Sunday, 26 May 2013

Short Story Sunday


Time for Short Story Sunday again, and I will start by saying I absolutely hated this week’s offering, and had it been the first tale in The Persephone Book of Short Stories I doubt I would have read any further. Fortunately it’s story number two, and ahead of me lie Dorothy Whipple, EM Delafield, Edith Wharton, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Mollie Panter-Downes and a host of other wonderful authors, so it’s onwards and upwards as Eric Robson might say, and I’m certainly not giving up. By the way, for anyone who never listens to Radio 4, Eric Robson is the presenter of Gardeners’ Question Time (one of the best things about Sunday afternoons) and that’s his catchphrase, which I always find rather comforting – almost on par with Julian of Norwich who said: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Anyway, as usual I am digressing. I hear you ask what it is that I do not like, and the answer
Katherine Mansfield
is Katherine Mansfield’s The Black Cap. She’s an author I always feel I ought to read partly, I suspect, because she was a cousin of Elizabeth von Arnim, whose books I love. Over the years I’ve picked up work by Mansfield on several occasions, and browsed through a page or two, but it’s never appealed enough to make me buy or borrow, and this story hasn’t made me change my mind. Dated 1917, it’s written as if it were a script for a series of short scenes in a play or film, and despite the fact it’s so short it’s obviously a complete work, with a very clearly defined beginning, middle and end, which is fine, because I was always taught that every good story should have these qualities, in the correct order. Of course, literary rules like this are frequently broken very successfully, but the format works OK here – it’s that scripted style I don’t like, which is odd, because I enjoy reading plays, so that can’t be the only reason I don’t like this.

And it can’t be the fact that we never get to know the characters’ names, because there are plenty of books with anonymous central characters which I read over and over again - Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ is one of my all-time favourites. Nor can the subject matter be to blame: after all, there are lots of great stories which hinge on a woman meeting her lover.

Here the twist is that the woman then abandons him – because he has lost his hat and is wearing an appalling black cap which looks absurd. From this moment it’s obvious the assignation won’t go according to plan, because the black cap is more than a fashion or lifestyle faux pas: it seems to reference the black cap worn by judges announcing the death sentence, but in this case it heralds the end of the affair. The woman decides it highlights their differences in outlook, and feels it is impossible to love a man like that because he is not her style. So she heads back home to her husband (who we last saw over breakfast), looking forward to a meal of cold fowl and orange jelly.  It shows how small, unimportant things can change perceptions and alter lives, but I disliked the lady intensely, and couldn’t feel any kind of sympathy for her. I would go so far as to say I thought she was a shallow, small-minded, self-satisfied, selfish bitch, and her lover was well out of the relationship, and I felt really sorry for her husband. But I didn’t like the two of them either. And I found the dialogue stilted.

Reading this through, none of my comments sound like a coherent critique of ‘The Black Cap’, and I suspect my attempt at an appraisal is very much an emotional response. It’s just one of those stories that didn’t gel with me, largely because I didn’t like that script format or Mansfield’s writing style. But, mad though it sounds, I might have enjoyed the same plotline written by a different author. Currently I’m trying to think who would do it justice!

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Teatime Treats!

Teatime treats!
Help yourself to a cake or biscuit people! And you needn’t worry about the calorie count as these little morsels are certainly not fattening – because they’re made from wool. I was so delighted with the Blooms and Bunnies I produced for Easter I thought I would try and make something each month so, since the Man of the House and I both celebrated birthdays at the start of May, I got my crochet hooks out, and rummaged around in my stash of wool oddments, and this is what I’ve come up with for today’s Saturday Snapshot. 
Creative cupcakes.

I had great fun decorating them with beads and ribbons, and although my efforts to produce a crochet fruit for the top of one cake were not at all successful, I left it on, as a record of my work. 
Fondant fancies and an iced party ring biscuit . The
butterfly candles look pretty, but I don't think it
would be sensible to light them.
There are fondant fancies (round rather than square like the real thing) with roses on the top, and cup cakes with lots of swirly ‘icing’, and some cream sponges topped with fruit, some jam tarts and bakewell tarts, and lots of biscuits. There are chocolate digestives, and jammie dodgers, and scrummy party rings with icing on the top, and pink wafers sandwiched together with vanilla cream, and those lovely, curranty biscuits with crunchy sugar on the top. I’m not sure what they are called – I’ve seen them referred to as currant biscuits, Easter biscuits, and Shrewsbury biscuits. Whatever their name, the edible ones are delicious and really easy to bake, but having lost weight on my walking/not eating between meals campaign, I’m reluctant to start cooking teatime treats in case I put weight on again! 
Biscuit bonanza: pink wafers, jammie dodgers and
sugary currant biscuits.
I used scraps of double knitting wool, with a 3mm (British sizing hook), and the patterns mostly came from http://www.normalynn.info/ which has some really ambitious culinary crochet, much more intricate than mine. I changed some of the patterns, and altered the sizes, and even though self-praise is no recommendation I think they are quite effective. 
Tasty 'pstry' tarts - jam, lemon curd, and bakewell
(with a cerry on the top).

Now I have to think about a project for June! Any ideas anyone?

Alyce at At Home With Books is taking a break, so Saturday Snapshot is now being hosted by Melinda of West Metro Mommy.


