Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, and I spent the last two hours of dusky daylight walking through a steadily falling snow.  Okay Winter, all is forgiven:  it was absolutely magical.

Snow causes havoc in England, and all day long I've heard stories of people being stranded in their cars, but we (safe at home) couldn't help but revel in the stuff.  My husband, father and I walked deep into the forest -- and every scene was like a Christmas card come to life.  I kept fumbling to get my gloves off so that I could take pictures . . . although I missed my favorite scene of the day, when a couple and their glossy dog bounded out of the woods, arms laden with pine boughs.

My father and I sang every song we could think of with "snow" in the lyrics.  Over the ground lies a mantle of white . . .

Years ago, (Christmas 1999, to be precise), we also got a big snow right before Christmas.  I have a treasured memory of walking down a dark lane, slipping and sliding in the treacherous snow, to arrive at our friends' house.  They had a huge open fire, and we sat around it -- drinking mulled wine and eating mince pies.  It seemed to encompass most of the wonderful elements of Christmas:  the warmth contrasting with the cold, the sharp smell of pine, and the rich taste of brandied fruit.  And friends and family, of course.  And laughter.  And the feeling that time was suspended just a bit, just long enough to enjoy it all.

Chestnuts roasting on a open fire.  Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

Last night, in a piece of magical symmetry, these same friends came over for dinner.  (In the ensuing years, we moved to Texas for five years, and they've moved house, too; but by chance we have ended up in the same village once again.)  By dinner-time, the roads were impassable; we live at the bottom of the hill, and they live at the top.  They took a footpath that cuts through a farmer's fields, and arrived, bundled and booted and covered with snow.   We were waiting, with mulled wine and hot cider and candles lit all over the house.  Somehow, I think that I will remember the sight of them at the door -- all of us laughing -- forever.

Today is a quiet day between many days of seasonal socializing.  Everyone has retreated to his or her own corner, to read, or watch a film, or catch up with blogging!  I took another long snowy walk, this time by myself, and just enjoyed the silence of it all.

I couldn't decide if these boys were trying to build the biggest ball ever (in the deserted football field), or a base layer of a snowman. 

In the meadow we can build a snowman . . .

Last night, when I attempted to put my wired-up daughter to bed, I discovered that she was all tucked up under her blankets and quilts . . . and eating a rather large snowball!

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

Still, still, still
One can hear the falling snow . . .

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Enduring the season

The Barn on a cold day in December

For weeks now, the world has been unrelentingly gray.
November set a record for rainiest ever, (as if normal English rainful wasn't sufficient enough to depress me).  I feel like the cold fog has seeped into my bones and smothered everything light and lively.

So many of you write about how much you love winter -- including the pleasures of slowing down and hibernating a bit.  But I find that there are excessive seasonal demands -- except, perhaps, in the garden -- and I just don't have the energy to do it all.  I am surrounded by lists (to do, to make, to buy), but I'm feeling awfully listless.  Maybe I'm just suffering from S.A.D?

I like a lazy afternoon just as much as the next person, but I want it to feel soothing and restful -- and not just some horrible malaise.  I've been reading a lot . . . but more for escapism than for entertainment or enlightenment.  I've seen films, I've gone to parties, I've baked dozens of cookies and mailed a stack of cards, but there is something missing.  My brain feels dull.  I'm always tired, and I feel, a bit, that I'm just going through the motions this year.  Is it just me? 

So many children have been struck down by viruses and flu-type illnesses that they had to cancel the Christmas concert at my youngest daughter's school.  For the first time ever.  It's so sad for my parents, really. They are visiting from Texas, and they never get to go to the children's concerts and programs.  I was counting on the candlelight and the carols and the unchanging ceremony of it all.

Yesterday, we took advantage of the last child-free day and went to London.  I had this notion that visiting the Charles Dickens Museum might help the Christmas spirit along.  Also, the Dickens Museum is only a couple of blocks from Persephone -- one of my favorite bookstores.  Surely, the combination of the two would kindle my gone-latent enthusiasms?

48 Doughty Street
Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby here.

Somewhat miraculously, we were blessed by a few streaks of weak winter sunshine.  (Only an hour away, in West Berkshire, it was sleeting.)  Perhaps I would like winter if it were blue and white and crisp at the edges -- instead of gray, damp and muddy.  I suppose it is effective, though, for recreating the Victorian London atmosphere.

If you ever visit the museum in winter, make sure to dress warmly.  It was almost entirely unheated, which seemed a bit too authentic.  Anyway, I'm sure that the Dickens family made good use of the fireplaces which adorned every room.  In this century, they seem to be merely decorative.

The desk of Charles Dickens

I've been telling myself that I've been too busy to write, but reading about Dickens' work habits made me acknowledge that the problem has more to do with a lack of motivation.  Dickens was amazingly disciplined and prolific.  He wrote novels, short stories and journalism . . . not to mention keeping a daily journal and being an enthusiastic correspondent.  He managed to churn out A Christms Carol in just a couple of weeks, motivated, in this case, by the financial urgencies of his wife's fifth pregnancy.

He rarely edited his work -- or even plotted it out, to any great extent.  In the museum, you can see the original manuscripts with jotted ideas and "key points" listed.  And yet, all of those characters lived and breathed on the page.  Even without Jim Carrey's help, is there anyone who doesn't understand what it means to be a Scrooge?

One of Dickens' many writing projects was a magazine called Household Words, which ran from 1850 to 1859.  In one of the 1850 editions, Dickens wrote a piece describing a decorated Christmas tree -- as popularized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert two years before.  This tree, in the drawing room of the house, is decorated according to that description. 

