Thursday, 2 April 2015

Magical Moorlands

I read this on my Kindle, so there's no cover to
admire, but I could resist including this picture
of the 'real' book.
I don’t ever remember learning about moors when I did ‘A’ level geography at school. Glaciation, yes. Vulcanicity, yes. Limestone scenery, yes. But moors, no. Like Hartley’s past, they are a foreign country, and the little knowledge I do have has been acquired through novels – all the usual suspects, like The Secret Garden, Jamaica Inn, Wuthering Heights and Hound of the Baskervilles. I wrote about them back in 2012, prompted by a walk round Warwickshire Moor, one of our local ‘wildspots’ here in Tamworth.

Actually, the name is a misnomer on two counts. Firstly, because we’re in Staffordshire, although half the town (including this patch of land) was once in Warwickshire. Secondly, the terrain doesn’t fit with my notion of a moor at all, and now, thanks to William Atkins’ The Moor: Lives Landscape Literature, I know it’s not. The north of the county has its moorland area (which merits only the briefest of mentions from Atkins), but here in the south we’re not nearly high enough to qualify for the term. Like ‘The Moors’ of Atkins’ childhood, in Bishop’s Waltham, our Moor may be a remnant of a much larger wild area, but it is not, and never has been a proper moor. 
A pool hidden among the dead reeds, rushes and grasses at Warwickshire
Moor  looked a little bleak when I took this earlier in the year, even
though it was a sunny  day - but it's not really a moor.
Anyway, the so-called moors of his childhood gave Atkins a lifelong passion for moorlands, and in this book he travels through some of England’s most inhospitable and inaccessible places. He journeys from Bodmin, through Exmoor and Dartmoor, northwards to Saddleworth, the Calder Valley, the area around Haworth, the North York Moors, Alston, and on into Northumbria. 

Along the way he meets the people who live, work and play in these isolated areas: solders, gamekeepers, landowners, conservationists, birdwatchers, poets, farmers, prisoners, vicars, walkers and a host of others. He recounts tales of characters from the past – murderers and their victims, preachers, teachers, librarians, topographers, naturalists, historians, scholars, monks, miners, men of vision convinced that with the right techniques land could be brought into productive and profitable use, and men who tried (and failed) to scratch a living from the poor moorland soils. 

And, of course, Atkins pays tribute to moorland writers. He seeks out places that inspired poets like Ted Hughes and WH Auden, and novelists like the Brontes, Henry Williamson, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle, and researches local legends that might have influenced them. 

I was surprised to see how many of the people he writes about are ‘loners’, and there’s a thread running through the book, showing how the isolated moors (once regarded as barren waste lands) have always attracted people seeking solitude, and provided shelter for eccentrics, outcasts and fugitives. Some were pioneers who thought they could carve a fresh future for themselves. Others, perhaps more akin to the early Christian hermits who dwelt in deserts or on rocky crags in the ocean, wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of the world for a place where man can contemplate (or confront) his own nature and his place in the universe.

Dartmoor, in Devon, showing a view up the River Meavy towards
Sharpitor and  Leather Tordd. (Courtesy of Wikipedia).
Alongside the anecdotes about people there’s a quirky collection of facts about the geology and history of moorlands, with stories about buildings, communities, and social customs, and traditions like Beating the Bounds. Take Dartmoor Prison: everyone knows it originally held French prisoners of war in the early 19th century. But some 20 years before that jail founder Thomas Tyrwhitt tried to establish a settlement there, only no-one wanted to settle in such a cold, wet, isolated spot where nothing would grow! However in 1805, realising that jails and prison hulks were jam-packed with POWs, he saw a chance to make good his losses by building a jail… And the rest, as they say, is history. 

But the book’s real strength – and what makes it so special – lies is the way Atkins uses sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste to describe the landscapes he passes through. Writing about Bodmin Moor, for example, he tells us: 

The wind up here was an assault: in the bracken it sang rich and loud, in the grass it was a piping; between the boulders a hollow roar; it was a thousand voices and one, and each buffet hooted across my ears like a blast across the mouth of a bottle. 

And a little further on he says you’ll exhaust yourself trying to name the colours: 

Beyond the white-grey of the moss-spotted clitter, the moor sank through chartreuse slopes, down to the emerald intake of Penhale Farm, to a motley lowland of pale lime dashed with tawny and dun and fawn, and then the intricate tapestry of purple moor-grass, cotton-grass, mat-grass, heather, moss and lichens; chamois, bronze, taupe, walnut – a hennaed, mouldering, rusting vastness shot with saffron, carmine and topaz, with swathes of reflectivity that shimmered like raffia in the low sun. 

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Imagine those colours as embroidery threads, or a crocheted blanket, or scraps of tweed fabric waiting to be stitched into a quilt…  

And his explanations of moorland geology have an economy of language that is almost poetic, with the data compressed into very few words, just as mud and plants were compressed into layers of rock – and is certainly easier to read and understand than any textbook. Here, talking about coalmining on Alston Moor, he says: 

Roll back the grass and peat, and the hillsides would show their striped profiles: shale/sandstone/limestone/coal – each laid down as successive oceans filled and lingered and drained mud and sand becoming shale and sandstone, vegetation becoming coal, the bones of sea creatures tamping into limestone. 

Burrator Reservoir, on Dartmoor, was created to provide water for
Plymouth, and woods were planted around it to stabilise the land.
It looks as if it's been there for ever, and is a brilliant example of
the way men have changed a moorland landscape.
Atkins is as much obsessed by words as he is with the moors themselves, and I was fascinated to discover that there’s a whole language connected with every aspect of this particular landscape. It seems there is precisely the right word to describe every dip and hollow, every rise and slope, every bit of rock, from near microscopic particles to gigantic boulders. There are words for weather conditions, different types of water, soils and vegetation. English is a wonderful language, with a wealth of words to describe people, objects, places, emotions, situations, but just imagine the richness of having so many words devoted to one type of landscape, enabling you to say exactly what you mean.  

It turns out that the moor of Atkins’ childhood is really a fen, and the adjoining wood is actually a swamped wood, known as a carr. And, in case you wonder, a fen and a moor are both boggy and peaty, but a fen’s wetness comes from underground springs, while a moor’s wetness is mainly from rain. “Fenland is saturated from below, moorland from above,” he explains. Fens, like marshes, are usually low-lying, while true moorland can be found only at high altitudes, where there is heavy rainfall. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to grasp the nuances of the terminology: flaughts, for example, are sods of turf, while peats are obtained from a peat hole, but I’m not sure I understand the difference. 

Then there is growan, which is a fine quartz grit - ‘granite’s midway state of degradation from solid stone to powdery kaolin’.  Who knew there was a word to describe such a transformation (I didn’t even know kaolin clay comes from granite)! And what about clitter, the expanse of boulders that rings the summit of every tor. And there are deep griffs, and isolated hags, and cloughs, and curricks… And I particularly like his account of a névé:

The snow remained along the sunken paths and along cloughs and brooks and the footings of walls; it’s surface inch had frozen and refrozen and hardened to a brittle shell. There was a word for this sort of partially melted and refrozen snow – névé, from the Swiss French for glacier

This, apparently, is a grouse, a game bird bred to be shot.
(Pic courtesy of Tom Marshall on the RSPB website)
I must admit that until reading this book I hadn’t realised how much of the moorland landscape has been shaped not just by nature, but by man. Mining, quarrying, farming, military activities, drainage schemes and reservoirs have all left their mark. And grouse moors, apparently, are almost entirely man-made, with the birds and the heather they eat creating what is effectively a monoculture – in the past other species were wiped out to safeguard the grouse. These days, according to Atkins, the land is better managed, and many predators are protected. 

But here, and elsewhere, he considers the difficulty of trying to preserve the environment whilst meeting the conflicting demands of those who use the moors – a tricky task, since the various user groups often have divergent views and interests.

One of the joys of a book like this is the moment of recognition, when a scene matches a memory from your own past, or you come across a place you’ve been to. Parts of Dartmoor I know, and I’ve visited Princetown, where the prison is, and Buckfast Abbey, so I loved that chapter. And Atkins’ description of the long vanished ‘Golf Balls’ at the Fylingdale early warning station brought to mind a holiday in the area many years ago, when the strange structures loomed eerily out of the mist as I drove across the North York Moors.

