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.