Sunday, 30 December 2007


Elizabeth Gaskell has long been one of my favourite authors; imagine how pleased I was to hear that Cranford, one of her novels, would be adapted on TV in five parts. Sadly, it's now come to an end and has left a gaping hole in Sunday nights: it's not often that a TV serial improves on a book but this production of 'Cranford' was one.

What I like in Gaskell's novels is her understanding and portrayal of social inequalities; many novelists of the time skated over the less savoury elements of society (Jane Austen for one) or made them into characters (Dickens) but Gaskell embraces the gritty and the grey without preaching. She was a good friend of Dickens, who encouraged her writing, and she helped to promote the talents of her great friend, Charlotte Bronte.

Gaskell was married to a church minister whose parish was in Manchester and it was there that her strong sense of social injustice was developed. Her harsh depictions of mill owners in Mary Barton was garnered from her experience helping the poor slum dwellers of her husband's parish. And her understanding of life's tragedies was partly based on her own experiences.

Her own mother had died when she was only one year old and her father rejected her, sending her off to live with an aunt when he remarried (fortunately she was kindly). Then her beloved brother was lost at sea and some of her own children died. She was therefore no stranger to sadness and loss.

In fact, Cranford is not one of my favourite Gaskell novels – nor are Sylvia's Lovers or Wives and Daughters - but Mary Barton and North and South are, I think, brilliant. Perhaps it was because Cranford was initially written as a short story and later enlarged on – at Dickens' suggestion – that I found it less than gripping.

Some have described the production of 'Cranford' as sentimental, self-indulgent stuff and rather tame. But I disagree. In the TV production there's not a lot of action but the story has been so well done – and so well acted -that what comes through are the subtle nuances of society, the deeply felt slights and the strongly felt emotions kept under control.

The main characters are a group of genteel women (played brilliantly by Francesca Annis, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton) who live in the village of Cranford (modelled on Knutsford, Gaskell's childhood home). They take tea, buy hats in the local store, play card games and gossip. Dashed hopes, unreasonable aspirations, petty jealousies are all there: so too is the poverty of a feckless family, the death of relatives and of beloved pets.

Gaskell's ideals shine through: the philanthropy of a good man who educates a poor boy and how he shames the lady of the manor into acting in a Christian like way. Cranford is a novel that shows the reader every day life – Gaskell set her novels in the present unlike Austen – and it was this that was so sensational. It drew her middle class reader's attention to what life was like in quiet village or industrial town.

Gaskell achieved fame and fortune in her lifetime – she was born in 1810 and died aged 55 from overwork and a poor heart – but she has been largely ignored and unappreciated as a novelist until the last few years. Recent biographies of her, along with the rise in appreciation of women novelists, women's studies and radio adaptions of her work, have introduced many new converts to her writing.

Gaskell's dry and wry humour is amusing when put into the mouths of the frustrated spinsters of Cranford: "She [Miss Jenkyns] would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! She knew they were superior." Perhaps this is why she is such a popular novelist at last!


Sunday, 23 December 2007

The Holly and The Ivy

I cannot believe it's Christmas again: do I sound like your mother? I know I sound like mine and it's scary. Time just seems to, well yes, fly. At the moment we have very hard frosts here, although no snow, and it does give the landscape a very Christmassy look.

Last week it was time to get the ivy in for the chimney piece. Normally we just hack great piles it off the high brick wall that separates the lawn from the veg patch. The wall is at a rather startling angle but as it's been like that for years we just hope it will manage to stay up for another decade or two. But, consternation, for the second year running we forgot that we'd stripped the wall of ivy because it had totally obliterated the bricks.

Stumped for a moment, then a quick rethink: evergreen bushes – laurel, yew, holly, eleagnus, viburnum tinus – had a quick prune and all the ivy that's now taken over the bed under the lime trees was given a haircut. Tons of stuff to pile on the mantle piece, dot with gold balls and ribbons and, hey presto, a vaguely acceptable variation on the normal swag is born. Perhaps by next year the ivy will have grown large and thick enough for Christmas use.

Depth of winter is when garden evergreens really come into their own. In beds and borders devoid of herbaceous plants the evergreens provide colour and structure, when there is little else. Viburnums, laurels, arbutus and mahonias are some of my favourites both for their ability to grow without any care and their reliability in most situations.

Clipped evergreens give the garden some crisp geometric shapes in what can otherwise be rather flat and scruffy beds. Two of our British natives – yew and box - lend themselves to close clipping. In natural environments they grow into large spreading shrubs or trees. But in a garden context both can be cut hard back if too large or shapeless and regenerate – with time - from bare branches.

Yew is accused of being slow growing but this is a myth. If planted with plenty of organic matter, and fed well, yew can put on 30cm growth a year. Box is a little slower, but will grow in almost any soil and in any position. Ivy can make the most wonderful ground cover in areas where its galloping, all enveloping properties will do no harm and holly, a slow grower like box, can be clipped to keep give it a recognizable shape.

Bringing evergreens into the house at this time of year has been a tradition in Britain for hundreds of years ever since the pagan peoples first brought them indoors as homage to their gods. The Romans also decorated their houses with holly and ivy as they thought they brought good luck during Saturnalia, the winter feast.

Laurel was a popular evergreen as it stood for honour and victory and was thought to protect and purify. Rosemary was the herb of remembrance and bay represented the spirit of good cheer. These herbs scented both food and houses and pine branches gave out a fresh, sweet smell in musty interiors.

Holly was considered to have healing properties and ivy represented good cheer. The Christian church in turn took to evergreens: laurel, box, bay and pine branches were used to decorate churches. The spines of the holly leaf became symbolic with the crown of thorns, the berries with drops of Jesus' blood.

Only the mistletoe was considered a pagan step too far: originally it was an important element in Druid sacrifice and was thought to promote fertility in field and feather bed. Perhaps this is why it's traditional to kiss under the mistletoe, or perhaps it's because mistletoe was also thought to bestow harmony and peace. And that's what it should be all about: Happy Christmas!


PS If you want to find out what Christmas is usually like for me you need only to scroll down in my blog archive (in the right hand column) to the post in December 2006: I've being blogging for a year – doesn't time fly!

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Decimus Burton & Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells, one of the largest and most fashionable towns in Kent, grew from humble beginnings. In 1606 springs rich in iron were discovered in the rural village of Tunbridge Wells and the tourist trade in taking the waters began. First Henrietta Maria and later her son, Charles II, were enamoured of the health enhancing properties of the waters: later still other Royals visited including Queen Anne in the 1700's when she left money to pave the village around the wells with pantiles. The area became known as The Pantiles and Tunbridge Wells was truly on the map as a fashionable resort.

So popular was it, that Beau Nash came from Bath is 1735 to be Master of Ceremonies for visitors. Unfortunately for the town, in the 1800's there was a new craze: sea bathing. Society spurned Tunbridge Wells for the beaches of Brighton. A bath house was built to try and lure them back but bathing in iron water proved unpopular – bathers got brown bottoms! Something had to be done: the town needed a renaissance, something to restore its fortune.

That 'something' turned out to be somebody: Decimus Burton. The young Burton (1800-1881) trained at the Royal Academy Schools and worked as an understudy to John Nash on Regents Park. Nash allowed him to do some of the designing of Cornwall and Clarence Terrace and Grove House.

By his early twenties he had his own office in Regent Street. He designed Regents Park, the Triumphal Arch at Hyde Park, the Athenaeum Club and the buildings at London Zoo. He was commissioned to build Holwood Park, Keston by John Ward who went on to buy the Calverley Estate of about 1000 acres in Tunbridge Wells.

Burton knew the area because his Scottish father had bought Mabledon, a gothic style house on an estate near Tunbridge Wells, in 1804: Ward commissioned Burton junior to develop his new estate. Tunbridge Wells had grown in size without any plan but Burton set out to change this: he started to design a layout and buildings to the north and east of the village and The Pantiles.

A crescent of 24 villas with their own gardens were designed at the centre of Calverley Park between 1829 and 1837. The houses were all built in different styles from the local sandstone quarried from the estate, which also had its own brick and water works. As with most estates there were lodges at each entrance: first to be built was Victoria Gate – named after the Princess - in a classical style. Next was Keston Lodge in the same style, then Farnborough Lodge in a gothic style. The lodge keepers only allowed in residents, their servants or respectable visitors - the first gated community!

Burton enlarged and rebuilt Mount Pleasant House – now the Hotel du Vin – where Princess Victoria had holidayed with her mother, The Duchess of Kent. Close by he built the new parish church of Holy Trinity in the gothic style – now an arts centre – and, next door to it, The Priory. The Regency style Calverley Crescent or Promenade followed – designed with shops underneath residential apartments – Calverley Terrace, Calverley Parade and Mews, the more modest Calverley Cottages and gothic school house on Camden Road in 1834.

