Saturday, 22 December 2007

Roast figs, sugar snow by Diana Henry

This book has been my constant companion for the last three days, while I decided what to contribute to Christmas cooking. And it's been a pleasure to spend time in its company - for a start it is beautifully produced, with the most unctuous set of photographs I can remember. More than that, I can't read it without my mouth watering all the time. When I want to cook I generally head for my pasta cookbook, since I love Italian food and the range of dusky tomato-y sauces loaded with basil and other pungent herbs, but a visit to Genoa reminded me how delicious northern Italian dishes are. This book ranges from New England and Quebec, through Scandinavia and Russia through the Alps to northern Italy, celebrating winter food and making me long to create slow-cooked stews of wild boar, Friulian winter salads (spicy sausage, walnuts and radicchio) and melting apple cakes.

The book is subtitled "Food to warm the soul" and it does. Each chapter (with titles redolent of hedgerow and bonfire) has a long, informative introduction discussing the range of dishes which can be made from particular ingredients, the food common to an area, or offering further suggestions; each dish also has a brief preamble, usually a celebration of dish or contents, and there are carefully chosen snippets of poetry and other quotations sprinkled throughout, combining to offer a pleasurable read while curled up in front of the fire (although I usually read my cookery books in bed with a dog, so we drool together).
Some familiar flavourings, such as ginger, allspice, cinnamon, caradmom and dill, can be given a new slant by looking at how they are treated in other cool climates. Dill, for example, is an comforting, non-assertive herb...Or try caraway, once popular in Britain in breads and cakes, and now a signature flavouring in Austria, Hungary and Alsace, rubbed into roast pork or fried with potatoes.
Caraway cake was the bane of my childhood; I can't think how many times we would arrive at a relative's house to be told, "I've just made a caraway cake." You'd know that you would have to eat it to be polite, and that every mouthful would taste of dust and mice. (Why mice? I don't know, but that's what it tasted of.) But Diana Henry persuades me that I might fry a spoonful in with the saute potatoes, just to see. After all, she's convinced me that beetroot is delicious.

If you are looking for a real comfort food book, I heartily recommend this one.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Booking through Thursday - and, the Nominees are

  1. What fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007?
    (Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
  2. What non-fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007?
    (Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
  3. And, do “best of” lists influence your reading?
Best fiction: that's difficult, I've spent a lot of this year reading older books. Most of those I've bought that were published this year are still on my to be read pile. I like to anticipate. In fact, I'm having great difficulty in seeing anything on the shelves that was published this year - no nominee here!

Best non-fiction? Wildwood by Roger Deakin. Beautifully produced, a pleasure to read and just to look at. It's such a delight when a book is an object of beauty as well as an immensely satisfying read.

I rarely even look at "Best of" lists - there are very few people whose judgement I trust over that sort of thing. These days I much prefer to head for the blogs I read regularly and see what's recommended there.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

You say tom-ah-to...

My stepfather is one of the few people I know who still says "pi-ah-no". I expect there are more of you out there, but drug up as I was in the wilds of Scotland, if I had added "pi-ah-no" to my pronunciatory infelicities, my dead body would probably have been discovered in some dour and dreary dyke, a frightful warning to the Sassenach to encroach no further.

"Pi-ah-no" aside, I have just bought my stepfather for Christmas a recording of Bach's English Suites played by Angela Hewitt. Now I will wait to see whether he will be pleased with the recording, or if he will consider Hewitt – a limpid and lucid interpreter of our greatest composer, I aver – too Canadian for the English Suites, in which case I sincerely hope he will return them to me (where they will remain) with a demand for the composer and recording he would prefer. Since he trained as a pianist, I find it hard to choose for him.

In a perfect world, I would first buy him something better on which to listen than the Walkman and mini-speakers which live by his chair. Perhaps for his birthday I could embark on such a fearful quest, one which would meet with much resistance and protest about unnecessary extravagance. I should seek a system which is small and unassuming in appearance, yet with excellent sound reproduction – not Bose, which even he is bound to have seen advertised, and to have realised that, where no price is published, it must be exorbitant. Were I to find such a system, my mother could then inherit the Walkman, in order to listen to Maggie May in the kitchen, something I know she would welcome.

It can be difficult for our generation of conspicuous consumers to offer small creature comforts to the older one. If my mother knew my annual book budget (and no, I don't either) she would probably be shocked to her core. On the other hand, it's considerably less than my annual mother-budget which, on the whole, she doesn't notice. "Had you thought what you might buy me for Christmas?" she enquired on Sunday. "Well, sort of," I replied, suppressing the thought of the fairly hefty sum I'd put in her bank account to pay for her – much needed – new camera, and thinking instead of the rather beautiful pale green wallet in softest nappa leather which I had just finished wrapping. "But you've got a birthday coming up immediately afterwards. What would you like?"

Can anyone recommend a really good coffee-table book on cave painting?

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Booking through Thursday - Catalog

Do you use any of the online book-cataloguing sites, like Library Thing or Shelfari? Why or why not? (Or . . . do you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking to?? (grin))

If not an online catalog, do you use any other method to catalog your book collection? Excel spreadsheets, index cards, a notebook, anything?

As far as I'm concerned, Library Thing opened up a whole new world for me. One day I was a solitary reader sitting at my computer when I saw it mentioned and thought I would take a look; half an hour later I had a lifetime account and was pulling books off shelves, banging the dust off them and discovering that half of them predated ISBN numbers. Nonetheless I have catalogued that 760-books that are on the shelves in my room and the hallway (haven't finished the hallway yet). Then there are the books in our upstairs living room - hundreds more. But I've already found books I'd forgotten I had (so many of the shelves are double-stacked) and I can spend happy hours checking I've got the right book jacket showing, or adding information to share with other users. I'm fairly meticulous about adding books as I buy them but, unlike some people, I only include books I actually own.

The most important change for me was that it was through Library Thing that I ventured into a world of like-minded people, at first through the groups on Library Thing itself, which are many and varied. However, following a link on another reader's profile one day led to the discovery that there were more sites devoted to talking about books! Once I started reading other people's blogs it didn't take long to decide that I would enjoy doing it too, although I didn't expect anyone but me to read what I wrote. I use my other blog to keep a monthly record of all the books I've read, now (though I haven't quite decided whether this is the most convenient way of recording this information) and try to review as many as possible. Over Christmas I shall update my Library Thing links to reviews and do some more cataloguing. The family may laugh, but I'm pretty sure my elder son keeps a music catalogue.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Water, water everywhere...

Not a flood!

