Tag Archives: literature

Banbury in Literature – Frodgedobbulum’s Fancy

Banbury is most famous for the nursery rhyme:

Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a white horse
With rings on her finger and bells on her toes
She shall have music wherever she goes1

But Banbury crops up in other literature and verse from time to time and the town and surrounding area has also been home to some well-known authors throughout its history.

Today, I stumbled across a bit of nonsense verse I hadn’t heard of before and it features Banbury so I thought I would share it. The verse is Frodgedobbulum’s Fancy (not the easiest one to spell… or say) and it is by William Brighty Rands (1823-1882).

Frodgedobbulum’s Fancy by W. B. Rands (taken from Lilliput Levee)

Did you ever see Giant Frodgedobbulum,
With his double great-toe and his double great-thumb?

Did you ever hear Giant Frodgedobbulum
Saying Fa-fe-fi and fo-faw-fum?

He shakes the earth as he walks along,
As deep as the sea, as far as Hong Kong!

He is a giant and no mistake,
With teeth like the prongs of a garden rake!

The Giant Frodgedobbulum got out of bed,
Sighing, “Heigh-ho! That I were but wed!”

The Giant Frodgedobbulum sat in his chair,
Saying, “Why should a giant be wanting a fair?”

The Giant Frodgedobbulum said to his boots,
“The first maid I meet I will wed, if she suits!”

They were magic boots and they laughed as he spoke –
“Oh-ho,” says the giant, “you think it’s a joke?”

So he put on his boots, and came stumping down,
Clatter and clump, into Banbury town.

He did not fly into Banbury,
For plenty of time to walk had he!

He kicked at the gate — “Within there, ho!”
“Oh, what is your name?” says the porter Slow.

“Oh, the Giant Frodgedobbulum am I,
For a wife out of Banbury town I sigh!”

Up spake the porter, bold and free,
“Your room we prefer to your company.”

Up spake Frodgedobbulum, free and bold,
“I will build up your town with silver and gold!”

Up spake Marjorie, soft and small,
“I will not be your wife at all!”

Th giant knocked in the gate with his feet,
And there stood Marjorie in the street!

She was nine years old, she was lissome and fair,
And she wore emeralds in her hair.

She could dance like a leaf, she could sing like a thrush,
She was bold as the north wind and sweet as a blush.

Her father tanned, her mother span,
“But Marjorie shall marry a gentleman,

Silks and satins, I’ll lay you a crown!” —
So said the people in Banbury town.

Such was Marjorie — and who should come
To woo her but this Frodgedobbulum,

A vulgar giant, who wore no gloves
And very pig-headed in his loves!

They rang the alarum, and in the steeple
They tolled the church-bells to rouse the people.

But all the people in Banbury town
Could not put Frodgedobbulum down.

The tanner thought to stab him dead –
“Somebody pricked me?” the giant said.

The mother wept — “I do not care,”
Said F. — “Why should I be wanting a fair?”

He snatched up Marjorie, stroked his boot,
And fled; with Banbury in pursuit!

“What ho, my boots! Put forth your power!
Carry me sixty miles an hour!”

In ditches and dykes, over stooks and stones,
The Banbury people fell, with groans.

Frodgedobbulum passed over river and tree,
Gallopy-gallop, with Marjorie; —

The people beneath her Marjorie sees
Of the size of mites in an Oxford cheese!

Castle Frodgedobbulum sulked between
Two bleak hills, in a deep ravine.

It was always dark there and always drear,
The same time of day and the same time of year.

The walls of the castle were slimy and black,
There were dragons in front and toads at the back.

Spiders there were, and of vampires lots;
Ravens croaked round the chimney pots.

Seven bull-dogs barked in the hall;
Seven wild cats did caterwaul!

The giant said, with a smirk on his face,
“My Marjorie, this is a pretty place:

As Mrs. F. you will lead, with me,
A happier life than in Banbury!

Pour out my wine, and comb my hair,
And let me to sleep in my easy chair;

But first, my boots I will kick away” —
And Marjorie answered “S’il vous plait!”

Then the giant mused, “It befits my station
To marry a lady of education;

But who would have thought this Banbury wench
Was so accomplished, and could speak French?”

Did you ever hear Frodgedobbulum snore?
He shook the castle, from roof to floor!

Fast asleep as a pig was he —
“And very much like one” thought Marjorie.

