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

 

Advertisements

‘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.

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).

Time Travel with Thomas Hardy

Occasionally, we get the chance to travel in time. Days flip back, like the ruffled pages of a book, to a moment when the players in a scene are suspended in their own present – and we, like Dick Dewy emerging from the whispering woods in Under the Greenwood Tree, step from the shadows, and into the beginning of a story…

'Under the Greenwood Tree' by Thomas Hardy - Penguin Classics and Folio Society editions.

‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ by Thomas Hardy – Penguin Classics and Folio Society editions.

A few years ago, whilst researching my family history online, I decided on a whim to wander the census in search of records of a favourite writer.

I chose the year 1841…

Typed in the name…

The place…

Clicked the mouse, once, twice…

Came face to face with the image of an aged document…

And, following its faded words into a long past moment:

Higher Bockhampton, Parish of Stinsford (District 7)

Mary Hardy – Age 65

Thomas Hardy – Age 25 – Mason

Jemima Hardy – Age 25

Thomas Hardy – Age 1

…found myself falling into step beside Dick Dewy along Mellstock Lane.

Together, we approached Tranter’s Cottage, our footfalls hollowing to silence on the root-crumpled soil…

Apple boughs draped the cool weight of dusk around our shoulders. Honeysuckle loosed moths from around the window’s edges. We stepped closer, peered in – grasped the ghost of a long past moment:

The Self-Unseeing

Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.

Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!

– Thomas Hardy

…And like Hardy, time-travelling through layers of place and perspective in this poem, we feel a sharpened appreciation of the past moment we witness; a newly heightened awareness of its significance and value. But, for us, the candlelit scene in the cottage is not one of hindsight-revealed loss, but of hindsight-revealed promise.

As we focus closer, our census-night scene remains hazy – malleable according to which way the imagination wavers. Is little Thomas sitting contentedly on his grandmother’s knee, ‘smiling into the fire?’ Or is Thomas Senior shaking free from his long day’s tracery of stone-dust, boots keeping time to a tune from his fiddle, ‘bowing it higher and higher’? Or is little Thomas asleep in his cradle? Or does he distract his mother from her work with his cries? If so, as Jemima lifts him to her shoulder, does she catch even a glimmer of what her son will become? Or what he will mean to people like me, over a hundred and seventy years into the future – and beyond?

Tranter’s is the fictional echo of the small thatched cottage built by Hardy’s grandfather in 1800; the real-world birthplace of Thomas, and the home of the Dewy family in Under the Greenwood Tree – which, in true Chinese box style, was written within its walls.

I have visited the cottage in my mind many a time, but in reality only once, in 2004:

Thomas Hardy's birthplace (June 2004)

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace (June 2004)

Even then, I didn’t go inside. We had sought out Thorncombe Woods for a homeward picnic after a holiday near Charmouth – and, with two small children in tow, it felt like a better bet to just enjoy the adventure of a ramble amongst the trees (those whispering woods Dick Dewy walked through) to find the magical, hidden cottage and watch butterflies in the garden.

I spent some sobering moments gazing out across what was left of Hardy’s Egdon Heath behind his birthplace, trying to superimpose his descriptions on what now filled my vision (dark, dense conifer plantation cloaked large areas of the land). Thankfully, a heathland restoration project was underway to bring back more of the wildlife-rich landscape he would have known and loved. When we visited back in 2004, information boards dotted Thorncombe Woods to announce the launch of an attempt to unlock time and a lost landscape; to turn back the page, and once more suspend the land in that long moment of halted natural succession Hardy would have experienced in his own lifetime – and which had existed in the collective memory of many previous generations.

As Richard Mabey points out in his 1993 essay Landscape: The Real Stuff (from Selected Writings 1974 – 1999) – heathland is:

‘…a kind of community that the strict hierarchies of landscape mythology don’t care to admit – a symbiosis, a partnership between humans and nature…created by the clearance of woodland on poor soils…it can only be maintained as heath if the cutting, burning or grazing, be it natural or deliberate, is continued. Otherwise it will eventually revert to woodland, as is happening at the moment to many of the unmanaged heaths of southern England.’

Mabey elaborates how the mythology of heathlands:

‘…is of a primeval, naturally formed wilderness, which because it hasn’t apparently been ‘reclaimed’ by human work is ‘wasteland’. Even Thomas Hardy, whose landscape history was usually impeccable, took this view. His description of Egdon Heath in the opening chapter of The Return of the Native – ‘A Face on Which Time Makes But Little Impression’- is one of the most evocative passages of landscape writing in the language, yet it still paints Egdon as literally, as well as emotionally, primordial.’

Title page, 'The Return of the Native' Folio Society edition. Wood engraving illustration by Peter Reddick

Title page, ‘The Return of the Native’ Folio Society edition. Wood engraving illustration by Peter Reddick

But, the illusion of the literally primordial aside, the foremost impression made upon me by those amazing opening chapters of The Return of the Native (and the point they most strongly convey) is of the continuity shared by successive generations in their relationship to that particular landscape. Centre stage are the signs and shaping of lives lived on that ‘vast tract of unenclosed wild’; the prehistoric burial barrows, the inherited customs, the livelihoods – and the basic concerns of life and death that connect the ages past and present. It is like Lear’s heath – where we are stripped of all trappings, to be in direct contact with the elemental of the land, the universe, the human:

‘It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper storey of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches below…

…It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.’