Thursday, 23 May 2013

Library Briefs


I've been particularly well organised with my last library haul - I surprise myself sometimes! I've read all four of them, and resisted the temptation to go in and get more every time I passed the building, and kept them altogether on a shelf, and not lost them, or forgotten them, and not kept them too long. I really enjoyed two of my selections, but didn't like the other two at all. I was especially disappointed with Jeanette Winterson's 'The Daylight Gate' because I usually admire her work. Anyway, I've written a brief review on each book, and found it an interesting exercise - it's a while since I've written to length, so I set myself a limit of 300 words for each volume, and only went over on one. 
Recipe for Love, Katie Fforde: You’re always in safe with Katie Fforde. This, as ever, is light, fluffy and very enjoyable.  It owes a lot to reality TV cookery shows, and even more to Jane Eyre, but is none the worse for that. Zoe Harper comes to the rescue when a grumpy, arrogant (but very desirable) man puts his car in a ditch. He turns out to be Gideon Irving, a judge for the cookery competition where our heroine is a contestant... There is an instant attraction between the pair, but misunderstandings must be sorted out before true love can prevail.

The plot moves along at a nice pace and the setting of Somerby House (which can be found in several other Fforde novels) is delightful, as are the recipes dished up for the televised contest, which is part Great British Bake-Off and part Master Chef. The cooks themselves are a nicely balanced mix of people, including Zoe’s room-mate, the splendidly nasty Cher, an airhead who is more interested in fame than food, and will do anything to win.

I could be critical and point out that there is certain similarity in many of Fforde’s plots and characters, but the same could be said for Jane Austen, who I love dearly, so I’m really not complaining – after all, Fforde knows her strengths, and is one of the greatest exponents of the romantic fiction genre. However, despite that, and despite the fact that I like comfort reading and happy endings, I can’t help feeling it might be nice if she ventured into new territory.

The Thoughtful Dresser, Linda Grant: Difficult to know how to describe this.  Definitely not a novel, although it was on the fiction shelves – more a series of reflective essays on the importance of what we wear. There are interviews and historic research alongside Grant’s own thoughts. For many women, it seems, having the right outfit is an empowering and uplifting experience, and it was interesting to learn that for some dispossessed women (like the concentration camp survivor) the acquisition of even one pretty, colourful garment is something really special.

I can quite understand that wearing something nice can make you feel better – having lost weight over the last few months I’m currently working my way through  things I haven’t been able to wear for four years and yes, that makes me feel good.
But Grant’s view of clothes is an alien concept as far as I’m concerned, and I really can’t get that excited about garments, shoes and accessories, let alone the designer names she mentions.

I’ve never believed people should be judged by what they look like or what they wear because it’s who you are as a person that really matters, and I’m much more likely to spend money on a book than something to wear, so I guess I’m the wrong person to appreciate this volume.

The Daylight Gate, Jeanette Winterson: A novel about the Pendle Witches which I picked it up because a) I normally like Jeanette Winterson and b) she presented a fascinating programme about the witches on Radio 4, but I was not at all keen on the book. Winterson throws everything into it – child abuse, a Gunpowder plotter, William Shakespeare, astrologer and occultist Dr John Dee, and a Catholic priest (remember, this was a time when Popish practices were banned, and some scholars now think the ‘coven’ may have been a small congregation of Catholics).

The book is published by Hammer, which should provide a clue that this is a horror story in the tradition of those old films. Magic and the supernatural rub shoulders with religion and the everyday, and some of the action is very nasty indeed, but you wouldn’t expect a story on this topic to be anything but gruesome. However, all those magical elements and the blurring of the margins between fantasy and reality really didn’t work for me. I think I would have preferred less mumbo jumbo and a greater exploration of people’s motives and relationships (but then, of course, it would have been a completely different book).  

Sadly, nothing pleased me about ‘The Daylight Gate’ – even Winterson’s prose seemed to lack its usual power and dexterity. I was disappointed, but I kept comparing the novel with ‘The Crucible’, Arthur Miller’s great play about the Salem Witches. It’s an unfair comparison, since Miller’s work is also an allegory about the political situation in America at the time he was writing, but I couldn’t help myself, and Winterson didn’t match up to this masterpiece.

A Red Herring Without Mustard, Alan Bradley: This was my first encounter with child sleuth Flavia de Luce, and it was absolutely brilliant! If you’ve never read any of the mysteries featuring the 11-year-old prodigy and her trusty steed (a bicycle called Gladys) then I suggest you do so. Immediately, if you please. Flavia is precocious and opinionated (as well as being a genius at chemistry), and I can well understand how irritating her sisters find her. But for all that she’s very engaging and it’s hard to dislike her. Most of the time you (and Flavia) forget she is an 11-year-old girl, until the turns of the plot make you (and her) remember just how young and vulnerable she is. Pitting your wits against the characters in a bid to reveal who dunnit, and why, is one of the great pleasures of any good detective novel – and you can do that no matter how old the investigator is.

The novel opens as Flavia accidently sets fire to a gypsy’s tent at the village fete. Hours later she discovers the old gypsy lying barely alive in a pool of blood in her caravan, which is parked up on the de Luce family’s land. Then Flavia finds a body suspended in the fountain. Are the attack and the murder connected? And is there a link to a child who disappeared? And what about the Hobblers, a strange religious sect who are convinced the Kingdom of God lies a few feet above the ground? And why do the de Luces’ antique fire dogs vanish and reappear – in three different places?