Then Marjorie stood on a leathern chair,
And opened the window to the air.

The bats flap, the owls hoot —
Marjorie lifted the giant’s boot!

The ravens shriek, the owls hoot –
Marjorie got into the giants boot!

And Marjorie said “I can reach the moon,
Before you waken, you big buffoon!”

Once, twice, three times, and away,
“Which is the road to Banbury, pray?

The boot made answer, “Ha-ha, ho-ho!
The road to Banbury town I know.”

The giant awoke in his easy chair,
Saying, “Ho, little Marjorie, are you there?

“A stoup of wine, to be spiced the same! —
Exquisite Marjorie, je vous aime!”

Now where was Marjorie? Safe and sound
In the Magic Boot she cleared the ground.

Frodgedobbulum groaned, “I am bereft!
The left boot’s gone and the right is left!

“The window’s open. I’ll bet a crown
The chit is off to Banbury town!

“But follow, follow, my faithful boot!
One is enough for the pursuit;

“And back to my arms the wench shall come
As sure as my name’s Frodgedobbulum!”

Hasty Frodgedobbulum, being a fool,
Forgot of the Magic Boots the rule.

They were made on a right and a left boot-tree,
But he put the wrong leg in the boot, you see!

It was a terrible mistake
For even a giant in love to make,

Terrible in its consequences,
Frightful to any man’s seven senses.

Down came a thunderbolt, rumble and glare!
Frodgedobbulum castle blew up in the air!

The giant, deprived of self-control,
Was carried away to the very North Pole.

For such was the magic rule. Poor F.
Now sits on the peak of the Arctic cliff.

The point is so sharp it makes him shrink;
The northern streamers, they make him blink;

One boot on, and one boot off,
He shivers and shakes, and thinks, with a cough,

“Safe in Banbury Marjorie dwells;
Marjorie will marry someone else!”

And so, Frodgedobbulum, the giant,
Sits on the North Pole, incompliant.

He blinks at the snow, with its weary white;
He blinks at the spears of the northern light;

Kicks out with one boot, says, “Fi-fo-fum!
I am the Giant Frodgedobbulum.”

But who cares whether he is or not,
Living in such an inclement spot?

Banbury town is the place for me
And a kiss from merry Marjorie,

With the clerk in the vestry to see all fair,
For she wears orange-flowers in her hair!

She can dance like a leaf, she can sing like a thrush,
She is bold as the north wind and sweet as a blush.

Her father he tans, her mother she spins;
Frodgedobbulum sits on the pole for his sins;

But here comes Marjorie, white as milk,
A rose on her bosom as soft as silk,

On her finger a gay gold ring;
The bridegroom holds up his head like a king!

Marjorie has married a gentleman;
Who knows when the wedding began?

W B Rands wrote extensively but is most remembered for his poetry for children. He didn’t often put his name to his writings and frequently wrote under a pseudonym. This poem is taken from Lilliput Levee (published in 1864, author anon. but known to be W B Rands).

lilliput levee title
Title page illustration from Lilliput Levee


1 There are numerous variations to the Banbury Cross rhyme and quite a bit of controversy about the meaning of cock horse and the identity of the fine lady. This may be the subject for a future blog post.


Quote: From Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“All the diversity, all the charm, and all the beauty of life are made up of light and shade.”

― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (first published 1877)


Review: How to Find Love in a Book Shop by Veronica Henry

how to find love in bookshop_edited-1
How to Find Love in a Book Shop by Veronica Henry

Having met my other half in the bookshop (him customer, me bookseller) I loved the sound of this book; it was a definite must read and just the thing for a summer’s eve.

Emilia is 32-ish and she inherits, from her father Julius, the bookshop and home she grew up in but where she has spent little time over the past few years. It has been just the two of them since Emilia was a baby, so when Julius dies there is no other family to help out and Emilia has to make all the decisions about the future of the bookshop by herself.

Julius has poured much energy,  love and money into the bookshop for the past 32 years but has he left a strong enough business for Emilia to continue his legacy…?

‘A book shop could only make things better – for everyone in Peasebrook. Julius imagined each person he passed as a potential customer. He could picture them all, crowding in, asking his advice, him sliding their purchases into a bag, getting to know their likes and dislikes, putting a book aside for a particular customer; knowing it would be just up their street. Watching them browse, watching the joy of them discovering a new author; a new world.’