...and my digital camera is 350 miles away in Berwick. I have been in Devon over the weekend and it has rained almost without cease. Yesterday my mother and I went Christmas shopping and barely got home through the floods. Today – Sunday - they have gone down somewhat and, although the forecast was for more extreme weather tonight, that has been ameliorated and I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed that I will be able to get out to my 8.10 train tomorrow. I have meetings in London and will be unpopular and unhappy if I miss them.

In the meantime I have been a good and dutiful daughter, endlessly washing up, sewing leather patches on my stepfather's jacket, teaching my mother to use her new camera, deadheading the pelargoniums and being nice to the over-boisterous dog, with an ear on the rain all the while. Shortly I will list all the Morse videos in the drawing room, so that I can track down more, and see if I can make the DVD menu intelligible to those who are not computer literate (if not, I will request that next door's 12-year-old will come in and explain it).

I'm an indulged daughter, I'm ashamed to admit – my mother told her butcher I would be here for the weekend and he replied "Oh, you'll want a rib then." Embarrassing that my likes are quite so widely known, but the knowledge that tonight's dinner will be of beef reared in the lush green fields around this beautiful village is making my mouth water. I'm off now to make plum crumble, my stepfather likes a good pudding.

Written Sunday 5.30pm - I did get out on Monday morning!

Friday, 7 December 2007

A Christmas Meme

Margaret at BookPlease has tagged me for this meme, and yet again, I'm posting from the train – becoming a habit! The sun rising behind Durham Cathedral this morning was very dramatic, too bright to look at and gloriously celestial.

What is your most enduring Christmas memory?
This is a difficult question for me because my most enduring memory is of the Christmas something very bad happened, and for the entire community where we lived, Christmas was more or less ignored. People just tried to make Christmas Day as happy as possible for their children, which I suppose says a good deal about its enduring power as a festival. I wondered whether to mention this at all, but decided that it’s wrong to pretend everything is always sweetness and light, and I know that for some people, their faith sustained them through the days that followed. And although I didn’t really celebrate Christmas itself that year, I saw many examples of the love and generosity that the festival should exemplify and which shone through far beyond Twelfth Night.

Do you have a favourite piece of Christmas music?
I love Christmas carols, particularly those of the 18th century and the West Gallery tradition of church music. My actual favourite probably changes from year to year (haven’t started listening this year) but “Angels from the Realms of Glory” is a must. However, give me anything played by a band with a serpent in it and I'll probably be happy!

Do you stick to the old family traditions?
A Christmas Day walk is the most important one for me. Since we moved to Northumberland we usually take the dogs to the dunes, but one year we were snowed in and could only walk along the farm track. We had days of sunshine while the snow lay deep and crisp and even, and the dogs had a glorious time. Fortunately we always buy too much food at Christmas so we were in no hurry to get out.

What makes your mouth water at Christmas time!?
My mother’s Christmas pudding. She makes one for us every year. And those little tiny sausages.

How soon do you put the Christmas tree up and when do you take it down?
We didn’t have a tree last year – first time ever – and may not again, as I can’t find an artificial one I like. What finally put us off real trees, which we all love, is the problem that our house is upside down, and the tree has to go up – and worse, come down – a rather narrow flight of stairs. Even wrapped in a dustsheet it sheds more needles than Senior Dog does hair. We may have a Christmas twig – our corkscrew willow provides some very dramatic, twisted branches on which baubles hang rather effectively – and there will be strings of lights along the beams, which do look rather pretty. Decorations never go up before the 20 December and generally come down before I start work again, so usually about 3 January. When I was a fulltime mother they stayed up until Twelfth Night, which is how it was during my childhood.

I won't tag anyone else specifically but, if you haven't already done this meme and you would like to, please do consider yourself tagged – it's such fun reading about everyone else's Christmas preparations.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll

A syren’s tea-party of two

Clarify 1 lb. butter. When cold beat to a cream, add 12 oz. sugar, 1 lb. potato flour (sieved), 4 whole eggs and the yolks of two, the zest of 1 lemon. Beat the whole mass for 1 hour, when it should form bubbles. Bake in a buttered and finely bread-crumbed mould in a moderate oven. Halve these quantities for a small cake.

[M]ight be served with honey-dew and the milk of Paradise when procurable.

I should think that if I beat a cake by hand for an hour, I would form bubbles.

Lady Jekyll’s charming and amusing book of essays offers all sorts of culinary advice, from preparing shooting lunches to managing without your cook (goodness, unthinkable – but it is she who would beat the Venus Torte for an hour, not the lady of the house). First published in 1922 (and reprinted by the redoubtable Persephone Books), the essays combine humour with practical information, thereby ensuring our lady housewife’s dining table will be a pleasure to all comers, young and old. Should you need to provide a light supper for artists and performers, Lady Jekyll will be your guide:

Mrs Gladstone’s practice of sending her husband into battle on an egg-flip, cleverly produced at the psychological moment, can be imitated with this Frothed Wine Soup, good for a prima donna or pianist soon going into action, and can be made simply by anybody who can whisk an egg.

I have informed OH that, should I be ill, a better recovery will be aided by regular small and tempting meals. For lunch, Lady Jekyll advises a “nicely cut and fried bread canapé, on which may be placed partridge breasts resting on softly-mashed potato and “some mushrooms buttered, grilled and added piping hot”. OH reassured me that he will do his best, and added that he hoped for my sake I would be stricken soon.

I am determined that, over Christmas, we shall dine en famille in grace and elegance; recommended for a first dinner party, for example, is a “very small Selle de Pré Sâle (Saddle of Welsh Mutton) in winter”. The recipe begins “For a saddle weighing about 8 lb. . . .”. We might start with home-made foiegras, perhaps, and finish with Cold Lemon Soufflé accompanied by some delicate Cat’s Tongue Biscuits. Now, if you will excuse me, I am just going to telephone The Lady to place within its pages an advertisement for a good, plain cook.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

“I’m on the train!”

Durham Cathedral (not quite the view from the train!)

Writing from the train again – so far this morning it’s quite quiet, but then this is not the early morning commuter service which I usually travel on. I’m feeling pretty indignant about trains nonetheless, since it has just been announced that fares will go up in January, and more than the rate of inflation. That will take a saver return between Berwick and London to over £100. And that’s only the beginning: fares on this line are set to rise 15% over inflation in the next seven years. No wonder people fly. A new runway is proposed for Edinburgh or Glasgow to cope with domestic flights, although train travel is vastly better for the environment. Yet upgrading the railway so that trains can travel at high speed for the whole of their journey is not a priority. As usual, we seem to be paying lip service to energy savings, in case the government loses votes by restricting people’s freedom to pollute.

