Thursday, 26 February 2015

Sky Bears and Kissing Planets

Just look what I’ve got…
The Stargazers’ Almanac! Isn’t it beautiful? It gives a month by month account of what can be seen in the night sky, with lovely clear maps looking north and south, so you won’t miss anything. I have Lynne at Dove Grey Reader to thank for this discovery, because she mentioned it here, and I bought it because I thought it would be the perfect partner for this…
Stories in the Stars, An Atlas of Constellations, by Victoria Hislop, is exactly what it says on the label. It’s packed with tales about the stars, explaining how they got their names, and it’s a lovely mix of myths and legends, as gods and goddesses rub shoulders with heroes, heroines, villains, and some very odd creatures. And there are snippets about astronomers, scientists, explorers, mathematicians, mapmakers and mariners, all helping to show how successive cultures have viewed the stars, from early times right through to the modern age, with references to the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Japanese and many more, interspersed occasionally with the author’s childhood memories.
I fell in love with this book when I heard it on BBC Radio 4 – it was the Book of the Week at Christmas, and it was beautifully read, by the author and a cast of actors. It was abridged by Jill Waters, who also directed and produced the five episodes, and having now read the book (I splashed out on a brand new hardback, which is very unusual for me) I can say I think she did a brilliant job. Sadly, the BBC programmes are no longer available for listening, but if it’s ever broadcast again you really should tune in.
Hislop, who describes herself as an actor, writer, theatre-maker and juggler of things, stresses that ‘Stories in the Stars’ is not about ‘astronomical rigour’. It’s the stories of the stars she knows, not the science. And she adds:

 “This is the glory of stargazing for the storyteller: above us a blank page in negative. A jet canvas pricked with white dots, and a rag-bag of myths, religions, lullabies and fairy tales with which to join them up. A whole universe of stories ready to steal, which are as unstable as the stars themselves – shining and magical, but soon to explode and re-form the dust and gas of history into new stories altogether.”
Purists may not like this dot-to-dot approach, but I do: I feel it helps make sense of all those weird and wonderful stories, some of which I already know, although others are new. The science bits Hislop does include are put across very simply, and the whole book has really whetted my appetite to learn more about stars and planets and so on, so I've dug out a not terribly good pair of binoculars, and a very tiny compass (a souvenir from the Natural History Museum) because I have no sense of direction!
At this point I must mention the illustrated maps created by artist Hannah Waldron – after all, an atlas wouldn’t be an atlas without its maps! These are lovely and clear, one for each constellation, showing a picture of what it’s meant to be (hunter, swan, dog etc), it’s position in the sky, and the magnitude of the individual stars.

The ‘Stargazers’ Almanac’ also boasts some wonderful illustrated maps of the night sky, with details of what you see each month, and brief information about the sun, moon planets and meteors, as well as the stars, all of which makes it slightly more scientific than Hislop’s book. However, it’s quite easy to understand. And the compiler has a lovely turn of phrase. This month, for example, I learned that: “The Little Bear (Ursa Minor) hangs by its tail, at the tip of which is Polaris, infallible guide to the north.”
Isn’t that magical? Never again will I fruitlessly search the sky for something as humdrum as a small saucepan with a bent handle. Instead I shall welcome the sight of a playful bear cub hanging upside down and swinging from a star! And he here he is in the Almanac, more or less in the middle of my not very clear photo:
And here he is in Hannah Waldron's rather splendid illustration in the Constellation Atlas.
However, according to Hislop the Little Bear has a sad story to tell. He is Arcas, son of Callisto, a wood nymph who was seduced by Zeus, King of the Gods. As you might expect, Zeus’ wife Hera was not at all happy about this, so she changed poor Callisto into a bear, which seems a little extreme (and very unfair – after all, it wasn’t Callisto’s fault).

Fast forward more than a decade, and the teenaged Arcas is about to kill the bear, unaware she is his mother. But Zeus comes to the rescue (if you can call it that)… and turns Arcas into a bear as well! However, I’m not sure this solution pleased either mother or son. According to Hislop, to avoid being scratched by their sharp claws, Zeus picked both bears up by their tails, swung them round and round, and flung them into the sky. Which is why Sky Bears have longer tails than Earth Bears!
So, having got all enthusiastic about the night sky, and alerted by a line in the Almanac, I went into the back garden early on Saturday evening and managed to locate the planet Venus, shining brightly, and red Mars, a tiny, dull dot just a hair’s breadth away. They looked incredibly close - they could have been kissing or hugging! But apparently that’s an illusion, all to do with the alignment of the two planets as they’re seen from earth (once back in the warm I resorted to Google to find out more). In reality Venus is 134 million miles from Earth, and Mars is even further away - 203 million miles. So there must be a pretty good distance between them! Anyway, I gather it’s quite rare for these two planets to pass so close to each other: the last time was in 2008, and won’t happen again for another two years.
I tried very hard to take some photos, but it’s quite difficult trying to hold the camera steady and focus on something all that distance away, so my pictures were very wobbly indeed:

And when I did manage to get a clearer shot Mars wasn’t there at all, which is very disappointing. But you can see the thinnest of thin crescent moons, and Venus… but you have to click on the picture to make it bigger
However, even if I haven’t got a proper record of the occasion I’m glad we saw it, because we are surrounded by buildings, and there’s a lot of light pollution – the Man of the House, who was a bit of an astrology enthusiast in his youth (long before I met him), thinks we may be able to find somewhere nearby which offers a better view for stargazing observations. 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Spring Bulbs, Marmalade, Sulphur and Soup!

I was brought up in Surrey, and I love gardening books, so Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, by Mrs CW Earle, seemed tailor-made for me, and I succumbed to its delights as soon as I spotted it (in a box of Oxfam donations, of course).  It turns out that Mrs E’s country residence was in Cobham, which I used to know a little – when I was at school a friend lived there, and sometimes I stayed at her home overnight. And it was one of the places my family would occasionally ‘run out’ to on a fine day. Usually we fortified ourselves with flasks of tea, sandwiches, and slices of Mum’s home-made Dundee cake, but I am sure we once had afternoon tea in a genteel little tea shop in Cobham (though it may have been somewhere nearby). It impressed me no end: not only were we eating out, but there were proper waitresses, and it was definitely a step up from the local fish’n’chip shop or the self-service A.B.C. cafĂ© we frequented on trips to a neighbouring town.
My 1984 edition of Mrs CW Earle's 'Pot
Pourri from a Surrey Garden', produced
 by Century Publishing.

Anyway, I digress. Mrs Earle was the wife of Captain Charles William Earle, hence those initials. She was christened Maria Theresa, but in 1897, when her book was first published, a married woman was known by her husband’s name, a practice which has, thankfully, been abandoned.

The couple spent roughly half the year in London, and half at Cobham, which had a two-acre garden where Mrs Earle spent much of her time. She seems to have been a knowledgeable and ‘hands-on’ gardener, but there’s more to her book than gardening. It also covers cookery, holidays, housekeeping, families, education, furnishing, customs, history, health, poems, books, weather and all kinds of other things.

I guess it was one of the ‘self-help manuals’ of its day, which makes it great fun, and it’s interesting to see how things have changed. However, much of her advice (especially on gardening) still holds good, and many of her observations remain as pertinent today as they were then. She provides a lively and often humorous picture of life at the very end of the 19th century, and is informative and opinionated, without being didactic. On the whole she’s surprisingly modern in outlook – apparently her family regarded her as a great radical – and she has a sense of fun, and curiosity about life.
In her first entry, for January 2, she sets out her agenda, telling us:

I am not going to write a gardening book, or a cookery book, or a book on furnishing or education. Plenty of these have been published lately. I merely wish to talk to you on paper about several subjects as they occur to me throughout the year; and if such desultory notes prove to be of any use to you or others, so much the better.
But, she says, gardening will be given ‘preponderance’ throughout the book, and so it is.
For those of who don't know Cobham, this is a photo of the High Street,
courtesy of Wikipedia and their Creative Commons licence.
I was going to try and give a resumĂ© of the whole volume, but decided it would be nicer to share her thoughts on February (since it is February), and maybe take another look at her later in the year. This, she says, is the month of forced bulbs – ‘hyacinths, tulips, jonquils and narcissuses’. And she is absolutely right, because my little narcissi have all burst into bloom, and there are beautiful, cheerful, bright yellow flowers on the windowsills, making me feel that perhaps spring is on the way. My narcissi (in bright yellow pots, to match the flowers), were already poking their shoots through the soil when I brought them back from the local garden centre, and I feel a bit of a failure because I had some bulbs and forget to plant them back in November, which is when Mrs Earle, says you should do these things. In the Greenhouse. Or the Cellar. I was a bit flummoxed by this since we possess neither a greenhouse nor a cellar, but further reading revealed that a south-facing windowsill is fine. Actually, I’m pretty sure none of our windows face south, but the narcissi (I am positive this is the correct plural)) are flourishing, so presumably they don’t realise they’re looking the wrong way.
Narcissi on the windowsill... Not south-facing,
alas, but they seem quite happy.
She also mentions the Royal Horticultural Society’s early spring exhibition in the Drill Hall, Westminster, an event she describes as one of her great pleasures. Does this location still exist I wonder? And if so does the RHS still have a spring show there?
Later in the month she reminds us that it’s time to make marmalade, and that old jars which are being reused should be washed thoroughly in clean water, without soap or soda. Then, when dry, they should be powdered with a little sulphur and wiped clean. Whoever knew that sulphur was an essential piece of kitchen kit! When my mother made marmalade, jams, chutneys, bottled fruit and so on she washed the jars and sterilised them by baking them in the oven, on thick sheets of newspaper.
Finally there are some recipes, or receipts as they were then known, translated from a ‘very excellent’ French chef. Mrs Earle explains:
They belong to so entirely different a cuisine from our ordinary modest and economical receipts, that I think they may not be without interest to some people.
The recipes include ravioli and gnocchi, which seems very cosmopolitan for that period, and they all appear to be very complicated and very time consuming, and are definitely not modest or economical. My own favourite, because it is so outrageous, is Pot au feu Soup. I’m a great fan of home-made soup, which is generally very simple to cook, but the instructions for this are mazing. First up there’s the ingredients: 15lbs of beef; 51/2 lbs of veal, 1 chicken, 21/2 gallons of water; 3 fine carrots; I big turnip; 1 large onion; a bunch of parsley; a head of celery; a parsnip; 2 cloves, and some salt. What size saucepan would you need for that lot? And however would you lift it?
Then there’s the method. Before you start cooking, the meat has to be trimmed and tied, which may be a tad arduous, but believe me it’s a doddle compared to what comes next. On my reckoning the soup has to boil (on a fire!!!) for something like six hours. Various ingredients have to be added or removed at various times, scum has to be skimmed off, and there are different types of boilings to be done. I kid you not. There is violent boiling, and boiling on one side, and boiling ‘undisturbed, evenly and regularly’ (with the lid on). And you mustn’t let this witch’s brew boil over, even if it seems ‘inclined’ to do so. I rather like Mrs Earle’s use of the word ‘inclined’ because it makes the soup sound as if has a life of its own. Turn your back and it could take over the kitchen, like Grimm’s Magic Porridge Pot.
And when the cooking process is finally over the fun really starts because you must ‘strain the soup, without stirring it up, through a strainer on to a napkin stretched over a receptacle big enough to contain the soup’. Right. Anyone fancy heaving that lot out of the pan?
Even then you don’t have soup as we know it. Oh no. What you have is stock, which can be used to make whatever soup you fancy – which means more food-prepping, skimming and boiling…
When I make soup it tends to be more Pot Luck than Pot au feu!
This is made from all the vegetables left in the veg rack at the end of
the week... Plus fresh herbs... And stock cubes!
Now I realise that the basic techniques are still pretty much the same (apart from the industrial scale of the ingredients, and the fire). But personally I think progress is a wonderful thing. All I can say is hooray for modern cookers. And electric blenders. And stock cubes!!!

PS: I’m linking this to the Reading England Challenge, over at Behold the Stars. The aim is to travel England reading, and read at least one classic book per however many counties of England you decide to read. I think this definitely counts as a classic, and since non-fiction is allowed this would seem to be an ideal entry for Surrey. I’m signing up for Level 3, and hoping to read between 7 and 12 books for this challenge, which sounds reasonable, but it would be wonderful to cover every county.  

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

An Impossible Marriage

Right, after Margery Sharp here’s another New-to-Me novelist to enthuse about – Pamela Hansford Johnson who was, apparently, immensely popular from the late 1930s through to the 1960s, but seems to have been largely forgotten in recent years.

I’ve seen a couple of blog posts about her, and read reviews of Wendy Pollard’s ‘Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times’, but I knew so little about her novels it was difficult to pick one. So I printed off a list of available titles, took a pin, shut my eyes, stuck it in the paper, and came up with An Impossible Marriage. And yes, I know this is an odd way to choose a book, but it’s no worse than selecting one for its cover, or because you love the title.
Anyway, I downloaded a Bello edition on to the Kindle (hurrah for Pan Macmillan’s digital re-issues), and it turned out to be a pretty good choice because, quite apart from the fact that I really enjoyed this particular novel, I think it’s an excellent introduction to PHJ.

