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth and my association with them.

The link to the Morning Star podcast on Radio Today 1485 on 28 April 2013 is: Morning Star presented by Clare Marshall with guest, Jean Collen

On Thursday 25 April 2013 I went to the beautiful studios of Radio Today 1485

Radio Today 1485 studios, Jan Smuts Avenue, Parktown North, Johannesburg.

Radio Today 1485 studios, Jan Smuts Avenue, Parktown North, Johannesburg. Photo: Gaynor Paynter.

The beautiful studios are situated in the middle of a plant nursery in Jan Smuts Avenue, Parktown North, Johannesburg. Clare Marshall, who presents the lovely programme Morning Star on Sunday morning had read my book, Sweethearts of Song: A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth asked me into the studios to talk to her about my close relationship with Anne and Webster. I began studying singing with them when I left school at the end of 1960 in their studios on the eighth floor of Polliack’s Corner, Johannesburg.

School of Singing and Stagecraft, Eighth Floor, 69 Pritchard Street, Johannesburg

School of Singing and Stagecraft, Eighth Floor, 69 Pritchard Street, Johannesburg – the building with balconies to the right.

Later I acted as Webster’s studio accompanist when Anne had other engagements. I remained friends with them until their deaths. Webster died in June 1984 and Anne died in October 2003.

I retired as Musical Director at St Andrew’s Church, Kensington at the end of 2005 after thirteen years, and stopped teaching classical singing and piano at the end of 2007, so I thought that talking to Clare on air might be rather daunting, but she was quite charming and soon put me at my ease. What I imagined might be an ordeal proved to be a really enjoyable experience. Clare’s Morning Star programme is on at 8.30 am (South African time) on Sunday mornings. I have listened to it for many years and can recommend it to anyone who enjoys hearing a variety of beautiful music presented by someone with a pristine radio voice.

One of the songs which will be featured on the programme on Sunday morning:

Anne and Webster

Anne and Webster

The programme was aired yesterday (28 April 2013)  on Radio Today Johannesburg 1485 – RADIO THAT DELIVERS One of the songs played was:


  Sweethearts of Song: A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, is available online at my book store on Lulu

Sweethearts of Song: A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth.

A Personal Memoir


I have had some copies of this book printed locally in wire binding and it is  available to South African readers only at the very reasonable price of R140 (including postage). If you would like a copy of this book, please contact me at: and I’ll give you further details about it.

Jeannie C 29 April 2013.

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Book Reviews

Some Tame GazelleSome Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had read most of Barbara Pym’s later novels before I read this one, written in 1939 but eventually published in 1950 by Jonathan Cape. I enjoy reading everything Barbara Pym has written. Her excellent style of writing and her gentle characters are pleasant antidotes to the brash and frightening world in which we live today.

The only criticism I can make is that perhaps this book is too much centred on the clergy and their over-weening influence on the lives of the Bede sisters – Harriet’s devotion to the current curate, and Belinda’s life-long adoration of Archdeacon Hoccleve, long married to the formidable Agatha.

What a shame that so few novels by Barbara Pym were published and that it was only towards the end of her life that she found the recognition she deserved to have had many years earlier. I could happily go on reading them at the exclusion of many other more difficult books.

View all my reviews

Autobiography of B.C. Hilliam (Flotsam)

Autobiography of B.C. Hilliam (Flotsam)

“Flotsam’s Follies” by B.C. Hilliam

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was published in 1948 and B.C. Hilliam (Flotsam) has an idiosyncratic way of writing, often interspersing the prose of his autobiography with numerous verses, many of which were used in various performances with his long-time partner, Malcolm McEachern (Jetsam), and for “Flotsam’s Follies” which followed after McEachern’s untimely death.

The book is filled with fascinating information about his own colourful life and tales of his theatrical contemporaries, including mention of Garda Hall, Bettie Bucknelle and Paddy Prior, all of particular interest to me. He and McEachern were devoted members of the Savage Club and made many informal appearances there. Hilliam included many of his amusing pencil sketches in his book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and although it is long out of print, it can still be bought second hand online.

View all my reviews

Murder Among FriendsMurder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a rather unusual mystery story. One knows right away who is suspected of the murder. She eventually stands trial, is found guilty and is sentenced to death. Only after this does someone question her guilt although it seems irrefutable. She speaks to others who were present at the time and finds out their views of the woman convicted of murder. They all agree that she is incapable of committing murder, but what about the proof?

