Monday, 22 April 2013

A Poem for Spring

Well, April is almost over, and during the last few days it really does feel as Spring is finally here, weeks after its usual arrival. It's definitely warmer than it has been, flowers are blooming everywhere, and leaves on trees and bushes have put on an incredible burst of growth, as if they are trying to make up for lost time. There are masses of butterflies and bees around, and birds are obviously nesting.

So in honour of Spring, today's post is is one of my favourite poems: Home Thoughts, From Abroad, by Robert Browning. I'd always assumed he wrote it while he was living in Italy following his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett, but apparently it was written while he was visiting England in 1845. 

And here's a photo of blossom I took in the hedge alongside the canal. I'm not sure what it is, but I'm positive it's not pear I. think it may be some kind of philadelphus, but whatever it is, t is very delicate, and very spring-like.  

Home Thoughts, From Abroad

O, to be in England

Now that April 's there,

And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom'd pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge—
That 's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Celebrating St George's Day

Medieval mystery and glamour provided a colourful spectacle.
Yesterday Younger Daughter came to stay, to hear the Man of the House singing at the Folk Club, where he was the Support Act for the Guest Group, so this morning when she headed for the station on her way back home I walked into town with her, and we found everything decorated for St George, and the most wonderful Extravaganza going on the Castle Grounds. We'd both completely forgotten that April 23 is the Feast Day of England's Patron Saint, and his the anniversary is celebrated on the nearest Saturday.
A wattle frame, made from hazel uprights, with willow woven
across, and a mixture of clay, sand and straw daubed over it.
Sometimes, apparently, they used animal dung!
It seemed as everyone had decided to join in the fun - perhaps because the weather was so glorious: the sun shone from a clear blue sky, and it was so warm we took our jackets off (for the first time this year). St George's Flag (a red upright cross on a white background) was flying from the Castle, and bunting was strung across railings and wound around the Bandstand. There was traditional jousting, and a re-enactment of St George's exploits with dragon (with a twist provided by the princess), with all kinds of other entertainment laid on by a group of enthusiasts who pitched Medieval-style tents and set up a 15th Century recruiting camp, and the air was thick with woodsmoke from their fires - a smell which always reminds me of the autumn bonfires everyone lit in their gardens when I was young.
'Cookers' like this were once top-of-the-range, must-have kitchen
equipment. Even though they were essentially open fires, they
enabled people to cook in a large central cauldron, with three or
four smaller pots in the corners around the edge.
The re-enactors were all tremendously knowledgeable about their field of expertise, and only to happy to demonstrate their skills and tell visitors about life in the 14th Century. So we saw birds of prey, learned how wattle and daub walls were made, and shuddered at the horrors of Medieval medicine. We looked on in wonder as a 'knight' donned his armour, enjoyed a lovely chat about cooking with a couple offering a glimpse into a Medieval kitchen, and were amazed to discover how many different types of arrow were available, depending on whether you you were shooting birds for food, or aiming to bring down a horse in battle, or kill a man, or start a blaze. in enemy territory.
Bright, striped pavilions on the Lower Lawn provided a colourful
backdrop for knightly fighting.
There were masses of things for children to do, including making clay pots, trying on armour, and shooting with a bow and arrow, and you could tour round the Castle for just £3, which is less than half the usual price. It's a long time since we've been round the Castle, and The Man of the House (who walked into town to join me after YD went to catch her train) was quite keen on the idea - until he saw the length of the queue waiting to get in! So we decided to go some other time instead.
Some of the arrowheads on display - I think there must have been
a couple of dozen altogether - and they certainly look as if they
could inflict a lot of damage.
It really was a lovely day, and I took lots of photos, so I'm posting a few here for this week's Saturday Snapshot, and I hope they convey a little of the atmosphere.
A young soldier donning padded under-garments
before putting his armour on.
By the way, according to legend, St George rescued a beautiful Princess from a dragon which ravaged the land (somewhere in Libya, I believe). As he led the tamed beast away he told people it would never bother them again, so long as they put their faith in Jesus and were baptised - so they did and they were! Sadly, however,  poor old George lost his life during the Emperor Diocletian's fearsome persecution of Christians in the early fourth century. 
Youngsters queued up to try their hand at writing
with a quill. People didn't use whole feathers, because
it would be too unwieldy, and it's only the central
which is needed, so the feather was trimmed back.
His victory over the dragon is seen as the triumph of good over evil, and the beast is usually interpreted as being a personification of evil, or a symbol of paganism. The truth of his story has been questioned, but he continues to be venerated by Christians in various denominations and, apparently, by Moslems, and I think it is rather nice that people of different faiths agree on this.
Bread was baked in clay ovens, similar to the pizza ovens
some people install in their gardens.
If you want to see more Saturday Snapshot photos from other participants, the weekly posts are hosted by Alyce, over at
These scary implements were used by doctors,
and the medical gentleman pictured (who said he
carried out lots of blood letting) looks pretty
frightening in those dark clothes.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Jungle Adventure

Lt Col Percy Fawcett pictured in 1911.

