Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Unwanted Books...

Unwanted books...

Somehow, reading, blogging, and life in general, seems to have got out of routine in recent months while I’ve been backwards and forwards to see my mother. I did manage to get the Internet up and running last time I was there, but the connection in her part of Herefordshire is dire. And in any case, when I am there I would much rather sit and chat to her, and get her to tell me about her childhood, or discuss books or something. What would be the point of going to see my lovely mum, then ignoring her, and spending all my time on the computer? But I can’t back into the swing of things when I’m back home either!

Anyway, I returned from a visit earlier this month with a box of old books she no longer needs  – volumes of poetry, cookery, history and needlework dating back to the 1930s and earlier, as well as some fabulous 19th century books about flowers, with the  most incredible illustrations. Some of them belonged to her mother, and I can remember many of them from my childhood, so obviously, I want to keep them all, but finding shelf space was a problem, because we seem to have reached overload, and there is no more room.
More unwanted books...
 So I forced myself to have a cull, and I’ve weeded out two carrier bags of novels I know I will never read again. I hate getting rid of books, even those I don’t like, but sometimes it has to be done, and I’ve freed up space for the new arrivals, which is good. It’s so difficult clearing things out, but a couple of duplicates have gone on the ‘reject’ stack – do I really need two different Penguin editions of ‘The Great Gatsby’, I ask myself, and the answer, of course, is no, I do not.

And out went some titles that I enjoyed reading, but don’t feel I would want to read again. Geraldine Brooks ‘Year of Wonders’ was a moving account of what happens when the plague of 1666 reaches a small village, and to prevent the deadly disease from spreading, people isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Based on the true story of Eyam, in Derbshire, it shows how fear and superstition dictate the villagers’ actions, as the death toll mounts, hidden secrets come to light, and the world they know falls apart. The book follows the tale of Anna Frith, a maid, who emerges from the ordeal with new-found knowledge that enables her to find her own way in life. It’s beautifully written, and well researched, but so harrowing in places that I don’t think I could re-read it, despite the upbeat ending.

‘Quentins’, by Maeve Binchy, was another book I enjoyed, but wouldn’t necessarily want to read again. I can always immerse myself in Binchy’s work – she’s a warm, compassionate writer, who spins a good ‘feel-good’ yarn, and creates sympathetic characters, but her first novel, ‘Light a Penny Candle’, is the only one I have read, and read, and read over the years.
 I'm quite sad to part with this because even though
I don't like it, I love the cover, which shows a detail from'
Springtime in Eskdale', by J McIntosh Patrick.
 Then there were the books I hated, or which disappointed (I’ve reviewed some of them in past posts). Rose Macaulay’s ‘The Towers of Trebizond’ and Winifred Holtby’s ‘South Riding’ are two of my favourite books, so I had high hopes of ‘Told by an Idiot’ and ‘Anderby Wold’, but neither lived up to expectations, and both are destined for the charity shop, despite the fact that they are Virago Modern Classics, with lovely paintings on their fronts.   And I think it must have been the VMC cover that seduced me into buying ‘This Real Night’, by Rebecca West. I can think of no other reason for purchasing it, because it’s a follow-up to ‘The Fountain Overflows’, which I didn’t like, and I don’t like this one either.

I’m finally jettisoning ‘The Mandelbaum Gate’ by Muriel Spark which languished on shelf for years and years, until I managed to finish it during Muriel Spark Reading Week (and I only did that because it was the only unread novel, and I felt Simon and Harriet should have a full set!).

I have happy memories of reading my way through Susan Howatch back in the ’seventies (does anyone else remember ‘Cashelmara’ and ‘Penmarric’?) but I’m wary of revisiting them because ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ was terrible. And I couldn’t find anything nice to say about ‘The Irish RM’, by E Somerville & Martin Ross, which had me glued to the TV screen when it was televised in the 1980s.
Am I the only person who didn't finish
Jasper Fforde's 'The Eyre Affair'?
 Finally, out go various volumes recommended by friends, which I bought, tried to read, and failed miserably. So the time has come to get rid of them. I got ‘The Bourne Identity’, by Robert Ludlum, because a friend was reading it with her book group, but I never made it beyond the first couple of chapters. I hated everything about it – the style, the story, the subject matter, the characters. I know that’s a sweeping statement, based on little more than a glimpse of the book, but it not my thing at all, so why keep it?

