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Words to the Wild...Wild About Words... Wanderings through Literature and Nature... (Books; Nature Writing; Story; Landscape; Place; Creative Writing; Nature & the Arts; Wildlife; Natural History)

Seasons’ Readings – and Returnings…

There’s something I’ve noticed about my reading in recent years. I seem to move through phases. Like the moon. Or the seasons. Quartering the year with rolling colours of moods; kaleidoscope changes that meld thoughts, like fragments of stained glass, into patterns – never exactly the same twice, but falling loosely into the same corner of the year; same time, same place.

I’ve noticed that around the autumn – September through to November – the excitement of the turning globe, the tightening drawstring of migration, the freefall of the trees – and the belt-loosening outbreath of the land as it settles down beneath its knee-blanket of frost – all turns me outward.  I want to be outside, or by the window – to be watching, noticing, swept up in the passing. I want to take records, to ponder, to be a naturalist, a citizen scientist; to look for the tiniest detail on a goldfinch’s wing; the last glint of a dragonfly on a leaf; the bloom of fungi in rotting wood.

For a short while, my reading turns almost wholly towards nature writing, natural history, landscape, sky. I immerse myself in it. Storing for the inner times. I pick up another book, and see the pages ahead as another portal into the grass, water, trees, mountains, clouds; the slippery cloak of the eel winding its way around me – delivering me into animal worlds.

And then, the season will turn. The kaleidoscope shifts. Nearing Christmas, maybe around solstice, the pattern gathers around light-gleaming colours of gold, green, red – firesides and indoor-coddled trees, laden with glittering reflection. Worlds within worlds; glimpsed, hidden.

My thoughts turn to Magic, Imagination; to back-of-the-wardrobe doorways whose frosted hinges crack open into eerie, snow-covered enchantment; to the silence of the forest; witches on brooms; armoured bears; goblets of fire; signs of power; hobbits dodging dragons with trickster words.

The pattern also traces its way into dark, mud-splashed streets, to crumbling houses filled with mystery; their gables and chimneys jutting jaws of stubborn secrecy. Ghosts and memories haunt these places, hovering close to their traditional places by the winter hearth. Clustered in this corner jostle stories tinged with the Gothic, with explorations of rooms behind locked doors, the creaking stairway; the chilly breath that extinguishes the candle.

Or, conversely, the tales invited to the hearth will beam with congenial mirth, placing around my shoulders a blanket against the freezing winds outside. Or best of all, the cosy and the mysterious will take turns by the firelight, mixing their roles within the very same tale.

During Christmas 2013, with the clan gathered together, there was little opportunity for private reading – but we pocketed ourselves away in those safely muffled days, and watched in shared contentment the season’s offering of films, many of them the stuff of the stories above. At the cinema, my daughter and I travelled amongst dwarves and wizards to meet the Elven King (via The Hobbit, Part Two, The Desolation of Smaug); and at home, the whole family journeyed, via television, to Narnia and into the world of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart.

A wonderful, spontaneous ‘Family Story-Gathering’ occurred one day when, happening to check the Radio Times, we saw that, in tribute to the late Joan Fontaine, Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was about to begin on TV. Instantly, we bunched up on the sofa, ready to dream of returning to Manderley again…

2013 had its ups as well as its downs, but was generally a very difficult year, filled with worry and strain. The ever changing reading-kaleidoscope was still pulling my thoughts in various directions – but, each pattern was no more than glimpsed before it had to be shaken loose. There wasn’t much time, or spare mind-space, for actually sitting down to pause, calm the mind and open a book.

On my bedside cabinet there is a tower of unfinished volumes, left suspended at moments when my attention was scattered and my energies were needed elsewhere. At the turn of the New Year, I needed to re-gather and to rest. I needed to read. I hadn’t realised how much I needed to read; how unwell in myself I’d begun to feel without that natural, meditative rhythm the turn of the page gives as the year and days go by. Back in November, reading Julian Hoffman’s beautiful book The Small Heart of Things had been a glorious re-aligning of an inner, homeward compass. And, for a while, I’d also been carrying with me a very timely reminder gifted by the pages of Valerie Davies’s wise and wonderful blog – and I knew I needed to slow down what hours I had available, and to seek some ‘Hestia moments’ of proper, deep solitude…

I selected a volume from the ‘tower’ – slipped into a book-enclosed space – and all the fragments of my scattered self began to return; each one fitting, piece by piece, into its home-place.

I’ve already read more books in the last couple of months than I managed to complete during the whole of 2013 – and it has done me So Much Good. Whole books finished! Not experienced in halted fragments, not stalled by the thought that I should be blogging about one before I move on to the next. My reading has returned to the natural undercurrent of thought-flow, and to the wayfarer tug of change. Some of that reading will float up towards the surface of this blog – soon, or eventually; whenever the time is right. Some may stay deep amongst the fish-haunted rocks and not need to blink in the light to make its presence felt.

I’ve also been spending some time just ‘Being amongst my Books,’ drinking them in, dipping in –

A Section of my bookshelves

 

‘There is also that kind of reading which is just looking at books. From time to time – I can’t say what dictates the impulse – I pull a chair up in front of a section of my library. An expectant tranquillity settles over me. I move my eyes slowly, reading the spines, or identifying the title by its colour and positioning. Just to see my books, to note their presence, their proximity to other books, fills me with a sense of futurity.’

Sven Birkerts, Notes from a confession (1987)

‘I am quite transported and comforted in the midst of my books: they give a zest to the happiest, and assuage the anguish of the bitterest, moments of existence! Therefore, whether distracted by the cares or the losses of my family, or my friends, I fly to my library as the only refuge in distress: here I learn to bear adversity with fortitude.’

Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79)

Oh, yes!

So, in between daily family stuff, I’ve been in a kind of metaphorical cave; in retreat. But, it’s been far from an idle time. It’s been a returning. A regaining of energy and focus, allowing me to be more useful to those around me – and more productive too! I’ve found my way back, through paper, pen and daydreaming to unearthing old rhythms; finding space to let the patterns form and shift towards new ideas and inspiration. I’ve swum my way (over and around various mind-blocks) back into concentrated and determined working on writing projects which I’ve been longing (for a lifetime!) to follow through to fruition.

‘There is renewal in retreat.
This is where you refill the cup.
This is how a writer comes home.’

‘Creativity is a voracious animal. It needs to be fed regularly. If you leave it untended for too long, you run the risk of starving your passion and diminishing your spirit.’

From The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb.

Seasons-of-the-mind always seem to lay trails to follow – pearls made of serendipity and the gritty rub of the subconscious, gleaming their way from book to book, thought to thought.  Tales of selkie folk seem to be tugging me towards a certain roll of the waves. From Berlie Doherty’s beautiful Daughter of the Sea, to the enchantment of Heather Dale singing The Maiden and the Selkie, via a reading (many years ago now) of Susan Cooper’s Seaward, I see ripples behind me that have helped drive me back into the water and towards productive creativity.

One of the books I’ve been dipping into since starting to write this post is Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published by Rider (Random House Group)

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published by Rider (Random House Group)

With the current kaleidoscope turn of my mind already on the lookout, my eye was drawn to Chapter 9 – Homing: Returning to OneSelf. There, Pinkola Estes explores the selkie/ sea maiden stories – and tells Sealskin, Soulskin, her version of these ancient tales ‘told among the Celts, the Scots, the tribes of northwest America, Siberian and Icelandic peoples.’ From Pinkola Estes’ explorations, I could pick out dozens of quotes that chimed for me – and which I’m sure, though the book focuses on women, are true for men’s experiences too. Here’s a handful:

‘The psyches and souls of women also have their own cycles and seasons of doing and solitude, running and staying, being involved and being removed, questing and resting, creating and incubating, being of the world and returning to the soul-place. When we are children…the instinctive nature notices all these phases and cycles. It hovers quite near us and we are aware and active at various intervals as we see fit.’ (p.255/6)

‘Home is the pristine instinctual life that works as easily as a joint sliding upon its greased bearing, where all is as it should be, where all the noises sound right, and the light is good, and the smells make us feel calm rather than alarmed. How one spends one’s time in the return is not important. Whatever revivifies balance is what is essential. That is home.