– From The Return of the Native, Chapter 3 – ‘The Custom of the Country.’

All around that unbiddable “wasteland” is Change, a world ‘harassed by the irrepressible New’. We feel the Modern Age very much at work as a character – a state of mind, a reflective observer – through the narrative voice of the novel. But, Egdon remains the unchanging, the intractable core.

Wood engraving illustration of 'Egdon Heath' by Peter Reddick - from the Folio Society edition of 'The Return of the Native'

Wood engraving illustration of ‘Egdon Heath’ by Peter Reddick – from the Folio Society edition of ‘The Return of the Native’

Sadly, Egdon’s apparent immutability belied its actual fragility. As Mabey goes on to say:

The south Dorset heaths that Hardy immortalised as Egdon have been largely destroyed by enclosure and ploughing.’

Hopes for some of that heathland now pin on a time-travelling landscape, brought into being by a return to human customs which link us, past to past to future…

Change, and its consequences, was gathering pace during Hardy’s lifetime, and for him, Under the Greenwood Tree was a form of time travel in itself. He set the novel in the past, around the year of his birth: ‘to preserve for my own satisfaction a fairly true record of a vanishing life.’

On that census night in 1841, the quirks and concerns of that ‘vanishing life’ were yet to time travel on the turn of a young man’s thoughts and memories. Amongst the Hardy family and their neighbours, who could have foreseen that, out from the melting pot of their influence and the imagination of that one-year-old baby, would spring Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge – a whole cast of unforgettable characters – and the glorious descriptions of a Wessex that, because Hardy loved it, has been preserved spellbindingly on the page?

To overlap time, and to “witness” the very young Thomas’s as yet un-guessed potential was a powerful moment; like stumbling across a page torn from a story – a chapter left snagged on a branch and sought by the wind. There he was; a vulnerable child, poised to meet the vagaries of Fate – that fickle force he would go on to explore, with intensifying bitter-tenderness, in his writing. So many possibilities were held within that life just beginning – the paths he might have taken; the opportunities waiting upon Chance; the novels and poems he might never have written had other choices been made…

What a poorer world it would have been without them.

I, for one, am so grateful for the literary fruits of that life’s journey. I know that, for some, Hardy is a problematic figure (all the better to meet us halfway with our own problematical traits maybe?) And, for others, he is nothing less than Pessimism Personified, to be avoided at all costs. But I don’t hear in Hardy’s voice a simple one-note beat of misery – but complexity, complexity – all complexity. Hardy’s unique vision is sewn tight into that varied and precious pattern of our literature – and I wouldn’t want the weave of his contribution to be one stitch different. Hardy’s tragedies contain necessary – even beautiful – space in which to stretch realities, and to confront an uncomfortable, and yet liberating, recognition of difficult truths. He is a very human writer – a catcher of the flipsides, and an explorer and enquirer into the vivid clatter of life’s dropped plates, spillages and wastes.

Ironically, maybe it’s the upbeat tendency of my nature that focusses on the positives of Hardy’s pessimism. It is all so much a part of that trajectory that took him to further heights of creativity; all so much a part of that voyage on which great literature takes us.

Under the Greenwood Tree is amongst his earliest and happiest novels – it is like a ballad to a fondly remembered time (and its title, of course, is taken from the pastoral song in Shakespeare’s As You Like It).

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick (illustration from Folio Society edition of 'Under the Greenwood Tree')

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick (illustration from Folio Society edition of ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’)

I love the novel and its tone and its characters and its green world of hedgerow and forest; the sleepy drone of the village band from the church balcony (counterbalanced by the altogether more enthusiastic musical glee at the boozy Christmas party at Tranter’s!) And I’m moved in my affection for the players, as they reach a befuddling divide of Time, confronted by the advent of a new age.

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from 'Under the Greenwood Tree' Folio Society edition

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ Folio Society edition

But I love Hardy’s later work even more. As he grew further into his own creative skills, Hardy’s life experience and his anger at injustice (societal and the natural cruelties of chance) tinged the edges of his vision with darker and darker hues. Harsh realities bit hard into his consciousness, and he responded truthfully according to his own thought processes and reactions. Readers may or may not find their own personal perspective reflected in that vision, the assertions in his work may or may not be to their taste. And that’s fine. But too often, I see this kind of personal reaction presented as an objective benchmark; a final word on the worth of a writer and his/her work.

Beyond the genuinely searching questions about his writing and the carefully considered analysis, Hardy seems to attract a lot of unthinking ire and unfair accusation. Maybe I should stay away from the more foggy edges of the internet, but my heart plummets faster than Gabriel Oak’s sheep when I see a fine literary work pushed over a cliff of swift, single-focus contempt. So much of worth spirals away from the grasp in that act of dismissal, not least the chance to get to know what makes that literary work so interesting, both as an individual piece of writing – and as a part of literature’s vital, gloriously diverse exploration of what it is to be human.

I’m slipping into a rant here – and I’m sure that, on this blog, I’m preaching to the converted. But, I just love this stuff so much… I want to tear down those blocks that prevent people experiencing the fullest possible engagement with a text. Because, when that deep-down communion happens, it’s just so mind-blowingly AMAZING; so massively life-enhancing – I just want to SHOUT IT from the very zenith of the Wessex Heights!