And I’ve tried, and tried, and tried to read Jasper Fforde’s ‘The Eyre Affair’, and cannot get along with it at all, though it seems to be very highly acclaimed by everyone else. And the same could be said of ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’, by Kim Edwards, which other people seem to really rate, but I just kept reading the same few pages over and over again, so I gave up and shoved it back on a shelf. Only now it’s with the other unwanted books and is in the boot of the car awaiting delivery to a charity shop where, I hope, it will meet with the approval of some other reader.

Does anyone else keep books they don’t like, or hang to novels they couldn’t finish because they feel that one day they might change their mind and enjoy that particular title? And do you ever cull books – and if so, how do you decide what should go and what should stay?
And more unwanted books....

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Golden Leaves and Sunlight

Gold Leaf: Buried Sunlight.. This sculpture on the
top of an old coal mining spoil heap has proved
controversial - do you like it?
This golden pillar - ‘Gold Leaf: Buried Sunlight’ - stands on the top of a spoil heap at a long-closed coal mine at Polesworth, just up the road from where I live. The artwork, which is just over 39 feet tall, symbolises the regeneration of nature in the area, which is now a kind of nature reserve, known as Pooley Country Park. The Man of the House and I walked round there on Sunday, so it seemed the obvious choice for this week's Saturday Snapshot. From a distance the structure looks like a conventional classical column, but it’s actually shaped like a birch leaf (though unless someone told you this you would never know), and is made of layers, with thousands of leaf shapes all neatly stacked, reflecting the way aeons of ancient plants were compressed into layers, forming seams of coal which were hewn from the earth to provide the energy which powered industry and kept homes warm.
A close-up, showing the layers and serrated edge.
Cast in aluminium, it’s covered in gold leaf, in several different shades, echoing the autumnal colours of fallen birch leaves in autumn, and is a reminder that silver birches were among the first trees to grow here after the colliery closed some 50 years ago, the seed carried by birds or wind I suppose. Many more have now been planted, and they thrive in the poor in the poor soil, creating mulch where other species have taken root and all sorts of wildlife have become established.
The base, shining against the dark stones on the surface.
The pillar, which was erected about 18 months ago, was created by artists Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, who were intrigued by the idea of alchemy and transformation as sunlight turns leaves to carbon, and their tower of leaves shines out across the landscape, a stark contrast to the dull, dark grey stones of the spoil heap. It’s become a controversial landmark: local people were involved in selecting a piece of public art, but many residents don’t like this, claiming it is intrusive and out of keeping with the village and surrounding countryside. Personally I’ve got some sympathy with them, and I’m not sure I really like ‘Gold Leaf: Buried Sunlight’, although the more I find out about it, the more it grows on me. To be honest, I like the concept much more than the actual sculpture, and I think you need to know something about the symbolism to understand it, even if you don’t appreciate it. An information board would help, or some details on the map which guides you round the site – I did look, but I couldn’t find anything.
And another close-up.
This post is really about the sculpture, as the park (owned by Warwickshire County Council) is so fantastic it deserves a separate post, but I must mention the poems written by local people, which are inscribed on metal plaques all around the area, and there are pools formed when land collapsed deep underground, and trees, and fantastic views of the countryside, as well as a canal-side walk and a tearoom with displays and information about miners and the  of the pits that existed here. 
The bare stones around the base of the art-work.
The whole place is a tribute to the coal miners who worked here, showing that it really is possible to transform land scarred by industrial processes (and what is coal mining if it’s not industrial?) into something vital, alive – and very beautiful. It’s a small area, less than a mile long and quite narrow, but man has worked with nature to create something very special, and I was surprised to see how plants had taken hold of the most barren-looking areas. Even the lower slopes of the stony spoil heap are covered in a carpet of mosses and lichens, and several rare species of plants and insects are thriving in the park.
A carpet of moss is covering the spoil heap.
There’s been a tremendous input from the local community, and the area seems to be well used but, sadly, it is threatened by the line of HS2 – the high-speed rail route which will link Birmingham with Manchester and Leeds.
Silver birches as far as the eye can see. I tried taking photos
of fallen birch leaves, but they were not clear enough to use.

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce at http://athomewithbooks.net/ where you can see photos from other participants all over the world.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Vulnerable Side of a Superwoman...