Inspector Hewitt and his team of policemen are called in to solve the crimes but, needless to say, it’s Flavia who finds the answers. As you might expect from the title, red herrings abound, and there’s a strange, fishy smell that keeps cropping up. If you like taut, psychological crime thrillers then this is not for you. But if you like your crime novels to be ‘cosy’ and rather quirky then I’m sure you will enjoy this.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Let's Hear it for Older Women (The Winds of Heaven)


I’m still with Persephone, but today’s thoughts are about a novel rather than a short story. I’ve been reading The Winds of Heaven, by Monica Dickens, which meets my current craving for happy endings. But don’t get the idea this is fluffy, because it’s not. Dickens highlights the difficulties faced by an older woman, her role within the family, the way she is perceived by others – and the way she sees them.

Recently widowed Louise Bickford has been left homeless and almost penniless following the death of her domineering husband. With no skills, and no means of earning a living, she must now divide her summers between her three daughters, staying with each in turn, while in winter she has a cut-price room in a hotel run by an old schoolfriend. Then the friend suffers a heart attack, Louise is forced to leave, and it seems no-one wants her...

I think they all see her as a bit of an encumbrance – they certainly make her feel that way – and they have a tendency to ignore her, which is easily done because she is so self-effacing. She has absolutely no confidence, and no self-esteem. She has few friends, hates social occasions and meeting people, and rarely expresses an opinion on anything. She’s been squashed by life or, more likely, by her husband and is so anxious not to do or say the wrong the thing and not to cause any bother to anyone that she seems almost to have erased herself. She is one of the most unnoticeable people you are ever likely to meet in literature or in real life.

Monica Dickens
Louise sounds an unlikely heroine, but it’s her very ordinariness that makes her so appealing, and she doesn’t deserve to be overlooked, and should never be under-estimated.  As the story progressed and I got to know her thoughts and feelings, her likes and dislikes, her fears, the things that make happy, I warmed to her because she’s kind and caring, and has her own views, but few people take the trouble to listen to her. Those who do value her tend to be other outsiders, like her eldest grandchild Ellen, or Gordon Disher, the fat, quietly spoken, unassuming bed salesman who leads a double life as author Lester Drage, penning thrillers which are full of shocking crime, sex and violence – which are, surprisingly, exactly the kind of novels that Louise enjoys reading.

I liked the way a tentative friendship grows between Gordon and Louise, and I liked the portrayal of her relationship with her daughters, who are not really cruel or heartless, just thoughtless, and unable to see their mother as a person in her own right, or to understand how she has reached this point in her life, or how she feels about it.

Endpaper from a 1950s furnishing fabric in
a private collection.
For they are young, and have their own problems. On the face of it they seem very different from each other, but beneath the surface all three are dissatisfied with their lives. There is Miriam, tall and slim, well dressed and well organised, with her three children, and her nice house, but she’s as brittle as her marriage. Then there’s Anne, who doesn’t seem to care about anything or anyone, and especially not her house and her kindly, market gardener husband. And finally there’s Eva, a bright, bubbly actress who is in love with a married man. I found their contrasting relationships with their menfolk interesting, especially in the light of Louise’s unhappy marriage, and deepening friendship with Gordon. ‘The Winds of Heaven’ could be seen not just as a novel about the way women age and how they cope with changing roles and circumstances, but also as a novel about marriage, and the dynamics between the various couples. In that sense Dickens reminded me a bit of Jane Austen, and there’s the same attention to the small, everyday details of life, and ironic comments about social pretensions and aspirations. I’ve read reviews which compare Dickens’ work to that of her great-grandfather, but personally I think she’s closer to Austen. And, like Anne Elliott, Louise is offered a second chance at life and happiness – but only after she’s dealt with a near tragedy. 

PS: I'm adding a postcript, with Links of the Day, because older women seem to be on my mind at the moment, what with my mother's move and my recent birthday. I really enjoyed a Saturday Sally from Nan, over at Letters from a Hill Farm, which is a brief but lovely celebration of three amazing women who have tremendous zest and enthusiasm for life - writer and activist Maya Angelou, novelist Edna O'Brien, and an amazing lady who was still driving her car at the age of 101.

And today  Dove Grey Reader (aka Lynne Hatwell) has written a thought provoking piece where she takes a more serious look at the issues surrounding aging and the way we care for our elderly and deal with dementia. She touches on grief and loss, and the nature of memory,  as she explores Melvyn Bragg's 'Grace and Mary', considers the BBC TV series 'The Village', and thinks about her own experiences working with  elderly patients during her nursing career. 

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Short Story Sunday


I have here a copy of The Persephone Book of Short Stories which I’ve been reading very slowly and haven’t yet finished, but now I’ve moved my Mother into her new home – a snug and comfy little ‘sheltered’ flat, close to the town centre, so she can get out and about again and be a bit more independent – life should settle down again, and I’ll have more time for reading. So, as part of my catch-up plan (I know, I keep saying I’m going to establish a regular reading/writing routine, and I haven’t succeeded yet, but I live in hope) I’ve pinched an idea from Danielle at A Work in Progress (I hope she doesn’t mind) and I’m aiming to post a weekly Short Story Sunday piece.

It’s a genre I’ve never really explored, until last year, when I had the pleasure of discovering short stories by Dorothy Whipple, Mollie Panter-Downes, Mary Norton and Alice Munro. Before that I think the only other collections I came across were the Penguin Books of Short Stories, Volumes 1 and 2, which I read when I was at school or college, so many years ago I can’t remember which. And, as you can tell from that, they obviously didn’t make any impression on me at all! Oh, and I nearly forgot, I also read ‘A World of Difference:  An Anthology of Short Stories from Five Continents’, as part of an Open University course I studied for a couple of years ago, before I ran out of cash, and I thought some of them were very odd indeed.