Selfishly, of course, I don’t want people to travel by train. Well, I want numbers great enough to keep the level of service as it is, while not so many that trains are significantly busier. I have almost entirely given up travelling standard class. The seats are too uncomfortable, the carriages are so crowded that the proximity to your neighbour is almost unbearable. First Great Western, on which I travel regularly, has new rolling stock. More seats than ever have been crammed in, so that it’s like travelling by bus – there is no room to breathe, it seems, let alone wriggle. These days my travel habits are exacting: I book as far in advance as possible and always travel on the train booked, so that I can buy cheap first class tickets. Yet despite calculating everything to the last detail so that I can book the instant tickets are released, I can almost never get the cheapest option. But at least my dodgy hip is made no worse by a 3-hour plus journey, and I can get a significant amount of work done (or, in this case, play).

There, a train rant and I didn’t mention mobile phones once!

Monday, 26 November 2007

Buttered scones

I have recently been dipping into this book of essays about food. I best know the author of Snail Eggs and Samphire, Derek Cooper, as the presenter of The Food Programme on Radio Four, so I was pleased when a collection of his writing was published in 2000. I have been reading a little at a time, every few days or so.

This week's piece, "Defying Nature", is a plea for fresh food and a balanced diet. Cooper was writing about a retired GP in Perthshire, Dr Walter Yellowlees, who deplored the poor diet he had seen during his years as a local doctor: "tinned meat, tinned vegetables, very seldom any salads; masses of white bread, scones, biscuits, cakes, sweet drinks, packeted milk puddings, margarine instead of butter, and, in place of porridge, the ubiquitous packeted sweetened breakfast foods." I'd have to admit that sounds a pretty fair representation of the contents of our larder during my Perthshire childhood, though biscuits and cakes were in short supply. Yellowlees recalled that his elderly patients remembered a time when they had fresh local food, before farmhouses became holiday homes. There were, during my childhood, occasional visits to people who still lived as they had grown up, in rural farmhouses where food was freshly prepared (and the baking was legendary). One of my happiest holidays was to a cottage (admittedly even then a holiday let) next to a family of smallholders. I went morning and evening to watch the cow being milked, and my fascination with the process was only outdone by that of the farm cat, who knew she would soon be given a saucer of warm creamy milk, her reward for being a trusted mouser.

Cooper's writing throughout the book is a plea for good food, lovingly and carefully produced. We are benefiting these days from a resurgence of interest in real food and his book discusses everything from the revival of interest in cheese production to how museums present the history of our food, by way of herring fishing in the Hebrides and backgarden egg production (a subject after my own heart).

A radio programme this week suggested that in Britain we read huge numbers of books on cooking, while rarely venturing into the kitchen ourselves. Perhaps we would do better to read more books that, while they celebrate the best in food, also document the addition of water to meat and bacon, the move from eating butter to margarine, the loss of regional recipes, the depletion of our fishing stocks. If we were better informed about what we eat, more people might decide that they would rather prepare it for themselves. I have admitted on this blog that I don't cook - well, I don't, largely because I live with people who do it better than me, and enjoy it more. I'm more enthusiastic about growing food for someone else to prepare. My red Russian kale is a thing of great beauty. And the joy with which a gone-to-seed lettuce is received by the Bluebells is a delight.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Booking through Thursday - Connecting Words

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Joanna and Brad are asking about “connecting words,” and they don’t mean conjunctions like “and” or “but.” No, what they’re looking for are unique, or treasured words that we’ve found out and about in our daily travels, words that might not be common usage, or often heard, but which struck a chord for some reason.

Words are important to me; my husband and I used to play a game where one chose an obscure word from dictionary and offered a choice of definitions; the other had to choose the right one. My younger son once offered, as definition for Tagalog (indigenous language in the Philippines): that bit at the start of a television programme where they tell you what happened last time and what’s coming in this episode (and the opposite, therefore, of epilogue). I still think of them that way.

It’s family legend that my great grandmother carried diffidence to extremes. She had several expressions to denote very small quantities, I believe, but at one meal she was asked if she would care for some more roast beef. “Just a tentacle, dear,” she replied. We still use it in appropriate circumstances.

My mother-in-law was given to Malapropisms. When she was taking driving lessons she announced that she had put her foot on the “exhilarator”. She was very cross to be laughed at.

Growing up in Scotland I became rather attached to a number of dialect words. While brushing its hair a fidgeting child might be admonished, “Stop shoogling about.” A colleague was complimented by a Canadian student on her “nice vest”, which would have offended her greatly had she not recalled that overseas a vest is not the garment worn closest to the skin, so he was not remarking overfamiliarly on the scrap of lace showing from her camisole – what in Scots she called a “sinnet”.

Here on the Northumberland coast in summer we can have beautiful weather. I love the way our garden basks in sunlight. Pity poor Berwick-on-Tweed, though. Just where the town boundary begins, a murky, yellowy-brown cloud can be observed. This is the famous local “haar”, a Norse word for mist, which must doom many afternoons on the wonderful golden beaches to damp and shivering misery.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Living at the edge of the world

Or so it seems! I am struggling to maintain my equilibrium against great odds - my broadband connection is practically non-existent at the moment. We have trouble with the connection if it's not quite the right kind of weather, if it's particularly dank, or especially windy and, despite years of battling with BT, the problem is apparently not amenable to improvement. A considerable quantity of phone wire and a wonky telegraph pole have been replaced, yet it continues to be as bad as ever. And this is why it feels like living at the edge of the world - there is no house beyond us. We are at the end of every supply line. The water frequently arrives at snail's pace, a weedy trickle of freezing or scalding water emerging from the shower head. Or not at all. We got broadband years after everyone else in the area. Power cuts are a regular occurrence.

Difficulties extend beyond the utilities, too. Post and other deliveries often take a day longer to reach us. Couriers frequently can't find us at all (although we are on the map!) and deliveries are preceded by phone calls from drivers who can never quite explain where they currently are, but it's definitely not here. Just to add insult to injury we have a ridiculous access which means that nothing heavy can be delivered closer than the farmyard and we have to exercise ingenuity - or more often, muscles - in getting things to the house. I had no idea kitchen worktops weighed so much. And it was jolly good fun when the skip lorry got stuck.

It's the broadband that drives me to distraction, though. Whenever I post anything, the file has to be backed up because I risk losing it altogether when uploading. There are whole days when I struggle even to pick up my email, which is awkward for someone who works largely from home. This morning it took over half an hour to order a Christmas present and pay for it - fortunately I was stuffing conference information into envelopes, so I could afford to sit and wait. They also gnash their teeth who only stand and wait, I thought, even Milton's patience would have been tried.

This page may have to be an image-free zone in the meantime - since I am hardly the area's most talented photographer, this will be no great loss, but I miss the odd touch of colour.