There is not only time to contemplate, but also to learn, and uncover the forgotten, the disused, and the buried. There we can imagine the future and also pore over the scar maps of the psyche, learning what led to what, and where we will go next…..

…..The most important thing I can tell you about the timing of this home cycle is this: When it’s time, it’s time. Even if you’re not ready, even if things are undone, even if today your ship is coming in. When it’s time, it’s time. The seal woman returns to the sea, not because she just feels like it, not because today is a good day to go, not because her life is all nice and tidy – there is no nice and tidy time for anyone. She goes because it is time, and therefore she must.’ (p. 284)

‘In the story, the seal woman dries out as she stays too long…… When a woman is gone too long from home, her ability to perceive how she’s truly feeling and thinking about herself and all other matters begins to dry and crack. She is on “lemming status.” Because she is not perceiving what is too much, what is not enough, she runs right over her own edges.’ (p.278).

‘Long ago the word ‘alone’ was treated as two words, ‘all one.’ To be ‘all one’ meant to be wholly one, to be in oneness, either essentially or temporarily. That is precisely the goal of solitude, to be all one. It is a cure for the frazzled state so common to modern women, the one that makes her, as the old saying goes, “leap onto her horse and ride off in all directions.” (p.292)

- From Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Circumstances, and various mindsets, have kept me on the rocks for far, far too long (years and years!) The recent arrival of another birthday made me even more conscious of how Time and Chance need to be grabbed before the tide carries them away. And, having donned my sealskin/ soulskin (at last!), I feel quite shocked (in a liberating way!) how very covetous I am right now about keeping it wrapped around me. I’m back, riding the wave of the storyteller impulse, which has been rooted in a kind of ‘home season-of-the-mind’ for as long as I can remember. And, during this intense simmering-stage of creating longer pieces of writing, I feel a huge urge to hide away with my notebooks, to put an impenetrable tangle of seaweed around my section of sea, and to immerse myself there completely every precious moment I can. To write, write, write.

Opportunities to do that, and to research, read and to think – and to keep this blog going – all have to share the same very limited pot of time. I’ve already been away too long from my undersea “cave” (struggling over this ‘first-hurdle-post’ back into blogging/internet-mode has taken me an unbelievable number of days – leaving me feeling less like I’m running with the wolves, and more like I’m howling at the moon…) It’s been so, so hard to drag myself away from my notebooks, and I must get back. The Muse (always a tricky character) is drumming her fingertips impatiently – and I’m anxious to keep her by my side. But staying in touch with you, the lovely and inspirational blogging community, is so important to me too, and I want to keep on surfacing in the blogosphere whenever I can. As well as all the unfinished books, there are lots of half-written blog posts left over from last year; lots of fragments waiting to complete their full patterns…

I’ll do my best to keep Bookish Nature rolling along, but the shape of the blog may have to become a bit more quick-moving and streamlined for a while; a good adaptation, I hope, for darting in and out of different waters – and for making sure that blogging remains part of the sealskin/ soulskin adventure…

Thanks so much for sticking with Bookish Nature during my long silence.

More posts are on their way…

Spring is here – and a whole new season of reading is shifting into pattern…

Book Selection

Lesser celandine

More book treasures!

Wood anemone

 

My Christmas card to you…

A carousel blurs lights and time. Imagination, woven into barley-sugar twists of gold, rides into adventure…

Carousel, Bath Christmas Market, 2013

Step aboard a portal - to an enchanted forest? To Green Knowe? A visit to the Midnight Folk?

Carousel in centre of Bath

Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths huddle close to a Christmas tree; its branches draped in stars dropped by a forgetful sky…

Christmas Tree outside Bath Abbey, 2013

A yew berry bides its time. An ancient in the making?

Yew berry - photo taken by my daughter at Westonbirt Arboretum, 2013

Yew berry – photo taken by my daughter at Westonbirt Arboretum, 2013

Cakes of Christmas Past, stirred through with memories. Decorated by my daughter…

Christmas cake 2011

Christmas cake 2012

The Cake of Christmas Present, waiting for dreams in sugar icing…

Christmas Cake 2013, awaiting decoration

Journeys by the fireside… Dazzling tales of the yuletide spirit, courtesy of the man they called “Mr. Christmas”…

Folio Society Dickens

However you mark this time of year, have a happy, magical time…

Season’s Greetings to all Bookish Nature readers. Thank you so much for all your support over the past year…

Merry Christmas!

Photo taken by my daughter at Westonbirt Arboretum, 2013

Photo taken by my daughter at Westonbirt Arboretum, 2013

Winter Solstice – Sol invictus; Unconquered sun…

It’s that tipping point of the year again here in the northern hemisphere. The winter solstice. The shortest day – or longest night – whichever way you want to look at it…

From today, as our planet tilts and turns, we travel back towards the light…

Here are two wonderful midwinter songs. They seem the perfect way to bring a celebration of this magical time to Bookish Nature. Both are written and performed by Thea Gilmore, and are from her album Strange Communion. I love how these YouTube videos blend Thea’s sublimely beautiful voice with glorious winter scenes; immersing us in the stunning beauty of the season – and in that special quality of returning light…

First, the spine-tingling magic of Sol Invictus:

‘Come the dawn, come the call
Come, the beating air
Chill the night, soldier light
We’ll be dancing there
And rise up, rise up
Day stretching weary wings…..

…..Come the day, thief of the night
Lifts its voice to sing

Now rise up, rise up
Ever victorious
Know the time, know the light
Comes the sun again.’

(From the lyrics to Sol Invictus, written by Thea Gilmore)

(Video: Jez Horrox)

And, secondly, as we follow roads back to hearth and home, a song that acknowledges both the darkness and light of our days – and raises a toast to midwinter; to the lessons we keep in the folding of the old year; and the chances we can unwrap to make things better in the new. A time to thank our lucky stars for the people and places that sustain us…

Midwinter Toast: (film by terigower)

Autumn, hoarding and unlocking; the living, Wild Story…

Life has been so busy lately. And, every time I’ve tried to scoop blog-time into my fraying net of available hours, it has slipped away; swimming off into some shadowy, unreachable part of the stream. I wrote this post way back in the first week of October, and ever since then, it has been sitting amongst my hoard of drafts; tucked away until I could find time to mull it over, add photos and make final tweaks. But now, hurried by the days flowing ever faster towards Christmas, I’ve made another attempt at netting this blog post and (at last!) have released it from its sleepy, pondering corner:

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It was a poignant treat to catch Radio 4’s broadcasts of Seamus Heaney’s readings from his translation of the Anglo Saxon epic poem, Beowulf.

I didn’t get the chance to listen to every episode, but when I did manage to settle, be still and to tune into Heaney’s warm and mellifluous voice, I felt transported to the fireside of an ancient mead hall, listening to the storyteller as he ‘unlocked his word-hoard’ - the ancient tale of warriors clad in ‘the brightly forged work of goldsmiths,’ shadowed by the terrifying monster Grendel.