The book was written in 1946 and is set during the war, so it is rather slow-moving for modern tastes, although it is as well-written as other Elizabeth Ferrars’ mystery novels. It took me rather a long time to read, but I am glad I managed to finish it. I can recommend the book as an unusual mystery novel, quite different from others of the same genre.

View all my reviews

Faint Harmony (Malcolm Craig Trilogy #2)Faint Harmony by Jean Collen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second part of the Malcolm Craig Trilogy and covers his life and career from the beginning of World War II until 1956. Malcolm Craig is a great British tenor who has a very successful career but his private life is not as plain-sailing as his singing engagements.

View all my reviews

Joyce Grenfell Requests The PleasureJoyce Grenfell Requests The Pleasure by Joyce Grenfell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been re-reading several Joyce Grenfell books recently and certainly found this book most enjoyable, in contrast to “Darling Ma” which was made up of a series of letters to her mother, expressing some distasteful (to me) opinions not meant for publication.

“Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure” is the first part of her autobiography which she wrote in later life, and was intended for publication. It tells of her early life, her work as a radio critic and learning the discipline of performing on stage as a professional, rather than as a talented, privileged amateur who knew many of the right people. She writes in a lively and amusing style and gives some interesting insights into the period.

I always find people’s rise to fame more interesting than when they have “made it” and their story becomes a long list of successful appearances and meetings with other famous people, so this book is my favourite of all the Joyce Grenfell books I have re-read recently.

View all my reviews

Greasepaint and Cordite: How ENSA Entertained the Troops During World War IIGreasepaint and Cordite: How ENSA Entertained the Troops During World War II by Andy Merriman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this book interesting, well-written and well-researched.

My criticism is that it would have been better if the book had been written twenty or thirty years earlier when more ordinary ENSA entertainers were alive and could have shared their memories of working for the organisation. Instead, a great deal of information had been found in books by – or about – famous performers like Vera Lynn and Joyce Grenfell. I had already read many of the books in the author’s bibliography, so I did not discover much new information in this book as the experiences of forgotten performers were rather thin on the ground.

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Darling MaDarling Ma by Joyce Grenfell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book when it was first published and have reread it recently to find out more about her experience working with ENSA, as one of the characters in my forthcoming novel joins ENSA at the beginning of World War 2.

I found the book interesting and I enjoyed Joyce’s idiosyncratic style of writing, but Joyce did not have to endure the hardships of ordinary performers for she could always afford to stay in comfortable hotels at her own expense, or else she was invited to stay with influential and titled friends. Because of the special privileges she was granted, the book did not really serve the purpose of giving me insight into the experiences of an ordinary ENSA performer.

I admired Joyce Grenfell’s work, but I’m afraid this book exposed her as extremely snobbish with strong prejudice against Jewish people (except for the pianist, Myra Hess, whose musical gifts she admired), Roman Catholics and variety artistes like the Two Leslies who went on an ENSA tour with her. To be fair, perhaps she was a product of her upper class upbringing at that particular time.

As someone else has mentioned, she would have written more frankly to her mother than she did in her autobiography. The book was published nearly twenty years after her death so she would not have expected her private letters to have been published for public consumption.

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The Battle For ChristabelThe Battle For Christabel by Margaret Forster

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a sad and frustrating story about what happens to a little girl when her single mother is killed in an accident at the early age of 36. There is a battle between social workers, the child’s grandmother and aunt, and the mother’s life-long friend who is the narrator of the book. I’m afraid there is no happy ending for anyone in “The Battle for Christabel”.

Margaret Forster is an excellent writer and she certainly held my attention throughout the book, which read more like a sociological document than a novel. I’m afraid there are so many real cases like this today that I felt depressed by the time I had finished reading it. Life is difficult enough – I would prefer to read something more uplifting in future.