A Very Cellular Song

If I need a friend I just give a wriggle
Split right down the middle
And when I look there's two of me
Both as handsome as can be

It's not every woman who is lucky enough to get worms on her birthday. But now that the Bluebell Girls are settling in nicely (and even providing us with the occasional egg) my Other Half has decided that my nurturing skills are not being taxed adequately, and has bought me a wormery. With a little bag of wriggling things. Now, it has to be said that I am not the best person in the world at dealing with little wriggling things. Or small scuttling things. He also bought me a frog, to help desensitise me, he said, since a toad has taken up residence in the greenhouse, and I screech every time it jumps out at me.

Friday, 16 November 2007

In the Country by Kenneth Allsop

First published in 1972, this book is a collection of essays originally published by Kenneth Allsop in The Daily Mail. Well-known in the UK as a broadcaster, he died a year after the book was published, and is buried in the village he wrote about, Powerstock in Dorset. Throughout the book, for reasons, at the time, of privacy, he uses the names of Hardy’s Wessex (so Dorchester becomes Casterbridge, for instance), a conceit which sits very nicely for bookish readers, who may enjoy the sense of continuation it offers to the Wessex novels.

The book follows the calendar year, from darkest January to Christmas, finishing on a joyous note, and each month is broken up into shorter essays on a variety of subjects. We learn a good deal about Allsop’s ancient restored mill home, the trout in the millrace, the ungrateful doves who only drop in to eat all the corn, and the changing landscape around it. Changing both with the advance of the year, but also with proximity to the 21st century. Yet while Allsop was an ardent conservationist, and a campaigner until his death, his concern is worn lightly in these pages, which convince without haranguing. His love of birds is ever present, as is his passion for the countryside, and no tiny detail is beneath his notice.

This book is about the pleasure and the occasional affectionately-tolerated inconveniences of country life (he suggests that within 25 years it would be possible to rebuild Wessex entirely of corrugated iron), the daily communion with the furred and feathered inhabitants of his home. His joy is shared with the reader through the immediacy of his writing, his detailed description:

The bees aren’t yet fully operational. The sun had prodded an arousing finger down the shrew’s tunnel or through the eiderdown of moss where each had dozed through the frosts [. . .] Above the powdery red cliff which the thrust of the current has gouged into a crescent (and where there is an old kingfisher’s nesting hole – unused, now, for even down here kingfishers are scarce) the bees burnished the air with golden pencillings [. . .] How frail is the thread which sustains them: the few comatose queens nurturing the seed of their kind within their bodies for the long blank months of danger.

Allsop’s troubled life and his uneasy relationship with another of our great nature writers, Henry Williamson – an equally troubled man - are absent from these short pieces, although I think Williamson’s influence shows through the nature writing. And in that sense, this is a slight work, purely an elegy to life in the country, rather than a portrait of its author. But I think I am rather comforted to know that, despite great pain and unhappiness, he found a love of the countryside to be sustaining and a bringer of at least occasional joy. I recommend it as a pleasurable read and an interesting piece of recent country history.

A minor personal sadness is that with this recent re-reading, my 34-year-old paperback copy has fallen apart, and will not be accompanying me on my next trip to the West Country.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Booking through Thursday - Preservatives

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Today’s question comes from Conspiracy-Girl: I’m still relatively new to this meme so I’m not sure if this has been asked yet, but I’m curious how many of us write notes in our books. Are you a Footprint Leaver or a Preservationist?

Oh good heavens, stand back while I rant! I am constantly beset by people who write in library books. Look, clever-clogs, I don't care if you know that the author has said "infer" when they mean "imply" or that members of X regiment didn't wear that particular cap button in WWII - keep it to yourself! And while we're on the subject, don't make little notes inside the back cover so that you'll know you've read this book. Get a notebook! As for ringing page numbers, or turning down corners - what are bookmarks for? If you don't have one of those gold-embossed leather things, an envelope will do, or a postcard (not a bank statement, please). And don't crack the spine on that paperback! oh look, pages 294-97 have fallen out.

Now, I have to admit that as a child I used to colour in th
e illustrations in my favourite books. My aunt used to do the same thing, and her books were works of art, but mine were always a mess because I ran out of patience before I finished. I still have my messy copy of The Little White Horse, and wouldn't part with it. And I did eventually find that I had to make notes in text books, because I simply couldn't keep track if all my notes were in a separate place. But they are my textbooks and, if I ever decided to part with them, which is extremely unlikely, I will go through with a rubber and clean them up. I once bought a secondhand textbook online and, when it arrived, it had been annotated throughout - admittedly in pencil, but I wouldn't have bought that copy if I'd known. They weren't even good notes. I had to erase all of them before I could read it comfortably.

You'll have gathered from all this that I am a preservationist of the most avid variety. When one of my grandfathers retired he took up bookbinding, restoring Victorian floras and music scores to objects of beauty once more. At which point I may have to concede that 19th-century textual annotation may be interesting.

By the way, let me assure you that I'm generally a quiet and assuming sort of person - should I happen to pass you, in the library, dog-earing a page or writing your shopping list in the margin of page 42, I may only say, "Please don't do that," in the mildest of tones. Alternatively, I may just tiptoe away, pretending I haven't noticed.

Handel's Messiah, bound by my grandfather.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Back to the Roots by Richard Mabey and Francesca Greenoak

This little book has been rather overtaken in this age of the worldwide web. Written to accompany a Channel Four series in 1983, it is divided into chapters on herbs, flowers, vegetables, fruit and trees. Each chapter is followed by a directory with bibliography, list of suppliers and other information such as places to see plants, courses etc. Much of the directory information is, of course, hopelessly out of date (even telephone numbers have changed in the interim) but, with the advent of search engines, anyone with a little application will be able to discover what listings are still valid and will quickly find contact details for nurseries, gardens and suppliers.

The rest of the book is selective but interesting. My personal favourite is a section entitled The sloth's vegetable garden, which offers suggestions for creating a perennial vegetable patch! The emphasis throughout is on traditional and forgotten varieties, and it would provide an excellent starting place for establishing a historically-themed garden. Brief cultivation details are given for each type of plant, and even pruning instructions for fruit are included. The back-and-white illustrations are clear and come from an entertaining variety of sources.

Long out of print, it is nonetheless readily, and cheaply, available from the various second-hand book sites. Primarily intended to encourage a growing interest in cultivated plants which are threatened by new regulations, this is a book which still meets its purpose and would make a good introduction for any new gardener who would rather spend their money on seeds than on glossy coffee-table books.

In future posts I shall consider some more books on country living, natural history, gardening and related subjects (including fiction) which still have virtue and interest despite their age.

