How was it for you?

February’s now here, so I thought I’d post a little update on how the ‘New Year, New Start’ has gone so far. Whilst the rest of the world feels like it’s falling apart thanks to the Tangerine Toddler, it’s been a creatively promising month in this corner of Fife.

First, I’m extremely pleased to announce that I’ve now got a literary agent, Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown Associates. How did this happen? Well, it’s all thanks to the magic* of Twitter – and a great little initiative called Tweet Your Pitch. Organised by XPONorth, the trade network for writing and publishing in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, it’s a one-day open call for book pitches from writers across Scotland. The catch? Your whole book needs to be crammed into just one tweet. Mine was:

Jenny got in touch to say she’d be interested in finding out more; I sent through my proposal and a sample of writing, and a week or so later we met in Edinburgh to seal the deal. I’m beyond honoured to be represented by Scotland’s best-kent agent, alongside the likes of Kathleen Jamie, Alasdair Gray, and Gavin Francis.

Second, Tweet Your Pitch also got me in touch with Glasgow publishers Freight Books, who liked my idea for a book detailing the experiences I had nine years ago whilst living in Japan. Last week I meet with design guru and Freight head honcho Adrian Searle, who gave me a much-needed confidence boost, a reading list and several pointers regarding narrative construction – and introduced me to the weird and wonderful (?) world of Wool Fetishists. Go on, click on the link…

Third, I finished my first freelance copywriting and editing job – producing the School of Geography and Sustainable Development’s new magazine. It hits the newstands university website next week, and has helped me reach my January freelance earning target (phew). It also helped me to snare my second freelance job, copyediting a book on coastal rowing – which should keep me financially afloat through February.

On the book front, I’ve drafted the prologue and first chapter of the wool tome (you can keep up-to-date with this project over on This Golden Fleece) and am now rolling up my sleeves to crack on with chapter two. I had a great day’s research at the National Library of Scotland, combined with mornings mostly spent in the University of St Andrews library – cosy, spacious, and completely free! I’m also approaching the finishing line with January’s knitting project, a pair of intricate Dentdale gloves in Shetland wool. And my wool trivia is growing a-pace: who knew that Virginia Woolf was a literary knitter?

It’s been a busy month, but a good one – hopefully this momentum can carry me through the rest of the year…

*=reclaim Twitter from Trumped-up terror, says I

New Year, New Start

January – a month for promises and plans. I usually start the new year by making an effort to eat better and exercise more (along with everyone else), but this year I’m trying something different.

Back in December I handed in my notice. I’d been working in a full-time post in new sector since August, but I hadn’t enjoyed it and felt an almost-daily dread about going to work. I didn’t have another full-time job lined up to go to – in fact, I didn’t even want one. For the first time in my life, I wanted to try a different way of working.

I have wanted to write a book ever since I was a child. I wrote my first poem when I was seven, my first children’s story at eleven, and since then have been squeezing in my writing around full-time work, full-time study, a long-distance relationship or two, and a year spent living and teaching in Japan. I’ve got married, moved house almost once a year, travelled to America, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Austria, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden. Work has always come first, writing second. Or third. Or maybe fourth or fifth.

I’m now at the beginning of my thirties, and I’m not really any closer to being an author than I was at the age of eleven. So that’s what I’m going to do in 2017: write a book. Researching and writing it will be my nine-to-five, something I sit down to do each day. Even on weekends and holidays I’ll be writing for an least an hour a day. Although I might not make the magical/mythical 10,000 hours in just one year, I’ll be a couple of thousand closer.

What is the book about? Well, I’m going to be knitting my way round the British Isles in a year, writing about what I learn as I go. I’ll be blogging on This Golden Fleece and you can also keep an eye on what I’m up to on Twitter @thisgoldfleece, Instagram @thisgoldenfleece and Ravelry ThisGoldenFleece. I’ll also be experimenting with lots of types of writing and hopefully signing up for a course or two along the way.

I’m lucky to be part of a household with one full-time income guarenteed through my partner’s work, but I’m also looking to pick up freelance copywriting and creative project management work too (more on that here). My first offer of paid freelance work has just come in so will be looking to build this up over the next few months. If you’re looking for a copywriter or project manager specialising in literary heritage, do get in touch on https://estherphoeberutter.wordpress.com/.

Wish me luck!

Travelling by Train

Trains

At train stations I always start dozens of imaginary journeys alongside my real one. Trains to loved places, places we have lived: always conjured up by names on the illuminated departure boards. Sometime even the mention of nothing more than the mention of a journey’s necessary midway point is enough: you can’t get to Windermere from the south without paying your respects to Lancaster on the way, so that small, provincial city’s name comes to stand for the whole of the wild Lake District. The same with Carlisle, when coming from the north: pay your dues at this border city’s red gates and you may safely pass to the south.

Some places are more potent, richer with past and potential journeys, than others. Peterborough stands for the whole of the East Coast mainline – York, Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh. Each one keep a memory suspended in time’s vitrine: a couple waiting for a baby to arrive, a brother studying, a lover living, our latest home. I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s description of the emotional potency of London’s main stations:

‘she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown.  Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all ; Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable Broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo.’

I have always loved this passage, recalling in it the long New Year train trips to Cornwall with a boyfriend, trains taken home to Suffolk, the sleeper to Scotland which I was almost too young to properly remember. My first relationship was conducted through their spiders’ webs of rails: the late train to Newcastle after school on a Friday and then in reverse on Sunday, the rush to the west to visit his home and his family.

Stations come to me in dreams too. I spend dark hours waiting for trains that slip silently by without my ever being able to catch one. Like metal moths they evade the net of my sleep-slowed needs. I look at endless departure boards and can’t read a single letter of the destinations. The clocks’ hands move far faster than they ever do in life, minutes melting into hours. Time and again I am there on the platform, waiting for trains to places I know, but never climbing aboard.

On the real trains I do manage to catch, and I have never yet missed one myself, though have occasionally been thwarted by delayed connecting services, I slip into parallel time. Whatever the purpose of the train journey – leisure, pleasure, work – the time it takes to make it is a gift to myself. I can do whatever I like once I’m there.  I am purposefully engaged in getting somewhere, so I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. I can read, or loll sleepily with my head cushioned against the window with a jumper, or write, or simply sit there. If I have a train picnic, a luxury I often allow myself in the form of packets of treats from Marks and Spencer, I have to eat it as soon as I get on the train, otherwise the knowledge of its presence won’t let me rest.

Ferries have the same effect on me as trains. I sometimes fall asleep, which can result in drooling and  stiff neck, but usually I bury myself in a book. Sometimes I listen to radio podcasts, or I write. I feel like this is time I can do anything in, because it is both productive (I am on my way) and completely free – I don’t subject myself to any internal guilt about what I do during this travel-time, it is simply time for me to spend as I like.

The Railway Station by William Powell Frith, RA. Signed and dated 1862. Royal Holloway, University of London..jpg

The Railway Station by William Powell Frith, RA (1862), Royal Holloway, University of London.

 

 

Running For The Hills

Running for the hillsI love reading books when I’m sat in the place they are set in, mixing the pleasure of being transported to a different time whilst staying in the same geographic location. I feel like I’m slipping between the universe’s folds, watching a story play out in front of me somewhere between the time it happened in and now. Last month my husband and I were on holiday in the Welsh borders, and whilst he headed out to bag some hills I took myself off to Brecon to amuse myself in bookshops and cafes. It was strange day, the day after the UK’s referendum on its membership of the EU, and I found myself listening to the lilting Welsh accents around me to hear local reactions to the vote. After an hour or two pouring over the papers in the library and feeling cross, I hopped across the road to The Hours, a lovely little cafe bookshop with wooden beams and an upstairs full of secondhand books. My eyes soon alighted on a gem, a just-my-type of gem, Horatio Clare’s Running For The Hills (2006). A self-proclaimed ‘family story’, it follows the Clares as they struggle with, and settle in, to life on a Welsh farm in the 1970s and 1980s. I went downstairs to part with £3 for it,  but got lured in by delicious smells coming from the cafe’s kitchen, so settled down to read it over lunch – I didn’t end up paying until the food was long gone and I was several chapters in.

The Clares, well, Miss Williams and Mr Clare Senior as they are at the time, acquire the farm in the days of their courtship, bought by him for her as a symbol of their love and in response to her need for space to be outside of London. It’s bought at auction for £11,000, out-dated and wild and full of mice and romance. Jenny and Robert marry soon after, and two boys are born within a few years – heroically named Horatio and Alexander. The marriage begins to disintegrate under differences of personality, the pressures of depression and distance, and in the end it’s Jenny living there by herself with the boys shuttling between Wales and London. For all this domestic instability the book isn’t a depressing read: Jenny’s love of the landscape is beguiling and easy to share, and anyone who has every longed for the space and freedom of living up in the hills will share her affection of this little corner of Wales, hunkered down by the Black Mountains.

For me it was an especially delicious read, as a few days before we had walked to remote Llantony Priory and along the way had come across a couple of farmhouses high in the hills, one derelict and empty of human life, the other in the process of transformation from ruin to homstead. The former was a tiny cottage hiding away in the woods, smelling of mould and mice, the latter a great late mediaveal manor lying at the valley’s head, painted a warm butternut yellow. No doubt the Clare’s house lay somewhere between the two: habited but gently crumbling, returning to the earth decade by decade. P1010077

What is unusual about the story is that it is told in the third person, with Robert and Jenny at a slight remove, but that it also moves into the first person as Horatio becomes sentient: what were Jenny and Robert’s becomes ‘ours’, and ‘I’ appears. Clare has drawn directly from his parents’ letters and diaries, combining this source material with his own memories of childhood, and it must have been a curious process, moving between what you could remember doing, seeing and feeling and what your parents recorded as having happened at the time to construct a narrative. You might expect a certain amount of navel-gazing too, but Clare is too wise a storyteller for this, and keeps his audience enthralled in the haphazard world of a London family making a go of it on a Welsh hill farm. Although the Clares’ marriage fails, the farm falls further into disrepair, and money runs away like water, I finished the book with a strengthened desire to do it myself, to live remotely and farm a small piece of land.

Ceres Fife RCAHMSI’m making a small step in this direction later this month, moving from the bustle of Edinburgh to the rolling hills of Fife. We’ll be taking on the lease of a small cottage in the village of Ceres, and I can’t wait to have a garden to tend again and a kitchen bigger than a cupboard to cook in. The house (the middle one in the picture above) is older than most of the places we’ve lived in and we’ll have to walk over an ancient footbridge to get home each day. There’s no farm to tend, but I can’t wait to have space to roam in the evenings, and leave the omnipresent drone of cars and the wailing sirens behind. Edinburgh, you’ve been grand – but my heart’s in the country.

 

 

Burp cloths, art and ‘zines

Ok, so today’s post is a bit of a departure from the norm. I’ve branched out from book reviews to zine, art and burp cloth reviews. Confused? Read on..

Confession time: I’ve never read a zine before today. In fact, I’ve never really got that they are a genre in their own right, but a quick look at Wiki puts me right: they are small-circulation self-published magazines (hence the name) which come from the centuries-old tradition of pamphleteering, as circulated by the likes of revolutionaries including Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, and were a hugely important part of punk and feminist culture from the 1970s onwards. Because they are almost always hand-made and self-published they can be much freer than the mainstream press in the views they champion, and they are strongly associated with grassroots movements for social and political changes.

Anyway, two friendly types with whom I sometimes collaborate at work have both recently published zines, and so I decided to break my zine duck and get stuck in. I started with ‘Thoughts I Have’, a zine about women and their relationship with their bodies. Not all zines are hand-illustrated but this one is, and beautifully so – here’s a sneak peek:

Thoughts I have

(c) Sasha de Buyl-Pisco (2016)

It’s a little booklet to slip in your pocket, and has the same look and feel as the Jolly Postman books I loved as a child. As soon as I read it I thought ‘this is brilliant – such a clever, funny, creative way of creating dialogue and connecting people.’ I could instantly identify with everything the author wrote and loved that someone I knew had made something so good from scratch. I’m now on the hunt for more zines to enjoy. It was £2 very well spent, as not only do I have something interesting and hand-made to enjoy but it’s also inspired me to have a go at zine making myself. It’s a big rough and ready, but here’s my first attempt:

 

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I totally did not miss the ‘u’ out of squeak.

 

Another thing that made me feel a bit better about the world at large is that by taking part in this small transaction I was actively supporting a woman-run start-up creative business. I often agonise about how to use my disposable income to benefit the communities, places and values that I care about, and I’m always a mixture of pleased and relieved when I can make that choice in a way which offsets some of the guilt and worry I feel about how the rest of the capitalist world seems to exploit the poor and feather the nests of the wealthy. So whenever I’m able to make a choice to support causes I believe in by being an active part of the economy that drives them, I really enjoy doing so. It feels empowering – one in the eye for the giants of industry and commerce. (Who of course have no idea and miss my pennies not one iota. But still…)

Burp clothsSo a mere hour or so after I exchanged the filthy lucre for my first zine, I found myself parting with a very reasonable $52 (including shipping from the US) for two beautiful baby gifts for friends who are going to give birth in the coming months. A lovely lady I worked with in a previous job has just set up a new business making burp cloths – as in, to wipe up baby vomit with – and quilts. She trades as Red Fox, Brown Fox and you can see her wonderful wares on Facebook and Instagram. I’m so impressed that she has developed this business following a pretty tough personal situation recently, and I’m really proud that I can support a business like hers. And aren’t they pretty?

Japanese paper cut

(c) Kate Hollier @papernarratives

So that’s two impressive women doing it for themselves – but three is the magic number, right? So to complete the triad, I’m going to finish with another woman-run creative start-up who I meet up with at the weekend: Paper Narratives. This is a great one-woman-band making hand-cut paper artworks – take a deek at them on Etsy. I am the proud owner of one: isn’t it beautiful? If you fancy checking them out in person, then pop along to the Paper Narratives exhibition at Manchester Royal Exchange this summer.

 

Expecting?

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Babies love knitwear…

I’ve never been pregnant, never tried to conceive a child. I’m at the age when friends and colleagues are having babies left, right and centre, but the furthest I’ve got down the road to furthering the species is to get married and agree that my husband and I want them ‘at some point’. Although I feel a lot more ready for the thought of bringing a child into the world than I did ten years ago – when the thought was ‘shit, having a baby would be the worst thing that could happen to me right now’ – I’m now at the ‘if it happened, we could cope’, but not yet at ‘shit, NOT having a baby would be worst thing that could happen.’ I’m a godmother to a dear girl, the daughter of a friend from school, and an inveterate ‘knitting auntie’, knocking up hats, mittens, bootees and jackets for each new arrival. But actually a mum myself? No, not yet.

Part of the reason for my lack of enthusiasm for the baby project is a lack of understanding about how it might make me think and feel, anxiety about how it might change the very me-ness of me. Sure, there are also the massive practical considerations of work and lifestyle and cost (has anyone ever told you how shitty parental pay and leave are in the UK?) but at least there’s some support from the state, and we both have jobs and savings and four grandparents-in-waiting. We have friends who have done it and so can tell us ‘don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal’ and who wouldn’t mind being howled at down the phone at silly o’clock. The species needs to do it and, after all, all of us have already been through it, albeit on the other end of things.

But a big stumbling block to overcome before I take the plunge is to try and work out how this massive life-changing thing could affect me. Not just physically – though there is that too – but how I think and feel and cope with the world. I guess that, in part, this is futile; people always tell me that you can’t imagine what it’s like until it’s happening to you. But I still want to try and work it out, and it’s almost impossible to do because there’s barely a book on the subject that isn’t just a handbook advice on folic acid, maternity pads and pelvic girdle pain. Did those words make you shiver? If so, you’re not alone – they made my skin prickle, and that just shows how culturally conditioned we are to finding the whole pregnancy and motherhood thing a little bit disgusting, something that we just don’t talk about before we’re on that giddy journey ourselves, hurtling into the future with nary a clue about what’s to come. Preparing for this journey I don’t want a car manual, I want a story about the place that I’m going to which reassures and excites and makes me feel like I could cope with the brave new world ahead.

ExpectingThank God for Chitra Ramaswamy. Her brand new book Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy (Saraband, April 2016) is a magical yet practical and beautifully written monologue on pregnancy, from the pre-conception jitters to the miraculous but traumatic moment of birth. Each chapter follows a month of her own pregnancy but against a background of cultural and literary references from Sylvia Plath to Tolstoy. In fact, those two sources are pretty important, because there simply aren’t that many books, poems, plays, films or works of art which actually depict this most awesome and fundamental of human processes. As Ramaswamy questions:

‘What, then, is the riddle of pregnancy? How are we even to begin to understand it? To find the right metaphors? Or perhaps even to abandon them: to crack open the jar and spill the contents?’

Ramaswamy’s a journalist and the training shows: her research is thorough and wide-reaching, turning up gems in places we wouldn’t have looked as well as those we thought we knew. Some of the works she cites are obviously about childbearing: Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kate Clanchy’s Newborn and Sharon Old’s poem ‘The Language of the Brag’ all take the stage. But others are more unexpected: Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977) isn’t a book about pregnancy at all, but in it Ramaswamy finds surprising parallels between Shepherd’s mountain explorations and her own journey to motherhood. Take Shepherd’s description of water on the hills:

‘I have seen its birth […] and the more I gaze at that sure and remitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled.’

Ramaswamy feels the same about the miniature miracle occurring in the very midst of herself.

