Sunday 13 December 2009

Try Anything Twice

Good things come to those who wait, we are told, and that's generally how I treat books which come to my shelves. A few leap immediately to hand, read within minutes of arriving, but most are left - like fine wines - to mature. And so it is that Try Anything Twice by Jan Struther, which arrived in October 2007 from lovely Ruth (aka Crafty Person), has finally been read. And it's like a hot cup of tea on a wintery afternoon.

Jan Struther is best known for Mrs. Miniver - which I wrote a bit about back here - the voice of quintessential middle-class Englishness leading up to World War Two. Though she altered dramatically for the film, there was still that kernel of being England's everywoman (within the remit of those with servants and children at boarding school and jolly outings.) Though Try Anything Twice doesn't feature Mrs. M, the voice is instantly recognisable. Published in 1938, the volume collects articles and essays that Jan Struther wrote for Spectator, New Statesman, Punch, and other journals. They're all from that middle-class world, but what an observant world it can be - whether noting the vagaries of updating an address book ('Zazoulian, the little Armenian painter. His pictures are not very good, nor his conversation amusing, and it is eighteen months since you saw him: but a "Z" is a "Z"') or going to a Registry Office to find a nanny (one who is neither a dragon nor a duchess) or the poetic potential of a builder's plans.

As always with short stories or essays or poems - anything where there is no uniform whole - it is near impossible to write a convincing review of Try Anything Twice, especially since I read it over the course of some weeks. Verity's review is worth seeing, by the way, but for now I think the best way to talk about the book is to give you a sample. It's not necessarily the best in the book, but it's fairly representative of the style of Try Anything Twice. All of the book is actually available online, but of course (!) it's better to get hold of the book itself. If you like the following, as they say, you'll like the book. Ladies and Gentlemen; 'With Love From Aunt Hildegarde'

THERE are three ways of choosing presents for other people. The first is to choose something you think they would like; the second, something you would like yourself; the third, something you think they ought to have. Of these methods the first is the wisest but the least common; the second is less wise but more usually followed; while the third is wholly unforgivable and accounts for much of the post-Christmas bitterness from which we are apt to suffer.

My great-aunt Hildegarde is an almost fanatical devotee of the third method. Many people would call her an ideal aunt; that is to say, she gives us presents not only at Christmas but for each of our birthdays and often in between times as well. But her gifts have, so to speak, a sting in the tail; they represent her unspoken criticisms on our habits, customs and whole mode of living. Whenever we see her firm capable handwriting on a parcel, or a box arrives from a shop with one of her cards enclosed, we pause before unpacking it any further, sit back on our haunches and wonder what we've done wrong now.

"I know," says T. "Last time she dined here the spout of the coffee-pot was chipped and it dribbled all down her frock."

"No," I reply, "I know what it is. The menu-card was propped up against the candlestick, and she said how awkward it was the way it kept slipping down."

And when we open it, sure enough, if it isn't a new china coffee-pot it is a pair of menu-holders–contrivances which we particularly dislike, even when they are not made from tooled gun-metal in the form of two hedge-sparrows rampant, regardant and proper.

Once she came to tea with me on a pouring wet day and found nowhere to park her umbrella. The next day a large tubular object arrived. It had vaguely military associations, but it had been so converted and distorted that it was difficult to tell whether it had originally been a large German shell or part of a small field-gun used in the Russo-Japanese War. A third possibility is that it was once a moth-proof travelling container for a Balkan field-marshal's top-boots. At any rate, it takes up a great deal of room in the hall.

And another time, I remember, she wanted to write a note at my desk and was scandalised because there was no proper pen and ink–although, as I explained, I had three fountain-pens, any of which I was willing to lend her. Four days elapsed and I began to breathe more freely. But on the fifth there came a small square parcel containing a silver-mounted ink-pot with my initials irrevocably engraved upon it (which accounted, no doubt, for the delay). Like the umbrella stand, it was a convert; but in this case there was no difficulty in guessing its original function. To make matters quite clear, Aunt Hildegarde had attached a note saying: "I feel sure you will like to have this little memento of poor dear Blackie, on whose back you took your first ride. This is the very hoof which she used to lift so prettily to shake hands. May it bring you lots of inspiration for your little poems!!"

I groaned, filled it with fountain-pen ink and set it fair and square in the middle of my writing-table, where it remains to this day, a constant reminder of the agonies and humiliations of childhood; for it was the self-same hoof with which Blackie once stood for a full five minutes on my toe, I having neither the strength nor the courage to remove her.

I do not wish to look a gift-hoof in the mouth or to seem in any way ungrateful, but the thing is getting on our nerves. Not only are we developing an inferiority complex about our own home but we are becoming self-conscious about entertaining Aunt Hildegarde. We dare not give her grapes, lest she should think that we are hinting at grape-scissors; nor lobster, for fear of invoking a set of silver-plated picks. But however careful we are we cannot think of everything. We did not, for instance, foresee that she would give us an electric clock for Christmas.

It is true that when she came to stay with us a month ago our drawing-room clock was not behaving quite as a good clock should. One day it was a few minutes slow and she missed the weather forecast on the wireless. And another day it ran down altogether and made her late for church. "Your Uncle Julian," she said gently, "used to wind all the clocks in the house every Sunday morning." But this mild fragment of reminiscence did not at all prepare us, though perhaps it should have, for the grey maple rhomboid which now adorns our mantelpiece.

At least, it looks like maple, but it is actually (so the accompanying leaflet informs us) made of steel, which can neither shrink nor warp, neither rust nor tarnish. It runs off the electric mains; it needs no winding; it is guaranteed to keep absolutely perfect time; and ever since it came into the house we have felt acutely ill at ease.

Our old happy-go-lucky days are over. No more can we think comfortingly as we start out rather late for a dinner-party: "Oh, well, perhaps our clock is fast," nor, when we arrive there to find hostess champing and fellow-guests ravenous, can we murmur, "We are dreadfully sorry, but our clock was slow," for our friends have already got to know about our new, our abominable possession. Gone too are sundry minor pleasures, such as listening for the radio Time Signal and leaping up to make a half-minute adjustment; and, better still, squandering pennies in a lordly way by dialling T.I.M.

And gone–worst of all–is the small friendly sound which used to accompany our thoughts, the balanced alternation of tick and tock, like the footsteps of a little dog walking very quickly beside you on the pavement. Time now proceeds for us in a series of hard metallic clicks, one every minute, each identical with the last: it is a large, slow, hopping bird of prey which follows relentlessly behind us. For fifty-nine seconds it stands still; we escape it; we are immortal; and then with a sudden deft leap it catches us up again. Better never to escape; better to have our little trotting dog.

But there is nothing to be done about it. If we did not use the clock, or if we banished it to the dining-room, Aunt Hildegarde would not only think us both mad and decadent–for what sane responsible citizen would not jump at the opportunity of being always certain of the time?–but she would also be terribly hurt. It was touching to see her when she came to tea yesterday, gazing up with reverent eyes at the angular, impersonal, implacable monster on the mantelpiece.

"Your Uncle Julian," she said, "would have found it such a boon."

The vulture took another hop forward.


  1. Ooh, thanks for the mention Simon. I'm glad you found this interesting, and I like the passage you quote - very seasonal!

  2. Oh I do like the sound of this one and I think the cover of the old Virago green classic is brilliant! I shall keep my eyes peeled for this edition before 2010 hits and my book buying goes into decline.

  3. A very well chosen piece - meaning the prose not the clock! I'm pleased you enjoyed the book.


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at