My paperback copy of Heaney’s translation of Beowulf wears an austere face

Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, published by Faber and Faber

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, published by Faber and Faber

but there is a tactile richness about it that makes it so satisfying to hold. Its paper is creamy – its cover peach-soft. The whole book feels pliable and smooth; like silken air made tangible and divided into opening breaths, releasing word patterns across the ages.

My first experience of Beowulf was when I read bits and pieces of it in the original Old English. How did I do that? Now, I just don’t know! I studied Old English for only a short time (when English Language was one of my first year subsidiary subjects) – and The Battle of Maldon was our main text of focus:

Page from the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon

Page from the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon

Today, well over twenty years later, I remember only a handful of Old English words, including the expressive chewiness of waelwulfas, meaning ‘wolves of slaughter,’ a reference to fierce warriors, often specifically the Vikings. Heaney’s wonderful translation sits on my shelves, forming a much needed and hugely welcome portal to fuller understanding…

Now, when I think of Beowulf, a section of Robert Macfarlane’s mesmerising book The Wild Places always comes to mind.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, published by Granta

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, published by Granta

In the second chapter, Island, Macfarlane beautifully explores contrasting currents in humanity’s attitudes to the rest of nature:

‘Ideas, like waves, have fetches. They arrive with us having travelled vast distances, and their pasts are often invisible, or barely imaginable. ‘Wildness’ is such an idea: it has moved immensely through time. And in that time, two great and conflicting stories have been told about it. According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished; according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished.’

He goes on to explore examples, including Beowulf, which is:

‘…filled with what the poet calls wildeor, or ‘savage creatures’. In the poem, these monstrous dragon-like beings inhabit a landscape of wolf-haunted forests, deep lakes, windswept cliffs and treacherous marshes. It is against these wild places and wildeor that the civilisation of Beowulf’s tribe, the Geats – with their warm and well-lit mead halls, their hierarchical warrior culture – sets itself.

Parallel to this hatred of the wild, however, has run an alternative history: one that tells of wildness as an energy both exemplary and exquisite, and of wild places as realms of miracle, diversity and abundance. At the same time that the Beowulf-poet was writing his parable of the conquest of the wild, the monks of Enlli, Rona, the Skelligs and elsewhere were praising its beauty and its riotous fecundity.’

Robert Macfarlane tells of how the Celtic monks, the peregrini, ‘sailed out across dangerous seas, in search of something we might now call wildness’ and that:

‘Their travels to these wild places reflected their longing to achieve correspondence between belief and place, between inner and outer landscapes. We can surmise that the monks moved outwards because they wished to leave behind inhabited land: land which in every feature was named. Almost all Celtic place-names are commemorative: the bardic schools, as late as the seventeenth century, taught the history of places through their names, so that landscape became a theatre of memory, continually reminding its inhabitants of attachment and belonging. To migrate away from the named places (territories whose topography was continuous with memory and community) to the coasts (the unmapped islands, the anonymous forests) was to reach land that did not bear the marks of occupation. It was to act out a movement from history to eternity.’

Macfarlane points to the ‘rich literature’ left behind by the peregrini, most of whose individual names, like that of the Beowulf poet, are lost to us through time. Their writings are scattered ‘gleanings’ we can gather and hoard to piece together glimpses of their thoughts. The monks’ poems, Macfarlane tells us:

‘speak eloquently of a passionate and precise relationship with nature, and the blend of receptivity and detachment which characterised their interactions with it. Some of their poems read like jotted lists, or field notes:- ‘Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; brent geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the dark wild torrent.’

Reading Macfarlane’s descriptions of their delight-filled poems, it seems to me that, despite the monks’ efforts to leave behind the named and the known, belonging gathered round them. Connection reasserted itself in growing affinity with the character of each new place, and in the larger patterns of nature that overarched wherever they travelled. There’s a strong sense that those patterns, both inner and outer, adjusted and found old recognition in their fit, whether the precise details of the surroundings, or the living creatures that inhabited them, were new or familiar.

Alongside their feelings of exile from an otherworldly eternity, on which their sights were set – nature, for these monks, also seems to have been a deepening into Moment and This World. Awareness of the wind, of bird calls, of foxes at play, of sunlight spilling on the page, is accompanied by a nourishing and gladdening wonder. There is a sense that they are bearing gentle, reassured witness to not so much an over-spilling of edges - but a complete suffusion of the sacred in this world; a recognition of the epic, and a faith in the divine, as it passes over on the wings of barnacle geese, lives in the roar of the ‘dark wild torrent’ – or bides time in the small, focused movement of a beetle. ‘For these writers,’ Macfarlane tells us, ‘attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship.’

Through these ancient texts, both Celtic and Anglo Saxon, we see ideas of the wild travelling on complex currents of culture, environment and experience – and a strong undertow of older beliefs and traditions mixed with the new. All leave a tangled pattern of tide marks for us to try to interpret; as well as a great deal we can recognise in the workings of the world today, and in ourselves, as each of us adds to the pattern.

Recently, I’ve been reading and revelling in Miriam Darlington’s beautiful and gripping book, Otter Country.

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, published by Granta

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, published by Granta

I had already composed most of this post when I reached the section of the book, Marsh, in which Miriam tracks the elusive otter through the mysterious flatlands of the Somerset Levels, not far from where we live. She writes that the Avalon Marshes are: ‘living memory. A reading of the layered chapters in the peat reveals the story’- and I feel compelled by Miriam’s rich, illuminating observations to, otter-like, slide them in here as another layer to this post, building more seams into the ever-deepening story:

‘I can’t look at the marsh without the stories of its dark side creeping in. At night here it’s as black as a bag, and you can’t see or feel your way out. In the fog it feels as if the earth wants to eat you. Our ancestors used to throw votive offerings and trinkets into the mire to avoid being devoured. In Beowulf, Grendel comes out of the swamp to drag people off and feast on them. Bogs did and do still swallow people. The Grendel stories translate wetland into a dark, mapless world: ‘it is not far from here,’ the story suggests, inviting us to glance over our shoulders, ‘nor is it a pleasant place.’ The memory of devil-ridden mire, the unconquered swamp, has always been close-by. On the other hand, the American writer Aldo Leopold, in his Marshland Elegy, admired marshy landscape so much that he claimed he would have liked to be a musk-rat. Henry David Thoreau loved to stand up to his neck in a swamp. He said that when he was dead they would find bog oak written on his heart; and Seamus Heaney sanctifies the ottery bog as part of his national identity. He describes its fathomless texture as saturated with another sort of language ‘meaning soft,/ the fall of windless rain’. Does the shape of the watery landscape affect the way we feel and see? These writers at least seem to have been consciously nourished by wetlands.’

- From Otter Country, by Miriam Darlington (Published by Granta)

As I write this, it is raining. I look out of the window and see a grey pall of sky, wet roofs and running gutters. A magpie is croaking sullenly from a chimney across the street. But, back in September, glorious sunshine turned the close of that month into a glowing lamp to light up the last corner of summer.

My husband and I took our son out to test drive his new wheelchair – and were met by a blaze of berries. The blackberries had ripened – but were mostly still unyielding fists of fruit – not yet ready to fall from the stalk as we grasped them between finger and thumb.

As we walked, the trees and shrubs flaunted their fruits – rowan, hawthorn, sloes, elder, rosehips…

But the most spectacular of all were the spindle trees. Exotic in fruitful display, the spindle is a shrub which seems to belie its credentials as a native to our ancient woodlands.