After the uncertainty of the first chapter, those first few weeks before most women even know they are pregnant, the references to other people’s experiences come thick and fast: Sylvia Plath’s 1959 poem ‘Metaphors’ (‘I’m a riddle in nine syllables’), Marcel Proust, Susan Sontag’s 1978 Illness as Metaphor, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Alison Watt’s and Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures, Gustave Coubert’s 1866 painting The Origin of the World, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hélène Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa, John Muir, Toni Morrison, Kathleen Jamie’s Jizzen, Voltaire, George Mackay Brown, Frida Kahlo, David Hume – it may be a daunting list, but Ramaswamy handles it with skillful lightness, marking each jolt of her journey with a fingerpost provided by someone else who has traversed humanity’s trail ahead of her. The very life-and-death-ness of her journey binds her to more than just other pregnant women, it also brings her into contact with people, places and narratives she hasn’t considered before.

There is also the quotidian normality, even familiarity, of this rarely-written-about subject. From the movements of the baby in her stomach to the contractions of birth, the feeling of joyous wellbeing in her sixth month to the protective nesting sensation she often experiences, the refrain is the same: ‘the most surprising part of all this was how unsurprising it felt’. For Ramaswamy discovers that her body is wiser and better prepared than her head, that this most primeval of functions is hard-wired into her very being. It doesn’t take her away from herself, it make her more herself, part of the humanity of humanity.

I cannot recommend Expecting highly enough. As someone who may take the path to motherhood in the coming years, it feels like a life-raft in a sea of uncertainty about pregnancy, helpful yet humorous, intimate yet universal. Not a car manual, but a true friend of a book, one that any person with the remotest to connection to the miracle of life could turn to again and again. I have no hesitation in placing on my personal ‘handbooks for life’ shelf, alongside Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. All books to gladden my heart, steady my footsteps, and remind me to keep looking at the world with new eyes.

The Morville Hours

Each of us has the potential to hold a thousand different languages on the tip of our tongue. Even if we have nothing more than a smattering of schoolgirl French or the ability to order a glass of wine in Greek, within our mother tongue lie several hundred possible modes of language, each one individually special and specific.

The use of Latin plant names, unapologetically untranslated, in English represents straight-forward borrowing, words imported wholesale and their rules applied to each new hybrid as it emerges from the ground. But there are many more subtle tongues being spoken every day, ones flying so low under our daily radars that we probably don’t even think of them as languages. But in many ways they are: compare the cable and casting off of the knitter against the casting off and cable of a sailor, the builders’ kentledge against the printers’ colophon. The rosin and vibrato of a violinist, the anemometer and the quadrant of the geographer, the gomme and gouache of the painter. Each special skill offers the acolyte a shibboleth – how do real horticulturalists pronounce corymbs and guelder, proper teachers say Melpomene and Calliope? The hunter’s tack is a world away in meaning from the seamstresses’ word for the same, the language of the hack for the horse and the news hinting at the different universes inhabited by both. These idiolects of trades and interests can be both ancient and modern: ‘a bit of 2-by-4’ and an RSJ are immediately understood by a builder but may mystify a hairdresser, who would be more familiar with an upsweep and a fauxhawk.

morvilleThis is a fairly roundabout way of approaching Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, but the reason for doing so is because Swift is so astonishingly good at entwining the languages of gardener, builder, priest, beekeeper and a multitude of others into her narrative. The Morville Hours tells the story of Swift’s life and garden using the dual frameworks of the mediaeval book of hours on one hand and England’s traditional horticultural calendar on the other. Both are potentially off-putting subjects in their extreme specificity and almost complete irrelevance to our city-centred modern lives, but in Swift’s exquisite prose both become fascinating and beautiful in their complexity. I found that although I didn’t know what many of the words Swift used meant precisely – the list includes terce, none (pronounced to rhyme with ‘one’ and ‘stone’, not ‘bun’ and ‘fun’), achillea ptarmica, and a hundred other plant names. But it didn’t stop me understanding Swift’s story, and I didn’t mind not knowing as she made me feel that a world was opening up to me through these words, not shutting me out. The Morville Hours is a magical book in that it has the power to transport, translate and transmorgrify things of which I was completely ignorant into fascinating subjects that I just want to more and more about.

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Kellie Castle, Fife

It also made me long for the outdoors, for a life lived closer to the soil and the seeds. It made me miss my birthplace in the south of England, which was so much warmer and more verdant than the colder climes of Scotland. But it also inspired me to go on a visit: to Kellie Castle, a National Trust for Scotland property close to the Fife coast. Like the Dower House at Morville where Swift made her incredible garden, the Castle was home to what are known as ‘improving tenants’, people who live in a property but pay a lower rent because they have offered to improve the building or gardens on behalf of the owner. At Kellie the ‘improving’ family were the multi-talented Lorimers, best-kent among them sculptor Hew Lorimer (he who made the Lady of the Isles on South Uist and carved the seven allegorical figures on the front of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh), architect Robert Lorimer and artist John Henry (J.H) Lorimer. Inside the house they sensitively restored the building and filled it with beautiful furniture, either of their own making or from the periods spanned by the house’s history. Outside they rebuilt the castle’s walled gardens and created beautiful spaces in which people could while away many a happy outdoor hour. Many of JH’s paintings perfectly capture the play of light on the buildings and grounds at Kellie, and below is one of my favourites – Happy Easter!

Sunlight in the South room

Sunlight in the South Room (c) The National Trust for Scotland, Kellie Castle & Garden; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Year of Living Danishly

Today’s review is of Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly, published in 2015 by Icon Books. Perfectly timed to pique the interest of this generation of woolly jumper fanciers and Nordic Noir obsessives, Russell details her 2013 move to Denmark from London with her husband in the quest for a happier life. A magazine editor and journalist, she decides to go freelance and challenges herself to ‘live Danishly’ for a year, whilst her husband works for that iconic Danish toy company, Lego. Her book catalogues the journey of their new life together as they adjust to the Nordic work-life balance, freezing weather, and Scandinavian attitude towards baked goods. The baked goods bit is pretty important. It is a contemporary take on the age-old conundrum of being an ex-pat: would my life really be any better if I lived in a different country, or would it be infinitely harder and more difficult?

It is safe to say that I am pretty much this book’s ideal reader. In my early 30s, middle-class, working in a job which is intellectually stimulating but sometimes stressful, I frequently daydream about what it would be like to have more time in my life to do the things I love: hiking, reading, writing and spending time with my husband and friends. I live in a city which boasts two Swedish coffee shops within 10 minutes’ walk of my house, and I have just learned how to knit my own Scandi-style gloves: friends, be prepared to receive some Nordic knitwear from yours truly come Christmas.

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My Scandiknit handiwork..

My husband even works in a field which is ideally suited to living in Scandinavia: as a glaciologist, you gotta go where them glaciers are, and countries with a polar border have more than the average amount. In fact, he is currently considering a job in deepest darkest (and I really do mean darkest) Tromsø, so a book about upping sticks and moving to a new Nordic life is really, really up my alley. I couldn’t wait to find about how another blonde British women in her 30s, whose career is in the world of books and words, finds the transition between British and Scandinavian living in the early 21st century.

Russell’s writing style is chatty, gently humourous and very much belies her background in lifestyle journalism. Individual works of poetic beauty they may not be, but her sentences are highly readable and trip along merrily as Russell is amazed by immaculate Danish interiors, learns the life-affirming importance of mood lighting, and struggles with the unspoken rules of flag flying. I say unspoken, but Russell is actually presented with a typed and laminated set of guidelines by her neighbours when she accidentally contravenes the strict code of the Dannebrog. Her husband is depicted as the true Scandiophile, whilst Russell’s relationship with her adopted homeland alternates between self-deprecating British skepticism and giddy enthusiasm for its excellent pastries. She paints herself very much as the girl-next-door, worried about her weight and her lax approach to housekeeping and how she’s going to cope with the notorious Nordic winters. She’s likeable, pally and just the sort of person you’d love to have on hand to help you get through life in a strange new country.

20160208_202821As the title suggests, the book charts one calendar year in Russell’s life in Denmark. Each chapter ends with a summary of the things about ‘living Danishly’ that Russell has learned during that month. January is for ‘hygge and home’, hygge being that fashionably Danish concept of wood-fired candle-lit cosiness, during which we learn that Denmark is cold in January, owls are loud, and immigration is not for the faint-hearted. By June Russell’s in the middle of a hormonal three-to-six month nosedive on the culture shock curve, and it’s time for a cold hard look at Danish feminism. But twelve months after arriving, Russell and her husband decide to stay for another year and the book ends with a list of twelve excellent ways to ‘live Danishly’, wherever you lay your hat. Trust more, get hygge, use your body, make your home nice, streamline your options, be proud, value family, be equally respectful, play, and share.  These are the things that Russell identifies as being at the root of Danish happiness, and I have to say they make pretty attractive reading: I wanted to move to Norway more than ever after reading her book.

Russell also presents a beguiling possibility of earning a crust as a freelance writer living abroad. As someone who has been toying with the idea of taking her writing more seriously, it is reassuring to know that someone from a similar background can earn money and continue to work in their chosen field from abroad. Admittedly Russell’s experience is a lot more commercial than mine, but not only does she write lifestyle and comment pieces for a number of UK publications but she also – obviously – pens the book about her daily experiences. If she can do it, might I? Only time will tell…

Want a second opinion? Check out what PD Smith has to say about the book over at the Guardian.

Want to find about more about the current vogue for all things Nordic? Hop on over to AA Gill’s 2012 piece in Vanity Fair.

The Outrun – return to Orkney

Back at the end of the old year I received a sneaky proof copy of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. I love getting my paws on proof copies (I have three to date) with their banner forbidding resale, knowing that I’m one of only a handful of people who get to see a book this new. It’s a bit like seeing my god-daughter when she was only a few weeks old, or another friend’s baby at two days’ newly hatched, before anyone else has told me about what they are like and I can find out for myself entirely.

2016-01-27 23.09.59But now the book is out in the world and so I can talk about it. On paper it sounds like a bit of a misery memoir: girl comes back home to Orkney follow stint in rehab for alcoholism, trying to heal herself through writing and being close to nature. But Liptrot’s story is anything but miserable: she finds that her life is full of resonances that for years she was too busy to hear, but now echo to her from unexpected corners and reverberate through her new self. If this sounds rather dippy-hippy and saccharine, Liptrot’s writing isn’t that either, it’s bright and clear and incisive, like the clean blade of a knife. There’s an inherent danger to her story too. It is the tale of one living closer to the edge of the normal world than might be safe or comfortable.

The story begins when she meets her parents for the first time. Her father’s manic depression shapes the family’s life with its violence: he smashes windows, believes he can control the weather, and is periodically sectioned, as he is on the day Amy arrives into this world three weeks earlier than anticipated. The opening chapter describes the scene acted out beneath the whirring blades of an Orkney helicopter, a baby cradled in her mother’s arms in one wheelchair as her straight-jacketed father is brought out in another on his way to a mainland asylum. Liptrot’s prose gives nothing away and it is only in the closing words of the chapter that we realise that the two wheelchair-bound adults are her own parents, and this is the first of many dramatic and extreme events in her life.

As a teenager Liptrot longs to get away from something she sees falsely described as an island paradise, and in her 20s she moves to London. The city’s ‘hot pulse’ seems so far away from Orkney’s windswept emptiness that the two places feel like polar opposites: for the first half of the book the two appear in defiant contrast to each other. Liptrot goes clubbing several times a week, drinking heavily and ‘searching headlong for a good time’. But after Liptrot has reached her nadir, gone to rehab and returned to Orkney, similarities between the two creep into Liptrot’s writing. The noise of the waves crashing into the island reminds her of the roar of London’s traffic; the sea’s luminescence is like the neon of a night club. Her two worlds are deeply intertwined and represent not the two extremes of living that she thought they did, but different ways of engaging with the same reality.

The book’s title comes from an Orcadian field name, the outrun being the largest field at the top of farm where the ewes and their lambs graze in summer and where the Highland cattle overwinter. But to ‘out run’ something means to race away from it, to reach a safe place by being fleeter of foot than one’s pursuer. And there is a chase at the heart of the book, but perhaps not the one you’d expect.

2016-01-27 23.09.25The narratives of chased and chasing are familiar to me from another autobiography of alcoholism and depression, Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain. Both describe the out-of-control searching for something at the bottom of a bottle, the desperate efforts to escape from or to a place by being the drunken sailor on a tipsy ocean. But where as Lewis’ drinking is an attempt to outrun her own depression (and her mother’s), Liptrot’s seems to be an attempt to catch up with the violent mood swings of her father, to mimic the highest highs and terrible lows that shaped her childhood. She’s almost drinking to outrun him, not herself, to go higher and faster and giddier with each bottle.

I completely understand this drinking and behaving recklessly to make your moods match what you think they should be. Like Lewis and Liptrot, I too had a period of mental illness in my twenties – I was sectioned in a Japanese psychiatric hospital when I was 22, spending weeks living in the men’s ward there because the women’s ward was full. I couldn’t be trusted to fly back to Britain alone, but I wasn’t safe enough to look after myself. When I got home my parents were kind and concerned, encouraging me to visit old friends and work in small easy jobs like gardening. But for months I felt worse instead of better, drawn to the edge of station platforms and feeling like an enormous hole had opened up where my heart had once been. I couldn’t understand what I’d done to make me feel so bad, and so I tried to give myself reasons for feeling awful, so that there was some understandable correlation between my extreme emotions and my reality. I smashed up my mother’s bedroom, stole money from my parents, ran away from a kind friend’s family who offered to let me live with them in London whilst I did a journalism course, and stayed in hotels knowing that I had no money to pay for the room, leaving early before the receptionist took up her guard post by the front door. I would disappear overnight, travelling without train tickets to places I had no wish to go. After a few months of this, I felt like I had enough reasons to feel justifiably awful, and agreed to go to see a psychotherapist to talk about what had happened. It was only then that my life started to swim back into focus, and my feelings started to line up more closely with what was really happening to me.

In Lewis’ words, which I read obsessively during my own rehabilitation, I was ‘coming back to my senses’. This realisation that sanity lies close to one’s physical senses is shared with Liptrot, and I loved hearing about how her new sober world expanded beneath her finger tips, under her toes when she swims in the sea, above her ears and her eyes as the birds and the weather freewheel above her. She becomes fiercely observing of the natural world, working for the RSPB counting corncrakes and inhabiting a tiny pink cottage on the even remoter island of Papa Westray during the winter. Her senses are sharp and raw, but she can trust them, and she uses them to inch herself to her life. Her writing seems like an extension of those sensory experiences: natural, fascinating, and utterly keen.

 

Want to hear another opinion? Try Cathy Rentzenbrink over at The Pool, the Guardian’s review by Katharine Norbury, and the Scotman’s by Stuart Kelly. If you can’t get your hands on a copy of the book, you can listen to it being read by Tracy Wiles on BBC 4 Extra until the end of February. As well as reading the book, on 2nd February I’m going to hear Liptrot read from and talk about her book at Waterstone’s on Edinburgh’s Princes Street – she’s doing a tour up and down the country, so why not try and catch her if you can?

A Larsson Love Affair

One of the first biographies to fully transport me to a different world was a book belonging to my best friend. Her family were a bit of a rarity for Suffolk in the 1990s: they were half-German,  my friend’s mother having been brought up by her Berliner grandmother. The family spoke little bits of the German she learned as a child, peppering their conversation with words like ‘Bäuchlein’ meaning tummy, instead of the standard German ‘Magen’ for stomach. This caused no little embarrassment when it came to learning German at  secondary school; at the age of twelve nobody wants to be saying things like ‘My favourite animal is a teddy bear’ to their stern and rather austere teacher.

As well as giving us a head start in German baby talk, my friend’s mother also passed on her fascination with Northern European culture. She was a great appreciator of art and antiques, filling the house with books, pictures and other objet d’art with a distinctly European flavour. Once, rather thrillingly, she took us out of school for a day to help haul the family’s paintings and trinkets to a nearby stately home to be valued on the Antiques Roadshow. Alas, nothing was found to be of great financial worth, but her status as a connoisseur of culture was firmly established in our minds.

One of her favourite artists was the Swede Carl Larsson, not only because of the lifelike skill of his drawings but also for his idyllic depictions of family life. When visiting, I loved to sit with the family’s big hardback illustrated Carl Larsson biography,  spending hours pouring over the pictures. The book took the form of roughly chronological life-writing interspersed with beautiful reproductions of Larsson’s paintings. Larsson had a large, messy, happy, creative home and family, both of which provided the inspiration for almost all his work. It was always difficult to choose a favourite picture as I always wanted to be living inside his world, but three strong contenders were:

  1. Namnsdag på härbret, 1898 (“Name-day at the storage house“)

Namnsdag_på_härbret_av_Carl_Larsson_1898

Larsson’s picture highlights the Swedish traditions associated with ‘namnsdagen’ or name-days, the origins of which lie in the mediaeval calendar of Christian saints. Name-days are an important part of Nordic culture and are still celebrated in Denmark (navnedag), Finland (nimipäivä), Sweden (namnsdag) and Norway (navnedag).
If you look to the left of the picture, you will see a tray being carried into the name-day celebrant’s bedroom. On it would typically be coffee – look closely and you’ll just see the top of the pot – and a special cake, just as we would have for a birthday. The children are dressed in traditional costume and bear flowers and greenery and at the very bottom corner is a man accompanying the procession on a violin. I also love the lay-a-bed on the right-hand side: are they a guest who over-indulged the night before, or a teenager reluctant to rise? Either way, I’m very envious of their wooden recessed bed.
You can read more about how name-days came to be at My Little Norway and Watching The Swedes, and find your own Swedish name-day at Dagens Namnsdag. Mine falls on 31st March, a satisfying half-year from my actual birthday.

