Monday, 26 November 2012

Sighting the Whales

A print version of the book, published
by Sort Of Books.
According to the Oxford Dictionary a sightline (or sight-line, or even sight line) is a 'straight line extending from the eye of a spectator to an object or area being watched ', but in Sightlines, Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie takes a look at landscapes many of us would not normally see. This isn't a book, of poetry, but but her language and thoughts are those of a poet, and her vision remains clear as she looks at hidden places, exploring nature, and man's place within it, reflecting and connecting on what she finds,

Her journey takes her to the strangely beautiful world inside the human body, viewed through a pathologist's microscope; bird communities on isolated Scottish islands, and a ruined chapel on an island named for a saint who lived so long ago that only his name and the stones remain. She visits the site of a vanished Neolithic henge, has an encounter with icebergs, and gets to stay on St Kilda, where life was so harsh people finally abandoned it. She makes her way deep into a Spanish cave system to view prehistoric wall paintings, sees the mysterious Northern Lights and watches the moon turn to a dusky red globe hanging in the sky during an eclipse,

And then there are the whales. It's the whales that dominate, alive and dead, and her her words do more to drive home the terrible fate of these creatures at the hands of mankind then any new programme or learned paper from campaigners could ever do.

St Brendan and his monks moored at an island,
lit a fire - and the island (which was really a
whale) sank! I'm not sure who would have
been more shocked, the monks or the whale.
Whales have always fascinated me. As a child my imagination was captured by exotic tales of Sinbad and St Brendan, who both set up camp on islands that turned out to be whales – imagine the shock of waking up one morning to find the 'land' is moving! And then there was Kipling's 'How the Whale Got His Throat' in which, O Best Beloved, a Mariner of infinite-resource-and-sagacity is eaten by a whale and dances hornpipes where he shouldn't, so the whale lets him go, but not before he turns his raft and suspenders into a grating in the whale's throat, to prevent men and large fish being swallowed. 

Over the years since then I've come across a host of other stories and poems about whales (Ted Hughes' 'How the Whale Became' is brilliant). I've watched them in various David Attenborough programmes, and worried about their dwindling numbers. And, of course, I've listened to the wonderful Judy Collins singing 'Farewell to Tarwathie', a traditional whaling folk song, accompanied by the sounds of spine-tingling whale-song.

Jamie's description of the whale skeletons on display in Bergen's Natural History Museum is hauntingly beautiful.

The Hvalsalen. Whale Hall. What else could it be called? They were all there, such a roster of whales – the baleen whales, sei and humpback, right, fin and minke whales – even the blue whale, and the toothed whales, too, sperm and bottlenose, narwhal and beluga, and the Sowerby's beaked whale, and, affixed to the walls, dolphins, almost dainty in comparison; the killer whale and the bottlenose.

Such bones as I never saw, hanging above my head.

There are twenty-four of them packed together (like blackbirds in a pie, I thought as I read), held together with metal, suspended from the ceiling on iron chains. Dusty, dirty, brown with age, they seem to have a life of their own, and oil still seeps from the bones more than a century after they were slaughtered and stripped of fat and flesh. To start with Jamie is mystified by the distinctive smell, but eventually identifies it as that of her childhood wax crayons which, it transpires, were probably made of whale oil.

A whale skeleton at the Hvalsalen. The website is at

On a central pillar, neatly painted in Norwegian and English, were the words “Do not touch the animals", but it was a bit late for that. The whalers' harpoons had got them; the flensing iron.

But despite the weight of bones, the effect of the Hvalsalen was dreamlike. The vast structures didn't seem to offer any reproach. Rather, they drew you in. Undisturbed for a century, they had colluded to create a place of silence and memory. A vast statement of fact: "Whales is what we were. This is what we are. Spend a little time here and you too feel how it is to be a huge mammal of the seas, to require the sea to hold you, to grow so big at the ocean's hospitality."

When she returns and helps a specialist conservation team clean the skeletons, she is amazed at the transformation. Handling the bones of a right whale (so called because it was the right whale to kill), she muses:

It was astonishingly light – it seemed to radiate such a thick yellow light. The word that came to mind was 'buttery'. The bones, I mean.

The presence of all those whale bones gets under her skin, and I understand why. The conservators have never seen live whales, but Jamie has, and the magic of these giant marine mammals shines through her writing.

She describes a sighting of five killer whales viewed from the rocky cliffs of an islet where she is studying a gannetry. The whales appear as a dark pencil line on the horizon, but at closer quarters they are immeasurably huge. They blow, and roll, and disappear, and rise again, water spilling off the side of their broad backs. Like inanimate icebergs, the living whales 'revealed only as much of themselves as was necessary; much more of their bodies remained concealed from his under the sea's surface, even when they blew'.

Photo of killer whales courtesy of Robert Pittman at 
Wikimedia Commons.
Months later on the remote, uninhabited isle of Rona, she sees the same group and watches the reactions of birds and seals under threat. But although the five whales watch, and circle the area, they swim off and the seals are left alive and unharmed.

As I read I thought about my Norwegian grandmother, born in 1888 in Kragero, a small town on the edge of a fjord. There was a brother who was lost at sea, and her father owned a fishing fleet, and I believe his father was also a fisherman, so I found myself wondering if they, or any of their family and friends were involved in the whaling industry. I would so love to see whales but, sadly, I am a disgrace to my sea-faring ancestors, for although I love to be beside water, I am always exceedingly ill on boats, even with the aid of prescription travel tablets, wristbands, and a 24-hour fast prior to sailing, so I guess whale watching is not a sensible option. Instead I will content myself with reading about them and looking at their bones.