Angela Fytton, heroine of Mavis Cheek’s Mrs Fytton’s Country Life, is an intelligent, liberated woman, she’s enough of a feminist to want partnership and equality in a relationship, and she has no intention of ever becoming a doormat. She certainly doesn’t become that, but in her determination to keep husband Ian happy and worry free (or, perhaps, just to keep him), she turns herself into the kind of Superwoman who does everything, and does it all superbly well. She’s the perfect wife and mother, frighteningly capable and efficient. She helps build Ian’s business, listens to what he has to say, runs the home faultlessly (she can cook and decorate with equal ease), never loses her figure or her looks, and is always good in bed.

The thing that keeps her going is the thought that one day, when the children leave home, there will be enough cash for Ian to take a back seat at work, so they can travel the world together, and do the things they’ve always wanted to do. But Fate has a nasty trick to play...

For just as Angela’s cherished dream of the future seems within grasp, Ian falls for the charms of pretty, helpless Binnie who slips on her too-high heels and falls at his feet. Soon he is married to Binnie, and looks after her and new baby Tristan just as Angela once cared for him.

Angela (or Mrs Fytton, as she continues to think of herself), is determined to win back her husband, but in the meantime she moves into centuries-old Church Ale House in the wilds of Somerset and settles down to county life in, with bees, chickens, vegetables and herbs. And a mulberry tree which looks like the back view of a naked man – the front has been mutilated by the husband of the previous owner.

Gradually she gets to know the villagers, and find that life is completely different to anything she has ever known, but she has old Sammy the Pigman to offer advice and help, and a 300-year-old book of household tips, recipes and remedies for inspiration. Gradually she gets to know the villagers and country customs, and there's a witchy kind of feel to many of her activities.

We are in classic Cheek territory here, with an abandoned wife, exploration of women’s roles and the growth of feminism and self-awareness. And there's some some sharp social satire, not only on the battle between the sexes, but on family life and the aspirations and pretensions of the middle classes. Like all her work, it’s a comedy of manners, and it’s very, very funny – I defy anyone not to laugh at the nightmare meal where Angela tells her family about her planned move, and the way she manoeuvres her teenage children, by appearing to insist that they must live with her, but at the same time ensuring they make their home with Ian and Binnie where, of course, they create chaos (as she knows they will).

And the Somerset villagers are wonderful, especially Dave the Bread, an escape from London who buys out of date speciality bread from the supermarket, removes the wrappers, and whacks it in the oven before selling it, still warm and smelling of fresh baking. And his wife Wanda is every bit as canny, using props like fresh woad growing in the garden and a loom to fool people into thinking she makes and dyes jumpers, when in actual fact she buys jumpers from charity shops and boils them up in blue Dylon!

By the end of the novel Angela has learned a lot about herself, including the fact that she doesn’t have to be perfect, that she can mistakes, and it’s OK to show that she is just as vulnerable as anyone else, but it’s not until she shows that vulnerability that she’s able to reach any kind of satisfactory resolution with her ex-husband – and whilst she doesn’t exactly win him back, she doesn’t exactly lose him either.

It’s difficult to know how to categorise Mavis Cheek (and anyway, should we be trying to classify authors?). She’s definitely not chick-lit or romantic fiction, but she’s not writing cutting edge novels which take language and literature in new directions. There are those who compare Mavis Cheek to Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, or even Jane Austen because, like them, she writes about a small, circumscribed world, and her work is driven by character, not plot. Personally I don’t think she’s as restrained as those three writers, and although she is more satiric, she is nowhere near as ascerbic as Muriel Spark or Beryl Bainbridge, and lacks their dark edge.

I don’t think I could put a label on her work, but I always enjoy reading her (with the exception of ‘Getting Back Brahms’, which irritated me beyond measure) and she can be very thought provoking about relationships, and the way our perceptions of people can be very different to the way they actually are – and how our perception of ourselves can also change as we learn more about our own identity. If you’ve never read any Mavis Cheek give a her a try: ‘Mrs Fytton’s Country Life’ is excellent, but my favourite is ‘Amenable Women’ where a modern-day woman unravels a mystery about Anne of Cleves and in so doing regains a belief in herself. 

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Canal... Railway... and Footpath

A walk through the wood - but the trail is not
much wider than the path
Step out on the Ledbury Town Trail and you are walking along a route that’s more than 200 years old, and has seen the rise and fall of two major forms of transport. For this narrow strip of land that’s now used by walkers and cyclists was once a railway line, and before that it was a canal. It’s a long time since I’ve been along it - when my daughters were small we used to come here sometimes to do bark rubbings and collect leaves.

Anyway, whilst staying with my mother at the beginning of the month I thought it would be ideal for one of my daily walks, so I went off exploring, on a rather bleak day, and very pleasant it was. I was surprised at how many male blackbirds were about, singing non-stop, hopping, and preening, flying in and out of the hedges and trees, and generally showing off their glossy black plumage and beautiful bright yellowy orange beaks. They were, as my mother always says, fine fellows – and they knew it. I don’t know why, but the females were less evident. I did try taking some photos, but I need a camera with a better shutter speed and decent zoom lens.  However, I did take some pictures for this week's Saturday Snapshot.
This is a bit blurry, but you can see the
wonderful patterns made by ivy stems.
There were lots of other birds (mainly sparrows I guess), and grey squirrels, which get everywhere nowadays, but these ones weren't as tame as the those back home in Tamworth.  And, of course, plenty of trees. I'm not very good at identifying trees, but I can recognise holly when I see it, and there did seem to be a great many hollies, as well as masses and masses of ivy, which writhed and twisted around the trunks, with the old stems creating weird patterns.

The trail skirts the town centre, with part of it passing alongside the recreation ground, and for much of the way there are houses on either side, but it’s so well lined with trees, hedges and shrubby plants that you don’t notice them, and its very peaceful. Some of it is down lower than the surrounding land, in a cutting where the canal (and then the railway) once ran, but further along the track  is on a kind of ridge or embankment, slightly higher than the land on each side.
From a distance I thought this tree was covered in white
blossom, which would have been odd at this time of year,
but it turned out to be fluffy seedheads from Old Man's
Beard twined around the branches.
I didn’t really know much about it, so I did a bit of research, and ended up feeling that the history is really rather sad. Back at the end of the 18th century people had high hopes that the Hereford and Gloucester Canal would boost trade in Ledbury but the project never lived up to expectations, and it was never a commercial success. Excavations were difficult, and the cost was far greater than estimated, so when the waterway opened in 1798 it only ran from Gloucester to Ledbury, and wasn’t linked to Hereford until 1845. But things still didn’t improve and eventually, in 1881, the first section of the route was closed, and replaced by the Ledbury and Gloucester Railway.   

It was known as the Daffodil Line, because of the wild daffodils which still grow in the area, and journeys must have been really pretty in spring when the flowers were in bloom, but I get the impression that the railway was no more successful than the canal. Originally double track, one set of rails was taken up in 1914 – it’s thought they were melted down and used for the war effort – so after that it would have been more difficult to run frequent services. Passenger trains ceased in 1959, and although freight transport was still in operation until the line closed in 1964, a victim of the Government cuts which shut thousands of stations and branch lines up and down the country. 
I love the way ivy has made patterns on trees.
The trains on this track stopped at Ledbury Town Halt, which has long since disappeared, but after I’d finished my walk I discovered where it used to be, so next time I visit Mum I can find the site – and I missed out the beginning and the end of the trail, so I need to go back and do the whole thing. That’s what comes of not checking your facts beforehand!

I gather some neighbouring towns and villages also have paths running along the line of the canal, while an ambitious scheme is under way to restore the waterway. So on future visits to Mum I’m hoping to see the work that’s already been completed, and maybe walk along other parts of this lost transport route.
Markings, knots and holes on tree trunks were very strange.
I think this looks like eyes and a nose.
Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce at http://athomewithbooks.net/ where you can see photos from other participants all over the world.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Natural Navigator

I am the first to admit I am not a good navigator. I have no sense of direction whatsoever, and if I’m walking or driving I can lose myself quite easily, even in the area where I have lived for more than 30 years – an achievement (if it could be called that!) which reduces the Man of the House to a quivering wreck. And it’s even worse if he drives and expects me to be the route-finder, as I’m always ill if I read while travelling, and I’ve never managed the art of successful map reading. Up in Cumbria one year I sent us miles in the opposite direction to where we were going because, as the MotH eventually discovered, I had the map aligned the wrong way, and it was upside down...

