Friday, 24 December 2010

Snow is for the Birds

The first unexpected snowfall in November was magical. A white fluffy blanket covered the landscape, trees were dusted with icing sugar and everything was beautiful. Pure and unsullied. A still and serene scene. Progress of the odd car was muffled, the sky was on mute and only the very occasional murmur of a snowplough or tractor was heard. Bliss. For a while.

To start with I couldn't get out. What to do about it? Nothing. Make the most of it. I loved the peace and quiet. I was even glad of the chance to catch up on all those things I should have done long ago but had not because I was too busy rushing about. I wrote, I filed, I sorted. My telephone and internet access meant I was able to contact whomever I chose. Realising that I may not get out in time to buy presents I ordered them on the internet and managed to write all my Christmas cards. Wrapping up warm I could still walk Freddie.

Nevertheless, I managed to waste the precious time available to put my house in order. And I lay the blame fairly and squarely on the birds. Right outside my kitchen (where I sit up close to my beloved aged AGA) I have set up the bird feeders so that from any window I can watch them. The lesser spotted woodpeckers came regularly and, although they can polish off a whole bag of nuts in a day, they are still a welcome visitor.

At one time there were two on separate feeders and a green woodpecker (who usually is usually seen eating beetles and worms from the lawn) creeping up the nearby oak tree. More insects populate an oak than any other tree and in this weather they are a rich source of food. The blackbirds polished off all the pyracantha berries and the Tits pecked the mahonia flowers to shreds.

On the feeders there are mostly Great Tits, Robins and a whole busy little band of Blue Tits. Dunnocks - also known as Tree Sparrows - are also regulars, picking up whatever falls fro the feeders. But only one Sparrow to date. And where is the Nuthatch? The snow finally forced more than the usual visitors to take advantage of what was on offer: thrushes, jays, collared doves. But the undoubted star was a Coal Tit. At first I was not sure. But soon I was able to distinguish it quite quickly by its distinctive white Mohican haircut.

This tiny bird with his highwayman's mask is as nervous as the woodpecker. I was so excited. Pathetic, but it’s the simplest things. I wasted hours, like a groupie at the stage door, waiting to catch a glimpse of it. Set up my camera and hovered. I can only take photos through the glass and cannot work out the setting to use. It's not a professional camera but still, I manage to get some surprising shots.

Then, one day at dusk (is that a non-sequitur?) I noticed an odd shaped thing on the feeder. Peering out into the gloom I saw it was a mouse, big ears listening, small feet gripping, munching greedily. He had found a ready supply of rich fatty nuts to boost his diet. The camera was there, waiting on its tripod, and I took a shot or two. They are not very good but a record nevertheless. What terrific entertainment these visitors have been, the highlight of a snow bound week.

But of course this whole 'stay indoors warm and safe – don't go out unless strictly necessary, why put yourself and others at risk', sort of thing palled. We had finally eaten all those tins dated 1999 from the back of the cupboard, and the boxes of home-made mystery main courses from the freezer. I couldn't get to an appointment in London, failed to make a party in our market town and missed my Pilates classes. Driving was hazardous.

Finally, our rural roads became more manageable. At last, 'Life' would be back to normal. A trip to the supermarket was an event – sad, I know – and we even managed to get to a department store to buy a present or two. Then, on the way home, it started to snow. Again. Snow on snow. At this rate neither the Prodigal nor the Princess will be able to get to us, we won't be able to get to them, and Christmas will be just Best Beloved, me and Freddie. And the birds of course!


Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Glasgow Boys & Treasures From Budapest

The Royal Academy have had some good shows: Treasures from Budapest was a stunning exhibition, big, bold, far-reaching, impressive but I enjoyed the current smaller exhibition, The Glasgow Boys, more.

The Glasgow Boys – a loose group of talented young painters in the late 1800's not all of whom were Scottish - wanted to change the usual sombre style prevalent of the time in Scottish painting. The sort that was either heroic or sublime. They chose more realistic subject matter such as farm workers or animals.

Their style was not the highly finished and honed painting. It was more impressionistic and they copied Whistler's style (one of their heroes). The paintings showed the subject in-focus whilst allowing the distance to be out of focus. They did not necessarily paint au plein aire as the Impressionists did but they did sketch outdoors and the feel of the finished paintings is very naturalistic and not at all laboured.

I love their work, it's as simple as that. It is so accessible and easy on the eye. In fact there were times I must have looked a love-struck idiot, so bowled over was I by some of the paintings. The light in the paintings is appealing without the viewer realising. And these artists were so accomplished that no matter how impressionistic the subjects are, yet, with only the merest (it seemed) of detail a whole look or personality can come through.

George Henry's work is particularly appealing as is Lavery's, The Tennis Party (very Manet), and Guthries's goose girl in Pastures New, a painting that manages to give a sense of movement with the trick of severing the leading goose. Not something traditionalists would ever have done. And in some paintings the subject nearly fills the frame which was not a traditional way of painting a subject either.

The group's early paintings are of rural landscapes and those that people them. Fields and farm animals had not been the stuff of popular paintings. But, as the artists progressed, their subject matter changed and they moved into suburbian landscapes and eventually many settled on portraits. Even artists must live and the middle classes wanted paintings they could identify with and admire.

Those artists that travelled to Japan embraced that culture although not the stark and spare style of Japanese painting. Some became more flamboyant and took to rich colours such as can be seen in Henry's painting of cattle, A Galloway Landscape, and the one he did with Hornel called The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (on the poster for the show). You could be forgiven for thinking it was North American.

However, on the whole, animals remained a popular subject with them. The Burrell in Glasgow is a great gallery and that is where I first saw Crawhall's work. I was taken with it then, and this exhibition has reminded me what a good artist he was. He was one of the early 'Glasgow Boys', and painted marvellous water birds and working animals. These are fully worked up paintings but, like many brilliant cartoonists, he can also embody a whole subject in a quick sketch of a line or two. What a talented lot they were.


Saturday, 27 November 2010

Dyslexia – go to it Gove – get 'em reading.

