Saturday, 29 September 2012

Birmingham's Spectacular Catacombs

Looking down on the Catacombs at Warstone Lane Cemetery
in Birmingham.

For three decades or more I have lived a 20-minute train from Birmingham (England, not Alabama) and I had NO IDEA the city has its own Catacombs until Younger Daughter took me there a couple of weeks ago (before my mother was ill). Sadly, they are all bricked up, so you can't go inside, and they look very neglected, but nevertheless they are absolutely spectacular, ever so slightly spooky, and well worth a visit.

They are slap-bang in the middle of the Warstone Lane Cemetery, on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter, and I've never seen anything like them. They reminded me of some kind of Roman amphitheatre – something to do with the circular (or perhaps that should be semi-circular) shape I think, and the terraces and the arched entrances around a flat arena-like area. To start with we assumed these were family vaults, but I've done a bit of research, and as far as I can gather they were for poor folk, and coffins were just stacked inside the tunnels, which sounds a bit grisly.
A closer view of the bricked-up tunnels.
In the 19th century Birmingham was a manufacturing power house where wealthy financiers and businessmen made their fortunes. But the people who worked in the factories lived in squalid conditions, with overcrowding, no proper sanitation, and inadequate water supplies. Illness was rife and mortality rates were high. Graveyards, apparently, were as overcrowded as the streets of terraces and back-to-backs – so much so that in some places 'boring rods' were used to check if there was room for another burial! And at some of the city's churches there were so many interments that the ground was raised several feet above street level.

Facilities were obviously inadequate, so a group of non-conformists established their own cemetery at Key Hill in 1836, and 12 years later Birmingham Church of England Cemetery Company established another graveyard close by, at Warstone Lane. It was created in an old sandpit, and the Catacombs were tunnelled into the sides on two levels, to create more space, while normal burials in proper graves took place on the rest of site.
Memorial stones have been inserted at the
entrance to one or two tunnels.
Bizarrely, when Christ Church, in the centre of Birmingham, was demolished in 1899 the remains of 600 bodies were moved to the Warstone Lane Catacombs. They were taken in funeral coaches, which travelled in a dignified, slow procession, as was right and proper – but it was all a bit 'cloak and dagger' because the journeys took place at night (under cover of darkness) so residents wouldn't be disturbed, and it all sounds quite macabre.

Among those who were transferred to the Catacombs was the renowned printer and typographer John Baskerville, and the story of how he came to be there is very odd indeed. As an atheist he had no wish to be buried in consecrated ground, so when he died in 1775 he was buried in a mausoleum in his garden. , where he lay forgotten some 50 years, until gravel was excavated from the land. He was moved to a warehouse – where visitors paid sixpence (which was probably a lot of money at the time) to see his embalmed body! Then he was moved again, to the shop of a plumber and glazier. By this time, of course, the body was less well preserved than it had been, and people were no longer keen to see (or smell) it! In desperation, the poor old plumber/glazier had the body buried secretly at Christ Church, and from there poor old Baskerville's mortal remains were shifted once again, to the tunnels at Warstone Lane.
The view from the ground.
Baskerville (one of the fonts he created) is still a classic typeface and, since I was once a journalist, I would have liked to pay a tribute to this great typographer and printer by using it for this post but it's not listed on Blogger or Open Office. 

The cemetery also also provides the final resting place for Major Harry Gem who, with the help of a friend, invented lawn tennis in 1860 or thereabouts, and Pte James Cooper, who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1867 for bravery at sea rescuing colleagues from cannibals in the Andaman Islands.
Part of the main graveyard at Warstone Lane.
I'm not sure when the last burial in the Catacombs took place, but apparently people lived in the tunnels during WW2. However, I'm not sure if they were used as shelters (like the London Tube stations), or whether bombed-out families set up home in them. Either way, it must have been pretty unpleasant. Today the entrances are bricked in and plastered over (to prevent vandalism and accidents I suppose) although a couple do have memorial stones set into them. A section of the wall is in danger of collapse and has been shored up, and the whole area looks in need of some tender loving care.

The entire cemetery, along with the one at Keys Hill (which also has Catacombs, but I haven't been there yet), is 'listed', and volunteers help maintain both areas, which are not only architecturally unique, but have also become havens for wildlife and plants. I think plans for improvements are included in an ongoing scheme which takes in the whole of the Jewellery Quarter, so hopefully something will done.
The blue brick Victorian lodge at Warstone Lane Cemetery
still stands, although it has been sold for offices. But the Gothic
chapel, dedicated to St Michael, was demolished in 1958.
For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at 

Edited, Saturday: I forgot to attribute my sources! Information in this blog was taken mainly from  the website for the Jewellery Quarter at and the book 'A History of Birmingham', by local historian Chris Upton.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Saturday Flowers!

I know it is Sunday, and I should not have a  Saturday Snapshot, but in some parts of the globe (like American Samoa and Hawaii) I believe it is still yesterday, which makes this post OK!