So the idea of trying to find your way around without the aid of a map, compass, SatNav or Google directions – as explained by Tristan Gooley in The Natural Navigator - sounds enticing, if more than a little scary. I treated myself to the book because since I began walking at the start of the year I’ve become much more aware of the landscape around me, and can remember being entranced by the BBC television series ‘All Roads Lead Home’, in which Sue Perkins, Alison Steadman and Stephen Mangan were coached by Gooley before being let loose to trek across Bodmin Moor and other locations using shadows, lichens, mosses, the shape of trees, the position of the sun, and the way animals lie down.

To be honest, I don’t think I would have the confidence to rely on Gooley’s advice, and I haven’t really had a chance to test his instructions, because my walks so far have been local, or easy to get to. And I’m not sure the MotH will allow me to trial natural navigation during visits to his family in Cumbria, or our elder daughter in Devon. He remains committed to maps, especially after the unfortunate incident with ED’s SatNav back in September.

But even if you’re not prepared to discard modern navigational aids, ‘The Natural Navigator’ is a fascinating read, packed with travellers’ tales, history, natural history, weather lore, meteorology, geology, and all kinds of information about the environment. Snippets from folk tales, myths and legends rub shoulders with hard facts to create one of those wonderfully readable, meandering books I love so much, wandering from subject to subject, interspersed with the author’s own thoughts on life, the universe, and the world around him.
This tree seems much more symmetrical than those in Gooley's
book, and although I walked round and round it, I couldn't see
that it would help find the way.
 I’m only part-way through the book - there is so much to take in I feel I need time to think about it all and, unusually for me, I’m on a slow read, so I may return with another post in a month or so. There are all kinds of tips and hints which I haven’t even begun to look at, including stuff about the weather, and the skies, but in the meantime I’ve bought a compass and am having tremendous fun testing Gooley’s ideas. And anyway, every walker ought to have a compass in their backpack. 
But these silver birches do have branches
leading off in one direction, and I think they
 are pointing south!
He makes natural navigation seem terribly easy, but it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. Take trees, for example. According to Gooley (who has a lovely a website at http://www.naturalnavigator.com/), in the northern hemisphere isolated deciduous trees show a ‘heaviness’ on their southern side, and a ‘tick effect’ in their branches, because they grow towards the light. It looks obvious in his illustration, but is not nearly as clear when you look at a real live tree, where the branches and leaves are all much more jumbled up. Plus, prevailing winds also affect the shape, which makes it even more difficult to understand what’s going on. Apparently, tree stumps can also reveal directions, because if a tree grows more densely on its south side, this causes an imbalance which will be reflected in the tree rings. On a recent walk in Dog Hill Wood, Ledbury, where my mother lives (I've been staying with her, which is why I haven't posted anything for a bit), I spent ages crouched precariously in a muddy patch on the edge of a slope while I examined recently cut tree stumps. Again, it’s not easy, because you can see cut marks as well as tree rings, but I felt a sense of triumph when I realised I could actually see what he meant!
You have to look closely, but you can see the rings on this tree
stump are closer together on on side, so that's another success.
 Mosses and lichens are a minefield, because their position and growth varies so much, depending on the habitat and local conditions, and I’m still trying to get my head round them. Actually, the more I learn about them, the more intrigued I am by mosses and lichens, and they are indescribably beautiful when you look at them closely. I wish I had some kind of decent magnifying glass so I could see them in more detail. 
Mosses on a north-facing wall, where there is less sun,
and more moisture.
Even in a built-up area there are pointers to show which way you are walking. On cold mornings the northern part of a path or pavement will stay frosty while the other edge is clear, just as Gooley says. And in the UK satellite dishes usually point south-south-east, while Christian churches are aligned west to east, with the altar at the east end, and yes St Editha’s (Tamworth’s parish church) does abide by this rule.

I know I’ve not been doing natural navigating the right way – I’m just playing around and looking to see if it works, but I like the idea that my distant ancestors may have used these methods to move around the country, and the way it provides a link with the past. And, like books by Robert MacFarlane, Kathleen Jamie, Esther Woolfson and Katherine Swift, it’s made me look much more closely at the world around me (and listen to the sounds of nature),  to think about man’s place in the world, and to try and take things a little more slowly, and appreciate the small things in life, whether it’s a glimpse of the first snowdrops of the year, a blackbird singing in the hedge, or rain making ripples as it falls on water.