These great, sometimes messy, always complex, frayed-at-the-edges masterpieces are not written by machines. No writer, artist, human being is without flaws – and flaws Hardy may have had – but they are a part of the fabric – and humanity – of art. Maybe I’m peculiar, but I want to celebrate what that displays. “Flaws” can be a valuable ingredient in a wonderful, unpredictable concoction; bound up in the complex gift of personal vision and individuality of expression – and in a writer’s reaching to develop as they learn their craft. Can we imagine the work of Dickens or D. H. Lawrence without the complete package of their unique voice and traits and journeys of development? It would be like a tiger with its teeth removed. Jagged lightning channelled through a taming conductor. Colour drained to inoffensive beige.

Often, the “flaws” are the inextricable other side of the strengths; traits without which those strengths – and a whole recipe of qualities – would never exist. And of course, sometimes, what is condemned as a flaw by one person is heralded as an asset by another.

Either way, caught air bubbles in a glass can make the light refract in interesting ways, render that glass unique – give it realness and recognisability, and another facet of perspective. If we were to hold that glass to the light, to look at the world through those quirks in its surface, maybe we would discover something new – and learn more, always more, outside the limits of our own way of seeing.

But wider than this, there is in Hardy’s work a breathing in of some essential scent of life; a whiff of something hardwired, universal and utterly human. It is like that line from Donne when we hear the knell of the bell – and know that it tolls for us too – and that it is time to stretch our sympathy across the whole of humanity, because we are each a part of it; none of us exempt from Wordsworth’s ‘sad perplexity.’

I love Hardy’s early-rooted ambition to chase Shakespeare’s faceted shades, and to build grand, Bardic tragedy in novel form; to explore the high drama of ordinary folk, aided by a Greek Chorus of rustics, whose voices underline the comic and tragic spins of life’s coin. There, in entwined, elemental relationship with the land, his characters wear the two sided mask of the actor on an ancient stage…

And I love his poet’s deep vision, his awareness of the layering of time, and the interplay of ghosts of past and present. I love his naturalist’s knowledge, and the vitality and earthy reality of nature at the heart of his life, his imagination – and the lyricism of his language…

A humane writer with a philosopher’s heart, his work is, for me, infinitely rewarding to discover and revisit. His words invoke challenge, reflection, inspiration, confrontation. Beautiful and transporting, his prose and poetry resonate over and again – cast anew in different ways throughout a reading life.

And besides all that, he could tell a story that could rivet you to a moment, knock your socks off – and keep you turning the pages quicker than you could inadvisably order up another bowl of furmity…

That is a skill too often underestimated in its importance. When a great storyteller is born, something very special begins to prise open the petals of every experience that meets that growing mind, releasing fragrances which, through eventual skill, will reach us – like prayer in George Herbert’s poem – as a grasped pact; ‘a bird of paradise… something understood.’

Hardy’s novels are, for us all, a form of time travel. They take us to a different and lost world of the past. And yet, at the same time, their world is an ever unchanging one. Hardy’s writing pulses with the eternal rhythms to which we all move; whichever era our names are entered on the census…

I wonder what future great writers lay asleep in their cots right now, cooking their talents amid infant dreams – preparing to amaze/ surprise/ overturn or more than fulfil parental or societal expectations – and to enthral and influence the minds and lives of generations yet to come…

Who can tell from what corners of society these voices will emerge; from what hidden, or seemingly unlikely places they will gather their material, their strengths, their edges and, yes – their flaws. Perhaps a teenage single-parent, an immigrant care-home assistant, a call-centre worker – somewhere in a dark and unsure night – is holding such a baby right now. If we give each child the chance, who knows what she or he might be or do…

Time passes. Moments overlap. And perhaps we are always ‘looking away’.

Another day… (Liebster Award, Part 2)

…And so, following on from my previous post, it’s time (at last!) to answer Aubrey’s questions:

Why did you start blogging?

It all began when Himadri started his excellent blog, The Argumentative Old Git, and invited me to drop by to continue our old habit of bookish discussion on the interweb. As chance would have it, I’d been tentatively mulling over the idea of starting my own blog (as a place to gather my loose, floating thoughts about literature and nature, rather than letting them drift into festering or forgetting) – and Himadri encouraged me to give it a go (thank you, Himadri!)

At that time, lots of vague motivations were swirling around in my head – and I don’t think they really started to cohere until I’d actually been writing Bookish Nature for a while. But I know that, from the beginning, what pushed me most to begin wittering away on the internet, was my firm belief in the vital importance (in Life, living and flourishing) of great literature, story and the imagination; and of deeper connection to the rest of nature.

These things, it seems to me, are keys to a central and crucial doorway – and, in my own small way, I wanted to do my bit to help keep that door open in a world which, so often, seems turned away from its threshold. I’m passionate about this stuff – and I guess I hoped that I could give back to what inspires me.

Starting a blog was also a chance to get back to writing again – and to hold on to something in me that circumstances threatened to overwhelm. My notebooks and pens had been gathering dust for far too long. I’m a very bad blogger – constantly struggling to catch up with the posts teeming in my head, and with all the comments I’d love to leave on the blogs I read and admire. Time and energy often runs out too soon. But it’s been brilliant to discover so many other bloggers who share my passions – and to learn from, and be inspired by, what they write.