The spindle berries are like tiny Chinese lanterns. Luminous, and a startling shade of pink, they are shaped with an incredible delicacy and grace of form:

Spindle tree berries, close-up

Spindle berries and sky

Spindle berries and pink leaves

They hang from the trees like jewels waiting to be plucked. Embellishments fit for a Saxon sword.

Clusters of Spindle berries

Some of the leaves had turned the same shade of pink as the berries – and, against the blue sky, each one glowed like a mead hall flame.

Spindle tree pink leaves and sky

A few clusters amongst the abundant spindle berries had already burst their casing – revealing bright orange seed, ripe and sticky.

Spindle tree berry seeds

Look closely at a spindle tree’s branches, and you will see the beautiful, bulging precision of their squared edges – like a rounded dice, stretched and thinned into elongated form.

Richard Mabey’s botanically and culturally fascinating Flora Britannica (an epic work in its own right!) tells us that the spindle tree ‘shares its name with the weighted stick that was used for hand-spinning raw wool before the invention of the spinning wheel’ and that this name:

‘appears to have been imported by the sixteenth-century botanist William Turner: ‘I haue sene this tree oft tymes in England and in moste plentye betwene Ware and Barkwaye, yet for al that I coulde neuer learne an Englishe name for it: the Duche men call it in Netherlande Spilboome that is Spindel tree, because they vse to make Spindels of it in that contrey and me thynke it may be so wel named in English.’

It is curious that this specialised foreign name stuck, and replaced a host of popular names that more accurately reflected its uses here. Spindle’s hard, pale yellow wood made it ideal for skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles, and before Turner (and after him, in country districts) it was known, for instance, as prickwood, skewer-wood (or skiver) and pincushion shrub.’

As we looked and I photographed, a dragonfly darted through the spindle’s leaves, pausing to glisten darkly as it warmed its wings in the sun. A speckled wood butterfly, looking fresh and pristine – a flourishing of the year’s second or third brood – did likewise.

Speckled Wood butterfly on spindle tree, Sept. 2013

We walked home accompanied by the chatter of sparrows in garden hedges, and the soft rise of white butterflies from late flowers. In our garden, a single small white still haunted our ever-dwindling buddleia bush. The breeze batted its unresisting form between hedge and fence – and a fresh, emblazoned red admiral took centre stage, declaring itself with colours bolder even than the day.

In The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (1991 edition), Jeremy Thomas writes:

‘After hibernation, the adult Red Admiral has a strong urge to fly northwards. This lasts throughout May, June, and July, and brings varying numbers to Britain every year…. From mid-August onwards, a change takes place, and the Red Admirals start to return south. By mid-September, the traffic becomes more or less one-way. Nobody knows whether this is triggered by the diminishing length of days, or whether it is simply an instinct of the final brood to emerge…. In general, the species is commonest after a long, warm summer, and is sometimes very abundant indeed.’

In our West Country garden, the red admiral fed for a while on the buddleia, tipping its way round and between the fermenting and shrivelled flowers, disappearing and reappearing as it folded and opened its patterned wings. And, in the mellow slide of light into the lengthening grass, autumn too seemed to be opening and closing a fitful dance towards the mead hall fireside. All around us, the day was gathering a summer-hoard; drawing to it time-translating tales. Ripening them like berries.

The red admiral felt the shift in the light. Tied to the sun, it was tugged towards the story’s centre. It landed, wings outspread, on our whirligig washing line – a display of contrasts.

The beautiful and the mundane, the caught and the uncontrollable, the named and the unnamed, the known and the unknown, ends and beginnings; each exists in the turned back edges of the other. Side by side, they find each other out – and, like poetry, unlock the epic in the everyday.

And in our garden now, in the rain, teasels waver – bronze, light-fringed – hoarding their confident waiting for goldfinches to set them on fire…

Skylarks over Flanders Fields

‘They wrote of skylarks – in letters, and some, in poems – those soldiers that lived and died in France during the Great War’ writes Jacqueline Winspear in her poignant essay, Skylarks above No Man’s Land, which chronicles her ‘pilgrimage to the battlefields of The Somme and Ypres.’

‘Every morning when I was in the front-line trenches I used to hear the larks singing soon after we stood-to about dawn. But those wretched larks made me more sad than almost anything else out here…. Their songs are so closely associated in my mind with peaceful summer days in gardens in pleasant landscapes in Blighty. Here one knows the larks sing at seven and the guns begin at nine or ten…’

Letter home, 1916 – Sergeant-Major F.H. Keeling.

Poppies (in a field in the Goucestershire Cotswolds)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below

- From In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae, May 1915.

Dusk

Returning, We hear the Larks
By Isaac Rosenberg

Sombre the night is
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lies there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp -
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song -
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

I found on YouTube, this Decca Argo recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending (surely one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music ever written) conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, the Academy of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields.The violinist is Iona Brown and, alongside her deeply soulful and wonderful performance, the video’s creator, AntPDC, has skilfully blended evocative and peaceful scenes of the Derbyshire Peak District in May.

The longing for such scenes as these, the ways in which lark-song evoked their memory, and a complexity of response - the sadness, the loss, the pain in sharpened contrasts: the beauty beside the horror, the balm mixed with helpless dread; the tearing schisms between the carnage of the battlefield and the ever-onward rhythms of nature - we hear all this, and more, in the soldiers’ voices. Vaughan Williams’ sublime music seems so fitting for remembrance. It carries upon its wings the depth of value in all that those soldiers, caught in the hell of war, longed for and lost.

In honour of the sacrifices of previous generations, and in memory of the countless victims of war throughout time, worldwide… In a reaching towards life and peace and towards a world in which we value and nurture all that most sustains – and for the hope that such a world could become our reality… For the wish not to squander the opportunities and lessons passed on to us, but to come together to build a better present and a better future… We remember.

‘The Small Heart of Things’ by Julian Hoffman

It’s been, I think, just a year and a few months since I first discovered Julian Hoffman’s beautiful writing via his blog, Notes from Near and Far. But already, it feels as if the places, scenes and wildlife he writes about are old, old friends – familiar from afar; because Julian imbues his descriptions with such close and detailed attention – and fills them with his own sense of belonging and finding home.

It is a sense which, as we read Julian’s words, is infectious. When I first discovered Notes from Near and Far, I knew absolutely nothing about the Prespa Lakes area of Greece, where Julian lives and gathers much of the rich material woven through the beauty of his words and photographs. I arrived at his blog, like a stranger in a new country – my eyes gradually opening to an intriguing discovery of unfamiliar terrain, unfamiliar wildlife, and the special, inherent ways of cultural experience woven into the fabric of that land. Now, when I revisit Julian’s blog, it is like returning to a kind of home – a home I’ve never been to. I know those places Julian describes, because that home-finding is knit so strongly in his observations, and in his understanding of what he observes.

And it is this sense of finding home, that forms a thread of exploration I’m so looking forward to following in Julian’s newly published book, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World. My copy is on order – and I know that it will be a journey deep into that ‘small heart of things’ Julian is so adept at noticing and revealing. He is the kind of guide you want when you are stepping out to explore – knowledgeable, profoundly enmeshed in a sense of place and its stories, gifted with a listening ear and a deeply seeing eye.

Via my virtual journeys alongside Julian through the Prespa Lakes area (described on Julian’s blog as “the first transboundary park in the Balkans, shared by Greece, Albania, and the former Yogoslav Republic of Macedonia”) – I feel as if I’ve made close, personal discoveries of those unfamiliar species I’ve never seen first-hand in the wild – pelicans, swallowtail butterflies, hen harriers, bee-eaters, black woodpeckers, salamanders, bears – and an extremely rare, strange and mysterious flower. And I have witnessed familiar species – goldcrests, swifts, swallows, monkey and lizard orchids – in new surroundings and wider contexts; bringing home (that word again) the immediacy of the interconnectedness of global turns, migratory patterns and the places where we live – and from which we all communicate and share our stories. From home to home. And in our wider home.