 

2) Krebsfang (“Crayfishing with the family”)

Krebsfang
Outdoor crayfish parties are a big part of Swedish culture. For hundreds of years, friends and family have gathered together to catch and cook crayfish during August, when the summer sun starts to wane and the beginning of the new school year draws close. These parties take place in the late afternoon and early evening, sat outside those seasonal summer houses beloved of many Swedish families during the long white nights.
Larsson’s watercolour leaves no detail unrecorded: on the table is a pile of freshly-cooked crayfish, which have just been boiled in the big cauldron leaning against the tree by the water’s edge. A bottle of schnapps and a little glass for this strong liquor is to hand, and in the background the whole family is involved in catching the crustaceans with nets, line and pots. Mamma makes a pot of fresh coffee over an open fire, and there is an enticing loaf of bread ready to soak up the liquid in which the crayfish have been cooked. Who wouldn’t want to crack open a claw, raise a glass of schnapps and while away a few hours at the Larsson’s outdoor table?

If you want to get a better sense of what Swedish crayfish parties are like today, then take a look at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s visit to Sweden in his excellent Scandimania series http://www.channel4.com/programmes/scandimania/videos/all/s1-ep1-crayfish-party.

3) Julaftonen, 1904 – 1905 (“Christmas Eve”)

Julaftonen_av_Carl_Larsson_1904

‘Christmas Eve’ provides a seasonal counterpoint to ‘Crayfishing with the family’: everyone is gathered for a celebration, but this time the party is inside and lit by candles and firelight. As with other European countries including Poland, Christmas Eve is the main day for family Christmas celebrations in Sweden.

At the front of the picture is a young woman, her clothes covered with a maid’s apron and cap, holding out a lidded stein full of what looks like foaming ale. On the table are more jugs, mugs and glasses, ready to be filled from the ale cask on the right of the picture. Behind these is the smörgåsbord: a rich feast of dishes which includes a large glazed ham, ready to be sliced, boiled potatoes and what could be a plate of lutfisk, a dish made from dried ling – the cat under the table is raising her paw to signal her interest!

To find out more about Christmas celebrations in Sweden today, take a look at https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/christmas/

These pictures highlight a couple of aspects of Nordic culture which really appeal to me: a strong sense of the importance of family (and a work culture which supports this), traditions which reflect the Nordic seasons, and a love of a good party with plenty of food, drink and fine company.

One day I’d love to visit Larsson’s home Lilla Hyttnäs at Sundborn, but until then I’ll have to content myself with looking at Larsson’s pictures and the Larsson museum’s website (in English): http://www.clg.se/enstart.aspx

This piece was originally published on nordicnarratives.wordpress.com

Lives in a Landscape

One of my favourite types of life-writing is the exploration of a particular life through a person’s connection to the landscape. Wordsworth does it for the first time English literature in the Prelude, his posthumously published 10,000 line epic on his own life, though I prefer his Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon, which for me perfectly encapsulates both the continuity between a person’s life and the place they love and the fact that we become shaped by those relationships.

Duddon Valley, Easter 2015

Duddon Valley, Easter 2015

Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon

I thought of Thee, my partner and my guide,
As being past away.—Vain sympathies!
For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,
I see what was, and is, and will abide;
Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;
The Form remains, the Function never dies;
While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,
We Men, who in our morn of youth defied
The elements, must vanish;—be it so!
Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.
You can find out more about Wordsworth and the River Duddon on the Wordsworth Trust’s excellent Romanticism blog.
The book was eventually called 'A Time of Gifts'

Patrick Leigh Fermour’s A Time of Gifts

On this blog I have already explored the place/person interaction for Hannah Hauxwell, Monty Don, Sarah Moss, and Patrick Leigh Fermour, but I haven’t really explored the potential for other media outside books to articulate those experiences. But to my unexpected joy, I have just discovered a wonderful radio programme that charts how a person’s interaction with a places shapes and chanegs them both – perfect.
Friday morning saw me dashing around to schools across Edinburgh, frantically delivering Nairn’s oatcakes to schools who had been highly commended in a competition I ran through work. From Newcraighall to Forthview, I zoomed about in my little mint-opal Honda Jazz (nick-named the Duchess), battling traffic jams and delivery lorries to offload the oatcakes. Usually I would have found this hugely frustrating, but because it was also Friday in the world of Radio 4, I was very happy to sit and listen to Desert Island Discs (which has to be my all-time favourite radio programme), then Woman’s Hour (another regular listen), and then – Lives in a Landscape came on, and I was hooked.

Lives in a Landscape looks at ordinary people and their relationship with particular places. Each programme lasts 30 minutes and the series has looked at iconic British locations from Glastonbury to the River Cam alongside places which are important to their communities, but not widely famous: a primary school in West Yorkshire, the Fal estuary in Cornwall, a pub in Luton. Each little vignette beautifully articulates the importance of people and places, whether it be through farming, fishing, or simply living in and loving a particular environment. Community is at the heart of many of the programmes, giving the series a warm and inclusive feel, even when dealing with the most tragic of events.

The episode I listened to started with the harrowing tale of Claire Throssall, whose estranged husband murdered her children and destroyed the family’s home in a meticulously planned house fire, robbing her of her family and her future in one stroke. However, the programme focussed on the Penistone community’s response to this tragedy, from the church lending Claire their piano so she could play and thereby retain a certain sense of her identity, to hundreds of volunteers who have been working to rebuild her home so that she can sell what was a gutted shell (her husband had cancelled the insurance before the blaze) and rebuild some semblance of a normal life. You can listen via the BBC i-player here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06mv2nb

Although Claire’s experience is an extreme and upsetting one, the programme makes excellent use of interviews with the remaining Throssall family and the local Penistone population, so that it feels like they are really telling their own story, rather than going through the mouth-piece of a presenter. A little democratic gem on a Friday morning – or, thanks to the wonders of the internet, at any time you please – there are 21 series with 56 episodes!

Birthday biographies

October is always my favourite month, but I especially adored it this year because it was a Big Birthday and therefore meant a big o’ knees-up was due.

Yorkshire Dales birthday bash...and some very silly costumes

Yorkshire Dales birthday bash…and some very silly costumes

30 friends and family converged on a converted schoolhouse bunkbarn in the Yorkshire Dales for an Old Skool Bunkhouse Bash, complete with ‘old skool’ costumes, 4 cakes and 198 pints of beer. Not everyone was able to take part in lots of booze and silliness, but thank you to all my friends for their best wishes, cards, presents and general friendship. You guys.

As well as the party, I also went to the theatre (twice!) to see an adaptation of Daphne Du Marier’s Rebecca and a National Theatre Encore screening of Hamlet starring old Benedict Cumberbatch. Both theatre trips were preceded by dinner, drinks and lots of cards and presents. And some of these were books of biography. (Hurrah!)

Tove JanssonFirst, the latest biography of Tove Jansson. I had read Boel Westin’s Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words in January 2014 (and blogged about my journey through delight to disappointment as it progressed here) and knew that there was a new Tove book on the market, so was very excited to receive  Tuula Karjalainen‘s Tove Jansson: Work and Love from my good friend Stuck-In-A-Book, who followed this treat up with…

My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty Gunn: a literary biography – sort of! SIaB loves KM, but (shush or he’ll hear) I’ve never read a word by her. Kirsty GunnThis might well be my perfect introduction to a new-to-me author, as it combines Kirsty Gunn’s autobiographical exploration of Mansfield’s (and her own) home town of Wellington, NZ, along with ‘the profound influence of Mansfield’s work on [Gunn’s] own creative journey’.

Can’t wait to get stuck in to both of these beautiful books. Thanks SIaB, and happy birthday for yesterday yourself!

Where Lemons Grow

I’ve always been a fan of lemons as a flavour: as a child my favourite ‘treat’ drink was Schweppes Bitter Lemon, which always seemed mouth-puckeirngly sour at the time, but now seems quite sweet to my adult palate! But in the last month I’ve read two books about lemons, and have become fascinated with everything about them – their origins, scent, how they grow, and what to make with them in the kitchen. Here follows the beginning of my journey of discovery…

First, I got sick and had to spend a few days in bed feeling sorry for myself, so the husband, bought me a book to cheer me up and distract me from my immune system’s struggles. Driving Over LemonsThis was Driving Over Lemons – An Optimist in Andalucia. Well, they do say you should take in plenty of citrus fruits when you’re ill, right? The author, Chris Stewart, was originally the drummer in Genesis, but that means almost nothing to me and indeed I didn’t realise that was the case until I’d finished the book and was reading the author interview hidden away at the back. The book chronicles Chris’s decision to move with his family to Spain, buying a derelict farm called El Valero and making a new life for themselves in the Andalucian hills. It’s basically A Year in Provence, but further south and set over a longer period. Jolly, gently humourous and the perfect antidote to modern city living, it transports you rural Spain in a miasma of joie de vivre – but the lemons, though omnipresent and heavily scented, provide only the backdrop to the main narrative of family life.

IMG_0095

Beautifully bright Bosa

A few days after finishing Driving over Lemons and feeling fully recovered, the husband and I found ourselves in Sardinia.  Moving house and starting a new job which required working throughout August meant that this was our first holiday this year, so it was magical to be away somewhere beautiful and sunny for two whole weeks. We stayed in Bosa, a Phoenician hill town, for 9 days, then had 4 days in an agriturismo not far from the coast. We’d  been to Sardinia for our honeymoon last year, and had such a marvellous time that we couldn’t wait to go back – it didn’t disappoint!

The land which makes liqueur from lemons...

The land which makes liqueur from lemons…

As ever when on holiday, I had brought plenty of reading material, but chief among them was Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow. I’d bought this book for the husband for his birthday back in June, lured in by the beauty of the cover and happy memories of our honeymoon, and he’d raved about it all the way through, sharing so many delicious snippets of citrussy information that I already felt quite familiar with it by the time it came to read it for myself. I’d been deliberately resisting starting it before the holiday, as when I travel I like to try to read books set in the places I’m visiting, to more thoroughly experience the place not only geographically, but culturally and historically too. Technically, the book focusses mostly on Sicily and mainland Italy, but Sardinia’s just a stone’s throw further into the Mediterranean – so close enough!

Attlee is a garden expert by trade, leading tours and writing books on Italian gardens. She obviously adores plants in all their splendid variety, but it is the citrus family which has really captured her imagination. Although the title makes specific reference to just one member of this family, Attlee’s book covers the whole gamut of the genus, from the three original citrus fruits (pomelo, citron and mandarin) to hundreds of different sub-species.

IMG_0688

Drinking citron fizz in the sunshine

From the Medici to the Mafia, we discover that citrus lies at the heart of Italy’s economy and gastronomy since at least the 6th century. I was also introduced to several fruits I’d never even heard of: the chinotto, a small bitter citrus used to flavour drinks and sweets; and bergamot, the name of which I knew but which I had believed, rather erroneously, to be a herb. It is in fact an inedible citrus fruit whose powerfully fragrant essential oils form the basis for Eau De Cologne, and have done ever since the perfume was first invented by Johann Maria Farina in 1709.

Attlee’s writing is pitch-perfect, balancing the academic with the anecdotal to create a whole which is so fascinating that when I’d finished, I immediately turned back to the first page and started reading it again. Although she is narrating the tale of citrus development throughout history, the book’s form is non-linear and moves effortlessly between place and time – in some books this jars or can confuse the less expert reader (such as myself), but in Attlee’s hands these connected stories simply weave in and out of each other to create a truly rich and vibrant text.

Tagliolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone

Tagliolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone

The book also inspired us to seek out the more unusual citrus fruits we’d read about – and we found both chinotto, in the form of a drink made by San Pellegrino, and citron – again as a drink (see photo above.) We also saw a pomelo in the supermarket, but it was so huge that we stopped short of buying it as we didn’t fancy trying to chop it up with our tiny kit knife. But we did try Attlee’s delicious recipe for pasta with orange and lemon – very unusual but well worth a taste.

The Land Where Lemons Grow is a definite contender for my favourite book of the year – if you’ve read it, let me know what you think, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Hie thee to a (good independent) bookshop!

Research, Live, Write, Repeat

I’ve not blogged much about the book I’m writing at the moment. Partly because there’s not much to say about it yet, partly because I’m not sure what shape it will finally take. But the process of constructing it (and at the moment it feels very much like the scaffolding’s just been put up) is quite fascinating in its own right – well, to me at least. It’s a little tricky to fit research and writing around the full-time job (and, you know, having a life) but I do find it interesting and absorbing. It also means I can honestly say ‘I’m writing a book’! So this is a little post about what I’ve discovered so far on my quest to become a fully-fledged biographer.

First, there’s the hours spent in the archives, riffling through boxes, reading old letters and trying to decipher generations of family trees.Basically, it’s being legitimately nosy.

Someone should have installed an inergen system (museum nerd joke)

Someone should have installed an inergen system (museum nerd joke)

I’ve absolutely adored it – one big surprise was to discover that the main archives that I’m using had a pretty serious fire in 2009, so several boxes of documents are singed and everything still smells of smoke, even six years later. An earnest archivist has done their best to neaten up the documents by cutting off the worst of the burned bits, but the trouble with this is that it makes any attempt at deciphering the damaged writing impossible, as the top part of each page is often missing entirely.

A little friend in the archives

A little friend in the archives

On the plus side, I’ve discovered some lovely little sketches in the margins of pages: look at this little chap!

Although this is a poet’s archive, a lot of the poet’s early manuscripts were written on medical notepaper or discarded hospital paperwork. Patient lists, notes between doctors, clinic timings: my subject was a medical receptionist so she had a lot of this kind of waste paper to hand to jot down ideas and drafts for her poems. It’s all over 30 years old now, but it does give one that eerie feeling of distant proximity to people’s private lives, even those who are only incidental, tiny players in the story of another life. Man Hat1The hospital she worked at in the 1970s and 1980s specialised in neurology so typed words like hydrocephalus, anosmia, and neurosyphilis show through the page, like ghosts under the drafts of poems. The fascination with the ‘neurologically deficient’ that Oliver Sacks describes (his words, not mine) in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat had a clear effect on my subject too: the first poem she ever wrote is one written in anger at a doctor’s treatment of his patients. [As an aside, you can read a brilliant review of that book over on Stuck In A Book!]

I’m also discovering that you can’t rely on books or newspapers or even obituaries to give you facts. To date, errors and omissions have included:

  • omitting someone’s life-affirming second marriage and mentioning only the first short-lived one, in a national newspaper
  • claiming someone went to a fairly famous school (which in its turn has absolutely no record of them ever having been there)
  • suggesting that someone was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, when the official court transcripts and lists of people present makes no mention of them

It remains to be seen whether I can unearth any truths behind these ‘untruths’, but I  have discovered a few surprises, from unexpected illegitimate children to family feuds spanning over 40 years. Trying to separate what really happened from what people say has happened is time-consuming and I’ll never be 100% certain that I’ve got it right myself, but I love being drawn down the biographical rabbit hole.

That’s about all I can say for now, but I have now at least completed a 5,000 draft of the first chapter: the beginning is begun, now only the remaining 95,000 words of its middle and end to go…

Hannah Hauxwell

A few years ago I was holiday in Shropshire with a group of friends from university, having a cheeky free holiday in a cottage belonging to one of their aged relatives. Hannah HauxwellOne wet day we went in to Shrewsbury, intent on warming ourselves up with the finest Shropshire ale. En route to a boozy establishment, we could not resist the lure of a charity shop (two of the group are ardent bargain rootlers) and there I found Hannah, a biography of Yorkshire woman Hannah Hauxwell. Although I had no idea who she was, a quick flick through told me that this was a rural history biography, a genre of which I am inordinately fond, so I parted with £2 and Hannah was mine.

Having grown up without a television in the house, popular cultural phenomena of the late twentieth century generally passed me by. This included Hannah Hauxwell’s landmark appearance on Yorkshire Television’s Too Long A Winter. If you too were similarly culturally deprived, or simply too young to remember 1973 (actually, this includes me), you can meet Hannah here:

Hannah’s life is unimagineable demanding by today’s standards, and even by those of the 1970s. No running water, no electricity, complete isolation, food hung in bags to keep the rats off: then in her forties, she looked decades older. But what charmed her audience, then as now, was the deep calm and sense of almost childlike wonder with which she viewed the world. She is almost Wordsworthian in her lyric connection to the landscape, her inflection and gentle turn of phrase belonging to a different era.

The book itself is a compilation volume written by television producer Barry Cockcroft over the thirty years that he worked with Hannah. It is interspersed with photos from Hannah’s family albumn, but also contains some wonderful images from Beamish, the living museum of the north, showing life in the Yorkshire Dales.

