Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Through a Glass Darkly

From the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth

Many bloggers (who I greatly admire) have explained that their blog is a space for counting blessings, for appreciating simple pleasures, for capturing moments of beauty.   I completely understand that; this is our chance to show our best side. Many of us prefer to sing a hymn to happiness; most of us prefer to hear that song.  But I would just like to say that maybe there is also a need for a hint of disquiet.  Just occasionally, a murmur of pain or a streak of ugliness would not go amiss.

I know that I should know better, but sometimes a beautiful blog will make me feel that there are those amongst us who live perfect lives.   I don’t mind (well, not too much) that other people’s lives are more aesthetically pleasing and creatively engaged, but what really causes a pang is when other people’s lives seem happier.  I know, realistically, that there must be a shadow side to every beautifully lit image, but it is so easy to be beguiled.

A couple of weeks ago, I received the sad news that an old schoolmate had died.  Actually, he committed suicide.  When I read the obituary, it described a life that seemed perfect in every conceivable way:  Happy marriage; healthy children; successful business; great friends; loads of fulfilling hobbies.  Perhaps that was all true, but it read like a big whitewash of what was probably a normal human life that had become unendurable for some reason.

 I hadn’t seen this man in years, but his death has haunted me.  Was he the sort of person who always had to tell you how GREAT everything was?  Was he afraid to fail, to be frail? 

Last year I read Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World , and I remember thinking that always looking on the bright side can be so downright tyrannical.  Surely sadness and struggle are as much a part of life as the brighter, lighter side of the spectrum.  A positive attitude won't necessarily cure cancer, calm a surly teenager or lead to a good job offer in a bad economy.  What a comfort it is to say, "I feel low; I'm angry and sad," and have someone reply that they feel that way, too, sometimes.   

I think that there can be an incredible pressure on women, especially, to focus on the positive, and eliminate the negative.  I often feel like a cross between cheerleader and peacekeeper, always ready with the pep talk or soothing word – whichever is required.  I know that many women feel this way.  If I really want to tell the truth and let it all hang out (emotionally speaking), then I have to find a female friend.  As I mentioned in my last blog, I’m feeling a bit drained of buoyant spirits right now.  Thank you for your supportive comments; they helped.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


My youngest daughter at Chatsworth

An entire season of months has ebbed, and so many thoughts and experiences have just dried up and blown away . . . rather like the leaves, which are being shed with dispatch now that it is November.

We’ve had big things going on in our family life:  huge transitions in the youngest and oldest generations.  And I’m here in the middle, feeling battered by it all.  My husband has some pressing worries, and last night he twitched for hours until just giving up – long before dawn -- on the attempt to sleep.  That sort of sleepless night is more common than not at the moment. I don’t feel that the details are necessarily mine to share; so unsatisfactorily, I offer nothing but a tentative mood, an emotional residue.  Even though I’ve experienced only the most kind and sympathetic side of blog-friendship, it’s no use pretending that what I share here can be held in confidence.

Stress has made me selfish and solitary.  Certainly the act of blogging is as elastic as you want it to be, but for me, at least, the reciprocity of it is essential.  Over the past couple of months, I’ve been in this inward-looking state that hasn’t really lent itself to lots of external exchange.   I don’t feel that it is right “to talk,” if I don’t have the time or energy “to listen.”  Does this make sense?

 Hopefully, I will tunnel out again – and soon.

Chatsworth gardens, Derbyshire

Friday, 29 July 2011

Getting my feet wet

It seems like about a minute ago that we were plunging into summer . . . and now August is already looming.
So many important experiences have just been waves on the sand:  roll on, relentless time.

I've been on a blog vacation -- not by any plan or design, but just because I haven't had the time/space to order my thoughts.  Many years ago I had a dream of becoming a journalist, but one of the many flaws of that career plan is that I need time and space to write.  I don't "think" well under pressure.  I've never been any good at soundbites or punchlines; I can't come up with the first, and I can't remember the second.

My youngest daughter "graduated" from school a few weeks ago.  Not many children change schools at age 13, but there is something wonderfully appropriate about 13 as the age of transition.  After weeks of farewell dinners and concerts and plays and exhibitions, there was a beautiful ceremony designed just for the "leavers" and their parents.  The children chose their favourite hymns and scriptures, including those true and memorable lines from Ecclesiastes:  To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under the sun.  A simple, powerful truth.

Our move to Oxford has been put off for a year, and maybe longer.  All signs have pointed to stay.  Although my youngest daughter will be moving there for school, she started digging in her heels at the thought of too much change all at the same time.  Meanwhile, we didn't have even a nibble on the house.  I have a new job close-by, and Sigmund is still looking for the right opportunity.  It took me a few months to accept this change of plan, but I've come around now.  I've started making plans for the garden again; it's time to weed and replant.  There are holes to fill.

Meanwhile, summer.
We've already done the back-to-school shopping:  but the new woolen kilt and leather shoes can be packed away for now.  It's time to plant our feet in the surf . . . and let the sand run through our fingers.  I'm embracing what's here and now.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Many happy returns

Today is my oldest daughter’s “golden” birthday:
She is seventeen on the 17th of June.

We moved to England when I was 7 months pregnant with Rebecca, and I remember, so vividly, that last long week of waiting . . . and how the days seemed to be suspended, caught in amber, dragged out into long golden twilight.

