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I was inspired by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) to get Robert Gibbings’Sweet Thames Run Softly‘. The title was very beautiful and I couldn’t resist it.

Robert Gibbings decides one day to travel down the Thames by boat and observe his surroundings, enjoy the view, and look at how other denizens who are not humans are living their lives. He wants a flat bottomed boat which is not readily available and so he takes the help of a friend who builds him that boat. Then he takes the boat out to the river, and avoids humans, and lives a calm, serene life for a while. At the end of his journey, he puts down his experiences which results in this book.

Robert Gibbings was a very interesting person. He went to university to study medicine and ended up studying art. He become an engraver and founded the Society of Wood Engravers. He bought a publishing company and published beautiful books which he illustrated with his own exquisite engravings. He also travelled and explored nature and wrote books like this and became one of the first natural history presenters on the BBC.

Sweet Thames Run Softly‘ is a beautiful book. The title is borrowed from this line from the Edmund Spenser poem ‘Prothalamion‘ โ€“ “Sweet Themmes! runne softly, till I end my Song.” In the book, in his gentle soft prose, Robert Gibbings describes nature, the trees, the plants, the river, the grass, the insects, the birds, the animals, the frogs, the lizards and all kinds of fascinating beings whom he encounters during his trip down the Thames. In between he takes detours into classics and talks about what Greek and Roman writers thought about a particular topic. There were so many beautiful passages in the book that I couldn’t stop highlighting. The book has a beautiful introduction by Luke Jennings in which he describes the book as โ€“ “This is science filtered through an artist’s eye, and the result is wonderfully strange.” Yes, it is wonderfully strange, in a beautiful way ๐Ÿ˜Š Robert Gibbings undertook this journey down the river just before the Second World War. This book was published in 1940, in the first years of the war, when things were bleak for England and much of the world. The readers of that time loved the book, because they probably thought that the gentle life and beautiful scenes that the book described were probably over and never to be seen and experienced again.

The book is illustrated by Robert Gibbings own engravings and they are exquisite. I’ve shared a few below โ€“ please have a look and take pleasure in their beauty.

The edition I read is published by Little Toller Books and they seem to know one or two things about how to make a beautiful book, because this edition is exquisite. I checked their catalogue and it is filled with wonderful books on nature writing โ€“ I found W.H.Hudson’sA Shepherd’s Life‘, H.E.Bates‘ ‘Through the Woods‘, a few books by Oliver Rackham, and a biography of J.A.Baker, who wrote the famous, ‘The Peregrine‘. I want to read all the books in their catalogue.

I loved ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I’m so happy I discovered it.

I’m sharing some of my favourite passages from the book below.

“During my travels on the river I did not bother much about the time of day. When it was light I woke up, and when it was dark I went to sleep, and when I was hungry I prepared myself some food. And thus I lived as peacefully as any old badger in his earth. I could, of course, have consulted the flowers – the dandelion which opens at five o’clock a.m. and closes at eight o’clock p.m., the white water lily which spreads its petals at seven in the morning and folds them together again at five in the evening, or the marigold whose short day lasts but from nine till three, but I soon learned to ‘feel’ the hour, and when occasionally, out of idle curiosity, I did inquire the time I rarely found that I was more than half an hour out in my surmise. Fog, of course, makes the calculation more difficult, but even mainline trains do not run to schedule in a fog.”

“One of the saddest sights I ever saw in my orchard was at a place where a mown path divides two patches of longer grass. Across this track a field mouse was wont to lead her young, but, one morning, as she did so, a hawk swooped down. It lurched through the trees, fanning out its tail and wings for an instant as it dropped over one of the little ones, and, without interrupting its flight, seized it in its claws and carried it away. I watched to see if the mother would return, but she never appeared again. If I seem to sentimentalise over what must be inevitable it is only because I am so conscious of the wealth of beauty destroyed by every stroke of fate. A fly, exquisite, and in every detail formed beyond the imagination of man, is but a mouthful for a frog. A frog, whose system is so complicated that it can be considered as a prototype of our own construction, is swallowed whole by a duck. A duck is but one meal for a fox, or a human being.”

“I am more and more surprised at man’s presumption in allocating to his own body the prize for beauty. Regarded dispassionately, this ungainly frame of ours must be far down in the aesthetic scale. Why, even our zenith of feminine beauty, the Venus de Milo, is the better for having no arms. And the artist was compelled to drape her legs so that the torso might have a semblance of architectural design. We are, of course, interested in our own construction, and more particularly in that of the opposite sex, but only because our strongest instinct colours every aspect of our existence. If, however, we can for a moment forget that urge and compare ourselves with other forms of life which we see about us we may get a true perspective on the subject. When, for instance, we compare our naked skins with the feathers of the chaffinch or the yellowhammer, ours must seem a poor covering. When we think of the graceful movements of any of the cat tribe, of the speed of even a rabbit or a hare, or of the muscles of the horse or ox, we must realise how inferior we are in agility and strength. Only in brain power are we superior. And to what miserable ends has that superiority been directed!”

“..my friend’s chief obection to my remarks was that without a garden one couldn’t have cut flowers. As he rightly observed, few wild flowers survive for long after they are picked. To this I replied that cut flowers at any time are a barbarism, and that if any one really appreciates a growing flower he cannot get any but the crudest form of satisfaction from seeing a bunch of drooping heads in a vase. No flowers, however carefully or even lovingly they may be arranged, can look as well when cut as they do when growing. If we have a garden there is less need than ever to decapitate the plants in order to enjoy them. The memory of a bed of lupins in full sunlight is far better than the sight of a dozen of them sagging from a glass jug in the glare of an electric lamp. Tulips, which started this discussion, are some of the worst sufferers. God knows, in spite of what I have said, they are my favourite garden flower, but it gives me little pleasure to see them drooping over the edge of a piece of oriental pottery planted on a grand piano, or hanging from a vase on a photo-laden mantelshelf.”

Have you read ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly‘? What do you think about it?

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Yesterday, late at night, I was watching my favourite Netflix show, when I suddenly remembered A.J.Cronin. It made me smile.

A.J.Cronin was probably the first literary fiction writer that I ever read. I was in my middle teens when I first discovered his books. I still remember how it happened. I was at the bookshop one day, browsing. I used to spend a lot of time in bookshops even then, when people my age were playing cricket or watching TV or gossiping. When I was browsing at the bookshop, I saw Cronin’s ‘The Citadel‘ in one of the shelves. I’ve never heard of him before. Most of the books at the bookshop were not affordable for me, and so I mostly spent time browsing, but this one was priced so low that I was surprised. I’d never seen a full novel at this price and I couldn’t resist getting it. I read it a little later and I loved it. Sometime later, when I went to the library, I saw another Cronin book. I couldn’t resist borrowing that and reading it. This continued happening and Cronin’s books started cropping up everywhere โ€“ I saw them at the library or at secondhand bookshops and I continued getting them and I loved most of them. I didn’t know anyone who had read Cronin. None of my friends or acquaintances had heard of him. He was my secret.

I continued reading Cronin’s books till my late twenties, but at some point it was hard to get them, because they went out of print and secondhand copies were hard to come by. I spotted the occasional copy at the library, but otherwise Cronin had just disappeared. When the Kindle arrived, I looked for Cronin’s books but they weren’t there. During the peak of his career, Cronin was a very popular writer, and many of his books were made into movies or TV series, but now it looked like he had disappeared. I was surprised when in one of the online bookclubs I used to be a part of, readers one day started discussing Cronin. I didn’t know anyone else who had read his books. Most of the readers who discussed Cronin’s books were closer in age to my mother, and when I told them that I loved Cronin’s books, they were surprised, because according to them, I was too young to have read Cronin.

Most of Cronin’s stories were about doctors โ€“ ‘The Citadel‘, my most favourite book of his, was about a doctor who worked in a mining village and his wife who was a teacher there; ‘The Green Years‘ was about a boy who wanted to become a doctor; ‘Grand Canary‘ was a story set in a ship in which the main character was a drunk doctor. ‘Adventures of a Black Bag‘ was about a doctor called Dr.Finlay and the cases he handles in a small town / village. ‘Adventures in a Black Bag’ was probably based on Cronin’s own experiences as a doctor and it became quite famous when it was first published. It was made into a TV series which was very popular. I think this might have been the forerunner of and the inspiration for most of the TV series which followed in future decades, including two popular Netflix series now, ‘Doc Martin‘ and ‘Virgin River‘, which are about doctors in small towns / villages. The doctor in ‘Virgin River’ looks like a drunk doctor who is perennially annoyed and he almost looks like a character who has stepped out of the pages of one of Cronin’s books.

So yesterday, when I suddenly remembered Cronin, I paused my Netflix show, and searched for Cronin’s books on the Kindle. When I pressed the ‘Search’ button, I was in for a surprise. Page after page of listings turned up with Cronin’s books! I’ve never seen that before! It was like a lost treasure had been found suddenly and Christmas came early. I was so thrilled!

I couldn’t resist buying the Cronin books, of course! I wanted to add every title which was listed, but then had to resist temptation and pick more carefully. I got all my favourites, ‘The Citadel’, ‘The Green Years’, ‘Lady with Carnations’. ‘Lady with Carnations‘ is one of the Cronin books in which the main character is not a doctor. The story is about an aunt and a niece who are very fond of each other, but then surprisingly discover that they are both in love with the same man. What happens after that is very beautiful. I also got ‘Shannon’s Way‘ which was the sequel to ‘The Green Years’. I always wanted to find out what happened to the boy in ‘The Green Years’ who wanted to become a doctor. I am excited to find that out when I read ‘Shannon’s Way’. I also got ‘Adventures of a Black Bag’, ‘The Innkeeper’s Wife‘, Cronin’s alternate Christmas story on the Nativity, ‘Hatter’s Castle‘, Cronin’s first book which I’ve always wanted to read, ‘Adventures in Two Worlds‘, Cronin’s autobiography, in which Cronin describes how he started out as a doctor and ended up also becoming a writer. There were not many doctors who wrote stories in the pre-Second World era (I think Somerset Maugham was trained as a doctor but didn’t practise, while Anton Chekhov was probably one of the few practising doctors who also wrote stories) and so that should make interesting reading.

I’m so excited to get started. I think I’ll probably read ‘The Green Years’ again and then get to ‘Shannon’s Way’. My long dream of reading ‘Shannon’s Way’ is finally going to be realized and I’m so excited!

Have you read A.J.Cronin? Which of his books are your favourites?

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I have wanted to read an Elizabeth Taylor novel for some time (I know what you are thinking โ€“ this is not the actress, this is the English novelist) and when I was wondering which one to read first, Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat‘ recommended ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont‘.

Mrs Palfrey moves to the Claremont hotel. It is a place where mostly single, retired people live. There is an interesting cast of characters who live there and each of them is unique in their own way. Mrs Palfrey settles down there and makes new friends. One day while coming back from the library, she slips and falls. A young man helps her, takes her to his home nearby, and treats her to a cup of tea, and finds her a taxi to get back. And that is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. What happens after that โ€“ you have to read the book to find out.

Mrs Palfrey is a very likeable character and her friends and acquaintances at the Claremont are all interesting characters that we enjoy reading about. The relationship between Mrs Palfrey and Ludo, her young friend, is beautifully depicted. Elizabeth Taylor’s prose is charming and there are many beautiful sentences and passages in the book, which are filled with humour and insights. I am giving below some of my favourites.

“He had a glass of wine on the table beside him, but did not touch it. He sat patiently still, with his hands on his knees, as if waiting for the drink to drink itself.”

“Perhaps from his father he had his sense of duty, and from his mother its sporadic quality.”

โ€˜Do you consider yourself an optimistic person?โ€™
โ€˜Oh, I think so.โ€™ She did not explain to him how deeply pessimistic one must be in the first place, to need the sort of optimism she now had at her command.

“Sometimes, when I was a young, married woman, I longed to be freed โ€“ free of nursery chores and social obligations, oneโ€™s duty, dโ€™you know? And free of worries, too, about oneโ€™s loved ones โ€“ childish ailments and ageing parents, money troubles, everyone at times feels the longing โ€“ to run away from it all. But itโ€™s really not to be desired โ€“ and I realise that thatโ€™s the only way of being free โ€“ to be not needed.”

“It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost. Names slip away, dates mean nothing, sequences become muddled, and faces blurred. Both infancy and age are tiring times.”

I enjoyed reading ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont‘. I am glad I read my first Elizabeth Taylor book.

You can find Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) review of the book here, and Jacqui’s (from JacquiWine’s Journal) review here.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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