133, 134 & 135: Matilda; The Girls of Slender Means; and Those Were the Days

She travelled all over the world while sitting in a little room in an English village.

OK. Disclaimer time. My parents were always exceptionally supportive of my reading anything I liked (and I’m not just saying that because my mother is probably my most devoted reader). That said, Matilda is like crack for bookish children. It’s pure escapist revenge fantasy.

I think, in fairness, most parents of bookish children probably aren’t like Matilda’s; but every bookish child is keenly aware of the possibility that they might have been. And so, we have a protagonist whose situation every reader can empathise with. It’s so easy to imagine life with odious parents and terrible teachers, and Matilda is overtly directed as those readers whom this prospect terrifies.

Unfortunately, reading lots of books does not actually make you telekinetic. Oh well. Reading lots of books is sufficient compensation in and of itself.

Much like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means dances between times (though less so) and introduces us to people pretty cold. The Girls themselves are the residents of the May of Teck Club, established for young women pursuing a career in London. “Love and money were the vital themes in all the bedrooms and dormitories.” It’s a charming and funny and odd book, of which I will note three features:

One. There are echoes of Northanger Abbey in the assertion that “literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women but girls.” “It was in fact a misunderstanding of Nicholas […] to imagine he would receive more pleasure and reassurance from a literary girl than simply a girl.”

Two. There is a contradiction about the amount of tea provided for by the ration system which I could not fail to notice.

Three. “Beer was served in jam-jars, which was an affectation of the highest order, since jam-jars were at that time in shorter supply than glasses and mugs.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

A charming collection of short stories by the late Sir Terry Wogan, Those Were the Days takes as its frame narrative a customers’ lunch at the bank, hosted by Tom, the new manager. Some of the tales are very funny. Some are very moving. Some make you frown in slight befuddlement. But it’s certainly a very worthwhile collection.

Author Roald Dahl
Published 1988
Pages 236
Best character Nigel Hicks. “‘Nigel Hicks what?’ the Trunchbull bellowed. ‘That’s it,’ Nigel said. ‘Unless you want my middle names as well.’”

The Girls of Slender Means
Author Muriel Spark
Published 1963
Pages 136
Best line “He makes pensées as he is too lazy to write the essay.”
Best character Joanna, elocution-teaching clergyman’s daughter, whose declamations “were felt to add tone and style to the establishment when boy-friends called.”

Those Were the Days
Author Terry Wogan
Published 2015
Pages 165
Best character Liam and Nuala Houlihan, from “The Happy Couple”.

Photo copyright © IWM (TR 2876).


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