Nightingale Books occupies a prime location in the yellow-stoned Cotswolds town of Peasebrook and it occupies a very special place in the heart of the community, with a core of customers who are determined to help keep the bookshop open now that Julius has gone.

There’s the ‘lady of the manor’, Sarah, who has a long-standing connection to the bookshop and understands all too well what it’s like to be in financial difficulty. There is Thomasina, the painfully shy teacher, just a few years younger than Emilia, who falls for a man she met in the cookery section. There’s Mia, a young mum who’s given up a high-flying career to have the country life at home with her baby but is looking for something more. There’s Marlowe who used to put the world to rights with Julius several times a week over a drink or two, and who Julius used to play cello with in a small chamber group and then there’s Jackson, the young builder who is trying to save his marriage and form a deeper connection with his young son, through books.

There are several love stories woven through the novel, each of them appealing in their own way and the multiple plot strands make it a great page turner; it literally kept me up one night to finish it. I was slightly less enthused about the inner workings of the bookshop, renovations and practicalities but that’s only the bookseller / bookshop owner in me picking holes in the detail. It is a novel after all, not a factual account. Very few readers are going to notice anything to grumble about there; just bookshop owners like me! My only other grumbles are extremely minor but they niggled at me so I’m going to mention them. Book Shop or Bookshop? There are so few examples of ‘Book Shop’ being used these days; the norm being bookshop or bookstore (bookstore being slightly more American but both terms are used in both countries). This bothered me, perhaps unduly. What do you think? My only other niggle was just a tiny editorial thing. Near the beginning of the novel Veronica Henry has the characters going ‘up to London’ from Oxford… and that just didn’t work for me; you don’t go ‘up’ to London from Oxford, you definitely go down. They really are tiny grumbles.

I haven’t read any other novels by Veronica Henry so I can’t make any comparisons with her other books but when I fancy a light-hearted romance I would read another. I enjoyed her style and multiple plot strands and anything that keeps me up into the early hours of the morning has to get the thumbs up from me.

About the Author

Veronica Henry lives in Devon and has penned 14 romance novels; one of which won the 2014 RNA Novel of the Year Award, A Night on The Orient Express. Before trying her hand at fiction she also had a successful career as a scriptwriter for The Archers, Holby City and Heartbeat, amongst others

Where to Buy

You can buy How to Find Love in a Book Shop from your local independent bookshop, or you can buy online from hive.co.uk and still support your local independent bookshop by nominating them to receive a percentage of your sale on Hive. Shop local where possible to help keep your High Streets alive. The current RRP for a new hardback is £12.99. ISBN no 9781409146889. At Books & Ink Bookshop most of our new books are for sale at a discounted price. We also have a large second-hand stock. First published by Orion in hardback in 2016.

Review: Mobile Library by David Whitehouse

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I chose Mobile Library as my next read; something cute and fluffy about books and reading perhaps. The story is about a 12 year old boy and I think I was expecting a children’s book. What I got was something quite different. Mobile Library is something of a contemporary fairy tale, complete with all the dark and dismal parts that usually crop up in fairy tales, as well as the redeeming fairy-godmother.

mobile library2
Mobile Library by David Whitehouse


Twelve-year-old Bobby lives a bleak and lonely life, devoid of affection since his mother died. His father and girlfriend appear to care little for Bobby and show little interest in the boy, except for when they are venting their anger. When he’s at home Bobby spends his time neatly arranging and rearranging memories of his mother into files, or boxes, so that she can pick up her life where she left off when she returns… Bobby is also bullied at school but has a best friend, Sunny, who is his greatest protector. Bobby and Sunny are on a mission to turn Sunny into a cyborg so that he can protect Bobby from bad things forever.

Then Bobby meets Rosa when he’s passing by her house on his way home from school. She is 13 and she asks Bobby if he’d like to play. She has a disability of some sort, has a loving and trusting nature and immediately takes to Bobby as a friend. Rosa is attacked by the same bullies picking on Bobby (while Bobby, through fear hides in the bushes) and through this situation Bobby comes to meet Val, Rosa’s mum. Val and Rosa both warm to Bobby very quickly and take him into their hearts. Bobby spends more and more time with them, learning better how to communicate (after the silence he endures at home), taking baths (another forbidden thing at home), reading books, playing, eating proper meals and indulging in treats like ice cream (not allowed, his father says). Val enjoys Bobby’s company – for many years she has had little company other than her daughter – and Bobby feels love and a sense of belonging for the first time since his mother’s death. The little trio start to become like a functional family unit, although Bobby still has to go home to his father at the end of the day.