Jamie is intrigued by the bones. She found her own whale vertebra on the turf of a Hebridean island, just up from the shore, and visited museums as well as towns with whalebone arches, including Whitby. The jawbone arch she looked at there is a recent installation, donated by Alaska in 2003, and it's the previous one I remember, it's surface crumbling and pitted with age. 

She also called into the museum run by the Literary and Philosophical Society, which still has exhibits housed in old wood and glass cabinets, and is one of the best museums I've ever been to, with a mesmerising collection of memorabilia from the old whaling captains and their crewmen.

William Scoresby Jnr. 
There Jamie looked the life of Whitby's best-known whaler, William Scoresby Jnr, who studied snowflakes in the Arctic, conducted magnetic experiments to improve the compass, and surveyed the coast of Greenland, naming the inlets and headlands after his friends and family. In the museum you can see his delicate sketches and water colours of the places he called at, and the plants and wildlife he saw – but he also returned home with barrels full of bone and blubber. He was obviously cultured and clever, yet he made his living by slaughtering whales in the most brutal fashion imaginable (there's a graphic description of the killing and processing of a whale in Carol Birch's 'Jamrach's Menagerie') Until Jamie reminded me I had forgotten that Scoresby eventually left the sea to become a clergyman, but somehow I doubt he concerned himself with the fate of the whales.

By the way, his father William Scoresby Snr, whom Jamie doesn't mention, invented the crow's nest, which gave sailors a clear sightline from sea to land (when there was any to see), which takes me back to the title, and set me thinking about the word sight, which can be used for the action of looking at something, and for the thing being looked at. I know the grammar is a bit wonky there, but what I am trying to say is that there is a strange kind of duality there, and there are sights for us to see in unlikely places, if we only know where to look, and Jamie does her best to make us see them. 

Overall, the image I was left with was her thoughts on the Aurora Borealis.

Once upon a time whaling ships had come to these latitudes, with orders to return heavy with oil and baleen. Now the aurora alters into long trailing verticals, and it makes me think of baleen. Sifting, Sifting what? Stars, souls, particles.You could fancy the northern lights were a great whale whose jaws our ship were entering.

The book held me spellbound, and I ended up by checking out the Bergen museum, and finding more information about whales and whalers, and writing much more about them I intended. I think I got slightly obsessed by the subject, but there is a lot more to book than that.

This is Kipling's own illustration for 'How the Whale got his Throat',
which I include because it was one of my first introductions to whales,
 and everyone should read 'The Just So Stories'. Kipling's caption says:
 "This is the picture of the Whale swallowing the Mariner with his
infinite-resource-and-sagacity, and the raft and the jack-knife
 and his suspenders, which you must not forget."
I have to say a big thank you to Lynne at dovegreyreader, who wrote a wonderful review of this book, which is much more sensible than mine (you'll find it herewhich I remembered when I saw the Kindle version of the book on offer at a bargain price, so I bought it. Now I can look forward to reading 'Findings' and I need to get a book of Jamie's poetry!

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Autumn Floods

 The bench , trees and lamp show where the bank usually is.
I seem to have had one of those weeks where I haven't really felt like doing much, and curling up with a book seemed much the best option to pass the time, so I haven't got round to writing anything for several days. But I stirred myself into activity this morning, wrapped up warmly in my new winter coat (an early Christmas pressie from my wonderful daughters) and was out bright and early - by which I mean I was bright, but the weather wasn't. It wasn't raining, but it was very dull and foggy, although it cleared by the time I walked down to the Castle Grounds to look at the floods. The light wasn't good, but I've taken some pictures for this week's  Saturday Snapshot to give you an idea what it looked like.
This shot, taken from a bridge, gives some idea of the extent
of the flooding.
The Anker had burst its banks, and there was no way I could walk alongside the river, like I do normally, but I went as far as I could, and gazed at the transformed landscape. Really the river isn't all that wide, but the land on either side is very flat, and very low lying, so there are always floods when the weather is bad - and today was as bad as I've ever seen it. Grassland looked like a marsh, while trees were growing out of the water, and the the benches along the bank had almost disappeared. 
This beautiful flowers were growing on the unsubmerged part of the
bank, and brought a welcome touch of colour to a bleak day.
It looked spectacular, and the force of the water swirling and rushing along in the main course of the river was frightening. The water was a kind of chocolate brown, with trails of creamy coloured, frothy bubbles on the top, and I could hear it burbling and gurgling.
This may look like a river, or pool...
Normally there are dozens of ducks, geese and swans there, as well as coots and moorhens, but today most of them had vanished. There were a pair of swans swimming in the calmer water, above a footpath, and a few mallards and moorhens a bit further off - too far away to get a clear picture, and I certainly wasn't going to risk splashing through the flood water, although it didn't look very deep at that point. And six geese (just like in the song, but they were not a-laying) stood on a patch of bank that was still above water, peering at the torrent in a rather bewildered fashion, as if they were wondering what happened to their normal environment.
....but it's really a footpath!
The town centre is slightly higher, and doesn't flood. I had a good browse and, still on a watery theme, found  two beautiful shells in a charity shop, and snaffled them up so I can hold them against my ear and listen to the sea.
Trees growing in the water!
I got back home just before the rain set in, and have been sitting reading Alice Oswald's 'Dart', because I love her work, and this poem about the River Dart, in Devon, may be about a different river, but somehow it seemed to suit the occasion. 
This is grassland - honestly - and normally you can walk
across it without wearing wellies!
For more Saturday Snapshots see Alice's blog at For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Lolly Willowes

Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner's first novel, is a quite extraordinary story of a woman who sells her soul to the Devil and finds her true self by becoming a witch. Let me start by saying that Laura Willowes – the Lolly of the title – may confound your expectations of witchery. She wouldn't dream of riding a broomstick, and she has no intention of casting spells, for good or for bad. Laura doesn't want to help, or to be helped. She just wants to be herself, to think her own thoughts, make her own decisions, and live her own life.

When her father dies Laura moves in with passionless, duty-bound Henry (the younger of her two brothers), his wife Caroline and their two daughters. Laura has some reservations about her future: But in London there would be no greenhouse with a glossy tank, and no apple room, and no potting-shed, earthy and warm, with bunches of poppy heads hanging from the ceiling, and sunflower seeds in a wooden box, and bulbs in their paper bags, and hanks of tarred string, and lavender drying on a tea-tray.”

However, she remains passive about the move, with no will of her own. “And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of family property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best,” Townsend Warner tells us. Over the next 20 years Laura loses her name and her identity. She becomes Aunt Lolly, a dull, sensible, conventional woman, always ready to help when needed. But there are inklings that all is not quite as it seems, for each autumn she feels oddly uneasy and sometimes, while visiting old, forgotten corners of London she feels she is missing something important, and a secret is about to be revealed.

Then she walks into a small greengrocery shop and everything changes. “As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like a load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her gingers seeking the rounded ovals of fruit among the rounded ovals of leaves.”

The chrysanthemums she buys smell of the dark, rustling woods, like the wood which haunts her imagination each autumn, and on discovering they come from the Chilterns she buys a map and guide book and informs her horrified family that she is moving to the village of Great Mop.

Once there she feels at one with the landscape, with nature and the passing seasons. But she senses a hidden secret just beyond her grasp. However, her new-found freedom and her joy in life are threatened by the arrival of Titus (the son of her other brother). She wants rid of him at any cost, and her anguished plea for help is answered – by Satan.

The novel starts as something of a social satire, a comedy of manners. “The Willoweses were a conservative family and kept to old-fashioned ways,” writes Townsend Warner, adding: “Finding that well-chosen wood and well-chosen wine improved with keeping, they believed the same law applied to well-chosen ways.”

But beneath that humorous veneer lies something much sharper and darker. I found it utterly un-put-downable, but I wouldn't describe it as charming, delightful, or whimsical. There's a kind of wildness here, something untamed and uncontrollable, and it must have seemed very subversive when it was published in 1926, demanding a life of their own for women, and portraying the Devil almost as a force for good.

When he appears, Townsend Warner's Satan may look like a dishevelled gamekeeper, but he seems to have more in common with ancient pagan gods than he does with the conventional Christian view of the Devil. He is a hunter who collects souls not because he's evil, malicious, or even mischievous, , but because he can. He doesn't want to control people, or lead them into bad ways. Once he knows he has their soul he is happy to leave them alone, to let them do, say and think what they want. He confers a glorious kind of freedom on people, which enables Laura to finally be completely true to herself, and do exactly as she pleases.
Sylvia Townsend Warner
And when she meets Satan she is confident enough to launch into the most amazing, impassioned speech, in which she rails against the way women are treated. There is nothing for women, she says, except 'subjugation and plaiting their hair'. Men talk, while women listen and become dull. Women do. “If they could be passive and unnoticed it wouldn't matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed,” she explains. “And think, Satan, what a compliment you pay her, pursuing her soul, lying in wait for it, following it through all its windings, crafty and patient and secret like a gentleman out killing tigers. Her soul – when no one else would give a look at her body even.”

And, she says, a woman will take that chance to stretch her wings and be herself in a dangerous black night because 'it's to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others'. There are no theological arguments here, no thoughts about the nature of good and evil, or life and death, or considerations about the future. What matters is the here and now, and a woman's right to be independent.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Saturday Stitchery!

This week's Saturday Snapshot is a kind of follow-up on Alyce's photos of peacocks last week, because they reminded me that I once did a little peacock embroidery, using blue and green shiny threads, and beads, and a variety of stitches, including eyelet stitch, straight stitch, Rhodes stitch and herringbone. I bought the design and instructions at an embroidery exhibition some years back, and it sat around for a while until I got round to doing it, and it's not all that big - about five inches across. It may not be as spectacular as the real bird, but I had great fun creating my little peacock, because I love messing around with different stitches and threads. Anyway, I hunted it out and took a picture.

And, since Christmas is on the way, I also took photos of some of the seasonal embroideries I have stitched over the years. I never seem to have enough money to have my work framed, so I have dozens of embroideries stashed away in a big plastic box, which is not really the best way to store them, because they get horribly creased, and it seems such a shame not to have them on display. Perhaps I could have a go at framing them myself, but I've always been worried about wrecking them.

