Thursday, 29 August 2013

Delightful Mrs Miniver

It was lovely, thought Mrs Miniver, nodding good-bye to the flower-woman and carrying her big sheaf of chrysanthemums down the street with a kind of ceremonious joy, as though it were a cornucopia; it was lovely, this settling down again, this tidying away of the summer into its box, this taking up of the thread of one’s life where the holidays (irrelevant interlude) had made one drop it. Not that she didn’t enjoy the holidays:  but she always felt - and it was, perhaps, the measure of peculiar happiness – a little relieved when they were over. Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half-afraid to step out of its frame in se one day she should find herself unable to get back. The spell might break, the atmosphere be impossible to recapture.

Mrs Miniver, as you can tell from the opening passage of the novel which bears her name, is a fortunate woman, and she is well aware of that, and is always prepared to count her blessings. But wealthy, happily married women face trials and tribulations just like anyone else, even though they may pale into insignificance compared to what else was going on in the world. Jan Struther’s classic tale of family life is utterly charming - forget about that dreadfully sentimental old film, and read the book! Mrs Miniver is actually a rather endearing character, and I found her easy to warm to, despite the difference in life-style (no say nothing of income) and a gap of well over 50 years.

It’s set in the months immediately before WW2, and takes us through to the onset of the conflict, ending at Christmas 1939, by which time Mrs Miniver is doing war work in London, leaving staff at her country home to care for seven evacuees and her three children (when they are not away at school. To be honest, for much of the time you wouldn’t know how grave the situation is. But her tone gets more serious as things worsen, and there are unexpected glimpses of the way life changes. She describes the difficulties of getting around on a moonless night in the blackout when, she says, one ‘confines oneself to neighbours who are within groping distance’, and in the evening there is so little traffic that ‘people’s footsteps on the pavements make quite  a loud clatter’. And she mentions the beneficial effect on people’s health, telling us: 
And apropos (literally for once) des bottes, you’ve no idea how all this walking has improved people’s figures. Men with incipient pots, women who were developing Dunlop ridges above the belt, are now sylphlike.
 I just love that description.

However, for me the most moving and thought provoking comment on the war is her account of the lack of children. My mother’s family took in evacuees, and an entire school was moved out of London to the small Surrey town where she lived, so my view is based on her memories, and the impact made by this sudden influx of children and their teachers. But, of course, those extra youngsters in that one place meant fewer young people somewhere else, a fact which I’ve never considered before – and I don’t think I’ve seen it referred to elsewhere.  Anyway, Struther, writing as Mrs Miniver, confides:

The other thing I miss, terribly, is children. Not only my own - I do at least see them (and plenty of others) at weekends: but children in general, as an ingredient of the town’s population, a sort of leven. It may be different in some parts of London, but around here they have acquired a rarity interest. They used to be daisies and are now bee orchises.

Her view was interesting, especially as I am taking a leisurely stroll through Vere Hodgson’s wartime diaries. But this book isn’t about the war, or politics, or current affairs: it’s about people, and the way they react with each other, and the odd things that make us love our families, and above all it’s about Mrs Miniver’s thoughts on Life, the Universe and Everything. And that’s where it’s strength lies, because it’s warm, and funny, and very joyous and life affirming and, surprisingly, it’s very easy to identify with Mrs Miniver (especially as she has the ability to laugh at herself) and her concerns with her family and the small things of everyday life.

Like many other novels issued at this time, Mrs Miniver was originally published as a regular column in a newspaper. Stuther, a poet and essay writer, was asked to produce pieces to liven up the court page in The Times! Peter Feming (Ian’s brother) wanted her to create an ‘ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life – rather like yourself’. Her pieces, gathered into a book in October 1939, were immensely popular, and are thought to have been based on her own life and family.
They mostly take the form of straight forward, short narratives, with one topic for each chapter, but my 1989 Virago edition includes four  ‘letters’ written by Mrs Miniver after the book’s original.

There’s no overall plot, so if you like a book with a strong storyline, this is not for you, as it’s really a series of reflections on different topics and situations. Funniest of all is Mrs Miniver’s account of how she and her husband track down a mystery smell in their country cottage. They fear it might be drains, or a dead rat – but it turns out to be two boxes of fishing bait (once alive, but now in an indescribable state) left behind in a bag abandoned by their eldest son!

A portrait of Jan Struther by Fritz Reichl,
 in the National Portrait Gallery,
Some things, it seems, never change. A visit to the dentist was every bit as unpleasant then as now, despite the padded cushions on the adjustable chair, and the ethics of shooting are just as controversial. But the way of life has altered. I suppose there are still people who enjoy shooting parties, and country house weekends, but for most of us it’s a lifestyle that’s difficult to imagine.

And Jan Struther has created such a warm, humane character that class has no place here. How could you not like a woman who keeps all her old Christmas present lists (there are 17 of them taking up space in an overcrowded drawer) because they evoke happy memories, a ‘memory-film’ of the past… the early days of her marriage, her husband building his reputation as a successful architect, the birth of her children, their growth and changing interests… She is so delightful, I cannot think how I have passed her by for all these years. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

August in the Garden

I seem to have amassed a stack of gardening books, old and new, read and unread, which I love
to browse through, along with seed catalogues, imagining the riot of colour and perfume that I could create – only I spend so long looking at gardening books, there is no time left to do anything! Really though, they seem to lend themselves to the ‘slow read’ method, and perhaps I should like at them month by month, to see what I should be doing.