Friday, 9 November 2007


In Tavistock Square Gardens on Thursday it was very hard to resist scuffing up the golden leaves that littered the ground. Three minuscule squirrels were busily collecting – nuts? large round brown objects, at any rate, but the trees are mostly plane, so I’m not at all sure. Late as I was for a meeting, I couldn’t stop to scuff or to look. I had arrived in London on Monday – Guy Fawkes – and was staggered by the noise of fireworks that went on all evening. How do pets bear it? Our dogs, used to shooting going on all around, were unfazed by the only fireworks they’ve ever heard, when our neighbours decided to have a bonfire party (and inadvertently burnt down a tree, putting an end, I suspect, to further junketings); my mother’s dog lives in a village, and suffers agonies every year, as whizzes and bangs go on night after night, culminating in the local firework display. He has a fertile imagination, too, and almost imperceptible – to humans - displays in distant Torbay are greeted with dismayed quivers. I feel for him, but am glad that our two are so phlegmatic.

Travel to London and back was made pleasurable by the beauty of this year’s autumn colour, which reminded me of another favourite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The sadness is somehow inherent in the shortening days and the crispness in the air, though I am much more cheerful since I no longer commute daily to Edinburgh, leaving home in the morning and arriving back in the evening in the dark.

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Deal of watering to do...

The Diary of a Victorian Gardener: William Cresswell and Audley End is, in part, exactly what it says: the diary kept by Victorian gardener William Cresswell between February 1873 and December 1875 (the last few entries are rather sparse). The, usually short, diary entries have been transcribed but otherwise edited very little, and many will look familiar to any gardener. A typical entry reads thus:

Wednesday 13 [May 1874]: Wind N.E. in morning & all day, changing in evening to S. dull all day but mild. Fruit trees on walls disbudded. French Beans raised in boxes, planted out & covered at night with mats to protect from frost. Potatoes are now black from frost, late fruit also injured.
William Cresswell worked at Audley End House in Essex for quite a brief time: March 1874 until he was given a month's notice at the end of August that year. Nonetheless his diary provided a valuable record of gardening practice and plant varieties when the garden was restored by English Heritage in 1999. The book contains a brief record of the restoration, as well as an introduction on Cresswell's life and work (he was later to work at the Botanic Gardens in Cambridge), a commentary on the diary, and a list of the plants mentioned.

Not all of the entries relate solely to gardening; there are hints of Cresswell's courtship - "sent book to E.A.C. for birthday present on 21st" and his regular church attendance: "Went in E.[vening] to St. Saviour's church, Brockley, heard a nice funeral sermon.", and occasionally to notable events. The overall picture is of a strong-minded young man, hard-working and conscientious, whose ideas occasionally get him into trouble.

The book is nicely illustrated, with some attractive drawings in the diary section and photographs of places and people mentioned. It's a book for browsing rather than reading straight through and would make an excellent present for anyone interested in the history of gardening.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Booking through Thursday - Oh, Horror!

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What with yesterday being Halloween, and all . . . do you read horror? Stories of things that go bump in the night and keep you from sleeping?
I don't read very much horror, I find paddling in gore a bit off-putting. However, I did decide that this year I would have a day's break from the rather more serious reading I've been doing in the last few weeks, and settled down to read Joe Hill's The Heart-Shaped Box last night. I'm pretty much on to the denouement now, and it will certainly be finished today. What have I thought of it? Well, there's been quite a lot of violence followed, naturally, by quite a bit of gore, and it's one of those books where it's all too easy to turn just one more page, but I can't say it's made me shriek with fright. If it had, I'd probably have given up on the spot! And I slept just fine, thank you.

Altogether, I really don't much like horror. A great deal of it seems to exist purely to explore the extent of degradation that can be imagined and, while I'm not really squeamish about blood and guts, I am upset by violence, both physical and psychological, and I don't want it in my head unless it's for a very good reason. But I will read the occasional book if it comes highly recommended.

Oh, forgot to say, why did I choose that particular book last night? Because Neil Gaiman said he liked it!

Tuesday, 30 October 2007


Roslin Castle: a suitably spooky place for Hallowe'en

Growing up in the Scottish Highlands Hallowe'en was a special day; in primary school we occasionally did something different, perhaps games in the afternoon, of the teacher was feeling indulgent, but more importantly, it was the day we went guising. This is the origin of trick-or-treating, with its roots firmly fixed in a pagan past, and all the kids did it, until they reached the stage when they regarded themselves as too old, at which point they were generally dragooned into taking out their younger brothers and sisters. No adults, you'll note - these were the days when children roamed quite extensively, and even my over-anxious parents allowed me out for the evening in the company of the other children (although they always fixed an
impossibly early time by which I had to be home).

As it got dark we would don our motley - pirates, Spanish dancing gir
ls, ghosts; I was a black cat one year - and set off round the small town. We walked miles, calling at selected houses where we could be sure of a welcome. And we always were welcome, because the ritual was well-established. There were no tricks - we had no idea that there was a "corrupt" tradition across the Atlantic. We would all be ushered in, costumes admired, and then the householder would say, "Give us your piece then", and short poems, songs (by the brave) or even nursery rhymes (by the terminally shy infants) would be trotted out, sometimes with a helping prompt by a big sister. The home-made toffee apples and tablet (for non-Scots, this is a wickedly sweet, slightly crunchy sort of fudge, which absolutely every Scottish housewife learnt to make at her mother's knee) would be doled out and, in the best households, there might even be a sixpenny bit. By the end of the evening, everyone would be cold, sticky and feeling slightly queasy, so it would be home to a soothing hot drink and bed. In our most glorious year ever, my best friend and I borrowed long cloaks from the amateur dramatic society's wardrobe and, disguised as ghostly monks, walked 2 miles through silver-frosted fields to visit an elderly friend. I doubt if anyone was scared of us, but we were petrified, especially passing the Episcopal graveyard.

Some years later my then boyfriend rashly said we could get married, but only if we did it on April Fool's Day, Midsummer's Day or Hallowe'en. We were in England at the time, midsummer was a week away, and 31 October looked just fine to me. We held our wedding reception in a house on Dartmoor, suitably grey and louring for such an inauspicious date. Unfortunately we subsequently moved back (for me) to a Scottish village where we spent years trying to celebrate our anniversary interrupted by toddlers lisping nursery rhymes, and internecine struggles over who stole whose sweetie bag. One year the dog ate all the tablet and was sick everywhere.

Moving back to England, I thought, "At least we'll have our anniversary in peace." And we did, for 10 years. But this gorgeous marmalade cat is for my stepbrother, who died suddenly on 31 October 2003. He loved his cats, and I miss him.