Walker children at Briars Dyke, Baldersdale (Beamish Museum's People's Collection)

Walker children at Briars Dyke, Baldersdale (Beamish Museum’s People’s Collection)

Many of them have been digitised in their ‘People’s Collection’ project – have a look for yourself here: www.beamish.org.uk/collections/. You can also see a selection of photographs of Hannah published by the Yorkshire Post on the occasion of her 85th birthday, and read about her in People of Yorkshire, volume 7.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the hardship she endured for most of her life, Hannah is still alive and has just celebrated her 89th birthday. She now lives at Cotherstone, a few miles from Baldersdale, and has travelled all over the world in the years since she moved there. But Hannah’s name lives on in Baldersdale, for when she sold her farm a conservation charity was able to buy some of the meadowland. They realised that because Hannah’s family had never used artificial fertiliser on the land, it was a haven of wild flowers, unusual grasses and rare animals.

Hannah's meadow, Baldersdale by Ashley Columbus

Hannah’s meadow, Baldersdale by Ashley Columbus

They called it ‘Hannah’s Meadow’ and you make a pilgrimage there thanks to the Durham Wildlife Trust: durhamwildlifetrust.org.uk/visitor-centres/hannahs/

I went a year or so ago, on a wet grey autumn day – and even then it was beautiful.

The Jewel Garden

I don’t read many books about gardening. Scratch that, I have almost never read a book about gardening. But I absolutely adore gardens, and the moment I picked up Monty and Sarah Don’s The Jewel Garden the photographs alone transported me to the type of country garden I love best: a little unruly, abundant and colourful.

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

The book is a dual biography, with the two author/subjects taking it in turns to tell parts of their story. Sometimes the narrative switches at every paragraph; sometimes you get pages of Monty followed by pages of Sarah. Incidentally, Monty is Don’s stage name, the moniker of his public persona; his family all call him Montagu. Him I recognised from the TV programmes, and I knew about Sarah from their book Fork to Fork, but what I didn’t know was that they had been fashionable jewellery designers in Knightsbridge before leaving the rat race for the good life in Herefordshire. They fell in love at Cambridge, where Monty was an older-than-average English undergraduate and Sarah already married to an academic biologist.

Clematis Niobe © RHS

The vivid jewel-like Clematis Niobe © RHS

She left her husband for the earthy charms of this passionate younger man, and their marriage has survived 32 years, the collapse of their business and Monty’s countless periods of depression. Their life together in the jewellery trade inspires the creation of the eponymous Jewel Garden, reflecting the ‘jewel’, ‘brights’, ‘pastels’ and ‘crystal’ of gem stones. The descriptions of creating their Herefordshire garden following the desperate years of the business’ collapse are lyric and uplifting. For me, these passages spark both memory and fantasy.

Farm Cottage as we knew it

The farm cottage as we knew it

The memories are of the great country house estate garden where my father worked and which his children were lucky enough to have as an outdoor extension of their imaginations. We lived in a tied farm cottage on the edge of the estate, but we nearly didn’t live there at all. Much like for the Dons, our move created triumph from disaster, but only just. In 1990 my father’s business went bankrupt (at almost exactly the same time as the Dons) and with it came the repossession of our house, surety against the  business loan. My mother was working part-time for a large country estate, and her employers took pity on the family, allowing us to live in the cottage and employing my father as a gardener. The cottage itself was nothing special – only the width of one room and perishingly cold in winter – but the real bonus was the proximity of the estate’s great Victorian walled garden.

The main estate house with garden

The main estate house with garden

Peach trees espaliered down the red brick garden walls, gooseberry bushes huddled in shallow border lined with ancient up-ended green glass bottles, and every section of the garden was edged in ancient box. A sunken greenhouse hunkered down in the middle, where my dad grew his prize-winning tomatoes with their sweet pungent summer scent, and by the gate grew an immense bush of lemon balm mint, through which I ran my fingers on the way to school and back each day. Although that garden was a hundred years or more older than the one the Dons created (and further east by the entire width of England), the feeling of being subsumed into the verdant Englishness of the country garden is the same.

Oriental Poppy © RHS

Oriental Poppy © RHS

This is where the fantasy side begins: I of course want to create something like the Dons’ Jewel Garden now, as an adult about the same age as the Dons when they first moved to Herefordshire. As someone born in the country but living in a city, I want to wake to feel the frost on the window pane, to be able to walk out into my own garden and pick the flowers and fruit I have grown. I want to have the space to create something organic and beautiful and a little wild. I’ve always been a sucker for The Good Life and this book encourages me further. Of course, like most armchair gardeners I have very little skill or knowledge when it comes to the practicalities of making a garden. Although I did spend a lot of time in the garden with my father as a child, it was to indulge in all the outdoor pursuits best-loved by children: picking raspberries, eating tomatoes fresh from the vine, and playing hide and seek behind the hedges.

Rosa moyesii ® David Austin

Rosa moyesii ® David Austin

At nearly 30, my vocabulary is the limited one of a town-dweller. A rose for me is just that, but for the Dons it is always a r. hugonis or a r. cantabrigiensis in the spring, or a r. moyesii or r. sericea pteracantha in the high summer.

Rosa Hugonis ®  David Austin

Rosa Hugonis ® David Austin

Poppies are opium, Welsh or oriental; clematis ‘Gipsy Queen’ or ‘Niobe’. The vocabulary is intoxicating in its precision; it embodies the history, imagination and passion of thousands of antecedent gardeners. Although I can’t imagine what each individual variety looks like precisely, I can imagine the sweetness of their scent and the giddy sense of sheer vibrant life that they give off. This is what The Jewel Garden enables its readers to do: build the beautiful imagined gardens of their memories and dreams, without any of the back-breaking hard work that would have to go into it in real life.

Rosa Cantabrigiensis ® David Austin

Rosa Cantabrigiensis ® David Austin

The Dons have done the groundwork for us, and the result is beguiling.

Book Crossing in Kinlochard

Thanks Stilring County library...

Boat-bottom at Loch Ard

This week at work I’ve been recommending Book Crossing to teachers and parents, but all the while never having actually participated in it. But that has now changed – thanks to the hand of fate on a sunny Saturday in Kinlochard.

Bright and early on Saturday morning the husband and I set off for a walk up Ben Venue, determined to make the most of the sunshine forecasted. About half an hour in, I was seriously struggling – heavy of breath, light of head, sweaty of brow – and had to have a rest by a scenic pool. I’d been feeling sore of throat all week, and this seemed to suggest that I have some lingering bug in my system.

Flowers by Scott's pool

Flowers by Scott’s pool

So I baled just after the beautiful pool by which Walter Scott sat and wrote Rob Roy, and retraced my steps back to the village of Kinlochard, leaving the intrepid husband to scale the summit.

After a reviving cup of tea at the Wee Blether Tearoom (oh ok, and a slice of delicious cranchan cake – they also gave me three free hot water top-ups which is always much appreciated, particularly when one is a lone traveller) I wandered along through the village, until I came across this:

Thanks Stirling County Library...

Thanks Stirling County Library…!

Beautiful boxes full of books! There was a donation box next to these, for anyone who was feeling charitable towards the survivors of the Nepal Earthquake, and I flung in a handful of change in exchange for Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello. The owner of the boxes was sunning herself in the porch of this beautiful house:

The beautiful house which also provided the book

The beautiful house which also provided the book

and I shouted a cheery ‘thank you’ over the gate after my lenghty deliberation over which one to choose. I then took my choice off to the lake shore for a read in the sunshine.

It was a perfect warm day for reading in a secluded spot, and I was completely thrilled to discover upon opening it that I had unwittingly picked up my first Book Croosing tome! It has only just started on its journey, but I am looking forward to depositing it somewhere once I’ve finished it, and then sending it on its merry way. Huge thanks to the generous ProfKen who started me on by Book Crossing journey.

Lakeside reading spot

Lakeside reading spot

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After the beauties of Book Crossing, we then headed out to that remote literary spot, Inversnaid of Gerald Manley Hopkins fame. It’s one of my favourite-ever poems, and even my glaciologist husband can recite large chunks of it, he’s heard it so often. Here it is for you to enjoy, along with a couple of pictures from the rest of this marvellous day:

Inversnaid

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

This darksome burn, horseback brown

The infamous darksome burn

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

Broken butterfly at Loch Ard

Broken butterfly at Loch Ard

Now – tell me about your Book Crossing adventures and discoveries…

A Very Scottish Centurion

I’ve never managed to complete A Century in Books. For a start, I have gluts of books for certain years (post 2010 is particularly strong, perhaps something to do with the fact I’ve only been in well-ish paying jobs since then), but hardly anything from between 1850 and 1950, Hardy and Dickens excepted. I am also dreadful at sticking to things – or remembering to stick to them at least! books

So perhaps it is a fool’s errand to try something like this again, but The List’s list of 100 Best Scottish Books has caught my eye. I am partly persuaded by the fact my job requires me to know about Scottish literature, and I don’t. Well, I know a bit about Burns and the Blackwood’s group, and a smattering about Scott and Stevenson, but that’s about it. Everyone else in my office (both of them) is hugely well-versed in Scotland’s literary output, particularly that of the last 50 years, and I just ain’t. So I think it’s probably time I donned my reading specs (who am I kidding, I need these bad boys for everything from walking across the room to knitting) and began to address my gaps in knowledge.

Of the 100 on the list, I have aleady read the following:

The Citadel, A.J. Cronin (1937) – I seem to remember that this was set in Wales, though Google informs me the protagonist and the author were both Scots. Apparently the book helped secure the landslide Labour victory of 1945: no small achievement on anyone’s part.

Confessions of An English Opium Easter, Thomas De Quincey (1822) – a very familiar friend, Thomas De Quincey has been an almost daily part of my life since I first came to work at Dove Cottage in 2009. The manuscript of Confessions is kept in the Wordsworth Museum, heavily dewed with mysterious brown stains. Scholars had long hoped that these drops were of laudanum, but following tests they were found to be nothing more than coffee, no doubt spilled when De Quincey was writing in that most fashionable of Regency dives, the coffee house.

Electric Brae, Andrew Greig (1997) – I adored this book, the first of Greig’s novels I encountered. I read it whilst living in Ayrshire, and sought out the eponymous brae, just south of Ayr – which does indeed do strange things to ones perceptions of where roads should go. Greig does likewise with his writing.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1997) – I remember when this book came out: I was 11 and I was given a copy as part of our middle school book group. I hated the first couple of chapters, and gave it up as a bad job. Then, as the series became stratospherically popular, I returned to them and fell in love, reading each one in pretty much one sitting as they came out. Deathly Hallows was published just after I finished my undergraduate English degree, so I was very much of that generation growing up alongside Harry, Hermione and Ron.

Imagined Corners, Willa Muir (1931) – a friend who moved to Scotland a few years before I did recommended this book to me when I was struggling to fit in to life in a small Ayrshire town – and boy did it resonate with me, even 80 years after it was written.

1984, George Orwell (1949) – I first read this in my second term at university, struggling to write a coherent essay on dystopian fiction. It made me feel uneasy but it is quite amazing to think that it was written over 60 years ago, making its prophecies all the more remarkable.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith (1998) – my mum and grandma are huge Sandy fans, and I galloped through the series (eight books strong as it was at the time) in a few angsty summer weeks whilst living back at home after university. Funny, buoyant, jolly – just the tonic after an Oxford education.

 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (1961) – I live about 200 metres from Muriel Spark’s old house (well, flat), and walk past the inspiration for Marcia Blane’s every day. I loved this book, and also adored Spark’s recent biography by Martin Stannard.

The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg (1824) – ahhh Confessions, the book which first drew me to the Blackwood’s group and upon which I based my undergraduate thesis. I’m currently planning a pilgrimage out to Tibbie Shiel’s

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) – I’ve just read this book twice, once in preparation for my recent job interview, and then again on the suggestion of my boss once I had started. Suffice to say there was plenty I had skimmed over on first reading!

Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1932) – I adore everything about this book, and indeed the whole trilogy. I found the Scots surprisingly easy to read – in fact it really made the book more beautiful. Now I just need to own a copy which hasn’t been printed on something like lavatory paper in a size 8 font.

Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh (1993) – a friend from Ayrshire lent me this, and it made my stomach churn in ways both good and bad. Like Sunset Song, the Scots is such an intrinsic part of the book that it would be unimagineable in standard English.

12 down, 88 to go… I’ll keep you posted!

Mapping literary landscapes

litlong

Lit Long map page

Today’s post is just a brief one – up to my eyeballs in work-related reading, which no doubt will get distilled into a post or two once I’ve had time to think and digest. Getting my head round all of Edinburgh’s literary history is no small task, but I have a found a wonderful thing to help: Lit Long.

As part of the Palimpsest project, the universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen have created a huge literary database of place-name mentions from books set in Edinburgh, visually mapping this onto the city: in their words: ‘you can walk your own path through the resonant locations of literary Edinburgh.’ Click on the link to have a go – it is fascinating, particularly for those who love Edinburgh and her literature.

I’ve not come across a literature-centred project like this before, only historical ones like Locating London’s Past or decorative ones like Geoff Sawers’ Literary Map of Great Britain (which is beautiful and unowned as yet by me…just sayin’!) and its little sister, Literary London. I find it fascinating to bring together the written word with the phsyical space, making the psychogeography of places visually apparent.

Literary London

Literary London

Does anyone else know of projects elsewhere which directly connected specific locations with their geographic counterparts? I can think of a few more locations ripe for the mapping: Grasmere and the central Lake District (one for you I think, Wordsworth Trust), Paris, Norwich… any other suggestions?

Rooted in the distant past

Shepherds: not a group of people we often hear from, not a group of people many of us really know. The term is an archaic one, as there are few people in the UK who simply look after sheep these days, yet they crop up again and again in our culture and language. Our word ‘pastoral’ is taken directly from them (the Latin pastor meaning ‘shepherd’); they can be faithfully found draped in tea towels every December in school and village hall nativities; we make pies named after them; and those of us who are that way inclined are familiar with a drop of Shepherd’s Neame to boot.

John Clare portrayed their lives in the 19th century in The Shepherd’s Calendar; a few years earlier, Wordsworth had taken a early punt at popularising the pastoral way of life as he saw it, on the cusp of being subsumed into those infamously satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Not that either poet was a farmer himself, though Clare was far closer to the land, having worked as an agricultural labourer.

Newland's Valley. shaped by 100 years of farming

Newland’s Valley. shaped by 1000 years of farming

As the son of a lawyer, Wordsworth preferred to spend his time wandering about the landscape on which his fellowmen worked themselves to death, but Michael shows that he understood the yeoman farmer’s deep tie to the land. Their life and work utterly rooted them, and once that tie between themselves, their land and the next generation had been broken then something would be lost for ever.

Shepherds today, whilst being fewer than ever, are certainly much more vocal. Alison O’Neill has carved out a niece as The Shepherdess, and top of the Times best-seller list a few weeks ago is The Shepherd’s Life, the tale of the life of Cumbrian farmer James Rebanks. If you haven’t read it yet, you can listen to it on BBC 4 (albeit in abridged form). It is a fascinating read (or listen), being much more than simply the life story of 21st century man. Rebanks is well aware of his historical and cultural place as a shepherd: Wordsworth and ‘those tourists’ both get a nod as he stands ‘daydreaming like a bloody poet or day-tripper’.

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

Sunrise over Rydal, Cumbria

He effortless elevates the language of his farming life to a quasi-religious state: ‘making good hay is like a commandment from God’. He follows those ‘threads of understanding’ which link him not just to his own forebears but to a thousand years of history and culture relating to the land which he farms. It is the book of a lifetime and no doubt will be as popular with those who have never met a shepherd and those who spend every day heaving sheep around alike.

I am intrigued by the book because one particular shepherd had a definite influence on my life. When I was five my father’s business collapsed and we had to move from our own heavily-mortgaged house to a rented cottage, tied like a tired balloon to the edge of an old family estate. In years gone by one half of it had been a dairy, and the house still had two front doors, one for the milk and one for the people. The whole house was only one room wide: a single stroke of flint, bricks and mortar. My bedroom was directly over the old dairy, now used as a kitchen, and on winter days the wind rustled up through the floor boards, which had nothing but newspapers packed below them for insulation. The house was called Farm Cottage: for that’s what it was, a cottage on a working farm.

In this cottage, the kitchen might now hold an abandoned or orphaned ‘pet’ lamb, one so tiny that it needed the warmth of our cooker and milk dispensed from a grubby bottle. Whilst I made my breakfast it might urgently head-butt my leg until I fed it, and would then proceed to pee all over the floor, carefully missing the newspaper laid down for soaking up these torrents. I loved these lambs because they needed me.

Herdwick sheep, raddled

Herdwick sheep, raddled

I was scared of the huge cows which ambled past the window every day, shit streaming from their tails, and I wasn’t too keen on the adult sheep with their vacant eyes and propensity to drop down dead at any given moment, but the lambs I adored. I would get up in the night to help with the lambing, trudge through thigh-high snow to feed them in the winter, and stripped down to my vest to helping out with the shearing (the men did it topless but I wasn’t encouraged to follow suit.)

My parents did not run the farm; it was tenant-farmed by an old Herefordshire farmer who seemed absolutely ancient to me at the age of 5, but since he is still farming 21 years later he can’t have been all that old at the time. He had an almost impenetrable accent: in Suffolk, one didn’t meet many (nearly) Welsh people and I couldn’t understand why he sounded so odd. (I had a similar problem with my uncle who was from Yorkshire. We didn’t travel much at that time: holidays were invariable taken on the Norfolk coast.) He smelt funny, his clothes were covered in holes – I was sure I could see his underpants through a tear in the seat of his trousers – and his trousers were held up with a knotted piece of thin orange string. I was soon to realise that holding up trousers was only one of the many uses for the ever-present bailer twine!