Only your imagination, though, can provide the noise of raucous singing and laughter, the smell of mulled wine and pine, and the warmth of a crackling fire.

A 19th century illustration of the Christmas feast

There were so many illustrations of plum pudding . . . it made me feel bad that we won't be having one this Christmas.  For a truly authentic touch, boil yours up in dirty linen. 

Those Victorians who didn't possess ovens big enough for turkeys could collect a cooked Christmas dinner from the local bakery.  I assume, from the illustration, that they brought in their own plates?  It's not a bad idea; especially since I'm not at all sure that my oven is big enough to hold the turkey that I ordered.

We were practically light-headed when we reached Persephone Bookstore, and discovered -- to our great delight -- that we had lucked into an Open House.  (I did wonder at the crowds in this usually calm and quiet shop.)  There was mulled wine, and a plate of clementines, and the most delicious mince pies.  I asked where they got the pies, and one of the helpers steered us toward the best ones and shared that they were from Konditor & Cook.  I fancy myself as a mince pie connoisseur, or at least an enthusiast, and these were very, very good.  (Apparently they have been named Best Mince Pie in London by The Independent.)

Sipping mulled wine, and picking out a few new books -- you get a price break if you buy three -- really did do wonders for my mood.  I felt downright Christmassy, even.

I still can't wait for the dark days to lengthen again, though.

Still-Life at Persephone Bookstore

In cold, dark places . . . I dream of spring.  (k.d. lang)

Monday, 30 November 2009

It's Not (Quite) a Wrap

I’ve been lost down the rabbit hole of Christmas preparation these past few days . . . or should I say weeks. Yes, I know it’s not even December, but I belong to that set of crazed Christmas groupies who believe that the tree should go up the weekend after Thanksgiving. I’m not as organized as my friend who likes to get her shopping done in the January sales, (does that seem slightly not in the spirit of the thing?), but I do like to have my shopping done by the end of November . . . if at all possible. The less time I have to do a thing, the less pleasure I will take in it. (Christmas cards come to mind, for one example.) Sometimes, during this festive time of the year, a person does have to consciously work at the enjoyment part.

Do you love Christmas or loathe it?

The other week, as I was musing on simple pleasures, I happened to mention my delight in the steadily growing pile of wrapped presents . . . and it seemed to touch a nerve in certain people. Christmas should not feel like a competitive sport, but frankly, it can give a person the sense of being a pathetic straggler in an impossible race.

I openly confess to being a Christmas lover, but I have nothing but empathy for those who loathe it. What’s not to loathe, really? It’s expensive, stressful and emotionally loaded in all kinds of ways. It can also be the time-burning equivalent of a full-time job. The other day I was talking to a friend about various ideas and projects, and she kept repeating this refrain: It will have to wait until after Christmas. She would like to look for a part-time job, but in December she already has one.

I wonder how many people, particularly women, feel like they are the cruise directors on the Christmas Boat?   Here's hoping that we can bring that holiday in on time and on budget . . . and keep everyone (not least of all ourselves) happy.  At a certain point, does the pleasure in Christmas become mostly vicarious?

Monday, 23 November 2009


For many years, our family moved house on an annual basis. Although moving is an expensive, inconvenient and often distressing experience, it does have one silver lining: it forces a person to get rid of her rubbish.

Having to pack up one’s belongings sharpens the de-cluttering claws. If you have to carry it, or pay for its transportation, treasure really does turn to trash. A certain ruthlessness comes to the fore. I know that by the third day of packing for an international move, I am wresting beloved toys out of my children’s arms (do you really need 50 stuffed animals?) and begging friends and strangers both to help themselves from my pantry.

I love fresh starts, and actually take pleasure in setting up my kitchen or neatly organizing clothing drawers when I first move into a house. However, once a household has been established, I never am in the mood for seasonal cleaning – spring, or otherwise. Thus, even though the daily house maintenance falls to me, it is usually my husband that forces anything that might be described as “a project.”

Last night he said something along the lines of “we are drowning in clutter,” and although I chose to ignore that statement at the time, I started off the day by tackling some of the more annoying and obvious piles. This will be our fourth Christmas in The Barn – a personal best for our itinerant family -- and we are going to have a big crowd. I’m going to need all of the seats at the table, which means reclaiming at least half the space from the pile of newspapers, books, magazines and mail that has taken up semi-permanent residence there.

Although I can get rid of any piece of clothing that I haven’t worn in a year or two, when it comes to the written word, I suffer from a mental delusion. Despite all experience to the contrary, I still believe that someday I’m going to have the time to read this. I’m particularly prone to saving The Guardian Review, the RHS Garden magazine, and anything that has recipes. We have a kitchen chair stacked high with my favorites, in addition to the paper purgatory on the table. (I also have a stack of Reviews in my study, which I am guiltily gazing upon even as I write this.)

This morning I started out with firm resolve, and cleared the kitchen chair in one clean stroke. Then, I made a cup of tea and proceeded to flick through the large stack before it went to the recycling bin – just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything really important or interesting, you know. After an hour, and maybe three sections of Reviews that I never read during the summer, I realized that a more mindlessly efficient process was called for. Without even let myself look at the alluring titles, I started stuffing them into bags.

At that juncture, a friend called; and with the help of this distraction, I was able to completely empty a cabinet of dozens and dozens of cooking magazines – some of which I had been hoarding since the beginning of this decade. I immediately hauled them out to the car so I wouldn’t suffer from clearing remorse – and I’m proud to say that I only retrieved three of them from their shredding fate.

Flush with this success, (although not really flushed, because our house is freezing), I tackled the worst of the bookshelves. Even after careful review, I had to conclude that 99% of my books either (1) haven’t been read or (2) might want to be read again someday. After a great deal of internal debate, and some misgivings (it has to be said), I think that I managed to bag up about 10 books to go the charity shop.

Sadly, I still haven’t made much progress with the pile on the kitchen table. I had a quick look through it, and did throw away various bits of mail, but there are still so many newspapers and magazines of recent vintage there. I can’t quite let go of my belief that I am still going to read them. Someday.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Simple Things

the view from my bedroom window
rain and more rain

The lowering gray days of November have been getting me down.

Don't you think that certain words are best suited to an English accent?  Horrid, wretched and dismal, for example.

(To be said in best Mitford tones):  The horrid weather we've been having is unrelentingly dismal . . . and it's making me feel perfectly wretched.

I thought that I was feeling too glum to rejoice in simple things, but a visit to Christina was a good restorative.
There are always some bright spots, really; even if the lamps do come on by mid-afternoon these days.

My list:

a cup of tea in bed

my winter-weight goosedown duvet

homemade minestrone soup for lunch today

tickets for Jane Campion's latest film Bright Star

half of my Christmas list, already wrapped

a new purple cashmere scarf

narcissus in a teacup

Visit Soul Aperture for more simple things to take pleasure in this November.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

For my brother

November 8 is my brother’s birthday, and this year, it falls on Remembrance Sunday. Because my brother is currently deployed to Afghanistan, it is particularly poignant that those dates should coincide.

All week long, it seems like Afghanistan has been in the news for tragic reasons – and there have been particularly personal betrayals. I don’t know how distant the war seems to others, but it is never far from my thoughts – although I have never before written about it here. Even the recent horrific events in Fort Hood, Texas are uncomfortably close to home for me; my parents live very near there, and my brother has been stationed there several times.

My brother is a Lt. Colonel, in charge of a large battalion of soldiers. I know his responsibility weighs heavily on him, but he refers, only obliquely, to the terrible mental and emotional stresses of his daily life. I don’t know if his reticence is due to necessities of confidentiality, or the desire to protect his family, or just weariness; perhaps it is a bit of all those things.

Our lives have so little in common now, but we share the same liking for books and games that goes back to earliest childhood. I cannot think of my brother without remembering the marathon games of Monopoly that we played as a child. We would get up early on Sunday mornings to play – always hoping that my parents would oversleep and that we wouldn’t have to go to church. (It rarely happened, but we lived in optimistic expectation.) These days, we play Facebook Scrabble – in the odd moments, once or twice a week, when he can visit an Internet café. He always wins; he always did win.

He likes to read; everyone in our family does. When he was a little boy, he loved the Curious George books by H.A. Rey, and he had a good bit of that curious monkey in him. Like so many young boys, he would pore over the Guinness Book of World Records. I also particularly remember a series of nonfiction books called Tell Me Why that he would read and reread. As he got older, he started to prefer histories – particularly military history. These days, he tells me that he reads lots of thrillers and other “escapist trash.”

As children, we used to construct “ships” by enclosing the sides of the bunk beds with blankets. It was so wonderfully cozy to feel concealed in that space – to lie back on pillows, and read by the light of a lamp. It felt so safe. I doubt that any adult ever feels that safe again, but books can still provide those feelings of an enclosed, complete world far from present realities. As Emily Dickinson wrote: There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away . . .

After much pondering, I decided to send my brother a birthday package of books. What better escape than humor, I thought? When I googled “funniest ever books” the same titles kept recurring, and these are the three I ended up sending to Afghanistan: Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome; Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, and a P.G. Wodehouse Omnibus. They are all English classics, and although I’ve read them, I don’t think that my brother has done. Although women may read and even like these books, they describe a completely male world. They have some odd similarities, actually: particularly that of the hapless male protagonist who keeps stumbling into scrapes of his own making. There are lots of cups of tea, although it is true that some of them are spilled. Nothing really bad happens, though; foolishness reigns here, never violence or evil.

They make me think of the letter* that Winston Churchill wrote during World War II, when he was confined to bed with illness. He asked for Pride and Prejudice to be read to him, and later commented: What calm lives they had . . . No worries about the French Revolution, or the crushing struggles of the Napoleonic wars. Only manners controlling natural passions as far as they could . . .

I would remind Churchill of this: perhaps Jane Austen knew more about gardens than battlefields, but she also had two brothers in the Navy, and I doubt that the pitched battles between England and France were ever as far out of her mind as her novels might imply.

Happy Birthday, dearest little brother!

* A copy of this letter is in Jane Austen's bedroom at the Jane Austen House in Chawton, Hampshire.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Rupert Brooke: The Great Lover

Last week I was in Cambridge, and a friend took me to The Orchard in Grantchester – self-described as “a corner of England where time stands still as the outside world rushes by.” It is not so much, perhaps: a collection of tables and chairs under fruit trees; a small café where a person might order tea and scones, or sandwiches, or cake. But if you believe in enduring spirits, The Orchard is surely one of the headiest, most glamorous places to take tea in the world. For more than 100 years, poets, intellectuals, princes and wits have sat under those trees and shared the particularly English ritual of breaking bread together.

The village of Grantchester lies just outside of Cambridge, and you can reach The Orchard by punting down the river or walking through the fields. A herd of brown cows stands just outside the clustered fruit trees, and you can imagine that the scene hasn’t changed much since poet Rupert Brooke wrote of dodging frightened cows on his way to bathe in the river at night. Brooke described the place as an “Arcadia” – and reinforced the image of a rustic Eden in poems and letters. “I live on honey, eggs and milk, prepared for me by an old lady like an apple (especially in the face) and sit all day in a rose garden to work.” (letter to Noel Olivier, 1909). Although this idyll only lasted for a few years, for Brooke at least, there is the sense of an eternal summer there. And even though we visited on an autumnal day, the air was unseasonably warm – warm enough to shed jackets and sit outside. I would like to report that I communed with literary ghosts, but lunching with five children tends to keep conversation on an earthly plane. (As far as I can remember, we mostly discussed whether Ben could have cake despite not eating his ham sandwich.)

Brooke died at the age of 27, in the second year of World War I. Although he didn’t die on the battlefield, he has been forever associated with all of the young Apollos, all of the golden young men who died before they were able to fulfill their promise. If I should die, think only this of me: /That there’s some corner of a foreign field /That is forever England.” (The Soldier.) With these famous lines, Brooke became a symbol of the age: forever young, beautiful, noble and patriotic. Winston Churchill eulogized him when he died. He was the ultimate English public school boy: good at sport, gifted with words, charming in manners, attractive to women and men both. Rupert Brooke was in some sense the prototype for the Hugh Grant type familiar to us now – the same charisma and careless beauty, even the same floppy hair – but with more purpose, more idealism to him.

(Virginia Stephen and Rupert Brooke on the right-hand side)

Before I visited The Orchard, I knew these few things about Rupert Brooke. He interested me, vaguely, because of his friendship with Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) and the Bloomsbury Group. This summer, I picked up a copy of The Great Lover, by Jill Dawson – in which Brooke featured. I was intrigued enough to buy it, but not inclined to rush into reading it. Who knows how long it might have sat in my to-read stack if I haven’t visited The Orchard; but I am an incurable student, and a bit of browsing through the Rupert Brooke Museum whetted my appetite for more. There were newspaper articles suggesting that Brooke was a lot more complicated than the fair-haired boy myth. One article even focused on the daughter that he may have fathered when he visited Tahiti the year before his death. Although Brooke is the very symbol of English youth, he spent most of his last years travelling to get away from it. Although he loved England, the things that defined him (education, class, his famous looks) trapped him, too.

Interestingly enough, Dawson begins her fictional narrative with a letter from this daughter. The daughter has a request: to “hear (her father’s) living voice; to know what he smelled like and sounded like.” Surely every biographer has the same goal: to flesh out the evidence and to make a living, breathing person out of it. Dawson isn’t writing biography, though; she is writing fiction. And because fiction is always more elastic than non-fiction, she gets inside of Brooke in a way that may not be entirely accurate – but is entirely compelling.

Dawson tells her story through two alternating voices: that of Brooke’s, and then a fictional character called Nellie Golightly. Nellie is maid at The Orchard – and also a bee-keeper. She is uniquely placed to observe Brooke, and he lets his guard down in front of her – not only because there is an attraction between them, but also because she is in a lower class. She is there to be invisible; to serve him and his friends. Although Nellie is a fictional device, almost every other character in the story is real – and it is obvious that Dawson has supported her creative musings with careful research. Whenever possible, she uses Brooke’s own writing (letters and poems) and others’ recorded observations of him. It is a bit extraordinary to discover so many famous people in this book’s pages, but Brooke’s life was really like that. One day he is punting down the river with Augustus John; on another day, he is having a mental break-down at Lytton Strachey’s house.

This blending of fiction and non-fiction is very fashionable at the moment, but it works well in this story – partly because Dawson is herself a poet, I think. Her fine sense of language allows her to inhabit these two different characters. She gets into Brooke’s tortured head – and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was tortured –and she creates a really rich and textured voice. Brooke’s insecurities, obsessions, fears and joys are persuasively described.

W.B. Yeats described Brooke as “the handsomest young man in England,” and the description dogged him ever after. He was confused and guilty about his sexuality, worried that his talent was inadequate, and haunted by the familial strain of mental instability. Although Brooke is always described as a golden boy living in a lost golden age, one of the things that most fascinated me about this novel were the dark undercurrents – not just in Brooke’s own life, but in the society around him. The Edwardian age that Dawson describes is already being shaken up by gender and class wars – long before the upheavals of World War I. Brooke is a member of the Fabian Society, and plays at being a socialist, but Nellie is an effective foil because she fills in the gap between the real and the ideal.

The Great Lover, by the way, is not just Brooke’s mocking estimation of himself; it is also the title of one of best-known poems. In it, Brooke names all of the beautiful things in the world: from “white places and cups, clean-gleaming” to “the strong crust of friendly bread” and the “cool kindliness of sheets.” An eagerness for life, and all of the lovely things in it, counteracts the

perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.

Each time I’ve read those lines, I’ve gotten more out of them. In some ways, I feel the same about this book. It is dense and beautiful enough to read again.

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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween
from our (haunted) house to yours

lots of treats at domestic sensualist
and some tricks at The World Examining Works

Monday, 26 October 2009

What kind of book lover are you?

Fellow book lovers,

I have a question for you:
Is your love a courtly or a carnal one?

The other day, Willow was describing a second-hand copy of Charles Simic poems that she had recently purchased from Amazon.  Rather than being in the "very good condition" that it had advertised itself, the book was marred by the intrusive scribblings of a previous owner.  I would have guessed that Willow is a courtly lover of books, but her poem on the subject confirmed the fact.  (I will also venture that Willow dislikes purple prose, but I know that she disdains a purple pen!)

Coincidentally, I had just been rereading an essay called Never Do That To A Book from the brilliant collection titled Ex Libris.  In that essay, author Anne Fadiman classifies two different kinds of book lovers:  those who maintain a courtly and respectful distance in relation to their books, and those whose approach is far more earthy and intimate, perhaps even abusive.

Fadiman describes a courtly lover as one who believes that "a book's physical self (is) sacrosanct."  A courtly lover practices "Platonic adoration" and treads as lightly as possible on the pages of the love object. Such readers do not care to leave mementoes of their presence, and they certainly wouldn't presume to rudely argue in the margins. Courtly lovers use special bookmarks, which they have probably taken great care to match to the book in some way.  Courtly lovers do not eat whilst turning the pages of their book; nor would they dream of taking a book into the bath.  Certainly you wouldn't catch a courtly lover stuffing a book into her handbag or letting it fall onto the floor of her car.  (Not that I would know anything about that.)

Fadiman places her own family firmly in the carnal realm.  "To us, a book's words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.  Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy."  Happily, she married another writer and reader with carnal tendencies.  (In one of my favorite essays in the book, Fadiman describes "marrying" their libraries.)

I don't know about you, but I tend to fall somewhere between the two book loving modes.

I've never been one for marking up books, much less writing "NO!" or "Idiotic" in the margins -- like one of my best friends does.   In every other regard, though, my habits tend to be more carnal.

Although I have cured myself of splaying books, or dog-earing their pages, I'm not especially fastidious when it comes to marking my place.  I possess many beautiful bookmarks, but more often than not, I will use whatever comes to hand -- a used envelope; a postcard; one of those ubiquitous order forms which constantly fall out of magazines; a square of toilet paper.  (I am fond of reading in the bathroom, whether or not I have business there.  I discovered, long ago, that it is the room in which one is least likely to be disturbed.  Also, our current bathroom has excellent natural light and a good view of the garden.)

I would much rather have a book than be without one -- which means that books are my companions during most activities, and sometimes they cannot help but get a bit roughed up.  I especially love to eat and read at the same time, and no doubt most of my books bear the smudges of not-too-clean fingers.  I will also take a book into the bath, although I do use some discrimination -- and  keep a towel at hand's reach.

Although I agree with Willow about not wanting someone else's dubious or objectionable witterings on the pages, I do like certain traces of former owners.    I especially love bookplates, and I was very tempted to buy a ridiculously expensive copy of Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope when I was at Jarndyce Booksellers last week.  Although I wanted the book, what really attracted me was the bookplate -- which had belonged to a certain Sir with a wonderfully ornate name.  I really want some bookplates of my own, although I'm about as likely to adorn my thousands of books as I am to organize my photo albums.  (I got behind on that project in 1999, and haven't caught up yet.)

Some kinds of intimacy are better than others: I don't want to find anyone else's crumbs between the pages of my book, but I would love to find a letter -- or even a shopping list.  This summer, I bought a used book primarily because I was dying to have a look at the letter housed within.  (It turned out that the book had been a gift and that the letter wasn't particularly interesting, but it certainly didn't deserve to be callously passed on to the second-hand book stall.)

In general, I would guess that the courtly lover is less likely to be a book-loaner -- mostly out of concern for possible wear and tear.  On the other hand, a carnal type might be more inclined towards jealous possessiveness.  I don't mind lending books -- not much, anyway -- but I've never figured out a good system for getting them back.  (My memory is, unfortunately, a very imperfect system.)  This is exactly why I need bookplates, although my lust for them is more aesthetic than proprietary.

By the way, the book pictured above (with a Dorothy Parker bookmark)  is A Girl of Mettle by Frances West.  I have a first-edition published in 1908, and my copy of it -- unlike Willow's Charles Simic -- is in "very good condition."   Although that makes me happy as the book owner, it makes me rather sad as a book lover.  It makes me think that it hasn't been read over and over, and handed down from daughter to mother.  It makes me think that it hasn't been loved well enough.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Finding treasure at Daunt Books

On Monday, my youngest daughter had to pay a visit to a dentist on Wimpole Street.  These days, the street is lined rather prosaically with the discreet brass plaques of dentists . . . but at various points in time (real and fictional), characters as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Barrett, Professor Henry Higgins and Paul McCartney resided there.  It is one of those London places with a special frisson, at least for me.  All of those layers of history just go straight to my imagination.

Since Wimpole Street is conveniently close to one of my favorite bookstores -- the splendid Daunt Books -- I thought that a bit of book-browsing (buying, too, of course) would happily fill a spare hour or two.

I hadn't ventured far into the store before I was distracted by a display of beautifully bound Virago Modern Classics.  One of the first novels to catch my eye was 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff.  Not long ago, my daughter and I had watched this film -- with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in the lead roles.  When I randomly opened the book, it fell upon a letter that I remembered well from the film:  Helene is speaking of her desire to visit London:  "to walk up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul's where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elizabeth sat on when she refused to enter the tower . . .".  She speaks of her longing "to look for the England of English literature."

Of course I had to buy this lovely book -- which describes, so entertainingly, the transatlantic friendship forged by and through books.  If that wasn't a sign, then Wimpole street was!

Daunt Books is spread out over three floors, and in some ways it feels more like a library than a bookstore.  There are three major sections:  literary fiction, travel books and second-hand books. We were there for more than an hour, and the man with the black braces and the bald head never stirred from his seat.  Perhaps it is all of that polished wood, or the parquet floors, but it has a particular hushed quality that encourages a person not just to browse -- but to delve inside the tempting pages.