The cover of the Bello edition of 'An Impossible
Marriage' - though I'm not sure if E-books really
do have covers!
It’s the 1950s, and Christie (our narrator) has reluctantly returned to Clapham, where she was brought up, to visit Iris Allbright who, she tells us, had ‘one brief moment of real importance in my life, which was now shrivelled by memory almost to silliness’. Christie (known to most of her friends and family as Chris or Christine) doubts Iris will remember the incident, and adds: “She and I had grown out of each other twenty years ago and could have nothing more to say.”
And she most definitely does not want to rake over the past, but that’s just what she does as she remembers the time she and Iris were friends, when she was the clever one, and Iris the pretty one – they each had their labels.

Iris Allbright was one of those ‘best friends’ sought by plain girls in some inexplicable spurt of masochism, feared by them, hated by them and as inexplicably cherished.
Ouch! Strangely there seems to be a degree of complicity between the more assertive pretty girl and her plain, compliant friend, a little like the childhood relationship between bullying Cordelia and shy, quiet Elaine in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’. However sensible or strong-minded Christie may be away from Iris, with her she plays second fiddle, and cannot escape that role, however much she would like to.

Iris, whose devoted mother is putting her on the stage, is exceedingly pretty, exceedingly self-centred, and a collector of men - even those already attached to her friends…
So Christie is understandably wary when she starts going out with Ned Skelton. Ned is older, and seemingly sophisticated. On their first date they go for a drive in his little sports car ‘bright as a ladybird’, and stop at a hotel for a ‘Sunday outing tea’. In an effort to appear older and more experienced she’s bought a new black hat and borrowed a friend’s fur coat, but she is ill at ease. “His flattery in seeking me out seemed almost too great for me to accept,” she recalls. “I felt humble, and angry because I was humble.”

A 1954 edition. 

Describing the early days of their relationship Christie says: “I felt he was already invading me: that he had plans for me.”  That doesn’t strike me as being a good basis for any relationship, but she is besotted with Ned, even though she knows he is not gentle and will not be kind to her.
Two weeks before their wedding, she realises she doesn’t love him, only the idea of him, and breaks off their engagement. But he takes her to dinner at a posh restaurant where Iris is appearing in cabaret… And she is scared that Iris will take everything from her, including Ned. So she marries him, although she knows they are wrong for each other, and she doesn’t love him. She is 18 and he’s 32, and they have absolutely nothing in common.

Initially Christie believes she can make the marriage work. She has hope. But once again she finds herself playing second fiddle, this time to a husband who pays no attention to her needs, takes no notice of her likes and dislikes, and is not interested in any of the things that matter to her. He’s not violent, or abusive: in fact he’s quite charming most of the time. But he’s selfish, manipulative and domineering, inept rather than feckless, incapable of applying himself to anything or holding down a job, and unwilling to take advice.  
Bit by bit he isolates Christie, presumably to make her totally dependent on him, but he never provides for her financially, emotionally, or intellectually. First, of course, she has to give up her job in a travel agency – in 1930 it wasn’t acceptable for married women to work. Then, gradually, her friends are cut out of her life. He doesn’t care for the things she likes, and doesn’t want her to write (she has had poems published). And when their son is born, Ned is jealous of the time she spends with the baby and refuses to have anything to do with the child.

Eventually Christie acknowledges that if she is to survive with her soul intact she must escape. She's been married less than three years, and she's not yet 21, but she is determined to break free, and to take her son with her. She wants to live life on her own terms, to get a job, and to be independent, which must have been a bold and unusual stance when the novel was published in 1954. Set against that is the view of Ned’s mother, equally disappointed in her marriage, who stayed (with the aid of alcohol) because it was the thing to do. But I’m not sure you could say she made the best of things because she’s been so anaesthetised by life she no longer lets herself feel for anyone or anything.
Pamela Hansford Johnson’s career as a novelist covered a similar period to that of Margery Sharp, and they both portray some strong and unusual women. But PHJ is not as warm as Sharp. There’s an underlying sadness to some of her work, and she’s spikier, and not so interested in happy endings. She’s a very keen observer of people and relationships, and her characters are always credible, even if they’re not always likeable, but I get the feeling that she doesn’t really like people (rather like Julia’s daughter Susan in Sharp’s novel ‘The Nutmeg Tree’).
Pamela Hansford Johnson.
Despite that all her characters are memorable, even the minor ones, and she captures emotions in very few words, like Christie’s embarrassment when she discovers her ‘blind date’ is crippled (PHJ’s word, not mine – this was written long before the days of political correctness), or her anguish waiting for phone calls from Ned, wondering what his family will think of her, and what her aunt will think of him.