Over the past year or so, it’s been wonderful to see Julian’s stories unfold – and to share with him the delight of his book coming into print.

The Small Heart of Things, published last week by University of Georgia Press, is the Winner of the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series for Creative Nonfiction, chosen by Terry Tempest Williams – which, in itself, is a huge recommendation. Terry Tempest Williams describes Julian as a “seeker and seer among those who work the land within the cycles of time” and she goes on to say that “At a time when we wonder where hope resides, this is a book of faith in the natural histories of community, broken and sustained.”

Julian has been a good friend to Bookish Nature – and it is a great pleasure, via the very much sustained community created by bloggers and blogging, to have this opportunity, and Julian’s kind permission, to share his book’s trailer here with you all. I know that some of you are already fans of Julian’s work – and are already very much at home over on his blog – but for those of you yet to step into that new territory – I’m so glad to be able to offer this introductory portal to further discovery.

So now, here is Julian himself to tell you more about The Small Heart of Things in the mesmerisingly beautiful trailer for the book – with post-production by Miki Ambrozy, original music by Janis Strapcans, and photographs by Julian Hoffman:

Further details about The Small Heart of Things, where it is available to buy etc. – and the chance to explore more of Julian’s beautiful writing and photography – can be found on his blog, Notes from Near and Far – and on his website, Julian Hoffman – Words, Images.

Water, Swans and Word-Flight

October 3rd was National Poetry Day here in the UK. I’ve been so busy, I didn’t manage to finish writing a Poetry Day celebration post in time (though, thankfully, the ever-enriching words of Seamus Heaney were holding the fort in my previous post, providing poetic sustenance to anyone who found their way here that day).

But, hey - every day is poetry day! So, let’s keep the celebrations rolling…

The theme this year was ‘Water, water’

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

- From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Here’s a lovely film by Leo Crane, with sound by Andrew Hayes – a London Animation Studio production for Forward Arts Foundation – complete with Rachel Rooney’s mermaid, Roger McGough’s handfish, Jacob Polley’s Book of Water – as well as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and other watery treasures…

(A download of the poems featured is available on the National Poetry Day resources section of the Forward Arts Foundation website).

Thinking my way towards a poem through which water glints and slips and brims, The Wild Swans at Coole by William Butler Yeats quickly surfaced.

My daughter loves it too. She first met it in The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, stunningly illustrated by Jackie Morris.

The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats - Illustrated by Jackie Morris, The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems

The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats – Illustrated by Jackie Morris, The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems

Front cover - Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, Illustrated by Jackie Morris (Published by Barefoot Books)

Front cover – Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, Illustrated by Jackie Morris (Published by Barefoot Books)

My knowledge of Yeats is sketchy, but the lovely Coole Park and Gardens website provides an interesting taster of his relationship to Coole in Ireland; how he loved its lakes, woods, wildlife – and the healing calm it provided in the wake of deep exhaustion.

The swans Yeats saw at Coole were probably Whooper swans – but also may have been Bewick’s. Back in February this year, we made a visit to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s centre at Slimbridge, to experience the winter magic both species bring to our shores. It was a stunning day – bright sun, blue sky, mistletoe draping the trees

– and a sunset that blazed the sky, and cast coloured silk on the water.

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The wild swans, shrugging the North through their wings, shook the winter rays deeper into their feathers as they landed in the Rushy Pen to feed. They became part of the water…

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…they became part of the sky:

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Flight

…keeping the Arctic in the turn of their head, in the shards of light in their eye, in the descending beat of their cry. Framed by the window of the Peng Observatory, they transformed the lake at Slimbridge into a Sir Peter Scott painting; the whole scene water-coloured by the light:

Wildfowl on Rushy Pen, Slimbridge WWT

Opposite, an iconic image of a Slimbridge observation tower glowed in a wash of ochre.

Old observatory, Slimbridge WWT

The Bewick’s arrive, they go, arrive and go – travelling with the seasons. Some return and return; some don’t make it. Others survive, but carry shotgun pellets embedded between flesh, bone and feathers. Living targets for those who, beneath the ancient, global turn of the swans’ journey, do not welcome them. Yeats was right to see an echo of mourning in the wild swans’ departure – to fear the doubt of return.

Winged layers and layers of significance take flight through time:

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky:
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lakes edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

By William Butler Yeats.

Now, as I write this, the Bewick’s are, once more, on their way back to our shores – creating an epic shrug of earth-breath southwards; folding the thrill and cry of the North through the quiet, promised chill of our days. We wait, hopeful.

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My other choice of watery poem – this time one of my son’s favourites – is Duck Weather by Shirley Hughes, from her beautiful picture book, Rhymes for Annie Rose.

Rhymes for Annie Rose by Shirley Hughes - a Ted Smart Publication, originally published by Bodley Head Children's Books, Random House

Rhymes for Annie Rose by Shirley Hughes – a Ted Smart Publication, originally published by Bodley Head Children’s Books, Random House

It seems especially appropriate to choose something from Shirley Hughes, as her work appears on two of the National Poetry Day 2013 posters – each one a wonderful reach-out to a child’s natural readiness for poetry discovery.

Through the story-ways of Shirley Hughes’ picture books, so many children have taken their earliest steps into the magical rhythms, sounds and transports of language. Her words, and the enchantment of her illustrations, brim with the essence of daily childhood; filling both the child and adult reader with such a strong sense of recognition.

Duck Weather by Shirley Hughes, from Rhymes for Annie Rose

Duck Weather by Shirley Hughes, from Rhymes for Annie Rose

I love how this poem is, in itself, a constantly remade moment of sharing with my son. He loves its rhythms – and the sturdy and joyful declaration of its tone. I love it too because I remember so vividly that fascination for rainy days I felt as a small child. The rituals of arming ourselves with bright, shiny wellies and waterproofs. The fun of unfurling and twirling umbrellas (or in the case of those domed see-through ones fashionable in the 1970s, balancing them on our heads, hands-free as we splashed in the puddles). Rainy days brought blurred light, jagged and pooling on the pavement; reflections of colour caught in the tarmac; the somehow comforting swish of passing cars, and that happy feeling of escape as we splashed our gladness and felt faintly smug that we weren’t the people hunched inside those cars – but could taste freedom and the smell of grass rising, and could almost see the trees oozing their secret scent into the enticing dampness…

All things from which word-flight – and the flights of our dreams – are made:

Detail from 'Night Flight' by Shirley Hughes (Rhymes for Annie Rose)

Detail from ‘Night Flight’ by Shirley Hughes (Rhymes for Annie Rose)

Happy (across the Nations) Poetry (Every) Day, everyone!

And a very warm welcome to the many new Bookish Nature followers and readers who have found their way here since the blog was (unbelievably!) Freshly Pressed last month. My stats rocketed overnight (quite literally) – and the bar chart for that day unfolded like a Big Friendly Giant, leaving the previous days’ stats peeping, like tiny, nervous Sophies, from under a table loaded with snozzcumbers. My thanks to WordPress, and to everyone who has read/ liked/ followed/ commented. It’s been really rewarding to connect with so many interesting, talented and engaging bloggers and visitors. Please forgive me if it takes me a while to answer comments and to visit blogs etc… Life, always busy, has taken an extra time-filled turn lately. I’m doing my best to keep blog content coming (lots of posts in the pipeline) – though, often, it might be the case - as with National Poetry Day - that I’ll turn up just a bit late to the party!

