Friday, 29 August 2008

Favourite Books

It’s August; holiday time. Our book group doesn’t meet in the school summer holidays. This is historical. In fact, as our children are no longer young, we can actually sometimes manage to finish a book at a sitting even though they are at home. We don’t really need that break any more. So when one groupie invited us all for a social evening – albeit with a literary theme - we were all up for it. And everyone did their homework.

The suggestion was that we all note down our favourite books. I was one of those who was actually up against it time-wise and so cheated by reading out my blog (The 3 R’s: reading, reading and re-reading) of February 2007. Strangely – or perhaps not - most people mirrored my views. Nearly everyone chose books that reflected different stages in their lives.

Enid Blyton came out as a clear winner in the childhood choice: today it would be Rowling for much the same reasons. They were books with a clear structure, a story that was full of excitement with a good moral underlying it all. Many said that it was the Enid Blyton books that got them reading: the plots are sequential – not too many time shifts - so it’s not necessary to re-read great sections every time the story is picked up again.

A few of the same books cropped up as ones we enjoyed as teenagers: The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mocking Bird for example. And then most of us seemed to have enjoyed books such as The Great Gatsby and Gone With the Wind, and easily digestible books such as those by the Mitfords, Laurie Lee or H E Bates.

I was surprised, though, at how many of us chose Thomas Hardy as a favourite author. So many people immediately dismiss his works as too lengthy and descriptive. Perhaps it’s because Hardy was often the exam choice when we were at school and maybe because we had to read the whole book we got a taste for it.

On the other hand, no-one mentioned Dickens: another author who often gets a bad press as ‘difficult’ to read. Nothing could be further from the truth. His novels are a doddle, amusing and colourful. George Elliot, on the other hand, cropped up in several groupies’ choices.

Overall, Midnight’s Children – which had been one of our book group choices - was the clear favourite. Others that several groupies chose were My Name is Asher Lev, The God of Small Things, Wuthering Heights, anything by Margaret Attwood or Jane Austen.

For re-reading Dorothy Dunnant was mentioned by a few, as was The Alexandria Quartet, Music & Silence by Rose Tremain and The Mill Stone by Margaret Drabble. Latterly – so it must be an age thing – several groupies are enjoying biographies: two we’ve read in the group - Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire and Samuel Pepys – were both mentioned by more than one member.

It was a very interesting exercise and a great way to remind each other of books we had loved, those that we should read and those we intend to: a very successful evening altogether.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Lammas festival

What a lovely word, Lammas; it’s derived from Anglo-Saxon and means ‘loaf-mass’, and it was one of the four agricultural festivals. Held on the first Sunday in August it was when loaves made form the first ripened corn would traditionally have been consecrated.

Lammas was a heathen Anglo-Saxon festival, which ebbed and flowed in popularity but completely disappeared at the Reformation. Many believe that prior to that Lammas was the Celtic festival of Lughnasadhl – the festival of the Sun God. Latterly, the Church of England has begun to celebrate agricultural festivals such as this one again.

But in all farming communities the harvest, cutting of the corn, the in-gathering, has always been an event to celebrate. Up until the middle of the last century harvest manikins - corn dollies – were still made from last ears of cut corn to lament the Corn Spirit. This corn dolly was then ploughed back into the soil the following year to ensure a good crop. We are less superstitious now.

Now that the wheat is grown in enormous, hedge-less fields and cut by one man in a giant machine all the community involvement and romance of the harvest has disappeared. Up until a hundred years ago there would have been no serious work on the farm for a week after the harvest was brought in. It was Harvest Home: time to give thanks for the safely gathered crop after all the hard work and worry that the weather might spoil it.

Bringing in the crop involved everyone on the farm, other farms, and villagers too. The hay had to be reaped, tied, loaded, carted and stored. The wagon and horses used to carry the corn would have been decorated with ribbons and flowers, with the children lifted on top, and the journey home accompanied with songs and laughter. At home there would be beer and cake before the corn was taken to be stacked.

In the evening it was time to celebrate at length: a supper of roast beef and plum-pudding with plenty of beer and cider to wash it down would have been followed by an evening of speeches and songs, rhymes and ballads. When men worked the land with their hands and their horses, when they relied on what they reaped to keep them for the coming year, they appreciated the results and celebrated their accomplishments. I’m all for progress but we’ve lost a lot of joy in the process.

But in literature we still come across the stories of bringing in the harvest, take Thomas Hardy’s novels for one. And in art we have plenty of reminders, Constable immediately springs to mind. And the Corn Spirit of pagan times has been called John Barleycorn, celebrated in ballads throughout Britain.

Robert Burns wrote a song based on old ballads to John Barleycorn – barley of course was used to brew beer which is why so many pubs are called The John Barleycorn and why the teetotal Burns was agin him – and here are the first and last verses.

There were three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand,
And may his great prosperity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland.

In many parts of the country there are John Barleycorn festivals again – perhaps we are trying to get back to our roots after all and celebrate our crops again. I’ll drink to that!