Monday, 29 September 2008

Michaelmas, an autumn festival

Today is Michaelmas Day: known in the Christian church as the festival of St Michael and All Angels it is, more simply, the feast of St Michael, the Prince of Angels. The Archangel Michael was a scary being. No messenger he. No, he commanded the War in Heaven. He could be portrayed as quite terrible in that old sense of the word: causing terror.

Marble statues of angels are pure white, beautiful and perfect of face and body. And paintings too show us angels with beautific expressions, golden auras, flowing white robes and golden wings and so we think of them as guiding man kindly between birth and death. There is supposed to be a unity of men and angels, the natural and the supernatural, and in days or yore this unity was celebrated on Michaelmas Day.

But the festival of St Michael that most of us are aware of is that of celebrating the end of harvest. To quote my blog of last year: 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.

You can simply look in my blog archive (in the right hand column) to read what more I said then so I shan’t repeat myself. Very often the only time we remember Michaelmas now is when we think of the Michaelmas daisy. The daisy was that simple white flower with a yellow centre first mentioned in literature by Chaucer. The cultivated ones we know best are the asters in shades of rose red and varying shades of mauve that are such a welcome splash of colour in our borders at this time of year.

These perennials – given some sun and half decent soil – will grow nearly anywhere including coastal regions. But, beware, they can become very annoyingly invasive and absolute stink to get rid of. However, they are like manna from heaven to wildlife and worth giving a forgotten corner to just for that. Bees, butterflies and seed loving birds like finches absolutely love them, as do they the sedums that are so colourful now.

The sight of Michaelmas daisies in flower reminds us that autumn is approaching. Rosy apples fall from the tree, cobnuts and hazel nuts (those the squirrels have not filched) are collected, blackberries fruit in the hedgerows and leaves begin to turn colour. John Keats (1795-1821) describes this time of year beautifully in his ode, To Autumn. Here is the first verse:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


Sunday, 21 September 2008

The Girls by Lori Lansens

The groupie who chose The Girls for our September book group meeting said she did so because the novel is, in her opinion, an amazing feat of imagination. And very well written too. Like the subject or not, there can be few who dispute either of these statements.

Rose and Ruby are born naturally but emerged joined at the head. Their teenage mother – who must have been in a terrible state after such a birth – disappears and the saintly nurse, Lovey, who delivered them, wins guardianship. With her Slovakian husband, Stash, she raises them on her Ontario farm to live as independent and normal a life as is possible.

A potential reader could be forgiven for wondering:
a. Who wants to read about craniopagus twins
b. Do I want to read what can only be a heart-rending and possibly mawkish story
c. Can such an extraordinary tale end in anything but grief.
I know I thought these things.

But Lori Lansens manages to pull it off: the story begins when the girls are 29 years old, and Rose (the clever one) about to start her autobiography. She convinces Ruby (the pretty one) to write her side of the story too and this is the way the novel is structured: Rose’s romantic chapters interspersed now and then with Ruby’s down-to-earth ones.

The twins share a major artery and can never be separated. Rose has to carry her sister on her hip making Ruby appear to be more reliant on Rose than vice versa. But Lansens manages to convey how much the girls rely on each other - spiritually as well as physically - and how both have to compromise to survive life as a conjoined twin. Eventually, the weaker of the twins emerges as the stronger.

The theme of the novel could be seen to be all about connections and dependency: that of Rose and Ruby is of course obvious but there is also their dependency and connection to Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, and theirs for each other; their neighbour Mrs Merkel and her lost son Larry, Stash and his lost family in Slovakia, their ‘cousin’ Nick and the girls.

Lansens throws in some surprising – and not altogether successful extras – Rose has a child and Stash takes the family to a weird family gathering in Slovakia; Mrs Merkel and Stash have an affair. And when the character Nick – a useless ex-con – undergoes a complete character change when he begins to care for the twins it seems a rather obvious tale of rehabilitation.

But Lansens manages to convey that Rose and Ruby, with their separate brains, personalities, interests and views are like any pair of sisters could be. And what she also convinces us of is the deep love they have for each other, for their adoptive parents, the parents love for the girls and the deep feelings they all have of belonging and caring for the landscape they live in.

Soon we are convinced that the lives of these conjoined twins are lives that have been worth the living, that pity is not part of it and that humour, love and achievement is. It is, finally, a difficult book to put down.


Monday, 8 September 2008

Summer End

We have had a rotten summer here in the UK. It must be the wettest on record. We did make the most of the odd week of sunshine and grasped greedily at the occasional sunny day, only too aware that summer can be elusive. And we were right.

With an economic turndown and a growing awareness of carbon footprints – well carbon wings – many families took their annual holiday in dear old Blighty this year. By now they will remember why they usually holiday somewhere the weather is more predictable and reliable.

The only benefit has been that the garden has not needed watering. In fact it is looking very, very green. However, the blowsy and pastel colours have now gone from most of the beds and borders: a few roses throw up a welcome colourful bloom and one or two perennials soldier on but that’s about it.

But thank goodness I’ve got my hot bed which has really come into its own: I developed it about five years ago using shrubs from around the garden, interspersing them with perennials. In a year it looked established, now it looks really mature.

The backbone is a purple hazel (Corylus avellana purpurea) which has grown to quite a tree. The purple leaves are a great foil for the green border that is its backdrop and a marvellous foil for the orange and yellow flowering perennials in front of it. A Golden Elder (Sambucus aurea), and Pheasants Eye (Leycesteria formosa) provide dramatic deciduous colour and an evergreen Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) and Mahonia complete the shrubs.

Tall grasses (Miscanthus sinensis, Stipa gigantea and Calamagrotis) and low bronze mounds of Carex comans add movement and lightness whilst a large claret phormium and smaller rust-red cordyline provide strong vertical elements.

In July, in between yellow and orange daisies of rudbeckias and heleniums, orange day lilies and red hot pokers provided bright splashes of colour. For ground cover there were mounds of flowering geraniums and Lady’s mantle and a very thick layer of wood chippings, weathered to a pleasing dark brown.

But now, when everything else in the garden is looking faded and sad, the dead-headed daisies and geraniums in the hot border are beginning to flower again and the silver feather grass has beautiful silky heads. And suddenly some bright beacons burst into flower too, warm enough to cheer a failing heart: bright flame coloured crocosmia makes a stunning statement, lime green eucomis looks wonderfully exotic and a beautiful late-flowering toffee coloured kniphofia is elegant and unusual.

And these all remind me so much of days out at Kirstenbosch - the South African world famous botanical garden in Cape Town - that I find my spirits lifting despite the wet and grey skies. Summer is ending with a splash - in every way!