Reading should not only inform, it should be a pleasure. Can you imagine what it must be like as a young child to know that everybody else has cracked this thing called Reading and you just can't get it?

Can you imagine what it would be like as an adult not to read a novel for pleasure, a document for information, a safety notice? Not to get a job? Ask anyone who is severely dyslexic and they will most probably not tell you. Imagine why. Throughout their school life they will have been labelled lazy, stupid or simply slow.

If an obviously inquisitive, intelligent child who has been having regular lessons cannot read up to the level of his 'reading age' by the time he is seven years old then there is a reason. He is inquisitive and intelligent – he should have a reading age two years above his chronological age (weird way to assess these things, I know, but who are we?)

Talking this week about those children who are well behind in their reading, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is quite right when he says "more of the same type of teaching will not be of use to them". For a dyslexic child in particular, a remedial teacher is not suitable – these kids are bright and their specific word blindness needs a specialist teacher.

They (and all those having problems) need to be assessed by a specialist. Teachers are not trained to do so. A dyslexic child (or adult) needs a reading and writing programme especially designed for them. The extra lessons they need are usually carried out in small groups lasting about 45 minutes. Depending on the severity of their dyslexia they may need one or two lessons a week, for a couple of years.

After this, most of these children should be well above their reading age in a couple of years. Once they are reading fluently every subject is available to them. Given this sort of help from an early age, these children should go on to be above average performers reaching university standard.

Many will choose sciences or engineering (which involve less prose!) and their different way of interpreting information can result in particularly creative academics. Think of those who were labelled dumb – the mathematical genius and physicist, Albert Einstein; the electrical scientist, Thomas Edison, who was terrible at maths; Paul McCready, the aeronautical engineer: just the sort technical talent that this country is crying out for!

But given no help, most will be frustrated, many will become withdrawn or resigned, some disruptive and a few will, without qualifications, use their wits to nefarious ends.

And those who do not shine at something to get them through – perhaps mathematics or sports – will probably suffer from low-self esteem. Not to identify those who need help to learn to read, is not only a waste of intelligence and a loss to our talent pool, but a shame on our school system. So, Go to it Gove!


Friday, 12 November 2010

Pumpkin Soup

When the North Wind Doth Blow, that is just the time for hot warming soup. Only last week I was drooling over some Apple Cake on Carla's website and it has occurred to me that I could share some of my grandmother's recipes on mine. Being South African, pumpkin featured in her cooking quite regularly.

Last week-end, after the bonfire and fireworks, family and a couple of friends came back to enjoy a kitchen supper of pumpkin soup, cheese and lovely granary bread. The great thing about this soup is that it can be made in advance, and even frozen.

Now I must explain something about my cooking: I love food but I don't love spending hours making it. So I plan in advance how to make it the easiest, quickest way possible: that means I cheat and take short cuts. But only if I can get the desired effect.

Pumpkin soup is easy but it is also time consuming. And peeling a pumpkin is a pain. Most recipes suggest boiling it but baking gives a much richer flavour and is easier. Firstly, you don't have to peel it (yet) and, secondly, you don't have to hover over the stove.

Pumpkins come in all shapes and sizes and you can equally use butternut squash or any orange fleshed variety. The recipe can also be adapted for other starchy root veg such as carrots, parsnips or swede.

Ingredients: 2kg pumpkin; 2 large onions; 2 good quality chicken or vegetable stock cubes. 2 x 284mil/10floz cream or milk. Halve this amount if you only want to make enough for 4 or 6 people.

A. Chop a large pumpkin (about 2 kg) into sections, and again into smaller, even sized wedges, each side about four inches (10 cm x 10cm).

Rub a non-stick roasting pan with olive oil, and rub the cut sides of the pumpkin pieces too. Then lay them in the pan and drizzle another little bit of oil over them. Bake for about an hour at 180 degrees. Turn them once half way through if you can be bothered. Now stick your feet up and read for half-an-hour.

B. Peel and chop 2 large onions finely and put in a lidded container with a big blob of salted butter and microwave for 5 minutes at 600 watts. It's a great method because you don't have any onion smell to speak of! Check it, and cook another few minutes if necessary. They should be soft and translucent.

Take out the pumpkin and cool slightly - the flesh should be soft but not squishy. Meanwhile, boil the kettle and make 750-800 ml chicken or vegetable stock using a good tasty variety of cubes, like Knorr, according to the instructions. Now you should be able to cut the peel off the cool pumpkin very easily.

C.In the blender put a couple of pieces pumpkin, a large scoop of onions and a splosh of stock and liquidize. Empty into a large saucepan and repeat. Add lots of grated pepper (but no salt as the stock cube and butter will have enough) and some freshly grated nutmeg.

If there are less than eight of you, divide the mixture in two and box one for the freezer. Result: one ready cooked meal for the next time you are in a hurry but want to impress with a lovingly made home-made soup!

Your soup is actually cooked when you think about it, but warm it through and the flavours will blend. Before serving (or after defrosting) add 284ml/10 fluid ounces double cream. If you are cooking the whole amount then you can also add 284ml/10 fluid ounces single cream. Yes, I know, but.....I never said it was low fat! If fat is a complete no-no use more stock instead of cream, or use semi-skimmed milk, but it won't have that unctuous, rich creaminess (nor the calories of course!). Serve with croutons and garnish with coriander leaves, parsley or green pumpkin seeds.

So there you are: as easy as ABC. This is the basic recipe but there are variations: 2-4 tablespoons of sherry added at the last minute should keep the boozy cooks happy. Those who love spices can rub the pumpkin pieces with ground cumin and coriander before baking or add cinnamon and nutmeg to the onion before liquidizing. Enjoy!


PS for gardeners: when you take out the pumpkin seeds, pull off the flesh, dry and keep the seeds to plant next year!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Boring, beautiful, pretentious, profound – all adjectives our groupies used to describe this bestselling novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The author, Muriel Barbery, is French which explains quite a bit about this book.