I remember feeling really impatient to know what this unknown person was going to be like . . . and the answer was smart, strong, fierce, quick-witted, opinionated, stubborn and charming. She looked like her father; still does, but never more so than the moment she was born. She was quick to walk, to talk, to read. She was impatient and bossy – but with an endearing giggle, and an unexpected tender side. I hardly remember life before her, and I’m amazed at how quickly the years of her childhood have gone by; how clich├ęd is that?

At this time of year, I’m always really conscious of the fact that we are climbing ever nearer to the summer solstice. Does anyone else feel slightly melancholy when we tip over to the other side -- and the days begin to gradually diminish?

And now, as my oldest daughter nears adulthood, I think about how we are nearing some sort of zenith – but a kind of falling-off point, too. And unlike the seasons, my daughter’s childhood won’t come around again. That funny little person – my little Beccalou, who always had her nose in a book – is just a snapshot now.

In a week, my daughter will be going to Ghana – and who knows how that challenge will change her? Later on this summer, she will experience job internships, university applications, a trip to Cyprus, a long weekend at the Reading Festival. Solo adventures, all. Not unaccompanied, but unaccompanied by me. I’m happy for her, and delighted by her growing confidence and sense of her own powers. There is nothing, at seventeen, but a world of possibility . . . and mothers need to make way and step aside. (But she knows where to find me!)

Happy Birthday, Rebecca! And many happy returns

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Best of show

Despite the intermittent rain, June is bustin' out all over here in our little West Berkshire corner of England.
May is usually my busiest gardening month of the year, but this spring I've been resting on my laurels.  Except for a frequent circuit with the watering can, and very occasional weeding, I've let well enough alone . . . and my roses and peonies have rewarded me anyway. 

I spent most of May sowing a different kind of seed, and it's kept me so occupied that I've had little time for gardening, blogging or anything else.  (Like my generous roses, I hope you will excuse my neglect.)

As a brief explanation:  last September, I organised a Book Club for my youngest daughter and her friends.  This venture has mushroomed into several new book-related projects which started in April:  another Book Club, for 11 year olds this time, and two reading classes.  All of a sudden, I've been given free rein to develop what amounts to three different reading lists -- and not just for this spring, but for next year, too.  Reading for pleasure, reading for enrichment, reading to encourage more reading:  these are my only imperatives. 

It's a dream job for me, really.  As one of my best friends said yesterday, "You get to read all day and justify it as WORK."  Yes; exactly.

But it's a responsibility, too, and I really want to get it right.  I've always thought of the age of 11 as one of the golden ages of reading.  It's the age of unconscious delight -- of really getting lost in a book.  Most readers are outgrowing predictable texts and series books and discovering books with much more emotional and intellectual richness.  In England, at least, it's the age before cell phones and social networking -- and thus maybe the last, or at least the best, chance of turning a child into an avid reader.

I've often talked about book-love in this space, and it has been gratifying to realise that my blog-friends are a bookish bunch.  I can't resist, then, asking for some recommendations. 

What books (classics or contemporary; British or American) did you love best when you were 11, 12 or 13?  What books have your children or students loved best?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

War stories: The Cazalet Chronicles

Next week I am taking a group of students to see the theatrical production of War Horse and to visit the Classic War Stories for Children exhibit at the Imperial War Museum. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading the five children’s novels which feature in the exhibit – and it feels like the culmination of a year of reading novels which feature war (especially World War II) as the backdrop. These are war stories, but they don’t concern themselves with warfare or famous battles; rather, they focus in on the privations and struggles of the home-front. I hadn’t planned on this reading theme, but my interest in Persephone novelsSaplings or The Village, for instance – has landed me squarely in the mid- 20th century period which was so dominated by the long years of the war . . . followed by the long fall-out, economically and emotionally, from the war. It is a period that still grips the imagination, and shapes the national character, of Great Britain. For instance, at last week’s Royal Wedding, the balcony scene was as much about the “flyover” (the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight which featured a Lancaster, Hurricane and a Spitfire) as it was about a kiss. How many times have you wedding newshounds (and I admit to being in your company) read about Queen Elizabeth’s “austerity” wedding in 1947? Rather infamously, even a royal princess needed ration coupons to buy the material for her wedding dress.

If the recent wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton has aroused in your interest in England’s finest hour, I would thoroughly recommend the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. The Chronicles are actually four novels – The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion and Casting Off – and none of them are short. But unlike the war, they don’t drag on. Although the first novel might feel a little crowded, as Howard introduces the many voices of her sprawling cast of characters, by the time I got to the final novel I was reading with a sort of absorbed frenzy – and then suffering from withdrawal symptoms.  If only there had been another one!  I could entirely identify with the person, as recounted in Howard’s memoir Slipstream, who wrote the author and begged her to reveal what was going to happen next.