We have never once, in all the years our family has known him, called him by his first name. We know it, of course, and his middle names too, which were carefully printed inside his glasses case, held together with sticking plaster. No-one else I knew had any one of those names, let along all three – they were imbued with a sense of spell-like strangeness and we steered clear of speaking them. He had had three wives (two simultaneously, we were told), was a Mormon, and saw women as inferior to men, so that when my brother was big enough to help out on the farm he was paid £5 a day, whereas for the last three years I had done the same work without a penny. This didn’t bother me at the time, but it infuriated my mother!

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

Farm fence at dawn, Grasmere

What I instantly recognised in the shepherds in Rebanks’ book were the same complicated contradictions and inherent antagonistic behaviour that I’d seen in this farmer. The passionate love of animals (one oft-repeated phrase my whole family still use is ‘if I see a sheep, I have to have it’) combined with a hard-edged realism when it came to life and death decisions. The intense competitive need to rear sheep which were better than everyone else’s, juxtaposed with a huge amount of fellow-feeling displayed both at market day over a cup of tea and a greasy bacon roll and whenever another farmer was down on his luck. The desire to be right, to have the courage of your own convictions, but also to take the losses and hardships of the farming life philosophically, to recognise that there is a power beyond the individual when comes through farming that land. Farming allows strong characters to shape their own world, to immerse themselves in the physical rough and tumble of life. It certainly seems to be more than just a way of earning a living; it is a chosen path, and one that cannot be easily turned away from.

Sherlock, Invictus and pirates galore

Having finally settled in to the flat, unpacked the last box and had our first guests round for dinner, the time has come for a little literary update on my new surroundings. On Sunday the husband and I decided to go on a walking tour of literary Edinburgh, partly to get our cultural bearings and also because I had a job interview with UNESCO City of Literature Trust on Tuesday.

Edinburgh's iconic streets

Edinburgh’s iconic streets

Nothing like a bit of interview prep that can be done whilst having a sunny city stroll! The tour was a fascinating 90 minutes of anecdote threaded through the city’s south side, and galloped through the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling – with a fair sprinkling of bookshops and publishers to boot.

My husband has spent much of the last five years working in the Geosciences Building on Drummond Street and was amazed to discover from our guide that not only had it once been a hospital but that W.E. Henley had spent nearly three years of his life there under the watchful eye of a certain Joseph Lister. Now, when we first heard the name Henley neither of us recognised it, but the guide soon brought it to our attention that this was the man behind the poem ‘Invictus’:

Henley had had his leg amputated as part of his treatment for TB, and together with his beard and crutch was the inspiration for literature’s most famous pirate, Long John Silver – Stevenson had apparently carried an armchair on his head through the streets of Edinburgh to sit at his friend’s bedside. But he wasn’t the only member of his family to be immortalised in literature: his daughter Margaret, who died at the tragically young age of five, was the self-anointed ‘Fwendy-Wendy’ to a certain J.M. Barrie – and thereby Peter Pan’s ‘little mother’ was born. We couldn’t believe that there wasn’t more made by of these connections by the university – how great would it be to have ‘I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul’ emblazoned on the gates of the building that hundreds of students and staff use every day?

Behind the Geosciences school lie the Old Infirmary buildings, ranging round a quiet and almost entirely hidden courtyard providing little more than bicycle storage for today’s university students. But 150 years ago this had been the haunt of Dr Joseph Bell, the renowned surgeon and medical lecturer – and was the alma mater of a certain Arthur Conan Doyle, who (like Stevenson) took direct inspiration for his fictional characters from the people he saw in that corner of Edinburgh. Sherlock Holmes, his characteristic coat and hat and his incisive diagnostic skill, were based on Conan Doyle’s old lecturer.

At the end of the Drummond Street we come to two further literary links: the bar Hispaniola (named after the barque in Treasure Island), which until recently traded under the name Rutherford’s Bar, and had done so since at least 1836. Just over the road from Edinburgh University Law School, it provided a handy watering hole for such eminent alumni as RLS (him again!), Conan Doyle (and him), and Walter Scott.

And then on to J.K. Rowling, William Topaz McGonagall, Alexander McCall Smith, Paperback Books: it seems like every corner of Edinburgh teems with literary life past and present. The tour is a great romp through Auld Reekie’s history, but it really only has time to scratch the surface: what of Burns, Ferguson, and those Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine boys?

And, just so you know, I got the job – so that’s a pretty good recommendation for the effectiveness of the tour!

Memoir, Men and Madness

A Year in Provence (Penguin)

A Year in Provence (Penguin)

Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence has sparked a million copycat narratives of the idyllic and sometimes riotous (only ever hilarious rather than destructive) life English ex-pats can un/reasonably expect if they decamp to la belle France. From time to time I am a sucker for this type of jolly escapism, but as a genre these stories often leave one with a curious feeling of jealous disillusionment: jealous of the vin, pain et campagne, disillusioned with the idea that this could ever be one’s own reality.

When I picked up Gully Wells’ The House in France (2011) from a charity shop in Penicuik for the princely sum of 50p, I was expecting just such a narrative. Gently seductive, a little mild lifestyle pornography: the word ‘memoir’ in the title bespoke as much as the subject matter. But Gully’s life, ramshackle and chaotic and tinged with anger and violence and love, certainly wasn’t cosy – though the vin and pain are copious, along with the bouillabaisse, ormandes and the huitres. Money must have been plentiful – the Wells/Ayers household certainly seemed to live like it was.

The House in France (Bloomsbury)

The House in France (Bloomsbury)

The book, or Gully’s life – however you see it – has a stellar cast: Martin Amis as a first boyfriend, the philosopher Professor Sir A.J. Ayer as a step-father, politicians and diplomats and journalists and senators popping up all over the place. Almost everyone in the book is famous, or slept with someone famous, or famously didn’t sleep with someone famous. Affairs are commonplace; ‘fate’s chance-lings’ likewise: arguments and debates pepper the book like chilli truffles, tempting and mouth-burning in equal measure.

Gully herself comes across as something of a cipher: the outrages and actions of others are very much centre stage, and although she doesn’t self-censor – tales of lost virginity, affairs with married men and taking acid with Martin Amis are cheerily told – any deeper emotional analysis of her own motivations always lies at a cool remove. She obviously adores her mother and multiple father figures for the fun and daring and excitement they bring in to her life (boredom is the greatest sin in Gully-world), but any more dark and dangerous feelings seem to be sublimated, lurking so far beneath the surface that barely a turn of phrase betrays them. Maybe she simply didn’t feel them: but it is difficult to believe that a life so shaped by her mother’s furious rages that she ran away to New York did not contain anger, bitterness and hurt and all those other less-than-glamourous feelings which don’t make for such riveting tales.

Not that our narrator is disingenuous: the tone is upbeat even when the subject’s bleak, and it seems that Gully knows that she simply must be able to find and cherish the good in any given situation in order to survive. For example, her attitude towards men, for Gully: ‘men were created to amuse me, love me, tell me interesting things and generally give me pleasure’ (p.19). When she meets a friend who takes this to its next logical step, believing that ‘all men had been put on this earth to do things for her’ (p.109), it is clear that (even with hearts broken and bruised), this type of attitude buoys up Gully and her friends, and gives them the impetus to throw themselves into that social whirl with joyful abandon.

This is not something I’ve ever managed to achieve, but I have watched in open-mouthed amazement (and not a little hint of envy) as a friend from university effortlessly surrounded herself with a group of boys all desperate to help her, wine and dine her, and generally be willing acolytes in her entourage. A couple of years later, as she valiantly battled through the vicissitudes of law school with a young son in tow, I watched her do it again: crowds of men to go out for a drink with on any night of the week; always someone delectable (physically or intellectually) to have dinner with. Blonde, witty, petite, aristocratic – I shared with her only the first characteristic, and surmised that it must be my lack of the other three charms which excluded me from this kind of ménage. This may indeed be true, but reading this book made me realise that my own ideas on what men are for were entirely different (there to be impressed, compete with and make laugh), and that the idea of wanting someone to do something for me that I could easily do myself was anathema to me: independence is all very well, but people like to be needed, love to be useful, and above all need to feel like a welcome part of one’s life.

The book delights in its ability to pick out all the lovely, daring, funny stories without slavish adhering to the plodding chronological structure so common to life-writing. Although the book does – roughly – follow Gully’s life, the more tedious elements (like getting a job) are just tossed into the narrative whenever they are needed to provide the context for an interesting story. When we meet the dishevelled husband of an equally dishevelled friend (who turns out to be the author Alice Thomas Ellis), he declares ‘I’m not fucking George Weidenfeld, you know.’ And that is how we find out that Gully’s job is in the publicity department of this notable publisher. It is also a book about a particular social class of people: wealthy London-centric socialites of the mid-twentieth century, and reminded me of Clarissa Dickson Wright’s Spilling the Beans (2008) – full of jolly romps (in every sense of the word), long boozy London lunches, plenty of scandal, and people we recognise: authors, philosophers, politicians, the lot. Not quite the ‘escape to the country’ plot I had imagined, but a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle none the less.

A snippet of the Mediterranean dream

A snippet of the Mediterranean dream

Bens Lomond and Ledi, Weirs Molly and Tommy

From the summit of Ben Lomond

From the summit of Ben Lomond

This weekend I doubled my tally of Munros summited. Ok, so it was only my second 3000-footer: but it really was a doubling from my previous total of just Ben Wyvis! Ben Lomond was my second, all 3195 feet of it, and it was a glorious sunny spring day as we made our way up, along with hundreds and hundreds of others, all sweating and swearing and stopping to look at the beautiful views of the sunny loch with its sparkly surface and perfect little islands. The main path on the south ridge was heaving with folk all the way up, but once we’d reached the top and started down the Ptarmigan ridge they thinned out almost to nothing, and we had a lovely stroll down this subsidiary flank in the late afternoon sunshine. We’d already pitched camp at the Forestry Commission campsite in Sallochy in the morning, so hurried back home in the evening light to make dinner on our little camp ‘kitchen’. The evening was beauteous and the shoreline sparkled with campfires glimmering in the gloaming – we hadn’t sorted out anything to burn ourselves, so walked along the shore amid the woodsmoke to keep warm before burrowing into sleeping bags and blankets for a sound night’s sleep.

Ben Ledi before me

Ben Ledi before me

The next morning dawned bright and sunny again, so we consulted the map and headed for Ben Ledi – 30 feet short of true Munro status, but a big walk none the less. We parked by the roaring motorbikes on the road between Callander and Strathyre, and set off up the unpleasantly named Stank Glen: fortunately it did not live up to its name and instead was a sunny and fairly open cleft, with plenty of forestry trails crossing the valley and some long twin-force falls at the centre. Once we’d popped up above the corrie, we skirted just to the south of the Lochan nan Corp – tarn of the bodies! Keen not to add ours to it, battling on upwards in ever-increasing wind, barely staying long enough for a summit photograph before heading for a rocky outcrop to hide behind and eat our summit snack. As with the day before, the descent was much quieter and we swiftly made out way back down, and within an hour and half were back in Edinburgh.

Now, what does this have to do with biography, you may be thinking? Apart from being a snapshot of my life, it is part of my experiment to live fully in Scotland and immerse myself in as many parts of it as possible: geographical, cultural, musical, political. I so want to enjoy my time here and want to tread in the footsteps of writers and walkers like Nan Shepherd, exploring those psychogeographical relations between places and people. So for each excursion I make into the wilds, I am going to be reading a book by a Scottish author with a connection to that place.

I love a view with my reading

I love a view with my reading

So, what was I reading this weekend? The actor Molly Weir’s Trilogy of Scottish Childhood. Hardly the obvious companion for a hill walk, but it definitely enhanced my enjoyment of being there. It was pure chance that a lovely friend of mine had bestowed on me a copy of this memoir just the day before, after I had begun to read it at her house, and that as soon as we arrived at Balmaha I spotted the new statue of her brother, the writer and climber Tom Weir, leaning brazenly in a red woolly hat placed boldly on his head by a visiting pilgrim. I have not yet seen any of the Weir siblings’ broadcasts – something to rectify – but I was so pleased that the book and the place were connected in this small way.

The Trilogy is pure 20th century memoir: it bursts with little stories of life growing up in Glasgow’s tenements and its humour and tone are warm and understated. Molly Weir was born in 1910, Tom four years later, and as children lived with their mother and grandmother in what seems like grinding poverty. The narrative follows Molly’s success at school and as a shorthand typist, and then covers her early years of life as an actor. Glaswegian Scots was the children’s first tongue, and the humour of that Springburn community is familiar to anyone who has seen Billy Connolly or Frankie Boyle: tinged with darkness, full-blooded and self-deprecating. Our narrator bounces and bubbles along beside us, bringing the Co-operative shops and the trams and the tenements back to life beside us, with a terrific ear for a smart turn of phrase or a detail of domestic life. Anyone who believes Hallowe’en as an recent American invention cannot fail to notice how important a part it played in the life of these Glasgow families at the turn of the last century – its roots are deep in Scottish culture, and it provides a platform for the performances musical, rhythmical and spoken which are such an intrinsic part of Scotland’s life. Molly WeirSomething I was amazed at when I first moved to Ayr a few years ago was how everyone I worked with seemed to have a party piece – or several! Singing, dancing, playing the fiddle or flute, telling stories, putting on a party: these talents were shared at Burns Suppers and house-warming parties alike, and I loved that these folk performances were embedded into people’s social lives. Admittedly we were working at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, so perhaps it attracted a higher than average number of performers, but the standard was superb and I wished that English folk culture was still a much greater part of people’s lives.

Storytelling is a much more prominent part of Scottish culture than it is in England. The Scottish Storytelling Centre sits proudly on the Royal Mile, and there are storytelling festivals up and down the country. Storytelling is at the heart of life-writing, but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable at the overly folksy associations that ‘storytelling’ sometimes has: vague middle-aged women drifting about in tie-dyed dresses warbling tales of birds and beasts getting damp-eyed over rescued birds and brave bold boys. Building and transmitting interesting narratives is such an important part of everything most of us do every day – being it persuading people to buy, invest or donate money, shaping partnerships for new projects, helping people find the resources which best fit their needs, whether those be physical, financial or cultural – that the skills of storytelling should belong to everyone. And no-one who has ever sat through a school lesson, university lecture or staff training day will underestimate the importance of someone who can make the story of their subject matter interesting, whether it be the life cycle of the frog, Middle English poetry or the importance of maintain accurate accounts!

Molly Weir’s autobiography will probably never rate among the literary greats, but it is a perfect example of punchy Scottish storytelling and is fascinating even if you know nothing about Molly Weir. It is peppered with the dialect of Glasgow – again, living in Ayr had helped me ‘get my ear in’ to those west coast vowels – and its central characters are engaging and strong, from Grannie with her insistence on hard work and perfect manners, to Mother with her busy life at the rail works and love of dancing. The stereotyped Scot is often dour, but nothing could be further from the reader’s mind as she steps back a hundred years into those lively and rambunctious Glasgow streets alongside her curly-headed ‘Flying Scotswoman’, racing everywhere and meeting everyone and soaking it all in.

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Edinburgh’s Union Canal at night

 

Following Footsteps

Life-writing has always fascinated me because it connects lives and narratives in such creative ways. Fact and fiction are often blurred, and it always reminds me how anything we read is the product of some biased brain, to be absorbed by our own biased brains. This is not to condemn it; merely I find it useful to remind myself that all narratives and texts are subject to these same pressures. These post looks at a group of texts which very consciously explore those two realms, taking the same point of inspiration in three different directions of life-writing.

John Craxton designed the covers of almost all PLF's books

John Craxton designed the covers of almost all PLF’s books

A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, The Broken Road: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s almost uncompleted trilogy of travelogues detailing his walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul is one of my favourite-ever autobiographical series. If you have never come across them, I insist that you do so right away. Completed years later, it details the fantastic pilgrimage he made as a man in his late teens and early twenties. Overflowing with charisma, energy and great charm, PLF’s narratives have the glossy sheen of the experienced writer with none of the depressing nostalgia for youth which so often overshadows memoir. PLF’s infamous ‘embroidery’ technique is so skilful that it serves merely to add glamour and beauty to the rich fabric of his narrative, and one is only occasionally aware of feeling a snag of annoyance at realising it would be impossible for a 20 year old to have the historical knowledge and linguistic skill which PLF claims to have displayed.

The book was eventually called 'A Time of Gifts'

The book was eventually called ‘A Time of Gifts’

Telling, too, is the fact that they were written and published many years after the event they describe: 1977, 1986 and 2013 respectively, all referring to events which took place between 1933 and 1935. Even the author was aware of this and felt he should make reference to it, however obliquely: PLF suggested calling the first book Parallax, a word meaning ‘the difference in the appearance of an object seen from two different angles’ (Artemis Cooper, p.325). The result is a tantalising trilogy possessed of a narrative which is impossible to resist, either as a reader, biographer or traveller.

As with any purported autobiography, there is always the desire to know the ‘reality’ behind it. In 2012 Artemis Cooper, who collaborated with Colin Thubron on midwiving PLF’s final manuscript into the posthumous The Broken Road and who knew PLF from girlhood, produced Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, a biography which attempts (in part) to answer those almost unknowable questions. She obviously adored PLF – as did almost everyone, particularly women, with whom he came into contact. Her father and grandfather were part of his vast social circle, and her biography feels very much like a welcoming voice from ‘inside’, calling us into his world and checking everyone’s names at the gate. Peppered with beautiful little anecdotes (gathered in ways devious and wise – you can read about it here) the book is almost as riproaring a read as PLF’s own narratives, but very much aware of constraints of biographic form, waggishly disregarded by those original texts.

Nick Hunt's stylistically similar cover

Nick Hunt’s stylistically similar cover

Another response to the books is Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water (2014): an attempt to recreate the magic of that journey by physically retracing PLF’s every footstep. Well, almost – 78 years, one world war and the Romanian Ceauşescu-led genocide separate these two pilgrims; the changes wrought on the landscape ache with inevitability. Hunt describes a ‘cultural amnesia’ he finds in the former Soviet countries, where people will not talk about recent history which has wrought huge changes to their lives and landscapes. One poignant passage described Hunt’s search for the castle where PLf played bicycle polo and smoked an elaborate chibook alongside counts and archdukes – now it is ‘as broken as a building can be, smashed to smithereens’ (Hunt, p.170). This felt eerily familiar to me too – a few years ago I had spent a fortnight in Slovakia on a cultural exchange looking at museum interpretation (the adventures of which you can read about here), and I was very aware of the silence which surrounded Slovakia’s 20th century history, combined with the pride evident in the history of centuries and millennia before: ‘the gruesome nature of the distant past was much easier to represent than the horrors of more recent times’.

PLF’s narrative is, I think the greatest: not only because it provides the basis for the existence of the other two, and is thereby the more original, but because it actively benefits from the parallaxing between the young man and the old. Hunt’s journey is derivative by nature, and although he captures moments of Fermorian joy and beauty, it is overshadowed by the awareness that much of what PLF delighted in is gone, and therefore a sense of nostalgic loss permeates the narrative. Cooper has the Herculean task of trying to condense this immensely varied and complex life into a few hundred pages, whilst keeping up the brio associated with PLF. Both do, though, have something of the magician about them: Cooper in her ability to weasel stories from PLF’s omissions (as well as his admissions); and Hunt in being able to summon the great-granddaughter of Count Teleki, one of PLF’s genial hosts, to join him on his journey. From this point onwards, and the further East he walks from here, the more that nuns, farmers, shepherds and Roma remerge from the shadows of memory into full-bodied reality.

However, Walking the Woods and the Water, whilst ostensibly talking about the romanticisation of European history, does neatly sum up the allure of PLD’s writing:

‘…accuracy wasn’t the point. This mythologised affinity with suppressed ancient cultures spoke of a similar yearning for a long-lost age of greater freedoms, unbounded by rules, that bubbled under Europe’s surface like a buried river.’ (p.184-5)

18th century Slovakian church graffiti

18th century Slovakian church graffiti

Those yearnings and freedoms and buried cultural rivers – those are the things which PLF’s own particular brand of life-writing so vividly captures. Accuracy, whilst useful and taxonomically satisfying, is not the only goal of any writing, not even biography. Narratives drawn us closer to freedom, the hidden mysteries of other places and peoples, and it is through that we can find ‘Gemütlichkeit’ – ‘snugness, warmth, the feeling that you are accepted’. It is remarkable that our yearning for travelling and apparent freedom seems to stem from this need for acceptance, this desire to find your own kith or kin or kind and know: ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

Slovakian painted house

Painted house, Slovakia (2011)

Longing to Name the Sea

I have always been slightly obsessed with the Nordic countries – indeed, my choice of (serious) partner has always mirrored this to a ridiculous degree: my first boyfriend is a marine engineer for ice-class ships in Finland and my husband is a glaciologist who spends months of his life camping out next to the Greenland ice sheet.

Lofoten beach

Some scenic book reading on the Lofoten islands

At university I spent a summer railing and sailing round Scandinavia, taking the boat from Newcastle to Norway and racing the summer sun up and down the gulf of Bothnia and along the Arctic circle. I rode a bicycle across the Lofoten islands and took the sleeper train to Helsinki, and spent a storm-tossed crossing from Denmark to Germany drinking whisky on a boat train full of German students.

Iceland Hesteyri

An unexpected pancake house at Hesteyri

A few years later I flew to Iceland, the mid-Atlantic meeting point between Greenland and England, wild camping on the remote Hornstrandir nature reserve and slipping down into a crack in the earth’s crust to bath in its heated waters. Even as a child I poured over my best friend’s mother’s beautiful Carl Larsson books, imagining what it must be like to fish for crayfish in streams and eat picnics at midnight in birch forests (and live in a beautiful wooden house decorated by my artist-partner!) My family’s three-generation fascination with Tove Jansson’s books (detailed here) fed into this too – how marvellous to have one’s own miniature island to spend the summer on! You get the picture.

I love wool on a cover, so I do

I do love some wool on a book cover

So when I chanced upon a book which told the story of one English family who moved to Iceland only a few years ago I was always going to fall on it like a hawk upon prey. Sarah Moss shared my obsession with all things Nordic, but has the wherewithal (and academic career) to make this dream of Scandi-living into reality. (My only experiences of the realities of this are occasional shopping trips to Ikea, where my husband scorns the Daim bars and I spend the whole time thinking about the meatballs.)

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012) is not a fluffy nostalgia-ridden account of time spent gazing at the northern lights from the steamy sides of a geothermal spa. It tells the real difficulties faced by people who are not Icelandic living in Iceland. First, there are the practical problems: ‘You can’t do anything without a clan, not without spending insane amounts of money.’ Iceland has virtually no immigrant population, and hardly a single second hand shop. The two are not unrelated: as Moss finds out, people are part of small tight-knit clans who are used to looking out for each other and therefore would not think of buying second-hand from a stranger.

The all-defining sea

The all-defining sea

People from útlond – the outsider’s land – are not easily assimilated into these groups, but fortunately Moss has friends at the university who seek out fridges, washing machines and high-chairs from their familial networks. But the way she is referred to as an útlendingur (foreigner) also jars – and this I can easily understand, because when I lived in Japan it felt very strange to be called a gaijin (literally ‘outside person’), and always appreciated it when people used the more friendly gaikokujin – an ‘outside language speaking person’.

Then there is the omnipresence of the Edda, Iceland’s unique record of its own history: ‘Many Icelanders can quote the sagas in the way that 17th century Puritans quoted the Bible.’ Moss finds these gnomic utterances cropping up everywhere – and it unsettles her, because of the assumed unthinking way that they are treated as a true and semi-sacred text. It is the anxiety of influence and the English professor – I have to say, I rather like that literary heritage is so interwoven into people’s lives and speech. Of course, it is true in English too – but this seems to be restricted to smaller phrases which no-one can quite be certain of their origin (my friend SiAB has done a brilliant quiz to test your knowledge on this here.)

A little Nordic shrine at home

A little Nordic shrine at home

Moss certainly doesn’t seem her time in Iceland through rose-tinted spectacles. I’m not likely to move to a new country anytime soon (the thought of choosing and transporting books alone holds fresh dread after the recent move), but I am going to continue my love affair with all things Nordic, as there is the Northern Streams festival of all music Scandi-Scottish here in Edinburgh in a few weeks and I quite fancy getting my fiddle out, or at the very least singing some new songs…

City Lights

Shouting from the rooftops

City Lights

City Lights

Whilst in California over Christmas I fell into the welcoming arms of the City Lights bookshop, hiding from the rain and the tramps and the strip clubs along Broadway Street. I took surreptitious photographs of signs which had been smirked and smiled for decades by generations of devoted readers; I pretended to read poetry books (because after all, what else could one do in the shop which kicked off the Beat phenomenon with the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl); and after about half an hour I found myself tucked into a corner in the basement, eyeball deep in biography. And not just any biography – culinary biography. And not just any culinary biography, but Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child (2012).

Dearie by Bob Spitz

Dearie by Bob Spitz

Julia Child had hovered on the edge of my culinary conscience for years. I cannot remember exactly where I first came across her – possibly through my grandmother, who is a phenomenal cook herself and has been valiantly feeding a family of six children, thirteen grandchildren, and three fostered Chinese students for over seventy years. My grandmother had been to the States, where she picked up a cowboy cookbook (one of the first things I ever made from it was Billy-can brownies), and illustrated an expat cookery volume during her years living in Hong Kong called Cooking with Corona. She had also bestowed upon me three bound boxes full of the Cordon-Bleu Cookery School course in weekly magazines (which I am yet to make anything from), and a delight in all things extravagant, delicious, and dramatic. Her major outlets for this enjoyment of excess are her devout Catholicism (she is the only person I know who has a signed dispensation to take food before Mass when pregnant) and in her cookery. She snorts when she laughs, pronounces chocolate with three syllables, and still pickles and preserves at the age of 90. In my mind, she is a little like a short, Catholic, British Julia Child.

I devoured Dearie in a few days, all 535 pages of it, against the backdrop of San Francisco’s parks, cafes and our hostel room with its overpowering aroma of Chinese food. My husband was at a conference all day and most of each evening, which gave me ample time to read and recreate Child in my imagination. I watched snippets of her cookery shows, and cooked absolutely nothing except scrambled eggs and beans. But I fell in love with her, and a little more with America, through Bob Spitz’s writing. Although his prose tends to cliché, it is vibrant and jolly and likeable – all aspects which I immediately transferred to Child. I liked her guts, the way she made French cooking her own in America, her total commitment to fun and joy and joie de vivre. Here was a woman who didn’t want to be tiny, good, quiet, modest – she couldn’t help but be statuesque, naughty, loud and passionate. She immediately made it onto my mental list of female role models (or ‘women I wish I was more like’), where she holds court in the good company of Tove Jansson, Gwyneth Lewis, Margaret Bennett Jenny Uglow, Jack Monroe et al.

Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia

Then yesterday, on my first day without a job and living in Edinburgh, I found Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia (2005) – in hardback for £3 from the Shelter shop in Morningside, since you ask. I hadn’t seen the film, which came out in 2009, but again it had been lurking in the brain-shadows, so I snapped up the book and finished it about an hour ago.

Julie Powell feels like I do about Julia – and the popularity of her blog, book and film suggests we aren’t the only ones. For us, Julia stands for being feminine and joyous, unapologetic in her enjoyment of life and food and drink. She makes us believe that if we have any of those nascent characteristics within ourselves, then we should embrace them and shout them from the rooftops. So this is me, shouting from this virtual rooftop (although I could do it almost from our actual rooftop, as the flat’s a top-floor one): have the courage to do whatever it is that brings you joy. Share it around as much as you can, give it out, out, out. Today, this brought me joy:

Daffodils on my 'desk'

Daffodils on my ‘desk’

not just the bright colours of the flowers, but the fact it was my first day working at my new desk (well, table – but beggars/bloggers can’t and all that) and that I’d managed to write a first draft of a poem, two paragraphs on my embryonic biography project, three letters and this blog. Now, off to the lovely Meadowberry for frozen yoghurt and free Wifi to post this…

Contemplating my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

April: Memory and Desire

Apologies for the prolonged break in blogging: leaving one job, moving house, attending two hen parties, one birthday and three weddings have all been occupying spare moments over the last few weeks and months. But now I have a little more time on my hands, here is my first post of 2015!

Stove in the new flat: not a real woodburner, but at least that saves lugging logs up three flights of stairs

Stove in the new flat: not a real woodburner, but at least that saves lugging logs up three flights of stairs

As T.S. Eliot famously averred, April can indeed be the cruellest month. I’ve never been much of a fan of spring, with its unpredictable weather disappointing my expectations of sunshine, gambolling lambs and a profusion of flowers. I know it is a necessary transition, and I long for bright summer days and long warm evenings, but I much prefer autumn as a season of change. At that time of year everyone expects rain, storms and shortening days, so every bright spell is a lovely surprise and cause for unexpected celebrations.

Beautiful Victorian fireplace in the new flat

Beautiful Victorian fireplace in the new flat

But this spring is not so cruel: I am happy to have my memories and desires mixed this year. For it promises a new start: a move to a new flat in Edinburgh (complete with wood-burner style stove, beautiful fireplaces and lovely views), the chance to research and write about a writer whom I admire (details still hush-hush but I will be keeping you posted if this develops!), and who knows yet what else.

The summit of my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

The summit of my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

Something I am committing to now is writing more. Together with my friend over at Melissa’s Compass I am promising to write every day – if we don’t write, how can we be writers? I have always struggled to maintain a balance between work, research and creativity, but after reading this soul-strengthening interview with biographer Jenny Uglow I am aiming to make sure I spend some time writing, researching and working every week – and continuing all the other lovely things I do with my time too! Having scaled my first Munro in September, I am keen to make it a round 100 over the next 18 months: only 99 to go…

Attribution: Johannes Jansson/norden.org

Bound for Frisco bay

Tomorrow the husband and I are zooming off to the far side of the world – California to be precise. We don’t usually do anything other than buzzing around seeing our million+ relatives and friends at Christmas, but this year we are being far more jet set because my husband is presenting his work at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco and this seemed like a good opportunity for us both to have a nice long adventure stateside.

So there probably won’t be any posts on here in the interim (and I’m not organised enough to have written them in advance) but have yourselves Merry Christmases and New Years full of excitement!

Pandaemonium

Pandaemonium

A while ago, I wrote a post for the Wordsworth and Romanticism blog. I then forgot about it and voila – it is now published! You can pop over for a look here or read it in full below:

Anyone who is even faintly familiar with the major events in the lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge will have a field day watching Julian Temple’s quasi-biopic Pandaemonium. I recommend inviting your literary-inclined friends round for an evening of riotous entertainment, watching the film whilst taking part in the following themed drinking game which embodies the ‘spirit(s) of the age’ and gets you through the film’s 125 minutes without spiralling into artistic despair and literary indignation:

  • Challenge your guests to each bring a beverage inspired by Romantic literature. Suggestions could include: Rime of the Ancient Grand Marnier, Hartley Wallbanger, or even Sex on the Bysshe.
  • Line up your beverages within easy reach of the screen, along with plenty of snacks to soak up the alcohol. With revolution in mind, and tongue firmly in cheek, how about some revolutionary biscuits? – Garibaldis and Bourbons should be first on your list.
  • The rules are: drink every time you spot an anachronism or gross misappropriation of historical events. Eat a biscuit every time a government agent appears to spy on a revolutionary writer.
  • Drunk on inaccuracies and high on sugar, plot the revolution (or even just the film) anew with your inebriated acquaintances.

Of course, this is all in jest – but you have to hope that the film was made in this spirit too. The major questions of historical accuracy and authentic portrayal of characters and events have already been dealt with at length by the Guardian’s John Sutherland when the film first emerged. It would be tedious for me to simply list all the travesties of inaccuracy and character assassinations; this is really a film which attempts to posit Coleridge as the true –though flawed – genius of the Romantic age, portraying Wordsworth as a jealous power-hungry snitch, Byron as a foppish social commentator à la Russell Brand, and Dorothy Wordsworth as a rude and prematurely maddened bossy boots with a predilection for ill-advised romantic attachments. The characters verge on caricature and the past is awkwardly melded with images from the present (STC on the London Eye is a particular low point). High art it ain’t.

But the trouble with Pandaemonium is that you can’t simply dismiss it as a bad work of fiction. It is underpinned by just enough instances from the lives of Coleridge and Wordsworth to be partly plausible: Coleridge and Wordsworth really did create Lyrical Ballads together in the Quantocks in the late 1790s, Coleridge really did write ‘Frost at Midnight’ inspired by the birth of his son Hartley, and the composition of ‘Kubla Khan’ really was interrupted by the infamous ‘person from Porlock’ (although I think this is the first time that Wordsworth has been suggested as that person). It is also a rare example of a film which details the process of literary composition (other notable examples are Jane Campion’s brilliant Bright Star and the popular Shakespeare in Love), and for that alone it is to be commended. It falls between the two stools of fantasy and biography, and as such it gives the discerning viewer a bit of a genre headache – is it simply too inaccurate to be trusted, but it does contain a few kernels of fact.

Instead, the film seems to be an experiment in cinematic biofiction, a curious genre that takes people and places from real life but shapes them in a new image through fantasy dialogue and narrative. Could it even be viewed more as a kind structured reality, a literary prototype of shows like Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex, in the way it melds fantasy and reality? Like them, it isn’t critically acclaimed, but both challenge what we trust to be ‘real’ and what we perceive as ‘truth’. As an aside, Dorothy Wordsworth is portrayed by Emily Woof, the daughter of the foremost authority on Dorothy Wordsworth, Pamela Woof. Whilst one can imagine the horror of the academic at the inaccuracies of the film, one does have to marvel at life and art’s continued intertwining.

But is the film faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the work of those early Romantics? Let’s look to that great manifesto for the Romantic movement, the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, penned by Wordsworth during the time shown in Pandaemonium:

The principal object…was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them… in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.

Does Pandaemonium use incidents from real life, in accessible language, imaginatively portrayed? Yes, yes it absolutely does. Does it encourage its audience to consider aspects of human nature and what drives people creatively, whether it be inspiration, opiates, jealously, or companionship?  Again, yes. The only trouble with the film is that is it just doesn’t do it very well. Their lofty aims are to be applauded, but the film fails on its execution. And in that, perhaps, they share something with those first efforts of Wordsworth and Coleridge – without the Preface mentioned above, the Lyrical Ballads poorly received and misunderstood by its first audience. Perhaps someone needs to go back and help Julian Temple and Frank Cottrell Boyce to hone their ideas, place them within a tangible and relevant context, and for goodness sake give Dorothy something other than that dreadful leather jacket to wear.