Philosophy for a start. All French schoolchildren study philosophy, it seems, so they would all be au fait with the concepts running through the book and abstract thought. In addition, the author took a degree in philosophy – so obviously a favourite subject of hers. Therefore, when certain philosophical themes and ideas appear in the book French readers will immediately understand the gist of what Ms Barbery – or rather her middle aged protagonist, Renee - is trying to say. British readers may, instead, decide that the novel is pretentious, absurdist or surreal.

'Absurdity’ – which the young protagonist, Paloma, mentions - is the idea of putting things together that don’t make sense. But not that many British novel readers have read Satre or many of the French philosophists. And it is totally understandable if we do not grasp the philosophical appreciation of ‘beauty’ - the life saving importance of seeing a camellia flower on a bed of moss for instance – that is a central theme to the book.

The cruellest criticism made was that the philosophical rantings of Renee were that they were not simply pretentious, but ‘padding’ and boring. For the first half of the book, anyway. Another was that the story came over as spasmodic and episodic and that the author – as Renee – was intrusive. So far, not so good.

However, the language, the words, and the stylish use of them in this book is absolutely wonderful. I gloried in reading good English (fortunately it has been very well translated). One of Paloma’s profound thoughts (she has quite a few) is that “when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language”. Indeed, she finishes by saying "pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment not the beauty of language.” Now, you can see how the pretentious tag came to be coined, but it did make for beautiful writing and reading.

I had the feeling throughout the book that if only I were better read, and very clever as well, I might understand the philosophy more. Some philosophical posers (as: when is a table not a table but just an idea) were way above my head. But I thoroughly enjoyed being forced to think. I do like a book that is not just handed to me on a plate – or should it be, on a page!

Some of the characters were unbelievable, but others were so well drawn that they were recognisable types. That we should not judge people by their appearance or their occupation, is an idea that constantly needs reinforcing, for it is a trap that we all fall into too easily. And the idea of lonely people finding kindred spirits is very touching.

Was the novel a book group success? Fifty/fifty. Those that were reading it for the first time thoroughly enjoyed it, barring a few provisos. Those that were reading it for a second time were disappointed, finding it clich├ęd and too ‘clever’ by half. So buy The Elegance of the Hedgehog, read it, enjoy it and then give it away to someone who can enjoy it afresh.


Sunday, 17 October 2010

Writing Research - starting and stopping

Writing a book takes time. Writing a blog takes time. Writing a blog does not take a fraction of the time it takes to write a book. Nevertheless, it takes time. And every minute I can spare I need to concentrate on my manuscript. So even an hour spent writing a blog is an hour not spent 'writing'.

So I hope this explains why I haven’t written a blog for nearly three weeks now. But I have decided that if I am going to write a blog I should do it regularly or not at all. So here I am. And this blog is in the form of a reminder to myself.

I have to watch myself with my writing: my trouble has been getting sidelined – not only by blogs – by research. Writing my book might go like this:
1. Research
2. Synopsis
3. Draft
4. Another draft
5. Which brings up the need for more research
4. Another draft
6. Which touches on things not researched. More research
7. Rejigging draft
8 Complete reorganization of chapters
9 Which brings up the need to bridge and things not researched. More research

And when the research is fascinating, illuminating or even bizarre it is such fun that far too much time is spent on it instead of writing. I have now had to make rules for myself. Here is the latest: finish writing the last five chapters that are only sketched. Then one more complete read through what I’ve done - making corrections and refining as I go. And only then will I check any more facts which may bring up the need for a little more research.

I have set myself a time limit to finish whatever. This is really necessary because getting the ms ready to send out takes quite a lot of time and waiting for it to come back takes even longer. The final draft needs to be printed without any mistakes, it must look the biz, and as at the moment I am between agents (in other words I don’t have one to ‘sell it’ for me) it needs a good letter with it.

But time spent researching is not my only problem. My little study is now so packed with books, drafts, print outs, photographs, pens, paper, filing, files, piles, piles of piles that I have to ease myself in between it all to sit at my computer. I know I should tidy up, but tidying up takes time, and it’s time I begrudge spending when I could be writing.

And then there are those other things that keep getting in the way. Work and jobs. Earning a crust and making the bread: other responsibilities. It must be absolute luxury and a joy to be able to work nine to five writing. No distractions, no demands, just tap, tap, tap until it’s done. But to do that one needs a good advance. And that is not going to happen this time round so I better just get stuck in and stop researching.


PS I have often been told by aspiring novelists that they have trouble ‘starting’. But I think there is a simple remedy to this. Just do it. Write down any old thing. Content is immaterial at this point. After you’ve written a few pages you’ve started. Simples! What is more difficult is knowing when to stop!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Hidcote and Gardens

I haven’t been to Hidcote – the garden created by Lawrence Johnstone in the 1920’s – for years. But up in the Cotswolds for the week-end, and staying close by, I thought seeing it again too good an opportunity to miss.

I dragged Best Beloved along (Do I know Hidcote? Lots of clipped greens, you love it!) and talked some reluctant relatives into visiting it too (What’s so special about Hidcote? It’s one of the most important 20th century English gardens!). And of course they all thought it was wonderful.

I’m a little out of practice, garden visiting. Time – or rather lack of it – is the reason I give but in fact there’s something else. Ennui. I’m bored with too many gardens that are simply, well, boringly nice. I have lost the expectation and excitement of discovery. Beautifully planted or wonderfully maintained, over designed or sparsely planted - it’s all garden rooms and colour themed beds. Everyone is expert enough but not necessarily creative in the process.

When asked by some clients what great thing I think they should do with their garden I have even found myself saying, on more than one occasion, “Well, I rather like it how it is! It’s a real garden”. An informal mix of trees and grass, perennials and shrubs. Talking myself out of a job – am I mad? Possibly, but the fact is I think needed to experience a stimulating garden again that works.

Fortunately, visiting Hidcote once more has re-kindled some of my former enthusiasm. This is a grand garden without being Grand. Here the walls are living hedges and not balustraded walls. Hedged enclosures are planted to give shelter not simply as fashion. Pathways are often grass, evergreens are there to give structure. The borders are richly planted – the red borders particulary stunning at the moment – and tall leggy plants imaginatively under-planted.