Anyway, I’ve just had a birthday, and consequently decided that over the next year I’ll try to try do at least one new, enjoyable thing each week, and I think being more adventurous with reading definitely falls into that category.

So, back to ‘The Persephone Book of Short Stories’, which was the 100th book published and features two different endpapers – one, at the beginning, has a design with flowers and things that look like arrows but might be plant stems and leaves, all in shades of brown, taken from a roller-printed cotton twill weave manufactured in 1911 at the Arnold Press Print Works in North Adams, Massachussetts. It’s not at all the kind of thing I like – I think it looks very sombre and faintly sinister. However, the design on the inside of the back cover is fantastic. It’s a picture of a lovely screen-printed furnishing fabric, obviously based on a Mediterranean scene, with sun and sea and balconies and canopies and shutters and birds, all in vibrant colours and patterns. It was designed in 1983 by Susan Collier and Sarah Campbell for Fischbaker Ltd.  You could argue that none of that really matters, because the appearance of a book has no bearing on the contents and you would, of course, be quite right – but nevertheless, I have to disagree. Most of my books are cheap, tatty, old paperbacks, but I really enjoy   beautiful books – they are things of joy, to be loved and treasured, and personally I feel they add immeasurably to the reading experience, offering food for the soul as well as the mind. 
Anyway, I digress (again). The book contains 30 stories by 27 female authors, some of whom I have read and loved in the past. Others have produced work I failed to engage with, while a few are completely new to me, including Susan Glaspell, who wrote From A to Z, the first piece in the collection. Written in 1909, it tells of Miss Edna Willard, who has just finished her senior year at university and dreams of a job in publishing.

Her conception of her publishing house was finished about the same time as her day-class gown. She was to have a roll-top desk – probably of mahogany – and a big chair which whirled round like that in the office of the undergraduate dean. She was to have a little office all by herself, opening on to a bigger office – the little one marked ‘Private’. There were to be beautiful rugs – the general effect not unlike the University Club – books and pictures and cultivated gentlemen who spoke often of Greek tragedies and the Renaissance. She was a little uncertain as to her duties, but had a general idea about getting down between nine and ten, reading the morning paper, cutting the latest magazine, and then ‘writing something’.

The reality, of course, is very different (but, generally speaking, I find it always is). She obtains a position in a publishing house in Chicago, on run-down Dearborn Street. The company rents a penned-off space in a bleak, dirty building – the other side of the partition, which only extends part-way up the room, is a patent medicine company dealing with Dr Bunting’s Famous Kidney and Bladder Cure. It’s not only the location and surroundings which are all wrong, but the work itself, for she and her colleagues are engaged in the making of a dictionary, which involves poring through old dictionaries and modernising and expanding the definitions, whilst ensuring the copyright of the originals is not breached.

It’s not what she hoped for, but she works diligently and gradually falls in love with the older man at the next desk, who is ill and down on his luck, and has ‘the voice the prince used to have in long-ago dreams’. As they work on the dictionary they pen little notes to each other, based on definitions, which is all rather sweet and charming, but you know the burgeoning relationship is doomed, that dreams are dangerous things, and fairy tale princes do not exist in the real world.

Edna’s new-found friend realises he is on a crash-course to destruction, but cannot – or will not – grasp at the chance of redemption. For him, as the song says, happiness is just an illusion.  But he refuses to drag Edna down with him, and when they reach the end of the alphabet he bids her farewell. Distraught, she wanders the streets in the pouring rain, searching for him, but fate intervenes in the shape of Harold, the boy she liked most at university, who ‘rescues’ her and takes her home, whether she will or not.

Susan Glaspell
It’s a deceptively simple tale of lost love which stayed in my mind after I read it. I liked the way Glaspell built her characters, and her description of the cityscape, and the understated tone of the piece, and I found myself wondering about the people. What happened to Mr Clifford (the man at the next desk) to make him so bitter and disillusioned with life, and was he right to reject the chance of happiness? And if he had taken that chance, would he have continued on his downward trajectory, and would Edna have become equally dissatisfied as her dreams were shattered? And what about Harold, a bit part player, who appears on the scene by accident – how come he was in that place, at that time? And is he the hero, carrying Edna away to where she belongs – or a villain, blocking her escape to the place she longs to be? And what about Edna? Is she really in love? Or just in love with the idea of being in love, an image as unrealistic as her picture of what work would be like?

As I said earlier, Susan Glaspell is new to me, but according to the potted biography at the back of the book, she was an American ‘born of pioneer stock’ in 1876 and died 1948. She worked as a society and political reporter, and wrote plays and novels, two of which are published by Persephone, and I would like to read them.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

A Terrific Time on the Tree Trail!