Anyway, this week's Snapshot is very brief (as well as being very late) because my mother is ill, and I am looking after her. So here is a picture I took yesterday of one of her fuschias, and a shot of part of her lovely garden, which is her pride and joy. Aged 85, she still does the garden herself, and grows the plants from seeds and cuttings - she has real 'green fingers' and sticks tiny fragments of flowers and shrubs into pots of earth, or even jars of water, and they flourish for her. She says she talks to them and that's what makes the difference!

Despite being so independent, she has allowed me to mow the grass - but only because she is not well enough to do it herself!

For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A Barrowful of Bacon, and Coffee by the Tubload

It's September, and Elizabeth von Arnim's Solitary Summer has run its course with the arrival of 500 soldiers (and their horses), who are being quartered at the farm, and 30 officers (plus their servants) who are staying in the house. In addition there are other officers billeted in surrounding villages who must be invited to dinner. Actually, according to Elizabeth, 'quartering' is not accurate and she prefers the German word Einquartierung. Since I never studied German (I did Latin, and was very bad at it) I cannot tell you what this means, but whatever the definition, Elizabeth gives a detailed account of the disruption caused by the military visitors.

She describes the two-week event as an epidemic which 'rages' at the end of almost every summer:

'… when cottages and farms swarm with soldiers and horses, when all the female part of the population gets engaged to be married and will not work, when all the male part is jealous and wants to fight, and when my house is crowded with individuals so brilliant and decorative in their dazzling uniforms that I wish I might keep a bunch of the tallest and slenderest for ever in a big china vase in a corner of the drawing-room.'

The 'holy calm' of her home is disrupted by the clanking of officers and the 'grievous wailings' of her servants, who are faced with a massive amount of extra work in the main house. And, since there is no room on the farm for all the extra men and horses, the Man of Wrath has ordered temporary sheds to be erected, to provide stables, dormitories where the soldiers can sleep, and dining rooms where they can eat.

'Nor is it easy to cook for five hundred people more than usual, and all the ordinary business of the farm comes to a standstill while the hands prepare barrowfuls of bacon and potatoes, and stir up coffee and milk sugar together with a pole in a tub.'
I love that image of the agricultural workers boiling up vast quantities of coffee for the soldiers – and I only hope harvest was over by the time the army arrived!

Elizabeth and her husband receive six pfennigs a day for providing accommodation for a common soldier, and another six pfennigs a day for his horse, with an additional daily payment of eight pfennigs for food – the daily allowance of provisions for each man is two pounds of bread, half a pound of meat, a quarter of a pound of bacon, and either a quarter of a pound of rice or barley, or three pounds of potatoes.

There is a higher rate of pay for taking in officers – two marks fifty a day, without wine. Presumably officers, being from a higher social class, get better food, as well as enjoying the company of the von Arnims. But they create a lot of extra work:

'The thirty we have now do not, as I could have wished, all go out together in the morning and stay out till the evening, but some go out as others come in, and breakfast is not finished till lunch begins, and lunch drags on till dinner, and all day long the dining-room is full of meals and officers, and we ceased a week ago to have the least feeling that the place, after all, belongs to us.'

They must have needed bedding as well, but Elizabeth doesn't mention this. Did the house have that many extra beds, along with sheets, blankets and pillows, or did the officers kip on the floor, curled up in the 19th century equivalent of a sleeping bag which they (or, more likely, their servants) carried around with them?

The whole thing reminds me of one of the royal progresses when medieval and Tudor monarchs upped sticks and marched the entire court around the country, staying at other people's castles and stately homes, generally at great expense and considerable inconvenience to their host.

All in all, Elizabeth believes herself to be a much-tried woman, and she has a point. Her soldiers, whom I assume were on some kind of manoeuvres in the area, include the 'upper' part of the regimental band (by this I think she means instruments with higher notes – the bass musicians are in the next village) and the men march past the window, playing their instruments, at six in the morning.
And she is kept busy all day as she organises the household, tries to keep things running smoothly, soothes the servants' shattered nerves, makes amiable conversation with the officers, and tries to look happy. But she longs to be out in her garden, inhaling the perfume of roses and ripe fruits, enjoying the sunshine, admiring her plants, and listening to the bees and the larks.

In fact, she tells us, she prefers larks to the beautiful, charming young men who have invaded her home. She goes on to discuss the various ranks of officer (no-one lower than a colonel pleases her) and how difficult it is to talk to a lieutenant - and she recalls the visit of one such young man earlier in the year, who was especially tiresome, although he was

'.. the most beautiful specimen of his class that I have ever seen, so beautiful indeed in his white uniform that the babies took him for an angel-visitant of the type that visited Abraham and Sarah, and began in whispers to argue about wings.'

In her final, brief 'entry', for October 1, Elizabeth insists she has never spent a happier summer, but admits that being solitary has not helped her soul grow. And so we love her, her head resting on the Man of Wrath's shoulder, his arm encircling her waist. What, as she asks us, could possibly be more praiseworthy, or more picturesque?

NB: I've re-posted this because I had it and scheduled, and when I came to check it things were all muddled up and looked very peculiar indeed.

Monday, 17 September 2012

True Love and a Happy Ending

When Hetty Longden arrives at her boyfriend's cottage and finds him in bed with another woman she rips up the embroidered antique sheet which covers the couple, and drives into his expensive Porsche, wrecking her own car in the process. Heart-broken, she abandons job and flat, and retreats to her parents' home. But her mother, determined not to let Hetty wallow in self pity, packs her off to house sit for great-uncle Samuel.