There are long vistas leading to impressive views or structures, and there is formality, but these formal features are tempered with Johnstone’s creative choice of planting. Hedges are clipped but not always in yew or box; often they are hornbeam or holly, lime or copper beech, sometimes a combination which gives a more informal tapestry effect.

And quite often openings in them are extremely narrow, surprising the visitor leaving a wide axis and finding himself in a modest and intimate enclosure. Detours favour orchards or small shady woodland ways. And always it is the natural landscape that informs his design. That third essential garden ingredient (after grass and trees), water, is slotted effortlessly into the landscape.

Where the ground is flat, formality (with a small ‘f’) and geometry reigns with straight lines or a perfectly circular pond. Where land falls away there are natural flowing lines with informal planting alongside naturalistic streams and winding woodland paths. And as these lead onto the wider landscape a feeling of unity is achieved, essential in a country garden. It is a joy.

After Hidcote, the garden at Chastleton House was a complete change. The house is a treasure – more of that another time – and the garden is simple. Refreshingly, it has not been fashioned into a recreation of a Tudor or later one, but left at it was when the property was acquired by the National Trust.

As such, it definitely falls into my “I rather like it the way it is” bracket. Enough of the bones are there to see where it began, but it has settled gracefully into its setting. One can imagine an English family in the 18th century using this country garden in much the same way a family of today would do.

And perhaps that is the nub of it - gardens like Hidcote are for looking at and gardens like Chastleton are for using. In our own gardens - if not done well - the first can be stilted but the second can be too scruffy for some. A great deal of creativity is needed to combine the two. And I’m glad to say that these garden visits have enthused me enough to get out in my own, dig out my wellies and practice a little of what I preach.


Thursday, 2 September 2010

Somerset Maugham in Short

Somerset Maugham’s short stories were chosen as summer reading for our Book Group. Now, I previously have read all these, but so many years ago that it was good to be reminded to read them again. How glad I was to still find a Penguin paperback copy of the Collected Short Stores, Volume I, on my bookshelves. But Oh! the print size of these old Penguins! Tiny. And I mean eye squintingly miniscule.

I could have read it in hardback but these are just as difficult to cope with because you can’t tuck a hardback book into your handbag. Never mind, I soldiered on, taking it on the plane when I went on holiday. And short stories are perfect for travel, when time available is often in short chunks. And they are equally good for bedtime reading – just long enough to be interesting, just short enough to finish before the eyelids droop.

But, along with most of the groupies, I don’t think that Maugham’s short stories are best appreciated when read in one go. They are just too dense, too meaty. And maybe too samey at one sitting. But extremely good they are, no doubt at all.

We were all agreed that his plain style, good dialogue and use of the vernacular, wonderfully succinct descriptions and humour all combined to produce superb writing. And his skilled timing – especially the twists at the climax of each tale – is nothing short of brilliant. We found some of the writing dated, and his use of words sometimes unusual, but none of it detracted from the quality of the work.

Maugham’s output was nothing short of exhausting. Churning them out at an amazing rate he still managed to maintain the quality. Travelling widely across the globe stimulated him and provided ideas for stories. Many of those set in exotic places are colourful but I particularly like a less exotic short one set in England - The Luncheon - possibly because I know a few people like the lady in it! The tale is an excellent example of his ability to capture people and their idiosyncratic behaviour and the clever way he manages to make such a story amusing.

Our host was reading the biography of William Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings and quoted passages to us. She thought it extremely good and it certainly informed her presentation. But I suspect one would have to like the writer as a man a great deal to read and enjoy such a tome. And most of us did not.

Knowing about Maugham’s miserable childhood explains a lot about him, but it does not explain his snobbishness and intolerance, even racism. Perhaps he was just a man of his time; these attitudes are often apparent – in writers like Evelyn Waugh for example - in class attitudes of the time. Very thankfully, such attitudes are seldom found in writers today but, sadly, there are few authors today that can hold a candle to the writings of Somerset Maugham.


Saturday, 14 August 2010

John Singer Sargent Exhibition

John Singer Sargent has long been one of my favourite artists, and paintings of the beach and sea one of my favourite topics. Probably because I was brought up near the seaside. Memories of sandy sandwiches and sunny beach scenes are fond ones. Maybe not the sand in the sandwiches but the idea that you just ate them straight from the tupperware box, beaker of tooth-rot orange squash in the other hand, looking out at the vast panorama of sand and sea.

The exhibition, Sargent and the Sea is on at the Royal Academy in London at the moment. I know him best for his portraits, especially those gloriously romantic, period pieces of ladies in long frocks. But these are marine paintings. He was a marine painter in his early years and his family had at one time been ship owners in Massachusetts.

Sargent’s painting, On the Sands, reminds me of one of Vanessa Bell's paintings. It’s the light and black detail that really stands out, although it must be said that it is so much more delicate than Bell’s. More Monet like. The seated figure, the distant bathing huts, the whole scene so white it’s blue. Just marvellous.

And most people will know the centre piece of this show, his famous painting, En Route pour la peche, 1878, the painting of the French women setting out to fish. Apart from being beautifully painted it’s the light and the atmosphere that he manages to imbue the scene with that is so moving. These women are dawdling, chatting to the children as they saunter through the wet sand, baskets for collecting the oysters tucked under their arms. Very natural looking, to us, but probably totally unnatural!

For example, in the exhibition there is what may have been a first go at painting fisherwomen, Fisherwomen Returning, 1877. This time dark figures, black sky, back view, trudging through the water, weighed down with their baskets full of oysters. What a different take on the occupation. This painting brings home just how cold and hard this work must have been: nothing romantic or light in it.

Sargent’s close friend was Monet, and you can see the influence of French Impressionism in all his work. Although he started his artistic career in France it was in England and America that Sargent was to become most famous. And of course it was his portraits of the rich and famous that made his name and kept him in comfort.

Unfortunately, his scenes of the sea, Atlantic Storm and Atlantic Sunset, don’t inspire me. Nor do his watercolours of canals or boats. For me, it is his paintings of figures that are so special. He has the tremendous talent to instil feeling, movement and soul into figures. I loved the fisherwomen studies, and the studies of the children that were to be incorporated in his paintings of children on the beaches of Capri. The light in these is marvellous – you can imagine yourself there – and all of them are fresh, natural and warm. I would prefer an exhibition: Sargent and the Beach.


Saturday, 7 August 2010

Seamus Heaney Simplified.

Here I am in the middle of the night – well, not the middle of the night actually, in the early morning – up out of bed, my computer switched on, making a cup of tea by the light of the open fridge door. Not wanting to miss the moment, fracture the natural light and blast the ideas flying around in my head with harsh electric light.

And why? Because I have just heard The Interviewwith the prize-winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, on the BBC World Service. This is one of the greatest radio services in the world for insomniacs. It sends my Best Beloved to sleep. Music wakes him up. However, for me, it is the opposite. Instead of helping to send me to sleep the World Service has such interesting programmes that it stimulates thought and keeps me awake with this the result!

Heaney was talking so evocatively of memory - remembering what one has forgotten ones knows: of the wonder of childhood surroundings and how flashes of those memories can connect with later flashes of experience. And about surprise – how a poem can come on him when least expected or how an exexperience can surprise him. An experience such as Wordsworth had coming from the lush green landscape of the Lake District that he loved, to the city of London, and his being surprised by the beauty of it on Westminster Bridge.

Upon Westminster Bridge

EARTH has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

William Wordsworth

Heaney’s use of language, never stilted or pretentious, moves me, creatively speaking. He uses words in such a natural way, changing them almost organically, like words a child might make up. It struck me anew how difficult it is to write simply. Poets are, on the whole, deep thinkers. And I like that. I like being encouraged to examine a thought, a concept, call it what you will: to tease it out and fathom its meaning. Try and make sense of it.

But poets are also (among many things) masters at simplification; shortening, condensing. Often taking the convoluted and making it simple and direct. Heaney's words made me realise that I must proof read my manuscript once more. That again - before I go any further, do any more research, write another single word - I must critically but constructively review my text. And - so easy to say, so difficult to do - simplify.


Sunday, 18 July 2010

Surprising Wild Flowers

Under my kitchen window is a swathe of glorious poppies, Papaver somnifera. Yes, a relative of that one, the opium poppy. So very imposing with their tall stately form and elegant silver grey leaves, nothing prepares you for the stunning flamboyance of their flowers. Unlike the oriental poppy - Papaver orientale - the better known ferny leafed perennial species, these are annuals and just like the field poppy of the battlefields of Flanders they only come-up in disturbed ground.

For years my garden was full of them then suddenly they stopped appearing. But I have recently had to dig a trench in the front garden to lay a new drain and, lo and behold, six months later all those old seeds have come to the surface and produced the most amazingly colourful display of blooms.

Some are similar to the frilly double peony bloom, others like the simple arctic poppy, a few a mixture of the two. The colours are equally varied, from bright scarlet to softest mauve, with a cross between these producing a soft French rose. Now they are dropping and I am having trouble remembering which were my favourites so I can save the heads for seed. As usual I meant to tie a coloured thread around the ones I wanted and, as usual, I never had time and now the chance is lost. So I will probably scatter them all and, if they deign to grow next year, try and remember to do it then.

I tend to let self-seeders alone in my garden. Aquilegas – Granny’s Bonnet to some – come up all over the place and they are so light and pretty they never intrude on any plantings. Michaelmas daisies, feverfew, violas, hostas, evening primroses – all are allowed to remain where they don’t look too out of place. Which is just about anywhere really!

And it is on my walks with Freddie through the local country lanes and woodlands that I am most often surprised. Because I have planned and planted nothing here and what I see is often very subtle, a tiny violet, a clump of primroses. Yesterday I noticed the honeysuckle in flower, weaving its way through the native hedgerow like thread in a tapestry.

But a couple of weeks ago I had to yank Freddie to stop because I spotted something quite outstanding in the verge. I was thrilled to see it was an orchid, pink and elegant, an exotic thing of beauty in amongst the simple grasses and annuals of the verge. Thankfully, when the verge was cut the longer grasses under the hedgerow were left and this native orchid survived.

Having not seen one in flower there for at least five years I am hoping that this one sets seed. Only last week it was still there, nearly two foot (60 centimetres) tall but beginning to fade. I hoped it didn't attract unwanted attention. Inspecting it closely, the flower spike was made up of hundreds of little umbels, palest pink spotted with vermilion. Absolutely exquisite. Amazing how such little things, such unexpected acts of nature, can give so much pleasure.


Sunday, 4 July 2010

Nesting garden birds and a heron

The pretty, pert little wren is one of my favourite garden birds. It normally nests close to the ground, being a ground feeder, and is very shy. As soon as you spot it, it is off. Never still enough to study, never slow enough to photograph. Perhaps that is part of its appeal. It is fleeting. Flitting. Imagine my surprise when I find one nesting under the old hay shelter.

Flung over a little used wooden ladder, a tatty nylon tarpaulin, no longer any use to cover bales of hay or the ancient mower, had been left crumpled and discarded. And, amazingly, the wren thought that its folds were the perfect place to build its nest.

This mossy little home of the Wren was only just visible and having seen her disappear in and out of it over a period of time, I can only hope that she managed to rear her brood. Thank goodness that everyone was warned or anyone of us could have, in a frenzy of tidiness, have yanked the tarpaulin down and thrown both it and its precious cargo in the bin or on the bonfire. Very fortunately we are prone to very few frenzied attacks of tidiness.

Last week I found a new born chick, featherless, eyes like giant goggles, lying dead on a garden step. How it got there so far from any nesting place I don’t know. A cuckoo chick would just have nudged it forcibly over the side of the nest. So perhaps the culprit was a predatory bird. A cat would have eaten it, tiny snack that it was. Anyway, it was a reminder that life is precious, often as cruel as it is beautiful.

But Friday, chopping down an overgrown laurel bush, we suddenly had to stop. There was a bird’s nest full of chicks! Yup, mirror images of one dead-on-the-step chick. So the laurel bush will have to stay looking rather mangled and lop-sided for the next month or so. And a blackbird was seen going to the bush later, so we hope that was Mom.

However, it’s not just in the countryside that unexpected birdlife (or death) appears. On a recent trip to the National Archives at Kew (marvellous place) I was on my way to the car park when I was stopped in my tracks. There, on the edge of the lake, in the urban environment of London, was a heron. I was delighted and whipped out my camera fully expecting it to take fright and wing it.

But no, unfazed by this crazy woman pointing her camera at him through the railings he stood his ground. She stood over him, she peered through the rails, she kneeled on the ground to take yet another photograph. Yet, he remained calm and composed, unmoving, as he watched the antics and camera posturing of a rural human female going through her recording ritual. Very excitable these country types.

Finally, the woman’s research companion (Best Beloved, who has never forgiven the heron’s brother for pinching his carp) said, COME ON! She had no alternative but to scurry off to catch her transport home to the counties. And the heron, sanguine, resigned, remained unmoving and unmoved. An elegant, not always loved, urbane member of the species known as large water birds. I was nearly as excited about seeing the heron as I was about what I unearthed at the archives for my book research!


Saturday, 19 June 2010

Ladybird Books and the Observer’s Series – old and reliable friends.

Who hasn’t got a Ladybird book somewhere, hidden away in the children’s old books, up in the attic, at the back of the book shelves. If you have now is the time to look it out, dust it off and see how much it is worth. The humble Ladybird book has joined the rank of ‘collectible’.

I have quite a few, none of them worth anything because they are all so well thumbed. Ladybird Books and their history was the subject of one of our book group meetings lately. Our host is related to the man who was the brainchild behind them. At first he not only wrote them but designed, promoted and printed them. He wanted the best artwork available and used the finest illustrators.

Many children learnt to read with the help of the Ladybird Series Reading Scheme (remember Peter & Jane?), others enjoyed them for their clear and concise instructions of how to make things or the reliable information they gave on a wide range of subjects. Clear pictures and print, colourful illustrations, their easy to handle size and affordability were all part of the appeal.

We are now so used to children’s books in all shapes and sizes, with plenty of colour and illustrations that it’s easy to forget how different the Ladybird series was. Until they were available few publishers thought about these things. The Christmas or birthday gift of a book was often an Annual – large and difficult to handle – but suddenly there was a book that could fit into a pocket.

A favourite of the Prodigal’s - and one I still use regularly even if the spine is broken and the pages ragged – was the Ladybird Book of Garden Birds. I keep it in the kitchen with a couple of other more detailed bird books, but it is usually the one I reach for first when I’m trying to identify a visitor to the bird table. It is restricted in its scope and there’s a lot to be said for brevity when the visitor is flighty.

And I still use some of the Observer’s Books for identifying wildlife. These handy little pocket books were first published in 1937, pre-dating the Ladybird books by a decade, but were aimed at the adult market. Birds, Wild Flowers, Butterflies, Trees and Wild Animals were the first in the series and, when the natural world had been thoroughly covered, sports and collecting, historical subjects and hobbies were introduced.

I think there were over seventy of these little books in all. Like the Ladybird series, many of them – except the most rare or those with pristine dust covers - can be found tucked away in second-hand shops or buried in boxes at fetes and boot fairs and bought for very little.

One thing that these two series had in common was the attention to detail and a rigorous approach to proof reading. Misinformation and mistakes were completely unacceptable. Many of the facts in these books will never alter – an oak tree is still an oak tree after all – and so there is no reason that they should not still be considered as handy and reliable reference guides for many years to come. I shall certainly continue to think of them as old and reliable friends.


Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Chelsea Flower Show 2010

Yes, it’s all over for another year: the expectation, then the event, the prizes and the plants. I shall check that I didn’t say this last year but it was truly so much better this year. Oh, come on, I hear you mumble, that’s what everyone always says. But it was better this year for one very good reason (and not just that more gardens were on show).

On the whole, the emphasis in the show gardens was away from hard surfaces. The gardens were actually living, growing spaces! No more yards of paving and decking. Instead the displays were what gardens should be about: plants. Other aspects quite obviously have to be considered and incorporated - layout, form, colour, texture etc – but this year it was the planting that sang out.

And I can’t help thinking that this mirrors our collective mood at the moment. (Get ready for the psychology) We have had a period of austerity – and are earmarked for more – and a little soft romanticism and escapism is a welcome relief. The public certainly thought so because they voted Roger Platt’s cottage garden their favourite. And plants are so much cheaper than hard landscaping.

Not only that, but we are all more ecologically aware. Driveways and gardens covered in impermeable hard materials contribute enormously to the risk of flooding. Not to mention the fact that plants are good for the environment, not only the air quality but for encouraging birds, bugs and bees.

There were some exceptions to this: the Australian garden had plenty of hard surfaces but it was fun and functional. And the Tourism Malaysia Garden offset the cool paving with plenty of water and abundant green planting, rich in contrasting shapes and textures.

Colours were muted this year. Pastels with the odd zing. In fact so muted were they that those who love riotous colour were forced to rely on the marquee for colour: they were bowled over by the vegetables displays (lots of orange and red) and the exotic, vibrant coloured floral elephants (plus purple, yellow and turquoise).

And the small gardens at the show, both urban and rural, seem to have grown up. No longer are they a pastiche of the large gardens, nor are they trying too hard to be shocking. Instead they are either sophisticated, manage to get a particular message across or incorporate a welcome sense of humour. Yorkshire’s Rhubarb Crumble & Custard Garden was the most popular among the public: it was not only witty but had quality in design and materials.

I had a great day – all the better for getting there before the crowds – and came back to see what I could do with my own back yard. Tidy it for a start, would be a good idea, opined Best Beloved. . Nothing out of place in a show garden. And weed it for sure. No nasties in show gardens. But then again, it is a real garden. Green and growing.

Real gardens should be like real homes, comfortable and welcoming. Somewhere you can relax and have fun. That’s my excuse anyway. So I just kicked off my shoes, poured myself a Pimms, and checked the garden chairs still worked. What a lovely end to a great day

Friday, 21 May 2010

May and the garden is full of birds, bees and blossom

Blossom on all fruit trees is transient – one very vigorous wind and it blows away on the breeze. And the colour of it is ephemeral too. Especially apple blossom, palest pink in bud it quickly opens to pastel confetti, sprinkling the lawn.

The pear blossom has been and gone – almost - but the quince tree blossom is in its prime with large open pink flowers. The largest crab-apple in my garden – planted before my time, its name unknown – is very tall and growing with a list. Like this its branches sweep to the ground and these are just one mass of blossom.

At the moment it is a buzzing mass. Best Beloved's bees think they have won the lottery. They cover it but when I try to take a photo of them I have to give up. They alight for a second, take a sip and on to the next one. Snacking. Unlike a bumble bee that will take its time over its sugary meal.

So I do hope that we will get honey this year. We had a very wet spring last year and at the end of the summer there was only enough honey left for the bees winter supply. This year, in spite of our freezing winter, the hive is thriving again. So, fingers crossed, they will keep up production.

They have plenty in the garden to feed on. The lilacs, with their pyramids of mauve and white flowers, waft their heady perfume on the air and there are even early roses in bloom. And many trees apart from the fruit trees are in flower. The most striking are the horse chestnuts – their panicles of flowers, either red or white, like candles on a Christmas tree.

This really is the most glorious time of year. Everything is burgeoning. The purple beech leaves are glossy and rich, the new lime leaves brightest green. The box hedging – waiting till Derby Day for their first haircut – are covered with soft growth. The leaves bright. On a day like today, when the sun is shining, there is not a lovelier place in the world to be.

Walking in the woods yesterday the cuckoo was in full song. Insistent. In time I’m expecting to find a few ejected chicks from cuckoos in the garden: nature in all its gritty realism. The garden birds have already produced their fist chicks.

I noticed a brown, baby bird - fluffy crown and open beak - on the table outside my kitchen window. No tail. A wren chick. Far too large. Then a robin flew up and fed it and that settled it. I thought. But it was so large - was it a cuckoo chick I wondered. Off it flew to the nearby hedge. Hours were wasted waiting for it to re-appear.

And the woodpecker has been a constant visitor. Woodpecker chicks are a hungry lot. You can hear them calling out from their tree. So the adults spend the entire day finding food and the nut feeder makes an easy and convenient store. Both parents rear the chicks – more often only one – modern parenthood.

I have just been on a mercy mission. A marauding woodpecker has chopped through the wooden roof of a bird box again – probably after the eggs. I noticed a blue tit still popping in and out of the box – strangely through the front hole although the box is now open to the skies. So when it was out I peeked in and there were dark little chicks, golden beaks open wide.

On the tit’s next foray I speedily covered the box with a square of plastic held on with a strap of lead. A bit of a mess but I had to be quick – no time for careful carpentry. Anything to save the chicks from certain harm. And I watched until the tit returned – paused for a while then went it. Hopefully they will fledge.

Earlier today there was a pheasant’s egg sitting in the middle of the gravel path. Such a lovely khaki colour, small and smooth. Where it came from I don’t know but there are bushes alongside the path so perhaps a pheasant hen had laid it there. Another one of those mysteries. But I've brought it in - rather than encourage egg stealers - and it now sits on my desk. A reminder of new life.


Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Global Warming & Packaging - first tackle what goes on in your own back yard.

The poorest peoples of the world can still teach us a thing or two. They have not got a lot of anything but make as much as they can of the little they have. We, on the other hand, have stuff coming out of our ears. Packets of it. Bags of it. Sackfuls of packaging.

Packaging was minimal up until about the 1980’s. Sweets (a treat) had been sold loose and put in a paper bag, as were vegetables and bread. Paper bags could be put on the fire or left to bio-degrade. Milk was sold in reusable bottles and butter in greaseproof. Old butter papers were kept to be used to grease cake tins of cover the joint as it roasted. Re-cycling was a natural thing.

If you saw the excellent television programme on Andy Warhol’s art the other night you would have been reminded quite graphically of when packaging became a …well, an art. Boxes of brillo, packets of crackers, tins of soup. And he made his point by reproducing the images over and over again. A whole wall of tins of soup. Like a whole shelf full in the supermarket. The trouble is, there’s even more of it now in our consumer society.

Borough Councils are finally trying to save money and reduce landfill by collecting less waste. Quite right, but if people didn’t consume we wouldn’t have an economy. So, come on government, stop putting all the blame on the consumer – it is time the producers paid up or put paid to unnecessary packaging. This is the stuff that takes enormous amounts of energy to produce and then more to dispose of. Crazy.

Every household item we buy seems to be covered in acres of plastic and mountains of polystyrene. And everything is chucked in the bin. Bring back cardboard and straw, that’s my Green answer. Or don’t throw anything away – aha – you’ve found me out: I’m a hoarder. And, hoarder that I am, child-of-the-war-generation hater of waste that I am, I wonder at how much we squander not only of our resources but our creative powers too (note: keeping to the arty theme with the photos – sorry, images).

Those of us who had parents born before the Second World War were brought up not to chuck stuff away. There wasn’t so much to chuck for a start. But also, the privations of war made our parents only too well aware of finite resources, lack of products, the need to protect and preserve what they had. ‘It is wasteful’, was a common phrase. Make Do And Mend.

Just after the war – when timber was at a premium if available at all - my father built chicken houses from scrap. Every piece was measured out to the last half inch, all of it saved from tips or begged and borrowed. Similarly, when I see those shanty towns made out of old corrugated iron sheets and bits of wood - in Africa or India or in the furthest, poorest corners of the world - I think of the ingenuity of those forced to use them.