The weather has turned vile again – cold, wet, grey and gloomy. But early last week the sky was blue, the sun shone, birds sang, flowers bloomed and it was hot, hot, hot. Aa, I thought, we’ve skipped spring and gone straight to summer! It was so nice that Elder Daughter (who travelled up from Plymouth for my birthday and stayed several days) joined me on a walk around the Tree Trail at a local park and we sat on the grass and enjoyed a picnic in the sunshine, and she wore her sunglasses, and I wore my floppy sunhat. So here are some pictures I took for my  Saturday Snapshot.
Picnic in the Park... In the sunshine... Whatever that may be!
  Wigginton Park is one of the many places I haven’t been to for years and years and years, so our morning’s outing was part of my ‘Exploring the Local Area and Doing Something Different’ plan. Like most of Tamworth’s ‘wild’ spaces it’s a fairly small area, and is bounded by houses, roads and a railway line, but it’s got a fascinating history, and is a fabulous green oasis in an urban area, boasting rare trees and a wealth of wildlife. We saw grey squirrels, as wells as all kinds of birds, insects and butterflies, and came away feeling as if we’d had a trip to the country. 
Wigginton Lodge, Tamworth: Built by fashionable women's surgeon John
Clarke and his wife Elizabeth in the early days if the !9th Century. 
A view of the park with trees, grass and blue sky!
Way back in the 18th Century Tamworth Town Clerk Charles Oakes (which is such an apt name considering the tree trail) had a farm here, but by the early 19th Century the land was owned by John Clarke, who was a top surgeon specialising in women’s diseases. He and his wife Elizabeth built a small mansion there (today it is known as Wigginton Lodge, and is the headquarters of Tamworth Rugby Club), as well as a lodge and a farmhouse, both of which have long-since vanished. The estate was later inherited by John Clarke’s brother Charles, an even more famous  surgeon, who also specialised in women’s diseases and must have been very fashionable and highly respected because he was personal physician to Queen Adelaide, wife of King William IV, and was made a baron in 1831 in recognition of his services to womankind.
Anyway, it was John and Elizabeth who created a 45-acre park on the site, with grass and trees - some imported from abroad at great expense. Amazingly, the area has survived changes in ownership, and modern development (which destroyed an awful lot of old Tamworth) and is now a public park, which includes rugby pitches and a play area for children.  And at its heart are the trees, featuring some planted by the Clarkes 200 years ago.
Bloom along the bough... Trees and bushes were laden
with blossom in shades of pink and white.
My favourites were probably the two Giant Redwoods which, despite their size, have strange, spongy bark which is soft like cardboard – so said the online guide (Elder Daughter’s mobile came in handy again!) and we felt the bark, and the information was spot-on.  Apparently the bark protects the trees from the intense heat of forest fires in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, which is the place they grow naturally. Isn’t that a wonderful example of the way evolution ensures plants are perfectly adapted to their habitat? And how incredible to think that a tree native to that one special environment can still flourish here in damp, cold England!
What a whopper! This should be Sequoiadendron Giganteum.
I was so intrigued I looked them up and discovered Sequoiadendron Giganteum (also known as (Wellingtonia) are the world’s largest trees. The bark can grow up to three feet thick, and they can survive for several millennia – apparently one recorded specimen is 3,500 years old.  Europeans first came across them in 1830, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that plant collectors started to bring seed back to the UK, so park founders John and Elizabeth obviously never knew about this species, but I’m sure they would have liked the idea of something new and exotic becoming a feature at their old home.
Chestnut Avenue: Trees still mark the line of the old driveway.
Landmarks include ‘Bomb Holes’, which are almost certainly where people extracted clay and marl, and are nothing to do with war. These days they’re full of trees, bushes and flowers, providing perfect sites for nesting birds and sheltered homes for other wildlife. In addition there are little woodland copses, and the remains of the old avenue of trees that once lined the main driveway to Wigginton Lodge, where you can see the ridge in the ground where the drive was, though it does not photograph all that clearly.
I loved the roots and dappled shade of this tree, perched up on the edge
 of a 'Bomb Hole' that owes its existence to quarrying rather than war.
We spotted the Holm Oak, a native of the Mediterranean, with leaves that look like holly (that’s how it got its name, because holm is thought to be the Anglo Saxon for holly). And we recognised a dead elm, and saw the marks left by ambrosia beetles which bored into the trunk. The beetles are not as heavenly as they sound, for they were responsible for the spread of Dutch Elm Disease, which killed this tree, along with thousands of others throughout England. The dead tree has been left to provide a habitat for flora and fauna, which seems a good idea. 

 And there’s a walnut tree, looking as if it’s on its last legs, but apparently its roots are strong so it is healthy, despite the drunken angle it stands at! We were interested to learn that because walnuts look like brains, Greeks and Romans believed they cured headaches, and whilst I can’t vouch for the truth of that it sounds a pretty good reason for eating walnuts, which are delicious.
Elder Daughter says this is the walnut the tree, and she was the 
Electronic Map Reader, so I hope she's right!
I wanted to try out a bit of Natural Navigation, as advocated by Tristan Gooley, but we had quite enough trouble trying to follow the map (an aerial photo which looks quite different to the way things are on the ground) and identifying trees. The details and photos on the website are excellent, but if you not an expert it is incredibly difficult trying to decide which tree is which. Consequently, although I took lots of photos, I still have no idea which trees they show! Obviously, it’s always tricky balancing the needs of visitors against the need to protect and conserve the environment, but simple, numbered wooden posts would help - or, better still, get local sculptors and artists involved to design waymarkers. And a display board near the main entrance (the one promoted on the website) would be good.
The road through the woods...
However, I shouldn’t complain because it was a wonderful morning, and I’ll definitely go back – armed with a print-out of the map, photos and information and a book on trees!
Trunk call... Looking skyward!
There’s an ongoing programme of planting, improvement and management at Wigginton Park, and a volunteer Friends group carries out work under the the Wild About Tamworth initiative, funded by site owner Tamworth Borough Council, and Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, so full marks to them all for giving us such a lovely, enjoyable spot, which deserves o better known - but if more people used it, then it wouldn't be as peaceful as it was during our visit.
Little Fir Trees... Well, not so little really, since they are very tall conifers... Scots Pines I think...
Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce at http://athomewithbooks.net/2013/05/saturday-snapshot-may-18/. Press on the link to see more photographs taken by participants.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé


‘Fairy tale’ is what would spring to mind if I were asked to describe Joanne Harris’ Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, which continues the story of Vianne Rocher, who we first met in Chocolat and then in its sequel, The Lollipop Shoes. This latest instalment is slightly grittier than its predecessors – there’s less magic and witchery, and more social realism, centred on the topical and controversial issues like attitudes towards women, and conflict between Moslem immigrants and Christian residents in the small (and frequently small-minded) village of Lansquenet. But in the end it’s people who matter, and the wickedness that must be overcome is created by a man’s nature and has nothing to do with religion or race.

And if you’re expecting a comforting, cosy read don’t worry because that’s exactly what you’ll get: reality may intrude in this novel, but it doesn’t dominate. The overall tone is as enchanting as ever and there’s warmth and affection for humanity as good battles against evil on the banks of the Tannes in the idyllic French countryside.

You don’t need to have read the first two books to appreciate Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, but knowing the backstory helps to set the scene and understand the characters. Harris is an astute writer who clearly understands that too much re-hashing of the past is not only boring, but destroys the dramatic tension of the work in hand.

Here Vianne returns to Lansquenet eight years after her first visit, answering a plea for help from beyond the grave. She has no idea what awaits her, but she cannot ignore a letter written by her friend Armande before her death. When she arrives in Lansquenet with her daughters Anouk and Rosette she finds everything has changed. The tumbledown buildings in Les Marauds, the ‘slum’ quarter of the village, now provide homes and businesses for an ever-growing North African community, and a mosque challenges the power of the church. The initial friendship and tolerance that existed between new and old has turned sour, and there’s a feeling of menace and distrust as a mysterious black-clad woman walks the streets...

Worse still, Vianne’s old adversary Father Reynaud is balanced on the edge of disaster, in danger of losing everything he holds dear, so the one-time enemies find themselves forming an unlikely alliance as they seek to restore harmony to the divided community. 

Once again the novel is told from two different viewpoints, with chapters narrated by Vianne and the priest, and many of the themes and elements are the same as those in the earlier books. There’s the wind that blows through the village changing lives, and Vianne’s ability to reach into people’s hearts, to see their true colours, and her desire to give them what they really want. But she finds it more difficult to know what she wants from life.

Food, prepared and eaten with love, is as central to this novel as it is in much of the author’s other work. There are the chocolates of course, flavoured with coconut, with rose and cardamom, with chilli to warm the heart and bring courage. There are the peaches of the title, with their sleepy, end-of-summer scent, and the jam and pastries Vianne makes with them. And in the home of Vianne’s Moslem friends  she catches the exotic scents of anise and almond and rosewater and chickpeas cooked in turmeric, and chopped mint, and toasted cardamom, and sesame pastries fried in oil ‘flower-shaped and brittle and perfect with a glass of mint tea’.

A Maghrébin woman tells Vianne that during Ramadan everyone fasts, but they think about food, buy food, prepare food in readiness for the after-sunset feasts – and dream about food when they sleep. It sounds a bit like me when I’m dieting or in thin mode and I become totally obsessed by food, and spend hours planning what I will eat! Vianne herself sees cooking as a kind of alchemy, and wonders if conflicts could be solved by people talking as they share  food, and perhaps she has a point and people should eat together rather fighting. It’s a nice thought, but unlikely to happen I suppose.

Anyway, Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé is an easy read. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, with some wonderfully drawn characters, and is well paced with a plot that races along, and it’s a book I’ll read again – it’s the kind of novel I’ll turn to on a grey day, when the world seems against me, and I want my spirits lifting without having to think too deeply about anything.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

A Birthday Treat in Oxford

It was my my birthday this week, and my wonderful daughters celebrated by treating me to a surprise day out in Oxford, because I'd always wanted to there. They arranged it all for last Saturday, a few days before the birthday, so my Elder Daughter could get back from Devon, and they swore the Man of the House to secrecy, and none of them would reveal anything about the plan, despite the fact that I kept badgering them to try and find out what was happening! It wasn't until we were at New Street Station that they told me: they presented me with a card they had made, with pictures of themselves on the outside, and an outline of what the day held in store written inside. I was so touched I burst into tears, which probably embarrassed them horribly, but if it did they didn't say. So here are some of the photos for my Saturday Snapshot.
Here I am, with my special card.
It was the most perfect day - the best birthday pressie I've ever had, and the highlight was a posh afternoon tea, with proper tea made with tea leaves (and a strainer in it's own little dish, to catch the drips), and sandwiches served up with a salad and crisps, and huge home-made scones with lashings of cream and jam, and home-made cake (we chose the coffee and marscarpone, and it was heavenly). The girls had planned a meal out with the Man of the House when we got home in the evening, but the three of us were stuffed we couldn't eat another thing, so the MOTH made do with take-away fish'n'chips instead! However, the two of us are going for a meal today or tomorrow, because it was his birthday this week as well.
Three of a kind: Left to right are Lucy (my elder daughter). me,
my younger daughter Emily
.