The house in question is a beautiful old mansion, falling into decay after years of neglect. There is no money for repairs, and Connor, the heir to the property - whom Hetty hates even before she meets him - wants to turn his inheritance into a theme park. So Hetty unites the villagers and sets out to save the building and its surrounding land. And the scene is set for conflict and misunderstanding, before the inevitable, highly satisfying happy ending.

Stately Pursuits is classic Katie Fforde and is thoroughly enjoyable. As I've said before, some people turn their noses up at her work, and are very dismissive of romantic fiction, but I think they are missing out. Like Maeve Binchy, Fforde is a great story teller, and has a warmth and compassion that shines through. Her heroines, including Hetty, are feisty, independent, intelligent women, who don't always recognise true love when they stumble across it, but are always credibly drawn, and the host of minor characters are also entirely believable. And it's the relationships between characters that is one of Katie Fforde's great strengths. She writes well, with wit, humour and intelligence, and creates tightly constructed plots that keep you glued to the page (well, I can never put them down, and I'm sure there are many readers who feel the same way).

It could be argued that there's a certain similarity in plots: girl meets boy, there's some kind of misunderstanding (or else they hate each other on sight), there are various problems to be overcome, and eventually they get it together and, one hopes, live happily ever after. And what's so wrong with that? After all, when you think about it, the love lives of Elizabeth Bennett, Margaret Hale, Molly Gibson and Jane Eyre all follow a similar pattern!

There's no shock of language here, and no experimentation with the format of the novel, so I dare say Fforde wouldn't win approval from a Man Booker judge. But there are times when you want something familiar that's light and comforting, something that you don't have to analyse, or think too deeply about.

Oh dear, I seem to have ended up writing a general piece about Katie Fforde, rather than a specific review of this book, but it was a lovely read, and was very funny in places – I loved the account of poor Hetty trying to get to grips with the antiquated kitchen, and the way we can see that she and Connor are meant for each other, even though she refuses to acknowledge the attraction she feels. And, despite the 'stately' setting, it's very down to earth, and Hetty is so likeable, and so willing to set to and turn her hand to anything as she fights to keep the house alive, that you can't fail to be charmed by the story. I know it's a fairy tale, but I've always had a weakness for fair tales, and this is no exception.

This particular edition, published by Penguin in 1998, is another of those Katie Fforde books with a proper painted cover picture, which I always snap up when I see them because they are so much more pleasing than those modern pastel fronts which scream 'chick-lit' at you and seem to be a uniform design. Illustrations on the older versions of Fforde's novels are much more individual and, I think, much more suited to her work. The cover on this book was painted by Jean-Paul Tibbles, who is known for his beautifully detailed portraits.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Oh, I Do Like To be Beside the Seaside!

We've had a few warm days recently, but it's not been much of a summer, so when I came across these seaside pictures, taken in Bognor Regis a couple of years ago, it conjured up images of a lovely hot autumnal day during a mini-break down on the south coast. So, even though I've used them before, I couldn't resist posting them again for a Saturday Snapshot, with apologies to anyone who has already seen them!
When I was a child we holidayed in and around Bognor on several occasions, and I remember a bustling seafront, packed with deckchairs on the shingle beach, and crowds of shrieking children paddling in the sea. But when we visited in October 2010, despite the blue sky and sunshine, it had the deserted out-of-season look common to most seaside towns at this time of the year, and it seemed smaller and less prosperous than I remembered.
Most of the businesses based in the brightly coloured wooden huts on the promenade had locked up for the winter but a few were still plying their trade. I was tempted to buy a shiny, metallic windmill, stuck into a polystyrene base sculpted into sand-dunes and painted a particularly bilious shade of yellow - but the display was so cheery and cheeky it seemed a shame to disturb it.
We sat on garden chairs beside a strangely impermanent-looking cafe, and sipped scalding hot tea in paper cartons as we watched the waves break on the shore, where a small boy, undeterred by the lack of sand, set to with his plastic bucket and spade to create a stonecastle, surrounded by a traditional moat.
We listened to the cries of the seagulls, and the swoosh and crunch of the waves on the shingle, soaked up the sunshine, stared into the horizon where the sea and sky merged into each other and felt at peace with the world.
I'm sure we enjoyed it more than George V, who stayed there in 1929, recuperating from illness, and residents were so delighted with this honour they asked his permission to add Regis to the town's name. Royal assent was given, but the king seems to have been unimpressed - his final words are alleged to have been 'Bugger Bognor', uttered when someone suggested he would soon be well enough to visit the resort again! Sadly, perhaps, I think this is an urban myth, and there seems to be no evidence to back it up.

For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Consequences - Beware of Spoilers

If you don't like spoilers, then don't read this post, because I'm going to give away an ending! Now I realise that many of you don't like to be told what happens in a novel, but I've always been quite happy to know the outcome in advance - indeed, sometimes I even sneak a peek at the final chapter because I can't wait to find out. My shelves are full of books which I've read so often I could probably recite huge chunks of them from memory, but knowing the ending never detracts from my enjoyment. And there are classics and popular books which are so well known that they've become part of our literary culture, and it would be hard to avoid knowledge of the plots and characters.