This month, for example, in The Curious Gardener, Anna Pavord begins by suggesting I should trim my evergreen hedges and reshape the topiary: since I have neither, I feel I can carry on reading with a clear conscience, unless I can stir myself to tackle the buddleia, which are not evergreen, and are not topiary, but they are striving for world domination, which is a problem in our tiny garden. So, being a curious gardener, I’ve just looked these up, and discovered I should have hard pruned them way back in March. So what do I do, cut them right back now and hope they survive, or wait until next spring and hope they don’t grow during the winter?

Actually Pavord’s book is fascinating, with lists of tasks to be carried out each month, and a selection of short essays on plants, gardens, and life in general. August includes a moving account of how the ‘swoony’ perfume of sweet peas helped recover from an operation for cancer, and a discourse on the lengths some gardeners go to in a bid to attract butterflies to their plots. This last seemed a particularly apt choice of reading matter, since I spent a couple of days recently spell-bound by the kaleidoscope of peacocks fluttering around the dreaded buddleias, so maybe I’ll just let them be, because the butterflies are so beautiful.

Karel Capek, writing in The Gardener’s Year back in 1929, informs us that: “August usually is the time when the amateur gardener forsakes his garden of wonder and goes on leave.” He follows this with a detailed description of the many and varied jobs that must be undertaken by the friend of relative who is entrusted with looking after the garden. There is mowing to be done, watering, staking and tying, weeding… and finding suitable spots for the plants gathered by the absent gardener whilst on his holiday, and posted home!

But Capek has serious points to make about our lives. According to him: “All year round is spring, and all through life is youth; there is always something which may flower. One only says that is autumn; we are merely flowering in other ways, we grow beneath the earth; we put forth new shoots, and there is always something to do.”

Capek was a Czech playwright and novelist who, apparently, invented the word robot, and I must read some of his fiction some time. Meanwhile I am enjoying his gardening book immensely. It is easy to read, and is a light-hearted look at gardening, which captures the joys (and the frustrations) of ordinary gardeners, and the little line drawings which are scattered throughout (by Josef Capek, who I assume was a relative), are an absolute delight.

I also took a look at the wonderful Katherine Swift, who I’ve written about before. She is probably my favourite gardening writer. I love her prose style, and the way she mixes information about her garden with thoughts about life, medicine, herbal lore, ancient myths and legends, history, geography, great gardeners of the past and all kinds of other topics. The pieces gathered together in The Morville Year were all originally published in The Times, and are informative and entertaining – a combination which is not always easy to achieve. For August, you’ll find entries about raspberries, climbing plants, summer pruning, dew, the dog days (so called because Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, rises and sets with the sun at this time of year), and bees on lavender.  Did you know the Latin for bumble-bee is bombus? The word, she says,’ perfectly conveys the sound - a deep resonant hum – as well as their bumbling progress from flower to flower’.

She describes six different types of bumble-bee feeding on her lavender, including the wonderfully named little lion-maned Carder bee, and the large red-tailed bumble bee (they have red tails, like foxes, and ‘huge shiny black transparent wings like glossy fifteen-denier stockings’). Unlike honey bees, bumble-bees don’t store honey – the colonies die at the end of the year, apart from the young, mated queens. I’d already decided that I’m planting to attract birds and insects, and after reading this I’m even more determined. How could I resist when there such are wondrous creatures in the world? For next year the buddleias stay, and I’m planting lavenders alongside them, different species to flower from May right through to the autumn frosts. And Swift says if you are trying to encourage bees into a garden it helps if you are not too tidy, and I am certainly not, so I’ve got a head start there!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Short Story Sunday: French Connections...

OK folks, I’m getting back on track here. Having a laptop that works properly makes all the difference. This is Brand New (but does not, thank goodness, involve touch screen – the charming young man in the shop agreed that would be a step too far, given my limited technical abilities). But I can save things, and write things, and look at things, which is all I want to do really, and I am sure it will prove most satisfactory when it comes to ordering books – except, of course, I keep promising there will be No More Books, so forget I mentioned it!

Anyway, it’s Sunday, and it must be time for a Short Story so, since I am catching up, here is a selection of short stories from my trusty copy of The Persephone Book of Short Stories. This week I have two: Dimanche, by Irène Némirovsky, and The Photograph, by Phyllis Bentley.

Irene Nemirovsky
I daresay most of you know that Némirovsky escaped the Russian Revolution and fled to Paris, only to die in  Auschwitz, leaving behind a body of work which included the unfinished Suite Française (which is sitting on my TBR stack). I must admit, I didn’t realise that in addition to her novels she wrote short stories, but apparently she produced more than 40 of them, including this one, which focuses on a mother and daughter who, on the surface, appear very different (they certainly think so). But when it comes to love Agnès and 2o-year-old Nadine are not so dissimilar after all, for both are victims of men who do not care - or do not care enough.

Over the years Agnès has become resigned to the point of indifference, and no longer waits in despair for her charming but errant husband to return from his latest affair. Seemingly calm, serene, and self-contained, she finds pleasure in the quiet beauty of everyday life. But as she contemplates the past, and remembers her hopes and fears, Nadine is playing out the same kind of scene, suffering as she waits for a man who doesn’t turn up.

Némirovsky has a light touch when it comes to writing about feelings and emotions, and her descriptions of Paris at lunchtime on a hot spring day conjure up the sights, sounds and smells of the city. Things may have changed since this was written in 1934 - for example, Parisians no longer head for the country on Sundays, they head for the banks of the Seine to take some exercise). But the smell of fresh baked bread still wafts through the air; above the noise of the traffic you can still hear church bells and birds, and the chestnuts still flower in the Luxembourg Gardens. I liked the way  Dimanche is written, and its quiet restraint with all that hidden emotion seething away beneath the two women’s placid exteriors.

There’s also a French connection in Bentley’s The Photograph. Miss Timperley is
Phyllis Bentley.
an ageing, down-on-her-luck, out-of-work governess who considers trying to pass herself off as a younger woman in a bid to secure a job in the south of France. She is admirably suited for the role, but feels her age may be against her.

Well! She would say she was twenty-nine, and she would have a new, modern, young, almost coquettish – Miss Timperley smiled and bridled at the word – photograph taken. She could not afford it of course; but it had to be done. She put on her clothes with quite a rakish air, and betook herself to an expensive West End photographer.

The account of her trip to this establishment is very funny, but the outcome is not as she hoped, although her landlady tells her:

They’re as like as life. Just your pleasant look, they have. They’re right down good.

Poor Miss Timperley (who reminds me a lot of Miss Pettigrew), sends the picture off with her letter of application for, at the end of the day, she cannot tell a lie, and cannot obtain a post be deception. She decides it is better to starve than to cheat, and that she will go down with her flag flying. She even informs her prospective employers of her real age - 58. Then she weeps, ‘pressing her thin fingers against her anguished face’. A week later there is a response from France.

Miss Timperley winced. There was no hope from France, she knew. She opened it wretchedly, and unfolded the sheet with spiritless fingers…

Really, I shouldn’t reveal the ending, and I shouldn’t tell you whether the new photo worked its magic, but you all know how much I love a happy ending, and I loved this little tale, so draw your own conclusions! This was a lovely story, full of humour and warmth, that left me wanting to know more about Miss Timperley, and more about Bentley’s work.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

A 'Spendthrift's Spreading' of Marmalade!

Yay! The Great British Bake-Off is back, and promises to be every bit as good as the last series... And the One before that... And the one before that. Consequently, I am baking mode, and what better time to take a look at a cookbook. So here are my thoughts on a Persephone kitchen classic, Kitchen Essays, by Agnes Jekyll. And, before you ask, yes, she was related to gardener Gertrude Jekyll: her husband was Gertrude’s brother, and they lived quite close to each other, near Godalming, in Surrey. Agnes, who was made a Dame of the British Empire in recognition of her work for ‘good causes’, was a well known society hostess. Apparently, she was famous for the wit and wisdom of her imaginative housekeeping! I’m not sure if that’s an attribute which should be applauded, and it’s probably a whole lot easier if you have servants (which she did). Anyway, she wrote a cookery column for The Times, and her pieces were gathered together as a book in 1922, and she really is a very good writer, with the most original turn of phrase when it comes to describing food.

Before I go any further, I should warn you, this book is not intended for vegetarians (like myself) or those of a faint-hearted disposition. Even the staunchest carnivore will blanch and reach for the cooking sherry when reading the instructions for Consommé Fausse Tortue. I have no idea what the English translation of this dish is (my failed ‘O’ level French didn’t equip me to cope with the demands of French gastronomy) but it involves half a calf’s head.  And a lot of stewing and simmering (especially on the part of the cook I imagine). And the cooking sherry...

Actually, Jekyll does include a chapter on ‘meatless meals’, but this is ‘Lenten fare’ making use of fish and veal stock. However, there is a recipe for Oeufs Mollets in Sauce Fromage (soft boiled eggs in cheese sauce – even I can cope with that) which is jolly nice, especially if you tweak it around a bit. I like to add a bit of zing to this kind of dish with some English mustard and pinch of cayenne.

It’s not a recipe book in the conventional sense: Jekyll writes about food, including her
memories and opinions, as well as literary quotes, and reflections on life in general. As far as the food goes, while some of her offerings still hold good today, many are not to modern tastes. In addition quantities, cooking times and temperatures are not nearly as precise as those in modern cookbooks and, of course, there are no pictures. But none of that matters, because Jekyll’s descriptions are so wonderful. For example, there’s her version of rice pudding (re-baptized Dundee) where she tells us:

Boil sufficient rice in milk until cooked rather firm, sweeten, and fill in therewith  a fireproof glass or nice-looking pie-dish, adding a spendthrift’s spreading of juicy home-made marmalade...

Don’t you just love that ‘spendthrift’s spreading’? It gives you such a clear idea of what you should be doing. And what about her recipe for orange jumbles which concludes by saying:

They should be the size of teacup rims, and should curl their crisp edges, faintly pink as the underneath of a young mushroom.

Anyone with an old-fashioned bone china tea service will know exactly how big these dainty morsels should be, and if you’ve ever looked at the gills of a young mushroom, when it’s just beyond that button stage and beginning to unfurl, they are indeed the faintest of pinks, so pale it’s almost not a pink at all. This recipe sounds so nice I was going to try it, but I’ve only got one orange, and the list of ingredients calls for two, so I got up early and baked a Victoria sponge instead, inspired by GBBO. Orange jumbles must wait for another day.

I have to admit that I didn’t want to sample many of Jekyll’s recipes, but I really enjoyed the book, and loved the glimpse it gave of a long-gone way of life. Here is a world of kitchen maids, cooks, shooting-parties, weekend guests, luncheons, and motor excursions. In fact, the essay on motor excursions is, to coin a phrase, an absolute hoot. No motorway service stations in those days! Instead travellers need a hay-box (for chunky hot soup), a Thermos full of mulled Claret (no breath tests either!), another full of coffee, as well as camp stools, a waterproof rug and furs! Then there’s the food, all home-made (by the cook, not the lady of the house). An ideal meal on the move included stuffed salmon rolls, a Winter Cake, ‘black and sticky with treacle, enlivened by whole white almonds’, and a ‘little selection’ of desserts and sweets.

