Posted in Book review, Non-fiction

Book review: “Surviving the death railway” by Hilary Custance Green

This book, compiled by fellow blogger, Hilary Custance Green, was given to me as a Christmas present. It was well into this year before I began reading it, but once I started I was hooked.

Surviving the death railway
“Surviving the death railway” by Hilary Custance Green (2016)

Hilary’s father, Barry (the handsome chap on the cover), was 26 years old and a Captain in the British Army when he was posted to the Far East during the Second World War. His young wife, Phyllis (the lovely lady on the cover), and their baby son, Robin, were left behind in England, expecting to join Barry in due course. At that time, in the summer of 1941, the Far East was at peace and there was little inkling of what lay ahead.

As soon as they were apart, Barry and Phyllis began communicating with each other by letter. It is these letters that make up the bulk of the book, along with letters sent to Phyllis by relatives and friends of other men serving alongside Barry. During what ended up being four years of separation, Phyllis made it her mission to try and keep in touch with the families of Barry’s unit, known as 27 Line Section.

After Japan became involved in the war, life deteriorated significantly for the British and their allies serving in the Far East. Held as Prisoners of War (PoWs) by the Japanese, they were treated appallingly. Along with many of his fellow PoWs, Barry was frequently moved between various work camps in Malaya and worked on the now infamous Burma-Siam railway.

Throughout this time the sending and receiving of mail became increasingly difficult, with letters taking months, or often years, to be delivered. For three and a half long years after becoming a PoW, Barry was constantly waiting for news from Phyllis while Phyllis was desperately awaiting letters from Barry. Each of them continued to write, always hoping for some sort of response. It’s hard to imagine just how difficult it must have been to keep on writing in those circumstances.

Thousands of PoWs died in the Far East, but Barry was one of the survivors. After reading this book it seems clear that his relationship with Phyllis was a big part of what kept him going. For Phyllis, left to bring up their small child on her own and and never sure whether her husband was still alive or not, the prospect of one day having him back gave her hope for a brighter future. The love Barry and Phyllis had for each other shines through the pages from beginning to end.

Although the conditions Far Eastern PoWs had to endure were truly horrific, and some of what’s described in the book makes for distinctly uncomfortable reading, I found this a surprisingly uplifting and moving read. The book is skilfully edited by Hilary, with sufficient context and extra information to allow the letters to speak for themselves. After finishing the book I was left with the reassuring feeling that, no matter how bad things get and how awful human beings can be to each other, love and friendship always win through.

Posted in Photography, Postage stamp, Royal Mail

Postage stamps no.2

In 2016, Royal Mail celebrated 500 years of the British postal system. Very fittingly, this fine achievement was commemorated with six special postage stamps drawing attention to different features of Royal Mail’s history.

The Royal Mail began in 1516, when King Henry VIII knighted a chap called Brian Tuke, making him the first Master of the Posts. Tuke’s task was to establish a postal network across Britain, using major towns as hubs. The system didn’t become publicly available until the 1630s, but it then quickly expanded to delivering mail beyond the British Isles. By the mid-1600s Royal Mail was delivering letters and parcels to countries on the European continent, and these journeys were made by what became known as packet ships.

The range of ‘Royal Mail 500’ stamps produced last year featured six images: Brian Tuke, a packet ship, a pillarbox, a mail coach, a river postwoman and the inside of a mail centre. I have one of these stamps – the packet ship – in my possession, and since it’s starting to get a bit tatty round the edges I’m thinking of using it some time soon. Before I do, though, here it is in all its philatelic glory:

Royal Mail packet ship stamp

The original packet ships were wind-powered, but by the 1820s steam ships were being used. In 1839, a Scottish geographer named James MacQueen started up the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company which carried mail from the south of England all the way to the Caribbean twice a month.

