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.