There are 35 chapters, covering a variety of topics, including advice for the too thin (and the too fat) and tray food for invalids. There are sections on food for men, food for travellers, Food for the Punctual and the Unpunctual, and A Little Dinner Before the Play (followed by A Little Supper After the Play, which I’m delighted to say, involved cold dishes, or things which could be kept hot – the poor cook was not expected to wait up).  These days, of course, people are more likely to get a take-away on their way back from a night out, and a jolly good thing too if you ask me. Much less trouble!

I particularly liked the two chapters on breakfasts. Who would have imagined there was so much to say about this meal? Not me, that’s for sure! According to Jekyll:

Breakfast is the most difficult meal of the day, whether from its social or its culinary aspect.

She continues:

A cordonbleu cannot be at her best very early in the day; and as for the chef, he will unblushingly delegate his duties to his understudy. It is wise, therefore, to aim at implicity, but, within its limits, to strive after perfection. 
Agnes Jekyll
Above all things, she says, breakfast must be hot. No cornflakes for her then. Or left-over pizza scavenged from the fridge. She recommends use of a long metal food-warmer with spirit lamps known, so she assures, as the ‘Sluggard’s Delight’ upon which porridge, coffee and hot dishes can be kept palatable. In addition she urges us to:

Insist on a hot-water kettle of real efficiency, on a tea-caddy which will contain a delicate as well as a pungent blend of tea, more than one tea-pot, and a small saucepan over a spirit lamp for boiling eggs, with an hour-glass standing sentry nearby.

Then there’s the ‘fireproof jug of ample proportions’ with a ventilated top to keep the milk hot without boiling over, and toast, which demands ‘a glowing grate, a handy toasting fork, and a patient watcher’. There are recipes for brioche, frothy coffee, marmalade and home-cooked tongue, and all sorts of other suggestions, including this:

Try bananas, skinned and halved across, and again lengthwise, and served frizzling from a buttered sauté pan on fried toast, with perhaps a dash of orange juice added, an excellent and wholesome food for the young. 

On that note I shall leave you. I’m exhausted just reading about the breakfast preparations. I need a rest. And something to eat...
The endpapers feature 'Clusters of fruits,
flowers  and shell motifs' designed by
George Sheringham and printed on silk
for Seftons in 1922.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Mr Fortune's Maggot

Now listen up people, because I want to tell you about a truly wonderful book. I loved it, loved it, loved it! What is it? Oh, did I forget to say? It’s Mr Fortune’s Maggot, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and it is fabulous, and I am so pleased I like it, because it is one of the new books I bought with the money my mother gave me to treat myself. Plus I got it on the strength of reading just one of her novels, and one short story (I’ve been raving about her ever since) so I was a teensy bit worried that Mr Fortune might not live up expectations, but he did, and I can’t wait to start the Virago collection of her short stories, which as another of my treats.

Anyway, the Reverend  Timothy Fortune is a one-time bank clerk (he has the perfect name for someone who works with money), who uses a legacy from his godmother to train as a deacon and, once ordained, leaves England for St Fabien, a port on an island of the Raratongan Archipelago in the Pacific. But after 10 years Rev Fortune feels a call to take up residence on the remote island of Fanua which, so Warner tells us, ‘could only be seen in imagination from that beach edged with tin huts where Mr Fortune walked slowly up and down on evenings when he had time to’.

In the preface Warner says that when she first moved to London one of the books she borrowed from the local public library in Westbourne Grove was a volume of letters by a woman missionary in Polynesia.

I can’t remember the title, or her name; but the book pleased me a great deal, it had the minimum of religion, only elementary scenery, and a mass of details of everyday life.  The woman wrote out of her own heart – for instance, describing an earthquake, she said the ground trembled like the lid of a boiling kettle.

The book stayed in her memory, and elements of it blended with a vivid dream she had in 1925.

A man stood alone on an ocean beach, wringing his hands in an intensity of despair; as I saw him in my dream I also knew something of his circumstances. He was a missionary, he was middle-aged, and a deprived character, his name was Hegarty, he was on an island where he had made only one convert: and at the moment I saw him he had just realised that the convert was no convert at all.

She jumped out of bed and started to write, and although much of the dream faded, the facts remained, and she felt as if she had actually experienced the man’s loneliness, simplicity and despair, as well as the look of the island.

She changed the name of the man, but the unknown library book and the dream combined to form the kernel of Mr Fortune’s Maggot, and she seems to have written it in a kind of frenzy, as if she had been taken over by some force outside herself, and there seems to have been little editing or alteration – as far as I can see the novel is pretty much as it came out of her head. She tells us:

I wrote steadily, and with increasing anxiety, not because I had any doubts about the story, but because I was so intensely conscious that the shape and balance of the narrative must be exactly right – or the whole thing would fall to smithereens, and I could never pick it up again.

She wept ‘bitterly’ when her work was complete, and I found the account of her reaction to the final sentence so moving that I very nearly cried myself.

I know this is a bit of a ramble, but I thought her explanation of how this strange and extraordinary novel came into being was fascinating, and it helps to put things in context. And by the way, if you are wondering about the title, there is a note at the beginning which states: Maggot. 2. A whimsical or perverse fancy; a crotchet. But words can be double-edged, and the maggot that destroys from within seems to have a bearing here as well.

So, back to the book. Rev Fortune’s preparations for departure to the island of Fanua are every bit as wonderful as those of William Boot leaving for Ishmaelia. He doesn’t take a cleft stick, but his purchases, which show a ‘nice mix of thrift and extravagance’, include:

...tinned meat, soup-squares, a chest of tea, soap, a tool-box, medicine chest, a gentleman’s housewife, a second-hand harmonium (rather cumbrous and wheezy but certainly a bargain), and an oil-lamp. He also bought a quantity of  those coloured glass baubles which hang so ravishingly on Christmas trees, some picture-books, rolls of white cotton, and a sewing machine to make clothes for his converts...

But nothing goes to plan: the islanders are polite, cheerful, indolent, happy-go-lucky, - and stark naked. They are not a bit interested in being westernised or becoming Christians, and are quite happy to let  Rev Fortune go his way, while they continue to go their’s. They certainly don’t want to be civilised and, as in Warner’s dream, there is only one convert: Lueli, a beautiful young boy who is anxious to please. But, just as in the dream, the boy is not a convert at all, and still worships his pagan God. And it is Rev Fortune who loses his faith...

I love the way Warner writes. It seems such a simple narrative, then - wham! All of a sudden she sneaks in and knocks you sideways with an unexpected turn of phrase that can be so sharp and subversive it takes your breath away, and you wonder if you’ve read it right, because she’s so subtle in the way she does it. She is, I think, a very sly writer, who can turn the world upside down in just a few words.

Sylvia Townsend Warner
Yet she cab also write tenderly about emotions; deals honestly with questions of love, faith, belief and matters of the spirit, and evokes the lush beauty of an island paradise which has its darker side, as we discover through the terror of an earthquake and volcanic eruption – scenes which reflect the upheaval in Rev Fortune’s own feelings about life. To be honest, I am not at all sure this book would be published by a new author today. I am certain there would be questions regarding the portrayal of the islanders and the relationship between priest and boy, but it really is all very innocent and, like so many other books of this period, it is very much of its time.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Hidden Garden Haunted by a Ghostly Monk!

Monks Walk: The carved wooden sign at the entrance.
Been on holiday, and scheduled posts to appear while I was away (including this one), but nothing happened! Plus all my portrait photos, which are saved as such, are appearing here as landscape... the same thing has been happening on Facebook for weeks. I have no idea what I am doing wrong. I am doing everything just as I always have. Anyway, since there seems to be no way of correcting them, you have some sideways pictures in today's  Saturday Snapshot. And if anyone can tell me what I am doing wrong, and how to put it right, I'd love to know. Meanwhile I can only apologise. I find it very annoying, and very confusing, and it must be worse for anyone reading this post. I am sorry!
One of the flower-edged walkways, with part of an old wall
running alongside.
Anyway, here goes. I’ve been meaning to explore the Monks Walk Garden in Lichfield for ages, but I never seem to have time on the days I’m in the Oxfam bookshop. However, the other week I arranged to meet friends for lunch, so I went over a little earlier to give myself time to take a look, and to have a play with the exposure and aperture on my posh Nikon D3100 which I’m still getting used to. 
The little dovecote looks even better the right way up.
It was a good place to experiment, because there were spots in bright sunshine, and dappled shade, and much darker areas with very little light indeed. Some of the photos were rubbish, because I didn’t get the settings right, but at least I now know what not to do! Others were quite nice, and I was pretty pleased with myself, so I thought I’d use them for a Saturday Snapshot, even though self praise is no recommendation!
Backlit alliums. There were masses of these, all grouped
together, looking really stunning, but I wanted to try a close-up.
The garden is only small – a narrow strip hidden away alongside a car park, between the city’s library and the college, and it's kind of hidden away, so I suspect it goes unnoticed by visitors and residents alike. But it’s absolutely beautiful, with masses of old-fashioned, cottage garden type plants. There's a little path which runs down one side, across the bottom end, and back up the other side to the entrance and exit. And there's a dovecote, and a bench with the back carved from two huge slabs of wood.
I love this carved wooden back of a bench.

I assume it’s called Monks Walk because this is where the old Friary stood (until Henry VIII got rid of so many of England’s religious institutions), and it’s only a stone’s throw from the modern 'Friary Garden', which I wrote about here this time last year. 
Foxgloves, or Digitalis: Perhaps the old Friars who once lived
on this site grew these lovely flowers to treat heart conditions.
When you think about it the monks, or friars as I should really call them, would certainly have had some kind of garden where they could walk and reflect, and where they grew herbs and other plants with medicinal properties, and kept bees. Probably I’ve read too much Cadfael, but I like to think the Walk might be on part of an older plot, where a Medieval Franciscan (for this was a Franciscan house) toiled on his land in all weathers and spent hours brewing up his lotions and potions to help the sick and elderly. 
The garden has a really old-fashioned feel to it, and is
very peaceful.
I doubt the image in my mind is accurate, but it might be – after all, no-one seems to know the age of Monks Walk. Apparently it is shown on a late 19th Century map, and in the following century it was part of the Friary School, which includes the old Bishop’s Lodging (the buildings now house the library). And there are legends of a ghostly lost monk haunting the garden and vanishing through the ruined arch by the college, on the other side of the car park. But be warned, you can’t move in Lichfield without tripping over a ghost: every building in every street seems to boast a spectral visitor, and it’s hard to sift fact from fiction!