His style was eclectic – classical and gothic: the Regency canopy was just one of the features he embraced on his houses. His indubitable talent led to many local private commissions in and around the area. Then in London he designed the New Charing Cross Hospital (now Charing Cross Station) and later the entrance gates at Kew, The Palm House and Temperate House.

Eventually, however, Burton settled (and built) in Hastings as his father had developed land at St Leonards nearby. Decimus Burton was of the same mould as Pugin and William Morris: a man of immense talent and vision, so obsessed with his work that he had little time for alternative pursuits or his family. But Decimus Burton did reverse the fortunes of Tunbridge Wells, which to this day remains the epitome of a respectable country town.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamamanda Ngozi Adichie was our book group choice for November. The novel came widely recommended as it won Adichie the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, following on from her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which had been short listed for the Orange Prize.

Adichie is certainly a good writer who tells a story well, and it's a good story: one that shows how the ideals one believes in so ardently can wither and die, how love can blind us to faults, betrayal in all its forms and how people cope with loss. On the whole her characters are multi-faceted and 'grow' convincingly as events progress.

Olanna is the central character who, with her estranged twin sister, Kaniene, is an intelligent and well-travelled daughter of a rich Nigerian businessman. They are members of the Christian Igbo tribe of Nigeria. The pliant Olanna falls in love with Odenigbo, an educated man but a blustering idealist, whilst Kaniene falls for Richard, an insecure Englishman.

A key narrator is Ugwu, the houseboy, whose fortunes change when Odenigbo becomes his master; then adapt again when Olanna moves in to live with his master. And finally change very dramatically when war breaks out between the Muslim dominated forces of the north and the Igbo of the south.

None of us knew a great deal about the 1966 coup in Nigeria and the resulting Nigeria-Biafran war before reading this book – all remembered those heartrending photographs of malnourished children however – and so this formed quite a large part of our discussion.

We felt that Adichie's portrayal of the issues that surrounded the war - tribalism, nepotism, bribery and how war brutalizes – were spot on. It's a novel with a strong political message: Adichie admits that she wants to educate her readers about the Biafran war but also that she thinks only Africans should write these stories. Her parents' stories formed the backbone to this novel, which is all very fine, but Adichie doesn't mention that she has lived most of her own life in America. Somehow, that jars with her secondary message.

The characters and the fictional aspects of the story were woven through the true story (Adichie's view of it, anyway) of the violence, the blockades, the ethnic rivalry and the food shortages. She explains that although she fictionalized some places or names she could not let a character be changed by anything that had not actually happened: I agree that's a truthful way to approach such a story.

Adichie says that her main hope was that her novel should have 'emotional truth', an empathic human quality. And on the whole she's succeeded, most of her characters do. Her observance of the roles women are left to play during war are particularly shrewd and her descriptions of passionate love equally well-written.

The fact that the Olanna is an educated, middle class black woman was considered by everyone in the group as a welcome change. The character is believable and her reaction and response to the troubles that eventually befall her are too: initially she was a compliant character but became strong and decisive as a result of her trials.

Odenigbo was also a well rounded and believable character: he begins full of self-belief and conviction but as his ideals collapse, so does he too, into alcoholism and inefficiency. Ugwu, however, changes and grows in stature as the story progresses: he reacts to events and has a canny knack for survival. The role of master and protégé are eventually reversed.

However, not all the groupies thought the character Kainene was convincing and everyone felt that Richard was contrived; stereotypical and considered by all to be the weakest character. Mohammed, another bit player, was also singled out as the token good Muslim character.

Adichie uses time shifts to keep the reader's interest – which some felt worked, others didn't - and devices to keep them guessing, which work less well. One device was the keeping of a child's parentage a mystery: everyone considered this arbitrary (though felt it was cleverly constructed) and for which no-one could see any point. However, the quotations from a book that one character was writing – and the eventual outcome – we all agreed was cleverly done.

Everyone in the book group enjoyed the novel but few of the group found the book riveting; there was a surprising lack of passion for it. Perhaps it was because the book was just too long: most of those who were not able to read it at one sitting found they were not champing at the bit to get back to it. Those of us who read it at one go – I was on holiday so could indulge myself – enjoyed it more.

But there was real interest in the historical setting of the novel and in Adichie's plea that the atrocities of this war should not be forgotten, "May we always remember": we've heard this before, but it's none the less applicable.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Organic fruits of their labours

It's that time of year when the stock cupboard begins to come into its own. When the conscientious and capable vegetable gardener or allotment holder can see the fruits of his labour neatly piled on the slate shelf of the pantry to last through the winter months. (I know it will probably be stashed in the pull-out kitchen unit or the fridge but I do like the thought of a good old fashioned pantry.)

Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. Most of our apples are windfalls, the pears are usually too small; the plums are eaten by the wasps and the squirrels always get the cobnuts just before I do. I like cobnuts, they're a local crop around here and I felt we should have some. I didn't want a nut plat – too big and I don't have the pruning skills or the sheep to keep the grass down under them - but I did fancy an avenue of nut trees under-planted with primroses and primulas al la Sissinghurst.

But, I opted instead for a cobnut hedge: not as grand but easier to upkeep. This has been a great success from the point of size, ease of pruning and lovely catkins but a real dud for harvesting. I do try: I watch and I wait. I think to myself "those nuts are nearly ready, a little bit pale, just another day or two" then when I go out, basket in hand, I find that those pesky squirrels have beaten me to it and swiped the lot. They get up earlier than me, that's my excuse.

I give away most of our fruit now: I used to make jellies and jams, chutneys and bottled fruits but I'm afraid the word processor has taken over from food processor. Now and then, overcome by a flurry of guilt and 'waste not, want not' ness, I go into overdrive and freeze the mountain of beans or make the elderberry cordial but this year I gave away most of our fruit.

Still, it is lovely to be rewarded with a perfect jar of apple and mint jelly or quince jam. And when friends come to supper and bring beautifully packaged pots of redcurrant jelly, blackberry or blackcurrant jam, gooseberry or apple chutney, I feel a sense of achievement for them and love the home-made gift.

At the same time, our egg consumption has slowly decreased over the years: once there were chickens and geese – sometimes guinea fowl, ducks and quail – but these have all gone. But when a friend brought round the most beautiful coloured chicken eggs as a pre-supper gift, I was loathe to cook them they looked so lovely. Gone are the days when most households had chickens.

My grandmother used to preserve eggs in large stone pots and often they were pickled: something to last through the short winter days when the chickens were out-of-lay. And of course, at this time, the oldest birds would be sacrificed to the pot. Now electric light means chickens produce eggs all year round and anyone hearing the term 'the old boiler' would think it was a central heating question not an elderly fowl.

Talking of which, the geese near here are shortly to be despatched for Christmas dinner (see them on my September blog archive) but the beautiful pigs that I've watched on my walks get bigger by the day have already gone to market. In the past, a big, pink pig was kept in everyone's back yard, whether country cottage or tiny terraced house; a long forgotten fact. It would have meant meat for the family throughout the winter and not a part of it was wasted. But these particular little piggies will be organic pork by now, an expensive treat for a wealthy shopper. And you can bet your bottom dollar that there were no chitterlings, brawn, cheek or jellied trotters made from those parts not considered prime.

Times move on but it's heart warming to see so many interested in 'growing their own'. And not all are lapsed and unorganized producers like myself: I only hope that they're encouraged by the process of production and enjoy the fruits of their labours.


Sunday, 25 November 2007

Chagall, William Morris & Pugin: stained glass in Kent

Stained glass: the very phrase conjures up deeply coloured windows of biblical figures in dark churches or doors and fanlights in Victorian villas. But anyone who has seen Matisse's stunning stained glass windows in the Chapel de Rosaire just north of Vence in the South of France (see my blog archive for September) will agree that they are neither traditional or dark, the stylized and symbolic design in brightest yellow and blue.

Similarly, Braque's lovely stained glass window in the small chapel at the Foundation Maecht in St Paul de Vence. The simple, strong design shines with light through a prism of blues. Another artist who produced stained glass was Chagall and examples can be seen in the Chagall Museum in Nice although his most famous collection of stained glass are twelve windows in Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jeruslaem, depicting the tribes of Israel.

But a tiny medieval church in north Kent, of all places, also has a full set of Marc Chagall windows. Tudely is a small hamlet which boasts, pub, houses, farms and …..the Parish Church of All Saints. The first Chagall window was commissioned as a memorial to Sarah, the daughter of Sir Henry and Lady d'Avigdor-Goldsmid. Tragically, she died in a sailing accident in 1963, aged 21, and is depicted in The East window floating on the waves.