One of the many nice things about volunteering in an Oxfam bookshop is that you come across all sorts of hidden gems and unknown books which you wouldn’t normally seek out. Exploration Fawcett, by Lt Col PH Fawcett, is one such book.

This particular volume, a pale green, cloth-bound hardback published in 1954 by Hutchinson & Co for members of the Companion Book Club, rang a bell, so I picked it up, read a few pages... and kept reading! By that stage, of course, I had to buy it, despite making my usual pre-shift pledge about not acquiring any more books.

Percy Harrison Fawcett disappeared in 1925 in the Brazilian Matto Grosso while hunting for a long-lost city, which he called ‘Z’ and believed was still inhabited by descendants of an ancient ‘higher’ race, whose civilisation held the secrets of mankind. No trace of him or his two companions – his elder son Jack and his son’s friend Raleigh Rimell - was ever found which, given the climate and nature of the land he was travelling through, is probably not surprising. However, the mystery (fuelled in part by his own interest in the occult) gripped the public imagination and took on a life of its own, spawning myths and legends even more fantastic than those which set him off on his quest.

The book, ‘arranged’ from his manuscripts, letters, logbooks and records by his younger son Brian, traces his interest in South America, and his growing obsession with an ancient culture he claimed existed long before the pre-Conquest period. He first travelled to the continent in 1906, surveying and mapping the Bolivian border in a region where there were frontier disputes with Peru and Brazil.

Over the next two decades he carried out more work like this, but eventually mounted his own expeditions searching for traces of the long-lost civilisation he believed in so passionately. The only records of his final, ill-fated journey are a handful of letters, but the earlier accounts of his life, work and travels in South America are fascinating. Part travelogue, part boy’s on adventure, they are amazingly wide-ranging, describing his journeys, the landscape, weather, industry, the flora and fauna, history, customs and culture, archaeology, food, and the people he met,(the white men and the Indians).
The map on the front and back pages shows the areas Fawcett wrote about, 
There were dangers from swamps, venomous snakes, vicious insects, pirhana, hostile natives and goodness knows what else. He encountered giant anacondas, two-nosed dogs, spiders as big as dinner plates and tribes who had little or no contact with the outside world – one was even using Stone Age tools. Fawcett must have kept notes on every traveller’s tale he ever heard, no matter how unlikely it seemed, for the book is packed with such yarns. He was especially intrigued by anything he thought had a bearing on his own theories, like the stories about White Indians (light-skinned Indians with blue eyes and red hair) and those which told of a magical plant juice potion which could turn the surface of stone to mud.

The world he portrays is violent and brutal. Life was cheap and land was being exploited for natural resources like gold, diamonds and rubber. Even in the early days of the 20th century the rain forests of the Amazon basin and its tributaries were being eroded by so-called ‘development’ and Fawcett showed concern for the environmental and ecological issues.

Exploration Fawcett - and adventure tale, and a
a travelogue.
He has been accused of racism, and I can see why. It’s his use of the word ‘savages’ which grates on modern ears, and terms like ‘tame Indians’.  But I don’t think he was any more racist than most other people of the time – and he was considerably more enlightened than some. He recognised the adverse affect of white settlers on ethnic people, was outraged by their ill treatment, and said they were quick learners who, when given the opportunity, could hold their own in business and society. I think perhaps patronising would be a better description of his attitude.

He certainly had a way with words, and the places, people and things he describes spring to life, and his love of Brazil shines through, as does his obsession with the idea of a lost city. By the end of the book I desperately wanted him to have found his El Dorado, but I doubt he ever did.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Cheerfulness Breaks In

Oh dear, over the last few months I’ve missed writing posts when I’ve been at my mother’s, and when we’ve been away, and I don’t seem to be able to get back into the swing of things at all. I’ve even read less than normal, which is unusual for me,  but now I’m taking stock of things, trying to get organised and catch up, and aiming to try and write ahead of myself, if that makes sense. Hopefully, if I have posts in hand, I can schedule them to appear if I have to dash off to Mum at short notice.