Do you find that you usually prefer the book or movie version?

The book – it’s like someone once said about the radio: ‘the pictures are better!’

With the book there is more time, more depth, greater immersion in perspective, more of a journey into the characters’ minds; a closer seeing through their eyes.

And the characters always look how you think they should!

There are times though, when a film has added a priceless cultural layer to the experience of the book (e.g. David Lean’s Great Expectations). And, because a film is a world and a creation in its own right – when it is done well, it stands on its own reputation, and doesn’t need to balance on the shoulders of the book. Then, it becomes possible to forgive it any deviations from the novel, if it goes its own filmic way from time to time…

Are you wearing jewellery now? Bonus points if a parure is involved.

Alas, I cannot claim the bonus points – and must display my ignorance (I had to look up what a parure is!) But, Yes! I love jewellery. I don’t have masses of it, but what I do have I treasure because each piece holds its own story and significance; myriad associations bound up in the twists and turns of its patterns, and in the lustre of its colours. I’m wearing a necklace that is my most treasured favourite, because my daughter chose it as a birthday gift for me when she was just six years old. It’s very, very lovely; a Celtic design in silver (interlacing Celtic knots) set with pieces of amber.

She bought it in her favourite shop at the time – a fossil shop that also sold jewellery. She was mad on collecting fossils at that age (we were convinced she was going to become a palaeontologist!) She would spend every last bit of her pocket money on fossils (ammonites, arthropods, shark’s teeth, you name it) and that year, we booked a holiday cottage near Lyme Regis in Dorset, so that she could scour the beach, pretending to be Mary Anning!

Remarkable Creatures (published by Harper Collins) - Tracy Chevalier's novel about Mary Anning - a remarkable woman and pioneering 19th century palaeontologist from Lyme Regis in Dorset.

Remarkable Creatures (published by Harper Collins) – Tracy Chevalier’s novel about Mary Anning – a remarkable woman and pioneering 19th century palaeontologist from Lyme Regis in Dorset.

Name five places you would never want to visit again.

If I’ve had a bad experience of a place, it’s usually been due to the time or events, rather than a fundamental fault with the location. A case of bad associations! I can’t really think of anywhere that, intrinsically in itself, has been so hideous I’d never return… But I can think of a few places, at specific times, which I would never want to experience again:

1) The secondary modern school I attended in the 1970s/early 1980s. It had some highlights – but I’m glad it’s over!

2) Blackpool, June 1985. I felt so ill after that nightmarish ride on the giant, gyrating spider machine (torture chamber). Pleasure Beach it wasn’t!

3) My Theatre Studies ‘A’ Level audition at the local further education college. Excruciating! I mangled Lady Anne’s speech in Richard III: ‘Set down, set down your honourable load…’ Miraculously, I was accepted on the course (the head of the drama department was a kind soul – he mumbled something about potential, and let me in!) After that, the college became associated with tons of happy memories – so, in real time, I’d actually love to go back there again.

4) Dover in the early 1990s. The tops of the famous white cliffs are lovely (lots of butterflies and wildflowers) – and the castle is forbidding and impressive. But the job that took me to Dover turned out to be an unhappy experience… and the town, at that time, generally wore a gloomy and depressing air.

5) The village donkey derby, around 1980 (when I was a very easily embarrassed teenager, and it seemed that everyone who lived within a five mile radius was present). Let’s just say, I started the race seated on the donkey…!

Ocean or lake?

Ocean – mermaids, tall ships, pirates, the salty spray; the wind caught in the roll of the waves, sand between my toes, whales, dolphins – and white horses chasing the dreams of Poseidon… I love to stand looking out to that wide and wild horizon… and to gaze into sun-warmed rock pools, where beadlet anemones and hermit crabs play out the dramas of a whole other world…

(But… lakes have a big attraction too – mysterious, mirror-still, sometimes the keepers of tantalising treasure islands, or a hidden lady waiting to reveal a magic sword. Swans nesting close to the reeds, kingfishers glinting sapphire, dragonflies clicking their wings on a drowsy summer’s day…)

What can I say? I’m a Piscean… I love the water…

What is the first book you couldn’t live without?

Night of the Red Horse by Patricia Leitch.

Night of the Red Horse by Patricia Leitch

It spoke to me as if it already knew me, and became a kind of talisman in my reading life; a touchstone from which I travelled into ever widening horizons of the written word. I read it when I was about ten or eleven years old – and the ‘Jinny at Finmory’ series of books, by the wonderful Patricia Leitch, was an absolute embodiment of my fantasy at that time. (Jinny Manders – an imaginative, misfit girl who, like me, goes to an ordinary school, has an ordinary life – is a stranger to the world and psyche of Pony Club and gymkhanas – but who draws horses all day, and dreams of her own horse – is handed a fate that takes her to live in the wilds of Scotland – saving, along the way, a beautiful and spirited Arab mare cruelly trapped in a life at the circus, who becomes both the challenge of Jinny’s life – and the soul-friend of her growing up years).