‘In every book is a clue about life,’ Val said. ‘That’s how stories are connected. You bring them to life when you read them, so that the things that happen in them will happen to you.’

‘I don’t think the things that happen in books will happen in my life,’ he said.

‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ she said. ‘You just don’t recognise them yet.’

Then events occur which put their surrogate son-mother relationship in danger and Val decides to take off across the country with Bobby and Rosa in the mobile library which she cleans once a week. In their time together this library has become like a dreamworld to Bobby – full of stories, adventures and escapism:

Morning hours vanished somewhere inside the books. Bobby read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, amazed that a man whose name he couldn’t pronounce might write a story that seemed like it was written just for him. Like the young prince, he too found the adult world strange. He too saw very few certainties in it.

They encounter quite a number of adventures while travelling and trying to evade detection, including picking up a fellow traveller-on-the-run who leads them all the way up to Scotland, from middle England, and back down and Bobby, Rosa and Val are all having the times of their lives when reality strikes. Will they be able to stay together in their new-found family unit…?

The novel starts at the end, which I didn’t particularly mind; it’s usually a device that annoys me as I like the novel to tell the story but in this case it is the ending told from a slightly different narrative perspective to the actual ending which is narrated in more detail and with Val’s voice, so the story isn’t fully revealed at the beginning. I didn’t get into the book right away, perhaps because it was so different to what I was expecting. I found the characters all a bit extreme and therefore not very believable and the plot a bit far-fetched. But. Then I settled into the fairy-tale-type style and it no longer mattered to me if the characterisation was over-the-top and the accumulation of events unbelievable; the characters were living out their own story and that’s when it started to work for me and fall into place. There’s no doubt that child abuse on this level does take place, disability discrimination, and so on. And there’s no doubt that reading stories, along with love and nurture, can really help unlock a child’s potential. The author also explores the theme of imagination and how far one can go with imagination before harm is done, i.e. is it always good to be imaginative, or should the self or another inflict boundaries to protect you from harm? A number of deep themes are explored.

There is some interesting philosophising in the novel, some great snippets about books, reading and the influences of literature, and some deeply disturbing aspects regarding child abuse and abusive relationships. It is not a novel for children, that much is clear but it doesn’t otherwise fit into a neatly arranged category. It is a good, thoughtful read. I often find it easy to forget a book almost as soon as I’ve read it but I won’t forget this one. The book isn’t perfect and can feel overdone and blatant but I would recommend it, particularly for the universal message about the power of stories to change, heal and transform.

About the Author

David Whitehouse was born in 1981 and lives in London. His first novel, Bed, won the inaugural 2010 To Hell With Prizes Award for unpublished work, the 2012 Betty Trask Prize and has been published in eighteen countries. His journalism has appeared in the national press and he has undertaken TV and film projects as well.

Where to Buy

You can buy Mobile Library from your local independent bookshop, or you can buy online from hive.co.uk and still support your local independent bookshop by nominating them to receive a percentage of your sale on Hive. Shop local, where possible, to help keep your High Streets alive. The current RRP for a new paperback is £7.99, ISBN no 9781447274711. At Books & Ink Bookshop most of our new books are for sale at a discounted price. We also have a large second-hand stock. First published by Picador in hardback in 2015; Picador paperback edition 2016.

Review: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

About my edition: Published by Macmillan Collector’s Library in 2010. Translated by Ros and Chloe Schwartz, with an afterword by David Stuart Davies. ISBN no. 9781907360015.

A cosy Sunday afternoon, sat by the fire, seemed the perfect time to re-visit this delightful little classic, The Little Prince.

“All grown ups were children once (but most of them have forgotten).”

I never read it as a child but, like all the best children’s stories, it is just as appealing to the grown up me as I am sure it would have been to little me.

The story opens with a pilot stranded in the Sahara Desert; he is trying to fix a mechanical problem with his plane before his food and drink supplies run out. He wakes one morning at daybreak to a little voice asking him to …”Please, will you draw me a little lamb!” It is the Little Prince.

The Little Prince comes from a planet a long way away; a star, or more specifically Asteroid B 612. It is a very small planet, no bigger than a house, and he looks after it all by himself. He sweeps the chimneys of his three little volcanoes every day and weeds the ground from invasive baobab plants. One day, a new seed comes up through the soil and he watches it grow and develop and get bigger, looking more and more unusual, until it finally blooms into a beautiful, yet thorny flower.  The Little Prince gets talking to the flower and it becomes quite a bossy, vain, demanding and opinionated little flower; demanding water and wind shields and a glass dome to protect it from the cold. The Little Prince loves this precious flower but he doesn’t know how to handle her over-sized ego, so he makes his escape from his beloved planet and sets off an adventure.

“It is sad to forget a friend. Not everybody has had a friend.”

The plant becomes very sad as The Little Prince says goodbye; she knows she has driven him away with her unkind words and she becomes remorseful and sorry for what she has said:

“‘I’ve been stupid,’ she said at last. ‘Please forgive me. Try to be happy.'”

The Little Prince sets off to visit different planets. He encounters a king, a show-off, a drunkard, a businessman (who owns all the stars but does not have the time to appreciate them), a geographer, and a lamplighter. He finds all of these adults very strange and quite tedious; he can’t understand why they do what they do. The only one he has any affinity with is the lamplighter, because …”he’s the only person I don’t find ridiculous. Maybe it’s because he’s looking after something other than himself.” The final planet in his journey is Earth but this planet is much, much bigger than any planet he has encountered before and to begin with he can’t find any people… He meets a snake, a fox and a rose, from each of which he learns some pearls of wisdom. From the fox, he learns:

“People no longer have the time to understand anything. They buy things that are ready-made from the shops. But as there are no shops selling friends, people no longer have any friends.”

The fox tells him his secret:

“You only see clearly with your heart. The most important things are invisible to the eyes. You mustn’t forget this simple truth. You are responsible for ever for those you have tamed.”

The Little Prince shares all he has learned with his new friend, the pilot, and when the pilot carries the Little Prince through the desert on a search to find water, looking down at the handsome prince the pilot comes to the realisation that ...”What I see here is only his shell. The most important part is invisible.”

It is a beautiful story, simply told and illustrated, and with a gentle philosophy in the tradition of the best moral tales such as Aesop’s Fables and the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Each of the people the Little Prince encounters on his travels highlights a different human vice or weakness; that each of them has a different failing serves to highlight that failing all the more. The Little Prince is soon longing to go back to the planet he loves and the sad little flower he left behind. The author gently attacks the stupidity or short-sightedness of adults throughout the book, leaving us to wonder how we lose the inquisitiveness and unrestricted views of childhood.


About the Author

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was born in 1900 in Lyon, France, and The Little Prince was first published in 1943 (Le Petit Prince). Saint-Exupery began military training in 1921 and later became a pilot, becoming an international postal pilot in the very earliest days of air mail. In the Second World War he joined the French Air Force and went missing on a mission over Germany on 31 July, 1944. He sadly didn’t live to see his little book become an international publishing success. To date, it has been translated into over 180 languages and has sold over 80 million copies worldwide. Saint-Exupery’s other books include Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars (published in 1931 and 1939, respectively).

Where to Buy

You can buy The Little Prince from your local independent bookshop, or you can buy online from hive.co.uk and still support your local independent bookshop by nominating them to receive a percentage of your sale on Hive. Shop local, where possible, to help keep your High Streets alive. For collectable editions, try biblio.co.uk. My edition, the Collector’s Library edition, is currently available new as a pocket-sized hardback (with black and white illustrations) at the RRP of £7.99. It is my favourite translation of the book, though you might also like to try the editions published by Egmont with colour illustrations.

Man Booker Prize Winners to 2015

One of the most hotly anticipated events in the annual British literary calendar is the Man Booker prize. The prize, which has been running since 1969, is awarded to the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK. Booksellers, publishers, authors and bibliophiles all get excited about this one and I look forward to it every year.

The prize is not to be sneezed at – £50,000 for the winner and £2,500 each for the shortlisted authors makes this a trophy on many novelists’ wish lists. Money matters aside, there is also great kudos attached to the Booker and shortlisted and winning authors can expect a healthy boost in sales.

I’ve put this list together mainly for my own benefit as I often look up the prizewinners by year and this will be a useful quick reference tool for me so hopefully others will find it useful too. I plan to explore shortlisted titles and international prizes in later posts.

Inaugural Year
1969 – Something to Answer For by P. H. Newby

1970 – The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens
1971 – In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul
1972 – G. by John Berger
1973 – The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell
1974 – Holiday by Stanley Middleton AND The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer
1975 – Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
1976 – Saville by David Storey
1977 – Staying On by Paul Scott
1978 – The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
1979 – Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

1980 – Rites of Passage by William Golding
1981 – Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
1982 – Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally
1983 – Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee
1984 – Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
1985 – The Bone People by Keri Hulme
1986 – The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
1987 – Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
1988 – Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
1989 – Remains of the Day by Kashuo Ishiguro

1990 – Possession by A. S. Byatt
1991 – The Famished Road by Ben Okri
1992 – The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje AND Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
1994 – How late it was, how late by James Kelman
1995 – The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
1996 – Last Orders by Graham Swift
1997 – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
1998 – Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
1999 – Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

2000 – The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
2002 – Life of Pi by Yann Martel
2003 – Vernon God Little by D. B. C. Pierre
2004 – The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
2005 – The Sea by John Banville
2006 – The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
2007 – The Gathering by Anne Enright
2008 – The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
2009 – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

2010 – The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
2011 – The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
2012 – Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
2013 – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
2014 – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The Lost Man Booker Prize
In 2010 a special prize was awarded for a novel published in the year 1970. For the first two years of the prize, the prize was awarded retrospectively for books published in the previous year. The rules changed in 1971 to books published in the year of the award, which meant that books published in 1970 missed out altogether. Six books were shortlisted for the award and the winner was:
Troubles by J. G. Farrell

The Best of the Booker Prize
In 2008 a special prize was awarded to celebrate 40 years of the Booker. The winner was Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

The Man Booker Best of Beryl Prize
This special prize was awarded in April, 2011, to celebrate the work of Beryl Bainbridge; five times shortlisted but never a winner (The Booker Bridesmaid). The public were invited to vote online for their favourite from The Dressmaker, The Bottle Factory Outing, An Awfully Big Adventure, Every Man for Himself, and Master Georgie. The winner was Master Georgie. Beryl died in 2010.

Where to Buy
As always, I recommend shopping at your local independent bookshops, or buying online from hive.co.uk, where you can still support your local independent bookshop by nominating them to receive a percentage of your sale on Hive. Shop local to keep your High Streets alive. For out-of-print or collectable editions try your local bookshops again or biblio.co.uk. I don’t receive commissions for recommending these sites to you (only Hive commissions if you nominate Books & Ink as your favourite bookshop!!).

A selection of Booker Prize winning novels

Review: ‘An Awfully Big Adventure’ by Beryl Bainbridge

awfully big adventure
An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge (Abacus edition, 2003)
It has taken me some time to get around to reading my first Beryl Bainbridge novel and I’m not quite sure why; I suppose other books that appealed to me more kept coming along and usurping Beryl in my list of authors to try. To be honest, An Awfully Big Adventure came up as the answer in a quiz I was doing recently and…well, there are worse reasons for choosing your next book to read!

As well as being mentioned in a quiz, it was also the book I had heard the most about; it has been acclaimed by many reviewers as one of her best and is one of five of her novels that made it to the Booker Prize shortlists, featuring on the shortlist for 1990. It was also made into a film in 1995 but that passed me by.

So, what did I think? Well I’m sorry to say I was disappointed. Perhaps, having read a few reviews, I had set my expectations unrealistically high. Perhaps I would feel differently about the book with a second reading… whatever the cause, I shall try and unpick my thoughts here.

Stella is a 16 year old in Liverpool and the year is around 1950 – not long after the end of the war. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the boarding house they run and has just failed her mock exams for her school certificate. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily decide to try getting her a job in the theatre, so with a few coaching lessons under her belt, Stella goes off to try her hand at the Liverpool Rep. Not only young, Stella is also very naive and innocent in the ways of the world. The theatre provides a sharp introduction into the adult world. Though there are figures in the theatre who take her a little under their wing, there are the whole gamut of eccentric characters working at the theatre and Stella has to learn and grow up very quickly.