In her memoir, Howard explains that she wanted to write the novels in order to show how England had changed during the war (p. 434, Slipstream). The device of a family saga is a perfect one for her purpose, because it features three generations of a family – neatly encompassing the cultural shifts of each generation. The wealthy grandparents, whose summer home in Sussex becomes the family base, are Victorian: theirs is a world of comfort and order, made possible by a vast web of loyal domestic help. The next generation, that of the parents, has been blighted – physically and emotionally – by World War I. They are still dutiful to the old traditions, but their lives – especially as represented by their relationships -- are rather frayed at the edges. The youngest generation, represented by three young female cousins, come of age during the war. They don’t exactly raise themselves, but in many senses – some of them quite literal – their parents are absent. By the end of the series, it is obvious that they will have to make their own way in a very changed world.  One of three female leads, the character of Louise, has a life which closely parallels that of the author.

Howard has a fine touch with detail, and all through the novels I felt immersed in the complete atmosphere of the world she recreates. If you want lots of domestic detail – to know how what an upper-middle-class family ate, or how the garden looked and smelled – these are the right books for you. Nearly all of the characters are finely rendered, even the more minor ones. As with Upstairs, Downstairs (and the more recent Downton Abbey), the “staff” are emotionally fleshed out. Indeed, one of the most vivid characters in the books – and perhaps my favourite – is that of Miss Milliment, the ancient family governess.

After I finished the Cazalet saga, I read Howard’s memoir and discovered how heavily she had drawn from her own life. I suppose she was following that famous dictum to write what you know, but I also felt like these novels were a life’s work in the very best sense. She wrote them quite late in her own writing life, a decade after the breakdown of her marriage with Kingsley Amis, and they have an emotional authenticity that has been, perhaps, tempered by the detachment wrought by time and plenty of reflection.

I read too much, and too quickly; and much of what I read is lost before too long; however, these novels – and their characters – have really stuck with me. I think of them; some of them have become friends. As I was reading Michael Morpurgo's novel, War Horse, I was reminded of Howard’s work. For those of you don’t know it, War Horse is a story about the relationship between a young English soldier and his horse during World War I. One of the war stories in her novel, which Howard borrowed from real life, concerned her real-life father and his older brother. Apparently they came upon each other, by coincidence, on a country lane in Ypres. They didn’t recognise each other until their horses (brought from home) neighed at each other.

If you've never heard of Elizabeth Jane Howard, or are unfamiliar with her work, you should really do yourself a favour and discover her.  Her life has been a long, full one, and it has intersected with many of the most fascinating characters of the past century.   Howard's mother, an infamously critical person, was quoted as saying that it was a pity that Howard had nothing to write about.  I disagree entirely.

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@Barrie Summy

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Bluebell spring

I didn't get any pictures of Texas bluebonnets this year, so I offer you some English bluebells instead.
They are not at all the same thing, but they do belong in the very small category of blue flowers.
Rarer that you might think.

I have lots of thoughts about my Texas trip (which seems about as substantial as a dream now) . . . the Royal Wedding tea party that my daughter is hosting tomorrow . . .  the new class that I am teaching . . . all of the books I have read in the past month . . . and whoopie pies with clotted cream and strawberry jam.  These thoughts are Wordsworthian, though -- and I require a bit more tranquility (rather scarce at the moment) to bring them forth.

But how's this for immediacy?
I was in this bluebell wood just an hour ago. 
The sun was low in the trees, and there was a fragrant chill in the air -- an indescribable smell -- that is somehow the very essence of English spring.

I never saw bluebells when I was a child, and yet I perfectly understand Anne Bronte's description of them as a fairy gift.

O, that lone flower recalled to me

My happy childhood's hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers.

Somehow, I doubt that the blue markings on this tree mean:  "Bluebells!  Straight Ahead."
But I prefer to believe that is the case.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Gone to Texas

Just for fun, I made a Wordle from the writing I've done over the years about the annual trips to my home state of Texas.

The most frequently recurring words?
Texas.  drive.  bluebonnets.  Houston.  home.  parents.  cow.

Seems about right.

(Gone to Texas . . . April 2-20)

Friday, 1 April 2011


Are you the sort of person who checks out other people’s bookshelves?

(Do you feel an immediate affinity with those people who love the same books that you do?)

Earlier this week I had dinner in a lovely home. The sitting room had nearly all of the attributes of an attractive, cosy room: a wood-burning fire, soft sofas, interesting pictures, ancient (but good) carpets . . . but sadly, no bookshelves. I noticed it right away, and the absence somehow detracted.

Are you the type who believes that bookshelves are not only useful, but also beautiful?
(Furthermore, would you add this proviso: that the books must be obviously read and enjoyed . . . and not merely decorative?)

I’ve just counted:
Eight of the rooms in our house have bookshelves, and all of those shelves are overflowing.

In the recent de-cluttering drive, I managed (not without some pain and suffering) to take about five bags of books to the charity shop. Sadly, it didn’t make any visible difference to the crowded conditions as most of the discarded books had been stacked on the floor, hidden under the bed or crammed in my daughter’s closet. In our next house, I am hoping for entire walls of bookshelves.

(One commonality I’ve noticed about Oxford houses is that they tend to contain lots of books. Considering the ever-present temptation – there are a lot of bookstores in that small city -- I predict that an increase in my personal book collection is inevitable.)

There are public bookshelves and there are private bookshelves; some more so than others.
I don’t have what I think of as “properly” public bookshelves: nothing leather-bound or colour-coordinated; no first editions; no careful artistic groupings. Sadly, my bookshelves do not reach such lofty heights as would require a ladder. My “best” bookshelves do look more substantial, though. In their ranks you will see my nicer hardbacks, the lovely cloth-bound fairytales that I inherited from my father, the sturdy biographies and histories, and those books of a philosophical nature. My private bookshelves are junkier, and more various. Here lie the paperbacks, but also the most frequently read favourites.

