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!