Jinny at Finmory

Night of the Red Horse was my favourite in the series. It had mystery, archaeology, a hint of myth and magic, Epona and the ancient Celts, worlds of time in overlap and collide, a fiery horse of legend painted on the attic wall at Finmory House (a painting which seemed to come to life – urgent with some disturbing and mysterious message) – and it had the stunning west coast of Scotland, eagles in the sky, white-sand beaches, mountains and purple heather moors; a whole story and landscape of deeply resonating and enthralling ingredients – the perfect, kindred recipe to most inspire the mix that was me.

Are you one of those bloggers that believe that people resemble their icons? Do you, for instance, think that I am wearing a periwig and holding a star?

Aubrey – that’s exactly how I imagine you (now with added parure!) So, I guess the answer has to be yes. Though, it does depend… Often, there is something about an icon that suggests an aspect of the blogger’s personality – and which sparks a vague mental picture of what they may look like. Other times, it might hold no clue at all. Alas, I look nothing like a beautiful blue butterfly!

If you were alive in 1902 would you be tempted to ride in one of those new car-things, or would you prefer to continue driving your four-in-hand?

It would have to be total loyalty to the four-in-hand! No doubt, I would have been one of those types deeply resistant to (and very indignant about) the usurpation of the Horse. I would have gathered my lovely quartet of carriage horses (all greys, resplendent in scarlet nosebands), harnessed them to the ageing barouche – and held up the traffic along the lanes for decades into the new century!

Though, secretly, I would probably have accepted the odd Sunday afternoon jaunt in a daffodil-yellow motor car, driven by some bright-young-thing nephew up from Town (just to see for myself what all that dizzying nonsense was about…)

Which actor has provided you with your favourite rendition of Sherlock Holmes?

Well, until recently, the answer would have been, without hesitation, Jeremy Brett. But I think Benedict Cumberbatch may have stolen the crown… or, at least, now wears it on a time-share basis with Jeremy, whilst I waver between the two.

You’re getting dressed for work. You open your closet and find your clothes are not of this decade. Are you happy about this? What decade do you hope is represented?

I would be happy about that! Very exciting!

Having said in my previous post that I’m not that bothered about foot wear – I remember that, when I was at primary school, I begged my mum to let me have a pair of bright yellow, patent leather, knee-length platform boots. I’d seen them pictured in a clothes catalogue. She told me in no uncertain terms (and quite rightly at the time) that they were totally unsuitable; the platform soles were far too high…

So, I would be delighted if the clothes in the closet were from the 1970s – provided they included that pair of yellow platforms. I’d put up with a return to the huge flares, cheesecloth blouses, home-knitted ponchos and floppy hats for a chance – at last – to wear those boots!

However, if elegance and style were essentials that day, I’d be very happy to find an array of outfits from the 1920s in my wardrobe. I’ve always wanted to wear a cloche hat and a handkerchief skirt!

Have you ever mixed a cocktail – for either yourself or others? And if you have, can you mix a tall Bloody Mary – now? All this writing and thinking has made Aubrey thirsty.

Never mixed a cocktail in my life. Does a Cinzano and lemonade count? With a glace cherry on a stick? (Yes, yes, I know… I have such class…!)

And now for the bloggers to whom I would like to give the Liebster Award:

The Argumentative Old Git

Whistles in the Wind

Amanda Banks

simplyradicalfemale

Daniel Greenwood

The Cheapskate Intellectual

Somewhere Boy

The Mucky Root

Diana J Hale

From Bad to Verse

(Please see my previous post for details of what the Liebster Award entails)

I understand that the award should go to up-and-coming blogs that have fewer than 300 followers. To me, that number seems more like “well-established” than “up-and-coming” – an amazing number of followers to have achieved! But, then, I remember the days when I was happy just talking to myself (and Himadri – bless him!) here on Bookish Nature – and 10 followers seemed like an impossibly high aspiration! Some of you on the list may have more than 300 followers (I wasn’t always sure as to the numbers) – in which case, I hope you don’t mind this award winging its way up there towards the stratosphere!

I think that some of the bloggers I’ve nominated may already have received this award in the past – (Himadri? Diana? Gareth?) and so may not wish to participate again. Also, I’m aware that some folk don’t like to take part in blog awards due to time constraints etc. (I would have nominated Sonya Chasey’s blog, but I know for sure that time is a precluding factor for her) – so, I just want everyone on the list to know that I’ve included your blogs in acknowledgement of how much I admire and enjoy them – and am taking it as a chance to flag up what great corners of the internet there are out there to visit and to discover… There is absolutely no obligation to accept or participate. Please take these nominations as a sign of my appreciation (a kind of honorary Liebster Award, if you’d prefer).

However, should you wish to throw yourself completely into the Liebster pond, my eleven questions to you are:

1) Why did you start blogging?

2) You’re going on an once-in-a-lifetime expedition to a far flung part of the planet. Where would you go? And what would be the one luxury item you would pack in your rucksack?

3) If you lived in the same parallel universe as Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, what animal would your daemon be? Or, put another way, what settled form would you hope it would adopt, and why?

(For those of you who are unfamiliar with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a daemon can be very loosely described as a physical manifestation of an individual’s inner self/ character/ soul. During childhood, its form is not fixed, and goes through a fluidity of changes every day, according to the fluctuating possibilities of the young mind – e.g. from moth, to kestrel, to dolphin, to leopard etc. Eventually, as a person reaches adulthood, the daemon takes on a settled form; the animal form which most closely suggests the essence of that person’s character…)

4) If you had the chance to step into a painting, and to spend a magical hour wandering its world, which painting would you choose? Maybe it would be Constable’s Hay Wain? Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Or, perhaps you’d like to join in with Edvard Munch’s Scream?? Or – much more light-heartedly – maybe you’d prefer to go trip-trapping over Monet’s bridge? The possibilities are endless. It’s your choice…

5) The Doctor has invited you to time travel with him on board the Tardis. Which period in history would you most like to visit and why?

6) If Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Will Shakespeare were alive today and were regular tweeters, I’d definitely be persuaded to join Twitter! Is there anyone from pre-internet days who, if they were alive today, you would love to see dazzle us daily with tweets of sheer brilliance and delight? Or are you glad they never had to suffer the tyranny of 140 characters?

7) Which three books and three pieces of music would you take with you to a desert island?

8) Out of all the species of wild animals or birds you have yet to see, which one would you most like to encounter?

9) Which of the following would most closely correspond to your natural habitat?

a) Out on the moors with Heathcliff.

b) In the Forest with Robin Hood.

c) Out at sea with Long John Silver.

d) Cosy by the fireside with a Pickwickian gathering of genial folk, sharing a bottle of your favourite tipple.

e) The bookish calm of a country house study – in mutual retreat with Mr Bennet.

f) Striding across the meadows with Elizabeth Bennet, a healthy glow in your cheeks and mud caking your boots.

g) In the Attic with Jo from Little Women, scribbling stories and dreaming of adventure.

h) Absorbed in the life of the city streets – in the company of a fictional detective of your choice.

i) Roaming Manderley – and the windswept Cornish cliffs – with the second Mrs de Winter.

j) Wandering alongside William and Dorothy Wordsworth, pacing out poetical rhythms on the Cumbrian fells, and waxing lyrical about wild daffodils.

k) In a cave with Gollum.

l) Hey, Mel – I’m an incredibly complicated human being – a mix of all the above holds true. It depends on my mood…

m) I wouldn’t be seen dead with any of them – Bah! Humbug!

10) Where would you rather live and why:

Toad Hall

Bag End

Green Knowe

Little House on the Prairie

Green Gables

Kirrin Island

221B Baker Street

11) If you had to go on a long journey with a fictional character, who would you choose? And what form of transport would you take – ship, hot air balloon, train, canal boat, motorbike, bicycle, gondola, skateboard, horse drawn gypsy caravan? Space ship?

(Just out of interest, I asked my daughter that last question. Her answer: Legolas on a gondola!)

Happy blogging, all!

One day… (Liebster Award, Part 1)

One day – (a very long time ago now!) – Aubrey, of the utterly captivating Café Royal blog, very kindly bestowed the Liebster Award upon Bookish Nature.

Liebster Award

It arrived at a time when I was bleary-eyed and stressed, spending all my days and alternate nights on a hospital ward, taking it in turns with my husband to “sleep” on a fold-out bed alongside our son’s, whilst he underwent lengthy and arduous medical treatment. It was a wonderful boost to receive the award, and my thanks go to Aubrey for sending a spark from her shining star my way. Aubrey’s blog is a place of riches. Of stories and seeing, of intriguing glimpses into worlds of sparkling vision and imagination – a place to step into nature, history, art and into the inspiration of extraordinary lives and adventurous spirits through Time. It is a place of beautiful words.

And now it is midsummer – and unlike Puck, who can ‘put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes,’ I have taken the far more wandering route of a Scheherazade and her 1,001 nights…

Arabian Nights Stories - an old edition from the family bookshelves...

Arabian Nights Stories – an old edition from the family bookshelves…

Arabian Nights Stories - Detail from the "Come to Life Panorama"

Arabian Nights Stories – Detail from the “Come to Life Panorama”

….negotiating my way around physiotherapy duties, bouts of illness, huge backlogs of stuff-to-catch-up-on, teenage daughter’s GCSE exams and general family happenings – in order to gather time and stories, and fulfil the criteria of accepting the award, which are:

Give thanks.

Tell 11 things about yourself.

Answer to the best of your ability the 11 questions that are asked of you.

Nominate 11 other bloggers for this award – and let them know.

Ask the above nominees 11 questions of your own, or use the questions you were asked.

And so, we begin – at last! (My apologies for taking so long to finally release the Genie from the lamp):

Arabian Nights Stories - Illustration by H.G. Theaker

Arabian Nights Stories – Illustration by H.G. Theaker

Eleven things about me

One.

I hail from a family of storytellers. Word-weaving folk, who love to share the events of their days. Never in a simple transmission-of-fact-way, as in: “We did this, or saw that today.”

No; everything has to be told from its beginning.