Can a bookshelf be read like a palm, like a face, like a narrative of its own?

The pictured bookshelf is in my study – and in front of the shelf of enduring favourites (my Austens, Brontes, Colwins and Mitfords), you will find stacks of what I have read or written about recently.
There are also cards and curios, pictures and postcards . . . remembrances, really. When I think of the phrase “surrounded by my things,” I immediately think of books.

If you would like to share a glimpse of one of your bookshelves, please contact Malena of The Bookshelf Project.

Monday, 21 March 2011

March is . . .

Daffodils -- or, botanically speaking, the entire genus of narcissus -- are one of the most delightful things about March in England.

All year long, they lurk under the ground . . .
and by mid-March there are clumps of yellow everywhere.

Very cheering, don't you think?

Monday, 14 March 2011

Meeting Henrietta Garnett at the Albion Beatnik

Interior with the Artist's Daughter c.1935-6
Vanessa Bell 1879-1961

When I was 21, I lived on the seedy edge of Bloomsbury – and it was probably not surprising that I became interested in the Bloomsbury Group.  I have always been susceptible to what Anne Fadiman calls You-Are-There-Reading:  “the practice of reading books in the places they describe.”  That year, I was studying Literature between the Wars – and it became, and remains, one of my favourite cultural and literary eras.  I read George Orwell and D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot and Yeats; but most importantly, I read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels for the first time. My best friend lived in a tiny room just down the hall from mine, and we spent almost all of our time reading, writing and discussing books.  Living, in other words, what we liked to think of as “the life of the mind.”  Michelle had the famous picture of Virginia Woolf, as a young girl, on her wall, and I spent many hours contemplating that pure profile.

Two decades later, I am a frequent visitor to Bloomsbury – sometimes to the British Museum, but mostly to the bookshops. Persephone, on Lamb’s Conduit Street, is a frequent destination; and several years ago, I found a card there which features Vanessa Bell’s Interior with the Artist’s Daughter. It is a hugely appealing image to me, perhaps because it captures my ideal landscape: to be reading a book, whilst surrounded by books and the other domestic comforts. The painting has a richness to it, and there is a wealth of detail in it, but there is also something balanced and quiet in the image that speaks to me. I’m not a particular aficionado of Vanessa Bell’s work, but I would very much like to own this painting . . . and maybe more so to dwell in it.

One of the particular pleasures of blogging is serendipity. The connective nature of the Internet is such that a writer can send out tentacles of interest, words and images, and then they can be picked up by like-minded people. Independent bookstores are a particular interest of mine, as anyone who regularly visits this blog will know, and a couple of years ago I wrote about Albion Beatnik in Oxford. From time to time, someone will Google that name and end up visiting my blog. A few weeks ago, a very kind woman wrote to me and asked if I would like to come to Albion Beatnik for a talk to be given by Henrietta Garnett – the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell. Would I? Would I just!

As I was waiting for the talk to begin, I struck up a conversation with a young man called Simon. We spoke about books, of course, and it didn’t take long for me to realise that I had visited his blog, Stuck in a Book, several times. I found him by Googling Persephone/Oxford Book Club; like me, he is interested in women’s writing from the 20th century – particularly the period between and just after the wars. Like me, he began blogging in order to find the bookish companions that he lacked in his “real” life. This is “small world” stuff of the very best kind.

It was hardly a surprise, then, when Henrietta Garnett began her talk by praising the charms of that endangered thing: the independent bookstore. It is no secret that bookstores are finding it harder than ever to survive -- “in these barbaric days,” as Henrietta describes them -- but in some senses that has always been the case . . . just as the future has always looked bleak and frightening to every generation. Henrietta’s own father had a bookshop in the 1920s, and she admitted that his advice was to “never be a bookseller.” But there are people in the world with ink running in their veins, which is one way Henrietta described her own family, and I suppose those people just can’t help it. Running a bookstore might not be a financially sensible thing to do, but there will always be people compelled to do it. (And I, as much as possible, endeavour to help them stay in business.)

Unlike most literary talks, this one seemed to exist merely for the pleasure of bringing people together in this splendid little shop. Most atypically, there was no prominent display of the speaker’s latest book to sell . . . and then be signed. Dennis, the bookstore’s owner, did let me buy a few books, though – and I came away with a biography of Frances Partridge (Henrietta’s mother-in-law), a journal collection of Partridge’s from World War II, and a beautiful book called The London Scene, which contained six essays on “London Life” by Virginia Woolf. Henrietta Garnett generously signed all of these for me, and I particularly appreciate her inscription of the Woolf essays. On the flyleaf there is a quotation from Mrs. Dalloway which reads:

“I love walking in London,” said Mrs. Dalloway,
“Really it’s better than walking in the country.”

Henrietta then wrote: Well; I suspect so in Owlight Twilight & any other night and So might V.W. have thought about Kitty Lushington . . .

How wonderfully elliptical! What riches to decode there, although it didn’t take me long to discover that Kitty Lushington was the real-life inspiration for the Clarissa Dalloway character.

One of the old-fashioned touches of Albion Beatnik is that they still wrap their books in plain paper. My little stack was covered in a dark William Morris green paper, and then decorated by a label that featured the famous words of Jack Kerouac: The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are made to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved . . . and on and on. How appropriate, I thought. For Henrietta Garnett, and that huge tribe of interconnected and interrelated people who are her family, are surely those sorts of people: the ones who “never yawn or say a commonplace thing.”

When Henrietta came out to her stage, she did a little dance for us – and it seemed both theatrical and natural at the same time. She was very slender, with straight dark hair and the fine features that are always described as “carved” in certain writing.

She seemed a bit shy, but more than capable of putting impertinence in its place – much like her Aunt Virginia, I thought.

Henrietta Garnett
who would pose "for sixpence"
for Vanessa Bell, her grandmother

She spoke – rather elliptically here, too – of many of the members of her famous family. She described her “spindly Strachey relations” – with their “brittle bones,” and “high-pitched voices” -- as living in a “spindly house in Gordon Square.” Best of all, she referred to their propensity for asking “corkscrew questions” which showed that they were still interested in the “business of living.”

There was a great sense of being from another age, although Henrietta actually came of age during the 1960s. She mentioned that her father had been born in 1892, the late Victorian era, and that she had grown up in a huge cold house in Huntingdon, outside of Cambridge. It was described by someone as “nobly grammatical in a Puritan landscape.” In the winter, the windows froze from the inside. (I later asked her what she had slept in as a child in the that frigid bedroom, because I am always interested in that sort of detail. She just replied “naked,” with a raised and dismissive eyebrow. Do you suppose she was teasing?) Despite these discomforts, though, she described a childhood home filled beautiful furniture and paintings, and lots of books, and flowing wine and homemade cider. There was a wind-up gramophone, and the dance music of the 1920s was often played. Maybe it’s fanciful of me, but she had a look of the 1920s flapper to me. Henrietta claimed to have never been educated, much, except from the extensive library belonging to her father. I immediately thought of Jane Austen and the Mitford girls, who were also educated predominately from a home library – and being in constant company with good thinkers and talkers.

One of my favourite descriptions from Henrietta’s talk was of the intellectual atmosphere at Charleston – the home of Vanessa and Clive Bell and Duncan Grant, and of course her own mother Angelica. She spoke of “delicious dinners,” “the smell of toast and turpentine,” and the quality of conversation which swooped and soared from subject to subject, without any inhibition whatsoever.” She spoke of the great fun, always, and lots of “cackling” -- how absurdity was never far from the surface, no matter how serious the speaker or the subject.

At a small supper, with just the six of us, she invited us to “ask her something intimate” – but her tone seemed provocative more than sincere, and I suppose we were all too shy to take advantage of the offer. When so many of the secrets of one’s family life are a part of 20th century legend, I would guess that a person needs to develop a good front as protection. She said many interesting things in conversation, but they were always snippets . . . and never a line of thought or narrative. At one point we discussed the importance of friendship, and Henrietta threw out the question of whether or not former lovers could become friends. (Not in most cases, seemed to be the table’s consensus. She took the opposite view, but then gave a very unconvincing example to defend it.)

She reminded us of the Dorothy Parker quotation: Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles. Henrietta’s own life was deeply affected by two of the most famous triangles, but she barely alluded to them. If you are interested in learning more, the obituary of Frances Partridge touches on several of the salient points. But none of this was mentioned, by Henrietta – or by any of the audience. She did say, by way of introduction, that as a child she could only think of her unusual family life as completely normal. She didn’t mention when her consciousness of the extraordinariness of her family began to emerge, but she did allude to the “the intellectual soap opera” which belongs to anyone interested in literary history. One can only imagine how it feels to be part of such a storied family. At one point she mentioned how she hated being compared to people, as she had been subjected to that all of her life. She also told me that she had spent more of her life outside of England, than in it, and I wonder how much a part the heavy Bloomsbury legacy played in that decision.

Henrietta is a tactile person, and frequently clasped my hand as we were chatting. I couldn’t help but think: I am touching the hand that has touched so many of the great figures of the age. It felt, in a literal sense, like reaching back into the last century. It felt like touching the pages of a beloved novel that has suddenly come alive. “You have small hands,” she said to me. And one cannot help but feel rather small next to such an interesting, vivid person.

As Mrs. Dalloway so famously said: What a lark! What a plunge!

If you are interested in attending a talk at the Albion Beatnik bookstore:

Paul Edwards, leading authority on Wyndham Lewis, will be giving a talk at
The Albion Beatnik Walton Street Oxford
24th March 6.00pm

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Bucklebury (the unofficial tour)

This way to Bucklebury:  the little Berkshire village where Kate Middleton's family lives.
The avenue of oak trees were planted for Queen Elizabeth I's visit,
quite a few centuries ago.

I don't think I've ever mentioned it, but we happen to live a couple of miles away from Bucklebury -- the village that a certain princess-to-be has put on the front page.  Although I've yet to see any tour buses, our local newspaper assures us that Kate Middleton tours have commenced.  For the many of you who might find it inconvenient to travel, (not to mention those who lack quite such fervent interest), I humbly offer up a modest tour of my own. 

Of course she has been the royal girlfriend for years, but last week the usually low-key locals were abuzz about wedding invitations.  I gave a birthday lunch last week, and most of my friends knew at least one person who will be watching the ceremony in person -- instead of on the television, like the other several billion of us.

Ryan, who is possibly the world's chattiest postman, received one of the coveted invitations -- and the news spread like wildfire, several days before the national news picked it up.  I was collecting my youngest daughter from a sleepover in Bucklebury, and I heard it from a friend, who had just heard it from the favoured man himself.

There is never more than one degree of separation in any small village, and even though Ryan is not my postman, I've met him several times.  One of my dearest friends used to live at the bottom of a track that runs off Bucklebury Common, and Ryan made it a habit to stop for a cup of tea and natter most days.  He is the most singularly cheerful person you can imagine -- whatever the weather -- and he has probably set records for the length of time it takes him to make his rounds, as he seems to be friends with everyone on his delivery route.

Another invitee was Martin, the local butcher.  I met him once at a friend's barbecue; unsurprisingly, he provided the meat.  Bucklebury is the kind of village where many people still go to a butcher for their Sunday roast.  I noticed that his signboard advertises "venison" and I couldn't help but wonder if the meat comes directly from the local deer, which are plentiful -- not to mention hazardous to drivers and pesky to gardeners.  Deer stalking may be common, but camera stalking certainly isn't.  I felt terribly conspicuous taking pictures by the side of the road.  So far, this rural village seems as quiet as ever.

Kate Middleton's family lives just off "the Common" -- 344 hectares of land which has been owned by the same family since 1540.  Until the 20th century, the villagers had open grazing rights.  These days, it is more woodland than field, but 139 "commoners" have rights of "firebote" (to collect fallen dead wood for the fire) and "hedgebote" (the right to cut wood for fencing or hedging).  Everyone has the right to use the many footpaths, and at any time of day you will see a variety of dog-walkers.  It is not a law that you have to own either a black labrador or a Jack Russell terrier, at least as far as I know, but it does seem to be the accepted practice.

Peach's is the local newsagent . . . what Americans would call a "convenience store," but without the coffee pots, fountain drinks and bait.  Unlike an American convenience store, it also doubles a post office. You can buy your milk and bread and newpapers there, not to mention a hundred other odd and unexpected things.  In a much larger version of this picture, I can just see that the little boy is holding a comic (maybe the Beano?) and a KitKat.  Truly, it is a prosaic place.  All of the local children, including my own -- when they are playing with their Bucklebury friends -- have walked up to Peach's to get some sweets.

The proprietors of Peach's were also invited to the wedding, and collectors of wedding-related trivia may be interested in Prince William's snacking habits.  According to Mrs. Shingadia, the Prince particularly likes Haribo (do you think he likes Starmix?) and mint Vienettas.  I assume he doesn't bother with  Lotto tickets, though.

The road from Bucklebury to Stanford Dingley is narrow and windy and definitely not bus width.
Nevertheless, I've read that The Old Boot Inn (more commonly referred to as "the Boot") is on the tourist circuit.

A couple of years ago, we were eating dinner at The Boot and Kate and her father were there as well.  No one seemed to give them a second glance, but I was terribly aware of them.  Not so my oblivious husband . . . who spoke to her at the bar, and never even realised who she was!  When we heard that she and Prince William were engaged, my daughter said, "Just think, Daddy.  One day you can say that you've spoken to the Queen."

As I was taking this picture, John, the pub's owner, came out of the front door.  He said hello to me, quite graciously, but I was totally mortified.  I must have looked like a Daily Mail photographer in my long wool coat and sunglasses.  I felt like quite the stalker, with my Nikon camera trained on his humble establishment.
(I definitely don't have the temperament to be paparrazi.)
I guess that he will get used to the extra publicity, though, as he has also been invited to the royal wedding.

I wonder if he will rush back for this Royal Wedding Party?
I doubt we will be attending, but it would be fun to see who wins the Best Royal Wedding Hat contest.

Friday, 25 February 2011


According to the BBC weather website,
we've had 30-40% less sunshine
than usual
in January and February.
I would say that it has felt 40% grayer;
yes, at least that.

Cheers for a day of "sunny intervals."

Cheers for snowdrops
and purple crocuses.

Is it purple prose to say
that English spring is paved with flowers?

Here comes the first wave.

the snowdrops are nearly as dense
as the drifts of snow
for which they are named.

I've been coming here every February
for years.  
And never, never has the sun shone.
It's usually quite a shivery experience,
cold hands and chapped cheeks,
but today we took tea outside.

The many visitors,
mostly old and young,
did mostly obey the dictates
to keep off the grass.

But there were a few rule-breakers.
Keen photographers will do anything
to capture their prey.

Wellies are an absolute must,
as the mud to grass ratio
(not to mention the temperature)
does not favor bare feet just yet.
I did hear this, though:
Mom, can I take off my coat?

It's still February, of course
and the sun is a big tease
because rain will be back tomorrow.
But just for today, it is Just-spring
and the world is not just muddy,
but mudluscious

For those who could not resist
fresh spring green
and the year's first warmth
there was one grassy verge.

I wonder which child
first had the notion
to roll down it?

I was almost tempted, too,
to try my forwards roll.
Long forgotten skills:
Let's dust them off
and bring them out
for spring.

In two more weeks
there will be an explosion of daffodils --
always a more reliable source of yellow
than the sun, in spring.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


from the Architects Build Small Spaces exhibition
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Last summer, I took a picture of this small treehouse: 
 described, by its Japanese creator, as Beetle's House.

 The charred pine exterior of this elevated teahouse
 resembles the tough, blackened shell of a beetle.

Tomorrow, we sign the papers that will put The Barn on the market.  After five blissfully settled years, we will somehow gather our things and move them . . . again.  I immediately have a visual image as I write those words:  Just how large would a two-arm's span need to be in order to gather up all of our multitudinous belongings?  The size of a small English county, surely.

Last night I had the first (of what will probably be many) "moving" nightmares.

Eleven years ago we bought The Barn.  My husband likes to say I cried, (because it was so ugly and needed so much work); I don't remember actually crying, but I'm sure that I wanted to.  What hideous rows we used to have in front of the architect.  And even before, before the decision had been made:  when I said, "but it's so ugly" and Sigmund said, "yes, but it's a lot of house for the money."

After a year of work, the house became a place that I wanted to live in -- but even as we moved into it, there was rumbling about a new job, another move. 
And so we moved, back to Texas -- but we kept the house, for five long years, and never really expecting to live in it again.

Five years again, (and six houses in the meantime), we moved back to The Barn . . . and the refiguring and refashioning began again.  This time, I concentrated on creating a garden.  We moved the garage around, and so many square feet of gravel became herbaceous borders.  Grass was dug up to make herb beds.  Roses were planted.  You know that Joni Mitchell song about paving Paradise and putting in a parking lot?  Well, we did it the other way around.

In June, (although certainly not in February), it looks something like this:

Best to sell a house in June, but better to leave it in January.

We have created this little paradise, and the house encases us and our things nearly perfectly, but it is not in the right place . . . and it never has been.  I've never really liked where we lived; it's never felt quite right to me.  I've never felt quite right in it.

In almost twenty years, we've never moved just because we wanted to; such decisions have always been a job-driven and imperative.  I guess that's true of most people.
But now we live in a place where we have no jobs, and soon we will have absolutely no reason to be tethered to it anymore.  Familiarity, yes; and after five years, some friends; and a garden that still hasn't matured.  But we've decided that what basically amounts to inertia (a comfortable inertia, true) is not quite enough reason to stay.

Everyone asks me why we are moving to Oxford -- a place of notoriously high house prices.
Because my daughter is going to school there (the most obvious reason).
Because our teenagers need a town, and more scope for independence -- and we are tired of driving them everywhere.  And speaking of cars, we don't want to be so dependent on them anymore.
Because I want to ride a bicycle.
Because I want cinemas, and museums, and bookstores, and parks and cafes and concerts and something to do on rainy days.  Because there are so very many rainy days in England.

I've been looking at houses in Oxford for more than a year.  I know the offerings by heart; I can tell you which houses have been on the market since last summer and why.  (Any really nice house will hardly surface on a property website; and if it does, it will disappear in a week.)  I realise that we may have to rent for a year, so we (too) can pounce as cash-in-hand buyers.  I realise that, no matter what, I won't have a house as capacious as this one.  (The dining room furniture will definitely have to go.  And where will we put all of the wedding china, and the crystal glasses that my husband loves?)  Compromises will have to be made.  But still, I want a bicycle -- with a wicker basket in front to put the shopping in.  I want to know bookish people, because I've never really fit in with the horsey/shooting types who vote Conservative no matter what.

I want this move, but I'm a veteran when it comes to moving and I don't underestimate the cost of upheaval.

It would all be so much easier if we could just fit into a little treehouse . . . or like the beetle, take our house with us. 

Sunday, 6 February 2011

This is not a snow story

Definite signs of life in the February garden:
poppy leaves, dwarf iris, grape hyacinth
witchhazel, viburnum, primrose
azalea buds, tulip shoots, snowdrops
(click on them twice to enlarge)

It's one of those bleakish, windy days despised by people with fine (ie, "difficult") hair.
Wintry and dull, still, but there are definitely signs of burgeoning green life in the garden.  This is the compensation for English winter, with its long string of gray days.  The damp earth, hardly ever frozen, is so fertile -- even in February.

For the past couple of weeks, I feel like I have been making all sorts of preparations for what is to come:
New passports and endless forms have been filled out for my oldest daughter's trip to Africa.
The house is being touched up for its launch on the spring housing market.
My youngest daughter has been prepped, for countless hours, for her scholarship exams this month.
And every day, sending out feelers about new jobs and work studies and a new house.

We're laying the groundwork, but time still has that suspended "waiting" quality to it.

I've been asking advice (from all and sundry) about how to keep the muntjac deer away from my tulips.
Our gardener suggested putting a radio set on a low volume into the beds.
Apparently the deer have keen hearing and shy away from human noise.

Do you think this will work?
(Sigmund is highly doubtful,
but that is his reflexive position on many questions.)

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

It's terrible to be between books

On January 6, as I was dismantling the Christmas tree, I was also listening to Bookclub on Radio 4. 