Volunteers look after Monks Walk, and in the past local schoolchildren have also helped, but I don’t know if they still do. Actually, I don’t know much about the garden at all and nor, I suspect, does anyone else, because there is very little information available anywhere. Even Kate at Lichfield Lore, who is a mine of information about the city and its history, seems to have drawn a blank on this one, although she has written a couple of short pieces about it. According to her, the walls around it are interesting. They are, she says, a mix of brick and stone, with a bricked up entrance, but I didn’t pay them as much attention as I should have done, and consequently missed the bricked up entrance. 
If you look at the photo very carefully (which is jolly
difficult when it is the wrong way), you can see where a gate or
door in the wall has been bricked up.
I also missed the grave, of ‘Richard the Merchant’, set into the back wall of the Friary, which is mentioned in one of the comments on her post. Apparently, it is very hard to read, and I am not sure whether it refers to one of the walls enclosing the garden, or the main Friary building, or other nearby walls, so it's difficult to know where to look!
Not sure what this plant is - some kind of broom I think - but
it looked truly amazing with the light behind it, making the
pods translucent, so you can see the seeds inside, and all
the tiny hairs on the surface.
Kate gives a link to Staffordshire Gardens & Park Trusts, where it says Monks Walk could have been part of a larger garden on property owned by Sir Richard Cooper. His estate was on land that originally formed part of the historic Friary, and it was given to the City of Lichfield in 1920 ‘for the permanent use and benefit of the citizens’.  Plants grown there today were popular in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and are laid out in what was known as ‘mingle’ planting.
A feather caught on a leaf looked so delicate, and I like
the contrast between it's feathery edges and the solid leaves.
This is another upright shot!
Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda at West Metro Mummy.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Ladies Who Lunch - With a Hidden Past!

Somehow, as I read this short story I thought of our two ladies being Edwardian, but
there are references to flying and a speakeasy, which would place it in the 1920s or
the early '30s. I our imagine the duo slightly older and stouter than this pair, and
wearing their furs, despite the mid-day heat, but this is the best I could come up with.
From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first on each other, and then down on the outspread glories of the Palatine and the forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval.

Short Story Sunday has reached 1934 and arrived in Rome, where friends Grace Ansley and Alida Slade are on holiday. On the face of it all is well, but as they chat about their daughters and reminisce about their own youth and a long-ago vacation in the city, it slowly dawns on you that all is not quite as it seems.

Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever is one of the many gems in The Persephone Book of Short Stories. It’s short, slight and perfectly formed, as everything builds oh-so-quietly to the disclosure of secrets as well-kept as the women who have guarded them for so many years.

Wharton quietly creates a picture of wealthy widows who are, on the whole, satisfied with their lives and position in well-to-do American society, and have maintained their girlhood friendship despite their differences. But there are clues that Grace and Alida are not quite as amicable as it seems, for although they have a tendency to feel sorry for each other, each visualises the other ‘through the wrong end of her telescope’. And beneath the calm surface of their lives old passions run deep. Love, jealousy and revenge are a potent mix, as dangerous in middle age as they are in youth – more so perhaps, because the adversaries have learned to mask their emotions while they nurse their hatred.

It is, I suppose, classic Wharton territory, an age-old story of a man and a woman who meet and fall in love, but are destined to part because he has existing commitments to another woman, so a happy outcome is impossible. What comes to light here is a tale of two young girls in love with the same man, and the lengths one went to ensure she kept him. She smiles as she tells her rival about the letter she forged, hoping the other girl would attend a non-existent lovers’ tryst and fall ill from the chill night air, paving the way to her own success and marriage. And she justifies her actions because she was actually engage to the man in question.

All these years the woman had been living on that letter. How she must have have loved him, to treasure the mere memory of its ashes! The letter of the man her friend was engaged to. Wasn’t it she who was the monster?

And you think to yourself, that’s it, that’s the reason for the unease that mars the relationship between two middle-aged women who have known each other all their lives. But Wharton has a trick up her sleeve and the story is not over yet, for the victim of this cruel prank has a trump card to play... And as she discloses her own hidden secret the balance shifts, and you see things from a different perspective, and wonder who the victor in this battle for love really was, and which of them has been the happiest – and who it was who really did capture the heart of the man.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies!

A Peacock butterfly perched on a white buddleia - isn't he glorious?
I’ve neglected my garden shamefully, and it’s terribly overgrown and out of hand, so I’ve been out there this week trying to hack back the jungle. And on Wednesday my efforts were reward by the most beautiful and amazing sight – butterflies! Hundreds and hundreds of them on the buddleias. It was absolutely magical. Every bloom seemed to have two or three butterflies, and the air was full of them, flapping and fluttering and flying like a flock of birds, and they seemed huge. Mostly they were large whites, which were most uncooperative about being photographed, and spectacular peacocks, which were a little more helpful, but still jolly difficult to capture on camera. According to Webster’s online dictionary and thesaurus, there is a choice of collective nouns for groups of butterflies. They suggest a flight, a rabble, a flutter, a swarm or a I thought I’d settle settle for kaleidoscope because it sounds so nice. 
And another Peacock butterfly, showing the underside of the wings. 
I have a couple of buddleias in the garden, which I acquired under the misapprehension that they would remain a manageable size – their nickname of butterfly bush lulled me into a false sense of security but they are not bushes at all. They are not small, and they are not slow-growing, as you might expect with a shrub. They are rampant, and have aspirations for the high life, and grow into tall trees, and spread, and spread and spread... not suitable for a small garden in any way, shape or form, but I am reluctant to cut them down because they are such an attraction for wildlife. And squeezed into the narrow space between our fence and the new housing development at one side of the very end of the garden are masses and masses of these monsters,  with flowers in all shades of lilac, purple and creamy white, and they were absolutely smothered in butterflies, and the air around them was thick with the insects.
Basking in the sunshine. The outspread wings of the Peacock
butterfly have the most incredible markings.
Sadly the trees on the other side of the fence were far too tall to get any pictures. I suppose you would need a telephoto lens for a successful shot, though I did consider getting the stepladder out, but I’m terribly clumsy so it seemed to be asking for trouble!
This small butterfly on the golden hop is a Comma.
Anyway, I did get a few decent shots of Peacock butterflies on the smaller buddleias in the garden, and I managed to get a picture of a small orange and brown butterfly basking on my golden hop, which I bought because a) It looks like sunshine, and b) It is really called Humulus Lupulus, which I think is such a wonderful name. Anyway, I had quite some problems identifying this butterfly, so in the end I copied the photo, and blew it up as big as I could, and then realised the lone visitor has the distinctive raggedy wings of a Comma. And, just to clinch matters, the larvae feed on Humulus Lupulus (among other things).
I've tried to crop the photo to get a bigger image, so you
can see the raggedy edges of the wings.
The glory in the garden lasted a couple of days. from early morning until dusk, when the butterflies were drowsy and bumbled through the air as if they were drunk - and perhaps they were, drunk on all that nectar they'd consumed! There were lots of bees as well, all collecting pollen, but they were a bit overshadowed by the butterflies. By yesterday (Friday) they had all disappeared, the blooms had turned brown and were obviously dying, and the weather had taken a turn for the worse, damp and cloudy, with an almost autumnal chill in the air. I suppose the insects are laying eggs ready to be transformed into more of these beautiful, delicate creatures next Spring, and the trees will produce seeds which will be scattered and fall to the ground to produce new growth... so the cycle of life continues!
Bee happy... Hopefully, this is a honey bee, but I don't know
enough about them to even guess at the species.
Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda at West Metro Mummy.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Sleepless Nights and Tea Rationing