You can catch up with the latest news about the Bewick’s swans’ migration at the Bewick’s Swan Diary on the WWT Slimbridge web pages.

Seamus Heaney – Digging and Remembering…

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

- Extract from Digging, by Seamus Heaney, from Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber, 1966)

The leaves on our damson trees are turning yellow; many have fallen already. White butterflies, like wind-blown petals trying to re-attach themselves to the desiccated whiteness of our buddleia, gather to its heady scent, richer than ever on the weight of September air. Beneath the warm sunshine, there is a whisper of cold – small gusts around my feet in grass grown lush after summer’s thirst.

And Seamus Heaney now lives on in words. Immediate as the heady scent that beguiles the butterflies, the words he leaves behind reach my senses – and hit my synapses. They surprise with truth. Dig deep, like Seamus’s pen, to turn over and expose to the air peaty layers of being; layers formed by years – and by words and poems fermenting in the soil.

Get an old book down from the shelf…

A gathering of poetry on my bookshelves

Selection of Seamus Heaney poetry collections, published by Faber & Faber

…and I’m soon digging up old strata of self and memory – turning over Seamus’s poems, and the times to which they first belonged in my life. And now, I also find that new layers have silted over the old, mixing to make a richer, though sometimes sadder, loam in which to reveal the bog body of accumulated life.

Back in the 1980s, Neil Corcoran, author of another reopened book from my shelves:

Seamus Heaney by Neil Corcoran, Published by Faber and Faber, 1986

Seamus Heaney by Neil Corcoran, Published by Faber and Faber, 1986

was one of my lecturers at university. I remember sitting in the lecture theatre, elbow to elbow with a hundred or so other eager souls, listening to how he had met Seamus Heaney. I remember it striking me how, as an academic caught in the fascination of research into contemporary literature, you might have within your reach the intriguing possibility of meeting your subject of study; a possibility that could, perhaps, add very immediate open doors to insight – or maybe keep them guarded by the constraints of, as yet, unfolded time. I remember thinking, “He’s met Seamus Heaney. He’s actually met Seamus Heaney!” He has shared thoughts with the poet about the very poem on the page in front me, its lines now surrounded by a crazy halo of pencil-scrawl annotation, my handwriting agitated by language-love and discovery.

And Heaney’s poems are poems to love, to add to the layers of self – to fold into that peaty mix filled with half-buried scents which, when the digging times come, we unearth and release; gazing into the slow burn of accumulated experience and fathoming, illuminating where we are now.

The first poem of Seamus Heaney’s I ever read was Blackberry-Picking, from his collection, Death of a Naturalist. With the blackberries fattening on our hedge, and the season of Keats’s ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ upon us, it seems apt to quote Blackberry-Picking here in remembrance of its author. I can recall that first reading, sitting in one of my earliest tutorials at university. Autumn sunlight, lazy in the slant of its highest hour, leant heavy and insistent against Victorian sash windows; squashing us into a shaded corner of the rug-softened room, pigeons tapping at the glass to be fed. Heaney’s words were passed around between us – and something ripened, like those ‘glossy’ blackberries, inside my head. I remember it as a discovery. A blackberry picking of words. A gathering of a new understanding into my life.

Blackberry-Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

By Seamus Heaney, from Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber, 1966)

Also powerfully apt for this time of year and of remembering, is Heaney’s poem, Postscript. I heard the wonderful Edna O’Brien reciting this on Radio 4’s recent Front Row tribute to the Nobel laureate – she said it was her favourite Heaney poem. I think it has become one of my most favourites too:

Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

By Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level (Faber and Faber, 1996)

Seamus Heaney was one of those people whose death filled me with a sense of personal, as well as collective, loss. He was one of those greats whose contributions are like the propelling waves and clarifying sunlight on the literary ocean. On a personal level, those waves and sunlight feel like a connection to a never-ending voyage – compass points to follow, winds to capture in your sails, and glimpses of places where an anchor can reach down into depthless, and yet secure, moments of pause.

In his Nobel Lecture in 1995, Heaney spoke of how:

‘…poetry can make an order….where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference….I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.’

And he shone a light on:

‘….poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.’

When I heard the news of his death, I was already heavy with the sadness of life’s cruel turns for one of the people I love most dearly – and Seamus’s passing added another sad acceptance to the fold of what is, and what will be. I never met him in person – and yet I have met him many times in his poems. And those poems have touched my life – they have helped, and still are helping, me to ‘grow up to that which [ I ] stored up as [ I ] grew.’

On a personal level, many more layers, I hope, will continue to form in my life – there are certainly many still to dig! To our collective cultural soil, other people, other generations, will add countless layers upon layers. And, within all that mix, Seamus’s poetry will live on, persuading ‘that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it,’ – releasing crucial scents into times and lives beyond personal memory; into that timeless sense of personal knowing that buffets us softly, leaves us ‘neither here nor there’ and blows the heart open.

Adam Bede – ‘Clear images before your gladden’d eyes’

I’ve been away; travelling the length and breadth of England – but not on holiday. It’s been an anxious and challenging time. We managed to squeeze in some moments of rest, recuperation and togetherness – some refuelling; a brief (much shortened) trip to Northumberland to pause, calm ourselves, spend a few days with my parents-in-law, breathe the consoling beauty of Alnmouth beach - and make a steadying, promised visit to Barter Books with my daughter. Then I was away to where I was needed most, whilst my husband returned westwards with the kids to hold the fort at home. I’m back now, though emotional distraction, tiredness and vital family priorities mean blogging will be difficult for a while. But, here’s a post I intended to put up on the blog a couple of weeks or so ago – before we received the news that altered our course and called me away. The post isn’t quite finished; not edited, polished or thought out as much as I’d like. But, I can’t muster up enough concentration to shape it into something better. Please accept it for what it is, an unsculpted piece of clay – but full of feeling:

I am currently reading Adam Bede – and this is how it is making me feel:

'Woman Reading' by Leon Kaufmann, 1892-1933

‘Woman Reading’ by Leon Kaufmann, 1892-1933

Reading George Eliot’s novel is like sunlight hovering at my fingertips – like April rays after rain, filling my vision. Eliot’s characters are populating my house. I know these people. We each draw up a chair on the rug – and swap our times of day, as familiar as if we were family. How does Eliot do it? How does she draw a character so surely, so deftly – in just a few introductory lines – sometimes just in a sentence – so that, instantly, we know them, recognise them – see the slant of their head, the lean of their shoulder against the doorframe, the foot they place on the ground; the small frown, the scratch of the head – the eyebrow knitted, the hand reaching out across the years? We can anticipate the demeanour of each of her character’s actions even before we see them leave their initial pose, or hear them speak; before first introductions are even complete.

And, strong affections are knit so swiftly into the weave of those introductions. How did Eliot make me love the Reverend Irwine almost as soon as I’d met him? The light in his face is not so much described, as felt in that sunlight of words that warms my own face as I read; illuminating too the instant, sure portrait of his mother, Mrs Irwine – our first glimpse of her resplendent, ring-laden, self-regarding mien, enough to catch the way in which ‘that stately old lady’ is a foil for herself; a two sided coin of smallness, and the impressiveness of seeming magnanimity.

From their life on the page, to the reality of our own days – each time, Eliot’s observations balance perfectly with experience. Like a well-judged, intuitive scoop of ingredients added to the recipe – they always correspond to every measurement of the truth. Her characters don’t exist in an idea, or a concept – or as a creation. They are living, breathing – solid flesh and blood. They are with you in the room. They walk beside you in the sunlight, in the rain – your feet splashing with theirs in the mud.