The recent Booker Prize winner, Howard Jacobson, was talking about one of his novels -- and to tell the truth, I was listening half-heartedly until he got on to the topic of failure and its relationship to readers and writers.  He started off by saying, quite reasonably, that he was only interested in writing about failure because success didn't make for very interesting characters or plots.  But then, quite startlingly, he flung out the idea that we are writers -- and readers, even -- because we are failures at life.

Did I imagine that the collective intake of breath from his live audience turned into a sort of hissing . . .?

Maybe I remember it wrongly, but I do recall that he start "explaining" (backpeddling, in fact) rapidly.
Apparently what he really meant is that we are readers (and failures at life) because we want the world to be another (different and better) place.  Writers (and also readers) have gone into the imagination to remake and relive the world.

I have been ruminating on this assertion, especially because I find myself hiding out in books at this time of year.  Do I read more when I am depressed?  Well, yes.  But then I always have a book on the go, whether happy or sad, and my involvement in it has more to do with its own intrinsic interest (I will venture to say) than my own emotional state.  Do I actually want to remake the world through reading?  No, I don't think so.  Relive the world?  Well, of course; I appreciate the access to all of those other worlds I would otherwise be ignorant and deprived of.

This time last year I made a resolution to keep better track of what I read.  (Like any avid reader, sometimes I consume books so rapidly that I can barely remember the plot -- much less character names -- by the following month.)  My dear blog-friend Relyn recommended goodreads -- and although it took me a while to get started, and to be consistent with my recording, I have come to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it.

I was looking through the list of books I read last year, and I started thinking about how some books create such a compelling world that it is always a bit of a wrench to leave that place.  In most cases, it's not that I would want to live there -- even if I could; but rather, that I have been so thoroughly immersed in that imaginative design that it becomes, for a time, more real than the "real world."  I think that I know the characters; I'm swept up into the plot; and yes, I feel a sense of loss when the words run out and I turn the final page.  Do I prefer books to real life?  (Does it make me a failure to admit that is sometimes the case?)

On goodreads, the reader gives each book a starred rating -- from one stars to five (the rather cheesy "it was amazing" rating).  The books on the following list weren't always a FIVE, and I wouldn't claim that they were perfect books and that anyone would love them, but they were the books that transported me to a fictional world that felt quite, quite real.  I was a tiny bit bereft when I finished them.

The Priory, by Dorothy Whipple
The Group, by Mary McCarthy
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst,
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, Monique Roffey
The Cookbook Collector, Allegra Goodman
Any Human Heart, William Boyd

It strikes me, looking at this list, that I'm partial to a reading experience that begins with The . . .

I leave you with some borrowed words from another delightful book that begins with The:
The Love Letter, by Cathleen Schine

"I need something to read," a man said to Helen.
Her attention shifted to him instantly and completely.
"It's terrible to be between books," she said.
And Johnny marveled at the tenderness of her voice.  It suddenly seemed
terrible to him, too, to be between books, though he was
often between books for months and had never really noticed it before.
"It's so disorienting, isn't it? Helen was saying.
"Like a divorce.  An amicable one, but still."

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Slouching towards 2011

For the past two weeks, my daughter has been working on a sculpture inspired by Winter.
She started with dead tree branches, and a sketchbook full of assocations, and ended up with something rather spidery and menacing.  Here, it looks rather like a large and upright praying mantis.

I'm not phobic about creepy, crawly things, but I do have an uncomfortable relationship with January.
This year it seems to be particularly bad, although -- as one of my friends tactfully told me -- "you are never very good in January.

We had an excessively sociable December, and maybe part of what I'm experiencing is a natural burn-out.
Winter is the time for renewal, as we all know, but I do hate the diminishment of my natural energies and enthusiasm.  I've had no energy for resolutions this year; and no desire for anything other than sleeping, reading and -- while the fleeting pleasure lasted -- watching episodes of Downton Abbey.  It's not that I'm lying prone on the sofa, and in fact I've had some hurry-scurry days, but still I feel like I'm just going through the motions . . . waiting, somehow, for things to begin.

It doesn't help that dusk seems to come at 3 pm, and the sky is a mass of smothering weeping cloud.  I do love England, my adopted country, but my native Texan self does suffer at this time of year.

Still, getting to the point of being able to write about it, is probably a sign that I'm beginning to emerge from the worst of my annual winter funk.  Here is a poem, which I dedicate to my fellow SAD sufferers, by the wonderful Linda Pastan.


Is is seasonal affective disorder
I suffer from?  This special lamp
I bought doesn't help at all,
but I do light up whenever
the sun itself appears.  you say
the blossoms are most themselves
on a cloudy day, as if contrast
is what flowers are about.
But I feel as swollen with useless tears
as the clouds must be with rain,
projecting their shadows
over fields that are simply waiting
to blaze back to green.

The world is always going to pieces,
and we're all growing rapidly
towards our deaths, even the children.
But just one hit of sun,
one almost lethal shot
of pure, yellow light
(like the hand of some saint
I don't even believe in
touching my face)
and I'll forget the whole broken world,
forget the impermanence of beauty.
I'll simply catch on fire from
a single spoke of sun.

With a single exception, everyone in my family has a January birthday.  When I am in a wintery mood, (see the beginning of the second stanza), that seems like an exceptionally grim thing.  Please forgive me; I'm having a morbid moment.  The forecast is nothing but rain, rain, rain, but hopefully I will be myself again soon.

January:  I can't wait to see the back of you.