The photographs haven't really come out all that well. I think a different camera setting may have helped, or scanning might have produced better results. 

As you can see, I enjoy stitching samplers - I've completed several for other seasons of the year, and a few traditional 'house' designs, and a lot of Noah's Arks (I like Noah, although it's Mrs Noah I always feel sorry for when I think of all the feeding she must have done, and the cleaning and grooming, and mucking out, and trying to keep the peace between all those creatures). 
This Christmas Angel is not my usual style at all. I saw it in a magazine, and it looked so pretty I thought I would have a go, but it drove me demented working on it, and I'm still not happy with it, and I really can't work out why. It's like a book that you don't like, but you can't pinpoint why you don't like it.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alice's blog at For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Sometimes, when you love a book, it is quite difficult to write about it, especially when lots of other people have already said lots of terribly clever and erudite things – and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is just such novel. Written by Winifred Watson, it's a charming fairy tale, funny and light-hearted, with a lovely, happy ending that is perfect for this particular tale.

Miss Pettigrew is a dowdy, impoverished, middle-aged spinster, who earns a meagre pittance by working as governess, a job she loathes and is not very good at. But one day the agency muddles two clients, and she finds herself at the luxurious (though ostentatious) flat of Delysia LaFosse, a beautiful, golden-haired actress and nightclub singer who is seeking a maid, and her life is changed for ever.

Down on her luck, and at the end of her tether, Miss Pettigrew has little chance – and little inclination - to explain who she really is. To her surprise, she finds herself called upon to persuade one young man to leave, and to erase all signs that could betray his presence to another young man who is due to arrive. And it turns out that there is yet another young man in Miss LaFosse's colourful life, who is desperately in love with her and would make the perfect husband...

It's all very different to the strait-laced, dull, drab life Miss Pettigrew has known up until now, and she ought to be horrified.

Miss Pettigrew cast a sternly disapproving eye about her, but behind her disapproval stirred a strange sensation of excitement. This was the kind of room in which one did things and strange events occurred and amazing creatures, like her momentary inquisitor, lived vivid, exciting and hazardous lives.

As Miss Pettigrew herself says, this is a place where things happen – and, to her great enjoyment, they happen at a fast and furious pace. Unloved, friendless and lonely, her knowledge of life comes from years watching her employers, and days off watching American movies, but fear and desperation about a bleak future lend her a courage she doesn't normally possess, and she finds herself doing and saying things she would not have dreamed of a few hours earlier.

One of the illustrations by Mary
Thompson, showing Miss Pettigrew
and Delysia LaFosse. I'm sure you
can guess who is who!
In the process she discovers the joys of alcohol, attends a nightclub in borrowed finery, resolves Miss Lafosse's complicated love life, and even acquires a beau of her own. More importantly, in less than 24 hours she learns how to enjoy herself, makes new friends, and gains confidence in her looks and abilities. The world she discovers may be superficial, but it's fun and comfortable, filled with colour and beauty, packed with emotions and sensory experiences.

Miss LaFosse and her Bohemian friends may not be entirely respectable, but they recognise Miss Pettigrew's worth, and accept her for what she is, although they themselves may not be quite what they seem. Miss LaFosse keeps her origins a close-guarded secret; her followers are self-made men, and her friend Edythe Dubarry, owns the best beauty parlour in London and owes her looks partly to her own skill, and partly to the surgeon's art.

The men are handsome, the women are beautiful, and they all dress in the latest, most expensive attire as they move through a glittering world of parties and nightclubs, sipping cocktails, laughing and joking. For Miss Pettigrew, starved of love, affection, beauty and joy, it's like a dream come true, and she cannot believe her luck as she seizes this new life with both hands.

I loved this, and Miss Pettigrew's new-found joy in life was so endearing - it's a nice feel-good novel, with some sparkling dialogue, and some astute comments on human nature and society. 

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Canals, slaves and railways!

The remains of the lock gates reflected in the water.
Question: How do you boost your town's wealth and trade when there's no decent road network linking you to the rest of Britain, but you're only a mile and a half from the sea? Answer: You build a canal... And that's just what the good citizens of Ulverston did at the end of the 18th century.

As you can see, for this week's  Saturday Snapshot, I've been trawling through the photos from our visit to Cumbria this summer. In all the years we've holidayed up there we've never, ever explored the canal, which is still full of water, although it's no longer navigable. The Man of the House, born and bred in the area, had never seen it and knew nothing of its history, so it was something of adventure.
Sea-side: This was the entrance to the canal but, as you can see
from the grass, the sea no longer reaches the gates.
We left the campervan behind, and walked along hedge-lined lanes and narrow roads down to Canal Foot at Hammerside, where the canal meets the sea (the town end is known as Canal Head). It seemed quite a trek - as I've said before, we're not really used to walking - so we were glad to stop and enjoy a reviving pot of tea whilst sitting in a pub garden admiring the spectacular views of Morecambe Bay, the Cumbrian Hills, and the canal itself.

