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Archive for the ‘Compton MacKenzie’ Category

NPG D42407; Sir (Edward Montague Anthony) Compton Mackenzie after Unknown artistSinister Street is a grand and immensely detailed account of a boy growing up in antebellum England–the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, that lost paradise that was pre-war England. Pre GREAT war, that is to say–there were lesser wars a-plenty! The first Boer war makes a particularly poignant appearance, first filling our hero’s heart with patriotism and fervor, but then casting him into despair when a beloved uncle dies in the conflict.

After reading Mr. Mackenzie’s wonderfully silly Scottish fables, it was odd to find him writing in this completely serious and earnest manner–often a little romantical, but entirely suited to the subject matter. This book is the first volume of two, and the author excused the perhaps excessive length by asking “are a thousand pages too long for the history of twenty-five years of a man’s life, that is to say if one holds as I hold that childhood makes the instrument, youth tunes the strings, and early manhood plays the melody? “

We first meet Michael Fane as a small boy, who has just moved from the country to a house in London. His childish delights and concerns are believable and vivid–including the dreadful nanny who told him terrifying stories about what happened to bad boys, stories which he wholeheartedly believes. From childhood, he grows to boyhood–school days, fraught with battle–treats from the tuck shop–his favorite books—his enthusiasms, defeats and triumphs. Along the way, he learns to love his sister, a talented pianist. The first book ends with his entry into university, and his sister’s triumphant debut concert. So many stories, so much matter!  

The details of childhood and adolescence, the agonies of social embarrassment and the happiness of boyhood adventures–including a beautiful and ethereal first love–are lovingly assembled and examined. England’s green and pleasant land is ever present in the background, with its lush fields, charming water meadows, spinneys and copses–and of course, the seaside, the cliffs and beaches.

It is the vision of a whole elaborate social world–now long departed–that I found so fascinating. We encounter both dire cruelties and precious refinements unheard of today. The schoolboys say things like “beastly rotters”, “I say, this is awfully decent!”, “How jolly ripping!”–all phrases now associated with Monty Pythonesque satires, but of course, quite true to life for the time. History exact and evident, right there on every page.  

Gutenberg has the book available online

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I very much enjoyed the Monarch of the Glen–which surprised me by being completely and totally different from the genial and entertaining TV show which I had enjoyed and which was the reason I got the book. But the book is charming–a very happy combination of silly slapstick and dry wit, and it made me laugh out loud more than once. Compton MacKenzie, the Scottish writer who also wrote Whisky Galore (of which a charming movie was made back in the 40’s) is an excellent, witty, and engaging writer.

He begins with an inspired little bit of moony guidebook lyricism: “ Nobody who can spare the time should omit to explore Glenbogle. Apart from the wild magnificence of the natural scene Glenbogle literally teems with historic memories and romantic legends. . . .Ben Booey (3,100 ft) with Ben Glass (2,890 ft), the gray mountain, and Ben Gorm (3,055 ft) the blue mountain, are the famous Three Sisters of Glenbogle, celebrated in many a poem and many a picture”. Moving on from the splendid landscapes, we are introduced to Donald MacDonald, the laird of Glenbogle, his gracious lady and their two “hefty daughters”. The ladies are “known to the ribald as the Three Sisters of Glenbogle, but this was an injustice to Mrs. MacDonald, who was as large as her two girls put together and English at that.”

Furious at havMonarchoftheGlening his sport ruined by a group of hikers, the laird of the manor is suddenly “seized with an access of rage that must have been similar to the convulsion which had seized his ancestor Hector of the Great Jaw when in the year 1482 he speared eleven Macintoshes beside Loch na Craosnaich and drowned them in it one after the other. Grasping the secretary of the N.U.H. (National Union of Hikers) by the collar of his khaki shirt, he shook him as a conscientious housemaid shakes a mat.”

Not content with this outrage, the laird has the group gathered up and imprisoned in the dungeons of the castle. His lady wife is displeased:

“What do you want, Trixie?”, he asked, a touch of slightly querulous apprehension in his tone which the consciousness that he had nothing on beneath his flower-silk dressing did not allow him to neutralize by a masterful gesture of patriarchal authority.

“I want to have a little talk with you, Donald, before dinner”, the Lady of Ben Nevis boomed placidly. Dame Clara Butt answering a diapason of the Albert Hall organ was never more sure of herself. Mrs. Macdonald’s sway over her husband was a miniature (though perhaps miniature is an infelicitous word to use in her connection) of the sway which England exerts over Scotland. Mrs. Macdonald, to put it shortly, had the money.”

The tone is crisp and elegant, the plot ridiculous enough to rival some of Wodehouse’s—and it kept me chortling. A lovely book. And by the way, there is some entertaining and apropos stuff here.

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