Then there are novels where the ending is such an intrinsic part of the story that it colours your view, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to write a review without mentioning it. And EM Delafield's Consequences was just such a book. It takes a brave author to end a story with the suicide of the central character, told from the perspective of that person, but that is just what Delafield does here, and she does it with immense sympathy and dignity, showing us the utter desolation of a woman who has failed to find any meaning in her life.

I downloaded EM Delafield's
'Consequences' from Girlebooks.
Throughout her life Alex Clare remains isolated and disconnected from those around her, and never, ever manages to find her niche. She is the eldest child of wealthy Sir Francis and Lady Isabel, and we first meet her in the nursery, playing a game of Consequences with her brothers and sisters. A pretty child, she is unloved: her siblings think she is too bossy, and her parents see so little of their offspring they rely on Nurse for character descriptions – and Nurse believes Alex is violent, overbearing and quarrelsome.

The children see their mother for half an hour on Sundays when they go down to the drawing room after tea (except during the season), an experience enjoyed only by Alex, because it provides 'the notice that her soul loved'. But when she is 12 Alex almost kills her sister Barbara, persuading her to be a tight-rope dancer on a skipping rope tied to the stairposts. Barbara falls and injures her back, so Alex is sent to school in disgrace.

Alex went to school at the end of September. And that was her first practical experience of the game of Consequences, as played by the freakish hand of fate.

For the school, a Belgian convent, is cold and cheerless (physically and emotionally). Alex finds it difficult to make friends, but forms unsuitable one-sided attachments, first to a young nun, and then to beautiful Queenie, who is most definitely not 'one of us'. (My last post was about a real-life Victorian lady who also had a predilection for unsuitable relationships, and I begin to wonder if well-brought-up Victorian women saw such escapades as a form of escape from the narrow confines of their lives.) Anyway, Alex's need for love remains unfulfilled, just as it did at home:

She despised herself secretly, both for her intense craving for affection, and for her prodigality in bestowing it. She was like a child endeavouring to pour a great pailful of water into a very little cup.

When Queenie leaves, she seems to suffer some kind of breakdown, and her reputation for being difficult is firmly established. Academically she learns little, and the girls are taught nothing of arts they need to survive in society so, since such knowledge does not come naturally to Alex, she returns home awkward, badly dressed, unable to make polite conversation and totally unprepared for the social whirl she encounters at her coming out. At this point I have to ask why her parents sent her to such an inadequate establishment. Did they know – or care – that this horrible place did not meet the needs of their daughter (or, come to that, of any other girl)? What on earth were they thinking of ? Did they select the school as a punishment, knowing how bad it was, or did someone recommend it, and were they under the impression that Alex would be transformed into an educated, elegant young lady?
Her mother is disappointed. Alex lacks grace, can't flirt like the other girls, or make light-hearted conversation, and she doesn't seem interested in the life she is expected to lead. By the end of her first season Alex has failed to receive a proposal of marriage, but eventually she does get engaged , to Noel, who is pompous and passionless, but must have a woman to run his house and estate.
The Family of Queen Victoria, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
in 1846, helped promote the image of loving, caring families.
But in may upper class Victorian homes children rarely saw
their parents.
Alex, realising they don't love each other, and wanting something from life that he can't offer, breaks off the engagement, to the bewilderment of those around her. She forms another of her one-sided attachments, to a Mother Superior, and becomes a nun, spending ten years following a harsh regime in a Belgian convent. But when Mother Gertrude moves elsewhere, Alex realises she has no true vocation, and suffers another break-down. She leaves the order, singularly ill-equipped to cope with the demands of normal life, and somehow the final tragedy – when Alex fills her pockets with stones and walks into a pool on Hampstead Heath - takes on a terrible inevitability.

'Consequences' is not an easy read, and Alex is not an easy character: it's difficult to like her, but I felt so sorry for her – how could you not sympathise with such an unloved child who is denied the care and nurture she needs. Unlike her brothers and sisters she never finds her niche in life, and never learns how to 'play the game'. She always feels different, and seems alienated from people, finding it difficult to form relationships or to communicate with others. She cannot understand people, and they cannot understand her, and she is convinced life and people have treated her unfairly, and feels inadequate, but doesn't seem to be able to rouse herself to take any positive action. I wondered if Delafield based Alex on a real person – someone suffering some kind of condition within the autistic spectrum perhaps, or someone with a personality disorder or chronic depression.

Published in 1919, it lacks the humour of the Provincial Lady books, which were written much later, and at first glance it seems very different (it is certainly much grimmer). But concerns about society and it's values, and women's roles within society, are present in all publications (just as they are in The War-Workers). It highlights the dependence of upper-class women on men, and the necessity for them to marry well and do the right thing (they were not expected to work, and were left high and dry when property went to the eldest son). It also shows how little attention was paid to children – which is odd when you consider how much Victorians professed to value family life.