The entrance to the bay, where the great ships once sailed in and out, is now plugged with concrete, and the swingbridge that spanned the canal is long gone, but there's a modern footbridge leading to the towpath which runs on one side. The ruined gates to the sea lock  are reflected in the water, a strange, ghostly reminder of the time when this was part of a thriving port.
Land-side: The lock at the end of the canal. Once the level of
the water had been adjusted, huge  gates would have
 opened to let ships in or out.
In the 18th century Ulverston, like most of the Furness Peninsula, was cut off on the landward side by the hills and mountains of the Lake District, and on the seaward side by the treacherous, shifting sands of Morecambe Bay. In those days Cumbria hadn't been created (the county is a modern invention, as the Man of the House is fond of reminding me), and the area, remote and isolated, was known as known as Lancashire-over-the-Sands, which I think sounds much nicer. Romantic, don't you agree? Anyway, horse-drawn wagons took local iron and slate to coastal towns to be shipped elsewhere, but loading and unloading was difficult, because the bay is tidal, and the water goes out for miles.

Canals were the favoured haulage routes of the day - quick (!), efficient and direct. So there was huge support when solicitor William Burnthwaite came up with the idea of a waterway linking Ulverston with the sea at the Leven estuary, to provide ocean-going ships with a safe berth in the basin at the town end while cargoes were packed and unpacked. When it opened in October 1796, the Ulverston Canal was the country's shortest, deepest, widest and straightest waterway and, unusually, was all one one level, with only one lock. It was an engineering masterpiece.
I like this view of industrial chimneys reflected in the water,
and the juxtaposition of nature and industry existing side by side.
A host of industries grew up around it. There were warehouses, foundries, mills, timber merchants, rope making, and ships' supplies, as well as charcoal burning and hoop-making for barrels. Hemp was grown in  local fields, and twisted into rope for ships on 'rope walks'. Ship building and repairs flourished - vessels from Ulverston travelled the world when nearby Barrow, now much better known, was still a hamlet. And, of course, there were offices for port and customs officials. 

Merchants and ship owners became extremely wealthy - but many a fortune was based on the iniquitous 'three-way trade', where goods were traded for African slaves, who were sold in America and the Caribbean, and ships returned to England with their holds full of goods unavailable in their native land. In Ulverston riches were often founded on locally produced gunpowder, which was traded for slaves in Africa.
This strange structure is part of a rare sliding railway bridge,
which originally opened up to let ships through  (unlike the
brick built viaduct arches further up the canal). There are
bits of it below the water on both sides of the bridge.
But the glory years didn't last long: from the outset there were problems keeping the constantly moving deep water channel free from silt and in the right position. Barrow proved to be a far better deep water port, growing in importance as Ulverston declined. And the railway had a terrible effect. In the mid-1840s viaduct arches built across the canal near its head prevented bigger ships from reaching the 'pool'. Although a new basin was dug out on the other side of the bridge for new wharves, things never picked up. 

Another viaduct built by the Furness Railway Company in 1857 provided quick, easy transport across the estuary, and some businessmen believed it was the cause of the channel silting up. The railway company bought the canal in 1862 (which sounds like a conflict of interests to me) and shipbuilding gradually came to an end. However, the canal was still used commercially until the First World War, and remained open until just after the Second World War, when the sea entrance was dammed - and very odd it looks, with water on one side, and sand on the other.
This was the unspoiled landscape next to the towpath.
A large chunk of land on one bank is taken up by pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Smith Kline, who owned the canal at one point, but it now belongs to the Ulverston Canal Company, and a trust has been established to provide cash for management, maintenance and preservation. In addition, I gather South Lakeland District Council, Ulverston Town Council and other interested bodies are working with UCC to develop derelict industrial areas on that side of the canal, to preserve wildlife, and promote leisure activities. 

The towpath runs along the opposite bank, and is absolutely glorious, with open fields and views of the hills on one side, and the canal on the other. It's a haven for wildlife. We saw waterlilies on the canal, and stood on the edge watching fish, dragonflies, coot, mallards, moorhens, swans and geese. Sometimes, apparently, you can see cormorants, herons and grebe, but there were none around on our day out. However, there were masses of birds and insects (most of which we were unable to identify) in the hedges, trees and fields.
Don't you think this looks beautiful? The buildings in the
background are at Canal Head, where the canal ends - it looks
almost like the edge of pond, which wasn't what I was expecting.
I imagine it would look more like a dock.
I spotted rowan trees, and brambles, meadowsweet with its beautiful creamy white flowers, rose bay willowherb, a plant I think was kind of balsam, and a profusion of other flowers and grasses. The canal was much, much bigger than the canals in and round Tamworth, and looked much cleaner as it shone and sparkled in the sunlight.

It was the most beautiful, peaceful walk, and was obviously well used by  fisherman, walkers, cyclists, dog owners, children, tourists and local residents, which was good to see. We were also impressed that people seem to respect the area - there was no dog mess or litter, no-one was playing loud music, and the children and young people we met were all really well behaved. I should add here that the water and banks of the canals where we live often leave a lot to be desired.
The canal basin.
At the end of our canalside stroll we made our way into the town centre, where we had another reviving cup of tea and treated ourselves to a late lunch of home-made soup and a sandwich (the bread was  was homemade as well). Deciding we'd done enough walking for one day, we headed for the bus stop, and stopped to ask directions from a lovely lady who started chatting, said she was going our way, and insisted on giving us a lift! That's another thing that doesn't happen at home! It made the perfect end to a perfect day, leaving us with some really happy memories.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alice's blog at For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at
The lock of the bay: Looking out across the sea and sand.

*Information in this post was taken from the booklet 'Discovering Ulverston & Surroundings' by Jeff Chambers, from leaflets issued by the town council, and from

Friday, 9 November 2012

Falling Leaves in High Rising!