"One January day..." Opening of 'Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole' by Alison Uttley. Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth - 1970 edition (one of the earliest books I owned)

“One January day…” Opening of ‘Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole’ by Alison Uttley. Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth – 1970 edition (one of the earliest books I owned)

“One day, I was walking by the old wood yard,” my grandad might begin. “And the wind wasn’t half blowing a gale – enough to whip my hat clean off my head! Whoosh,” (cue a brief mime to indicate the trilby’s astonishing trajectory) “away it flew! All the way down to that corner shop where old Smithy used to sell those wonky-handled brooms! Yes, you know the place I mean; next-door to where Mrs. Know-it-All… (her whose son danced the Highland fling after one too many beers)…made toffee so hard, your teeth would threaten mutiny just at the thought of it.” Here, Grandad would pause to whistle his sense of awe through his (false) teeth. “Yep, that wind was a big ‘un. Never thought I’d get my hat back – but, as I grabbed it from the gutter – who do you think I met…?”

That sort of thing.

Sometimes, the ‘one day’ of my grandparents’ tales would be just the previous week – sometimes it would be 1913 or 1930 or 1969…

Snippets of our personal and family histories have always been relayed in this way. Over the years, my mum has often unpacked, detail by detail, a ‘one day’ from when I was four years old, and about to leave nursery school. Mum relates how, on the cusp of that momentous step towards “Big School,” my nursery school teacher fell into a reverie of prediction:

“You know,” Mrs. M said, nodding towards me, “I’m sure, one day, that child’s going to be an actress or a writer.”

Apparently, Mrs. M would often hand over the last tale of Story-Time to me. We would sit on the floor, forming our magic circle around a chosen book – our portal into many worlds.

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

To hold that treasure in my hands, to be right at the hub of where the story’s spell was sparking, was like being a curator of a party of dreams. I loved to “read” to the other kids – to share the book’s jumping off places from where all our imaginations could soar, together.

Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth, from 'Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole' by Alison Uttley (edition published by Collins, 1970)

Illustration by Katherine Wigglesworth, from ‘Little Grey Rabbit Goes to the North Pole’ by Alison Uttley (edition published by Collins, 1970)

I couldn’t actually decipher more than a few of the words on the page, but I had memorised the stories. And the illustrations were alive; filled with spellbinding detail, movement, texture, colour, light, shade and suggestion. As I “read,” I would add in all sorts of invention, theatrical effects and character voices. I’m told I used to entertain the other children enormously. Personally, I think I must have been a right royal pain! But this anecdote, as well as making me laugh, also fills me with a lovely sense of being found out. Someone else saw an inner something I held dear; noticed that it was there. Witnessed it when it was in the very act of seeking those moments of ‘best living,’ when the very self settles most comfortably, and is happy. But this story also makes me feel a little sad too – because, after I went to “Big School,” I became very, very shy; really quite withdrawn (when at school anyway – at home I was still that same girl).

But, Mrs. M must have been a very astute teacher – because, despite my later shyness, I continued to seek outlets for my inner performer in every school production and play, and went on to do Theatre Studies ‘A’ level.

And, ever since I first realised that books didn’t just appear by magic direct from Fairyland, but were created by someone known as an Author, I’ve always wanted to be a children’s story creator… Mrs M. saw my dream forming before I even knew what name to give it.

Remembering how all that felt has been a good lesson to carry with me. It’s been a constant fuel. A motivator to keep honouring that core wish to reach out through stories; to promote the richness that books hold in keeping us connected to who we really are, to other people – and to our moments of ‘best living.’

And, who knows… though, at this time, I don’t feel I can own that magician’s title of ‘Writer,’ (lots more learning to acquire yet) maybe Mrs. M will be proved right – one day…

…There you are, see what I mean? I couldn’t just tell you that I have a deep-rooted urge to connect to storytelling at almost every level of my life. I had to make a story out of it!

I must make my other answers less epic – or we’ll be here all day!

Two.

I love horses. (There; that was nice and brief) For those of you who also love horses, this will need no explanation. Here’s a beautiful clip that will make you heart sing. And, if you’re not already an admirer of all creatures equine – surely, after witnessing such enchantment, resistance to a conversion will be futile!

Three

Making bread pudding is one of my culinary specialities! It’s a family tradition, handed down the generations. I still use the same oven-proof dish my mum baked her bread puddings in when I was a child. It must be over fifty years old now – it’s certainly older than me.

Four

I’m a bit of a metalhead! Heavy rock music took root very early in my consciousness, due to an older brother who, during our growing up in the 1970s, filled the house with the glorious sounds of Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, Jimi Hendrix etc. By the age of six, my musical tastes embraced an eclectic mix – from Purple Haze to Pinky and Perky! When I met my husband, the already powerful appeal of bands such as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Rush, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd et al – in all their big musical realness – became even more firmly embedded in the soundtracks of my life. And, from time to time, over-driven guitars play out for real in our house (whenever my Beloved can get the chance to recapture his youth via his Les Paul and Fender Strat!) Now, it’s our son whose favourite songs range wildly from Metallica’s The Unforgiven to CBeebies’ Postman Pat!

I know that heavy metal/ hard rock is not everybody’s cup of tea, but here’s a great video, courtesy of the sublime Bill Bailey, which I think has the power to connect anyone to the largeness of a genre which, on the whole, tends not to take itself too seriously. Everyone can rock out to this:

Enter Sandman (via Bill’s own inimitable style!) ‘…take my hand; we’re off to Never-Never Land!’

