Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Jack Frost

Only a week ago I was collecting holly to deck my boughs, humming a cheerful carol - “The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,” – and thinking how lovely everything looked in the sunshine.

And now I’m freezing! Too smug, we’ve been punished by the spirits with a toe numbing blast of cold weather. Just in time to see the old year out, or the new one in, depending on your perspective. But there is up side to the frost: everything in the garden looks so magical - chillingly beautiful.

I pull the bedroom curtains and there below me is an alien vision – every single element is frosted white: the trees, the shrubs, grass, plants and climbers. The deciduous trees are the most eye catching at first glance, bare branches silhouetted and dramatic.

The garden is – not to sound too corny – a winter wonderland. I can see where those Hollywood visions of winter landscapes come from now. They always look confected to me but now, as I look outside, I can see that they are based on fact. The garden is straight out of a fairytale.

Later, on closer inspection, every element has been transformed. Ivy leaves have silvery glass edging like sugar frosting. Each leaf stands out in relief, no longer one of many but each a tiny work of art. Their veins – hardly noticed when glossy green was the over-riding effect – appear more pronounced, a fine filigree.

And the bright green that was the Arbutus tree of last week now has what appears to be tiny glass bead decoration. The ‘green’ of the garden has been transformed by Jack Frost, the winter painter and decorator.

A corkscrew hazel – always an interesting outline – is even more charming than usual. The leafless branches stand out against the sky and the catkins that hang from them remind me of twinkling Christmas fairy lights.

The old stone ball – long ago toppled from some grand entrance pillar – looks like it’s been given the designer treatment. The moss that grows on the crumbly parts of it is more defined, more textured. It’s taken on the aspect of crusted moonscape and is eerily attractive.

And look, on an old pane of glass (that has no right to be propped up against the garden room wall) has had the Jack Frost treatment. Fern-like outlines and curling, curving shapes make a most beautiful decoration on it – there is little that can improve on nature.

I look, I admire, but then – the veritable wimp – I slink inside for a nice hot cup of tea. Beauty can give a frosty reception and be a cold companion. And so from the comfort of the fireside I appreciate Jack Frost but hope that he’s off to cast his spell elsewhere tomorrow.


Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas restoration

Today it’s Christmas Eve: as usual chaos reigns everywhere. The roads are choked with traffic, airports are frantic, the towns are packed with shoppers and people throughout the land are wondering if they will get everything done in time for Christmas morning. Then, in a flash, it’s all over.

It’s at times like these when a break outside - a breath of fresh air - is a restorative exercise. Go out and look at our beautiful countryside, soak up that superlative view or study a perfect flower: the simplicity of nature does help us get things into perspective. Christmas will be here tomorrow, gone the day after. The landscape is here to stay.

Yes, how I should hate to be without my own garden: my very own green space, even in winter. It is escape. But it needs to be nurtured to provide what I want from it. I like informal planting held in check with a firm structure: there must be plenty of food for wild life, mature trees and scented shrubs. I like the odd sculpture to juxtapose with the living landscape and strong axes.

I don’t need flowers every month of the year but I do like contrasts in foliage, both in colour and form. And I hate a sparse winter garden and bare earth. Evergreens are feature I think it essential to include in the English garden. It would be very bare without. Clipped shrubs are a particular favourite. They give a crisp outline, a foil for lush, overblown perennials. And in winter they really come into their own, strong geometric shapes in the cold winter light. Snow sprinkled sculptures in the bitterest weather.

Berries and winter flowering shrubs can also make a dramatic statement in these cold winter days. The bright yellow and architectural form of the mahonia is one of my favourite winter shrubs: the vivid berries of the pyracantha a cheerful addition. And one of the most attractive at the moment is the strawberry tree – Arbutus unedo – with its pretty little fruits hanging off the branches.

And I’m feeling as pressured as everyone else so I’m off out into the garden to chop down some ivy. Nothing quite like a little controlled destruction. If I can find some ivy with fruiting bodies that will be perfect for my mantelpiece. Long strands will look pretty draped over picture frames and a big bunch looks great just stuffed in an old bucket. And if I’m very lucky I might find some holly with berries that the birds have missed.

Hopefully, when I’ve had time to slow down, when I’ve brought a little green inside, I shall feel better. Not quite at one with nature, not quite divorced from the crazy tasks we set ourselves at times like these, but definitely a little restored. Ready to enjoy a very merry Christmas.


Saturday, 13 December 2008

Gweilo, A memoir of a Hong Kong childhood

Martin Booth's autobiography, Gweilo, was written at the end of his life and covers three years of his young life in Hong Kong. For research, he relied on memory and a scrap book as well as visits to Hong Kong as an adult.

Not that this is a problem, but the groupie who chose and presented Gweilo probably had a lack of objectivity with regard to this autobiography: as a child she too had travelled on a liner on her way to an exotic new life abroad. She too had been allowed an enormous amount of freedom, of the sort that parents today would shudder at the thought of. So many of the experiences in this autobiography echoed those of her own childhood.

But she chose the book because she felt we would all enjoy it. And we did: it’s an easy and enjoyable enough read. Another of our group has lived in Hong Kong and was delighted with Booth’s descriptions of places. And for those of us who have only visited it is also possible to recognize many of the places that crop up in the book. There is an authenticity to the descriptions of Hong Kong: the places totally believable and colourful.

Many of the stories recounted in the memoir must be apocryphal – they feel it anyway – and quite obviously he could not possibly recall the conversations he writes about. But this brings us to the whole question of ‘what is memoir?’ In his case it is a construct: a reconstruction of a period (1940’s/50’s), its mores, the culture of Hong Kong, its atmosphere and family relationships.

The style of the autobiography is a bit of a hybrid: it veers between travelogue and memoir. He may have chosen style this to beef up the landscape and life in Hong Kong for his readers. I understand that in his other novels he includes facts for the reader so perhaps this is just his way.

I’m aware too, from my father’s descriptions, that Booth’s depiction of the boat journey across the oceans was spot on. And he conveys very well the sense of freedom that all children in the Colonies (and in Britain at that time) enjoyed. His descriptions of places in Hong Kong are colourful and lively, and he manages to get across the magic and excitement of his childhood there.

And Booth captures the moment too: there is a description of his visit to an opium den in the Forbidden City that is an experience that could never happen now. As such it encapsulates a period in the history of Hong Kong that is quite unique. Being British, and in the Services, gave those who were posted there an elevated sense of their own importance and this was true of his father.

His father may well have been pompous and a bully but the one thing in the book that I did not like was his biased portrayal of him. The young Booth was totally in thrall to his mother: she was his hero. His mother was Peter Pan, his father Captain Hook. He admired her - and not without reason - as he portrays her as a woman ahead of her time. But, like many war-time babies, he had spent his early years alone with his mother, his father’s return an unwelcome one.

He shows us a mother who derided her husband, and championed her son. And his character assassination of his father sits uncomfortably on the page. I should have hoped that at stage he wrote the book, and having experienced fatherhood himself, he might have shown us a little more insight into their relationship or at least let the reader make up their own mind about his parents and their relationships.

Gweilo is, after all, as much a book about his parent’s marriage as about his childhood exploits in Hong Kong. As such it captures the time perfectly, as well as the excitement of a childhood spent in an outpost of the British Empire. A good book to buy if you’re planning to visit Hong Kong or want to reminisce about your time spent there.