Saturday, 24 March 2007

What the Dickens

What I love about 'research' is that you never know where it will take you. At a concert in St Nicholas Church in Sevenoaks – a well-known town in west Kent - I was talking of Charles Dickens' novels and mentioned that, although he was born in Plymouth, the county of Kent was very much 'Dickens Country'.

It was the Kentish places in which he lived that he used in his novels. When he was five his family moved to Chatham, on the north Kent coast; it was a naval base and appears in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. And it was from here that he and his father would often walk to Cobham Hall – a large country estate – recognizable in the Pickwick Papers.

Chatham abuts the ancient town of Rochester, which Dickens loved, and he mentions it in detail in David Copperfield. And it was at the nearby port of Gravesend, that Peggoty and David in the same novel say farewell to their friends sailing for Australia: in Great Expectations it is also from Gravesend that Pip and his accomplice try to smuggle the convict, Magwitch, out of England.

The marshes and churchyard at Coolings - a small village on the Kent coast just north of Rochester – were the setting for Pip's scary meeting with Magwitch and Restoration House - a medieval mansion in Rochester – was the inspiration for Miss Havisham's house in Great Expectations.

From the time of his first novel Dickens liked to holiday in Broadstairs on the east coast of Kent: he may have claimed Kent as his county but the people of Broadstairs claimed Dickens as their man. Apparently it was a little old lady there that inspired the character Miss Betsey Trotwood - and her cottage the setting - in David Copperfield.

Before even 1900, the house in which Dickens stayed when he used Broadstairs as his "English Watering Place" was known as 'Dickens House'. And for the past 69 years there have been productions of his novels performed there every summer: known as the 'Dickens Festival', the townspeople of Broadstairs have a jolly time dressing up in Victorian costume to publicise it.

Dickens' first novel, Pickwick Papers, was published in instalments, as was that of his great friend Wilkie Collins. This is well known but, whilst I was checking on the facts mentioned above, I was surprised to learn that Collins' brother married Dickens' daughter, Kate.

Whilst she was married to this sickly – and apparently not too popular - character, Kate lived in London but after his death she married a much more inspiring character, the painter Charles Perugini (a friend of the great painter, Lord Leighton)and lived in Park Cottage, Sevenoaks! According to a very informed blog reader they lived in Sevenoaks from 1875 to 1893.

But guess what, when Perugini died in 1917 he was buried in St Nicholas churchyard! Kate moved back to London and when she died she too was buried there. Now that is what I call a result: if I'd known all that at the concert I'd have gone out to look for the gravestone by torchlight. Amazing where research can take you.


PS After Kate married Perugini she became a noted painter herself: Millais painted her as a bride dresssed - unusually - in a black dress, looking backwards over her shoulder. Just making sure there was no Woman in White following here perhaps.


Saturday, 17 March 2007

Down with Dictators

Writing on the laptop on the kitchen table, frustration sets in. I'm just back from Cape Town and can't help thinking about it: the place is stunning. I sigh. I make another cup of coffee. I look out the window.

It's a sunny spring day but, due to a wind, it's not as warm as yesterday. On the bank beneath the kitchen window the pretty nodding snowdrops that struggled through the ivy have died down but elegant narcissi have taken their place.

Under an old cherry tree the dramatic architectural leaves of Helleborus foetidus and their peppermint flowers look grand. Beyond them Helleborus niger and h.purpurascens – in shades of cream and claret – look equally magnificent. And between all of these are interspersed the dainty daffodil, 'Tete-a-Tete'.

These were planted in true Lucy style: bought in September, planned for planting October, on the 'To Do Next Week' list all through November and finally, in desperation, green tips beginning to show, hastily thrown into the ground all over the place half way through December.

Any self-respecting garden designer would turn in their grave. But what happens - they come up three months later as healthy and happy as any carefully planned and nurtured plantings. And the whole thing looks absolutely beautiful: pure luck.

But it's the birds that really entertain me: a confident robin is standing on the bird table picking at some cornflakes (we only eat healthy cardboard things now) and pecking some grains out of a slice of our nutritious (hard in a day) brown bread.

He’s off as a handsome nuthatch – such a beautiful muted blue with a soft tan breast – appears and hops upside down on the nut holder that hangs beneath the table. His sharp beak makes short work of quite a few nuts – a dunnock on the ground vacuums up his crumbs – before he’s scared off: shy but greedy.

The blue tits and great tits make the most of his departure. Then the sparrows get wind of the action and pop their heads out of the box bush – they look like ladies from the harem peering out from their screens – and decide it's their turn.

I used to be so pompous about bird feeding, “birds shouldn’t be dependent on us feeding them,” I’d spout to my poor innocent clients, “we should plant plenty of species with buds and berries throughout the year” etc etc. I now realize I was denying us all hours of pleasure: what a fool. And, anyway, what is so wrong with a free meal.

Finally, they all depart as a great spotted woodpecker flies in. Dramatic or what: bold black and white plumage and a bright red cap. Then I move at the window and he’s off; very nervous character. The birds have put on a better show than any cabaret.