Since Henry VIII’s time, a further 20 British monarchs have overseen the Royal Mail, and there have been a number of pioneering moments throughout the company’s history. Royal Mail was the first postal service worldwide to use a postmark, the first to deliver mail by air and the creator of the first adhesive stamp, the Penny Black (in 1840). Uniquely for world postal services, Royal Mail stamps do not feature the country name. Ever since the Penny Black was produced with a silhouette of Queen Victoria’s head on it, British stamps have had the reigning monarch’s head on them.

You can read the first in my stamps series here.

Posted in Book review, Fiction

Book review: “The monogram murders” by Sophie Hannah

There seems to be quite a fashion for modern novelists to take classic characters created by earlier writers and feature them in new novels. I tend to be a bit wary of this, because each writer has their own writing style. I’ve read more than one modern story featuring Sherlock Holmes, for example, that has fallen far short of Conan Doyle’s brilliance.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I picked up ‘The monogram murders’  by Sophie Hannah, since it stars one of the great classics of crime fiction, Hercule Poirot.

“The monogram murders” by Sophie Hannah (2014)

The story opens with Poirot as the sole customer dining at a London coffee house, when a harassed-looking woman bursts through the door. She asks one of the waitresses for her ‘usual’ and sits down at a table with her back to the door.

As Poirot watches her, he is intrigued to see her keep twisting round in her seat in order to look at the door. Aware of her distress he gets up, goes over to her table, and asks if he can join her. She agrees, distractedly, still intent on watching the door. He introduces himself as a retired policeman and asks if he can be of any assistance to her.

She reveals to him that she is about to be killed and, in her opinion, when she is dead justice will have been done. The words are barely out of her mouth before she declares she has said too much and beseeches Poirot to leave the crime of her murder unavenged. Before he can stop her, she gets up and runs out of the coffee house, leaving Poirot’s curiosity aroused and his appetite gone.

On the same evening of this curious event, Poirot learns that three people have been murdered at the prestigious Bloxham Hotel. The crime is being investigated by his friend, Scotland Yard detective, Edward Catchpool. For reasons Catchpool is at a loss to understand, Poirot is convinced that the murders are somehow related to the young woman he met in the coffee house.

The novel is written from the point of view of Edward Catchpool (a new character invented by Sophie Hannah), much as Captain Hastings narrated many of Agatha Christie’s original Poirot stories. This struck me as a clever plan by the author, allowing her to present the Hercule Poirot known and loved by millions of readers, without having to copy Agatha Christie’s writing style.

Poirot’s character is reassuringly well reproduced, and his speech and mannerisms nicely in keeping with the character created by Agatha Christie. The voice of the narrator is noticeably different from the original novels, but I didn’t find this detracted at all from the story. In fact, if anything, it added authenticity, because Catchpool and Hastings are quite different characters.

I was so gripped by this book that I found it hard to put down. The plot is ingenious, and very well worked out. I sometimes get a bit lost in the detail when reading murder mysteries but, despite its complexity, I found the plot of ‘The monogram murders’ relatively easy to follow. This, I think, demonstrates the skill of the author, and I take my hat off to her.

I scored this novel 19/20, using my 4 Ps rating system.

Posted in Book review, Fiction

Book review: “The maintenance of headway” by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills seems to me to be a one-off. He somehow manages to convey uneventful tales in a gently comedic, at times slightly unsettling, manner. ‘The maintenance of headway’ is a classic example of his talent.

“The maintenance of headway” by Magnus Mills (2009)

Ignoring the conventions of novel writing, rather than setting his stories in a specified location, he uses vague language that’s suggestive rather than definite. The novel is set in an unnamed metropolis with a ‘bejewelled thoroughfare’. The description is highly suggestive of London.

Likewise, his characters are never described in anything but the barest of details. The story is written from the point of view of a bus driver, whose interactions with fellow bus drivers and bus inspectors provide the meat of the novel.

Everything about the book is so subtle it’s almost as if there is no plot, and yet there is a story to tell. Although the book isn’t set in a stated year or era, it involves red double-decker buses with automatic doors, and mentions the trialling of a new articulated bus, which gives the reader some sort of reference.

