The Four Swans is the masterful sixth novel in Winston Graham's
sweeping series of Cornwall, Poldark. Cornwall 1795-1797. Although Ross Poldark – now something of a war hero –
seems secure in his hard-won prosperity, a new dilemma faces him in the sudden
infatuation of a young naval officer for his wife Demelza. All four women – the four swans – whose lives touch Ross’s, face a crisis in
these years. For his wife Demelza, his old love Elizabeth, his friend’s new wife
Caroline and for the unhappy Morwenna Chynoweth these are times of stress and
conflict. Published by Pan 1st June 2017
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That image above, of the RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, published by Dorling Kindersley, heralds the fact that this is the third edition of this mammoth book that I have reviewed in Books Monthly since I first started to include book reviews in the mag as long ago as 2000. This time, it's a one-volume blockbuster - it's expensive, and I'm lucky enough to have been sent a free review copy. It's heavy - you'll need a reinforced coffee table or bookshelf. It's beautiful - read my review on the nonfiction page!
How my life changed in the 1950s: more about books...
I had the smallest bedroom in the house because I was the youngest. I never questioned it, and why would I? My Mum and Dad had the biggest bedroom (naturally) at the front of the house with the big bay window that matched the downstairs front room. My suster Jean had the second biggest room, at the back of the house, and my room, also at the back of the house, was the smallest. I looked out over rolling fields, and if I craned my head to the right a little, I could see the nissen huts which had previously hosued Italian prisoners-of-war, and which were now used as accommodation for poorer people in the small village of 3-4000 or so people. From my parents' big front bedroom, I could see Cooper's Hill, better known as Cheeseroll Hill, probably about a mile and a half away. To get to Cooper's Hill you had to cross the main road (Ermin Street) and go up Green Lane, past a few houses and out into the open country. Cooper's Hill was remote, a place of mystery for me, the kind of place where Malcolm Saville's Lone Piners might have their adventures, or Enid Blyton's Famous Five. I have to confess, at this stage, that I do not recall ever reading either Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine series, or Enid Blyton's Famous Five series when I was a youngster. I am aware, now, that Little Noddy from Toytown was born the same year that I was, in 1946, but I don't recall ever seeing a Noddy book until we were buying them to read to our two youngest children in the mid-to-late 1980s.
The first books that I remember with any clarity were by Mabel Lucie Attwell - little, cherubic children having gentle, warm adventures with animals and friends, brilliantly painted, brilliantly written for little people. I learned to read at primary school, and when I did, the world opened up before me. I remember Jack and Jill comics, but as these began being published in 1954, it is unlikely I would have had them bought for me as I would by that year have been between 7 and 8, and reading a wide variety of books and other comics. I remember Pip, Squeak and Wilfred in a cartoon strip, which was published in the Daily Mirror, so I must have seen it at my Gran's house, because my Dad took the Daily Express or the Daily Telegraph. Although he was working class through and through, he always had ideas above his station, voted conservative all his life (my Mum would have voted labour - Gran and Granddad held Labour Party meetings in their house and the whole of that side of the family were labour through and through). There was a Children's newspaper section in the Daily Sketch, I believe, but it always seemed far too serious for a seven year old, although I did like looking at the Children's Book Club adverts, with titles by Capt. W E Johns and Angus MacVicar. The problem was, there was so much I wanted to buy with my meagre pocket money - there were the new Airfix kits, 2/6d from Woolworths, there were extra bits of Meccano from the indoor Market in the city, and there were sweets! Even though I was captivated by books, I was always tempted more by toys when it came to parting with money! I've already said in a previous article how I always asked for books for birthdays and at Christmas, and the large nuclear family were happy to oblige. It wasn't until I was about eleven years old and getting decent money from my paper round that I started to think about buying books for myself.
Comics were different. As well as my pocket money, I was allowed to have two comics per week. Jean had School Friend and Girls Crystal - I originally chose Lion comic over the Eagle, and caught up with the adventures of Dan Dare from friends' Eagle comics when I went to play with them. In 1954 the Lion's companion paper, Tiger, went on sale, and I took that as my second comic. At Christmas I would get the annuals for both Lion and Tiger, along with the Commander Book for Boys, which started in 1957 and ran for four years. I still have the 1957 and 1958 annuals in one of my bookcases. Looking back, I can see that they were perfect for 11-14 year olds, and the demise of these great comics and annuals fills me with sadness. There are no decent comics for boys or girls any longer, and that's a sad state of affairs. Comics and annuals brought me to a peak of perfection when it came to reading from a very early age. When people denigrate comics as being worthless and not terribly good for assisting in teaching children to read, I think they must be thinking of America comics like DC and Marvel. I have nothing against DC and Marvel, but when I think of the wide variety of stories in Lion, Tiger and Eagle (and the girls' equivalents, School Friend, Girls Crystal and Girl), it makes my blood boil to hear how British children's comics from the 1950s are dismissed as worthless.
So, with money in my pocket from my paper round, I started to save for a bicycle. I had my eyes on a Raleigh four-speeder with drop handlebars which I had seen in Currys in the Oxbode. Currys was one of my favourite shops for a time - it was where I had seen a radiogram (a large piece of furniture housing a radio and a gramophone) which I thought would look very handsome in the bay window of the front room, and which would allow us to purchase the newy vinyl records in place of the shellac 78s that were all that the old wind-up gramophone would play. Eventually, after much nagging, my Mum took out a hire purchase agreement on the gramophone, and I at last had enough money to buy my bike! I was eleven years old and I could go anywhere with my new independence. It wasn't long before I was cycling to school in preference to getting two buses... and then there was the explosion of books that seemed to be calling to me... My favourite author at age eleven was Edgar Rice Burroughs. I had seen Lex Barker in a Tarzan film and, the following day, had found a copy of Tarzan of the Apes published by Four Square and with a wonderful front cover by Mortelmans. My love of the story is tempered by the fact that Hollywood has never ever made a decent film of Tarzan of the Apes; knowing what I now know about Lex Barker, I hate the fact that I ever discovered ERB off the back of a Barker Tarzan film. My favourite Tarzan in all movie versions is Miles O'Keefe from the Bo Derek Tarzan the Apeman film, and my favouite TV Tarzan is Ron Ely.
At the same time as I was discovering Tarzan, I was also discovering the wonderful world of the Saint, by Leslie Charteris. All other similar characters, including the Toff and the Baron, by John Creasey, were pale imitations - I tried them and they didn't come up to the mark, I'm afraid. John Creasey's Inspector West series, on the other hand, was magnificent, and started my love of TV detectives, including Endeavour (my favourite), Lewis (second favourite) and Morse himself. Most TV detectives are based on books. of course, but Morse is different - there are a finite number of books, but dozens of episodes of Endeavour and Lewis, about whom there are no books (the TV Lewis is entirely different to Colin Dexter's Lewis), more's the pity, but then I don't think anyone could write about them the way Dexter did. My love of TV 'tecs didn't start until 1963, of course, when we moved away from Brockworth and settled in Stevenage new town. We were all lonely that Christmas, Mum, Dad and me, having only moved into our 3-bedroomed flat a month earlier, so Dad secretly rented a TV from the Rediffusion shop two doors down and we discovered the joys of television together, revelling in programmes like Dixon of Dock Green and No Hiding Place. I've deviated a little from my essay on literature in my youth, but this seems like a natural place to stop for now.
See you next month!
The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its twentieth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.