Five

As some regular readers at Bookish Nature know, I’m a huge Kate Bush fan – and, when I was a young teenager, I once stood just a few feet away from her (we both happened to be shopping in our local branch of Boots). When she saw my expression of astonishment, she smiled and said hello. She lived a few miles away from us at the time (late ’70s/early ’80s). I remember a dance I made up back then in the privacy of our living room – a wild, whirling set of moves to accompany my frequent listens to Kate’s song Babooshka (luckily, I didn’t feel the urge to unleash my inner performer in Boots that ‘one day’!)

Six

They say you either love or hate Marmite – and I’m a definite love it person. I could eat it by the spoonful! My husband shudders at my foolhardiness.

Seven

I remember reading in Marian Keyes’ warm and uplifting collection of articles, Under the Duvet, her tongue-in-cheek claim that women generally fall into one of two categories: those who love shoes – and those who love bath products. In her experience, the two groups tend not to overlap. It’s an either/ or thing. Whether this bears out as true or not, I have no idea – however I do own very few shoes (and find shoe shopping a tedious experience) – but I’m an absolute sucker for the scented delights of a bottle of mandarin and papaya bubble bath, or a strawberry and vanilla body wash – and other similar concoctions and little luxuries (all environmentally friendly and not tested on animals, of course!)

I trace it back to my mum being such a good Avon customer, and so spawning a childhood fascination with weird and wonderful perfume and bubble bath bottles of light-glinting richness of colour – some shaped like telephones or snowmen or turtles or bells, or pianos, peaches, doves, harps – all manner of surprising things. And then there were the soaps shaped like the seven dwarves, a bath brush shaped like a giraffe, a comb shaped like a caterpillar. And soap-on-a rope! Who could forget soap-on-a-rope? I still own bits and pieces from Avon’s “Small World” childhood range from the 1970s:

A small sample of various hoarded keepsakes from childhood - Avon children's range products, and one shoe I definitely treasure (an inherited ornament - from my grandma's dressing table!)

A small sample of various hoarded keepsakes from childhood – Avon children’s range products, and one shoe I definitely treasure (an inherited ornament – from my grandma’s dressing table!)

Every few weeks, an impossibly glamorous Avon lady would visit, carrying an intriguing blue check-pattern suitcase laden with such temptations. When its lid was unzipped – voila! – a stunning rainbow of tiny nail-polish bottles was revealed – like an array of magic potions. My mum’s dressing table was a place of wonder!

Eight.

Despite the influences of the Avon lady and my mum’s dressing table, I don’t like wearing make-up. I only ever wear it (grudgingly) on special occasions. I don’t feel comfortable not looking like – well… me. And applying and removing it takes too much precious time when I could be reading!

Nine

I hand reared one of my (late) dogs and her brother. They were brought into the veterinary surgery where I was working at the time, when they were just three days old. Their mother had been unable to feed them, and most of the litter had died or were dying. The owner didn’t want the surviving pups. So, I took on the job of round-the-clock feeding. Their lives hung by a thread at first, but we soon established three hourly feeds, using special canine formula milk. Weeks later, when it was time to find them both a home, I’d formed such a bond with the (utterly scatty) female puppy, I just couldn’t part with her.

My dog's early puppyhood...

My dog’s early puppyhood…

She stayed with us all her life, and lived to a good old age. She never quite lost her scatty ways (a friend of ours from Devon affectionately dubbed her “The Maze Hound”) – but her impeccable behaviour was a marvel to behold after my daughter was born (she transformed into an absolute model of canine calm and instinctive good sense in Bookish Nature Junior’s company, reverting to puppyhood when she wasn’t required to be the Wise Old Pooch of the West). We all miss her.

Ten

My hair is a kind of chestnut brown – but, when the sun shines on it, streaks of fiery russet come out from hiding (along with an increasing number of silvery strands nowadays!) There’s a history of red hair on both sides of the family. I like to think of my fiery highlights as a link to my hidden Boudica (complete with pony-drawn chariot… Did I mention that I love horses?) A whole section of my ancestors came from East Anglia, so maybe some kind of link to the Queen of the Iceni isn’t stretching the fantasy way beyond all plausibility!

Eleven

During my family history research online, I was astonished to discover the existence of a portrait of some of my ancestors! The portrait is unsigned and dates from circa 1830. Looking at various records, I found out that one of my several-times-great aunts married a portrait painter at about that time. So, immediately, my romantic storyteller mode kicked in – casting said aunt as the young woman in the family portrait, and the commissioned artist as the young man she eventually married. Maybe, when I look at that painting, I am witnessing a very significant meeting of eyes across the easel; love blossoming amidst the Kentish meadows… The portrait also revealed one of the sources of the red hair inheritance (there are several auburn mops amongst the children in the posed family group).

My sister-in-law did some investigating and found out that the portrait is kept in the archives of a museum in Kent – and that it is printed on notelets available to buy from the museum’s shop! A whole section of family history, which was never passed on via the inherited storytelling-habit, began to reveal itself. My grandad’s own stories were of growing up in a working class family, his father a jobbing gardener, his mother’s father an itinerant farm labourer. But I discovered a history I don’t think he knew about – that his dad’s father was the son of a gentleman farmer who owned 200 acres of land and lived in a moated farmhouse (originally the site of a medieval manor!) How that story unfolded is yet to be revealed – one day!

Part 2 to follow…