From start to finish, the characters are entertainingly obsessed with the minutiae of operating a bus service. The many acute observations they make provide a fascinating insight into what might be going on behind the scenes of Britain’s transport network. I found ‘The maintenance of headway’ to be a highly engaging novel and have scored it 19/20, using my 4 Ps system.

You can find out more about my scoring method on ‘The 4 Ps’ page, or by clicking here),

Posted in Farm signs, Photography, Scotland

Farm signs: plough and cow

Many of Scotland’s farms have their names made into attractive signs posted at their entrances. I’ve often thought I should try and collect photographs of them.

The other day my mum and I were out for a walk near the town of Alyth in Perthshire, along a small road that cuts through Strathmore Golf Course. Across the road from the clubhouse stood a farm sign featuring a horse and ploughman, bearing the name ‘Leroch’.

No longer a working farm, Leroch is currently up for sale as a residential development site. A road to the left of the trees in the photograph below leads down to the old farm buildings, which are attractively situated on one side of the golf course.


A little further on we came to a working farm, featuring another commonly seen farm animal. The sign refers to ‘farms’ plural; presumably at least one of the businesses involves cattle of some sort.


It was a very cold afternoon, but beautifully sunny. The low angle sunlight made the countryside glow.

Posted in Book review

Book review: “Something more” by John Pritchard

I gave this book to my dad for Christmas, with half a mind that I might read it myself although it’s not my usual sort of reading material.

Prior to retiring in 2014, John Pritchard was Bishop of Oxford, having previously held the office of Archdeacon of Canterbury, amongst other roles. He’s written a lot of books concerning the Christian faith, of which ‘Something more’ is the latest. What drew me to this book, after a recommendation on Amazon, was its easy-to-read style and lack of religious jargon.

“Something more” by John Pritchard (2016)

John Pritchard asks a number of fairly straightforward, sometimes deceptively simple, questions about life and how we experience the world, and offers thought-provoking responses rather than direct answers. I was brought up in a strict Christian household and, having drifted away from the religion in my adult years, I tend to find anything too overtly Christian rather off-putting. The author’s attempt to avoid making assumptions about his readers’ religious beliefs was something I appreciated.

The first few chapters drew me in, somewhat to my surprise, and it wasn’t until I was about a third of the way through that I began to feel slightly uncomfortable. I didn’t make notes as I went along, so I’m not entirely sure what caused this reaction, but I suspect my mood changed when the book began to deal more specifically with the Christian faith. There were one or two chapters that struck me as a bit preachy, and they put me in two minds about finishing the book. I persevered, however, and am glad I did because the last few chapters made a good summing up of the whole book.

Each chapter is quite short, at around five pages of discussion about a certain topic (e.g. what our longings tell us, questions of suffering, a need for answers). Following the main discussion there is a key question relating to the foregoing text, a short story or poem and a list of suggestions for ways in which the reader might investigate the issues further.

At the end of the book, in a section headed ‘Questions for group discussions’, each chapter is covered in summary with a number of bullet points containing questions for debate. I read through them all, and although quite a few were of no interest to me, there were others that struck me in some way. For example, for chapter 5 (entitled ‘Earth’s crammed with heaven: the meanings of wonder’) the first bullet point reads: ‘Share your most breathtaking experiences. Are they all to do with nature? Why?’

When I had finished the book my dad asked me what I’d thought of it and I mentioned having been a bit put off part of the way though. To my surprise, he had experienced something similar. My dad has read and digested more religious material than anyone else I know, and I think of him as having an unquenchable thirst for the stuff. Having come at the book from very different standpoints, I found it interesting that we’d each had this similar reaction. I suspect he enjoyed the whole book more than I did, but I believe I got more out of it than I thought I would.

Posted in Garden, Photography

Winter garden

This is not the most colourful or vibrant time of year in Scottish gardens, but armed with my camera I went out yesterday afternoon to see what I could find. I was pleasantly surprised by the small scale beauty of little plants thriving in quiet corners, even dead leaves providing interesting shapes and textures.