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Lavender Road (London at War)Lavender Road by Helen Carey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first of three novels by Helen Carey tracing the lives of certain residents living in Lavender Road, Clapham and is set in the early years of the war. It paints a fascinating and accurate picture of what it must have been like to have lived in those difficult days. The only inaccuracy in the book has to do with the date of a song. Jen aspires to be a professional actress and singer and sings “The White Cliffs of Dover” (published 1941) at an impromptu concert. As the concert took place in 1940 this was a serious mistake on the part of the writer who was so meticulous with her war time-line. It was almost as bad as the novelist Mary Wesley assigning a conductor to a string quartet! I’m afraid I didn’t read any more of Mary Wesley’s books after that, but I find Helen Carey’s novels gripping and well-written, so I shall certainly carry on reading her next novel set in Lavender Road. The title comes from some words in Vera Lynn’s hit song of World War 2, “We’ll Meet Again”. The book is entitled “Some Sunny Day”.

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Some Sunny DaySome Sunny Day by Helen Carey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have just finished reading this book and found it most satisfying. I have read all three books in the Lavender Road series now (having read the third book first)and have grown to love the distinctive and well-drawn characters living in Lavender Road during the early days of the Second World War.

Helen Carey is a brilliant story teller and although the neighbours suffer distressing hardships of war, these books are full of hope for better days to come. Once again I am extremely impressed with the way Helen Carey depicts life on the home front and events which occur in the various theatres of war.

I have been fairly set in my ways as far as favourite writers are concerned, but I have added Helen Carey to my list of favourites and look forward to reading her other books soon.

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On a Wing and a Prayer (London at War)On a Wing and a Prayer by Helen Carey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came across this book by accident as I was browsing through books in a sale in the local shopping mall. I had never heard of Helen Carey before but I liked the World War 2 setting in London, so I bought it at a bargain price. This book is the third one in a trilogy set in Lavender Road, Clapham, so I have read the third novel last.

I was very impressed with the way Helen Carey managed to create an authentic atmosphere of London in war time, not only dealing with events on the home front, but also the course of the war abroad. The characters in her book are from diverse social classes and each character is vivid and well defined. The stories of her characters intertwine and reach a fitting climax towards the end of the novel.

After reading this excellent novel, Helen Carey has been added to a select list of my favourite writers. I went back to the book sale and bought the two earlier novels, “Lavender Road” and “Some Sunny Day”. I look forward to reading them and I am sure they will be just as satisfying as “On a Wing and a Prayer”.

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'N Stringetjie Blou Krale‘N Stringetjie Blou Krale by E.K.M. Dido
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven’t read an Afrikaans book for years and probably I would not have read this one had it not been that I had the task of typing it out. I was surprised that I had a better grip of the language than I imagined, and found the book extremely enjoyable. Apparently the author, E.K.M Dado is the first black woman to have a book published in Afrikaans and her books are very popular in the Netherlands.

The book tells the story of Nomsa, who was born into a Xhosa family in the Transkei, but is eventually adopted by a Coloured family, has her name changed to Nancy, and is raised as a Coloured. For a time she is obliged to deny her origins and Xhosa family.

The book gives insight into Xhosa traditions, and the obsession with racial identity prevalent in South Africa. She marries a Coloured who hates Blacks. After twenty years of marriage, he discovers her origins and turns against her without pity. The novel tells how this conflict is eventually resolved for Nancy, if not for her ghastly husband.

I thought the story was interesting, although it is light on character development. Bennie, the Coloured husband, is completely unlikeable, while Nancy and her Coloured parents are too good to be true. I once read that villains should have some goodness in them otherwise they are not credible. Surely Nancy should have realised that Bennie was a particularly nasty specimen during her marriage and not just when he rejects her because of her true origins?

I had not heard of this writer before, but after reading (and typing) this book, I would certainly like to read more of her work.

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Heartbreak HotelHeartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always enjoy a novel by Deborah Moggach, and her latest book is no exception. The story was light, amusing, and fast-moving and the motley collection of characters – both young and elderly – were well drawn and rounded.

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A Market for Murder (Drew Slocombe Mystery #4)A Market for Murder by Rebecca Tope

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the first time I have read a book by Rebecca Tope. I found this particular book pleasant and entertaining and it certainly gave me some insight into organic farming and people who are deeply – perhaps almost fanatically – concerned with how the land is managed and how food is grown and produced.

It was meant to be a murder mystery, as one murder and an attempted murder take place during the course of the book. One finds out who the murderer is in the end, but where this book falls short (in comparison to an Agatha Christie, for instance) is that although there is an eventual explanation for the crimes, there seemed to be very little development in the plot as far as the murder is concerned.

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“Sticking Around” by Bernard Spong.

Sticking around by Bernard Spong

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wonderful and enlightening book by the Reverend Bernard Spong. His interesting, and sometimes painful experiences as a minister and an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, are very different from my own and were an eye-opener to me. I can thoroughly recommend this captivating book and I am very grateful that Bernard was kind enough to send me a copy of his book. I shall treasure it.

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A Week in WinterA Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the last book Maeve Binchy wrote before her death. I own all her books and am very sorry that I will no longer receive a new Maeve Binchy for Christmas. This book is about the various guests who spend a “Week in Winter” at Chicky’s newly-established hotel situated in a remote area on the West coast of Ireland. All the guests arrive with a variety of problems to solve, and most of them benefit from their stay at the Stone House, where the only leisure activities are walking and bird watching.

Maeve Binchy’s writing is as warm and gentle as ever, and she succeeds in creating each character in her book so that one’s interest is held in their history. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a satisfying yet undemanding book during the holiday season and beyond.

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The Time of Our LivesThe Time of Our Lives by Imogen Parker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had nearly finished this book before I realised that many of the characters from the Palace Hotel of Kingshaven were every day versions of prominent members of the Royal Family! I won’t tell you anything more about this, but it should increase your interest in the book if you work out who these characters represent as you read.

What put me off the scent was because I thought Michael Quinn, his wife and young lover were the central characters of the story although they have no connections with Royalty at all!

Imogen Parker’s book commences at the time of the Coronation in 1953 and the first volume ends at the time of the moon-landing in 1969. Each chapter tells of events in a particular year, so there is not much close cohesion in the plot of the novel.

Imogen Parker writes fluently and the novel certainly held my interest throughout this long novel (543 pages). This is the first part of a trilogy and I look forward to reading the next two novels in the series.

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The Other FamilyThe Other Family by Joanna Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am always amazed at how well Joanna Trollope creates her varied settings in her novels – in this case, the North East of England,from where the recently dead musician Richie originated. Richie lived and worked in the North East with his first wife and son, then left them abruptly to go off to London with a younger woman, with whom he had three daughters. The northern and southern families are devastated by his sudden death and each one finds it difficult to move on with life without the presence (or absence) of likeable, but thoughtless Richie.

The book deals with the different ways in which members of both families handle the forced and unforced changes to their lives as a result of Richie’s death. As usual, the book is extremely well written and held my interest from beginning to end.

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Choral SocietyChoral Society by Prue Leith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The book is entitled “Choral Society”. This book is formulaic. Three women meet in a choral group. At the beginning of the book each woman has a short-coming. By the end of the book they have resolved their problems in one way or another.

As a musician who has conducted several choirs in my career I thought this book would be of interest to me. Admittedly the three main characters meet because they join a choral group, but the book deals with their separate lives and we hardly hear much about the choral society at all, except that the scratch group starts off singing Gospel songs and later is rehearsing for a performance of “Messiah”.

I have the impression that the three women are extensions of Prue Leith herself. One is a food-writer and, as in previous novels, there is far too much about cooking methods and ingredients, and descriptions of the meals the various characters eat. There are also too many details about the clothes they wear and the names of contemporary dress designers. There is even a very detailed description about a medical procedure to remove excess fluid from one of the character’s knees!

Prue Leith might have had a different editor for this book than for her earlier novels. How could the editor have overlooked so much slang, clichés, and a whopper about “the laird in the manse” which upset my Scottish sensibilities. Doesn’t everybody know that a minister inhabits a manse? What was a laird doing there?

Admittedly there was a performance of “Messiah” towards the end of the book, but it appeared to be done by chorus only without any mention of soloists. Her nebulous description of this performance reminded me of a description of a performance by a string quartet in one of Mary Wesley’s books. When she mentioned a conductor of the said quartet, I refused to go on reading it.

After the disappointment of this book I doubt whether I’ll be buying any more of Prue Leith fiction, although my cooking might benefit from reading one of her cookery books!

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The Soldier's WifeThe Soldier’s Wife by Joanna Trollope
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another excellent novel by Joanna Trollope. In this novel she examines the difficulties faced by soldiers returning from a dangerous tour of duty in Afghanistan. One would imagine that reunions with wives and families at home would be joyous for everyone concerned, but in this novel, this is not the case.

Joanna Trollope explores the difficulties faced by soldiers and the families who have waited to welcome them at home. In this day and age it is not enough for many soldiers’ wives to be home-makers, living for the day their husbands return safely. Some are highly educated and feel frustrated that the successful careers they enjoyed before marrying into the military cannot be fulfilled.

As in most of her other novels, Joanna Trollope manages to examine these problems with sympathy for all concerned. I need not add that she writes beautifully and creates well-rounded and distinctive characters in a few paragraphs. This is a very satisfying novel and I recommend it.

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Daughters-in-LawDaughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have enjoyed most of Joanna Trollope’s novels and this one is no exception. She has an excellent writing style and is always entertaining. She is at her best describing the dynamics of family relationships and excels in defining each character clearly and laying bear the niggling tensions between family members.

In this novel the parents of three sons, each married to a very different woman, try to play too large a role in their sons’ lives, as well as in the lives of their families. The plot shows how the sons eventually manage to cut their parents’ apron strings and take their place in the adult world. After reading this book I am not struck by the dramatic significance of each twist and turn of the plot, but by the subtle nuances of it.

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Relish - My Life on a PlateRelish – My Life on a Plate by Prue Leith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have just finished reading Prue Leith’s lively autobiography and I enjoyed it very much. I am not particularly interested in cookery, but I have fond memories of seeing Prue Leith’s mother, the brilliant South African actress, Margaret Inglis in “Separate Tables” when my family and I were on holiday in Durban in 1957.

Prue Leith is four years older than me and grew up in South Africa so we shared similar childhood experiences. I found the account of her early years in South Africa, and later years in France and the UK fascinating. With most autobiographies and biographies, the years of struggle are usually far more interesting than the years of success, as the successful years often amount to no more than a brag-list of achievements and awards.

Although Prue Leith discussed her many achievements, her story held my interest to the end of the book, as her personality and humanity shine through in her writing. Despite success, fame and riches, Prue suffered her fair share of setbacks and she does not skim over the setbacks as others embarking on writing the story of their lives might have done.

Not only did Prue succeed as a cook and caterer, but she has published a number of novels in the later part of her life. I have only read one of them but intend to read the others in due course.

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Girl from the SouthGirl from the South by Joanna Trollope
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy this book quite as much as I enjoyed many other Joanna Trollope novels I have read. Perhaps it was because it was partly set in Charleston in South Carolina, and all the other novels have typically English settings with restrained English characters. I thought the author handled the American characters very well and created the atmosphere of the South very well, but, perhaps because I am set in my ways and thought I knew what to expect from Joanna Trollope, I would have preferred another Aga-Saga!

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Death Comes to PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought that P.D. James captured the style and mood of Jane Austen’s writing in this book. She assumes that one has a thorough knowledge and understanding of “Pride and Prejudice” as she makes many references to Jane Austen’s book and even introduces characters from “Emma” towards the end of the book. The plot of “Death Comes to Pemberley” was slow-moving as one might have expected in a Jane Austen novel which concerned the minutae of the every-day life of the gentry; nearly three quarter’s of this book is taken up with the happenings of several days, seen from the points of view of the characters concerned in the murder. This necessitated a great deal of repetition of the events.

Jane Austen would probably never have concerned herself with something as distasteful as a murder, while P.D. James had to limit herself to a rather unremarkable murder mystery, quite different from the complicated modern mysteries she has written previously. After the mystery was solved I found the epilogue redundant to the plot. Why did Darcy and Elizabeth have to spend considerable time explaining to each other exactly why they acted as they did in “Pride and Prejudice”?

I enjoyed the book and admired P.D James ability to write in the style of Jane Austen, but I hope she continues to write classic murder mysteries and doesn’t repeat the Jane Austen experiment.

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Passenger to FrankfurtPassenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book by Agatha Christie was different from the murder mysteries. It was written in 1970 and reminded me of Buchan’s “Thirty-nine Steps”, in that it was an adventure story where the aims of the people involved were unclear to me, and therefore fairly meaningless. The best part of the book was the quotation by Jan Smuts preceding the story: “Leadership, besides being a great creative force, can be diabolical…” I thought that this quotation could be applied to quite a few diabolical leaders, past and present.