So, after a bit of an absence, here is a review of sorts on Angela Thirkell’s Cheerfulness Breaks In, which I enjoyed every bit as much as ‘High Rising’, although I gather some readers don’t regard it as one of her best novels.

Here we meet some old friends, like independent novelist Mrs Morland, her friend Amy Birkett, and Amy’s husband, the headmaster of exclusive Southbridge School. But there are a host of new and equally memorable characters. And whilst the humour is still there, the tone is slightly darker, and there’s an underlying sadness, for ‘Cheerfulness Breaks In’ opens in the late summer of 1939, during the last few weeks of peace, before the start of the war, when well-heeled, middle-class families were still leading their cosy, comfortable lives, not knowing just how much things would change during the coming conflict. To start with, I thought Thirkell’s characters are all blissfully unaware of what lies ahead, but on reflection I think they know – after all, most of them are old enough to remember the First World War, and they’re not stupid. However, the only way they can cope with that knowledge is through a kind of under-stated British jokiness, and pretending to close their eyes to what is happening.

As the months pass we see how small village communities are affected by the early stages of WW2. Southbridge, an acclaimed public school, must share space with pupils from London’s Hosiers’ Boys Foundation School, its left-wing head and his serious-minded staff. Elsewhere, residents take in evacuees from three city primary schools, and a nursery is moved in with a family in one of the big houses. And there are other newcomers in addition to the evacuees – European refugees who have fled Europe and the threat of Nazism and are regarded as strange and exotic, even more difficult to understand than Londoners.

There are bound to be tensions between locals and incomers, but the rivalry between the visiors comes as a surprise. Despite their differences, the children settle down and the adults mostly learn to get along with each other, but there are practical problems to be dealt with, like the infestations of headlice which so shock the villagers, and any parent who has ever tried to get rid of these horrid little creatures will have every sympathy with their efforts, which seem doomed to failure.

Women hold weekly sewing parties, where they hand-stitch clothes to be sewn for evacuee children (and very drab and uninspiring they are too, but there obviously wasn’t much in the way of choice when it came to materials), and a canteen is set up where many of the children are fed each lunch time with good, wholesome food, which sounds as uninspiring as the clothes.

Gas masks are distributed, blackouts are installed in all buildings, there is talk of rationing as shortages begin to bite, and girls who have are between school and marriage become volunteer nurses at the local hospital, where patients have been sent home in readiness for war casualties.

The book is very much of its time. Foreigners are viewed with suspicion, servants are grumpy, and women are the second sex, subservient to their menfolk, expected to look good, but not to be too clever – or, if they are, not to show it. All good feminists will feel their hackles rise, but appearances are deceptive and some of these women are tougher – and more astute -than they look, and have subtle ways of getting their own way and dealing with others.

Thirkell has a nice line in social satire, and the book is very funny: the account of dim but beautiful Rose Birkett’s wedding is a joy to read, as is the description of a Christmas party held for the young evacuees.

I suppose the book could be described as a comedy of manners, but it’s the characters and their relationships with each other that make the novel so enjoyable, and the way they focus on the small things in life, rather than the dramatic world events going on around them.

It reminded me a lot of my mother’s stories about the war, when a Catholic girls’ school moved to the area where she lived, and I thought it was interesting to compare Thirkell’s story with others about the same period, like ‘Henrietta’s War’, by Joyce Dennis, EM Delafeld’s ‘The Provincial Lady in Wartime’, or Mollie Panter Downe’s ‘Good Evening, Mrs Craven’.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Relying on the library and second-hand outlets means I rarely get to read books when they are first published, so I am always one step (if not more!)behind everyone else, but I have finally caught up with Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, and it was well worth the wait. The book has been flagged up as an autobiography, but it’s far more than that since Winterson uses words not merely to recount her childhood, breakdown, and search for her birth mother, but also to show how she learned to cope with life and make sense of the world around her. She’s a very intelligent writer, with wide-ranging interests, and here she ponders ideas about love, home, books, philosophy, religion, friendship, reality and fiction, nature versus nurture, and family relationships, especially those involving mothers.