But it was his account of peat cutting which resonated most strongly, and that description of the colours on Bodmin Moor, reminding me of childhood holidays up in the hills of Donegal, where my grandparents lived. It may not have been a moorland, but the landscape was very similar, and I can remember going to places where peat was cut, for fuel for fires. I think the cut blocks were just referred as turfs, or turves - definitely not flaughts or peats!  The land was very wet, and there were seas of purple heather blowing in the wind, and great cushions of moss, in bright greens and ruby reds, and something we called bog cotton, though that may not have been its proper name. And the white quartz stones in the streams that rushed down from the higher slopes were all stained rusty brown from the peat. 


Monday, 9 March 2015

Poems for Spring

Every year, some time in February or March, depending on the vagaries of the English weather, there comes a sunny day when I walk through the Castle Grounds and smell flowery perfume on a warm breeze, and every year I think ‘how wonderful, spring is on the way’.

Doubtlessly there’s a very logical explanation, because strongly perfumed flowers are already in bloom, like this mahonia, which smells rather honeyish, like oilseed rape perhaps:

Or this little creamy white bloom that I think is sweet box – to start with, because of the perfume, I thought it might be some strange kind of jasmine, even though the flower is not right for that. But, like jasmine, it seems to perfume the air for a good distance around:
Anyway, I’m always reminded 0f Carl Sandburg’s poem Blossom Themes, which encapsulates that moment when the first flowers begin to appear and you realise winter is on the wane…

Late in the winter came one day
When there was a whiff on the wind,
a suspicion, a cry not to be heard
of perhaps blossoms, perhaps green
 grass and clean hills lifting rolling shoulders.
Does the nose get the cry of spring
first of all? is the nose thankful
and thrilled first of all?
If the blossoms come down
so they must fall on snow
because spring comes this year
before winter is gone,
then both snow and blossoms look sad:
peaches, cherries, the red summer apples,
all say it is a hard year.
The wind has its own way of picking off
the smell of peach blossoms and then
carrying that smell miles and miles.
Women washing dishes in lonely, farmhouses
stand at the door and say, “Something is
A little foam of the summer sea
of blossoms,
a foam finger of white leaves,
shut these away—
high into the summer wind runners.
Let the wind be white too.

I love that first stanza, with the ‘whiff on the wind’ and the ‘perhaps blossoms’ and the thought that of all the senses it’s smell that recognises spring first, rather than sight, or sound.
And this year I discovered Kathleen Jamie’s poem, The Dash, which also seems to capture the magic of that moment when the year turns, though for her the arrival of spring is heralded by a pair of birds returning to Scotland after wintering somewhere warmer. But the sense of joy is the same, and the feeling of exhilaration that a longed-for event has finally arrived, and I think it’s interesting that Sandburg and Jamie both have the wind blowing spring in quite suddenly – there’s no gradual creeping-in of a new season.

Every mid-February
those first days arrive
when the sun rises
higher than the Black
Hill at last. Brightness
and a crazy breeze
course from the same airt -
turned clods gleam, the trees’
topmost branches bend
shivering downwind.
They chase, this lithe pair
out of the far south
west, and though scalding
to our wintered eyes
look; we cry, it’s here

This poem comes from her collection The Overhaul, which I finally got round to buying because I enjoyed ‘Findings’ and ‘Sightlines’ so much – these two books both contain essays, or reflections, mainly on nature and wild things, and Jamie’s prose is beautifully lyrical, as she uses animals, birds, found objects as a kind of focus to comment on life. I thought they were wonderful, but Jamie is primarily a poet, and I have been meaning to explore her poetry for quite a while, but was wary, because I’d read reviews complaining that her use of Scottish dialect words made her work difficult to understand.

I admit some kind of glossary would be useful, but even if you don’t appreciates the fine  nuances in her choice of words it’s not that difficult to grasp her meaning, and there’s always Google – I know lots of people don’t like it, but I found airt without any trouble, and now know it has to do with direction, as in the compass.

She’s very much a nature poet, who observes creatures and landscapes, and she has a wonderful and unusual way with words and language, that makes you look afresh at the world around you, and think about it in a different fashion. ‘Wintered eyes’, for example, is such an unlikely pairing, yet it’s absolutely right, describing how tired and jaded we feel after a long, hard winter, and how different the world (and our view of it) becomes when spring arrives, bringing the hope of better things ahead. 