Now I'm feeling quite refreshed – how beautiful England is in the spring - and start tapping away: marvellous what a little simple pleasure can do for one. Down with dictatorial designers.


Sunday, 11 March 2007

Books Worth Every Penny

Bookshops in and around Cape Town are very social places. On week-ends it seems that the book store in the mall is the place to go with the family: mum and dad with the kids, grandparents and grandchildren, couples - they're all there.

One reason for their popularity may be that the shops are very user friendly places: no hushed tones, books piled high on tables, several places to sit, no raised eyebrows when a customer seems to be reading cover to cover. In the larger stores there's even a café to round off the experience.

But it's the second hand bookshops that I'm addicted to. Every village sports one and towns often have several: books in South Africa are very expensive and so there's a healthy respect for second hand books. Used paperback fiction is cheap but anything collectable – military history, the beloved classics of childhood or that denoted 'Africana' - can fetch a good price.

Whenever I'm in Cape Town I make straight for Long Street to see what's new in the quality bookshops before I allow myself to become immersed in all the second hand book stores. It's from shops such as these that I've found much of my most useful research material.

Internet research is all very well but it's only the book shop or library that comes up with the very thing that you didn't know you wanted. Odd books about plants, landscape or language, for instance, or novels of the period that I'm researching, their covers faded with age, that might help me generate the correct sense of time or place.

Another favourite haunt is Kalk Bay, just south of CT: it's an arty place in a time warp (think Southwold in Suffolk, Haight Ashbury in San Francisco or St Kilda in Melbourne) full of antique and junk shops, second hand bookshops, dark cafes and retro stores. And there's a super book shop there now, catering for the cognoscenti.

An antiquarian bookshop (it has a new sister shop in Stellenbosch) is a must because hidden in the musty interior may well be that elusive tome that will fill in the blanks. And the emporium – with its parrot and its old polished counter – never fails to turn up some small piece of memorabilia for me to get excited about.

But, this visit, it was a second hand bookshop in Somerset West that amused me the most: from the outside it looks ordinary enough but step over the portal and it's an Aladdin's cave. I have never seen so many used books in one shop: one room leads onto another and just when you think it must be the end another room leads off that.

Books cover every surface: remaindered books are piled up on the floor; books are sorted under headings on tables; alphabetically on shelves in narrow passageways. More valuable books are displayed in glass cases, children's books have a room to themselves, as do comics, and educational books reach to the ceiling: books, books, books and more books.

Think of any category and there's a place for it there. Even the path to the loo is paved with piles of books. Eventually you sight the exit – you're through to the shop next door – stagger to the counter and pay: an experience worth every penny.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

From Little Acorns Forests Grow

Flying across Africa is an awesome experience for many reasons but one of the most amazing is looking down on the vast expanses of desert. But it can also be depressing: the deserts are, well, deserted. Deforested and dry.

Reminds me of a line in a song "Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing." And, by the same token, where the heck are all the trees. In the simplest terms deforestation throughout the world has led to low rainfall, soil erosion and crop failure as we are all too well aware.

In Africa the problem has historically been that wood has been (and often still is) needed for fuel and shelter. We are not talking here of the recent - shocking and unnecessarily - wide-spread deforestation that occurs in some areas of South America or the Far East in pursuit of roads and ranches.

Everyone is aware of the long term problem of deforestation in Africa and there have been - and currently are – many worthy initiatives to plant trees and many to improve irrigation: the best of these give the power to the local population by showing them 'how to'.

There have been success stories of course but, considering that an enormous amount of money has been spent on tree planting, projects to date have been disappointing. Very often the newly planted trees don't flourish and often they die: in some areas the trees are the property of the government and farmers are not rewarded for looking after them.

But - without any large global initiative, without masses of money - some farmers in Niger have halted the encroachment of desert, have encouraged tree growth and are succeeding with their crops. They are showing the world how to do it the low-tech way.

Quite simply, instead of clearing their lands of naturally occurring young saplings when they plant their crops, they have left them to grow. After many years these indigenous saplings have grown into trees and provide shelter for the crops and, as their roots anchor the soil, erosion has reduced dramatically.

The farmers now consider these trees theirs and nurture them; the mature trees provide them with additional income from seeds or fruit and as such are more valuable as a crop than as firewood.

In addition they are planting ground cover between crops – either inter-cropping or sowing 'green manures' – both of which combat soil erosion and reduce water evaporation. Additionally, the fallen leaves and manures add organic matter to the soil which helps retain moisture and increases soil fertility.

And they are using inexpensive, simple, irrigation methods to help it all along. Low and behold, for a fraction of the cost of major tree planting initiatives, these farmers have succeeded in greening their environment and reducing poverty.

This is not to say that we shouldn't encourage tree planting wherever we can, but it does show that when farmers are empowered - when they can see and get the benefit of crops and income for themselves - they are the best innovators and custodians of their land. From little acorns forests grow.