Falling leaves... A cover - and some pages!
I'd never heard of Angela Thirkell until I read a post by Claire at The Captive Reader, who is a great enthusiast and has written about her on several occasions. Since Claire seems to enjoy many of my own favourite novels, I find I usually like her recommendations. So when I spotted a vintage Penguin edition of High Rising (number 339) at the top of a sack full of books destined for recycling, I just had to rescue it – but I would have to say I have never, ever read a book in such poor condition. Few of the pages were still attached to the spine, but I carefully gathered up the loose leaves and counted them to check they were all present. They were, but the book is way beyond the stage where glue and Sellotape might effect some kind of repair. Sadly, I fear, honorable burial (or, in this case recycling) really is the only option.

Now charity and second-hand sellers often speak about 'pre-loved' goods, and when I see a book in pristine condition I always doubt it's been read, let alone loved – but this book has obviously been read, and read, and read. It's so well thumbed, worn, and brown with age that it's barely a book any longer, but you can tell it's been much loved, and I'm proud to be its last reader. The downside to all this is that I loved 'High Rising' so much I will have to buy another copy which isn't falling to pieces.

It's set in the imaginary county of Barsetshire (as created by Anthony Trollope), and the main protagonist is widowed Laura Morland, popular author of what she describes as 'good bad books'. Left in dire financial straits when her husband dies, she makes a living the only way she knows – by writing. Her mysteries all take place the wholesale and retail dress business, although her own sense of fashion is less than perfect, revolving as it does around 'hurried bargains in the sales', and her hastily pinned-up hair is always falling down.

Her success gives her financial security and she can afford 'a small flat in London, and a reasonable little house in the country, and a middle-class car'. The only thing that makes Laura occasionally admire herself a little is that she has a secretary, a part-time secretary, but a secretary nevertheless. Success as a writer also gives her independence, and she has no intention of becoming romantically involved with anyone. She enjoys her lifestyle, and appreciates her good fortune. “She was quite contented, and never took herself seriously, though she took a lot of trouble over her books,” writes Thirkell.

Much of the humour in the book comes from her relationship with Tony, the youngest of her four sons, and the only one who is still at school (the others have left home). She loves him dearly, but at the same time is irritated by his exuberance, his constant chatter, his untidiness, his inability to stay clean and tidy – and his obsession with trains!

Laura's circle of friends includes her secretary Anne Todd, who has spent years caring for her difficult mother who suffers from a heart condition and what is probably dementia. Then there is Dr Ford, whose admiration for Anne knows no bounds. But Anne harbours a secret passion for George Knox, who writes serious historical books and is being kept away from his friends by his ultra-efficient new secretary, mad Miss Grey, aka the Incubus, who has set her sights on marrying the boss...

Meanwhile Laura is convinced that her publisher Adrian and George's shy daughter Sibyl are made for each other, but by bringing them together she paves the way for scary Miss Grey to move in on George. Finally, it's left to Anne to dream up a scheme to repel the invader, with help from Laura's friend Amy who, as the wife of Tony's headmaster, has had experience of dealing with a mad secretary.

The novel was published in 1933, and Thirkell's portrayal of village life, with its minute social distinctions, is very funny and beautifully nuanced, and I love her writing, and the literary allusions. But it's the characters who stay in your mind, because they are so keenly observed. It's a light-hearted, beautifully written thoroughly enjoyable read, and I heaved a sigh of satisfaction when I finished, and started trawling the net looking for more of her work. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Good Morning, Midnight

I stayed there, staring at myself in the glass. What do I want to cry about? … On the contrary, it's when I am quite sane this like this, when I have had a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane, that I realise how lucky I am. Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set. Nobody would know I had ever been in it. Except, of course, that there always remains something. Yes, there always remains something. … Never mind, here I am, sane and dry, with my place to hide in. What more do I want? … I'm a bit of an automaton, but sane, surely – dry, cold and sane. Now I have forgotten about dark streets, dark rivers, the pain, the struggle, the drowning … Mind you, I'm not talking about the struggle when you are strong and a good swimmer and there are willing and eager friends on the bank waiting to pull you out at the first sign of distress. I mean the real thing. You jump in with no willing and eager friends around, and when you sink you sink to the accompaniment of loud laughter.

The cover of my Penguin edition shows
a detail from The Girl with a Tattered Glove
 by William Nicholson, which has just
the right note of sadness.
Well, today I'm still in Paris, but I've abandoned the wealthy, sparkling world of Nancy Mitford for the dark, shabby streets of Jean Rhys. The world she describes in Good Morning, Midnight, couldn't be more different, and her characters scratch a living as best they can. Sasha is as much seduced by the city as Grace, but any dreams of love she ever had have long since been smashed. There's a rawness and intensity here that is lacking in 'The Blessing', and somehow, despite everything that happens to her, Sasha is honest in way that Grace isn't. And the way the novels are written is very different as well.

I can still remember how knocked out I was when I first read 'Wide Sargasso Sea' - it was a whole new way of looking at a novel, and rethinking the way I saw heroes and villains. And I was just as knocked out by 'Good Morning, Midnight'.