The poems need to be read slowly, and thought about, one at a time, so that’s what I’m doing, and so far I’m enjoying them very much, and looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Dud Avocado

I had high hopes of The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy, which I bought because it is a Virago Modern Classic, and because the blurb on the back made it sound so enticing:
Sally Jay Gorce, is a woman with a mission. It’s the 1950s, she’s young, she’s in Paris, she’s dyed her hair pink, she’s wearing an evening dress at eleven o’clock in the morning, and she’s seldom had more fun. Having made a vow to go native in a way the natives never had the stamina for, she’s busy getting drunk, having affairs, losing money, losing jewellery, and losing God knows what.
And the opening was promising…
It was a hot, peaceful optimistic sort of day in September. It was about eleven in the morning I remember and I was drifting down the Boulevard St. Michel thoughts rising in my head like little puffs of smoke when suddenly a voice bellowed into my ear …
But thereafter I was disappointed: the book failed to please me, and I’m not quite sure why. It’s well written, the characters are well drawn, and I didn’t hate it. To be honest I don’t think I could even say I disliked it – it didn’t evoke any strong emotions in me. It’s just not my sort of book I guess, and I wouldn’t read it again.
It is, as I’m sure most people know, a classic rites of passage book written by Elaine Dundy, an American actress who married British theatre critic Ken Tynan. It is supposed to be based on Dundy’s own experiences living in Paris (before she met Tynan), but she said: “When I got stuck, I would say to myself, 'What would I not do?' and then I would have Sally Jay do it, and I would be off again."
Sally Jay (generally known as Gorce) is a serial runaway, who is in Paris thanks to her Uncle Roger. When she was 13 he promised her two years of freedom once she has graduated from college – providing she doesn’t run away again. He’ll pay her a monthly allowance, and she can go anywhere she likes, and do anything she likes.
At that point what she wants is to stay out as late as she likes, and eat whatever she likes any time she wants. And she doesn’t want to be introduced to all the mothers and fathers and brothers of the girls at school. She doesn’t want to meet anyone she’s been introduced to.   She wants to meet all the other people and do exciting things and sharpen her wits…
So now Sally Jay, an actress, is in Paris, grabbing every new experience she can. She has a lover, an Italian diplomat named Teddy (they met when she stepped out in front of his car) who takes her to the Ritz, and a circle of oddball acquaintances, who all seem to be outsiders, on the edge of society. They’re not exactly down and outs, but they live a hand to mouth existence. Then there’s Larry Keevil, who was on a drama course with Sally Jay back home in America, and she meets him again and falls in love. But Larry turns out to be very nasty indeed…
The novel rushes along from one episode to another, and there’s a host of entertaining characters to accompany our zany heroine, and on the surface everything is very light and frothy, and often very funny. But there are darker undertones, and some scenes are quite disturbing.
At times the book, written in 1958, reminded me of JD Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, which was published seven years earlier – something to do with the tone perhaps, or the style, or the portrayal of disaffected youth with its hatred of anything phony. For all her outrageous behaviour Sally Jay, like Holden Caulfield, is something of innocent and, like him, she doesn’t really grow or learn from her experiences. She has no thought for the future, and lives for the moment. She’s very bright, and despite the kooky, confident, cynical persona she’s created for herself she’s oddly passive – things happen to her, and she accepts the situation, and goes with the flow, rarely making decisions or initiating action.
The period is wrong, but she could almost be a younger version of a Jean Rhys heroine, before life has saddened her and the promise of good times ahead has disappeared: think of Sasha in 'Good Morning', Midnight. Rhys is far bleaker and grittier, but Dundy’s Paris carries the same sense of seediness and failure, despite the lightness and humour.
And although the ending ought to be described as happy, I can’t for a moment imagine it will be. Sally Jay doesn’t strike me as being a happy-after-person. Each time she meets a new man, or a new situation, she thinks ‘this is it’. But it never lasts. Whatever she does, she never quite fits in, and things never quite work out. There’s a passage early on the book where Sally Jay says:
I was still wearing the evening dress I had in when I’d met Larry that morning, and the funny thing about was that, even though twelve hours had elapsed since then, it still wasn’t particularly appropriate. I mean, I really felt I could expect it to be correct attire at some point of the day – like a watch that has stopped, eventually just happening to have its hands at the right time.
Somehow I felt that symbolised her life, and she’s never going to be correct, or happy, or satisfied.
Jim McDermott's portrait of Elaine Dundy.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Sky Bears and Kissing Planets