Oxford really lived up to expectations. I loved the architecture, and all the literary connections - Thomas Hardy's Jude, and Colin Dexter's Morse, Auberon Waugh's Charles and Sebastian and their friends, as well as Philip Pullman, Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll, as I'm sure you are all aware), CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien... there's an endless list of writers who were students at Oxford. The list of famous alumni in other fields, like science, history and politics is every bit as impressive, and I was surprised to discover that Sir Robert Peel, founder of the police force, who was MP for Tamworth (where I live) studied at Christ Church. Sir Robert, who served two terms of office as Prime Minister, took a double first in classics and mathematics. At his old college we were interested to see a door, with the words 'no peel' embedded in it in nails, hammered in by students who were outraged by Peel's bill calling for the emancipation of Catholics, and consequently opposed the idea of him being appointed to a university position!
19th Century students protesting against the
possible appointment of Sir Robert Peel were
responsible for this graffiti. 
Christ Church also boasts a beautiful meadow hidden away in the heart of the city but, sadly, we didn't get to see the great hall at Christ Church (where the Harry Potter movies were filmed) because it was in use, but the entrance fee was reduced. and we wandered around the site and looked at the shrine of St Frideswide, patron saint of Oxford, in the Cathedral at the college (apparently it's the only college anywhere to have its own cathedral). According to legend, Frideswide prayed for divine help  to escape marriage, and her unfortunate suitor was struck blind, whereupon she was so full remorse she prayed again, and his sight was restored - and off he galloped, as fast as ever he could, glad to get away from the place I should think!
The Shrine of St Frideswide.
There was so much to see and do we spent most of our time wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere, but I bet even if you stayed for a couple of weeks you wouldn't have time to see and do everything. We squeezed in brief visits to the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean Museum, the first public museum in the world, which is another place with a local link since founder Elias Ashmole's Lichfield home can still be seen just around the corner from the Oxfam book shop where I volunteer. And, of course, Oxford is where Oxfam started back in 1942 when the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief was established.
The doorway to the library for the School of
Music at the Bodleian Library.
As we walked around the city Lucy used her mobile phone to get directions and information, and gave us a guided tour, but I took so many pictures, and didn't make any notes, so - I've already forgotten most of what she said, and need to check out some of my photos, to find out what they are. I took lots of bits of buildings that caught my eye: decorated clocks, sundials, towers, spires, domes, cupolas, plaques, gargoyles and so on.
I love this clock and the decorative work on the building, but I
have no idea where it was taken!
There were lots of fascinating doors, gates, arches, passageways and alleys that we peered through to catch a glimpse of what lay beyond (especially the ones where there was no public access!).
An entrance to the Bodleian, with the Radcliffe
Camera in the background.
We walked under the Bridge of Sighs, which links Hertford College with New College Lane, and is generally thought to be based on the Venetian landmark of the same name, but I gather this is now regarded as an urban myth, as is the tale that only the lightest students were allowed to use it!
Hertford Bridge, generally known as the Bridge of Sighs.
One of the many amazing things about Oxford is the vast number of bicycles you see. Cyclists are everywhere, even on the pavements, and there are so many cycles stacked in some places, like the area outside the railway station, that I wondered how people ever find their own machine among all the wheels and spokes and saddles and handlebars. And that led me to ponder whether there is a collective noun for a group of bikes or cyclists... a ride, perhaps? 
One bicycle enthusiast found a novel way of parking!
We looked at shops - even the stores seemed to be housed in historic buildings, and the covered market, opened in 1774, has a lovely ceiling and was established to clear the streets of 'untidy, messy and unsavoury stalls'. I can think of towns which might from the same approach today! Best shop of all is the tiny Alice Shop selling, as its name implies, all kinds of things to do with Alice and Charles Dodgson. Every inch of space is crammed with goods. There are editions of the books, and toys and games, and mugs, bags, ornaments, postcards and a host of other items. I guess tourists would consider it gimmicky and touristified, but we loved it, and I bought a calico tote bag, with Tenniel's characters from both books printed on it in red.
Part of the window display in the Alice Shop.
There are an awful lot of buildings packed into what is really a fairly small area. Oxford isn't a large city by any means, but there are 38 colleges, and six halls attached to religious institutions, as well as shops, cafes, offices, hotels and so on. University College, Balliol and Merton were all established in the middle of the 13th century, and all claim to be the oldest college. And rivalry in the non-academic sector is just as fierce, with the Grand Cafe, mentioned by Samuel Pepys, believing itself to be the first coffee house in the country, while the Queen's Lane Coffee House maintains it is the oldest coffee house in Europe. You might think there would be no room for green spaces, but there is grass in the college quads, and parks and gardens, and the meadow at Christ Church, and lots of magnolia trees blooming in small spaces in front of buildings.

Gardens at Christ Church
We passed the remains of Oxford Castle on our way back to the station where historians now believe Geoffrey of Monmouth produce the first written tale about King ~Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain, but we didn't have time to stop because we had a train to catch. It really was a 'snapshot' kind of a day, where I came home with a kalaidescope of views and memories, and the nice thing is that now I know how easy it is to get there, and what a beautiful city it is, I'll be able to go back and spend more time exploring places I've glimpsed briefly during my special day out. Anyway, I'll leave with photos of my girlies and I enjoying our afternoon tea.

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce at http://athomewithbooks.net/2013/05/saturday-snapshot-may-11/ . Press on the link to see more photographs taken by participants.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Pink Sugar

A pink cover seems hgihly suitable for a
novel which rejoices in the title Pink Sugar.
My copy was published by Stodder nd
Houghton.