Last night was one of those when I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I went downstairs, made a cup of tea, and carried on reading Few Eggs And No Oranges, the wartime diaries of Vere Hodgson, and thought how odd that I should be sitting there, sleepless for no particular reason, while reading her account of nights broken by air raid warnings, the sound of planes overhead, and the noise of bombs exploding around her. And, since tea was rationed, I guess there wasn't always enough for a comforting cuppa in the middle of the night!

I’ve only read the entries for the first few months, but I’m loving it so far. As with all good diaries, the juxtaposition of major national and international events with the mundane and commonplace makes for fascinating – and compelling – reading. And Hodgson makes no effort to marshal her thoughts in a coherent fashion. Details of a raid are followed by accounts of a day at the office, and then by more about the bombs, while gossip about friends and family is interspersed with serious news items about Government ministers, shortages, or updates from battle fronts.

Her portrayal of politicians is fascinating. Figures that I only know from old newsreel clips and newspaper cuttings spring to life.  Chamberlain is every bit as dull, boring and uninspiring as I expected, and Churchill is every bit as charismatic. But who would have thought de Gaulle was such a sensational orator, speaking out against the ‘dishonourable’ Petain Government and rallying the French Resistance. I remember him as an old man, poker-faced, with a big nose, much lampooned by cartoonists in the British press for his unbending stance on us joining Europe, and I find it difficult to think of him ever being young, let alone being so passionate and brave about his country.

The diary starts on Tuesday, 25th June, 1940, and Hodgson leaps straight in – short, sweet, and very much to the point. “Last night, at about 1am, we had the first air raid of the war on London,” she tells us. Her room is opposite the police station, so she gets the ‘full benefit’ of the sirens.

It made me leap out of bed half way across the room. I shook all over, but managed to get into my dressing-gown and slippers, put my watch in my pocket, clutch my torch and gas-mask, and get downstairs first.

Her landlady is ‘rearing’ mattresses against the door (for protection, I suppose). Everyone shares sweets, chat and jokes, before returning to bed because all is quiet – only to be woken again when the All Clear sounds. For some time life remains quiet, despite the Warnings, but gradually things hot up, and nights – and days – are disturbed by sirens, planes, falling bombs, and the bright blaze of burning buildings. I know about the war from history books but I was thoroughly shaken by the scale of the bombing, not just on London, but elsewhere in the country as well. And the noise was indescribable. The words hellish and nightmare don’t even begin to give a flavour of what life was like during the Blitz. And all the time people were on tenterhooks waiting to hear if friends and relatives were safe, and anxious about what British Troops were doing. Many people, including Hodgson, seem to have taken a personal interest in the fate of ‘Our Boys’, but news was often slow filtering through to the Home Front. 

Yet through it all she remains cheerful and alert. She’s curious about the war and its impact on people’s lives, and is very observant, sympathetic, and yet slightly detached, which makes her an excellent recorder of events. Her voice comes across loud and clear over the years. Friends, apparently, described her as brisk, and so she is. She’s intelligent, capable, has a keen sense of right and wrong and is always willing to help others (I’m sure she would have been a good person to have around in a crisis). She’s also got a sense of humour, and is game for anything, attending lectures and courses learning how to deal with bombs, gas attacks, fires, injuries and all kinds of terrors. On one occasion she’s left bruised and battered after being dragged down a flight of stairs whilst acting as the ‘victim’ who must be rescued.

There are details about rationing, queues and food shortages (eggs and oranges were always
in short supply, hence the title of the book), and on July 8 Hodgson notes: “We listened to the news, and heard the bombshell about tea! Two ounces per head, per week!” However, she adds, it will do for her because she doesn’t like her tea strong. I was reminded of George Orwell who, unlike Hodgson, did like his tea strong, and wrote a very funny essay on the subject of ‘A nice Cup of Tea’ which appeared in the Daily Express in 1946 (tea rationing didn’t come to an end until 1952, although by then the weekly amount had risen to 3oz). According to him the 2oz ration (this was loose tea remember , no tea bags then!) made around 20 cups, which is only two or three a day – not a lot  when you think about it. No wonder housewives eked it by following the Minister of Food's advice to use ‘one spoonful for each person and none for the pot’, and eked out their meagre supply by reusing the dregs.

One of the things which surprised me was the extent to which Hodgson travels around: she meanders around London to look at bomb damage, and makes regular trips to Birmingham to see her mother and sister, as well as visiting other friends and relatives. Travel is disrupted, but trains, buses and tubes still run, even though there are often lengthy delays. Thinking about it, I am not sure why I was so surprised, because my mother has told me how the parents of evacuees billeted with her family would catch the train out from Waterloo and spend Sundays with them. And later on in the conflict Mum used to travel into town with the girls to visit their homes.

There is so much packed into these diary entries that it’s taking me a while to read, and I keep getting side-tracked and going off to look things up, to hunt out other books from the period (has anyone got any recommendations?) and to ring my mother for more of her wartime memories. I’m only at the end of 1940, and these first six months have taken me on so many detours – Anderson Shelters, rationing in general, tea rationing (which led to a further exploration on the history of tea), General de Gaulle and the French Resistance, the Ministry of Food, wartime recipes, the Fall of France, the Occupation of Jersey...  I would love a street map of wartime London, to locate the places mentioned. As you can see, the list of Things I Need to Know is likely to get even longer, and at this rate it may be quite some time before I finish reading!

Saturday, 3 August 2013

A Misty Moisty Morning...

Burrator Dam, at one end of Burrator Reservoir on Dartmoor.
The road runs across it, so you can walk across and look down
at the water , which is an awfully long down down!
This week we have been to visit my Elder Daughter and her Boyfriend in Plymouth, and had a wonderfully relaxing time being made a fuss of and looked after as if we were really special people. They cooked us wonderful meals, beautifully served up, with the table all laid out properly, and we’ve had home-grown salad, and courgettes, and home-made icecream )not together, I hasten to add, different courses!). And there was home-made wine, poured from a glass decanter – there’s posh for you! I kept offering to help, but I wasn’t allowed to do anything. No washing up, no cooking, no tidying, no cleaning, no washing, no ironing... Sheer bliss! All I did was chill out and enjoy myself, and being so pampered made me feel like Royalty! The Man of the House was just as happy, especially as Elder Daughter and her Boyfriend took out us out and about, so he didn’t have to worry about driving or parking. 
Lakeside view: Burrator Reservoir shrouded in mist.
One of our trips was up on to Dartmoor, where we walked around the Burrator Reservoir, which is where Plymouth's drinking water comes from. Back at the house it seemed odd to think that we’d seen the source of all the water that came out of the taps for drinking and washing and so on, and I got the laptop out to do a bit of research for a Saturday Snapshot.
The trees looked spooky as the mist turned them to
silhouettes in shades of black, grey and very dark green.
Anyway, it was a misty, moisty sort of morning, which made for a very atmospheric walk as trees loomed out of the fog and mist rose from the reservoir, which looks like a natural lake and is surrounded by forest. The trees were planted when the reservoir was created, but they look as if they have been there for ever, covered in the most amazing lichens – the biggest and most varied I’ve ever seen – and the trunks and branches and twigs are twisted and contorted like something from an Arthur Rackham painting. There are carpets of cushiony moss covering the rocky ground and masses of ferns, and on this particular day everything was dripping with droplets of water. It was all very lush and green, and overgrown and treeish (as one of the Hobbits commented about Fangorn Forest), and not a bit as I imagined Dartmoor would be (we went to a different spot last year, which was very bleak and barren, so I was totally unprepared for this).  

There were lichens big enough to be
in a flower bed... 
... And others encrusted branches
so there was no wood ro be seen.
The water looked positively Arthurian, but I always think that about water in the mist or fog. I kept expecting to see the shadowy spectre of a boat drift by, or a hand clutching a sword to emerge through the surface... There are masses of ducks, geese and other water fowl, and around the edges of the water are sandy areas, almost like a proper beach, and pebbles and rocks, and tree roots, and grass, and a place which was very, very boggy. 
Droplets of water caught on a cobeweb.
Before the reservoir was built at the end of the 19th Century, Plymouth’s water was supplied by the Plymouth Leat, a six-foot deep trench, which brought water from the River Meavy, 18 miles away from the city. Created in 1585, the project was the brainchild of Sir Francis Drake, who is best known for insisting on finishing a game of bowls up on Plymouth Hoe before setting off do battle with the Spanish Armada.
I guess this is another of those cross-bred ducks,
similar to the ones I've seen in Tamworth.
For 300 years the Leat served the people of Plymouth, carrying more than 5 million gallons of water every day. But the demand for fresh water supplies increased as the docks developed and the city grew larger. Eventually there was a crisis in 1891 when the ditch was covered in heavy snow during the ‘Great Storm’ of 1891, and water didn’t flow for days on end. 
Raindrops on the spikes of a thistle flower.
So plans for a reservoir were drawn up, a site found, and construction got under way  on August 9th, 1893. Work took exactly five years – Burrator was officially opened on September 21st, 1898, and the whole thing cost £178,000. Part of the old Leat now lies inside the reservoir, which is fed directly by the River Meavy, with a dam at either end. Initially it held 668 million gallons of water, but it was enlarged in 1923, when the dams were raised by ten feet (another five-year project), with a re-opening ceremony in September 1928. It now holds more than 1,000 million gallons of water, is managed by the South West Lakes Trust, and is a popular spot for tourists and residents alike, with the most incredible scenery and tracks for walking, cycling, fishing and wildlife. I just loved this spot – it was so beautiful, and so quiet, and completely unspoiled, and shows just how amazing a man-made landscape can be, and how it gradually becomes part of the natural scene as nature takes over.  
Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda at West Metro Mummy.
The Wanderer... Me, trailing behind everyone
else because they've all got longer legs!