I waded through this book, hoping that I would eventually be gripped by this tortuous tale, but I’m afraid I gave it up when I was half way through. I am too old to waste time reading books which are uncongenial and meaningless to me. I am glad that Agatha Christie did not continue writing novels like this but returned to writing tales of the detective exploits of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple in the few remaining years of her life.

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Love and War in London: A Woman's Diary 1939-42Love and War in London: A Woman’s Diary 1939-42 by Olivia Cockett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book focuses on the wartime diary of Olivia Cockett, which she wrote for Mass Observation. It is edited by Robert Malcolmson. Olivia was 26 when war broke out and is a singular young woman in that she had been working in a clerical position since she was 17 and having an affair since that age with a married man in his thirties, whom she met at work.

Olivia is a very intelligent young woman who read widely. She was not afraid to tackle authors such as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Bertrand Russell and preferred serious music to the light music she heard on the radio. Her liberal outlook on life is the opposite to the conventional outlook of her Man. Because they were unable to marry – even their attempt for him to obtain a divorce goes wrong – she has had two illegal abortions before the war.

She describes routine and unusual events of her life during the war concisely and without emotion or self-pity. Once I became used to her style of writing I found the book a fascinating insight into the life of an ordinary, yet, in many ways extraordinary, young Londoner during the war. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in civilian life at that time.

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Tulip FeverTulip Fever by Deborah Moggach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read nearly all Deborah Moggach’s novels and enjoyed them very much, but I put off reading “Tulip Fever” as it seemed very different from her modern novels. Apparently the book was inspired by various Dutch paintings which are shown in the book and is set in 17th century Amsterdam.

The plot is rather far-fetched, bordering on fantasy, quite unlike her other well-crafted modern novels. One has to suspend belief at the twists and turns of the plot and none of the characters are well-rounded. Perhaps she meant them to be as one-dimensional as the subjects featured in the paintings. Although there were references to streets in Amsterdam, Dutch phrases, Dutch names and characters whose main diet was herring, I did not get a rich sense of time or place in this novel.

I’m glad I read the book, but I do not think it is Deborah Moggach’s best novel and it might disappoint her admirers.

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Letters and Diaries of Kathleen FerrierLetters and Diaries of Kathleen Ferrier by Christopher Fifield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From 1949 to 1951 Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth lived at Frognal Cottage, Hampstead, opposite 2 Frognal Mansions, where Kathleen Ferrier lived. The Booths became friends with Kathleen when they met her walking on Hampstead Heath as they were out walking their Cairn terrier, Smoky. Webster had been booked to sing a Messiah with her in 1951, but they were both very disappointed when she had to cancel this performance because of her illness. I was singing much the same repertoire as Kathleen when I began studying with the Booths in 1961 and they often lent me her recordings from their own record collection. Thus, although Kathleen had died tragically young when I was a child, I always felt a close affinity with this wonderful woman with the unique contralto voice of the twentieth century.

I was rather disappointed to find that Kathleen Ferrier’s diaries were little more than concert dates, occasionally with brief remarks about how a particular engagement went. On reflection, she was working hard so would have had little time to write substantial diary entries at the end of a busy day.

The letters more than compensated for the brevity of the diaries. She wrote many business letters to keep her very busy career in order. While many singers might have longed for more engagements, Kathleen Ferrier was overwhelmed with offers, to the extent that she often had to turn engagements down and beg for a few days respite from her agent, Emmie Tillet. She could certainly never have undertaken such a demanding career had she been married with children. Her letters show that her extensive American tours in the late 1940s involved exhausting travel arrangements. She had to pay for her own advertising, travel, accompanist and accommodation on these tours, so she hardly made a fortune at £50 a concert.

Her affectionate, informal letters to her sister, Winifred, her father and other friends were always bright, self-deprecating and humorous. Her letters of thanks to acquaintances were always appreciative and polite. Even when she turned down songs which had been sent to her, or engagements she could not undertake, she did so in a kindly way.

Once again, it was sad to see her grave illness taking hold so that she eventually lacked health and strength to write her own letters and relied on her help-meet, Bernie to write on her behalf.

There is a good bibliography,an extensive index of works in Kathleen’s repertoire, another of places, venues and festivals, as well as a general index.