When I was browsing the catalog of Jarndyce: The Nineteenth Century Booksellers, I saw this quotation:
I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.  (Jorge Luis Borges)

Absorbed in my own book searches, I didn't notice that my daughter had disappeared; well, except for the vague sense that no one was tugging at my elbow and saying "I'm bored!"

When she finally appeared, her eyes were shining and her hands held a treasure:  a first-edition copy of Yvette in Italy and Titania's Palace, written by Nevile Wilkinson and published in 1922.  As far as I can tell, by examining the bookplates, this edition was specially made for The Children's Union (Waifs and Strays).  Apparently this was a stray copy, as there is still a perforated form in the back of the book for any child who wishes to become a Rose-Maiden of the Order of the Fairy Kiss.  The pristine quality of the copy, not to mention the still attached form, convinces me that my daughter will be the first reader to really know this book. Unfortunately, I doubt that the Order of the Fairy Kiss is still organizationally intact.

So with our bag of books -- several new ones for me, and one special old one for my daughter -- we retreated to Paul for coffee and crepes.

Although we shared occasional discoveries, mostly we sat, and read, in companionable silence.

Despite having visited London many times, my daughter has never liked it much.  Many people are energized by the frenzied activity, but she prefers less crowded places.  Like most London visitors, we have tended to travel the busy streets: Oxford Street, thronged with shoppers, and Piccadilly Circus, choked with tourists. We have pursued loud and expensive entertainments; we have attempted Hamleys during the school holidays and risked Harrods during an annual sale. My daughter has been to museums and the theatre and ice skating at Somerset House, but funnily enough, she has never walked a quiet street as London goes about its everyday business.

Despite all of our efforts to chase it down, sometimes it seems that pleasure is more easily found in a simple moment; at least I have found that to be true.   I've long known where my happiness is likely to be found, but how gratifying to discover that my daughter can find it in the same place!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

lost in translation, once again

Although I’ve been married to an English man more than sixteen years now, some aspects of the culture are still as clear as mud to me. A certain kind of humor (or “humour”), for example.

Last weekend we attended the second wedding of a dear friend, and my husband was asked to “speak” on behalf of the bride. It was a very intimate wedding – thirty people, give or take a few, and all of them family or very close friends. Both the bride and groom had difficult first marriages; there’s an example of English understatement for you. Let’s just say that the couple are bringing five children, two volatile ex-spouses, four weary parents and an awful lot of emotional baggage into this new relationship. Nearly everyone in attendance had been to either the bride's or the groom's first marriage.

It was our first “second” marriage, and the tone was less giddy expectation and more sober hopefulness – not to imply that the wedding was a teetotal affair. To the contrary, like marriage itself, it required no small measure of endurance. The bride’s first marriage had been in June, and it seemed like everyone was starting out with their adult lives; this one took place on a rather muted October day, which better suited our middle-aged selves.

We were, in many ways, a gathering of marriage veterans from the same company: all of us scarred to some extent, and most of us aware of the more bruising skirmishes of our fellows. So within this context, I begged my husband to keep his speech short, sweet and sincere. Although inappropriate humor is a typical element of these speeches, off-color jokes are such uncertain missiles. With so many raw nerves, I didn’t think it appropriate to risk hitting any.

Anyone who has seen Four Weddings and a Funeral will be aware of the apparently obligatory mortifications of the best man’s speech. It is more roast than toast, really. In the guise of celebrating the new bride and groom, the best man feels it is his duty to single-handedly lower the tone. The speech is not considered to be a success unless all of the members of the wedding party have been insulted and/or embarrassed in some way. I’ve never really understood this tradition, but perhaps it has something to do with the English fear of being earnest. Any possible flowering of emotion and sincerity really must be squashed.

Although the groom’s speech went a little close to the bone, and I doubt that the new husband of the matron-in-law was very happy about it, he was forgiven a certain amount of plain-speaking. Most people put it down to the fact that he is from Yorkshire. (Jokes about the difference between Northerners and Southerners? Also obligatory.) My husband was up next, and I’m happy to see that his words managed to be gently funny (and true) without actually being hurtful. But then came the best man’s speech . . . and oh my goodness. We talked about it all night, and I’m sure we will talk about it for years to come. I guess, from that point-of-view, it was a kind of success. It was also the most cringe-making speech that I’ve ever heard, with no taboo subject left uncovered. You know, rather vicious cracks about ex-wives really don’t go down that well when their teenage children are there to bear witness. The groom later told us that the best man had rejected a joke that went along these lines: The groom’s first wife (insert real name) was very temperamental. 50% temper and 50% mental. Truly, that would have been preferable to most of what he did include. No one laughed much; of course that was an embarrassment, too.

Not long ago, Dick was speculating about the nature of English humour over at his Patteran Pages.  (I wonder if he could explain the best man's speech?) Dick listed several examples of jokes which really tickle him – and although I could kind of see that they were funny, none of them made me laugh. Not properly laugh, anyway. I was reminded, instead, of the occasion several years ago when we attended a Christmas Pantomime with my parents and my mother-in-law. The panto style of humor is rigorously formulaic: either sexual double-entendre or slapstick silliness. My English husband and his mother howled with laughter throughout the performance, while my parents and I were left stony-faced and slightly embarrassed.

Sometimes, there really is no translation.

Hopefully not lost in translation:  I'm not really a shoe person, but I happily submitted to the "shoe quiz" administered by Dan, from The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes.  Dan's blog highlights the best of creative Twitter -- but he made an exception for me, as I'm not a Twitterer, either.  You can hear Dan read from his work at The Albion Beatnik Bookshop in Oxford at 6 pm on October 29. 

Thursday, 8 October 2009

You are only as old as you feel, right?

The other day my teenage daughter told me that I had started "acting like an old person" ever since we moved to England.

What do you mean by that?  said I, maternal indulgence blending with indignation.

When pressed to explain this statement, and its condemnatory tone, she started ticking off her evidence:  gardens; old houses; making jam; Jane Austen. 


However, more than once this week I've had cause to remember this conversation.  For instance, I received a letter addressed to "The Anglophile American House Guide" when I was at Jane Austen's House today.  Although I don't recall this particular encounter -- oh dear; isn't that a sign of the aging brain? -- apparently I had a lively conversation about literary tourism with a certain gentleman one day.  He kindly sent me a variety of brochures, and he encouraged me to visit Shandy Hall, the former home of Laurence Sterne.  (Do you suppose he is suggesting a tryst amidst the scenes of Tristram Shandy?)  Old houses: tick.

Actually, I don't really think it's the interest in old houses that is aging me; it may be a symptom, but it's certainly not the cause.  I suspect that has more to do with the teenage daughter.

For reasons too lengthy to go into here, but having something to do with adapting to the local culture, my oldest daughter is applying to go to boarding school next year.  It is sort of like going to college two years early, both emotionally and practically, and requires all sorts of gauntlet-running -- including hours of exams and interviews.  On Tuesday, while she was undergoing these mental tortures, I had many hours to explore the small town of Malvern

By the end of the day, I do believe that I had the measure of the place.  Not only had I visited all four bookstores (one independent; one chain; one second-hand; one charity donation shop), but I had also visited the local museum and several other sites of interest.  I suppose that I could have gone shopping, or written letters, but I am a perpetual tourist in England.  New place?  Needs must explore.

For geological reasons that I won't pretend to have grasped, Malvern has two outstanding features:  hills and pure water.  During the Victorian era, when water cures were all the rage, the rich and famous flocked to the place to be wrapped in wet towels and doused with gallons of cold water.  (Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin are two examples which come to mind.)   There were some nay-sayers, of course, but there were many true believers, too.  The Museum is full of testimonials and descriptions of the hydrotherapy -- which sounded rather like water torture to me.

In the centre of town, this goddess of water keeps an open-tap policy.  Apparently, it is not merely decorative; indeed, I saw more than one person fill their water bottle from the source.  Don't you think it is a charming twist on a drinking fountain?   (My daughter thinks that taking pictures of non-human subjects is another sign of being an old person.)

My best find, though, was a place that no less an authority than The Guinness Book of World Records deemed the world's smallest commercial theatre.  Amusingly, The Theatre of Small Convenience is located in a former Victorian Gentleman's Toilet.  (I suppose that all of that water had to go somewhere.)  This is the funny bit:  the theatre seats 1.2 people.  Yes, that's what the official Guinness Certificate says.

Showing now:  Molly and the Man of Letters.  After the brisk summer season, the theatre keeps limited hours.  You can catch the show at 12:30 pm on Saturdays . . . so don't be late!

What do you think counts as a person's .2 allowance?  A small dog?  A large belly?  A bulging book bag?  I could only wonder.

As I wandered around the beautiful campus of Malvern College, and admired interesting bits of statuary, I did feel a bit old, actually.   And I realized it had nothing to do with gardens, or the fact that I enjoy visiting eccentric little museums, or anything of that sort.

Instead, it seemed to be rooted in my deep relief that I was not the one taking all of those tests.  All of that academic striving?  All of that tiring business of trying to figure out who you are and what you are going to do in this world?  I think that I'm too old for that.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Fresh Eggs

So . . . once again, optimism triumphs over experience.

Longtime readers of the Bee Drunken adventures-in-farming will know about Ralph and Lauren -- who used to be our chickens.  Perhaps they are someone else's chickens now; maybe they didn't like the fact that my oldest daughter kept changing their names?  Possibly, they wandered off to seek greener pastures.  Quite probably, the wily fox got them -- although he didn't leave any feathery evidence.  All we know for sure is that when we got home from our Spanish cycling trip, those chickies were gone.  They had flown the coop.

I will admit that I dealt well with my grave loss.  After all, who was the one who waded through the mud all through the winter to feed them?  Who scraped all of the chicken poo and hay off the eggs?  Whose flower borders were wrecked, more than once?

As time went by, though, my hard feelings softened.  As I gazed out of our kitchen window, my eyes would inevitably fall on the empty hen hut.  And I would feel just a teensy bit sad.

There were practical reasons, too, to miss our poultry.  For one thing, the stale bread kept piling up.  Also, as I bake a lot, we never seemed to have eggs anymore.  I was always forgetting to buy them after three years of a steady supply.

Unsurprisingly, when my youngest daughter started making noise about getting more chickens it really wasn't that difficult to wear me down.  Yes, I am a sucker.  Not only that, instead of holding the line at two chickens (one for each child), we left the farm with FOUR chickens -- two of which (whom?) won't even be earning their keep for another 9 months.  "But Mommy, they are so fluffy and cute!"  Yea, yea.

Do you dear bloggy readers realize just how many breeds of chickens there are?

We bought our chickens from a 13 year old astoundingly knowledgeable farmer's son.  He had a dozen breeds at least, and he tried his best to educate us on their finer points:  how to tell males from females when they are young, what color of eggs they each have, etc.   I was somewhat overwhelmed, though, by the profusion of farm animals.  The main thing that I learned, and can pass on to you, is that an unruly chicken may be "tamed" by grasping it by the legs and flipping it upside-down.  Apparently, the blood rushes to its meager brain and it immediately goes docile for you.  Well, it worked for the farmer's son; I didn't test the technique, actually.

My youngest daughter immediately determined that we must have the "white silkie" breed.  They lay very small eggs, but compensate for this shortcoming by being soft and cuddly.  Frankly, I think they are the "dumb blondes" of the chicken world.  It has already become obvious that they don't eat a lot of carbs, either.  Ralph and Lauren were plain, but they were sturdy and reliable egg layers.  They could dispatch half a loaf of bread, no problem.  These dainty dimbos haven't laid an egg yet and they keep trying to eat the baby chick food.

One of my daughter's friends raises chickens, and her only comment on the white silkies was: They are really stupid chickens.  Since all poultry is fairly dumb, this is hardly a recommendation.

Still, my daughters spent all weekend gazing adoringly at them.  They promised me that, unlike last time, they are going to take care of these chickens.

I give it a week.  Maybe two.

Monday, 28 September 2009

domestic sensualist

Months ago I was nattering on about something and I described myself as a domestic sensualist.  Several readers commented that it sounded like a good blog name . . . and so I filed it away in one of the dustier recesses of my brain.  Seeing that the world of blog is an ever-expanding universe, you just never know when you are going to need another blog, right?

Over the past year, I've gotten to know Julochka at Moments of Perfect Clarity -- and discovered someone who is a kindred spirit.  Well, she is a much more creative and prolific kindred spirit; so let's call her an inspiration, really.  We love lots of the same things -- especially food and books -- and then she loves even more things.   We are both rather greedy, really.

Like me, Julochka is a displaced American who has been exploring the world long before blogging made travel so easy.  Although she makes her home in Denmark, the place is too small to contain her.  Truly.  This summer, Julochka pioneered the concept of Blog Camp and I was fortunate enough to spend the weekend with her.  Not only did the experience totally DISPROVE my husband's belief that blog friends are not real friends (because they are), but it created this big bubbling energy that continues to impact my life in interesting ways.

Although Julochka speaks fluent Danish now, and has acquired a sense of irony and Scandinavian cool, she still retains that American zest -- and the openness to embrace new people and new ideas.  The woman is an absolute whirlwind of collaboration.  One evening, her fertile brain was spitting out ideas and she struck on the notion of the two of us starting a foodie blog . . . not just recipes, but also stories, and book reviews, and food politics, and, well, inspiration.

And so, we launch domestic sensualist today.  We will be posting every day this week, so Please come and visit us!

pink sky at night

Just a few thoughts about this (totally unprocessed) picture:

The sky really was that pink tonight.
I almost missed it; I was taking laundry off the line, and I suddenly looked up and glimpsed the vivid edge of it.  I wonder what other marvels I miss by not looking at just the right time?

In order to get this view, I had to run around the back of our garage and climb up onto a low wall that borders the farm next-door.  As I angled my camera (and body) to get a better shot, I actually fell off the wall into the hedge.  My first thought was to protect my camera . . . which I held aloft even as I hit the dirt.  (Thank goodness no one has the photographic evidence of that "moment.")

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

County Show

Every September, for a hundred years now, immense crowds of people have gathered for the Newbury Show.  It takes place somewhere at the crossroads of agriculture, commerce, competition and "a good day out."

It's the sort of place where you can buy your new tractor, display your prize sheep, stock up on homemade jam and pick out a new shooting jacket.  If your interests don't lean toward the agricultural, you can just amble around -- like most of the folk -- and take in the sights.  There is a bit of something for anyone, and a lot of food and drink for everyone.

I am always struck by the democratic qualities of "the Show."  Girls with punky pink hair and boys in corduroy stand side by side looking at chickens.  The old and young, rich and poor, farmers and white collar types all jostle together.  I walk around constantly thinking, "Where did these people come from?"  It makes me realize what well-worn grooves we must all follow, despite sharing a corner of Berkshire together.

Although people-watching isn't part of the official programme of events, it is my favorite part.  This teenage mother and her pink infant have the same peachy plumpness, while this man wears his history on his skin in a very literal fashion.  (If you double-click on the picture, you can read some of the details.)

What do you suppose he does for a living?

I'm also fascinated by the enormous variety of hobbies and interests on display at the Show. Don't you find people endlessly strange and wonderful? I spoke to this woman, at some length, about her passion for wool and spinning. She told me, ever so proudly, that the local chapter of spinners has 110 members. Who knew? One of her comrades is a skein-collector. She is attempting to spin the wool from every breed of sheep, no matter how rare, in the United Kingdom.

This father and son are competitive pole-climbers. (Do loggers do this for fun? I'm not sure how else you would get involved in this "sport.") The father, who is first in his age-class, bested his son in this particular race. It was impressive to watch them run, in a strangely crab-like fashion, up these towering poles.

There are races of all kinds at the County Show. 

Here, the young farriers are pounding away at their anvils.  Competitive horse-shoe shaping and shodding, I think.

This man was driving his llama through an obstacle course.  I wonder where you train for that sort of thing?

Have you ever seen a ferret race?  This man is showing off his first-prize ferret, both of them flush with recent victory.  The handlers spray their ferrets with water to cool them down before they race. 

I'm not sure if that step is always necessary, but it was gloriously hot on this September day.  The summer weather always seems to come just when we've given up on it.

I don't know if it is the heat, or the crowds, or full tummies, or so much walking around, but there is something utterly exhausting about being at the Show all day.  I wonder how many children sack out, like these piglets, on the way home?