I downloaded this to my Kindle (free of charge) from Girle Books, but I would dearly like a copy of the 'proper' book published by Persephone, with fabulous endpapers and a bookmark to match.
The design on the endpapers of the Persephone edition is 'Thistle',
a Silver Studio block-printed cotton which went on sale in Liberty's 
in 1896 (when Alex was 19).

Monday, 10 September 2012

Love Among the Butterflies

One of my daughters took this photograph in the museum at
Plymouth. The butterflies on display are not from Margaret
Fountaine's collection, but I like the picture!
Margaret Fountaine was a feisty Victorian Englishwoman of independent means who travelled the world for 50 years collecting butterflies, and was totally unfazed by the unaccustomed situations and conditions she encountered, seeing off drunken men, robbers, fleas, snakes, mosquitoes, riots, wars, troublesome natives and the odd stray lion.

She visited 60 countries on six continents, journeying through mountains, marshes, tropical forests and deserts, and enduring excruciating heat, searing cold, drenching monsoon rains, bitter winds, mist and snow. Her accommodation ranged from palatial hotels and the homes of friends and fellow collectors to run-down boarding houses, remote monasteries, mud huts, and a beehive-like shepherds’ shelter, constructed from large, loose stones.

Victorian traveller and butterfly collector
Margaret Fountaine - I think she looks
very determined.
Sanitation and washing facilities were often 'unmentionable'; clean, comfortable bedding was rare and she slept – not always happily - on coconut matting, bamboo poles, and brushwood piled on bare earth and covered with rugs.

She began her travels after being abandoned by the man she hoped to marry, but seems to have attracted many other men throughout her long life (including a Sicilian bandit and a Hungarian nobleman). However, she found happiness with a handsome Syrian guide and translator who was 15 years her junior. and they lived,worked and travelled together, unmarried, for some 27 years.

Margaret recorded her experiences in a series of diaries, published by Collins in two parts, and then by Virago in one volume, Love Among the Butterflies, The Travels and Adventures of a Victorian Lady, and this is the edition I found. Sadly, it now seems to be unavailable, but the story of how it came to be printed is the stuff of fairy-tales.

When she died in 1940, aged 78, Margaret left her vast collection of butterflies to Norwich Museum, together with a mysterious black japanned box, which was sealed and padlocked, and came with instructions that it was not to be opened until April 15th, 1978. On that date 12 ledgers were discovered, containing her diaries, dated from 1878 to 1939. They are annual reports (written up from her earlier notes) and rarely mention a month, let alone a precise day, but they are surprisingly intimate in places, and reveal a woman who was obsessive, independent, and fearless, with a tremendous joy and enthusiasm for life.

As you read, it soon becomes apparent that Margaret, the daughter of a Norfolk vicar, had a penchant for unsuitable men. At 21 she developed an all-consuming passion for Septimus Hewson, a paid chorister at Norwich Cathedral. For seven years she pursued him with the relentless determination she later used to hunt butterflies. When he was sacked for drinking she followed him to Ireland, and considered herself engaged – but he thought otherwise.
She sought solace through travel, and while in Switzerland she tells us:

My 1997 edition of  'Love Among the
Butterflies'. If you see a copy, snap it
up, because it is a fascinating read.
I would often spend my afternoons at at St Jean and go out with an an English girl after butterflies, a pursuit which once once started became all-absorbing. I filled my pocket box with butterflies,s ome I had only seen in pictures as a child and yet recognised the moment I caught sight of them on the wing.

From that moment she was captivated, and spent the rest of her life hunting butterflies, often in the most inhospitable and inaccessible places. When her money ran out she accepted commissions from other collectors, and she bred many of the butterflies in her collection from from eggs or caterpillars, keeping notes and painting specimens (her sketch-books are in the Natural History Museum).

Despite her passion she was always aware that she caused the death of the creatures she loved, and in 1892 she wrote:

I caught a splendid specimen of male Brimstone, thinking that though it was common enough in England I should always love to think that it was caught in Italy. It gave me a pang of remorse to take this beautiful creature from her flowers and her sunshine, which I knew so well how to enjoy; the death of the butterfly is the one drawback to an entomological career.

But it's the human side of the diaries which is so fascinating: Margaret wrote about her feelings and relationships, and gave wonderful descriptions of the people she met and the places she visited, offering glimpses into worlds that have changed beyond all recognition.
Near Mesolonghi she gets caught in a shower of rain and gets wet through, so she seeks shelter at a mountain monastery:

The kindly monks had a sort of open stove filled with smouldering cinders placed at my disposal, and also provided me with a cassock, with many apologies that they were not in a position to offer me a more strictly feminine garment while my own dress was being dried. Then later on they placed before us a simple luncheon of poached egg and a kind of sweet confiture made from rose leaves mixed with sugar.

Margaret at Palm Springs, America.
In 1923, unable to continue with her travels in China, she gives us a sense of how chaotic things were:

China was in a turmoil from end to end; trains had been attacked by bandits on the main line between Shanghai and Pekin, and many foreigners robbed, and taken away by the bandits to be held for ransom. Even on the sea and up the rivers pirates were busy attacking boats, while in the interior civil war was raging.