Her own mother, who she invariably refers to as Mrs Winterson, has become a somewhat infamous figure, thanks to ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’, Winterson’s fictionalised account of her extraordinary childhood, which catapulted her to fame when she was only 25. Her childhood is the stuff of fairytales – you know the kind, the ones where a motherless child is cruelly treated by an evil stepmother or wicked witch. Winterson was raised by an adoptive mother whose behaviour can only be described as exceedingly bizarre. Converted in a Glory Crusade tent, she was a member of the Elim Pentecostal Church, which took the Bible very literally. Indeed, it still does, I think. Our local Elim Church does a lot of caring work in the local community, and are lovely people. I had dealings with them at work, so when they invited me to a service I went, partly because it seemed rude to refuse, and partly because I was curious. As I recall, the general gist of the visiting preacher’s sermon was a refutation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, on the grounds that monkeys still exist, so they can’t have evolved into humans. My upbringing was political, not religious – a world away from Winterson’s – and I was stunned into silence by this argument, which flies in the face of known facts and strikes me as being unacademic, unscientific, and just plain stupid. But the congregation, who were all very sincere in their faith, seemed convinced.

Maybe this offers some of kind clue to Mrs Winterson’s mindset. At any rate, she believed the apocalypse was imminent, and was prepared for the world to end at any moment. There were Biblical texts pinned up around the house, and God was appealed to in all adverse situations (including a plea for better weather if it rained when the washing was pegged out). And Satan was a real force for evil, responsible for everything bad, from food going off to young Jeanette’s sexuality.

Even without the all-consuming religion Mrs W was very odd indeed. Some of the incidents described here have already been featured in the earlier tale – the way Winterson was locked out of the house, her exorcism, living in a car when she is forced to leave home. But in this later book Winterson looks at events in greater depth, from a different perspective, and reveals the few details she knows about her mother’s life. It’s a kindlier portrayal than you might expect, but Mrs Winterson, a giant of a woman in every way, remains something of a mystery.

Strangely, perhaps, what shocked me most about her treatment of the child was her attitude towards books, which she mistrusted, apart from The Bible, which she read aloud every night for half an hour. When she reached the end she would give her husband and adopted daughter a week off, to  think about what they had heard, then start at the beginning again, working her way through all the books of the Old and New Testaments.

Winterson tells us: “I asked my mother why we couldn’t have books and she said, ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.’” So she reads in secret, embarking on English Literature in Prose A-Z at her local library, and buying paperbacks with money saved from her after school and Saturday job. And she hides her books under the mattress. “Anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that seventy-two per layer can be accommodated under the mattress,” she writes. “By degrees my bed began to rise visibly, like the Princess and the Pea, so that soon I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than floor.”

But her mother spots a paperback sticking out below the mattress (DH Lawrence’s ‘Women in Love – an ‘unlucky’ choice), and her reaction is truly shocking. Volume after volume is hurled into the back yard, doused in paraffin, and set alight. It seems such a flamboyant gesture, echoing the actions of the Inquisition who believed, if I remember rightly, that by suppressing heresy they were saving souls.

Actually, I think Mrs W would have thrived as a Medieval nun, or better still as an anchorite so she would not have had to mix with other people. She would have eschewed all things to do with the flesh, and been incredibly inflexible, living her life according to what she saw as God’s word. Her oddities would have been regarded as sigs of holiness, and she would have been revered as a saint. She was certainly no stranger than many of the women who were honoured by the church.

At this point I was going to say ‘enough of Mrs Winterson’, but she dominates the book – and her adoptive daughter’s life. The sense of loss, of not belonging, of being unloved (and wary of loving), shaped the girl, and played their part in the breakdown Winterson suffered many years later. Her account of that dark period in her life is very moving, and searingly honest. Similarly, when she describes she found and met her birth mother, Winterson analyses her own emotions and reactions.

But don’t expect a neat, tidy, happy ending. Winterson was never reconciled with her adoptive mother, and acknowledges the difficulties involved in forging a relationship with Ann, her birth mother. She could never, she says, be the daughter that either woman wanted. But, interestingly I thought, she also acknowledges that while Mrs Winterson was a monster, she was her monster. And at one stage she explains: “Yet I would rather be this me – the me that I have become – than the me I might have become without books, without education, and without all the things that have happened to me along the way, including Mrs W. I think I am lucky.”

It’s noticeable that while Winterson’s sense of anger does not seem to have abated over the years, she never feels sorry for herself, and never regards herself as a victim. Quoting from Gertrude Stein, she knows that whatever road she is on is the right road, no matter where it may lead.

I’ve always loved her novels (especially ‘Sexing the Cherry’, which is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read) and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’ offered insights into the way she works, and how she used versions of the truth to create other ‘might-have-been’ worlds in her novels, which also reflect her search to love and be loved.