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

btt button

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)