Central to the diary – apart from her obsession with butterflies – is her relationship with Khalil Neimy, the dragoman (guide and translator) she met in Damascus on a late May afternoon in 1900 or 1901:

he had a crushed almost cowed look; though his hair was quite fair his eyebrows and eyelashes and mustache were dark, and it was almost a boyish face beneath the tarboosh which he wore thrown far back... All I thought as I looked at this man for the first time was that he was very fair for a Syrian, and I liked to see a really fair man for a change. I noticed that his grey eyes were always looking towards me.

Since European women cannot walk around on their own, she employs him, but his attentions annoy and entrance her in equal measure:

... I did not choose to have my hand kissed first thing in the morning – later in the day I would perhaps graciously submit to this humble act of adoration, though I could not help thinking sometimes that the kisses were a trifle more fervent than the occasion seemed to demand, and once I pulled my hand away, but he looked so awfully hurt that I never had the heart to do that again...

She finds his ‘untiring devotion and constant adoration' is 'decidedly pleasant’ and agrees to marry him, despite the differences in their culture, class and age - she is 39, he is 24. I thought her account of their engagement was very touching:
A page from Margaret's diary, with Khalil's photograph
pasted in.
And then – out there beneath the shadows of those great rocks neat Baalbeck, on that glorious summer morning I solemnly vowed to Khalil Neimy that I would be his wife, and the I said, ‘I have never kissed you once, but now I will give you one for the first time’, and I kissed him on the cheek, which was smooth and pink like a boy’s, and we held each other's hand and swore to be true. And all the time the big, brown butterflies flitted unmolested to and fro among the hot rocks.

Margaret makes it clear that they lived as man and wife, but the relationship was not always easy - it turned out that Khalil already had a wife and children, and he made frequent trips home to care for his mother. He died on a visit to his Damascus home in 1929, still proclaiming his love for Margaret and insisting that his divorce had finally been granted. How can I bear to tell it?” Margaret writes in her diary, adding: “Nothing could help or comfort me now.”

 She continued her work, on her own, and was collecting butterflies in Trinidad when she died in 1940. A monk discovered her collapsed on the roadside, her butterfly net nearby. She was carried to the guesthouse of the monastery, where she died, and was buried on the island.

I loved this book and thought it was a real 'find'. There is so much detail in the diaries – which are very readable and very enjoyable – that it's impossible to give a comprehensive view of Margaret and her life, but I must mention WF Cater, who edited the diaries skilfully, providing resumés of the sections which were left out. He tracked down people who had known Margaret and, thanks to his researches,the book includes some fascinating details about Margaret, her family, and Khalil. 
More butterflies from Plymouth Museum!

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Taking a Wrong Turning

The long and winding road... it was the first
time we had ever seen grass growing in the
middle of the road!
Today's Saturday Snapshot is a kind of follow-up on last week's, because on the way back from Bigbury Beach and Burgh Island we took a wrong turning, and instead of driving along the'A' road we wanted, we found ourselves on a single track country lane, with grass growing in the middle! Parts of it were so overgrown it was like being in an ancient hollow way.

The Man Of The House was driving, and Elder Daughter was navigating, with the aid of her SatNav, which is usually very reliable. However, it failed to differentiate between 'bear left' and 'turn left' so somewhere along the line the Man Of The House, who possesses a very good sense of direction (unlike me and Elder Daughter), failed to continue along the main road (which gently curved around to the left) and instead turned into what looked like the world's narrowest road, with burgeoning greenery on either side - and overhead - and grass where one would normally expect to find a central white line.
This one is a bit blurred (it's not easy taking pictures in a
moving car, even if you are travelling very slowly, but you
you can see how the land is built up at the side of the road
Having landed us in seemingly uncharted territory, Voice of the SatNav became uncharacteristically silent – there was not even the standard message about re-computing our route. At this point my imagination got the better of me, and I began to wonder if our route finder was really a Discworld-style machine powered by two bad-tempered imps taking turn and turn about on an oversized bicycle (rather than a state-of-the-art, hi-tech gadget using a satellite to tell us the way). Right now, I decided, the imps had both stopped pedaling, and were searching through a pile of maps and reference books, whilst quarreling furiously over who was to blame – one of the, both of them, or us!

Eventually, some decisiom having been reached, a disembodied voice urged us to Keep Right On To the End Of the Road (or words to that effect), which made me hope our satellite guide would burst into song but, sadly, no tune was forthcoming. However, it's an idea SatNav manufacturers would do well to consider. Just think how much more interesting a journey would be with carefully selected musical accompaniments (all suitable suggestions will be gratefully received). 
This shot is even more blurred, but it's kind of
arty, and I rather like it, because it gives a sense
of the tunnel effect of the vegetation.
Anyway, since the road was much too narrow to even think about turning round – let alone trying such a manoeuvre – we had no alternative but to follow instructions, and we crawled along very slowly, in a very low gear. Fortunately the few cars we encountered travelling in the opposte direction were equally cautious, and there were passing points, where the road was slightly wider on each side, and you could avoid hitting anyone by pulling into the hedge!

I took photos through the car window, as an experiment, to try and show what the road was like. When we got home I looked at a map, but I'm still not sure where we went! However, I do wonder of sections of the route could have been an old hollow way  - a sunken lane, with trees and bushes growing on earth banks on each side, and forming an arch overhead, which makes it feel as if you are driving through a tunnel. Hollow ways (which I think are also known as green ways or green lanes) are ancient roadways and, apparently,  there are a lot of them in Devon, so I like to think we were following a track established in the distant past.

For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at 
... And higher...
The sides got higher...

Back to normality!

Friday, 7 September 2012

Computer Update

Yay! I have a laptop that works! Not new, but as good as, hopefully. I went to look at new ones yesterday, spotted one I liked, at a really good price, and asked if it would still be available, at that price, today. Having been assured it would, I went away to investigate my finances (like the Provincial Lady, rather than checking to see how my account stands I have to look at the way it totters). Anyway, I returned to the shop this morning to purchase the desired model, only to discover that overnight the price had risen by 10 per cent!

I was very upset, especially as the service was appalling on both visits. Today we waited and waited and waited to be served. The assistant was very unhelpful and off-hand, and said special offers are changed every Friday, and staff are aware of that. Now 10 per cent may not sound a huge increase, and I have to admit it was still less than the recommended price, but it's money I don't have, and the assistant made me feel as though he thought I was lying (and he kept saying 'should of' when he meant 'should have', which further enraged me). So I walked out without buying anything.

Then The Man Of The House came up trumps, and dug out Elder Daughter's old laptop, which is still fully operational. He spent the whole afternoon working on it, installed updates, made it go faster,cleaned it up, and transferred documents and photographs from the hard drive on my old, defunct laptop, and the hard drive on Younger Daughter's old, defunct laptop (which I've been using since mine died).

I still need to check my files and pictures, weed out anything I don't want, and make sure there are no duplicates - a spot of electronic housekeeping is definitely in order. But, fingers crossed, I can reconnect myself with the wonderful world of technology, and proper blog posts will follow in due course.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Literary Landscapes and Broken Computers

September is here, and I am all behind-hand with everything, and my posts have been a little erratic – but the past few weeks seem to have been a permanent holiday, and we have had a wonderful time. First we took a trip to Cumbria, where I did lots of reading, but internet connections were virtually non-existent, so blogging was difficult. Then my mother came to stay, which was lovely, and then we went down to Devon to visit our elder daughter, and my laptop ceased to function at all. The Man Of The House got it up and running again once we were back home, and it operated, in somewhat idiosyncratic fashion, for a couple of days before deciding enough was enough. And, since it will not respond to instructions (you can turn it on, but that’s as far as it goes) I cannot use it or access anything on it, including my notes on the books I’ve read!

It was actually my younger daughter’s old computer, which I have been using because the monitor on my own machine is broken, it overheats, half the keys don’t work properly unless you hit them again and again and again, and it is v-e-r-y-v-e-r-y-s-l-o-w... So now I have two laptops, neither of which is any good. Anyway, in a bid to restore something resembling normal service, I am struggling to use the one with the broken monitor, but I am so cross about modern technology I can’t think straight, so this post is a bit of a mish-mash.

Visiting places always sets me thinking about the history, the people who lived there, and any literary connections there may be. Devon was easy: EM Delafield, author of the incomparable Provincial Lady, and Joyce Dennys, who wrote the equally funny ‘Henrietta’s War’, both lived in the county (Kentisbeare and Buddleigh Salterton), and I’m hoping to go to both places on a future trip.

Agatha Christie lived in Devon, and set
some of her novels there.
But, as I mentioned in my last (, we did visit Bigbury-on-Sea, where we looked across the beach to Burgh Island, with its art deco hotel, which was the setting for two of her novels. And we walked on Dartmoor, on a bleak, windy day which, of course, made me think of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson striding across the moor in Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ , with its description of spooky Grimpen Mire.

Poet Ted Hughes (another of my favourites) hailed from Yorkshire, but lived in the Devon for many years, and the landscape inspired much of his work. And, of course, at the other end of the county is Exmoor, and the Valley of the Rocks, immortalised by RD Blackmoor in ‘Lorna Doone’, which is a fantastic read, and if you haven’t read it, you should.

‘Westward Ho!’, another tale of romance and adventure, was so popular that a village in Devon was named after it, complete with apostrophe! I just downloaded this from Project Gutenburg, for my Kindle, and realised that Charles Kingsley also wrote ‘Hereward, the Last of the English’, which I read and loved as a child, so I downloaded that too.

Finding literary connections with Cumbria sounds simple – after all, there are the Lakes, with Beatrix Potter (her home is a delight, and you can see the dolls’ house featured in Two Bad Mice) and Wordsworth (we once went to Dove Cottage, which was much smaller than I expected). Wordsworth’s friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose work I’ve always preferred) lived at Keswick for a time. Later on in the 19th century, John Ruskin - whose wife Effie ran off with Millais, the pre-Raphaelite painter - lived at Brantwood, overlooking Coniston Water, and there’s an interesting little museum about him in Coniston village. Coniston and Windermere feature in Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s stories, while Arthur Wainwright’s Guides are a joy to read, even if you are not a serious walker.
The end paper in Arthur Ransome's 'Swallows and Amazons'
shows the landscape he created, based on the Lake District.
Wildcat Islan is really Peel Island, in Coniston Water.
Melvyn Bragg, Broadcaster, journalist and novelist Melvyn Bragg born in Carlisle, set many of his novels in and around the Lake District. Much as I always enjoy his radio programmes, I have tried and failed to read his novels and never got beyond the first few pages.  