It's 1936 and Sasha, as she calls herself, has returned to Paris where she lived for many years. As she wanders the city fragments of her past come to light: her child, a white, silent baby boy, lying dead in the hospital with a ticket tied round his wrist before ever she leaves the nursing home; her husband moving out of her life on a train; the jobs which didn't work out and the men who abandoned her.

Then there are the rooms where she has lived, in Holland, Brussels, Paris and London. The locations may change, but the rooms are always the same: small, riddled with bugs, in cheap buildings, in poor streets. She dreams of a room, a nice room, a nice light room, a beautiful room, a beautiful room with a bath, but it never happens. Lonely and desolate, she is unable to cope with the practicalities of everyday life, and gets by with the aid of drink and sleeping pills. And, like a child avoiding the cracks in the pavement she has an armoury of charms and rituals to protect her from the world – all will be well if she can only avoid certain streets, certain cafes, certain bars.

The Medici Fountain in thJardin du
Luxembourg, where Sasha stands and
watches the fish
There are times when a certain jaunty optimism surfaces. She will drink to a Miracle, she will have a new hair-do, buy a new hat, and tomorrow she will be pretty and happy again and everything will be all right, but you know there can be no happy ending here. Sasha appears vulnerable, a perpetual victim, easy prey for the young gigolo, or the young Russian and his painter friend.

However, she has tremendous self-knowledge. She knows exactly who and what she is, and she is a surprisingly good judge of character. Cynical and disillusioned, she can spot a crook or a conman a mile off, but is prepared to let herself be taken in – I think she craves some kind of human contact, however bad the experience and its consequences may be.

From the moment she attaches herself to Enno (who marries and leaves her) because she wants to escape her life in London, she seems to make her own decisions. Circumstances may be against her, and her choices may be limited, but nobody forces her, and she puts herself in situations where the outcome is inevitable. Knowing she cannot change the past, she has an almost fatalistic acceptance of the present. This happened and that happened, she says. And it's a refrain that sounds throughout the novel, with slight variations along the way. Here this happened, here that happened, she tells us, remembering this, remembering that. Above all Sasha, who was once Sophie, who was once Sophia, realises the absurdity of human life, and how droll it can be.

Good Morning, Midnight (the title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem) ends on a slightly sinister, but is not as depressing or bleak as it sounds. There are moments of joy (though not many admittedly) and touches of humour that can see, almost macabre. And whatever course Sasha's life has taken, she has lived it to the full, unlike her unknown family who follow a clichéd existence back in England.

The novel is beautifully written, in a kind of stream of consciousness first tense, where past and present merge and nothing is clear cut. I suspect that when it was first published in 1939 many people must have found it shocking in form and content. Never an easy read, nevertheless, it's livelier and more personal than Viginia Woolf, and it's tempting to see Sasha as a version of Rhys herself for here, as in so much of her work, her own turbulent life and feelings of alienation seem to be reflected. At any rate, in Sasha she has created a flawed woman who is set on a crash course to disaster, while we stand helplessly by and watch.
Jean Rhys,

Monday, 5 November 2012

An Un-Childlike Child!

Penguin number 1211, published in
in 1957 - don't you wish paperbacks
were still two shillings and sixpence?
It's wartime London (Second World War that is) and Grace, who who is engaged to Hughie, falls in love with a charming Frenchman. A month later they are married and after a two-week honeymoon he returns to his unit. Their son is seven when Charles-Edouard de Valhubert reappears and whisks her off to France, where he has a country estate in Provence and a luxurious home in Paris, both packed with assorted relatives, antiques and paintings.

Initially all seems well as Grace, who is beautiful but dim, slowly becomes accustomed to marriage and French life. However Charles-Edouard is not so enthusiastic about being tied down, and continues his liaisons with at least two other women. When he is eventually discovered 'in flagrante' Grace returns to England, and the couple's young son realises he can manipulate the situation to his own advantage – but only if he keeps his parents apart...

Now this may regarded as sacrilege by her many fans, but personally I think The Blessing, by Nancy Mitford, is the chick-lit of its day. Set in the aristocratic world she knew so well, it's written in sparkling, witty prose, and is  very light-hearted, very frothy, and rather stylised - for some strange reason I kept viewing it as a stage comedy with a few near-farcical moments. However, the story is slight, there are no great insights into the human condition (not that this is a requirement for novels), and the characters have no depth – they are stereotypical portraits rather than fully rounded characters, and I wonder how credible they would have seemed when the novel was published in 1951. 

Charles-Edouard never really comes to life – he's a wealthy, aristocratic Frenchman, with a passion for women, and sees nothing wrong with his lifestyle. His friends and family agree that this is the French way, and his wife must accept the situation.

Grace is remarkably passive on the whole, and is required to do nothing more than look beautiful, which is just as well really, because she has no hobbies, doesn't read, takes no interest in current affairs, and plays no part in running Charles-Edouard's homes. She's really rather boring, and doesn't even spend much time with her son, preferring to leave him with Nanny.

The son, Sigismond (Sigi for short), is the 'Blessing' of the title and is a monstrously precocious little brat who doesn't really speak or behave like a small boy. He is, I think, the most un-childlike child I have ever encountered in the realms of fiction or reality.

However, obnoxious Sigi is, I can't blame him for his machinations when his parents separate, because after being ignored he suddenly finds himself the centre of attention as they each spend time and money on him. And their suitors also produce lavish (and sometimes inappropriate ) gifts, so Sigi is not keen for Grace and Charles-Edouard to get together with each other, or with anyone else. He richly deserves the box on the ears he finally receives when his parents' eyes are opened, and all ends as happily as it should. 

A host of other characters flit in and out of the story. There is Nanny, of course, who hates all things French, but misses them when she is back in England, and Albertine Marel-Desboulles, Charles-Edouard's intelligent and cultured older mistress, who I thought was a much more intesting charcter than Grace, and her young rival Juliette Novembre de la Ferte. And then thre is Grace's old schoolfriend Carolyn, married to clever, opinionated American Hector Dexter: the couple move in the highest diplomatic and political circles – but they are not quite what they seem.

It may not sound like it, but I did enjoy reading this, although it didn't stay in my mind afterwards, and I'm not sure I would read it again – unlike Mitford's 'The Pursuit of Love' and 'Love in a Cold Climate', which are both old favourites which I've read and re-read over the years.
Nancy Mitford.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Laughter and Yellow Penguins...

Yellow Penguins are SO cheerful! I wasn't even aware that the vintage numbered Penguins included this 'miscellaneous' range, until I found two of them in a charity shop, for 99p each. They are both in really good condition and, despite their age, the yellow covers are still bright and cheerful, and I simply couldn't resist them. They both fall into the 'humorous' category, and it's interesting to see what made people laugh more than half a century ago.

Beyond the Headlines, by Timothy Shy (Penguin 341) is a collection of pieces from the long-defunct News Chronicle, which was a popular daily paper when this book was printed in 1941. Timothy Shy was the nom de plume used by Dominic Bevan Wyndham-Lewis for his column in the paper – at an earlier stage in his career he was the original Beachcomber at the Daily Express, and co-edited 'The Stuffed Owl', an anthology of bad verse by great poets, so he obviously had a keen sense of the absurd, but some of his work would definitely not produce laughs today, and would be regarded as distinctly politically incorrect. For example, use of the word 'cretins' in a headline would not be countenanced today in any publication, whatever the context.

These pieces are sketches on life, in which the author takes pot shots at politicians, celebrities and anyone (or anything) else that takes his fancy. Like many similar writers he frequently sounds snide, and makes his point through allusion and innuendo, rarely naming names or explaining his comments. Presumably this technique offered some protection against a libel action, and readers must have understood who (or what) it was all about, but from a distance of 71 years it was hard to grasp. I couldn't imagine anyone laughing uproariously today, but some of the less topical entries did make me smile.

For me the charm of the book lies in the gorgeous dancing penguin on the front (I do wish the company would reintroduce it) and an advert on the back cover for Pears transparent soap, which cost the princely sum of sixpence a cake - old money, obviously – this was well before decimalisation. 

The ad urges readers to 'Feel its tonic action'  It also claims the soap is 'matchless for the complexion' and that it 'wears down without waste to the thinnest wafer' , a huge selling point during WW2 when everything was in such short supply. There's even a 'by appointment to H.M. The King logo!

There's another ad inside for 'The Business Woman's Opportunity'extolling the virtues of taking out a policy with the Prudential Assurance Co. Ltd., the benefits of which included 'a Dowry when you marry' for women who were 'not over 34'. How times have changed!

Paper was in short supply during the war, so the book is printed on rather coarse paper, and Penguin supported an appeal for books to be sent to the forces. A plea for donations printed at the front says: “When you have read this book, please leave it at your nearest Post Office, so that the men and women in the Services may enjoy it too.”

The second yellow Penguin is Osbert Lancaster Cartoons (number 501) which was published slightly later, in February 1945. The dancing penguin is still there on the title page, but has vanished from the front cover, and the book cost 9 pence. Like 'Beyond the Headlines', the paper is obviously of inferior quality, and the cartoons are very much of their time, and not at all PC: they would probably mean more to someone who remembers the war and rationing, but having said that many of them have stood the test of time and are still funny – well, they made me laugh.

By the time this book appeared Lancaster was working as press attache for the British Embassy in Athens, so these cartoons must have originally been printed at a slightly earlier stage in the war. Somehow the style of drawing does not seem as sharp as it later became, though that could be down to poor paper and print quality, coupled with the fact that we are used to seeing his work in a smaller format, since he was famous for his 'pocket' cartoons.

But his witty observations on the social order are present in abundance, and the cast of upper class characters who became so familiar in his post-war work are already clearly defined. There are military men, naval commanders, socialites, landed gentry, and businessmen, many of whom seem to have a somewhat tenuous grasp on reality. I rather like this ditzy blonde airhead, who knows that war work at Ministry of Information is interesting, but is attracted to the ATS - because it's easier to get lipstick in the Auxiliary Territorial Service!

And while I'm not sure when Maudie Littlehampton, his most famous creation, made her first public appearance, I found myself looking at the women and thinking some of them could be an embryonic countess.

Whilst both these books are curiosities, which I bought to add to my small collection of vintage Penguins, I enjoyed this one, and it's a volume I would pick up and look at if I need a laugh.

And there's even a cartoon featuring penguins, which must be a reference to comments or decisions made by a European leader, but who it was, or which country, I have no idea, although I can see it is total nonsense to claim to be neutral while defending territory. Anyway, since this is a post about vintage Penguins, I couldn't resist including the cartoon! And if anyone can explain it, or place it in the correct historical context, I would be enormously grateful.