Mr Turner

This is usually a book blog but today I am making an exception and writing about a film instead. Fear not: the film in question is a biopic, and this review will address many of the questions which are pertinent to life-writing too. If you haven’t yet seen Mr Turner I heartily recommend that you do, or at the very least watch this little snippet to get your eye in:

Mr Turner: an unassuming title for a film with the difficult task of portraying a man of deep and sometimes troubling contradictions. As someone with only a lay(wo)man’s knowledge of art history, I cannot add anything new to the debates about whether or not the recently released film is historically accurate – however, what I do know is that Turner was a controversial figure in his own time and almost universally adored today: this film was always going to have to tread carefully around the approbation of his aficionados.

Although some people have found this portrayal of greatness almost sacrilegious in its failure to present a sanitised, attractive Turner, someone worthy of their worship, I loved this warts and all representation of a great artist’s life. The sex scenes are unsexy, as sex often is. The relationships are complex – how can a man so passionately devoted to and understood by his father be so cruelly indifferent to his own children? – but then show me a relationship which isn’t. Death is preceded by ill-health, men die unglamorously: this is the stuff of real lives. Grunting, overweight, roughly accented, sometimes unloving, sometimes in love, friendly and contrary in equal measure: Timothy Spall’s Turner is the roughest and most brilliant of diamonds; intensely human – but a rare and gifted one, absorbed by art and lift and the mysteries of the universe.

What I admired most about this film is that it resists the temptation to give a falsely uplifting or climatic narrative to Turner’s life. It would have been so easy to deliver a ‘feel-good’ or ‘rags-to-riches’ film – and Turner’s life story could be said to fit within those plot arcs (he was the son of a London barber who became the nation’s best-loved artist), but Mike Leigh neatly sidesteps these artistic cul-de-sacs: he expertly mingles the cheeky joy of Happy Go Lucky with darker moments more akin to Vera Drake and gives us neither a happy ending nor a sad one. Very rarely do even (or especially?) famous people’s lives take a graceful parabola of success, their last years suffused with the halcyon glow of glory. More often, their fortunes wax and wane, family members arrive and depart their world, old age and ill-health dog their final years.

The film’s physical intimations of mortality (pace Wordsworth) are grotesque, startlingly visceral: almost Dickensian in their red-bloodedness. But I love it all the more for this: that someone so remarkable as Turner would have been anything other than intense and full-bodied in the way he lived his life seems unthinkable.

The other trap that this film avoids is the classic ‘fallen hero’ slide into poverty, ignominy or pathos which often accompany the portrayal of aging. Turner’s life could have been viewed in these terms too, as he became a Royal Academician at the youngest age permissible (24) yet became ever more secretive and eccentric in his personal life as the years passed. Marion Bailey’s Sophia Booth, Turner’s final lover at whose house he breathes his last, brings terrific warmth in the way she shows that the love affairs of old age can be just as fun and loving as those of younger folk. Turner’s intrinsic character remains steadfast throughout: he is recognisably the same man at 60 that he was at 40, self-possessed, driven, earthy, and true to his own world view. Just as the film doesn’t follow glory with glory, neither does despair follow relentless despair as death approaches.

I also loved the film for its attempt to show on screen that most elusive and deeply personal thing, the creative process. Bright Star, one of my favourite films, does this superbly; even the less-than-great Pandemonium makes a valiant stab. Mr Turner is similar to Girl with a Pearl Earring in the way it recreates particular pictures: The Fighting Temeraire is the most obvious one, but I get the feeling that several of the beautiful still shots (like the one which opens the film – see pictures below) are attempt to show how Turner was inspired to create works which are less well-known.

Fighting Termeraire, JMW Turner

Fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner

Fighting Termeraire: film still from Mr Turner

Fighting Temeraire: film still from Mr Turner

These stills are beautiful – I just wish I knew more about Turner’s paintings to be able to recognise them on sight. Still, no time like the present to better acquaint myself with his work, as this fabulous exhibition is on in London until 25 January…

Hazlenuts

Birthdays, books, beer and berries

Sorry these posts are a little few and far between at the moment – autumn is always a busy time of year (new school year, hedgerows to be harvested, and a big ol’ birthday to boot), but here are my musings from the last few weeks!

New books – the aforementioned birthday has provided me with a whole heap of delightful bookery to get my teeth into (sometime literally, often more metaphorically).

Birthday books and cards

Birthday books and cards

Most excitingly, and without even asking for it, I have a brand-new literary biography to linger over, in the shape of Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love. Having dropped some not-so-subtle hints to my husband whilst in the Watermill at Aberfeldy, I have also been furnished with Leon’s Fast Vegetarian (and made my first dish, Sri Lankan pineapple curry, from this evening) and a translated Reeds in the Wind, a book I first heard about on our honeymoon to the homeland of its author. A treasure trove indeed.

The previous post mentioned The Hedgerow Handbook: have now managed to collect lots of nuts, sloes and hips which are awaiting transformation. The sloes are mid-fermentation in the gin, the hips are in the freezer, and the nuts are only half-shelled…it’s a tedious process, but well worth the marvellous autumn walks to collect them.

SSBBF stash

SSBBF stash

Two brilliant friends of ours also organised themselves an amazing birthday party this weekend: they hired a bunk barn, bought 10 barrels (and several bottles) of beer and cider, and invited 30 friends to celebrate their 30th with them.Now these are people who don’t mess about – they branded the whole thing as the SSBBF, with beer tankards, beer mats, and beer list to match! It was a great weekend of celebrating with friends and family from near and far.

Reading on the hoof

Reading on the hoof

…and I’m back! Scotland furnished me with a whole heap of exciting new books to get my teeth into (metaphorically, of course, but I am one of those people who reads in the bath and writes in the margins), so here’s a quite overview of my recent acquisitions:

IMG_0612The Hedgerow Handbook, Adele Nozedar – a gift from the aforementioned lovely friend, this came accompanied by a massive jar of delicious beetroot and orange chutney. I love foraging, preserving and – of course – ingesting, so this book will enable me to do those more safely, more successfully, and more enjoyably. It has beautiful hand-drawn illustrations, and is handily sized to fit into a small rucksack or large jacket pocket. You can read much more about it here. It’s not the sort of book you can ‘read’ like a novel, it’s more like a poetry anthology that you dip in and out of as the mood (or need) takes you. Some of the recipes sound bizarre (Himalayan Balsam Curry), some delicious (Rose petal Turkish Delight) and all interesting. Nozedar gives a history of the plants and their uses, as well as practical recipes and tips on how to find and identify them. The perfect present for autumn!

On the Black Hill, Bruce ChatwinOn the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin – another gift from the lovely AND generous friend, this one I devoured in a few hours on the long journey to Inverness via Blairdrummond. A name I vaguely new, but an author whom I’d never read, Bruce Chatwin cuts a rather mysterious figure; he died, tragically prematurely, of AIDS at the age of 49 in 1989. On the Black Hill is the tale of two twins and their lives on a farm in Wales, whose lives roughly span the 20th century. The brothers are bound together by love, hatred, biology and duty; their tale is hypnotic in the transfixing madness, stubbornness and inscrutability of its characters. The book embodies all that is cruel, beautiful and inevitable about the farming life, telling the story of a century as it charts the life of this remote family. Thoroughly recommended; now to find something else by him to read…

The Time by the Sea, Ronald Blythe – this appeared in the ‘Sale’ box of the wonder that is The Watermill in Aberfeldy.

Time by the Sea (and my duvet)

Time by the Sea (and my duvet)

The Time by the Sea is Blythe’s autobiographical rememberings of Aldeburgh in the 1950s, peopled with such luminaries as Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst, Peter Pears,  and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. I have high hopes for it as I love, love, love Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, set in a Suffolk my father’s family grew up in but which has now almost completely disappeared. It was made into a hugely popular film in 1974 by director Peter Hall, and charts life in a Suffolk village through the 20th century without pathos but with a clarity which makes you look anew at the world around you. If you can’t lay your hands on a copy of the book (and don’t want to pay for the film before you’ve seen it!), you can watch a snippet of it here:

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver – another Watermillian find, this one is by the author of the brilliant Poisonwood Bible. IMG_0615I haven’t read anything by Kingsolver for years, but this one features real-life characters  including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo fictionalised in the story of Harrison William Shepherd. For a full review, have a look at what the NYT had to say.

Also, long car journeys have been perfect for long sessions in thrall to Radio 4 – here’s one of my favourites, a snippet from the fantastic Listening Project: Peter and Amy – Ronnie’s Recipes (The Listening Project)

Whistlestop Scotland

Tomorrow I’m off on a whistlestop tour of Scotland, from Edinburgh to Inverness via Blairdrummond and Aberdeen. I’m highly excited – mainly because it means I don’t have to be at work for a whole week, having only had three days off since 27 August. That’s 25 days at work and 3 days off. No wonder I’m a tad tired!

It is also a brilliant opportunity to buy books and read books. My Wednesday afternoon will be dedicated to trawling Edinburgh’s many excellent bookshops, before meeting an old university friend (and fellow English graduate and lifelong book nut – she’s the first person I met who double-stacked their books) for some homebrew and long overdue lunacy. And now she produces books herself! She is the person whom I have to thank for working in museums, and also who kept me sane at university by being an excellent co-giggling fishwife and being my ‘running-away partner’ when it all got a bit much. [We usually just ran to the nearest country pub, a favourite of which was The Chequers.] Last night I also dreamed that her boyfriend was a Hobbit who spoke in riddles, so I’m looking forward to ascertaining if this is true.

Blogging will not be happening here whilst I’m away – but I have already written guest posts for the following two blogs, so keep a weather eye on them to see if my wise words pop up in the interim:

http://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/

http://museumdevelopmentnorthwest.wordpress.com/

And if they don’t, there are plenty of interesting things on them by other, more brilliant people to keep you occupied!

 

 

Our house... on our street

Loving the Liebster

The Liebster Awardliebster

My friend over at Melissa’s Compass has nominated me for a Liebster Award – but what is that, I hear you cry? It’s a great way to discover new blogs and to interact with the people who run your favourites, and the rules of the award are:

1. Link and thank the person who nominated you

2. Answer the questions they asked you

3. Pick eleven bloggers with fewer than 3,000 [this number can vary!] followers to nominate them.

4. Ask them eleven questions

5. Let them know by commenting on one of their posts

So my questions from Melissa were:

How did you come up with the name of your blog?

It’s from a quote in Sidney Lee’s Principles of Biography (1911): “Discriminating brevity is a law of the right biographic method.”

Romantic book spines

So many literary figures…

What was your first ever blog post about?

Learning to Love Literature – this was the original name of my blog and it was initially designed as a literary teaching resource. After a couple of posts I realised that my ‘insights’ into classic literature probably weren’t hugely insightful, and that I wasn’t reading enough of it to post on it regularly. But I was reading a lot of auto/biographies – so I decided to write about those instead!

 

Where is your favourite place to write?

At my laptop, in the armchair in the corner of my living room, when no-one else is in the house.

If you could go anywhere right now, where would you go?

To a polling station in Scotland to feel the mood on this historic day!

What have you been doing today?

Working at this literary museum and historic house in the Lake District. I’ve written a report, answered some emails, tidied my desk… exciting! But it is a very beautiful place  to live and work.

Do you have a favourite author? Roger Deakin's Waterlog

Hmm, more than one! I love Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mary Wesley, Richard Holmes, Roger Deakin, Robert Macfarlane, Joanna Smith Rakoff, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gwyneth Lewis – my husband always says ‘I don’t do favourites’, which can be sometimes annoying, but I’m with him on this one.

What was the last thing you wrote about?

On this blog? Submitting my work to the Scottish Book Trust to win a competition. Outside of blogworld? 5,000 words of Life Writing for the Mslexia Memoir competition, all about my time living in Japan and first moving to the Lake District.

Would you rather live in a grand castle or a cosy cottage? 

Our house... on our street

Our house, in the middle of our street

Cosy cottage. I actually do live in one of these anyway – here’s a sneaky peak!

What was the first story you remember writing?

The first thing I remember writing was a poem about three witches (green, blue and yellow) which I did once I’d finished my work in year 1 of primary school. My mum still has it! The first full-length story I wrote was when I was in year 7 (aged 12 or 13) about Midgard and the adventures of some fictionalised Vikings. I remember spending ages on it, and then becoming completely convinced it was dreadful, so much so that I didn’t want to show it to my teacher. And I was absolutely gobsmacked when my teacher said it was brilliant.

Do you have favourite letters of the alphabet?

Erm, never thought about it before this question but I do like M (a nice bilabial consonant) and L is beautiful too. And of course E, as it’s my initial.

What is your biggest aspiration?

To be a published biographer. And to run or set up a literary museum or arts organisation!

Now, I don’t think I regularly read 11 blogs so I’m just going to nominate those I do:

Stuck in a Book

Kim Moore Poetry

A Penguin A Week

Grasmere Poetry

Scarlet Pyjamas

I Prefer Reading

And my questions (six for six people) are:

Do you regularly read biographies, autobiographies or anything that comes under the category ‘Life Writing’?

Do you scribble in the margins of your books?

Do you read your books in the bath?

If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?

Do you keep a diary? If so, how long have you kept it for?

Do you have a favourite sort of weather to read in?

The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow

Submission and recommendations

Submission and recommendations

Hurrah! I completed my draft first chapter (well, part of it) of Fame is the Monster in time for the Scottish Book Trust’s 5th September deadline. Now it’s just a case of playing the waiting game…

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

In the mean time I am going to start approaching publishers with the bare bones of Fame: having never done this before, I have no idea how it will pan out but I’ve read a few guides to non-fiction publication submissions and hopefully a couple of sympathetic ears will have a pre-submission listen too.

And by means of giving you something meaningful to read, here are a couple of links to my top three historical biographers, with links to reviews of what I’ve enjoyed most from their oeuvre:

Jenny Uglow – author of the brilliant Lunar Men, which looks at ‘the scientific club that formed the intellectual engine of the industrial revolution’.

Richard Holmes – penned The Age of Wonder, a book about ‘real heroes,  scientists like Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davy and William Herschel, who changed our understanding of the world forever’.

Kathleen Jones – bringing the women of the Wordsworth circle back into the public eye with A Passionate Sisterhood.

Ambrose's Tavern Token

Day Two: problems with sources

Today’s writing has been centred on the first part of chapter one. Yesterday I experimented with picture-painting in the Prologue, trying to recreate the image of the 19th century Ambrose’s tavern in my readers’ minds. Great fun, although largely conjectural!

Ambrose's Tavern Token

Ambrose’s Tavern Token

Today the focus was on developing a pithy and attractive first chapter of the book proper, trying to distil the essence of this incredibly unwieldy and purposefully undefinable publication into a few tantalising paragraphs. Returning to the first (well, second if we’re being pedantic) issue, I realised that I had never read it in its entirety, instead prefer to nibble on individual essays. And so my inexperienced feet found first stumbling block: there seem to be two versions of this first all-important issue!

I had found a scanned online version of Maga on the HathiTrust’s digital library, which seemed at first ideal – except that the text is difficult to search and because it is such a massive file, can be slow to load. I then found a transcript of the original: which seemed to differ in content from the version I was already using! I think I’ve reconciled the differences, but I see how slow and frustrating even these most basic of research tasks can sometimes be. Suffice to say I didn’t manage to read the whole thing, but I have got a much better idea of how Maga’s class-based humour works (and I mean ‘works’ in a purely 19th century literary context). I also revisited this all-too-excellent essay (wish I’d written it) by Andrew McConnell Stott and brought in a bit of Keats, Leigh Hunt and Shelley into the mix.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, circa 1835 (1813)

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, circa 1835 (1813)

I managed to hit the magic ton, and so can retire to a night of slightly more mindless (in)activity. The husband assures me he is rustling up an almond and apricot tart as I type (hopefully it will resemble this one in terms of both taste and beauty) and we having an as-yet unopened box set of Breaking Bad, so I’d say the omens are good!

Words written: 1023

Words left: 2477

Days left til deadline: 25

Blackwoods front page, April 1817

Chapter One, Day One

Chapter One, Day One

I have set myself the task of completing 3,500 words of my opening chapter before 5th September, as that’s the deadline for the 2015 Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards. Today I managed 634 words, which seems like a decent start. At this rate, I need to set aside five or six days for writing between now and the deadline, plus another day for completing the application and a couple of days to send it to someone else for proofreading. So if I need to complete my draft two weeks before what my boss used to call ‘the drop-dead deadline’, I need to have the writing completed by 22 August. A mere 12 days away! I’m away with friends next weekend and working all the weekdays in between, so as long as I can manage to write evenings of Monday 11th, Wednesday 13th, Monday 18th, Tuesday 19th and Wednesday 20th August I should be on target. Fortunately for this schedule my husband is working away from home for that second week, so at least that is one fewer distraction around the house!

Blackwoods front page, April 1817

Blackwoods front page, April 1817

Today’s work was really mostly research, as I needed to set the scene for the birth of Maga. Edinburgh in 1817 shouldn’t be too hard to conjure up as it’s one of the most documented cities of its age and filled with poets, diarists and scribblers of every hue, but I need to assimilate a sense of place in just one afternoon. Fortunately aforesaid husband was able to lay his hands on some 19th century climate records for Scotland, and a little while later I tracked down a journal kept the obscure Stirling surgeon Dr Thomas Lucas (1756 – 1822), which had been obliging transcribed and made publically available by the brilliant Stirling Council Archive Services.  (Hurrah for libraries, museums and archives; have a look here and here for some other examples of fascinating – though completely unrelated – recent work done in the sector.) Dr Lucas’ son was at university in Edinburgh in 1817 so fortunately he often mentions the city, but he also keeps a weather eye on, well, the weather, the crops, and the impact of both of these on the markets.