To see a little boy with his home made car made out of old bits of metal - something made out of nothing – is to marvel at his creativity. This is recycling at it most basic. And these are not the people responsible for waste or global warming. It’s us, with our smart homes and supermarket trolleys, that should be putting our creative powers to much better use. Saving resources and recycling begins at home.


Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Van Gogh & his letters

Where are all the sunflowers? Van Gogh, sunflowers. Sunflowers, Van Gogh. Oh, and chairs and beds. Van Gogh, sunflowers, chairs and beds. Colour too. Wonderful, vibrant colour is what we associate with Van Gogh. Although sunflowers are pretty thin on the ground in this exhibition, shape and form, texture and light are there displayed in glorious technicolour. And letters.

The exhibition explained with his drawings and sketches his interest in various forms and ideas. We could how see the different styles took hold and developed into the paintings we know and love. He was primarily enthused and inspired by Japanese prints and from this grew his interest in painting.

Like many artists his changes in technique were influenced by the artists and movements of the time but Van Gogh largely worked out how to achieve the effects for himself. And worked by himself. His continuing interest in different genres led him to become a painter of portraits, still life and landscape and he mastered them all.

But the exhibition that has been on at the Royal Academy in London also showed something quite different. It showed that Van Gogh was just as prolific with his pen. Black and white. Paper and pen. What is so very interesting about Van Gogh’s work is that for every painting of his there is a letter to accompany it. He painted – often a painting a day – and wrote to his brother daily. His letters explain – often with sketches - what he is trying to achieve and how he is doing it.

We therefore do not have to rely on the ‘art experts’ opinion. Now, I have nothing against experts. I admire them, I envy them, indeed I love to hear them explain an art work. But this is from the horse’s mouth. The artist himself. We don’t have somebody else’s interpretation. Somebody else’s view of what the artist was trying to achieve. It is fascinating.

The other thing that struck me about this exhibition - or perhaps I should say that struck me when I learned more about Van Gogh, the man – is that he was a highly intelligent, thoughtful man who could have succeeded in so many other areas, particularly writing. He suffered from manic depression – now referred to as bi-polar disorder – the crippling suicidal lows of the disorder often accompanied by highly charged, exuberant and creative highs. Highs in which genius can shine through.

Art – and frenzied painting – must have given vent to the need to be ‘doing’ and creating in a much more tangible way than something less physical, like writing, would have. And it filled his lonely hours, because his illness affected his ability to make and keep relationships.

As children all we knew about Van Gogh was that he was that mad drunken Dutchman, who chopped off his ear and painted sunflowers in the South of France. That he was an intensely religious man, who wrote well and taught himself to be a great painter, was totally off our radar.

We take as read that Van Gogh had an innate talent for painting. But, without the highs of his disorder and the obsessions (those sunflowers!), would he have had the mental drive, physical energy and inspired vision to develop his style and medium as often as he did in such a short period of time. I doubt it.

With correctly balanced modern drugs, Van Gogh would probably have avoided his terrible bouts of depression and had a normal social life. But would we ever have seen such an amazing collection of works. The number of them, and the quality of them, is more than many wonderful artists achieve in a lifetime. And Van Gogh was only 34 years old when he shot himself. See this exhibition if it emerges elsewhere, and wonder at the man.


Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Fifty fifty: that was how it panned out. Half of us liked the novel, Effi Brest, the other half was rather disappointed.

I like a reflective novel. I enjoy being left with something to think about, something to ponder. To have the text throw up questions and for myself, the reader, to find my own answers. And I have no objection at all to lack of events. Not for me searing, screaming action every step of the way. Fontane pares then pares again. But there comes a time when Less is More become Less is Less: I do want emotion. And perhaps in Effi Briest some of those events left to the reader’s imagination (sometimes later clarified) are perhaps a little too obscure, too coy, even so bland as to escape the reader's notice until the end of the book!

Effi, the heroine, is a charming, impetuous, beautiful young woman. Married too young, to a man too mature. The only thing she and her husband have in common is ambition: both for their own versions of status and power. They have a child: Effi is left alone much of the time and too much is expected of her. Her husband is kind but not demonstrative. Her loneliness leads her into the arms of a passionate man, and, eventually, this and the demands of Society results in a cruel fate.

Some of us felt that Effi was little more than a cipher. That none of the characters developed. I’m not sure I agree. In tune with some others, I think Effi is a character that grows on the reader. As the novel progresses we get to know her better and as the other characters develop we also come to feel sympathy for her. We also appreciate her husband for his good points, in spite of his controlling character. Ultimately, perhaps, we have a real sympathy for him.

Symbolism is strong in this work, we are told, but for the modern readers much of it is lost. Just as the uneducated visitor would miss the classic symbolism and allegorical associations of the 18th century landscape garden, such as that at Stowe, so too does the modern reader miss the Victorian symbolism so prevalent in this most classic of novels. The symbolism of flowers, colours, myths and monsters is not what it was.

And then this is a highly Victorian moral tale: infidelity can lead to the break-up of families, to heartbreak and decline. Ambition and the pursuit of position above all else can be an empty cup. Insistence on honour and status is meaningless compared to forgiveness and the closeness of family. Women, married too young, have not yet had time to develop their character. And women – certainly at the time this novel was written – were at the mercy physically, mentally, and economically, of their men.

Even the characters are imbued with this morality: the old, the disfigured, the poor and unattractive – these are the characters in the book that are the most worthy. Gieshubler, the chemist, Roswitha the servant, the old doctor, Rummschuttel, all display the sort of discretion and kindness that is to be expected of the fortunate. In contrast, those in positions of superiority are not magnanimous but sometimes vindictive and cold.

The novel reminded me here and there of Anna Karenina. But Anna Karenina has dramatic scenes, passion, heart. Whereas at pivotal points in Effi’s life, Fontane gives us barely a hint of emotion: her marriage, the birth of her child, a lover, a death, a separation. I found the lack of that emotion described at such passionate moments, odd.

Nevertheless I did enjoy the novel. There is much to absorb and some very fine writing. But don’t expect action and don’t wait for emotion. Take it on holiday and read it when you have relaxed enough to have readjusted to a slower pace.