Just look what I’ve got…
The Stargazers’ Almanac! Isn’t it beautiful? It gives a month by month account of what can be seen in the night sky, with lovely clear maps looking north and south, so you won’t miss anything. I have Lynne at Dove Grey Reader to thank for this discovery, because she mentioned it here, and I bought it because I thought it would be the perfect partner for this…
Stories in the Stars, An Atlas of Constellations, by Victoria Hislop, is exactly what it says on the label. It’s packed with tales about the stars, explaining how they got their names, and it’s a lovely mix of myths and legends, as gods and goddesses rub shoulders with heroes, heroines, villains, and some very odd creatures. And there are snippets about astronomers, scientists, explorers, mathematicians, mapmakers and mariners, all helping to show how successive cultures have viewed the stars, from early times right through to the modern age, with references to the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Japanese and many more, interspersed occasionally with the author’s childhood memories.
I fell in love with this book when I heard it on BBC Radio 4 – it was the Book of the Week at Christmas, and it was beautifully read, by the author and a cast of actors. It was abridged by Jill Waters, who also directed and produced the five episodes, and having now read the book (I splashed out on a brand new hardback, which is very unusual for me) I can say I think she did a brilliant job. Sadly, the BBC programmes are no longer available for listening, but if it’s ever broadcast again you really should tune in.
Hislop, who describes herself as an actor, writer, theatre-maker and juggler of things, stresses that ‘Stories in the Stars’ is not about ‘astronomical rigour’. It’s the stories of the stars she knows, not the science. And she adds:

 “This is the glory of stargazing for the storyteller: above us a blank page in negative. A jet canvas pricked with white dots, and a rag-bag of myths, religions, lullabies and fairy tales with which to join them up. A whole universe of stories ready to steal, which are as unstable as the stars themselves – shining and magical, but soon to explode and re-form the dust and gas of history into new stories altogether.”
Purists may not like this dot-to-dot approach, but I do: I feel it helps make sense of all those weird and wonderful stories, some of which I already know, although others are new. The science bits Hislop does include are put across very simply, and the whole book has really whetted my appetite to learn more about stars and planets and so on, so I've dug out a not terribly good pair of binoculars, and a very tiny compass (a souvenir from the Natural History Museum) because I have no sense of direction!
At this point I must mention the illustrated maps created by artist Hannah Waldron – after all, an atlas wouldn’t be an atlas without its maps! These are lovely and clear, one for each constellation, showing a picture of what it’s meant to be (hunter, swan, dog etc), it’s position in the sky, and the magnitude of the individual stars.

The ‘Stargazers’ Almanac’ also boasts some wonderful illustrated maps of the night sky, with details of what you see each month, and brief information about the sun, moon planets and meteors, as well as the stars, all of which makes it slightly more scientific than Hislop’s book. However, it’s quite easy to understand. And the compiler has a lovely turn of phrase. This month, for example, I learned that: “The Little Bear (Ursa Minor) hangs by its tail, at the tip of which is Polaris, infallible guide to the north.”
Isn’t that magical? Never again will I fruitlessly search the sky for something as humdrum as a small saucepan with a bent handle. Instead I shall welcome the sight of a playful bear cub hanging upside down and swinging from a star! And he here he is in the Almanac, more or less in the middle of my not very clear photo:
And here he is in Hannah Waldron's rather splendid illustration in the Constellation Atlas.
However, according to Hislop the Little Bear has a sad story to tell. He is Arcas, son of Callisto, a wood nymph who was seduced by Zeus, King of the Gods. As you might expect, Zeus’ wife Hera was not at all happy about this, so she changed poor Callisto into a bear, which seems a little extreme (and very unfair – after all, it wasn’t Callisto’s fault).