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DaphneDaphne by Justine Picardie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting and unusual novel covering several strands: the narrator’s research into Daphne du Maurier’s work; Daphne du Maurier researching the Brontes in order to write a biography of Branwell Bronte; and Symington, the disgraced Bronte expert. I found it interesting how the author interwove fictional fact with the narrator’s own story, showing similarities between all the characters of her novel. It has encouraged me to reread my collection of du Maurier novels, and to look at Branwell Bronte in a new light. I would recommend this book as a well-written, gripping and unusual novel.

The L-Shaped RoomThe L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of my favourite books, which I read a few years after it was first published in 1960. It will be difficult for young readers to credit that fifty years ago it was considered a disgrace for a woman to have a baby out of wedlock and that her parents might disown her for doing so. The heroine of “The L-Shaped Room” even intends to keep her baby, which would have been unthinkable for most girls in 1960, when they were sent to homes for unmarried mothers and had their babies taken away from them at birth to be put up for adoption.

SistersSisters by Prue Leith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book a year or two ago and had initially given up reading it after a few pages. I decided to try it again recently and was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed it very much. Perhaps some of my enjoyment stemmed from growing up in South Africa at much the same time as Prue Leith did herself and remembering her illustrious mother, the late Margaret Inglis, who was one of South Africa’s greatest actresses of her generation.

Prue Leith had many cookery books published in the earlier part of her life. In the comparatively new genre of novel-writing she is very competent and the book held my interest. Perhaps she might have considered giving the sisters in questions more distinctive names – Carrie and Poppy can easily be mixed up. Carrie is not entirely likeable for most of the book, but (as in the advice given in most writing courses)she changes for the better as the book progresses.

My only criticism is that Prue Leith spent too much time discussing the food the characters were eating – or cooking! I suppose this is understandable as she made a great name for herself as a cook and restaurant owner.

“Sisters” is not great literature but it is a very enjoyable novel. Now that I have read it I look forward to reading more novels by Prue Leith.

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The Middle GroundThe Middle Ground by Margaret Drabble

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am finding the book quite absorbing, although, since it was written in 1980, the feminist and political views expressed by the characters seem rather dated, in the light of hindsight. I expect they were considered quite unusual at the time. Later: I am afraid that as the book progressed I began to lose interest in the main character’s increasingly peculiar life, friends and acquaintances. I finished the book with difficulty and was very disappointed in it as Margaret Drabble has written some excellent novels and is usually one of my favourite authors. I fear this book is not in the same class as others she has written – or perhaps I lacked the intellect to enjoy it.

I have just read the fascinating story of three lively young South African girls who went to Europe in the 1960s to spend a year travelling from place to place without spending too much money on their travels. They made use of youth hostels and managed to go from one place to another by hitching rides. Admittedly they had strict rules about hitching so they never came to any harm. Somehow I don’t think it would be possible to do the same trip today as everything is so much more expensive and the South African Rand has diminished in value. The book is well-written and extensively illustrated. I recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about the girls’ fascinating European adventure all those years ago. The book is available in print and Kindle editions. Since writing this review, Elraé Combrink (née Cousins) died  at a comparatively early age. May she rest in peace.

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Good Reads Book Reviews

The Moon And SixpenceThe Moon And Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apparently Strickland was based on the artist Paul Gauguin, but if this was the case, there is a very loose connection between the two for this in not a novel a clef. The book held my interest while the narrator had personal contact with Strickland and his wife. Almost from the beginning of the novel, before Charles Strickland had appeared, I thought him a thoroughly reprehensible character.

Admittedly his wife was not an imaginative woman and used her established position in society to cultivate the society of writers and artists although she appeared to be devoid of any artistic talent herself. She obviously regarded her "dull" husband as nothing more than a meal-ticket and she had never encouraged his artistic inclinations. It is only after he leaves her to her own devices that she manages to pull herself together, fend for herself and look after her children without being dependent on a man any longer.

The portrait of a completely self-centred, inarticulate Strickland, who does not care about the opinion of others was well-drawn but after the narrator is no longer in personal contact with Strickland and the rest of the story of Strickland's life is related to him by a third person the story is less satisfactory. I have to admit that I did not finish the last fifty pages of the book. Although I like Maugham's work, this was not my favourite Maugham novel.

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