Eliot gives us detail, depth – and time. She gives us lots of time. Things unfold slowly, at real-time pace; with the beat of real hearts and of bodily gesture, with the natural pace of thought, emotion and conversation – with the daily movement of the sun.

I am standing beside Grandfather Poyser, leaning on the gate and dreaming the distance between the hedgerows and the retreating backs of his family as they cross the fields towards Hayslope church.

And I am wandering the village, its valley – and Fir-tree Grove:

‘…a wood of beeches and limes, with here and there a light, silver-stemmed birch – just the sort of wood most haunted by the nymphs; you see their white sun-lit limbs gleaming athwart the boughs, or peeping from behind the smooth-sweeping outline of a tall lime….….. Not a grove with measured grass or rolled gravel for you to tread upon, but with narrow, hollow-shaped, earthy paths, edged with faint dashes of delicate moss – paths which look as if they were made by the freewill of the trees and underwood, moving reverently aside to look at the tall queen of the white-footed nymphs.’

Paths made as if ‘by the freewill of the trees’ – isn’t that a wonderful phrase? I’m sure we have all followed such paths in our time…

And in this place, Fir-tree Grove, named – with beguiling idiosyncrasy – ‘not because the firs were many, but because they were few,’ we see Arthur Donnithorne caught, against his frail better judgement, by his fascination for Hetty Sorrel - waiting to meet her amongst ‘Those beeches and smooth limes’ which he comes to see as ‘surely…haunted by his evil genius.’ Here, at a remove from the more sobering effect of the Chase where ‘the strong knotted old oaks had no bending languor in them,’ Arthur’s fragile ‘self-mastery’ dissolves:

‘…It was a still afternoon – the golden light was lingering languidly among the upper boughs, only glancing down here and there on the purple pathway and its edge of faintly-sprinkled moss; an afternoon in which destiny disguises her cold awful face behind a hazy radiant veil, encloses us in warm downy wings, and poisons us with violet-scented breath.’

And then, I am shadowing another meeting, between Adam Bede and Hetty Sorrel in the Hall Farm garden, where flowers, fruit and vegetables grow ‘together in careless, half-neglected abundance’ and roses teem ‘all huddled together in bushy masses, now flaunting with wide open petals.’ An Eden place, where the mismatch of Hetty and Adam, in the collide of their very different dreams, has already set its seeds of heartbreak.

I glimpse that coming heartbreak as I walk the Hayslope lanes with Adam, for whom ‘It was summer morning in his heart, and he saw Hetty in the sunshine: a sunshine without glare – with slanting rays that tremble between the delicate shadows of the leaves.’

On the edge of Hayslope’s ‘rich undulating district’ - within sight, and always on the margins of awareness – lies ‘a grim outskirt of Stonyshire,’ a landscape of ‘barren hills’; the shadow of a more starkly declared possibility just a short step away.

On entering the region of Hayslope:

‘…the traveller might exchange a bleak treeless region, intersected by lines of cold grey stone, for one where his road wound under the shelter of woods, or up swelling hills, muffled with hedgerows and long meadow-grass and thick corn; and where at every turn he came upon some fine old country-seat nestled in the valley or crowning the slope, some homestead with its long length of barn and its cluster of golden ricks, some grey steeple looking out from a pretty confusion of trees and thatch and dark-red tiles. It was just such a picture as this that Hayslope church had made to the traveller as he began to mount the gentle slope leading to its pleasant uplands, and now from his station near the Green he had before him in one view nearly all the other typical features of this pleasant land. High up against the horizon were the huge conical masses of hill, like giant mounds intended to fortify this region of corn and grass against the keen and hungry winds of the north; not distant enough to be clothed in purple mystery, but with sombre greenish sides visibly specked with sheep, whose motion was only revealed by memory, not detected by sight; wooed from day to day by the changing hours, but responding with no change in themselves – left for ever grim and sullen after the flush of morning, the winged gleams of the April noonday, the parting crimson glory of the ripening summer sun.’

We too, as we read the novel, are ‘wooed from day to day’ with a gradual motion ‘revealed by memory.’ And, like a ghost invited through the locked gates of the Hall Farm, I see the old manor house and farmyard, the sheen of sunlight touching every surface; warming my skin.

Come with me there ‘…for imagination is a licensed trespasser: it has no fear of dogs, but may climb over walls and peep in at windows with impunity’:

‘…the life at the Hall has changed its focus, and no longer radiates from the parlour, but from the kitchen and the farmyard.

Plenty of life is there! though this is the drowsiest time of the year, just before hay-harvest; and it is the drowsiest time of the day too, for it is close upon three by the sun, and it is half-past three by Mrs Poyser’s handsome eight-day clock. But there is always a stronger sense of life when the sun is brilliant after rain; and now he is pouring down his beams, and making sparkles among the wet straw, and lighting up every patch of vivid green moss on the red tiles of the cow-shed, and turning even the muddy water that is hurrying along the channel to the drain into a mirror for the yellow-billed ducks, who are seizing the opportunity of getting a drink with as much body in it as possible.’

In the farm’s ‘house-place’:

‘Everything was looking at its brightest at this moment, for the sun shone right on the pewter dishes, and from their reflecting surfaces pleasant jets of light were thrown on mellow oak and bright brass; – and on a still pleasanter object than these; for some of the rays fell on Dinah’s finely-moulded cheek, and lit up her pale red hair to auburn, as she bent over the heavy household linen which she was mending for her aunt.’

I am reading Adam Bede, and it is lighting up my hours, my days, my mind. George Eliot loves people. For all their faults and frailties and failings, she loves them. Even when the sharper cuts of her perception and prodigious intellect fall critically upon a character, the understanding and compassion informing her words warm, deepen and clarify - like awakening light.

Do you feel it too – that glimmering illumination, with its insistent realness of shadow; that luminous, incisive light filling the edges of your vision?

Penguin Classics edition of 'Adam Bede' by George Eliot, edited by Stephen Gill

Penguin Classics edition of ‘Adam Bede’ by George Eliot, edited by Stephen Gill

“So that ye may have
Clear images before your gladden’d eyes
Of nature’s unambitious underwood
And flowers that prosper in the shade. And when
I speak of such among the flock as swerved
Or fell, those only shall be singled out
Upon whose lapse, or error, something more
Than brotherly forgiveness may attend.”

- William Wordsworth (from The Excursion)

(George Eliot’s chosen epigraph for Adam Bede – quoted on the title page of Volume 1).

Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen – Twelfth Night

The genesis of the original Globe Theatre is a story of intrigue, daring and initiative – an actor’s out-of-hours tale as dramatic as any portrayed on stage.

In his excellent book for children, Shakespeare – His Work and His World (beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen) Michael Rosen tells the tale like this:

‘It’s the middle of the night on the edge of London, a few days after Christmas Day, 1598. The River Thames is frozen over, snow is falling. The roofs of the timbered houses and the nearby fields are white with it. Four buildings stand higher than the nearby houses, shops, bowling-alleys, gambling houses and taverns – a windmill, a church and two theatres. One of the theatres is called the Curtain, and the other simply the Theatre….

.…tonight sixteen men are pulling down the Theatre. Two of them are brothers. They run a company of actors who put on plays, and with them there’s a builder and his workmen. As the men hurry about their work, it’s clear that what’s going on is secret and must be done as quickly as possible…. Two strangers arrive and start quizzing them. The workmen lie and say they are only taking down the parts of the building that are decaying…. But before long the men are taking the timbers across London Bridge to Southwark, where the theatre will be rebuilt and become known as one of the world’s most famous theatres: the Globe.’