An illustration from The Tale of Two Bad Mice,
showing Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca inside
he dolls' house. We once saw the original huse
inside High Top, Beatrix Potter's former home.
We always stay in Barrow in Furness, where The Man Of The House was brought up and, as he always reminds me, until the new-fangled county of Cumbria was created, the Furness Peninsula was originally part of Lancashire, while the Lakes stretched across Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire, so the area is hard to place geographically. It would have been nice to find a writer from Furness, but the nearest to a ‘local’ author is poet Norman Nicholson, who died in 1987, and lived all his life in Millom, on the Duddon estuary. We went there once, years ago, and I keep meaning to go back, because I like Nicholson’s poetry, and think his work should be better known.

So there we are, a quick literary tour. I am sure there are there are authors and books I have forgotten to mention with connections to Devon or Cumbria, so if you think of something I should read, please add a comment!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

An Island Fit For a Crime Queen

Burgh Island Hotel inspired one of Agatha Christie's most
famous crime mysteries
This wonderful art deco hotel is on Burgh Island, in Devon, and was the setting for two novels by crime queen Agatha Christie, who lived in Devon and stayed at the hotel on occasions. We admired the building, which looks a bit like a 1930s cruise ship, but we stayed with our Elder Daughter, who has just moved to Plymouth. Her boyfriend (I should say partner) teaches at one of the city's secondary schools, while she has just finished her training and any day now will start her first job as a nurse in the main hospital down there.

Our Younger Daughter travelled with us, which was nice, because it's a while since the four of us have been together. The Man Of The House and I had a fabulous time enjoying our daughters' company, and we all had a lovely meal out to celebrate Younger Daughter's forthcoming birthday. The area was completely new to both of us, so we had a great time exploring and managed to pack a lot into a few days, but still have plenty of places to see on future visits. The only downside was my ailing laptop, which went on strike and ceased to function at all. We are now back home, and it is working in what can only be described as an idiosyncratic fashion, but has refused point blank to let me download photographs from my camera, so I have been forced to store them on another computer.
I'm not very good at taking photos of people, but I rather like
this one of my daughters paddling. Lucy (the elder) is on the
right, and Emily (the younger) is on the left.
Anyway, that's quite enough of me and my family. Back to Burgh Island, which is around 300 yards from Bigbury Beach, and you can walk to it when the tide is on the way out - Elder Daughter and her boyfriend have done it, and walked on the island, which is about a mile around In addition to the hotel there are three houses, and a pub called the Pilchard Inn. However, when we went to the beach the tide was on the way in, and we were worried we might get stranded there until the tide turned. The Burgh Island Hotel has a special tractor, where seating for the driver and passengers is raised on tall wheels, high above the sand and water, so everyone can cross the causeway safely, without getting wet.

Burgh Island was once known as St Michael's Island, and there was a monastery where monks brewed mead and caught pilchards, but after the Dissolution fishermen moved in and turned what was left of the chapel into a 'huers hut', where a 'hue and cry' was sounded to alert everyone when the pilchard shoals were sighted. Look-out posts of a different type were built during WW2, when it was feared the Germans might try to establish a beachhead there. Anti-tank defences were established, with two defensive 'pill boxes' and an observation post.
The rocks along the sure were full of fissures and clefts, and
weathered into sharp points and pinnacles, made of
thin layers, like slate or shale.
The island's reputation for attracting celebrities seems to date back to the 1890s when music hall star George H Chirgwin built a wooden house and invited guests to weekend parties, but the present hotel was created by film maker Archibold Nettlefold who bought the whole island in 1927. For just over a decade it was one of the most fashionable and popular places for the glittering social elite of the day: as well as Agatha Christie, guests included Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, and Noel Coward.

But the war changed all that. The RAF used it for airmen recovering from wounds, and the two top floors suffered bomb damage. Repairs were carried out, but after the war it was turned into self- catering holiday flats. It was restored in the 1990s and the early years of this century, and remains best known as the setting for Christie's books 'And Then There Were None', and 'Evil Under The Sun'. A TV version of the latter, starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, was filmed on location at Burgh Island and Burgh Island Hotel.

The lower part of the rock was smoothed by waves, and
you could see the twisted strata. Some of the looked like
the feet of giant creatures stuck in the sand.
The golden sands of the beach at Bigbury-on-Sea are popular with families and surfers, and it got quite busy, despite the bitterly cold wind. Many of the visitors set up a home-from-home on the sand, with tents, windbreaks, chairs, tables and barbecues. Mostly they were made of sterner stuff than us, and were clad in traditional beach attire, which must have been chilly, to say the least. We stayed warmly clad, but shed footwear to go paddling, walked along the sand, and sat in the shelter of some rocks to eat our picnic. For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at 
A view of the island, showing the hotel on the left, and the
Pilchard Inn on the right.