Fast forward more than a decade, and the teenaged Arcas is about to kill the bear, unaware she is his mother. But Zeus comes to the rescue (if you can call it that)… and turns Arcas into a bear as well! However, I’m not sure this solution pleased either mother or son. According to Hislop, to avoid being scratched by their sharp claws, Zeus picked both bears up by their tails, swung them round and round, and flung them into the sky. Which is why Sky Bears have longer tails than Earth Bears!
So, having got all enthusiastic about the night sky, and alerted by a line in the Almanac, I went into the back garden early on Saturday evening and managed to locate the planet Venus, shining brightly, and red Mars, a tiny, dull dot just a hair’s breadth away. They looked incredibly close - they could have been kissing or hugging! But apparently that’s an illusion, all to do with the alignment of the two planets as they’re seen from earth (once back in the warm I resorted to Google to find out more). In reality Venus is 134 million miles from Earth, and Mars is even further away - 203 million miles. So there must be a pretty good distance between them! Anyway, I gather it’s quite rare for these two planets to pass so close to each other: the last time was in 2008, and won’t happen again for another two years.
I tried very hard to take some photos, but it’s quite difficult trying to hold the camera steady and focus on something all that distance away, so my pictures were very wobbly indeed:

And when I did manage to get a clearer shot Mars wasn’t there at all, which is very disappointing. But you can see the thinnest of thin crescent moons, and Venus… but you have to click on the picture to make it bigger
However, even if I haven’t got a proper record of the occasion I’m glad we saw it, because we are surrounded by buildings, and there’s a lot of light pollution – the Man of the House, who was a bit of an astrology enthusiast in his youth (long before I met him), thinks we may be able to find somewhere nearby which offers a better view for stargazing observations. 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Spring Bulbs, Marmalade, Sulphur and Soup!

I was brought up in Surrey, and I love gardening books, so Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, by Mrs CW Earle, seemed tailor-made for me, and I succumbed to its delights as soon as I spotted it (in a box of Oxfam donations, of course).  It turns out that Mrs E’s country residence was in Cobham, which I used to know a little – when I was at school a friend lived there, and sometimes I stayed at her home overnight. And it was one of the places my family would occasionally ‘run out’ to on a fine day. Usually we fortified ourselves with flasks of tea, sandwiches, and slices of Mum’s home-made Dundee cake, but I am sure we once had afternoon tea in a genteel little tea shop in Cobham (though it may have been somewhere nearby). It impressed me no end: not only were we eating out, but there were proper waitresses, and it was definitely a step up from the local fish’n’chip shop or the self-service A.B.C. café we frequented on trips to a neighbouring town.
My 1984 edition of Mrs CW Earle's 'Pot
Pourri from a Surrey Garden', produced
 by Century Publishing.

Anyway, I digress. Mrs Earle was the wife of Captain Charles William Earle, hence those initials. She was christened Maria Theresa, but in 1897, when her book was first published, a married woman was known by her husband’s name, a practice which has, thankfully, been abandoned.

The couple spent roughly half the year in London, and half at Cobham, which had a two-acre garden where Mrs Earle spent much of her time. She seems to have been a knowledgeable and ‘hands-on’ gardener, but there’s more to her book than gardening. It also covers cookery, holidays, housekeeping, families, education, furnishing, customs, history, health, poems, books, weather and all kinds of other things.

I guess it was one of the ‘self-help manuals’ of its day, which makes it great fun, and it’s interesting to see how things have changed. However, much of her advice (especially on gardening) still holds good, and many of her observations remain as pertinent today as they were then. She provides a lively and often humorous picture of life at the very end of the 19th century, and is informative and opinionated, without being didactic. On the whole she’s surprisingly modern in outlook – apparently her family regarded her as a great radical – and she has a sense of fun, and curiosity about life.
In her first entry, for January 2, she sets out her agenda, telling us:

I am not going to write a gardening book, or a cookery book, or a book on furnishing or education. Plenty of these have been published lately. I merely wish to talk to you on paper about several subjects as they occur to me throughout the year; and if such desultory notes prove to be of any use to you or others, so much the better.
But, she says, gardening will be given ‘preponderance’ throughout the book, and so it is.
For those of who don't know Cobham, this is a photo of the High Street,
courtesy of Wikipedia and their Creative Commons licence.
I was going to try and give a resumé of the whole volume, but decided it would be nicer to share her thoughts on February (since it is February), and maybe take another look at her later in the year. This, she says, is the month of forced bulbs – ‘hyacinths, tulips, jonquils and narcissuses’. And she is absolutely right, because my little narcissi have all burst into bloom, and there are beautiful, cheerful, bright yellow flowers on the windowsills, making me feel that perhaps spring is on the way. My narcissi (in bright yellow pots, to match the flowers), were already poking their shoots through the soil when I brought them back from the local garden centre, and I feel a bit of a failure because I had some bulbs and forget to plant them back in November, which is when Mrs Earle, says you should do these things. In the Greenhouse. Or the Cellar. I was a bit flummoxed by this since we possess neither a greenhouse nor a cellar, but further reading revealed that a south-facing windowsill is fine. Actually, I’m pretty sure none of our windows face south, but the narcissi (I am positive this is the correct plural)) are flourishing, so presumably they don’t realise they’re looking the wrong way.
Narcissi on the windowsill... Not south-facing,
alas, but they seem quite happy.
She also mentions the Royal Horticultural Society’s early spring exhibition in the Drill Hall, Westminster, an event she describes as one of her great pleasures. Does this location still exist I wonder? And if so does the RHS still have a spring show there?
Later in the month she reminds us that it’s time to make marmalade, and that old jars which are being reused should be washed thoroughly in clean water, without soap or soda. Then, when dry, they should be powdered with a little sulphur and wiped clean. Whoever knew that sulphur was an essential piece of kitchen kit! When my mother made marmalade, jams, chutneys, bottled fruit and so on she washed the jars and sterilised them by baking them in the oven, on thick sheets of newspaper.
Finally there are some recipes, or receipts as they were then known, translated from a ‘very excellent’ French chef. Mrs Earle explains:
They belong to so entirely different a cuisine from our ordinary modest and economical receipts, that I think they may not be without interest to some people.
The recipes include ravioli and gnocchi, which seems very cosmopolitan for that period, and they all appear to be very complicated and very time consuming, and are definitely not modest or economical. My own favourite, because it is so outrageous, is Pot au feu Soup. I’m a great fan of home-made soup, which is generally very simple to cook, but the instructions for this are mazing. First up there’s the ingredients: 15lbs of beef; 51/2 lbs of veal, 1 chicken, 21/2 gallons of water; 3 fine carrots; I big turnip; 1 large onion; a bunch of parsley; a head of celery; a parsnip; 2 cloves, and some salt. What size saucepan would you need for that lot? And however would you lift it?
Then there’s the method. Before you start cooking, the meat has to be trimmed and tied, which may be a tad arduous, but believe me it’s a doddle compared to what comes next. On my reckoning the soup has to boil (on a fire!!!) for something like six hours. Various ingredients have to be added or removed at various times, scum has to be skimmed off, and there are different types of boilings to be done. I kid you not. There is violent boiling, and boiling on one side, and boiling ‘undisturbed, evenly and regularly’ (with the lid on). And you mustn’t let this witch’s brew boil over, even if it seems ‘inclined’ to do so. I rather like Mrs Earle’s use of the word ‘inclined’ because it makes the soup sound as if has a life of its own. Turn your back and it could take over the kitchen, like Grimm’s Magic Porridge Pot.
And when the cooking process is finally over the fun really starts because you must ‘strain the soup, without stirring it up, through a strainer on to a napkin stretched over a receptacle big enough to contain the soup’. Right. Anyone fancy heaving that lot out of the pan?
Even then you don’t have soup as we know it. Oh no. What you have is stock, which can be used to make whatever soup you fancy – which means more food-prepping, skimming and boiling…
When I make soup it tends to be more Pot Luck than Pot au feu!
This is made from all the vegetables left in the veg rack at the end of
the week... Plus fresh herbs... And stock cubes!
Now I realise that the basic techniques are still pretty much the same (apart from the industrial scale of the ingredients, and the fire). But personally I think progress is a wonderful thing. All I can say is hooray for modern cookers. And electric blenders. And stock cubes!!!

PS: I’m linking this to the Reading England Challenge, over at Behold the Stars. The aim is to travel England reading, and read at least one classic book per however many counties of England you decide to read. I think this definitely counts as a classic, and since non-fiction is allowed this would seem to be an ideal entry for Surrey. I’m signing up for Level 3, and hoping to read between 7 and 12 books for this challenge, which sounds reasonable, but it would be wonderful to cover every county.