To me, something that is long-lasting and enriches the lives of others - whether in planting trees and bulbs or commissioning and donating inspirational art works – are the most moving and wonderful of memorials. These windows certainly qualify: a further eleven windows commissioned by friends and family of the Goldsmid's replaced the original Victorian glass (now installed in the vestry) over the following years until Chagall's death in 1985.

The windows are marvellous works of art – the naivety of the designs suit the simplicity of the church - that not only inspire but fill the interior with light and beauty. Chagall was a good choice of artist for an Anglo/Jewish family because he believed in the unity of humanity. The colour blue predominates in the windows as he thought that this colour symbolized love and "love is as strong as death".

Chagall had become increasingly interested in painting for stained glass and this gives the windows an ethereal quality reminiscent of some of this paintings. Adam and Eve, birds, horses, fish and angels all feature in the scenes and as the sun shines through the windows the colours are reflected onto the window reveals and floor: the effect is beautiful and just a little bit magical. This added spirituality was exactly the effect that was intended in the earliest stained glass church windows. A wonderful memorial: visit to find out more.

The Gothic revivalist architect, A.W.N. Pugin, responsible for the new Houses of Parliament after they were gutted by fire in 1834, also designed stained glass windows in Kent. Next door to his house, The Grange in Ramsgate, he designed and built St Augustine's R.C.Church including the stained glass windows. These are deep and clear in colour but, like so much of Pugin's work, rich in medieval patterns of heraldic crests, stylized leaves, flowers and borders. To see examples visit

The work of yet another great artist and designer, William Morris, can also be found in Kent villages only a few miles from Tudeley. Morris was certainly a Renaissance man: artist, craftsman, designer, decorator, printer, writer, poet – you name it, he did it. He was a follower of The Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood, a Gothic revivalist and a founder member of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Stained glass design and manufacture was one of Morris' early and great achievements in the art of nineteenth century Gothic revival. The windows he and his partners produced were colourful, inventive and well designed, among them those in Kent: a window by partner Edward Burne-Jones in St Mary's Church, Speldhurst is a good example. Visit to see a photograph of it and visit to see a cartoon of the window destined for the church of All Saints, Langton Green.

But, until very recently, I was completely unaware that even closer to Tudeley are two stained glass windows by the firm of Morris & Co in the parish church of St John the Evangelist, Hildenborough. I've visited the church several times but have as yet failed to find it open but I'll keep trying. It's great to find so much art right on my doorstep – the work of such brilliant designers: Chagall, Morris and Pugin.


Saturday, 17 November 2007

An apple a day

Apples come in all sorts, shapes and sizes and that, say the supermarkets, is the problem: they don't stock locally grown apples because we – the customers – want blemish free uniformity. Apples must be either green or red, glossy and symmetrical: forget the flavour. But October apple festivals and farmer's markets show that this is not true: not only do we want the tasty old varieties, scabs and all, but we're prepared to pay for them.

Henry VIII encouraged his gardener to produce better fruit, which he set about doing in his nursery close to Brogdale in North Kent. In 1806, the Horticultural Society in Chiswick, London recorded 1,400 varieties of apple: the society moved in 1875 to Wisley and then to the horticultural research station at Brogdale in the 1950's.

This is now the Brogdale Horticultural Trust ( where the National Fruit Collection is and where research into gene bank, grafting, stocks, plant identification, cultivation and so on is undertaken. A guided tour of the Trust is not only informative but fun too, viewing the orchards from the back of a tractor trailer, and there are unusual varieties of the fruit for sale in the shop there.

But the government puts minimal value on this sort of research: little investment is forthcoming to fund this most well-known fruit. March 2008 is crunch time: the management trust is out for tender and then…...who knows.

The cultivation of the apple (Malus domestica) is part of our national heritage; apple orchards part of our historic landscape. The sight of Kentish apple orchards in glorious bloom – snowy white froth or pink tinged petals - is absolutely beautiful and draws coach loads of tourists. Generally apple trees tolerate a wide range of soil types and like the British climate, some varieties doing better in one part of the country than another.

In Scotland 'dooking for apples' was a favourite game at Halloween: children, hands behind their backs knelt down and tried to catch an apple from several floating in a tub of water. If you caught the apple you kept it: more often than not a good soaking was had, everyone falling about laughing at the efforts. We loved it. In England it's called 'bobbing for apples' but this old game played around Bonfire Night is less well known now. The eating of toffee apples, though, remains as popular as ever at this time of year.

As a child my parents grew varieties of desert and cooking apples, the rows of trees set out in rows on a north-south axis: one for every month of the winter. And every day we took one to school for break. Beauty of Bath, Laxton's epicure and fortune were eaten straight off the tree; Worcester pearmain would last till October, as would Ellison's orange and James Grieve. From the last half of September until November we would eat Laxton's fortune, pioneer and Lord Lambourne.

Then Cox's orange pippin - so often eaten too early - was best from late November until February with Laxton's superb ready late in December right round to March. In supermarkets we expect to find our favourite apple all the year round: lost is the concept that the apple changes as it matures which gives it a quite different taste and texture. Some apples best cooked in November have become eaters by the following March.

Apart from cider making (see my blog archive April, 30) the preservation of the fruit was always part of the housewife's work in centuries past: apple chutneys and jellies were made as was apple cheese. Apple sauce accompanied roast pork, apples were casseroled with game birds and a roast goose was stuffed full of them.

In the United States apple pie is considered as American as can be, and why not: the golden delicious apple was discovered in Virginia, 1895, and the variety Jonathan even earlier in the 1820's. But in England, where hundreds of apple varieties have been grown since Roman times, we've lost our appreciation for the many famous varieties of the past and the methods of cooking them.

During my childhood Sunday lunch was always accompanied by a pudding and ten to one it would be made of apples. Early Victoria was used for apple crumble, cobbler or Charlotte because it cooked down to a soft consistency: for apple pie or stewed apple Reverand Wilks was favourite because it kept it's shape. And for baked apples – stuffed with currants and brown sugar and served with custard – it was our Monarch, Warner's king or King Edward VII varieties that we used. Nowadays in supermarkets there is the ubiquitous Bramley, rarely any other.

We can buy attractive, clean, blemish free apples wherever we shop: what we cannot necessarily buy is flavour, distinctiveness and variety. But, nevertheless, they remain packed full with other good things: an apple a day still keeps the doctor away.


Sunday, 11 November 2007

Lest we forget: poetry and prose.

'Lest we forget' is the final line of the poem, For the Fallen (1914), by Laurence Binyan. Today, 11 November, is Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the end of the First World War when the 'Ode of Remembrance' – a favourite recitation at memorial services for the fallen of the 1st and 2nd World Wars throughout the Commonwealth - finishes with these words.

The 'war' poetry of the Great War in particular often expresses deeply felt emotions very poignantly (see my blog archive, Flanders Fields, 29 July) but prose of the period can do the same. There are many memoirs and novels by men who served in this war that recount the politics, battles and tragedies of it all and their memories of fallen comrades, lost brothers, dead sons are so very moving.

But for every young man that died there was a woman – whether mother, sister, daughter or lover - who suffered years of loss. Not that it was only young men that served in the 1914-18 war: women didn't fight but they did do everything but. Many took over the jobs of the men who had left to fight and it's well known that their contribution – not to mention skill, dedication and bravery - during the war finally (in 1928) scotched the arguments against womens' suffrage.

Many women wanted to be in the thick of it, so to speak: some joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) either doing all sorts of 'manly' jobs or nursing - often risking their lives in on the front line. Others became members of the Women's Auxillary Corps (WAR), engaged on military services at home and abroad.

I make mention of two of these women who subsequently became journalists and writers: both gave up their hard won places at Oxford University to serve their country in time of war. They later met whilst studying there and became firm friends. Winifred Holtby served in France in 1918 as a volunteer in the Signal Unit of the WAR and Vera Brittain became a VAD, nursing in London and then in a field hospital at the front line in France.

Vera Brittain fell in love with Roland (a friend of her brother's) who was unfortunately killed in 1915. Sadly, her beloved younger brother, Edward, was then also killed (in 1918): many of their friends also met their death in the Great War. The first part of Brittain's autobiography, Testament of Youth (1933), chronicled those years: the story of 'the lost generation' and the changes it brought about in the lives of so many turned Brittain into a pacifist and an active member of the peace movement.

Some of the material that Brittain drew on when writing her autobiography was eventually published in 1998: Letters from a Lost Generation was a collection of the letters of Brittain, her brother and their friends, Richardson and Thurlow. These are a moving personal record of the terrible effects and results of a war that destroyed so many lives.

Winifred Holtby was also a committed pacifist and feminist; unfortunately she too died tragically young in 1935, just managing to complete her best known novel, South Riding, before she did so. It won her the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (posthumously) in 1936. This is a novel that encapsulates life in rural Yorkshire in the years between the two world wars: it gives telescopic view – looking through the wrong end of the lens to what life was like before 1914 and through the other end to the 1920's when women were making a mark as never before.