Doom and gloom for The Bolter

Oh dear! A difficult start to the day - The Bolter's annual check up and vaccination. She thought the day was going along quite nicely as usual - very early morning walk, then back to bed with mum for a snuggle (you have no idea how gritty my bed gets!). Then suddenly Senior Dog appears, puts her paws on the bed and prods around with her nose until she finds the snoozing bump, "Come on, he's got his shoes on, we're going out in the car." Things went downhill rapidly after that. First, the dreaded "basque" appeared (her harness - we thought she'd feel more positive about it if it sounded better) and, after much letting out of buckles, she was squeezed in to it. That chest is deeper than ever, it seems. Then the quivering started. There's not a lot of whippet left in The Bolter, just the bits that make her a relentless hunter and make her look utterly wretched when she's unhappy. She's quite good at looking unhappy, actually: she's the possessor of a firm conviction that the world revolves around her but finds it strangely recalcitrant at times. Why can't she go out in the paddock, ask for snacks at the table, have another yoghurt drop, just pop out for five minutes on her own? (Her nickname originates from the occasion when the 6-month old Bolter, beginning to feel confident about the world, "just popped out" for nearly 8 hours. We were hoarsely and tearfully resigning ourselves to being a one-dog family again when she strolled in with an "are you pleased to see me" expression. I went out next morning and reinforced all the fences for the twentieth time.)

The next bad thing this morning was that Senior Dog discovered she wasn't going. Consternation! she likes going in the car (The Bolter doesn't, considering it a waste of good hunting time) and anyway, it's her job to look after The Bolter, except on a hunt, when TB is definitely in charge. Senior Dog, I might add, was a dear quiet little thing, until her own Senior Dog died, and suddenly she had the responsibility of a very silly puppy, who needs to be protected from other dogs.

As it turned out, the visit to the vet wasn't too bad, if you don't count TB's refusal to be examined unless she was allowed to sit on my husband's knee. And being told she should eat fewer yoghurt drops. Though I don't think it's the yoghurt drops that are the problem, it's the mopping up of anything left over from Senior Dog's tea. More walks would be greeted with delight by both, of course, but they wouldn't help SD's rheumatics. We'll have to persuade TB that a ball is worth chasing, and then find a way of occupying SD's attentions (all balls are hers).

Both dogs are now ensconced in front of the stove, vets and desertions forgotten for another year, and The Bolter is feeling a little more relaxed...

Monday, 29 October 2007

Autumn thoughts

I tried to take a picture of the one bit of satisfactory autumn colour we have in the garden: a sorbus vilmorinii, otherwise known as Vilmorin's Rowan. Well, I'll post it anyway - the colour is pretty even if the leaves are a bit out of focus.

It's one of the first trees we planted when we moved here, and has wonderful ferny leaves and pink berries. Not that we ever see the berries, the birds always get them first. The blackbirds, in particular, are very appreciative of my efforts to supply them with exotic delicacies: my other pride and joy is a Canadian mespil, chosen for its much-vaunted autumn colour and abundant berries. What berries? This was the first year I have ever seen a ripe berry, since entire families of blackbirds descend in droves the minute they appear and strip the branches, while I sit indoors and mutter. We hardly benefit from the colour either. As soon as autumn starts the leaves drop practically overnight. I notice there is one lovely deep orange leaf clinging forlornly to a branch. Meanwhile, the fuchsia next to it -planted with trepidation because they are so tender - flowers gamely on.

The Bluebells are managing a bit of autumn colour of their own. Their combs are reddening nicely, and they have settled in to their new home very comfortably. At the moment I can see them from my desk, and much time is spent watching them preening, or picking at today's offering of shredded cabbage or bolted lettuce.

No one has yet started to lay - just as they are reaching maturity the days are shortening fast, so they may not do so until after the New Year - but their daily routines are becoming quite established. Up in the morning for breakfast of corn and whatever vegetables are on offer, followed by a bit of scratching around and general tidying of feathers. At lunchtime, everyone disappears for a long siesta, re-merging during the afternoon for a bit more scratching and preening. They stay out quite late but, once one decides it's bedtime, everyone else marches up the ladder in good order. Lalage and Betty, the two white ones, have very definite personalities. Lalage is the smallest and bosses everyone else about - "Look you've got a feather sticking out there, you really want to tidy yourself up a bit!" When the dogs come too close someone - I suspect its Lalage - squawks indignantly. I have privately renamed the three dark girls - Ida, Rita and Merle, appropriately Bluebell-ish, I think - but I don't expect my husband will change his mind.

At the weekend we had a flock of starlings, en route to somewhere. They took up residence in the ash tree in the paddock and chattered busily. Every now and again they would all rise and wheel round for a bit before settling again. I'm relieved that they've gone, the noise level was a bit much. We're back to the distant burring of the rooks, the robins and sparrows demanding food, and the odd peep from Lalage. Peaceful.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Booking through Thursday - abandoned books

btt button Today's suggestion is from Cereal Box Reader
I would enjoy reading a meme about people’s abandoned books. The books that you start but don’t finish say as much about you as the ones you actually read, sometimes because of the books themselves or because of the circumstances that prevent you from finishing. So . . . what books have you abandoned and why?

Glancing through the books I marked as started-but-not-finished on the Unread Books Meme, there seem to be two main reasons why I don't finish some books. One is boredom and the other is because I dislike or can't empathise with the characters. Boredom covers rejected books like Gulliver's Travels or The Time Traveller's Wife or, much to my surprise, Cloud Atlas; dislike will make me put down a book quite quickly, but I don't start so many - I am usually good at picking books.

Recently however I've brought home quite a few books from the library that have been returned unread: this is because I'm always in a hurry at the library and have to pick "possible reads" rather than definite ones. The other is that our library is rather small and the selection limited - as time goes on I find myself having to pick books that I am less and less likely to read. A change of stock is always a huge relief!

I've always considered my reading to be quite eclectic, but now that I stop and think about it, I realise that I choose from a narrower range than it's comfortable to admit. I must remember to try to stretch my boundaries from time to time.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Autumn days

The most exciting event of the past week has been, I think, planting out - rather belatedly - the winter savory plants I grew from seed. I planted some in the herb bed the sons and I made at the start of the summer, and some in one of several containers of herbs that stood in for the herb bed before it was made. This particular container is just outside the French windows - I chose it because my husband says that winter savory is his favourite herb; he likes to put a sprig in with corn cobs before baking them in the oven. It was also an ingredient of a breadcrumb dressing for meat and fish which sounds good - I must get OH to try it (perhaps I should explain here that I Don't Cook. Well, not unless I have to. I like making Indian food, and pasta sauces, and I sometimes make a Christmas cake, and my cheese souffle is pretty good, but for months at a time the most demanding thing I do is make toast. Happily my three menfolk are pretty good at it. Other women have, from time to time, been known to make envious noises.)