'Shakespeare - His Work and His World' by Michael Rosen, Illustrated by Robert Ingpen

‘Shakespeare – His Work and His World’ by Michael Rosen, Illustrated by Robert Ingpen

Although James Burbage owned the Theatre, he leased the ground on which it stood – and the lease was due to expire at the end of 1597. The ground landlord, Giles Allen, seems to have seen this as his chance to make both money - and a manoeuvre that would satisfy his disapproval of theatrical productions. He raised the price of the lease to a sky-high level – and when negotiations failed, planned to pull down the Theatre and sell the materials. But, Burbage had discovered a clause in the original lease which allowed him to dismantle his theatre – and so he gathered his acting troupe to undertake the task under cover of a winter’s night…

Illustration by Robert Ingpen (dismantling the Theatre, 1598) - From 'Shakespeare - His Work and His World' by Michael Rosen

Illustration by Robert Ingpen (dismantling the Theatre, 1598) – From ‘Shakespeare – His Work and His World’ by Michael Rosen

As Michael Rosen points out, they were taking an enormous risk ‘…because if it can be proved that they are stealing, they will all be hanged and their severed heads put on show.’ These were people dedicated to their business, their livelihood, their autonomy – actors who claimed the world of the imagination, placed it in a Thames-side swamp and watched it grow…

Illustrations of The Globe Theatre by Robert Ingpen - From 'Shakespeare - His Work and His World' by Michael Rosen.

Illustrations of The Globe Theatre by Robert Ingpen – From ‘Shakespeare – His Work and His World’ by Michael Rosen.

…And all these centuries later, in 2013, on a sizzling Sunday at the beginning of July’s heat wave, it felt as if Burbage and Co. had been moving their theatre again – and had somehow cunningly contrived to set it up inside our local cinema…

Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen was like honey to a bee for my daughter and me. A strong enough lure for us to forsake one of the earliest sun-drenched afternoons of the summer, to sit in a darkened room – and happily travel to Illyria via the Globe’s 2012 production of Twelfth Night, directed by Tim Carroll.

Described as an ‘Original Practices production, exploring clothing, music, dance and settings possible in the Globe of around 1601,’ it was the first full all-male cast production of Shakespeare either of us had seen – and this experience, in itself, was like a direct, electric hook-up to the original presentations of his work. It highlighted all the more the complexities and emotional scope of all that cross dressing and gender disguise; the instances of a man falling in love with a woman disguised as a man, played by a man. And of a woman, played by a man, falling in love with a woman disguised as a man, played by a man. Situations that roll out like a series of magic carpets; layered with all the opportunities for both the fun and serious exploration of assumed and more latent aspects of sexuality and identity.

Mark Rylance was wonderful as Olivia - gliding demurely across the stage; stately, black-clad and - after her meeting with Cesario/ Viola - set simmering beneath corseted consonants, like verse ready to break free from the confines of its form.

Johnny Flynn as Viola/ Cesario was all at once innocent, knowing, bold, perplexed and heart-sore, lost in love. I was totally able to believe in the girl beneath the boy – even though the girl beneath the boy was – a man! The illusion and magic of the theatre – and Shakespeare’s manipulation of the power of the imagination – was brought to a pitch that fully referenced the play’s own relationship to the contemporary tools of its trade.

Paul Chahidi totally inhabited his role of Maria – catching every beat of comic timing (as well as glancing the darker undertones the audience’s way) on the delivery of each line, gesture and facial expression. He positively seethed as a woman biding the unleashing of her own powers.

Colin Hurley as Sir Toby Belch and Roger Lloyd Pack as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, were a double act made of that same cloth of comic timing and endearing humour – and of the casually draped darker and disturbing edges to their relationship, motivations and intentions. They were joined in this by my daughter’s favourite in the play – Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste; wearing his part of Shakespearean Fool with that required demeanour of both familiar participant – and aloof, amoral onlooker; a kind of vessel for the looser, intangible, elusive, discordant, stranger aspects of the play’s atmosphere and pitch. In his wide eyes and melancholic, beautiful singing he underlined both the moral, philosophical questions, and the detachment of strings cut free from accountability.

Liam Brennan’s comic-petulant, earnest-shallow, affronted-romantic Orsino reminded me how every time I encounter his character I am worried by Viola’s choice – and see perfect sense in Olivia’s keeping her distance. The man is in love with love – and adrift in his own illusions. And, as this production suggests, perhaps he desires Cesario more than he desires Viola… But, of course (and as the play constantly reminds us) sexual attraction tends, for those involved, to lead to a complete bypassing of analytical scrutiny – and lights a mysterious touch paper that often burns out of kilter with surface awareness.

The comedy of the play was beautifully played by all - with both control and wonderful exuberance – and Stephen Fry came into his own as Malvolio. He wore the role with convincing comfort, and his both comic and hugely touching delivery of the scene in which he finds Olivia’s supposed letter, inspired an eruption of spontaneous applause from the onscreen audience – and heartfelt inner applause from us in the cinema. Fry’s portrayal of Malvolio’s very deep delight at the discovery that he is loved (‘I am happy!’) cut through the character’s pomposity, and formed a connection of heart-strung sympathy from the audience. And so, the most was made of Shakespeare’s revelation of the human beneath the character, intensifying the unease we feel in accepting any complicity in Sir Toby’s, Sir Andrew’s and Maria’s cruel schemes – though, the full impact of this unease did not come through until the end; reserved for then, and held back by the sheer force and beguilement of the comedy. We, as audience, are suddenly brought up short by our complicity – but, in this presentation of the play, not for too long. This was a production that emphasised the life-affirming pull of comedy – the subversive festivities of a Twelfth Night – and allowed the audience to run with it, to have our ‘cakes and ale,’ rather than tug us back with overly hard overtones of judgement. The unease and the darkness leave an aftertaste to mull over later…

And so, Theatre lives, breathes and finds its place, despite the ‘puritan’ negations of a Malvolio, or the likes of a theatre-demolishing Giles Allen. And, true to the traditions of Twelfth Night – the Feast of Fools – everything has been turned upside down. Through shadows and through light, through ‘the wind and the rain’ we have been led in a complex dance by the Lord of Misrule.

‘it raineth every day’ – and Life’s festive and mournful sides both have their need, their time – and their responsibilities.

‘…what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve’ says Viola to Olivia.

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ Sir Toby asks Malvolio.

What is love?’ Feste asks us…

Questions that, when we truly engage with them, can dismantle us – or at least challenge and dismantle our preconceptions – and can rebuild and rearrange and renew…

The experience of seeing a full Globe Theatre production at the cinema was definitely the next best thing to being there. The big screen brought us close to the actors and the action; the audience present at the recording seemed to draw us in as one of its own – and the vitality of sixteenth/seventeenth century music, colour, dance and spectacle typical of a Globe production, placed us under the magical illusion of actually being there. There was even a fifteen minute interval between Acts – for ice creams and loo breaks – just as if we were at the theatre.

My daughter and I relished the experience – and were both feeling on a “theatre-high” all evening afterwards. We’re now looking forward to seeing The Taming of the Shrew this month, when the Burbage brothers and Co. get up to their metaphorical dismantling tricks again – and move Shakespeare’s Globe back to our local cinema once more…

You can find details of the productions and check out cinema venues and times at the Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen website.

All the Globe 2012 season of plays – Twelfth Night, Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew will be available on DVD from the autumn.

Here’s a clip from Twelfth Night (Act II, Scene 2) with Stephen Fry as Malvolio and Johnny Flynn as Viola/ Cesario: