Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Town in Bloom

It was near the top of The Times personal column:

Calling Moll Byblow, the Mouse and the Gazelle. Madame Lily de Luxe reminds you of a long-standing luncheon engagement, at one p.m. Next Thursday. The window table is reserved. Do not fail. This may be the last reunion.

The opening of Dodie Smith’s Town in Bloom is set in the 1962, when Molly, Mouse and Lilian keep their date, just as they have done every five years for the last four decades, but they haven’t seen or heard from Zelle since the long-ago summer that shaped their lives. This time around, however, Mouse follows an old lady who might be their missing friend... So the stage is set for the past to unfold, revealing the anguish of first love, the nature of friendship, and the betrayal of trust.

Following the death of the aunt who brought her up, Mouse moves to London armed with a letter of introduction to theatrical legend Rex Crossway, and an all-consuming ambition to be an actress. Her efforts are hampered by a total lack of talent, and she fails to gain a stage part with Rex’s theatre company – but the secretary takes her on as a junior assistant.

Mouse, who is tiny but not timid, lives in a club, a kind of hostel, similar to the May of Teck Club in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Girls of Slender Means’, but this one provides accommodation for actresses, singers and the like. There Mouse (we never know her real name) is befriended by Molly and Lilian, who are both in musical comedy. I loved the descriptions of life in the hostel and the camaraderie as the girls discuss men, love, work and clothes. They share secrets and late-night feasts, tucking into toasted Veda bread (a type of malt loaf) when they return from their theatres, and enjoying breakfasts in bed the following morning.

The three girls meet Zelle when they break into a house to shelter from a storm. Beautiful and mysterious, with unlimited reserves of cash, and no discernible way of earning it, she tells them little about her past, but she is as entranced with the trio as they are with her, and rents a room in the club.

But life gets complicated as Mouse falls in love with Rex.  Lilian  also falls for the actor-manager in a big way – although personally I’m convinced she covets his house rather than his body. Molly worries that the love of her life may think she’s a gold digger, and Zelle remains an enigma until she falls in love with Rex’s vicar brother and it turns out that she is a woman with a secret life...

I’ve glossed over the details because I don’t want to give away the various strands of the plot, but the events of that summer determine the futures of the four friends, and it was interesting to see what happened to them as they grew old, and whether they got what they wanted – and whether they were happy if they did.

The theatrical setting deserves a mention because it’s much a part of the novel as the characters. Dodie Smith gives such a detailed description of the building that you would have no problem finding your way around should you ever find yourself inside – OK, I know, it only exists within the pages of this book, but it seems so real. And the workings of the theatre – the auditions, rehearsals, performances, reviews, costumes, scenery and so on – seemed very true, which is hardly surprising since Smith was an actress and playwright, and presumably she brought some of her own experiences to bear on this book.

‘The Town in Bloom’ is not as enchanting as ‘I Capture the Castle’ but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Smith’s work, including the four volumes of her autobiography. I shall see what the library has in stock, and hassle them if they don’t have anything.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, by James Runcie, is one of those books that I thought I would like, but it left me cold, and I can’t pinpoint why. It may sound stupid, but I do like to work out my reasons for not enjoying a book: sometimes it’s easy, when I hate the subject matter, or can’t relate to the characters, or can’t get along with the style it’s written in. Whatever the reason, I tend to feel quite strongly about books I dislike, (just as I do about the ones I love), so it puzzles me when I come across a book like this that doesn’t evoke any particular emotion. I didn’t really like it, but I didn’t hate it either:  somehow it didn’t quite gel, and I doubt if I’ll be able to muster up enough enthusiasm to read any of the proposed follow-ups.

This is 1953, and Canon Sidney Chambers is the 32-year-old Vicar of Grantchester, who finds himself, somewhat unexpectedly, solving crimes aided, by his friend Inspector Geordie Keating (who would claim that the vicar is helping him). Sidney is a gentle soul, who cares for his flock as best he can, has a dog called Dickens, and enjoys beer, jazz, cricket, Shakespeare and Tolstoy. He’s intelligent, kind and a bit of a hunk – tall, with dark-brown hair and hazelnut eyes.

He doesn’t have a great deal of faith in his abilities, as a clergyman, or as an amateur detective, frequently wishing that he was a better priest, and worrying that he neglects his true calling while he is engaged in sleuthing. However, other people have faith in him and they trust him, revealing secrets which they would never tell the police. Like all good amateur sleuths, Sidney has an excellent understanding of human nature. However, I found it difficult to understand his motivation for solving crimes – he’s saddened by evil and wrong-doing, but he doesn’t seek retribution, and doesn’t seem to be concerned about souls in the way that Father Brown is. Actually, I’ve never managed to connect with Chesterton’s crime-fighting priest either. I revisited him after watching some of the TV programmes (which were not a bit as I remembered them) and didn’t get along any better than I did first time around.

Anyway, back to Canon Sidney Chambers. He doesn’t judge people, and is surprisingly tolerant for a 1950s clergyman, recognising that everyone is a mix of good and bad, and that people make decisions and take actions for all kinds of reasons. I think he approaches his investigations as one might approach a crossword – it’s an intellectual challenge, and he wants to know the answers. So he pieces together scraps of information, looking at the clues again and again as fresh details come to light, and considering the facts as dispassionately and rationally as he can.

At this point I should add that while Sidney is set on a life of celibacy, he obviously enjoys the company of women, and there is a love interest of sorts provided by clever, wealthy Amanda, who his sister’s best friend, and quiet Hildegard, the German widow of a murder victim.

We learn a lot about Sidney during the short stories in this book, as he investigates murders, a stolen ring, and an art forgery, and he ought to be a thoroughly engaging character, but as far as I was concerned he didn’t quite come to life, and nor did any of the other characters, which was a shame, because they are carefully created, the plots are well thought out, and the period detail is good. Another bonus, from my point of view, is that all the stories in ‘Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death’  are what I would describe as ‘cosy’ crime, which I normally enjoy – I don’t want to read gory descriptions of murders or people being beaten up.

Anyway, as I said to start with, I had a problem with this book because in theory it ticked all the right boxes, but it remained kind of flat. James Runcie, son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is planning a series of six Grantchester Mysteries following Sidney’s adventures over a 30-year period, and part of me wonders if I might warm to him as the series progresses. But on the whole I really don’t care enough about him to want to read any more. 

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Blooming Wonderful Flower Market

The weather is still thoroughly depressing, although we’ve had a bit of  blue sky and sunshine today. It rained last night, and has been slightly warmer, so much of the ice and snow has melted. Snow is sliding off roofs with a sort of whooshing noise; water is dripping, splishing and splashing from trees, bridges and guttering, and the pavements are awash with puddles and pools and rivulets of water spreading between lumps of dirty, rock hard ice which are still adhering to the ground, seemingly no smaller or softer than they were yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. There is water, water everywhere, and if the temperature drops overnight then roads and paths will be like a skating rink tomorrow morning.  

  I have lots of pictures of the snow, which looks very pretty, but I am so fed up with it, I thought that for this week’s Saturday Snapshot I would cheer myself up by posting some photos I took in Paris last May, on a lovely, hot, sunny day when it was so nice we wandered around without coats or jackets.
These were all taken in Le Marché aux Fleurs (the Flower Market), at Place Louis-Lépine, near Notre Dame and La Conciergerie, on the Île de la Cité. It’s one of my favourite places in Paris, and is absolutely fabulous, a riot of colour and perfume, guaranteed to lift your spirits if you’re feeling down (though I’m sure I don’t  know how anyone could ever feel down on a trip to Paris). 
It really is heavenly. You can smell the flowers before you see them – the fragrance hits you as you step out of the metro at Cité. Flowers, trees and shrubs are banked up high inside and outside the metal pavilions that have been there since 1808, and you find yourself walking through long, narrow alleys of flowers which overwhelm your senses. Along the Quai de la Corse, on the bank of the Seine, there are more stalls housed in metal huts which are surrounded by pots of flowers stacked up the walls and spilling out onto the pavement.
I suppose it's like a garden centre really, because these are living plants for gardens and homes, rather than cut flowers, and there are all kinds of beautiful garden ornaments hanging from walls, hanging from the glass roof, and displayed on shelves. If I had a fortune I could happily spend a large part of it here, but I don’t, so every time I visit I buy a packet of herbes de Provence, and when I cook with them it’s like having a little bit of French sunshine in my kitchen, and I can close my eyes, breathe in the aroma, and imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the Flower Market.
The market is open every day, and on Sundays the Marché aux Oiseaux, or Bird Market, takes place alongside it, with all kinds of birds, from tiny finches to large parrots, all squawking and cheeping and twittering and singing, and as you walk from the Metro taking great gulps of flowery air you hear all this birdsong. And, despite the name, you’ll see many other small creatures here - fish, rabbits, gerbils, rats and so on. I don’t know about you, but I always have problems with the idea of animals in cages. However, I would have to say that whenever I’ve walked round the market the creatures all looked happy and well cared for.
One of the things I love about both these markets is people watching. There are smartly dressed, elegant women, workmen in their overalls, scruffy teenagers, and pensioners leaning on sticks, peering around and walking very carefully, so they don’t trip over the plants. There are experts who know about plants and birds, and novices who know nothing but are willing to learn. There are people buying and people like me, just looking. And everywhere are people shouting, waving their arms about, shrugging their shoulders very theatrically, and pulling faces in that expressive way the French have, so I like to think customers are haggling with proprietors in a bid to talk the price down and get a better deal.
Anyway, if you’re planning a holiday in Paris, and you’ve never been to the Flower Market, do go, because it will make you happy - it makes me happy just thinking about it. And when you’ve finished looking round it’s only a short walk to the Left Bank, and the Île Saint-Louis. Iconic book shop Shakespeare and Company is just down the road, and there are masses of cafes in the area where you can sit outside and watch the world go by as you eat your lunch.
Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce at where you can see photos from other participants all over the world.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Ducks on the Ice

Well, here we are, talking about the weather again! It's only a few weeks since normal life was halted by floods. Now everything is disrupted by snow, which may be no great shakes to those of you living in colder climes, but is the main talking point here in the UK, where we never seem to be prepared for anything - the weather always seems to take us by surprise - whether it's wind, rain, snow or sunshine! So really, my Saturday Snapshot photos this week could only be weather pictures.
In fact, weatherwise it's been a bit of an odd week. On Monday I woke to find everything covered in a fine layer of snow, not very deep, but definitely more than a sprinkling. We had snow, sleet, rain and more snow, but it was that wet kind of snow, which doesn't settle.
I went for a walk across the Castle/Pleasure Grounds, round by the side of the Snow Dome (who needs it in weather like this!), across the grass to the lake to look at the swans, back under the roadbridge, and then over this nice green and yellow bridge to the out-of-town shopping area. Thanks to the boots, my feet were warm and dry, but the rest of me was so cold and wet I bought new gloves and a woollen snood to try and get warm, then walked into town and caught a bus home!
On Tuesday, as you can see in the picture above, the sky was blue, and the sun shone, even if it didn't give out much warmth, and there wasn't a trace of snow or ice.
But on Wednesday the temperature dropped, and a heavy frost turned the landscape into a sparkling winter wonderland. This holly looked a variegated species, but the white around the edges is frost, and the little speckles on the surface (which look like hairs)  are little spikes of frost.
And I love way the berries and leaves on the plant pictured above were covered in frost as well, looking like a picture on a Christmas card.

Thursday was cold and dull, but on Friday winter set in with a vengeance - it was a white-out! It snowed... and snowed... and snowed... kids were sent home from school, buses and trains were cancelled, roads were impassable... so I braved the elements and walked as far as the canal, where I peered over the snow-covered bridge to take this picture because I was so intrigued by the winding shape of snow on the centre of the frozen water. I wish I knew why it had settled like that!
 Today it's not quite as cold, and it hasn't snowed, but there's no sign of a thaw and, according to the forecast, there's more snow on the way. But we were determined to get some fresh air and enjoy the wintry scene, so we went for a short walk along the towpath. The canal was frozen, except for the areas around the bridges, and the path was very snowy, but not icy or or slippery, so it wasn't too bad underfoot. I couldn't resist taking pictures of ducks in the snow and on the ice.
More Saturday Snapshot pictures are hosted by Alyce at

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Walking Boots and Pink Laces

I have walking boots! Proper walking boots! With pink laces! The Man of the House is very dismissive about those laces – I think he feels pink is far too frivolous for sensible footwear for a woman who wants to be taken seriously. But I don’t care. They are so beautiful and so comfortable that I love them to bits. I tell you people, until you have worn shoes designed to for walking, you have no idea how uncomfortable fashion flatties and spindly heels actually are. So here the boots are,  for my Saturday Snapshotwith a map, and the new pedometer.
Monday: I'm ready for action with walking boots, map and pedometer.
The old pedometer which was indescribably unreliable, went back to the shop less than a week after I bought it, and I invested in a better one, which is dead easy to set up (even for a technophobe like me), very simple to use and, most important of all, very accurate. So this week I feel as if I’ve really got into my stride with this daily walking business, and I’ve been boring everyone silly telling them where I’ve been, and how much ground I’ve covered and how wonderful it is. Anyway, here are the walking boots on their first outing... they looked so nice I was worried about spoiling them and nearly left them at home!
Tuesday: Our first outing together... the new boots and me
in action down on the towpath.
Walking is good exercise for people who don’t like exercise – and I don’t. I hate games, and gym, and athletics, and exercises, and jogging, and anything else like that. My family wasn’t really sports-minded, but on the whole I blame school, where I was forced to do this stuff, despite the fact that I hated it all, and was too fat, too short-sighted and too uncoordinated to do anything. I was always in trouble with the PE staff, who offered no encouragement or help and refused to believe there were people like me who couldn’t do these things, and the girls laughed and never wanted me in their team. I used to hide in the loo, standing on the toilet seat so no-one would see my feet, but I was always discovered and marched off (generally in tears I’m ashamed to say) for hockey or gymnastics, or whatever else was the order of the day.  
Tuesday: I spotted this milestone alongside the
Coventry Canal at Tamworth, between Glascote
 and Amingon. Five miles to where I wonder?
I haven’t really changed my stance since then. I’ve remained a confirmed sports-free zone, with little or no interest in watching or taking part in physical activities. So you can see from this that for me to take up any form of exercise after a lifetime of slothfulness is a really big thing, and I can’t quite believe that I’m walking every day – and enjoying it. Hopefully, combined with sensible eating (no snacking between meals!) the regime will make me a little fitter, and I may even lose some weight.
Wednesday: Moss on a wall outside a house - close to it looked
like a forest of trees and bushes.
 I’m aiming to walk for at least 20 minutes every day, even if I only walk into town rather than using the car or hopping on a bus, with a couple of longer expeditions each week where I can drive out to one of the villages or somewhere a little more rural than Tamworth. And, silly though it sounds, I’m trying to create a record of my efforts by keeping track of how far I walk, and taking photos each day to show where I’ve been, and if I put them in some kind of album or journal, with suitable poems or extracts from books, it might encourage me to keep going.
Thursday: Looking across Minster Pool to the Cathedral on
a cold, misty morning. I was going to take bread to feed ducks
but I left it behind.
So far, 12 days into the New Year, I’m really enjoying it. I like being in the fresh air, and listening to birdsong, and looking at plants, insects and birds, and I think it’s lovely that other people stop and chat. I get back home feeling all refreshed and enthusiastic about Life, the Universe and Everything, and seem to have more energy, which I think is odd.
Friday: Trying to be arty here with a view of boats on the canal
at Kettlebrook, which is part of Tamworth.
At the moment I reckon I’m averaging about 4km a walk at the moment, which isn’t a lot really, but it’s a start, and I’m hoping to increase that in the months ahead. Over the last few days I’ve been along the canal in two different directions; across part of the Castle Grounds to footpaths through a housing estate and back along the main road to home, and around Lichfield, so I’ve included a picture from each place in this post. More Saturday Snapshot pictures are hosted by Alyce at

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Grimm Thoughts on Fairy Tales

Further to my mention of fairy stories in yesterday’s post, did anyone else out there listen to Grimm Tales on Radio 4? Writer and mythologist Marina Warner, whose work I always admire, marked the bicentenary of the first publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with an exploration of the stories – their origins, how they were gathered together, the way they’ve evolved over the last 200 years, and the various meanings that have been attributed to them. The series was broadcast over the Christmas period, in ten 15-minute slots, each highlighting a different facet of the stories. It’s the kind of thing the BBC does superbly well, and Marina Warner, a very erudite writer, is an excellent presenter.

She began with a resumè of the life and times of German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who collected and studied folk tales. Children's and Household Tales, which contained 86 stories, was published in 1812 and was reprinted and added to in the years that followed until eventually, in 1857, there were 200 tales.  To me, the brothers’ own lives always seem to have a fairy tale quality, and in a later episode Dr Warner looked at their role in the fairy tales, and considers them as avatars of Hansel and Gretel, which is an interesting idea.
My childhood copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales has this illustration
by Pauline Baynes, showing the Prince by Snow White's glass coffin,
and the Seven Dwarfs wondering what will happen.
 For many of us fairy tales are inextricably linked to illustrations. My own favourites are Arthur Rackham, Edmund du Lac and Walter Crane (all discovered long after I first read the Grimms’ work). Dr Warner’s preference, however, is for the spikier, sketchier etchings produced by David Hockney early in his career for a tiny book of six tales, and it was his work she focussed on when discussing the pictures that accompany the stories.

She also spent time exploring the origins of the tales, showing their similarities with stories from other cultures and other times, and gave a fascinating account of Rhodopis, an ancient Egyptian version of Cinderella.  Elsewhere she examined the evidence for historical figures who might have inspired some tales – the story of Bluebeard, for example, may be based on the life of Giles de Rais, a murderous French aristocrat who served in Joan of Arc’s army.

Most chilling was the session explaining how the Nazis treated the Grimms’ work. I hadn’t realised that they took some of the stories, repackaged them to promote their theories of racial purity and national identity, and even produced propaganda films – in one, apparently, the huntsman who rescued Red Riding Hood wore a swastika armband.  According to Dr Warner, this led to the Grimm Brothers and their folk tales being viewed with suspicion in the aftermath of WW2. Personally, I’m not sure I agree with her on that point, as the wonderful, magical stories were very much part of the culture of the 1950s, when I was a child, whether they were read in book form, or related by parents and teachers in their own words.
Wilhelm (left) and Jacob (right) Grimm, painted by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann in 1855.
 However, I think she’s right about the way our view of the tales has altered with changes in society. Today we question the role of women, the way children are treated, and the social system, and there’s a danger that the stories gathered by Jacob and Wilhelm can be dismissed because are no longer regarded as ‘politically correct’. And that leads on to censorship, for Marina Warner also considered the question of  banned books, and whether we are right to produce sanitised versions, by removing anything with a sexual context, and toning down the terrifying violence which appears in some tales.

These stories feature great cruelty: there are murders, abandoned and abused children, wife killers and cannibalism.  And they highlight issues that may be difficult to come to terms with – growing up, death, old age, illness, relationships between parents and children, men and women, sibling and sibling, master (or mistress) and servant. Psychologists could have a field day unearthing the hidden meanings and revealing secret desires, and Dr Warner touched on the theories of Jung and Freud, as well as talking to Susie Orbach, the renowned psychotherapist and psychoanalyst.

Dark and macabre these tales may be, but they are wondrous tellings of a world apart from our own, where talking creatures exist, impossible things happen, and help comes from unlikely places. The juxtaposition of the commonplace and the fantastic is intriguing, and the tales raise questions about the nature of fantasy and reality, falsehood and truth, and their relationship to each other. It’s a wondrous world full of wishes and dreams which can come true, but it’s a dangerous world, and you must be careful what you wish for, for the outcome may be unexpected.

Trying to describe the difference between a lie and a story, Dr Warner told us that basically a lie hides the truth, whilst a good story reveals it. And therein, perhaps, is the secret of the longevity of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for they are about universal truths, and it is that which makes them so timeless, and enables each generation to recreate them in their own way, for their own time and place.
Red Riding Hood, by Walter Crane.
There were so many ideas, and so much information packed into Grimm Thoughts that it would have been nice to have some kind of list referencing sources and the work of experts who took part in the programmes – surely the BBC could post something like this on its website. And there was so much to think about that it would have been nice to return to them, just as one returns to a favourite book. Why can’t radio programmes be made available in some format that would enable you to listen again and again, rather than for only seven days? I know some programmes are available as podcasts but Grimm Thoughts, alas, is not one of them. Or perhaps Marina Warner could publish these essays, for that is what they are, as a book.

But the nice thing about radio is that there are no ‘personalities’ nodding their heads and waving their arms about, no computerised graphics, and no distracting images, so you can just concentrate on the words, and words, after all, are what fairy tales – and all other stories - are all about.

By the way, Helen, over at, has been looking at the individual stories and has some interesting posts on her blog, so do take a look at what she has to say.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Making of a Marchioness

I may have said this before, but I’m a sucker for fairy tales and happy endings, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Making of a Marchioness ticks all the right boxes – kind, gentle heroine in straitened circumstances marries her prince (or, in this case,  a marquis), and survives danger (in his absence) to live happily ever after. Obviously, there’s more to it than that. Our heroine, Emily Fox-Seaton is:

A woman of good blood and good education, as the education of such women goes. She had few relatives, and none of them had any intention of burdening themselves with her pennilessness.

Left alone after her mother’s death, she makes her own way in the world. By the time we meet her, aged 35, she is living in one room, which she has decorated as stylishly as she can with very little money, and scrapes a living by doing jobs for wealthy people – writing their letters, sorting out accounts, finding reliable servants, and sourcing clothes and other items. She may not have much in the way of material possessions, but she has the gift of finding happiness in small things, and is rarely cast down by her circumstances. She is good, kind and humble, not particularly clever, but practical, unafraid of hard work, and willing to help anyone.

A little kindness from anyone, a little pleasure, or a little comfort, made her glow with even-tempered enjoyment.

When one of her clients, Lady Maria Bayne, invites her help out at a house party in the country, Emily is delighted. Among the guests is Lady Maria’s nephew, the Marquis of Walderhurst, a kindly man who is unremarkable in every way, but for the fact that he is fabulously wealthy. Since he is a widower, girls are lining up to marry him, but it is Emily’s comfortable - and comforting - presence that he wants. She accepts him partly, I think, because she is about to lose her home and has finally realised how bleak her future will be. But she is so grateful to Lord Walderhurst for proposing to her that she promptly falls head over heels in love with him.

Once married, you would think all will be well, but this is a Victorian-style melodrama, and consequently there is a dastardly villain determined to spoil the couple’s idyll...  for Lord Walderhurst’s heir, the dissolute and improvident Captain Alex Osborn, fears the marriage will threaten his inheritance. When the marquis is called away to India on an unspecified government mission, Alex wages a campaign of terror against Emily (who is now pregnant), aided and abetted by his discontented wife and her sinister ayah. There are unexplained accidents and odd incidents. Emily’s sleep is disturbed by the feeling that someone is in the room, watching her, and her life, and that of her unborn child, are in jeopardy... I won’t reveal what happens, except to say to say the plot fairly races along to the requisite happy ending, at which point I heaved a sigh of satisfaction.

In many ways it’s not too dissimilar to my childhood favourites ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘The Little Princess’. There’s the Indian connection, which looms large in all three books, and the fact that while her husband is away Emily is on her own, just as Mary Lennox and Sara Crew are on their own. And there’s a kind of spiritual or psychic element – when Emily hears her husband’s voice during her illness, it recalls how Colin’s father only returns home after his dead wife calls him in a dream.

It may not be the greatest literature in the world, but it’s great fun, and I really enjoyed it. I thought Emily was very believable – she’s one of those rare, modest people who never push themselves, only see the good qualities in others, make the best of any situation, and always manage to find the right words and actions to make people feel better.  If you gave her a glass half-full of water she would be delighted, unlike those of us who would moan that the glass wasn’t full, and say that in any case we would have preferred tea, or milk, or orange!

The book is written with warmth and humour, with just the right amount of menace and suspense, and Francess Hodgson Burnett is a much sharper observer of human nature than some people give her credit for. And, silly though it sounds, I thought she was good on domestic detail - she made me see the rooms, and gave the most intricate descriptions of women’s dresses and hats. 
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Despite the drama, her approach is fairly light-hearted. This is, after all, a feel-good book. But, as with many other novels written at the end of the 19th or start of the 20th century, it does make you realise how few options were available to women, how difficult it was to be independent, and how much a good marriage could ensure security for them and their families. Surprisingly, perhaps, Frances Hodgson Burnett shows that life could be as difficult for ‘lower class’ women as it was for those of higher social status. Emily’s landlady, Mrs Cupp, and her daughter Jane Cupp, may look up to Emily because she is a ‘lady’ but, just like her, they are adrift in the world, without a protector, doing the best they can to get by.

 ‘The Making of a Marchioness’ is available from Persephone, but I got my copy from Girlebooks, and it’s split into two sections, since the early chapters, taking us up to the proposal, were first published in 1901 as ‘The Making of a Marchioness’, which was followed by a sequel, ‘The Methods of Lady Walderhurst’. Later the two novels were , combined into one, under the title ‘Emily Fox-Seton’.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Mud, Moss and Martyrs

Happy New Year to you all! Earlier this week, on January 2, it was the Feast Day of The Thousand Holy Martyrs of Lichfield, who may – or may not – have been slain for their faith. St Amphibaus (whose existence is equally questionable) and his 999 followers were slaughtered (allegedly) on the orders of the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the start of the 4th century, on a site now known as Christian Fields (what else could it be called!). And since the area, now a Local Nature Reserve, is only a short drive away, and since I am trying to walk for at least 20 minutes every day, I thought I would pay a visit, accompanied by the Man Of The House, and I took some photos there for today's Saturday Snapshot.

At this time of year the countryside (I know this is not really the countryside, but it’s certainly not an urban area) always looks rather dead, but the bare branches against the sky looked really stunning, as did the bleached stems of grasses and other plants, and there were lots of mosses and lichens to look at. However, it was indescribably muddy, as a result of all the rain we’ve had, and highlighted how much I need a pair of decent walking boots!
 The area is right on the edge of the city, and contains the remains of a Saxon walkway known as The Dimbles – a dimble, apparently, is a raised earth walkway with a ditch on both sides. Sadly, it’s very difficult to photograph this feature, but as we wandered round it was interesting to think men and women were living and working here some 1,400 years ago.
 More recently part of the site was once used for landfill, but by the time I worked in Lichfield during the late 1990s, it had become a kind of unofficial wild area, and there was an old lady called Bertha who lived there in a caravan – a little like Alan Bennett’s ‘Lady in the Van’, I guess. She was something of a local character, and had a collection of dogs which she wheeled around in a pram.  
 These days it’s maintained by Lichfield District Council, with help from volunteers, and there’s a surprising variety of landscapes, including grassland, woods, hedges, and scrubby areas, as well as streams, and a recently created pool. Work is still being carried out to improve the site, and hopefully there will eventually be information boards to explain the history and tell visitors about the wildlife and habitats. We will certainly return during the summer, to take another look.
 Meanwhile, if you’re wondering about that story of the Martyrs, no firm evidence has ever come to light to prove they existed, although it is thought that early Christians may have met and worshipped at Christian Fields. And for many years people believed Lichfield got its name from Lyke-field, ‘ field of dead’, but it is now thought to mean  ‘common pasture beside grey wood’, which is not nearly as romantic.
 Anyway, the tale seems to have to have surfaced during the 12th century, but was largely ignored until 1548, when the city was incorporated as a borough and needed a badge, or coat of arms - what we would now call a brand image. At the same time leading citizens were concerned that the Reformation had killed off the pilgrim trade (in Medieval times people flocked to Lichfield to the shrine of St Chad, but this was no longer possible in the Protestant England of Edward VI). The city fathers must have been looking for a way to win their visitors back that wouldn’t land them in trouble for appearing to have links with Catholicism.
So, in what sounds like a pretty astute marketing ploy, they took up the tale of early Christian Martyrs, and used an image of dismembered bodies on the city’s coat of arms and the civic seal, and the massacre that may never have happened was woven into the city’s history. Whatever the truth of the matter, this particular site was used by the Anglo Saxons, and perhaps one day we may be able to discover more of its history. For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog at

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A Rook called Chicken!

Generally speaking, ravens, rooks and crows have a pretty bad press. Think about their literary appearances and you’ll find they are usually rather sinister – what about Edgar Allan Poe, or traditional ballads like The Twa Corbies? And Ted Hughes view of the species is pretty bleak really. Not only that, but to the untrained eye one black bird looks much like any other black bird (although I am pleased to say I can recognise a blackbird, and yes, I know it is a different species altogether, but I still feel this is quite an achievement).

Anyway, in Corvus, A Life with Birds, Esther Woolfson changes all that. It turns out that Corbids (the Latin name for the genus which includes magpies and jackdaws, as well as ravens, rooks and crows) are friendly, intelligent, and highly individual.

Woolfson and her family start out with conventional pets, like rats and rabbits, but somewhere along the way birds take over their lives. It starts when her husband’s grandmother’s neighbour is looking to re-home some of her doves – birds which turn out to be much more aggressive than their image suggests. So, where does their association with peace come from, I wonder?

Next up is Bardie, a young cockatiel bought as a birthday present for one of her daughters, and gradually the house is filled with a succession of the waifs and strays of the avian world, as friends and neighbours hand over injured and abandoned birds. Over the years she learns about the birds she cares for, and records her observations of their behaviour, so the book is part memoir, part natural history. But it’s also about the way birds change her view of humanity and her perception of the world and mankind’s place within it. She writes:

Of them all, it has been the corvids, the rook, magpie and crow, who have altered forever my relationship to the rest of the world, altered my view of a hierarchy of form, intellect, ability, my concept of time. The world we share is broad, the boundaries and differences between us negligible, illusory.

And she also tells us:

We progressed together, rook and human, and the knowledge, for the humans at least, was revelatory, mind-expanding, world-expanding.

Woolfson constantly wrestles with her conscience as tries to decide whether her rescue birds should be released back into the wild, and she never sees any of the creatures as pets. She stresses that she is not a bird-keeper or a bird-owner. Nor is she an ornithologist, a biologist, a twitcher or a birder. She rejects the suggestion that she is an ‘amateur domestic ethologist’, but  admits there is no title to adequately describe her role. Trying to explain, she says:

Chance, a single moment, the confluence of fallen bird and receptive human, has changed me from observer to something else, something I can’t even name: adoptive parent, housemate, beneficiary. 
Arthur Rackham's illustration of the Twa Corbies,
included because I like it, and although 'Corvus'
has lovely illustrations by Helen Macdonald, I
cannot scan them in because I read it on my Kindle.
It’s the birds themselves who take centre stage. They have likes and dislikes, exhibit pleasure and terror, and express their desires as ably as any domestic cat or dog. Many of them speak, or at least mimic humans, and there seems to be no way of knowing for sure whether there intelligence behind their utterings, but it would be nice to think there is. And the corvids all create caches of food scraps, objects that take their fancy, and shredded paper, which can cause the occasional domestic disaster, and means valued documents and books have to be kept out of their reach.

Flying through the pages are Bardie the cockatiel, with his extensive vocabulary and Ziki, the crow who never makes a sound, but enjoys listening to Radio 3, especially high sounds, early music, and the human voice. Then there is Max the starling, and Spike, the adventurous magpie. But above all there is Chicken (short for Madam Chickeboumskaya) the rook, as playful and demanding as any young child.

It’s one of those lovely, meandering, highly personal books that takes a subject and runs with it until another thought intrudes, and off Woolfson goes again, on another leisurely stroll through myths, stories, fairy tales, natural history, the way various birds have been viewed throughout the centuries, and her own thoughts on life. The book is packed with facts about the way birds feed and move, their flight feathers, nesting instincts and brains – and it soon becomes apparent that use of the word ‘bird brain’ as a term of derision is doing birds a terrible injustice.

But the book is never dry or dull, and Woolfson has a sense of humour, and a way with words that breathes life into the facts. The strongest image that stayed with me was her description of rooks:

They were all, as Chicken would grow in time to be, of sober mien, elegant of dress in well-tended black (except in summer when moulting renders them grey-edged and unkempt) with neat polished feet like tight, shining boots, somewhere between eighteenth-century Scottish minister (Henry Raeburn’s ‘Skating Minister’ perhaps) and wealthy, black-clad, fashionable 1930s Parisian lady of distinguished years.

I just love the picture it conjures up, of a rather portly rook, strutting along with a self-important and self-satisfied air. It’s not the way I would usually think about a rook, but this book will blow away all your previous ideas about corvids (and other birds) and make you take another look at them.