Savory has been used in Germany as a substitute for black pepper, particularly during and after World War II - since it is apparently not very effective for this purpose I assume it was because of its availability. It does, however, have a slightly peppery quality to its smell, which is usually compared to thyme. In European cooking it is mainly used to flavour vegetables, especially beans, and is often a constituent of herbes de Provence.

Winter savory (satureja montana) has been used as a cure for baldness, it's soothing to the stomach and can be rubbed on to bee and wasp stings to provide relief. It has also been used to treat cystitis, though it shouldn't be taken by pregnant women. As an antiseptic herb it was burnt to provide an aromatic disinfectant, and is used in toothpaste. Its astringent qualities make it a good specific for diarrhoea. Unlike its close relative summer savory, which is reputed to have aphrodisiac qualities, winter savory is said to reduce libido. It has been suggested that the Latin name for savory, satureja, refers to this reputation - according to Pliny, the satyrs lived in a meadow of savory, which influenced their behaviour. However, more recent thinking seems to suggest that the name derives from its aromatic nature.

Like other members of the mint family it is a good bee plant and can be used in companion planting to discourage black fly on the broad beans. If sown near other seeds, winter savory may prevent them from germinating. It is supposed to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans and in Tudor knot gardens was used as an edging plant.

Winter savory has small white flowers. A shrubby plant, which
grows best in poor, stony soil, it doesn't last long, and needs replacing every few years, either by resowing or by taking woody cuttings (I prefer to resow, since it germinates easily and you get more compact plants). Its close relation, summer savory, is perhaps more popular as both a culinary and medecinal herb, but has the disadvantage of being annual.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Introducing...The Bluebell Girls

Welcome to the Bluebell Girls, at last! We've been waiting for them since the beginning of August, when they must have been rather small. The three blue belles are beautiful, but hard to distinguish; one is slightly smaller and darker than the other two. The white birds are different hybrids, so easier to tell apart; the smaller is Lalage, and the larger, with the amber markings, is Betty (after Betty Boothroyd, and yes, we know she was a Tiller Girl, not a Bluebell Girl...) The others are officially waiting to find their names - something suitably Bluebell-ish, I thought, perhaps from Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means, but my husband announced that he knew about names of people in lines, and they should be Cox, Bow and Stroke. So, for the time being, and I have a horrible feeling it will stick, the two similar ones are Cox and Bow, and the small dark one is Steerage (my memory for things sporting is vague). Lalage seems to really like slugs so she will be much indulged. Happily, their introduction to the dogs went smoothly, and they are now designated family members.

The girls are 19 weeks old - what is known as Point of Lay Pullets. The blue belles lay brown eggs, Lalage will lay white ones and, I'm told, Betty will produce orange ones. They are all hybrids, for reasons of hardiness, since north Northumberland is chilly in the depths of winter, and for good laying. I used to rear and keep rare breed poultry many years ago but too much travelling means I don't have time for that anymore. When I retire, perhaps.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Booking through Thursday - Live and in person

I said in August, when we talked about fan mail, that I planned on expanding that to live meetings when the time was right. Well, that time is now!

  • Have you ever met one of your favorite authors? Gotten their autograph?
  • How about an author you felt only so-so about, but got their autograph anyway? Like, say, at a book-signing a friend dragged you to?
  • How about stumbling across a book signing or reading and being so captivated, you bought the book?
Hmm, interesting! I have been known to say that I am diffident about meeting favourite authors, in case they are a disappointment. More truthfully, it's in case I say something really dumb and have to live ever after with the knowledge that I made a complete idiot of myself in front of someone whose opinion I would value. I remember with mortification a dinner spent next to a rather well-known philosopher (and prolific writer) - he was a rather quiet man and, by the end of the evening, I was wittering mindlessly. About retribution, for anyone who's interested. Not a subject to be undertaken lightly.

I've met quite a few authors through my job, which occasionally involves organising readings. I'm not very interested in autographs for themselves - wouldn't ask for one for the sake of it - but I have a small number of books with that I treasure because they contain personal messages from authors I grew to like during the brief time I knew them. I often find that listening to an author talk about their work, even if I hadn't been particularly interested at the outset, makes me curious to read the book, so I've got a few signed copies of books I didn't mean to buy. I'm definitely not a subscriber to Death of the Author theories - I like authors to be/have been living, breathing human beings and to still be present, at least to some extent, in their writing. In fact, I've just realised that the only biographies I read are of authors.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Canadian Book Challenge

In case you haven't been challenged enough lately, here's another to add to your compulsive need to push yourself to your limit: The Canadian Book Challenge.

The rules are simple: read 13 Canadian books (books by Canadians and/or about Canadians) before next Canada Day (That's July 1st for you non-Canadians in the audience). Make sure to blog about each one!

I shouldn't take on anything else, really, but this doesn't have to be completed until Canada Day, so it gives me lots of time, even allowing for a 13-book challenge. It's going to be too difficult (well, expensive, I spend too much on Amazon Canada already) to manage a theme, as you can only get the "big" authors here in the UK, so I thought I would start with seven books between now and Christmas that were easy to come by:

Joan Clark, Latitudes of Melt
Mary Lawson, The Other Side of the Bridge
Marian Engel, Sarah Bastard's Notebook
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
Janice Kulyk Keefer, The Green Library
Douglas Coupland, The Gum Thief
Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock

Then I'll move on to things that are more of a challenge to get in the New Year. As Ontario is rather over-represented here, I should be looking for books from the North-West Territories and Nunavut, I guess. Suggestions will be welcomed! Reviews will be posted at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Death of a Red Heroine

Death of a Red Heroine by Qui Xiaolong is set in China in the 1990s. It's a long book and I'm only part way through it, but there's a lot to think about while reading and I decided to start writing about it now.

The author teaches literature in the US, where he was studying at the time of the Tiananmen riots. He decided to stay, and was successful in bringing his wife from China. This was his first novel, and features Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a policeman with poetic leanings. Chen, who has been "fast-tracked" into promotion as the result of new government policy, is called upon to investigate the murder of National Model Worker Guan Hongying. Guan, like Chen, is a cadre, a Party member, an exemplar of loyalty to the Party and its values. It gradually becomes evident, however, that this young woman whose glowing public life contrasts with an apparently hermit-like private existence, might not be all she seems.

