Monday 2 January 2012

A bit of earth

The seasons have gone by faster than usual this year, my daughter said to me as we were walking down a narrow, mud-slippery lane.  
Not quite 14 is my daughter; have enough years gone by for her to utter this commonplace?

But then I reflected:   perhaps she doesn’t speak of time at all, in the sense of a seasonal round that seems to speed up with every passing year, but rather of the word that she actually uses.  Seasons, not time. The seasons – their expected shape, their accustomed progression -- have blurred.  That topsy-turvyness has been a feature all year long.

January now, and winter has still not come properly.   Fresh plants, not of this time, are presenting themselves in the garden:  a daisy from the summer, a pansy from last spring, patches of grape hyacinth usually associated with late February and spring green shoots everywhere.  An inexplicable mound of flat-leaf parsley has self-seeded itself by the porch . . . blown, no doubt, from the nearby pot where it failed to thrive during the cold, wet summer.  Spring already, if judging by all that activity underground and not the low, gray sky.

There are some years when it is a relief to turn the page, to buy a blank calendar and pin it to the wall like one’s colours to the mast.  I still have enough optimism to expect and hope that this year will be better.  That which has been stuck will be forced to shift and change.

This picture has to be decoded, explained.
The green shoots are obvious, what is not so apparent is the quality of the soil itself.
In December, the first “batch” of home-grown compost was spread on our garden.   I don’t mind sounding ridiculous here; it was a great satisfaction to me.

This compost took two years to accumulate, in a purpose made bin behind the garage:  countless trips with a pail of kitchen scraps, not to mention leaves and grass cuttings from many seasons.  Then two years to marinate in its own heat and weight, to break down, to become a dense rich brown.  When we lifted the heavy canvas I was thrilled (in the most physical sense of the word) to see what eight seasons had wrought. 
Is two years a long time, or a surprisingly short one, for such a transformation?

So often it is our small, consistent efforts that gradually, so gradually, amount to some really worthwhile change.   All year I feel like I have been making compost of various kinds, and sometimes the effort has felt rather futile.  No doubt I have been nourished all along, even if the more obvious effects have been deferred.

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