 – Spoilers coming up –
(Apologies- I can’t write about this novel without writing about some of the more complex aspects, which includes the ending)

Stella falls hard and fast for company Director, Meredith. She learns early on that Meredith has a partner, Hilary, but fails to read Meredith’s mannerisms and mistakes the absent Hilary for a girlfriend, rather than the boyfriend that he is. When a celebrity actor, O’Hara, turns up to take the place of another injured cast member, Stella, though still infatuated with Meredith, finds herself the object of O’Hara’s affections and somewhat disinterestedly decides to give up her virginity to this man; seemingly out of curiosity and politeness and her inability to say ‘no’.

…”the way you were brought up… it was impossible to say no if you didn’t want to do something.”*

Death and pathos are also bound up in the novel: Stella’s absent mother, who she rings from a public phone box up to several times a day; the troubled personal lives of the actors; the witnessing of the gory death of a delivery boy; and ultimately the death of her first sexual partner (I hesitate to use the word ‘lover’), O’Hara. All of these events are wound up with deeper meanings and further discoveries but I don’t want to divulge any more plot revelations here in case readers would like to discover the book for themselves.

This is all gritty, meaningful stuff, so what was I missing? First and foremost I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. There was a lack of depth to the characters on the page – more is left unsaid and hinted at but I would have liked a greater understanding of the principle character right from the offset; you get half way through the book before you find out that she has red hair. This in itself isn’t all that important but I find it very difficult to form a relationship with a character who is so sketchily drawn. The novel also opens with what appears to be the end of the novel, Chapter 0  – I had to read this about three times to make sense of it; when I finally realised I was reading the end of the book I carried on but I was tempted to give up on the book then and there.

“I don’t write fiction.”*

After a couple of chapters I was curious to see where the plot was headed as there is no denying Beryl Bainbridge’s mastering of her art as a writer is excellent; the writing is clever and the plot twists not obvious at all. I became curious about Stella’s destiny. After all, she’s this young naive girl thrust into this theatrical, sexual world with no experience or know how. She also seems to have a tentative grasp on her own mental equilibrium, while some of the other characters clearly have no such grasp on theirs. It became necessary to find out how the book ended.

When I’m reading, or when I’ve finished a book I like to relate it to the author themselves; see if I can find out a bit about their intentions, their lives. Everyone to some extent draws on their own life experiences when writing, especially realistic fiction, so I find it very interesting to read a bit about author’s lives or what they have said about their own novels.

“A writer’s head… is just a hotchpotch of impressions from the past, things you’ve read, words you want to write down; it all gets mingled up here.”*

Beryl Bainbridge says in an interview in 2003, ‘I don’t write fiction’. All of her novels are based on her life experiences or on history. When she was 16 she became an actress at the Liverpool Rep. She essentially wrote herself into the character of Stella and the rest of the theatre company are all based on real people she knew, if not necessarily real events. This, alone, is what the made book more interesting for me and might make the book more satisfactory on a second reading than a first. There is no denying the author’s skill with words and writing technique but I found a coldness to the book and the characters on a first reading. Personally, I can appreciate the book as a clever book of hidden depths, worthy of its place on the Booker shortlist but not one that I particularly enjoyed reading. I would liken it to my appreciation of, for example, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – there is plenty in there to analyse and appreciate but it would never make it even close to my top 100 desert island reads.

If anyone reading this has any suggestions for a Beryl Bainbridge novel I might enjoy more / should not miss out on, please leave me a comment and let me know.

About the Author

Dame Beryl Margaret Bainbridge, DBE (21 November 1932 – 2 July 2010) was born in Liverpool and died in London. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery. She won the Guardian Fiction Prize with The Bottle Factory Outing and the Whitbread Prize twice with Injury Time, and Every Man for Himself. The five novels shortlisted for The Booker Prize were The Dressmaker, The Bottle Factory Outing, An Awfully Big Adventure, Every Man for Himself, and Master Georgie.

Where to Buy

You can buy An Awfully Big Adventure from your local independent bookshop, or you can buy online from hive.co.uk and still support your local independent bookshop by nominating them to receive a percentage of your sale on Hive. Shop local to keep your High Streets alive.


*All quotes are from BBC Radio 4 Book Club with Beryl Bainbridge, Sunday 6 April, 2003 – retrieved 09 February, 2016 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02czn73