Both Holtby and Brittain were women of their time: university graduates, journalists and writers in what was then very much a man's world. They were increasingly confident that their views should count and that there was a need to change politics for the better. After Holtby died Brittain wrote Testament of Friendship (1940), a tribute to her friend and a chronicle of their relationship.

I came across both these writers again whilst researching my novel, A Little Blue Jacket. Holtby lived in South Africa in 1926 for a while and championed, among other things, the unionization of black workers: Brittain describes this South African experience as a watershed in Holtby's life. Her own interest in politics and womens' rights was influenced by reading Women and Labour, by the South African novelist and feminist, Olive Schreiner.

The writing of both Holtby and Brittain are still in print and are even enjoying a renewed interest: it's not just the many thousands of men who died that we remember today but also the thousands of women who served their country. And some who wrote about it, lest we forget.


Book Note: I find the poems of AE Houseman particularly moving and here is a simple, understated one that sums up what so many bereaved women must have felt, and sadly, are still experiencing in our war torn world today when no body is repatriated.

The half-moon westers low, my love,
And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
And seas between the twain.

I know not if it rains, my love,
In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
You know no more than I.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Blood & Sand

Blood & Sand, our book group choice for last month, October, is Frank Gardner's account of his time as a correspondent in the Middle East and his subsequent injuries after being gunned down by terrorists.

Gardner read Arabic and Islamic Studies at university and fell in love with the landscape and peoples of the Middle East during visits there. After a less than enjoyable spell as a banker he finally plucked up the courage to become a lowly paid journalist in order to live in and visit the lands he loved.

There are primarily two interesting facets to the book: firstly, Garner gives a fascinating and knowledgeable insight into the Islamic world, including that of such terrorist groups as al-Qaeda. His story is a personal one but politics are very much part of it: the differences and complexities of the tribes and cultures are very apparent.

Secondly, Gardner's strength of character (active, determined, intrepid and courageous) shines through: it was this that fuelled his second career and also what brought him through the disability he suffered. Other more negative characteristics were what possibly got him into the fix: stubborn, arrogant, single-minded and competitive.

He appears marvellously and commendably lacking in bitterness although there is still disbelief that he, an Arab lover and admirer, should suffer such terrible injuries in their country and at their hands. It seems that the attack finally made him realise that the Arab in his own land is not always an honourable being: he certainly observes that the fundamentalist terrorist is not a true follower of Islam.

Gardner is clearly a talented journalist with a wealth of knowledge of the Arab world but what he is not is a writer: on the whole the text is plodding, stuffed with too many details and the jokes are forced. It was almost impossible to keep track of characters, countries and creed and every one of the group was thankful that a map was included for reference.

However, when Gardner stays for weeks in the tents of a Bedu tribe – and he desists from bombarding us with his achievements and contacts – his writing suddenly soars. His description of the landscape and the people becomes more lyrical and the reader really gets a feel for the place and understands what it is that he loves about it all.

I admire the manner in which Gardner never tried to instil his own culture or ideas on the people he met with but wholeheartedly embraced their way of life whether it was to sleep in a rug on the floor, to eat at their communal meal or respect their religious belief.

Everyone in the book group found Blood & Sand interesting: we all learnt a great deal (when we concentrated) about the Middle East and recent events there. Much of it was fascinating but not everyone finished the book – due to the plethora of facts or the plodding.

But it did cause as all to think because discussion of the book turned into political discussion generally: the Iraq war, the fate of the Palestinians, the role of the US, Israel, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, the Taliban and the role – or lack of power – of women in the Islamic world. Of course, left to us – a roomful of women – we could have that whole lot sorted in a matter of months.

We agreed that Blood & Sand (originally Life, Blood & Sand in the hardback version) had probably started as a form of therapy for Gardner and every one of us was full of admiration for a man that has so spectacularly and successfully come to terms with his changed circumstances. Would we read it again? No, but we might give it to a husband, brother or son – they seem to like facts and Blood & Sand is a very macho title.


Book Note: for those in love with the Middle East the definitive book must surely be TE Lawrence's, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922). Now there was another singular man and one who's commitment and love of the Middle East shines through all his writing. It was my grandfather's favourite book but I have to admit I've never finished it. Better to start with Robert Graves biography of Lawrence, Lawrence and the Arabs (1934), on which the film ´Lawrence of Arabia´was based, one of my Best Beloved´s favourites.

Monday, 22 October 2007

The Tudors

The Tudors, a swashbuckling TV take on Henry VIII's court produced by an American film company is gathering pace. So starved of historical drama are we, that the historical inconsistencies and the soap opera style still have us glued to the set.

But don't let this lull you into disdain, many North Americans may have an ersatz view of merry olde England but some of them are a great deal more au fait with our history than we are. Some of their historical novelists – those whose blogs I read - or fans of the genre have a breadth of knowledge of our kings and queens that quite put me to shame.

The only thing I remember with clarity is what happened to his wives, helped by the old rhyme: divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. I have to check with the trusty Pears encyclopaedia if I'm to be sure of my kings and my dates but these guys can reel them off without pausing for breath.

A sense of the past surrounds us to such an extent in Britain – architecture, landscape, names, traditions – and is so much part of our daily lives that we don't recognise, appreciate or cherish it as much as some of our American cousins do. Living in west Kent, so close to the environs of London, we're surrounded by reminders of the Tudors and we take it all for granted.

At Lullingstone Castle in Eynsford, the young King Henry VIII often visited his friend Sir John Peche who had built the original Manor House there. They jousted together on the ground outside the gatehouse, where an area was raised so that spectators had a better view. Sir John remained a friend and accompanied Henry to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

When Henry rode out to Eynsford from London he could ride on with ease to Knole in Sevenoaks. Knole had been built by the Archbishop of Canterbury and in 1538 the house was given to Henry VIII. Elizabeth I gave it in turn to the Robert Dudley and then to the Sackvilles in 1566.

Nearby was Penshurst Place: Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet and courtier, inherited this lovely estate in 1552. Built of mellow sandstone with crenellated towers, mullioned windows, tall chimneys and ancient doorways it's everyone's idea of a Tudor manor house. As beautiful today as it was then, even the medieval structure of the gardens Sir Philip laid out are still clearly visible.

But it was Knole's deer park of over 1000 acres that was the most popular place to hunt and it was at another property a short ride away that Henry took his hunting to another level: hunting that was to produce the future Queen Elizabeth I. Ann Boleyn was born in Hever Castle - another romantic medieval house - but spent most of her childhood at court in France.

When Anne became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon she attracted Henry's attention: absenting herself from court she stayed at her family hunting lodge, Hever, and it was to there that he pursued her. After her marriage to Henry in 1533 and subsequent death Henry gave Hever to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.

However, over a number of years Hever fell into disrepair and in 1903 was bought by the millionaire, William Waldorf Astor. And this knight in shining armour who restored Hever Castle with imagination and a great deal of money was – wait for it – an American. So I think that an American TV serial about the Tudors can be allowed a little licence if it gives us all a bit of fun and entertainment.


Book Note: There are so many good novels about the Tudor era but Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl is about Anne's sister, Mary, and its an interesting view of the court at the time.

Friday, 19 October 2007

The Great Storm

The Great storm, the worst that Britons had experienced for over 300 years, struck 20 years ago this week. Deaths were caused, electricity supplies cut, cars were flattened, roads blocked, railways lines closed, house roofs blown off and landscapes devastated as trees were uprooted.

In London there was a blackout, the first since the Blitz in 1945 and it was thought at the time that the Kent and Sussex countryside, devoid of its trees, would never be the same again. The historic town of Sevenoaks was dubbed One Oak when it was learned that six of the old trees had crashed to the ground, hitting the town's very identity.

In addition, the ancient deer park of Knole in Sevenoaks, now owned by the National Trust, lost seventy per cent of its trees. Many of the trees over 200 years old -oaks, beech and chestnuts - were uprooted by the gale force winds, crashing to the ground felling others in their wake. The park, so beloved by the inhabitants of the town, was a scene of utter devastation.

In towns and villages throughout the South East similar damage was experienced: no-one could go anywhere for days and the sound of chainsaws was constant. But in fact it was amazing how few deaths there were and how many families and properties survived such a terrible storm. This was due in large part to the fact that the hurricane struck overnight.

The Met office had failed to predict the hurricane: some lucky souls slept through the entire thing, shocked when they opened their curtains on scenes of mayhem and destruction. This happened to me, I could hear there was a storm and peering out of the window saw the branches of our large purple beech flapping as if ready to take flight: Best Beloved slept on.

Terrible wind, I thought, and went back to bed. In the morning we were shocked to see two conifers – one at the back of the house one at the front - had fallen parallel to the house: lucky or what. If the wind had been coming from a different direction we may never have got up at all.

Non-native evergreen conifers are densely leafed – the wind didn't pass through their branches – and shallow rooted they fell by their thousands. And venerable hardwood trees are vulnerable in high winds: in fact many of the trees that were uprooted had passed their sell-by date.

Britain had been steadily deforested over hundreds of years: wood was needed for fuel or arable land, timber framed houses or fighting ships. Later, when vast estates were owned by the landed gentry and passed on form generation to generation, tree planting was something that was natural: ones heirs would benefit. Nowadays, when the average time to live in a house is about five years, there is less incentive for the home owner to plant for posterity.

In the last fifty years new forests have been mostly coniferous and existing hardwood forests have not been renewed – previously pigs or deer had kept the under-storey of broadleaf woods clear of saplings and invasive species without which the woods slowly lost their good health. Old trees were not taken out so hysterical had we become about 'saving' trees. At the same time Town or Borough Councils planted fewer and fewer roadside trees – paranoid about being sued for anything - our townscape the poorer for it.

It's generally not appreciated that much of the hedged and wooded landscape we love –and often think of as natural – was in fact planted for sporting pursuits. Farmers and landowners are less inclined to plant trees – which are not a very lucrative crop – as there's no longer fox hunting and less need for pheasant coverts. When there were, these small parcels of woodland were managed (see my blog archive of May 8) and the woodlands healthy.

After the Great Storm the landscape is certainly not the same, but it has regenerated. Many woods lost trees that should have been felled long ago: after losing them the new clearings opened up the woodland floor allowing wildflowers, birds and insects to flourish. In the woods bluebells, which had disappeared from many woods due to lack of light, were suddenly thriving again.

Surviving trees grew well without the need to compete for nutrients or light and a massive tree-planting programme, undertaken throughout Britain with the help of grants and philanthropists, added to the stock.

The loss of so many trees created a collective appreciation for the beauty of the natural environment and we began to treasure our woodland as never before. Now, twenty years on, the scars have healed and we have beautiful and healthy woodland again, better able to weather any storm.


Sunday, 14 October 2007

Tate Modern is scary

The spider is back, but this time it's lurking outside. The conversion of Bankside power station complete, Tate Modern finally opened its vast doors to the public in 2001. Inside was installed Maman, the spider, a giant steel structure by Louise Bourgeois.

I wrote in a newspaper column at the time: "it is doubtful any state-of-the-art structure could have been more suitable for a museum of modern art than the austere, art-deco influenced building at Bankside. To begin with, economics would never have permitted such a vast Galleria as the Turbine Hall to be included in the specification of a purpose built gallery…

The most stunning area is undoubtedly the Turbine Hall. Here Louise Bourgeois' giant sculptures suit the scale of the space. Thirty foot towers with stairways and looking glasses are interactive pieces that mirror the industrial style of the building.

Next to them lurks a monster spider sculpture – this awe inspiring piece is almost an Alice in Wonderland experience. The spider looks down – as visitors do from the galleried mezzanines above – on Gulliver-sized figures.

Surreal: giant spider, miniature people; one's perception of the real world turned on its head. The juxtaposition of its organic, natural form with the rigidity of the powerful man-made building is equally interesting."

A large retrospective of Bourgeois' work has just opened at Tate Modern. The large show is chronological and traces her work of decades – she is now 95 – from painting, to geometric sculptures onto organic pieces in a variety of materials.

She admired Giacometti, liked Bacon's work, knew Duchamp and Brancusi and was a pupil of Leger: there are few artists alive today who could claim that lot. And she is still imaginative and still exorcising childhood demons in her work.

Bourgeois' pieces are not for the faint hearted: when in the turbine hall her dark, giant arachnid stood on its enormous jointed legs guarding a pile of its marble eggs. The observer could feel the menace, the fierce protectiveness of a mother.

You may be able to plumb the depths of the artist's psyche better than me but I must admit I wasn't too taken with what I thought I could see there. A secure and happy place it did not seem to be but perhaps a little angst is what great artists all need. I suspect that children will think of Maman as pure Disney and teenagers as computer graphic and not be as affected as some of us more pathetic souls.

The giant spider now stands outside Tate Modern and if you suffer nightmares or don't like horror movies, you'll know right away that it's not the place or the show for you. And it seems that this could apply if you venture inside too: Doris Salcedo – a Colombian artist - has a new installation there called Shibboleth. It's a 167m long fissure that zigzags across the floor of the Tate and it widens to such an extent that visitors could fall down if not alert.

Like an earthquake Shibboleth rents a landscape in two: Salcedo sets out to show the conflicts that divide us whether of thought, politics, immigration or art. Is it a crack or a scar, a negative space or two spaces, a chasm that is ripping our society apart or what exactly?

I haven't been to the show yet but I must, it sounds so thought provoking. And I have a feeling that it will be as impressive as that giant spider - the one that's lurking outside – but I hope not as scary.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Tips on writing a book

Writing historical fiction is a lengthy business admitted Sarah Waters, talking with John Mullan, author of How Novels Work (see my weblog archive for May), at the Sevenoaks Literary Festival last week: her latest novel The Night Watch took her four years.

A friend remarked that four years seemed a very long time: the problem is that we hear of authors that rattle off a book in a couple of months and we think it the norm. But it's often hype. Well, it is possible of course if the story is straight off the top of your head (and you have all day, every day to do it in) but not if the author has to research historical periods that are not familiar.

First there's the background reading: books and novels that are in and around the period the story is set in that will give the author a taste for the time, slang used, social mores etc. Double that reading if the place the story is set in is unfamiliar: the author will want to visit the setting too to get the 'feel' of it.

So, here we go, tip number one: choose to set your novel somewhere nice, or somewhere close, or preferably both. Jane Austen often went with the close and nice option: Bath. You could choose your own backyard (quick and cheap) or an exotic location but bear in mind the latter will add to the budget as well as the time scale (although it might be fun).

Then there's the research to check facts that may be alluded to: dates, names, fashions, music etc. There may be cultural differences, unfamiliar weather, flora etc. And throughout research there will be note taking that needs to accessible – probably put on the computer: so altogether there goes a substantial chunk of time. And after the book is finished and edited you may have to check the facts again because they may have been mangled in the process.

So, tip number two: don't choose to write historical fiction at all – or non fiction for that matter – if you only have a couple of months to spare. Write a book about your dog. Or better still write a book about your expertise growing dahlias: it will appeal to publishers and sell much better than fiction anyway.

John did question Sarah about the risky time shift she chose in The Night Watch: as she pointed out, the author has to decide on structure very early on and can't change mid-stream. And certainly not when the novel is finished, that is, unless you are a very talented, successful and obsessive author who completely rewrites his finished novel in a different tense.

So, tip number three: write your book in chronological order, in the third person, past tense and cross all the T's and dot all the I's. It might be boring but at least you'll be in the majority: no-one will ask you why you put this before that or what happened to whom. Ignore the alternatives John Mullan discusses in his novel: what does he know anyway.

When cross questioned Sarah did admit to a few idiosyncrasies that she feels inclined to include in her novels – like making sure her characters know where the loo is and (obviously a practical woman) that they make use of it. Another was a fondness for bondage: now some might say that's not idiosyncratic, simply a perfectly normal lifestyle choice. Bound to be for some.

So, tip number four: know how to untie knots. That is if you intend to take research to the nth degree and try everything you have your characters do. This is also applicable if you're simply writing about your dog or your dahlias.

That brings me on to tip number five: include something dirty. Sex for starters, it's worked for Sarah and it could work for you. If the book is about your dog my advice is, be careful, discretion is all: if it's dahlias, digging the dirt is de rigueur.

Now don't expect these tips to automatically make you a successful author like Sarah (amazingly, without my help, she's managed to complete four novels with only several years of study behind her and bags of talent) but if you do follow them you may find yourself with a bestseller on your hands. And if you do, you sooo owe me.


Book Note: was it Philip Roth who completely rewrote his finished novel in a different tense? Everyman perhaps? It's driving me mad: please, someone, put me out of my misery.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Summer Is Over

Summer is over: as I walk up the lane behind my house the signs are everywhere. Purple damsons covered in a powdery bloom have fallen from the trees - no-one picks them now – and lie scattered like marbles. In the hedgerows brambles shoot out all over the place, their tips weighed down by tumbling blackberries: I pick the most succulent and they taste sweet.

Trees laden with apples, pears and quinces can be seen in the gardens I pass and shiny copper conkers lie along the edges of the road, their prickly cases split and discarded. I can't resist picking some conkers up - so smooth and glossy – and I pocket them to display or give little boys to play with.

The wheat has been harvested for some weeks now and as we walk through the stubble, crows and pigeons fly up, hen pheasants scuttle away and a cock rises and calls out for them to follow: fortunately Freddie is on the lead. As we go up towards the farm the geese – now very large and snowy white – stick out their chests and march towards us menacingly, honking loudly. I warn them not to push their luck, it may not be long before they meet their maker.

Passing the barn there are already trestle tables and benches of straw bales laid out for the Harvest Festival Supper (Shepherd's Pie and Blackberry & Apple Crumble). It's harvest end, tomorrow is Michaelmas, the Archangel Michael's feast day, and the Quarter Day on which landlords traditionally collected the rents.

It was on this day that servants were hired, farms changed hands and magistrates were appointed. And many tenant farmers presented their landlord with a goose as a gift or sometimes in lieu of rent. A goose was a gift to prize: dried, salted or pickled it would last through winter and roasted goose was a meal to celebrate with. But a goose produced more than just food.

Goose down and feathers – they are the very devil to pluck – made the best pillows and quilts, light but very warm. In days gone by their wing feathers were used for arrows and quills and their fat was used to keep bodies warm and waterproof a variety of things. Nowadays, gourmets will tell you that their fat is the best in which to roast potatoes.

Geese are monogamous – although some ganders may have three or five geese as a harem – and will live for up to 20 years, often pining if their mate dies. It is some years now since we kept geese: Ghandi (the gander) and Gertie were a devoted couple but sadly they didn't ever have goslings. We gave them a pond to help them perform but still nothing. When Ghandi died we found out it was due to being egg bound: which explained a lot.

For hundreds of years geese were herded for miles to be sold at the Goose Fairs in time for Michaelmas: these old goose markets have gone now, the name living on in large annual markets and fun fairs. Geese – or the eating of them at Michaelmas - have traditionally been considered good luck and they feature in many myths and fables.

In 1813 Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, "I dined upon goose yesterday which I hope will secure a good sale for my second edition". We all remember the nursery rhyme Goosey, Goosey, Gander and Old Mother Goose was a favourite character: much earlier, it was Aesop's goose that laid the golden egg.

And, according to Livy, Rome was saved by the sacred geese when they cackled and alerted them to the invading Gauls. Geese can still be seen in flocks around the whisky distilleries in the Scottish highlands where they provide a similar service, warning of unwanted visitors and threatening them off.

That reminds me of our brush with the strident farmyard geese today. I think their luck may be running out: if Michaelmas doesn't get them Christmas surely will. There have always been feasts to celebrate the end of harvest – in England the old pagan feast of the Autumn Equinox became the Christain feast of St Michael as celebrated by King Ethelred in 1014. A crisp skinned roast goose stuffed with apples, a flagon of cider and a plum cake: now there's a feast fit for a king when summer is over.


Book Note: Some of Dorothy Parker's poems are excellent such as Penelope quoted in last week's blog but many are ironical (see my blog archive of 6 January, Twelfth Night). Having so recently looked up her poems again I shouldn't have been surprised to find another lovely one: what was a surprise however was to read this excerpt from Paths after I had written this piece.

I shall hear the pheasants call,
And the raucous geese;
Down these ways, another Fall,
I shall walk with Peace.

I don't know why, but it always makes me sit up when I realise that across continents and seas we have such similar experiences: even for sophisticated townies, nature and the wild touches us all.

Friday, 21 September 2007

The Penelopiad

In the Bookgroup I belong to we're trying to vary the genre we read: fiction, poetry, plays, biography etc. The choice for September was John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius, printed in 2000, in which – in a more modern idiom - he develops the background to Shakespeare's Hamlet from a woman's point of view.

However, as the publisher, Canongate, has recently brought out a new series in which various authors refashion well known myths in a contemporary way it was suggested that as the Updike book was difficult to track down we might also, or alternatively, look at The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood.

In Human beings have always been mythmakers, the religious historian, Karen Armstrong, explains the background to the series and explores our continuing interest in our ancestors and the myths attached to our past.

In one of the first in the Canongate series, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles, Jeanette Winterson takes a fresh look at the story about Atlas, doomed to hold up the world for ever, when Heracles agrees to exchange the weight of the earth and the heavens in exchange for one of the golden apples of youth: she refashions the myth choosing to explore the journey to self-knowledge.

Margaret Atwood chose an alternative approach when she agreed to retell Homer's Odyssey: she deconstructs the myth and not only tells it like Updike did from a female perspective – that of Odysseus' wife, Penelope – but she also probes the unjust and uncertain reasons for the death of Penelope's handmaidens who also have a collective voice. Both they and Penelope speak from the Greek Underworld.

Psychoanalysts certainly have a field day with the psychological patterns in The Odyssey and you get the feeling that Atwood enjoyed writing The Penelopiad for much the same reasons. In the acknowledgements, she says it was from Robert Graves's, The Greek Myths, that she owes the theory of Penelope as a possible female-goddess cult leader and the convention of burlesquing the main action from satyr plays. The theory I'm not sure about but she certainly carries off the second very successfully.

The whole tone of this short and easily readable book is one of wit, sarcasm and, yes, burlesque, quite unlike the original tone of The Odyssey. I don't know if Canongate's concept was to make famous myths appeal to a modern readership or just to use the myths as inspiration, either way I guess it doesn't matter. But if readers enjoy this I'm not sure they'll ever trudge through the original.

Atwood adds her own interesting variations to the story filling in the gaps in the original: her Penelope could be the very embodiment of some modern army wife, left for long periods of time while her husband is away waging war or on manoeuvres. She is lonely, sad and sometimes embittered as she carries out her domestic duties: not quite a female-goddess cult leader.

But Penelope is also brave and resourceful having to juggle the many roles she is forced to play – in this case warding off suitors, running the palace and kingdom, keeping the expenses and her servants in check. Atwood shows us too a Penelope that is swayed by the same emotions as any modern wife: jealous of her husband's possessive old nurse and her heartless but beautiful cousin, Helen; loving her spoilt son but fed up with his bolshie teenage ways.

Atwood offers the reader several reasons for the death of the handmaidens – they slander Odysseus within his hearing, they are his property but have allowed themselves to be raped (!), they are dispensable, their death will punish Penelope, they knew too much and could implicate Penelope, Penelope herself suggests it by retelling her dream.

According to her handmaidens Penelope was a wily and adulterous wife but Penelope maintains that she was an anxious, faithful wife doing her best in difficult circumstances and so in this way Atwood allows Penelope to remain somewhat of an enigma. Read it and see what you think: the general bookgroup view of The Penelopiad was that it was an easy and enjoyable read, although one they would be unlikely to read again. Everyone liked the character Penelope but some were disappointed in the conclusion.

One of us had seen the play called, not surprisingly, The Penelopiad, based on the book: it's a Royal Shakespeare Company production in collaboration with Canada's National Arts Centre. She thoroughly recommended it: all the characters are played by women - a lovely take on Greek tragedy plays where every character was played by a man.


Book Note: Try The World's Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy, for a gentle and amusing take on myths and classic works or any of those mentioned in the text above.

I can take no credit for finding the following poem by Dorothy Parker:
In the pathway of the sun,
In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor's knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.

Clever Carla Nayland mentioned this poem which sums up Homer's Odyssey quite wonderfully: as a precursor to The Penelopiad it could seem to be inspirational.

For other essays about myths scroll through my blog archive: there's 'Moon, meteors and myths' (August 12) or 'Sculpture – Hare today' (June 3)

Friday, 14 September 2007

Cote d'Azur

Nice is a lovely place to visit at this time of year. Last week, a chance to visit the South of France was transformed at short notice by Best Beloved and me into a week of holiday: this meant I had to do rapid research to make sure I made the most of all the art on offer.

It really bugs me to find out I visited someplace and missed the most interesting garden, museum or view to be found there: we were staying near Nice and the surrounding area is simply stuffed with great things to see.

The Cote d'Azur was – and still is - such a popular area for artists and in Nice is a museum dedicated to Matisse and another to Chagall. But there's no need struggle with city traffic when in the charming medieval hilltop village of St Paul de Vence, only half an hour away by car, there is a museum of modern art and contemporary works: Fondation Maeght.

At the moment there's a Spanish exhibition on there with an enormous collection of Miro's works – all the famous pieces - but there are also paintings by Bonnard and Leger – as well as Matisse and Chagall – including wonderfully leggy sculptures by Giacometti and ceramic works by Braque.

The setting of the building lends itself to all the sculptures that are on display outside: courtyards and lawns, pools and pine clad hillsides all form a perfect background for some pretty wacky or positively wonderful forms. Miro was keen on mobiles and these and his disconnected surreal works seemed ideally suited to outdoors: wind, branches, leaves, air - the asymmetricality of nature.

Henri Matisse first visited the Cote d'Azur in 1916 and, fascinated by the light, continued to visit it until he eventually settled in Vence. It's fun to search out his works here: in a famous hotel restaurant at St Paul can be found sketches of his as well as those by other penniless artists who visited -Picasso, Leger, Braque, Dufy. An exciting treasure chest to come across.

In the Chapelle de Rosaire – a Dominican convent - just north of Vence, Matisse decorated the vault: the tiled walls have simple black line paintings but two walls have stunning stained glass windows. The light from these is wonderful – sunlight coming through the blue glass glows, the yellow is frosted and diffuses the light – and the whole design is exceptional.

Marc Chagall – born in 1887 of Russian-Jewish descent – fled Russia and lived in Paris before moving to America in 1941. But in 1949 he returned to France and settled in Provence where he began to work in stained glass – more of this another time – and ceramics.

In the former 11-17c cathedral (now the church of Sainte Anne) in Vence he designed a superb mural mosaic, 'Moses saved from the Nile', in the Baptistery. The sunshine, colours and elements of nature depicted in the composition were meant to evoke the joy of baptism. I thought that the space and simplicity – naivety - of it was mirrored in his painting 'La vie', seen in the Foundation.

The area still appeals to artists, not only because they are inspired by such as Cezanne and Matisse but because the light is so very different from anywhere else. Further on from Vence yet another hilltop village, Tourettes de Loup, has been transformed into a a place for artists and craftsmen to live and work.

Up narrow, steep and winding streets, in cavernous spaces through small doors you can see weavers, potters, jewellry makers and painters at work in their small ataliers. The old stone walls and steps, ancient wooden doors and shutters, window boxes overflowing with geraniums and pots with sedums all supply a ready made composition for the artistic.

Away from the hilltop towns there are pink painted villas, green shuttered windows and terraces shaded by lush green climbers: Cannes cum California. Passing open topped sports cars racing along the corniche makes me think of the roaring twenties and thirties and high society life on the coast then: I'm inspired to read Scott Fitzgerald's novel, Tender is the Night, again when I get home. Those were the days my friends, and this is the place.


Books: anything on Matisse & Chagall.
A Year in Provence (see blog archive, 9 July 2007)

Monday, 3 September 2007

Highgrove: organic is beautiful

When I heard that I could visit the garden at Highgrove, the country home of His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, I was over the moon. Demand is so high that the waiting list can be up to five years and only one visit per person is allowed, so for me to get 'in' was fantastic.

The garden is a delight: Charles planned it to be not only an organic landscape but a beautiful one too and he's achieved his goal spectacularly. I walked around it with a smile as wide as a frog: from a design point of view vistas radiating from the house are achieved with paths and clipped hedges whilst wild natural areas (woods and wild flower meadows) juxtapose well with more formal planting.

The walled kitchen garden combines beauty and practicality: old varieties of apple tree are pleached or espaliered whilst other fruits are fan trained on the high brick walls. The geometric planting beds have neat rows of vegetables enclosed by low clipped box hedging – a natural form of pest control.

Scented perennials, flowering shrubs and old fashioned roses spill over the gravel paths, a good foil for the uniformity of the vegetables. Everything is grown organically using compost and natural liquid manures and with no need for sprays: as good an advert for this method of growing as anyone could find.

Throughout the park there are new structures – a dovecote, beef shed, rustic oak temples, brick paths, dry stone walls – that are all designed with the vernacular in mind. The quality of these is quite obvious and the concept perfectly in keeping with the whole ethos.

One fun aspect of walking around it – which one can only do under the guidance of a knowledgeable volunteer - is picking up the clues to inspiration. A laburnum walk is pure Rosemary Verey (Barnsley House), a pair of wrought iron gates leading into a yew hedged garden is definitely Lady Salisbury (Cranbourne Chase) and the wild flower meadow could be a Miriam Rothschild blue-print.

Sadly the giant cedar of Lebanon at the back of the house is dying if not already dead. But nothing lasts forever and although The Prince regrets the loss it's a chance to plant something else in its place for posterity.

The garden pushes every ecological button: planting suits its site and is sustainable; species and methods encourage bio-diversity; endangered native species are thriving; the estate is self-sufficient in vegetables and fruits; there is an ongoing tree planting programme for the benefit of future generations which is also a healthy carbon offset.

And most of the ideas are excellent: a reed-bed waste sewage system may not be suitable for your average Joe but re-cycling rainwater is a measure that can be copied by nearly everyone. Rainwater is free and can be used to irrigate gardens: a win-win situation if ever there was one.

Composting is also big at Highgrove and even owners of the smallest gardens can recycle kitchen vegetable waste using enclosed compost bins. These hardly ever need emptying as an organic liquid is produced that simply seeps into the soil: no sweat.

But I do hope The Prince gives up his idea to produce bio-fuel from rapeseed and other vegetable fats as this is not an efficient – or desirable - use of land. It's also a poor example to set third world countries: if they make over large tracts of arable land to produce fuel(much of it for the West), they will not be able to produce a wide choice of affordable crops for their own population.

Transport can be fuelled by electricity which is produced from timber: the production of a sustainable timber supply not only uses less land than oil seed crops but it leaves arable land free for food crop production. There is often a backlash to alternative methods: think again, Charlie.

But, apart from this one small point, the garden at Highgrove and the message Prince Charles conveys with his ideas and his methods is exemplary. For hundreds of years landscapes were made by men of wealth and power but few did so throughout the 20th century: Prince Charles is an exception. His house and garden combine to make a most beautiful landscape – a real inspiration - certainly the highlight of my gardening year so far.


Book Note: HRH The Prince of Wales' book, The Garden at Highgrove (published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson), is still in print and available now in paperback. Even if you have not been to the garden it is a very attractive book with plenty of ideas to inspire....tho' better still if you have been!

This year another handsome book, The Elements Of Organic Gardening, is available. It's a practical guide to organic gardening as practiced at Highgrove and other properties owned by The Prince. All proceeds from these books – and everything sold in the shop at Highgrove – goes towards The Prince's Trust for the worthy causes it supports.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Impressionists by the Sea

In England we haven't had much of a summer and not many holidaymakers could enjoy the seaside, even less the sea. As a sunny beach became more desirable with every week of August passing by, on a particularly rainy day I took myself off to London to at least get a taste of it at the exhibition, 'Impressionists by the Sea'.

The show at the Royal Academy – the blurb explains - explores "the development of the beach scene in the art of the Impressionists". Some of their predecessors – Isabey, Cazin, Dupre – painted the sort of marine scenes we've seen rather too much of lately - storms, fishermen fighting the elements, toiling peasants (do peasants toil anymore?) – while other artists concentrated on the coastline devoid of figures.

Then painters like American James McNeill Whistler and Frenchman Courbet began to focus on more restful views of the north coast of France: bays, the play of light on calm seas, a peasant asleep. These paintings were simpler, calmer, than the previous dramatic stormy scenes.

But around 1860 a few artists began painting fashionable tourists on the beaches of Normandy: Boudin pioneered the theme of holiday makers on the beach at Trouville, others followed and Deauville, Berck, Etretat and Sainte-Adresse feature in many paintings by such artists as Monet and Manet.

These holiday makers came down to the coast from Paris and the corresponding growth in hotels and villas along the sea front were incorporated in the paintings: there are scenes of figures strolling along the board walks in colourful fashionable clothes, sitting under the shade of their parasols, stepping out from their bathing tents.

Ah, this is my sort of seaside: sun, yellow sands, aquamarine seas, high bright blue skies, honest and upright locals, refined and elegant holidaymakers, not a piece of litter or a cart jam in sight.

Now, here's a theory: as adults we're drawn to the landscapes of our formative years. Born in rolling countryside but close to the coast, I like landscape paintings with hills, trees and meadows but I'm also drawn to the sunny beach scenes of the Impressionists.

Paintings of figures strolling on Trouville beach reminds me of Weymouth sands in summer, just as a South African may instantly think of Muizenberg, an Australian of the beach at St Kilda's. Happy memories: I can taste the salt, feel the warm sand trickling between my toes, see the boats sail gently to and fro on the bay.

But by the late 1870's the Impressionists, perhaps bored by the subject of holidaymakers, were concentrating more on landscape: figures were a minor feature. They created informal canvases showing the physical structure of cliffs or the effect of light on sea and sky. Brilliant.

Then by the late 1880's these scenes had become quite dramatic again: the artists portrayed dark rain clouds, massive cliffs, rock formations and the play of light on the sea. Fashionable figures – though not necessarily their resorts - were supplanted by fisher folk, their boats, the sea and cliffs.

Many of the Impressionists chose to paint Etretat where the cliff has been eroded by sea to form an opening. It might remind an American of the natural arch at Santa Cruz: it reminds me of Durdle Door in Dorset.

Suddenly I recall a less sunny seaside: scary cliff walks and stormy seas. I remember the wind stinging my legs when I come out of the water, the pain of pebbles under bare feet, sand in my sandwiches, grumbling locals and hordes of holidaymakers: different impressions by the sea.


Note: if as adults many of us are drawn to the landscapes of our formative years, some people – at particular times in their lives - are likewise attracted to alien landscapes: landscape as 'escape' perhaps.

For example, if we're hemmed in by the city we thirst for open spaces. When our life is controlled, we may seek wild spaces; if our lives or minds are out of control we may appreciate neat and tidy surroundings.

Certainly the cry – I just need to get away – is usually from the heart no matter where away is: an exhibition of painting might just do the trick.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Historical Fiction and Real Life

For some, 'historical fiction' is that set upto the 19th century but actually anything set over a hundred years ago - or now pre-1945 – comes within the genre. But whichever period a story is set in, one of the facets that a writer of historical fiction is concerned with is historical accuracy.

When a novel has a glowing write-up (like an excellent reviewer from Historical Novels Review gave A Little Blue Jacket this month!) the author is likely to be on cloud nine: but clouds are insubstantial things. It can be down to earth with a bump if a reviewer criticizes areas of the work that the writer thinks unfair.

Once an author has published a novel it's out there to have its bones picked over by anyone. Criticism of style or structure is a very subjective thing – one man's meat is another man's poison – but historical accuracy can be checked.

Most authors of historical fiction go to great lengths to ensure historical, geographical and social facts are researched but it is amazing how often the reader is surprised by either lifestyles or words currently in use at the time, altered locations or historical views.

Given the chance, most authors are able to explain the historical context and back up their facts (certainly in the large format of my novel A Little Blue Jacket I included extensive historical notes as even local South Africans told me they knew little of SA history after 1900 and before 1950) and so give the reader a chance to follow up research for themselves.

Many historical facts had to be cross-referenced for my novel as what appears obvious is not always the case. For example - the original Malay houses around Bo Kaap have not, contrary to popular belief, been repainted in their original pastel colours: they were originally white. After frenzied building a hundred years ago Victorian buildings in Cape Town outnumbered Cape Dutch ones and the architect 'darling' of the time, who was building in the vernacular style there, was in fact British: Herbert Baker, partner of Edwin Lutyens.

Fish Hoek is now a thriving small town but a hundred years ago was little more than a few fishing cottages: the Martello tower of Simon's Town is now little more than a ruin. On Muizenberg sands the tin hut of 1905 is long gone, replaced as it was by a grand pavilion in 1913, along with the charming stilted beach huts that are so well known today.

Similarly, the writer of historical fiction has to make sure of geographical facts that may send readers reaching for their street map or atlas. To demonstrate: in Cape Town, Roggebaai (present spelling) with its jetty is now reclaimed land – old street names bear testimony to its previous bounds - and many names of streets and squares have since been changed in tune with society.

Political and social facts too can be authenticated. Those living in Johannesburg today may find it difficult to believe that a hundred years ago Indians and Malays were allowed to buy properties in new residential districts of Cape Town: apartheid has so dominated South Africa in the recent past that many cannot believe that in the Western Cape a hundred years ago there was no apartheid and were no pass laws.

This is what was meant when those in the Western Cape were described as 'colour blind': today reference to this might be interpreted as a politically correct view but it is, indeed, a fact. Certainly among the British in the Western Cape, Malays were sought out as house servants and treated, on the whole, well: indeed many of the female servants became close confidantes of the mistress of the house.

History is written by people and of course can be re-written to suit, but there is much that cannot be disagreed with. A writer can point out historical facts to dissenters, and back up social facts with contemporaneous sources used, but little can be done to countermand ingrained prejudice or ignorance on the behalf of a reader or critic.

But, when all's said and done, most authors of historical fiction are not historians: they are writers of fiction. And, like all fiction writers, they can invent characters and places. They can also manipulate actual events and dates to serve fictional purposes: they can choose to write their story in the spirit of the time or be exact in every detail.

Or writers can marry the two: for example, I made a choice when writing my novel not to make the speech as stilted as it may have been but to observe speech patterns and the odd words of regional dialect used at the time instead. This involved considerable research as words used today – or understood today – are not necessarily those of the period in which the book was set: it's a device that can give the book a sense of period as well as place.

And, for myself, some of the personal facts on which I based the story of A Little Blue Jacket no-one can dispute: my grandmother was born in the Cape and, orphaned, was brought up by her sister and her Malay nurse of whom she was very fond. Without 'giving away' the story (and it is fiction), the least likely and most dramatic events that happen in it are actually true: that old adage that real life is often more surprising than fiction.


Sunday, 12 August 2007

The moon, meteors and myths

The moon and meteors have long been the subject of myths: for thousands of years cultures have studied the stars and been ruled by their movement. Terrestrial travellers throughout the world used the stars and the moon to guide them, seafarers navigated by the constellations.

Historically farmers have grown crops according to the phases of the moon. Wheat was sown during the waxing of the moon and small holders planted their peas: all above ground crops. When the moon was waning however, it was the time to sow root crops and trees.

Now, when tending their vines, winemakers of the New World are considering the lunar activity that ancient viniculture abided by: full circle. They are harvesting their grapes as close to the full moon as possible in order that the fruit is full of moisture and flavour.

And it's not such a daft idea: after all, it's the gravitational interaction between the Earth and the moon that causes the tides to change and similarly the moon affects moisture in the soil. Depending on whether the moon is waxing or waning, so light is increasing or decreasing, affecting plant growth.

In the 20th century interest was renewed when Rudolph Steiner encouraged such biodynamic agricultural techniques as planting according to the moon's phases: it seems that seeds germinate more quickly if planted at full moon. But you ask any countryman about when to grow fruit and veg and he'll spout planting and gathering times based on the lunar calendar that were part of folklore long before Steiner gave it any scientific credentials.

The Romans were heavily into the lunar calendar as we all know and belief in the mythical powers of the planets and stars is still with us in the 21st century: so strong is it that we even organize our lives by consulting the twelve constellations of the Zodiac on a daily basis. What star sign are you? is one of the most popular openers for women (in particular) on speed dates and many have been know to reject a partner on the strength of his perceived personality: in some cultures a potential bride or groom can be rejected after consulting the stars for fear of an inauspicious match.

For more down-to-earth types however, tonight, Sunday, after midnight, there will be a spectacular shower of shooting stars through the British skies: the Perseid meteor shower occurs every year around the time of the St Lawrence's feast day on 10th August (Romans again). The show has already begun but will peak tonight. A new moon – a darker sky – should help us see the spectacle more clearly: that and the absence of light pollution.

Killjoy, I hear you groan, why mention pollution. Why can't you just celebrate this wonderful astronomical phenomenon without recourse to green issues: quite simply, because light pollution of our night skies may stop us seeing this colourful cabaret.

Light pollution is the adverse affect of artificial light on the night sky: in many cities throughout the world only the brightest of the planets and the moon are now visible. In our village we boast of having a clear night sky: there are no street lights or large illuminated signs so astronomers travel miles to study the stars on the elevated Common. But in the distance there can be seen sky glow from the nearby town and it's creeping ever nearer.

So what? Well, light pollution affects us all, star gazer or not. Lighting burns money and it uses up our natural energy resources: it harms nocturnal wildlife and it destroys our night skies which is a crying shame. There is nothing like walking home from the pub on a chilly evening under a starry, starry night: nothing more wonderful that going out into the garden after a warm day, when there's not a cloud in the sky, and seeing above you a canopy of stars. It's apt to stir mystical or philosophical (or romantic!) thoughts depending on character (or company).

Down in Devon this spring, my sister-in-law brought out her telescope. She said that it was an excellent evening to see the rings round Saturn and the mountains on the moon: sensational and spooky both. They too live in a village with an unpolluted night sky and the clarity of the images was extraordinary.

If only every night sky was as clear: it actually takes very little – and costs next to nothing - to cut light pollution in residential areas and so increase visibility. When some town dwellers move to the countryside they feel insecure without street lights, but country dwellers know that a torch is all that's necessary to find your way. And lights on gateways or porches have simply to be changed to lower wattage, put on a time switch and, most importantly, designed with a narrow beam angled downwards to minimise the affect of pollution.

The stars and the moon and the sky: we can make or mar magic.


Book Note: books on mythology abound and it’s a fascinating subject. Two of the books I used when researching myths for my novel were The Myths of Greece and Rome by H A Guerber - because it was published in 1907 and therefore reflected the presentation of them at that time - and African Mythology by Geoffrey Parrinder because it included myths that linked the coming of death with the waxing and waning of the moon (go to for more South African myths)

In the same Paul Hamlyn series are books about Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Oceanic and American Indian mythology and I can bet there are myths about the moon and the stars in all of them.