Posted by: billpurdue | November 22, 2014

Catching up on modern classics

It’s taking me some time, but I am gradually working my way through a collection of novels (with a few non-fiction), which were published by the Companion Book Club in the 1950s. For several years, my parents subscribed to this book club and amassed quite a collection, some of which I have disposed of. The latest title I have read is by Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989) and is called “Mary Anne”.


This is a fictionalized account of the life of Du Maurier’s great great grandmother Mary Anne Clarke, nee Thompson (1776-1852). The first chapter concerns what is in effect the end of the story, a clever writer’s ploy to get the reader interested in all the characters who will appear later in the story. Mary’s childhood is the subject of chapter 2 where she shows early signs of being able to stand on her own two feet. Her stepfather, being a proof reader for a printer of halfpenny pamphlets, falls ill and is unable to work for a period. Mary Anne, a quick learner, knew how to imitate his writing and, more importantly, how to correct copy. In this way she did the proof reading and saved the family from ruin whilst her father was ill.


Before her 18th birthday she had married a stonemason, named Joseph Clarke, a man who came from rich parents who wanted him to learn a trade rather than rely entirely on his inheritance. Needless to say that he didn’t get on well as a stonemason and eventually went bankrupt. Mary Anne decided to leave him with her children and went on to have several liaisons with prominent men. Then she came to the attention of Frederick, Duke of York, who took her as his mistress. As the Duke was at that time Commander in Chief of the army, she was able to sell commissions with the Duke of York’s knowledge. As Mary Anne had led the Duke to believe that she was a widow, the sudden unwelcome appearance of Joseph prompts the Duke to cut ties with her and take another mistress.


The book reads just like a novel. It was only the rather inconclusive ending that led me to wonder if it might be a fictionalised biography. “Mary Anne “, first published in the 1950s, is still available as a paperback or ebook published by Little, Brown.


The UK belongs to others


“The fat cats are getting fatter” – so runs the headline to a feature in the ‘i’ paper for November 21st. This seems to be a symptom of increasing interest, cultivated by such campaigning organisations as ‘38 degrees’ and ‘We Own It,’ in who runs our public services and more importantly who owns them. A new book “Private Island: why Britain now belongs to someone else” by James Meek is possibly part of this trend. It makes sobering reading. Each chapter deals with the major industries which were previously in public hands, but have now been sold off to or are being run by hedge funds, individual investors and even publicly owned industries from other countries.


Beginning with postal services, Meek describes the situation in Holland where postal services are now run by three (previously 4) different companies. Some areas might have up to 3 postal deliveries a day, each from a separate postal company. He visits a postal worker at her home where she has to sort the mail allocated to her before delivering it round the streets, when she has the time. She admits that she is getting behind and a backlog is mounting up. The pay isn’t good either: apparently postal workers’ jobs are advertised as being suitable for part timers, retired people or students. Could our Royal Mail soon be like that?


Meek goes on to deal with Britain’s railways, water supply, electricity, health and housing. It’s a sorry tale of mismanagement, greed, and lowering standards, but it’s much more complex than that. Here are just a few examples of the consequences of the privatization: according to Meek, EDF, one of the major electricity suppliers in the UK is actually a publicly owned French company; the privatized company Railtrack (before it went under and was replaced by Network Rail) was actually planning to re-signal the West Coast main line using a totally untried and untested system called “moving block”; Thames Water is currently owned by an investment consortium headed by an Australian investment bank (only one of the several members of the consortium is based in the UK). By the way Meek does of course admit that mismanagement is not confined to the private sector, but his main message is that keeping those industries could have avoided some of the worst excesses of the new companies and also that our national assets such as electricity and water should not end up in foreign hands.

 Private Island

As if to underline all this, a headline in the same edition of the ‘i’ newspaper yesterday read “Revealed: huge profits from public services end up in foreign hands”. This book is a real eye opener, though many who read it will only have their suspicions confirmed. It makes gripping reading too, unlike some other titles on this topic. James Meek has also written a number of novels and some short stories, so he knows how to put a sentence together. Highly recommended.

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