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Fantastic Review of Ann Scott Moncrieff’s ‘Auntie Robbo’ by Dr Nick Campbell

I first met Auntie Robbo on a sunny day six years ago, in Any Amount of Books second-hand book-shop in Charing Cross Road. She was not exactly looking at her best at that point: originally released in 1941, this Puffin edition from 1962 crudely transposed an illustrarion by Christopher Brooker on its cover. You had to peer at it to realise it showed a horse-drawn caravan jolting along at a dangerous pace, while an elderly woman – rakishly attired – hauled a young boy aboard with calm insouciance.

But once I’d seen that, I knew I had to jump aboard that caravan as well.

I fell head-over-heels in love with Auntie Robbo and passed old Puffin editions onto friends. I could never quite understand: why wasn’t it better known? Why hadn’t it become one of those Puffins everyone reads to death and hangs onto through life? Why had there never been a movie adaptation, by Ealing or the Archers or Disney?

Why, for goodness sake, was it not still in print – destined to endure only in the shelves of Impossible Libraries like mine…

I’m surely not alone in loving novels that feature wild, wise and wonderful old women (often grandmother figures). Novels like Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and now The House with Chicken Legs (and you’ll tell me the ones I’ve forgotten, of course). Like Tolly Oldknow, Auntie Robbo also features an admiring grandson, and that’s a wonderful relationship to see celebrated in fiction: the rebellious old women doing all the talking, the fey young men shutting up and listening for once.

In Auntie Robbo, it’s eleven year old Hector sitting beside eighty year old Aunt Robbo (short for Robina, which to me suggests Robina Crusoe’s adventures in the Girl’s Own Paper), as she drinks her coffee and he eats his bread and jam. She is not his Auntie, or his Grandmother, but his Great-Grand Aunt. In their remote old house, Nethermuir, she tells him of the travels of her youth, and sometimes they go to old battlefields to improve Hector’s grasp on history. 

“[We] ride over the battlefields and go and look at the castles where the murders were done.” 

Seeing Merlissa Benck’s shocked expression, Hector explained seriously. ‘Scottish history has a great many murders, you know.’

‘I dare say,’ said Merlissa Benck shortly. ‘But I should have thought British history would have been more suitable for a boy of your age, indispensable in my opinion. England’s story is a very great and noble one.’

‘Yes,’ said Hector. ‘But then we couldn’t ride to the battlefields, could we? I mean they were mostly fighting in places that didn’t belong to them, weren’t they?’ 

Hector has no wish to jostle about with boys his own age, and certainly no intention of going to school. When a couple of self-interested do-gooders (hell Merlissa Benck) try and rescue the boy from this outrageously dysfunctional upbringing, he and Auntie Robbo take off by bus at dead of night, and begin a string of wild adventures.

So you may be able to tell, already, that this is a truly wonderful book. So why is it not better known? I couldn’t help wondering – was it possibly the fact it was Scottish? Parochial book publishers, thinking the English kids wouldn’t ‘get’ it? Well, it turns out that’s precisely what happened: ‘too Scottish’ for the UK, and so it was first published in the US, albeit with a warning: it had not “a shadow or suspicion of a moral”.

Well, that may be true – but it certainly has an urgent sort of message to it, although thankfully without a trace of saccharine about it. It argues against convention and for freedom, against respectability and for bohemianism, against stale compromise and for the wide open beauty of the Highland countryside. There are lyrical descriptions of the coast and the woods, and even that night bus racing through the darkness. Hector and his Auntie end up racketing about with three other orphans, getting in and out of trouble, but they all end up living life according to their own characters. 

Image from the National Portrait Gallery

I suppose the end of the 30s was the last blooming of the bohemian dream: Augustus John was still alive and the Bloomsberries were in their farmhouse. I particularly like the youngest boy discovering his passion for painting, and the novel’s conclusion that greed and selfishness are the worst things in the world, especially when it pertains to people.

I tried to learn more about the author, Ann Scott-Moncrief, but her other two novels seemed to have faded away, and she had vanished with them. I know now that her short life took her from Orkney to Fleet Street, that she was a poet and married a playwright, and that she found fame as a broadcaster on BBC Scotland radio. I know that she had a great ear for comedy, perfectly evoking Auntie Robbo’s mix of anarchy and stateliness:

The dining-room door was snapped open and Auntie Robbo’s voice came with great finality: “I tell you the whole thing is ridiculous, quite ridiculous,” and presently she swept into the drawing-room.

Auntie Robbo was at her most magnificent, flushed and excited, anger adding fire to her brown cheeks and faded eyes. She was wearing one of her grandest evening dresses: a purple taffeta one nipped in at the waist, spread out into a fan-shaped train. It was festooned with bunches of net and white rosettes and from the corsage hung two twinkling tassels of diamonds. Auntie Robbo wore this confection right regally; she loved her clothes as she loved her food.

It’s a novel about the human appetite for life, about the delight in sharing and companionship, a funny novel about heroic eccentricity versus agents of conformity. It’s vivid, delicious novel, funny and adventurous – and the marvellous news is that Scotland Street Press are reissuing it this summer! Yes, edited by Scott-Moncrief’s granddaughter, with Brooker’s illustrations intact, Auntie Robbo will ride again this month. I can finally replace the final copy I gave away to a friend, and even more delightful, those lost books of hers will soon be lost no more: back to life, back on the road, escaping from the Impossible Library and rattling along, ready to sweep readers along with them, out into the breathless Highland hills. You won’t regret going along with Hector’s Auntie Robbo.

P.S. Today’s blog is an update of this review from my old blog, A Pile of Leaves for Scotland Street’s ‘Auntie Robbo’ blog tour.https://impossible.home.blog/2019/06/20/auntie-robbo-by-ann-scott-moncrieff/

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A Land Girl’s Tale….

The following is an extract from The Drummond Civic Association Newsletter, January 2018

A LAND GIRL’S TALE…

It is a pleasure to welcome the latest publication of the Scotland Street Press. ‘A Land Girl’s Tale’ by Mona Macleod is the thirteenth title on the catalogue of this exciting publishing house which was founded in 2014 by Jean Findlay, the great-great-niece of C. K. Scott Moncrieff, the celebrated translator of Proust. Her biography of Scott Moncrieff, ‘Chasing lost Time’, was received with acclaim in 2014. The Press is committed to promoting Scotland as ‘a distinctive creative voice and in highlighting women’s voices’ which Jean Findlay feels are ‘underrepresented in literature as a whole in Scotland. Hitherto, the catalogue includes 9 out of 13 titles by women.
Mona Macleod’s absorbing memoir of her experience employed a Land Girl in Kirkcudbrightshire during the Second World War is a riveting account of the extraordinary but often unsung contribution by the Women’s Land Army to winning the war in Britain.

The author dispels any notion that the Women’s Land Army operated in some sort of charming rural idyll. On the contrary, the land girls had literally to turn their hand to most aspects of agricultural work including laborious field work, care of livestock, forestry, and even blocking up of rat holes. They were often cold and hungry, and were paid risible wages. Despite facing immense challenges, their contribution in keeping the country fed and the home fires burning should never be underestimated. Although the Queen recognised the achievement of the WLA at the end of the war in signed letters to individuals, shamefully it was not until 2000 that they were invited to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day. The only concrete commemoration of the work of

the Land Army is a sculpture near Buckie, unveiled by Prince Charles in 2012. As Mona Macleod rightly observes, this is a deceptively jolly image of life as a land girl which this book seeks to correct. She does so triumphantly. In this respect, the story of the WLA echoes that of the Bevin Boys who were conscripted to work in the coal mines in dreadful circumstances and whose sterling achievement was only acknowledged as recently as 2008.

B Land Girls cover 1

This is an immensely significant contribution both to the annals of Scottish social history and to the advancement of Women’s Rights in Britain. It is also immensely readable, and a typically stylish SSP production with delightful illustrations. JRM

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Firkin & the Grey Gangsters and Other Stories by Ann Scott-Moncrieff

AA firkin cover v2Category: Children’s Fiction
ISBN: 978-1-910895-15-3
Format: Paperback (B Format)
Pages: 170
Price: £8.99
Release date: July 2019

Firkin & the Grey Gangsters is a collection of three tales in which animals are the heroes.

Firkin & the Grey Gangsters was in 1936, a metaphor for the fear of takeover by corporate America – Firkin is a young red squirrel who leads his people in a battle against a horde of grey squirrel invaders from America. Firkin speaks in Scots.

The Sheep who wasn’t a Sheep is about the thoughts going through the head of a sheep, swimming between one Outer Isle and the other.

The White Drake is a farmyard drake in Perthshire learning about flying.

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Aboard the Bulger by Ann Scott-Moncrieff

AA aboard the bulger cover v4

Category: Children’s Fiction
ISBN
: 978-1-910895-16-0
Format: Paperback (B Format)
Pages: 200
Price: £8.99
Release date: October 2019

Five children escape from a Children’s Home, run away and steal a boat, which they sail around the Outer Hebrides.

This book has a huge print run from London Metheun, but their warehouses were bombed in 1940 in Paternoster row; 5 million books were lost in the fires caused by tens of thousands of incendiary bombs. Consequently, there were very few copies in circulation. This is thee resurrection of a successful children’s adventure story.

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Auntie Robbo by Ann Scott-Moncrieff

AA auntie robbo Cover V1Category: Children’s Fiction
ISBN
: 978-1-910895-14-6
Format: Paperback (B Format)
Pages: 200
Price: £8.99
Release date: May 2019

Hector is an 11-year-old boy living near Edinburgh with his great auntie Robbo who is in her eighties. A woman calling herself his step-mother arrives from England and Hector and Auntie Robbo realise that they have to run away. The chase leads all over the north of Scotland, narrowly escaping police and the authorities, adopting three homeless children on the way.

Originally refused publication in London because it was deemed critical of the English, Auntie Robbo was first published in the U.S. in 1940. After success in print it was taken on by Constable in 1959 and later was published in India, South Africa, New Zealand, Denmark and Germany.

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Black Snow Falling by L. J. MacWhirter

BSF Front updateCategory: Historical Fantasy (Young Adult)
ISBN
: 978-1-910895-21-4
Format: Hardback (B Format)
Pages: 250
Price: £12.99
Release date: August 2018

The black sky empties itself. Shadows tumbling without end…
In 1592, a girl with spirit is a threat.
Ruth has secrets. An old book of heresy belonging to her long-absent father. A dream that haunts her. And love that she and Silas hide from the world.
When she is robbed of all she holds true, her friends from Crowbury slide into terrible danger. Hope is as faint as a moonbow. Dare Ruth trust the shadowy one who could destroy them all?
This is a story about hope overcoming evil, written with satisfying moral complexity. Ruth’s devastation breaks apart time. She sees that her hopes and dreams are a visceral halo of rainbow colours spinning to white… and that evil dream thieves are severing these halos from sleeping victims, many of whom she knows.
“A powerful new mythology” Anna Claybourne, Author

L. J. MacWhirter is an international award winning advertising copywriter and an accomplished presenter. Black Snow Falling is her debut novel for young adults. She lives in Edinburgh with her family.

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A Large Czesław Miłosz With a Dash of Elvis Presley by Tania Skarynkina

 

 

Skarynkina cover

 

Category: Essays
ISBN
: 978-1-910895-22-1

Format: Paperback (B Format)
Pages: 188
Price: £9.99
Release date: August 2018

Tania Skarynkina’s stories mix life in a small Belarusian town with thoughts on world literature.  Sitting by her window with a glass of cranberries in sugar syrup bought from a woman in the market who assured her they came from Karelia, she muses “Perhaps they have some kind of effect when you eat them. Spiritual maybe? So I eat and wait for the cranberries to work their magic on me.” Skarynkina is impelled to spend the last of her money on a trip to Krakow to meet Czeslaw Milosz but never finds his address, so he remains to her an idol like Elvis Presley dressed in  gold lame. Each story has a charm and imaginative flight of its own.

Tania Skarynkina, poet and essayist, was born in 1969 in Smarhon, Belarus. This book of literary essays was published in 2015 and includes recollections of her childhood in Smarhon interwoven with thoughts on poets, philosophers and world literature as a whole.  Fresh and engaging, it is a Window into Another Life.   

Translated by Jim Dingley. 

 

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The Sweet Pea Man by Graham Martin

Sweet Pea Man cover

Category: Biography
ISBN
: 978-1-910895-18-4
Format: Hardback
Pages: 470
Price: £24.99
Release date: December 2017

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gooreads

 

 

 

Taking you on a journey through nineteenth-century British gardens, The Sweet Pea Man is a minutely researched biography of the Victorian plant hybridist Henry Eckford and his life as a breeder of the famous Grandiflora sweet peas. Born and b Born and brought up in Scotland, Henry started as a garden apprentice at Lord Lovat’s Beaufort Castle. After working his way through the gardens of Penicuik House and Fingask Castle, Henry moved to England and bred pelargoniums and dahlias in the garden of the Earl of Radnor, for which he became famous and could then begin his lifework on the cross-breeding of sweet peas which he refined in refined in Wem in Shropshire. Not only a biography of Henry Eckford, this book is filled with detailed, scientific descriptions of the fascinating world of plants.

A professional gardener for thirty-seven years, Graham Martin began at Kelsey Park, Beckenham in 1964, studying day-release at the Kent College of Horticulture and later full time at the Somerset College of Horticulture. At the same time he had a long ca time he had a long career in athletics as a club and county distance runner. In 1991 he graduated in American Studies at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales. He now lives near Selkirk in Scotland and lectures on Henry Eckford

 

 

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Don’t Look Down: An Adventurous Life with MS By Roger Chisholm

978-1-910895-20-7_Don't_Look_Down

Category: Memoir
ISBN
: 978-1-910895-20-7
Format: Hardback
Pages: 212
Price: £19.99
Release date: December 2017

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Ski-mountaineering in the Austrian Alps with only one working limb (see cover). Sailing above the Arctic Circle and west of Greenland. Walking around Annapurna. Working as a doctor in India. Exploring the tribal region of north Pakistan.

These are only some of the things consultant radiologist Roger Chisholm has done after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, aged 27.

This is a life-affirming story of enduring friendships, quiet courage and resilience. Above all, it is a story of a man determined to defy the odds and live life to the full.

About the Author

Roger Chisholm is a consultant radiologist in a Manchester teaching hospital. A one-time passionate mountaineer, after being diagnosed with MS, he rechannelled his love of wild places and adventure into offshore sailing. This is his first book.

Photo of Roger (Back Flap) v2 (IMG_0839)