I may have mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again anyway: as a reader, I’m a sucker for a story with a happy ending. And I guess novelist O Douglas must have felt the same way, because one of the chapter headings in Pink Sugar is a quote from GK Chesterton which says: “The popular preference for a story with a happy ending is not a mere sweet stuff optimism: it is the remains of the old idea of the triumph of the dragon-slayer, the ultimate apotheosis of the man beloved of heaven.” So there you have it. Those of us who like slushy, mushy, happy-ever-after finales are not shallow airheads who can’t cope with reality – we’re tapping into folk memories which are buried deep within our psyche and are all about the victory of good over evil!

Anyway, Pink Sugar is a lovely, sweet, frothy concoction of a novel, offering a happy, cheerful view of life, and I loved it. Although I’ve read reviews of her work, I hadn’t come across Douglas before, and don’t really know much about her, but I gather this was her pen name, and she was really Anna Masterton Buchan, sister of adventure writer John Buchan. She was popular when she wrote her books in the 1920s and 30s, but has been forgotten since then which is a shame, because she deserves to be known in her own right rather than as an adjunct to her famous brother.

In this novel Douglas writes about the world she knew, and the small domestic concerns of her social class, where upper and middle class folk lead comfortable lives in pleasant surroundings with servants to care for them – and she does it very well. Pink Sugar may not be ‘great literature’ but it’s immensely enjoyable and very easy to read.

It centres on Kirsty Gilmour who is 30 but insists ‘you shouldn’t make me say it out loud’, and I warmed to her the moment I saw those words halfway down the first page because I know just how she feels as I’ve got a milestone birthday of my own approaching. The Big Day is tomorrow, and I’m considerably older than Kirsty, but I started the celebrations on Saturday when my two daughters whisked me off on a surprise day out to Oxford and a posh afternoon tea, and I had the most wonderful time, but I’m not going to reveal my age out loud, in print, or online. I’m a sensitive soul, and don’t want anyone except my nearest and dearest to know just how ancient I am!

So... back to the book. Kirsty has returned to Scotland after 22 years, spent first at boarding school, then in a series of ‘smart’ hotels as her stepmother wanders the globe seeking cures for her largely imaginary ailments. Following Lady Gilmour’s death Kirsty has enough money to indulge her wishes – and wishes to create a proper home of her own, with true friends rather than the hangers-on who have peopled her life in the past.

An art deco style frontispiece in my 1924
edition of Pink Sugar. 
She rents Little Phantasy, part of the Phantasy estate, decorates it stylishly, tastefully and, I assume, at great expense, then brings her maiden aunt to live with her and invites three motherless children and their governess to spend the summer with her while their grief-stricken father travels abroad. In addition she takes on a cook, a young girl who is ‘the help’, and Miss Wotherspoon, who ‘isn’t an ordinary parlour-maid’ but is a superior sort of woman who has come down the world, and would scare me witless if I met her!

As her warm, cosy house fills up with this instant family, Kirsty gradually gets to know her neighbours and determines that she will live her life with others. She’s a rather enchanting heroine, like a little girl lost, who has never had a home of her own, or felt loved and wanted, but suddenly finds she’s a fairy tale princess able to make her own dreams come true and to help others – whether or not they want to be helped. I guess that to anyone who didn’t know her well she could come across as being rather patronising, but she’s actually very vulnerable, hates to hurt people’s feelings and wants to be liked by everyone.

And if you’re wondering about a love interest, there’s the children’s father, kind, charming, good-looking Mr Crawford, and there’s curmudgeonly Colonel Home, Kirsty’s landlord, a war hero wounded in mind and body who seems to bring out the worst in his new tenant, which is surprising, since she is always nice to everyone, however great the provocation (but we all know which way the wind is blowing, and what she truly feels, even if she doesn’t realise it herself).

The novel features a host of wonderful characters that I’d love to meet. The three children, Barbara, Specky and Bad Bill, are utterly believable, while woolly-minded Aunt Fanny is delightful – she even looks like a sheep, and wears layers of fluffy shawls, and is constantly knitting. And just as I beginning to think Alice Through The Looking Glass, Bad Bill spots the connection and says she is the sheep who sat in the boat and knitted.

Despite appearances, the novel is not all sweetness and light. Douglas has a merciless way with social climbers, and beneath the surface there is poverty, deprivation and illness. The central characters may be warm, well-fed and seemingly care-free, but life is hard for many of the villagers, and some live in grim conditions. And who could fail to be moved by the fate of beautiful young Nannie Tait in her cold, damp home, dying of TB just like her two sisters before her.

Anna Buchan, aka O Douglas, at work
 in her study during the 1940s. 
Hardship is present (but hidden) even among the middle classes where penniless young Vicar Robert Brand is cared for by his plain, graceless sister Rebecca who has never had anything pretty, and has become soured by years of scrimping and saving. Even Kirsty, a glass half-full person if ever there was, has moments of doubt when she is cast down, but the bleaker side of life intrudes only rarely, and makes no impact.

Douglas was obviously aware that she could be criticised for being light-weight, for at one point she has Colonel Home tell Kirsty: “There is something to be said for the pink sugar view of life.”

And she gives us Merren Strang, a character I like to think is a self-portrait of the author, for she too is a novelist and she says she started to write because she wanted to create ‘something very simple that would make pleasant reading’, which is exactly what Douglas has done with Pink Sugar.  Merren explains: “This is a book about good, gentle, scrupulous people who live on the bright side of life.” And that’s really as good a description as any.