Set in Shanghai, part of the fascination of this book is its evocation of a completely different world. Its slow pace allows time for descriptions of places and circumstance; for instance, of Chen's "spacious" new apartment - a room with a gas stove in the corridor and a toilet cubicle with a coldwater shower - and to contrast it with Guan's dormitory, where she shares a floor with eleven families and is resented for her aloofness and for having a private room all to herself. Chen regards himself as immensely fortunate to have been allocated the apartment, as the housing shortages at the time meant that single people were usually given rooms in dorms on a temporary basis, yet would find themselves still there many years later. The privations are not only physical: Chen's subordinate, Yu and his wife Pienqin, were young teenagers towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, and were sent with the other "educated youth" to distant country regions to be re-educated by the peasants. While there they lived together but did not marry, since only single people were permitted to return to the cities: if they married in the country, they would be expected to settle down there.

A brief but particularly bleak scene depicts Chen's visit to Guan's mother, an Alzheimer's sufferer who is, unusually, resident in a nursing home. The author sketches her background succinctly but poignantly:
The old woman's life had been a tough one, as he had learned from the file. An arranged marriage in her childhood, and then for years her husband had worked as a high-school teacher in Chengdu, while she was a worker in Shanghai Number 6 Textile Mill. The distance between the two required more than two days' travel by train. Once a year was all he could have afforded to visit her. In the fifties, job relocation was out of the question for either of them.
He insisted on helping her back to her room. The room, holding a dozen iron beds, appeared congested. The aisle between them was so narrow that one could only stand sideways. . . . A period to a life story. One of the ordinary Chinese people, working hard, getting little, not complaining, and suffering a lot.
I know that things are changing in China, some of them very fast. But there are still areas, at least according to programmes I have seen on television, where people work very hard, for very little reward, where the comforts we take for granted are, ironically, what they see on television. I find myself, too, pondering the Party system, about which I infer we will learn much in the course of Chen's investigations. Guan's efforts as a National Model Worker have been so tireless that she has met Den Xioaping, has attended conferences and seminars, has - according to her manager and co-workers - worked without cease on behalf of the other staff in the First Department Store where she ran the cosmetics department. What, though, has this cost her? One of her neighbours, a retired model teacher, observes, "Once you're a role model, you're model-shaped [. . .] Back in the dorm, why should she continue to play her role and serve her neighbors the way she served her customers? She was just too tired to mix with her neighbors. That could have caused her unpopularity."

Chen also interviews a old man who supplements his pension by working for the Residents' Committee in Guan's dorm. This committee, we are told, organises activity outside work: weekly political study, daycare, distributing ration coupons and allocating birth permits, and so on, but their most important role is to report on the residents to the local police department. This is a system which formalises voluntary work so that it becomes mandatory. All that is generous and spontaneous about helping others becomes, rather, obligation. I don't doubt for a moment that Chinese people can be kind and generous, but I fear that those who are, out of love for their fellows, are also those who most risk being labelled "decadent". Similarly, in this novel, we observe how ideology constrains creativity, since Chen is content that what poetry he has published will be politically correct, rather than risk a career which, we are given to understand, would not have been his first choice.

What makes a society function as a cohesive and supportive unit is a fascinating subject, and Qiu Xiaolong is drawing an absorbing picture of what happens when particular ideologies are followed too rigidly. Later books, I gather, follow Chen on investigations to the US and, if Death of a Red Heroine lives up to its promise, I shall follow his career with interest.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Booking through Thursday - Decorum

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Do you have “issues” with too much profanity or overly explicit (ahem) “romantic” scenes in books? Or do you take them in stride? Have issues like these ever caused you to close a book? Or do you go looking for more exactly like them? (grin)

I have to admit that I am getting very old-fashioned about explicit scenes in books. It's a purely personal preference; I don't have any problems with authors wanting to include them, if they are a necessary part of the plot and, if it's a book I am really enjoying, I can always skip that bit if I find it very tiresome.

However, I do believe that it is very difficult to write such scenes well. Too often they are simply ludicrous and, although I've been trying to think of an author who does it convincingly, no-one comes to mind, while I can find quite a few candidates guilty of, at best, silliness and at worst, salaciousness. I know I'm sounding quite judgmental here and that, even if I've reached a stage in my life where I am quite simply not interested, that's not the case for other people, so I'm not trying to impose my views on anyone. I am firmly anti-censorship.

On a lighter note, I quite often exchange books with my two adult sons, and I sometimes find myself reading some very explicit stuff! If they knew the cringing it causes in their poor old mother they would be highly amused!

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Northward bound

(written late evening 1 October)

Despite a day of unalleviated gloom, as I left Devon, through the train window and in London, it has, as I finally travel northwards and home, turned into one of those soft, clear evenings that is a pleasure. The fenlands stretch on either side, three geese flap lazily in a pink sky, and a skein of soft grey clouds presages night. By the time I reach Northumberland it will be dark, and only the flash of the lighthouse will tell me that I am on the last stage of my journey. Eight hours of travel today, and that pulse of light is as welcome as to any mariner.

The English countryside is soft and green, newly sown grass emerging from ploughed fields. Woods and copses loom dark against the sky, expanses of clear water, bespeckled with ducks, reflect a silvery light. It is dark enough now for a stand of birches to be white wands on a black filigree. I love Britain. It’s fashionable to decry it, to underestimate its sylvan beauty, but I travel its length and breadth, with leisure to gaze from carriage windows, and I love it. Flying back into London from Canada I think, “Thank God for hedges!”

I am privileged, I think, to have lived in so many wonderful parts of Britain: in the Highlands, massive and craggy, yet threaded with soft glens; on the edge of Dartmoor, where great grey rocks tumble amid the stream beds, captured by gnarled tree roots; in the southwest of Scotland, where the rain never stopped but every inch of the sheep-nibbled upland meadows was a jewelled carpet of microscopic wildflowers; Northumberland, where the sky goes on for ever and the boundary between the land and its legends is stretched thin.

For ten years I commuted daily to Edinburgh and every morning, as I watched the sea breaking along the cliffs, and every evening, as the Cheviot loomed on the homeward journey, I could feel my soul lift and my spirit being restored. Even in deepest winter there was that brief lighthouse beam, with its resonances of wave and spindrift, in the final moments before reaching home.

Now I work from home as much as possible, and the sea is a distant sparkle, but the Cheviot is omnipresent, even when enshrouded by mist, and the daily comings and goings are conducted by sparrows, not people. Some days, ensnared by email and telephone, I scarcely set foot outside, but the minutiae of country life continues around me, and I catch glimpses of it through the window. A wren foraging for insects in the ivy, a troop of partridge crooning to each other in the morning sunlight, a mother woodpecker feeding her offspring on peanuts - small pleasures, but they suffice.

Gerard Manley Hopkins knew about the beauty of the small, the generally unremarked:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him

(Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty, 1918)