Henry Raeburn, Portrait of Sir Walter Scott

Henry Raeburn, Portrait of Sir Walter Scott

I also found (thanks to Mr Google) the transcribed letters of Walter Scott from 1817, which really helped to get a sense of what the literary classes were concerned with in that year. Scott writes from both Edinburgh and his home Abbotsford in Melrose and mentions Maga by name (William Blackwood is also Scott’s publisher). Scott provided me with the epigram for the first chapter of Fame is the Monster: ‘…in youth we seek pleasure and in manhood fame and fortune and distinction’ (Walter Scott, Letter to Joanna Baillie, 12 December 1817) which is ideal in that it is both short – no mean feat for Scott – and pretty much perfect for my purposes. I also had a quick check of facts about William Maginn on the DNB and experimented with fiction as I tried to set the scene in William Ambrose’s North British Hotel, Tavern and Coffee House, which inspired the most famous of Maga’s pieces, the mostly fictitious Noctes Ambrosianae.

Words written: 634

Words left: 2866

Days left til deadline: 26

Cover of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1829

The Notorious Maga

Hello blogworld – apologies for the rather lengthy absence but today I have some news! Ever since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on life-writing I have wanted to return to the subject to write a book. And finally, after two failed attempts at securing phD funding, I have decided to submit a proposal to some publishers to garner interest in Fame is the Monster: Celebrity and the Notorious Maga (admittedly a working title).

Cover of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1829

Cover of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1829

For those of you not familiar with ‘the notorious Maga’, the title refers to the incendiary literary publication more commonly known as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Scandal, hot-headed opinion and unequivocal outrage: Maga was a byword for the type of provocative literary criticism which scandalised and intrigued the public in equal measure. As 2017 marks the bicentenary of the first publication of Maga, 2014 seemed like a good time to submit a proposal, giving me three years to complete the writing and research. Maga was in effect launched twice: once in April of 1817, but following low sales and problems with the editorial staff, the eponymous William Blackwood re-launched the magazine in October of that year. This time it immediately grabbed the public’s attention with its seductive and salacious mix of reportage, reviews and satirical sketches. Maga was clever, but not academic; popular, but not populist. It was mass media before the term was coined, and shaped the way we view literature to this day.

Part of the reason that the second Maga was so much more popular than the first was because Blackwood engaged contributors like John Wilson, whose written style set the tone which came to define the magazine. Blackwood’s also attracted the brilliant minds of John Gibson Lockhart, who became famous as the biographer of his father-in-law Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg (better known at the time as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’), and the Irish eccentric and classicist William Maginn.  The ‘nasty little opium-chewer’, Thomas De Quincey, also wrote for them and writers like Byron, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth felt the lash of Maga’s sharp tongue in its blistering critiques.

John Wilson by Sir John Watson Gordon (NPG, public domain)

John Wilson by Sir John Watson Gordon (NPG, public domain)

Individual biographies have been written of some Maga’s contributors but the true nature of their genius (and notoriety) is the way these writers used their interchangeable identities to laud or lambast writers, critics and themselves. So successful was this dissembling that to this day little is known about the workings of Blackwood’s. My book will drag the magazine kicking and screaming back into the spotlight, revealing the clever intricacies of its satirical skill and the critical inter-dependency of its writers’ identities.  Maga has been described as ‘a collective consciousness, a narcissistic personality pool, a mutual society’; this book is the first non-academic publication to examine Maga as whole, rather than simply the individuals who contributed to it.

My aim to is write a book of between 90,000 and 100,000 words, divided into between 10 and 15 chapters of between 5 and 10,000 words each. The chapters will focus on the major people and events who contributed to the reputation of Blackwood’s, namely:

  1. William Blackwood: who was he? Blackwood’s kept its name for over 150 years, but who was the mysterious and eponymous ‘Blackwood’?
  2. Pseudonyms and pseudoscience: the 19th century use of pseudonyms is key to understanding Blackwood’s, as its contributors almost always assumed one: but why, how, and who was behind them?
  3. John Wilson: the longest-serving contributor to Blackwood’s, Wilson wrote as both Christopher North and Mordecai Mullion
  4. James Hogg: the Ettrick Shepherd was often mocked by the other contributors for his ‘rural’ style of writing in Scots
  5. John Gibson Lockhart: wrote as William Wastle and Timothy Tickler; also biographer of his father-in-law Sir Walter Scott
  6. William Maginn: the ‘classical embalmer’, also known as The Doctor and Sir Morgan Odoherty
  7. ‘Don Juan Unread’: Wordsworth and Blackwood’s
  8. The Chaldee controversy: taking the literary establishment for a ride
  9. Keats, Shelley and Blackwood’s ‘Cockney School’: mocking the younger Romantics
  10. Byron and Blackwood’s: two great satirists go head to head
  11. Tavern Sages: the boozy tales of the Noctes Ambrosianae

So that’s the plan! Let me know what you think and hopefully I’ll be able to post individual chapters (or parts of chapters) as and when I am able to. Now, just to secure that publishing deal…

Letters and reputations

And here’s my final post from the Dorothy Wordsworth Women’s Poetry Festival, as published on the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing blog. Enjoy!

The Wordsworth Trust’s collection of letters written by the women of the Wordsworth household and their circle provides a fascinating insight into their lives, relationships, and changing roles in this intricately connected family group. The first event of the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry, Women’s Lives through Their Letters, examined some of that correspondence in detail, in particular those by Sarah Coleridge (wife of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), Sara Coleridge (her daughter), and Maria Jane Jewsbury (great friend of Wordsworth’s daughter Dora).

Maria Jane Jewsbury's letter to Dora Wordsworth, The Wordsworth Trust

Maria Jane Jewsbury’s letter to Dora Wordsworth, The Wordsworth Trust

The talks were given by current trainees of the Wordsworth Trust, recent graduates who are on a year-long traineeship at the Trust to gain experience of working in museums and with literary archives.

Letters are a curious sub-genre of autobiography and a vital tool and resource for the biographer. As well as being the only means of communicating with someone who lived too far away from you to speak to in person, they were also a way of maintaining friendships and providing companionship, and to the biographer they are a huge help is deciphering the particulars of events and characters. In a time before telephones and the internet, before newspapers were affordable and widely available, letters were often the only source of information about the world outside your own house, village or town. Although a modern audience may assume that a letter is only for its addressee, letters were often written for consumption by whole households, to be read aloud to those family members who might be too blind, illiterate or busy to sit and read them alone. In the words of Maria Jane Jewsbury, whose letters to her sister were published in 1828 as Letters to the Young, ‘letters are a great deal.’

Maria Jane Jewsbury was a gifted writer who befriended both Wordsworth and his daughter Dora, who was almost four years younger than Jewsbury. Dora herself has recently been the subject of a fascinating dual biography with Sara Coleridge, The Poets’ Daughters by Katie Waldegrave, but a solo Jewsbury biography remains unpublished. Trainee Jessie Petheram focused on the letters between Dora and Jewsbury, which show that the friendship has the intensity of a love affair, particularly for Jewsbury. Her handwriting changes as her words to Dora become more passionate, as she struggles to contain her feelings: Dora is ‘enshrined in my heart’ and Jewsbury writes the following when she announces her engagement to the Reverend William Fletcher: ‘[a]nd now dear Dora, prepare for a surprise…I was called on to decide whether I would be married or not. I found it a harder matter than expected – because I was not in love.’ Some of the surviving fragments of their communication still bear the (fortunately unheeded) legend to ‘burn after reading’, words that both thrill and guilt-trip the reader.

Letter from Sara Coleridge, The Wordsworth Trust

Letter from Sara Coleridge, The Wordsworth Trust

Trainee Adam Lines has been researching the letters of Sarah Fricker Coleridge, the long-suffering wife of the brilliant but opium-addicted Samuel Taylor, who has not been well represented in the surviving letters of those who wrote to and about her. Dorothy Wordsworth described her to Wordsworth’s soon-to-be wife Mary Hutchinson as ‘a sad fiddle-faddler’ and Mary added insult to injury by calling her ‘a stuffed turkey’. She therefore cuts a rather marginalised and unappealing figure, with none of the greatness gifted to her husband or his friends, none of the quickness of Dorothy or the supportive domesticity of Mary. Her biographer Molly Lefebure calls her ‘the most maligned of great men’s wives’, painted as an ‘ill-tempered, unloved ninny’ by biographers of Wordsworth and Coleridge (The Bondage of Love, 1986). As Lefebure notes, biographers have tended to use the published letters of William, Dorothy, Mary and Samuel Taylor when researching their relationships with Sarah Coleridge, as – rather obviously – those letters are published and therefore readily accessible. Sarah’s letters have had no chance to defend her. Those letters are far less easy to access (most of them remain unpublished), but also far less numerous. This is not because she wrote any less than other people of her time, but because she enforced a type of self-censorship in an effort to protect her husband’s reputation, destroying many of the letters relating to the years early of their marriage, Of the 200 or so that survive, those that do are often heart-rending in their emotional honesty.

One particular period of Sarah and Samuel’s lives which was brought to light in this talk was the birth and death of their son Berkeley. Before he left for Germany, Sarah and her husband agreed that she would not ‘burden’ him by writing to him about matters which would distract him from the reason he went there – to improve his mind and develop his writing. With the support of their friend and neighbour Thomas Poole, Sarah struggled not to involve her husband in the increasingly serious domestic crisis that had developed – the illness of their second son Berkeley, who was not yet two years old. Following an as-yet imperfect smallpox inoculation, Berkeley became seriously ill and Sarah finally broke the censure of silence to write to her husband: in her own words ‘I am sorry I let my feelings escape me so’. But the mechanics of the 18th-century postal service worked against her (this was a time before the penny stamp and when postage was paid by the recipient of the letter, not the sender): the letter was sent back to Somerset from the port of Yarmouth as the correct fee for sending the letter abroad had not been paid. In the meantime her husband had written to Sarah asking why he had not heard from her. This letter is just one in a cycle of missed communications, and culminates in the sad fact that it was many months before Samuel Taylor Coleridge knew of the death of his son. Sarah Coleridge puts her finger on the problem: writing to her husband, a man whose vivid imagination had produced ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’, she says, “I pray to God that I may never live to behold the death of another child, for O my dear Samuel! it is a suffering beyond your conception!”

 

Writing Motherhood: poetry and autobiography

This is the second post in my guest-blogging series for Oxford Centre for Life Writing, celebrating the third biennial Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry

Part II: Writing Motherhood: poetry and autobiography

Autobiographies are almost never written in verse, even those penned by poets. Yet poetry is often hugely and unapologetically autobiographical. Few English-language poets have even attempted to render their whole life story in verse, the notable exceptions being William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850), Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1881, with that title), John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells (1960) and Ian McMillan’s recent Talking Myself Home (2008). Even Samuel Taylor Coleridge chose to write his Biographia Literaria (1817) as prose. The fragile boundaries between fiction and autobiography in poetry are frequently blurred: Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was received as autobiography, although it is told as a fictional narrative, and indeed helped to create the idea of the ‘Byronic hero’, forever confusing the author with his creations.

Of course, almost all modern poets have drawn heavily on their own personal experiences to shape their poetry, but they tend to be individual events rather than life narratives. Wordsworth called these highly memorable events ‘Spots of Time’ – defining moments which change a person’s character forever. ThePrelude could be read as a linked series of ‘Spots of Time’: the death of his father, ice skating on frozen Esthwaite Water, travelling to France on the brink of the Revolution, and so on. In this way, Wordsworth’s influence on subsequent writers was huge: there is not a contemporary poet alive who does not draw directly from their own life stories when developing their poems. In this way the recounting of individual instances are quite common in poetry, though not the large narrative scope of The Prelude. And what event could be more life-changing that than of producing another life, the act of becoming a parent? (Which, tellingly, Wordsworth never mentions, despite fathering six children.)

None of the autobiographical poets mentioned above are women. The Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of

Carolyn Jess Cooke of 'Writing Motherhood'

Carolyn Jess Cooke of ‘Writing Motherhood’

Women’s Poetry gave an eager audience the chance to hear three women poets talk about the relationship between poetic form and autobiographical subject through the lens of motherhood. Sinéad MorrisseyRebecca Goss and Carolyn Jess-Cooke  all draw inspiration from their experiences as mothers, collaborating on an on-going poetry project called ‘Writing Motherhood. ’ Jess-Cooke began by quoting the novelist Candia McWilliam’s epithet ‘every baby costs four books’ (just to help you win that esoteric pub quiz, McWilliam has three children and five books to date). The influence of motherhood on writing is clearly a two-way experience: for all three women, it has proved inspirational for their own poetry but also prevents them from writing as much or as often as they might otherwise like to do. It is the nature of this juxtaposition which forms the crux of their project.

The sheer intensity of the motherhood experience is, without doubt, the driving force behind ‘Writing Motherhood’, which aims to put those shared experiences of motherhood into the public sphere using poetry as the medium. As I said, poetry is not the preferred medium for autobiography; the popularity of programmes and books like ‘One Born Every Minute’ and ‘Call the Midwife’ attest to the obvious suitability and popularity of prose and the televised docu-drama for this subject matter. Jess-Cooke felt that the public discussion of motherhood was often very political and derogatory towards mothers, and felt that it called out for a new type of literary representation:

‘It completely and utterly blew me away, how much I could love another human being. It far surpassed all the negativity I had felt swamping around me. I urgently needed to find an art to express all of this, a language, a literary form. I thought first about writing a non-fiction book about motherhood, then a novel. Neither of them felt right (although motherhood is a prominent theme in ALL my novels) so I started writing poetry.’ (http://www.carolynjesscooke.com/2013/11/21/writing-motherhood/)

The need to use poetry as the medium for this experience is fascinating, as though the sheer emotions wrought by birth are not best-suited to the strongly narrative nature of prose. Jess-Cooke’s poetry focuses on the process of birth (‘scurf and residue of me on her scalp’) and the first few hours of life (‘the deflating dune of your first home’), the fears and overwhelming love that accompany the birth of a new baby (‘certain I could hold the life into you’), and the joyful struggle of choosing a suitable name for the new baby (‘ancestral honouring’).

Rebecca Goss, author of Her Birth

Rebecca Goss, author of Her Birth

Rebecca Goss’ experience as a mother who then lost her baby was particularly poignant because it was as much the poetry of loss as of motherhood. Her Birth, published in 2013, is intensely autobiographical, telling the story of the pregnancy, birth and short life of her first daughter Ella, who was born with a serious heart condition, and tragically died when she was a little over a year old. Goss spoke of the difficulties she had in talking about Ella after she died; well-meaning friends would ask ‘Are you going to have another baby?’, and she found it impossibly hard to tell them that no, she did not want another baby, she wanted the daughter she had lost. Something which, she said, she found it difficult to articulate in the post office queue! So she turned to poetry instead as a way to give voice to both her experience and her emotions, and from this came another sort of birth, the inception of what became Her Birth. This metaphor was made physical by Goss’s husband, who moved her writing desk into the space which had previously held her infant daughter’s crib: a ‘wise reclamation of the site’.

The overlap between the language of birth and the language of poetry is powerful and potent, not least because

Sinéad Morrissey author photo

Sinéad Morrissey author photo

the two are symbolically linked yet rarely brought together. Sinéad Morrissey explores that relationship between creativity in language and creativity in birth: she looks back to the theory of spontaneous generation, plays with the nature of the word ‘eve’ (to capitalise or not ‘the breaking of E/eve’?), and ghosts her writing with the voices of her children: ‘in other noises I hear my children crying’. In a genre historically dominated by men it was hugely refreshing and inspiring to hear three women discuss the interplay between form and subject, bringing together poetry, autobiography and motherhood unashamedly together.

What to do about Dorothy’s Journal

I have been guest-blogging for Oxford Centre for Life Writing to celebrate the third biennial Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry. In each posts I have reviewed an event from the Festival, and looked at events which investigate intersections between life-writing and poetry.

Part I: What to do about Dorothy’s Journal 

Dorothy's Journal copyright the Wordsworth Trust

Dorothy’s Journal copyright the Wordsworth Trust

Incest. Plagiarism. Exploitation. Any biographer of William and/or Dorothy Wordsworth is immediately faced with the challenge of these three hugely controversial matters when talking about the nature of the relationship between these two remarkable siblings. At the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry two Wordsworthian heavyweights, Professor Lucy Newlyn and Dr Pamela Woof, both of whom have published biographies of Dorothy Wordsworth in the last year, tackled these fascinating and thorny issues.

First, what to make of the charges of plagiarism and exploitation? The title of the festival is a nod towards the influence of life-writing on poetry: Dorothy Wordsworth herself is best-known not for her poems (of which there are very few), but for that autobiographical Journal which documented the life of the Wordsworths during the early part of their time at Dove Cottage. This place became the crucible for experiments in life-writing by this unusual and inventive brother and sister: William wrote large parts of his major autobiographical poem the Prelude (‘a poem on the growth of a poet’s mind’) and Dorothy penned her now-famous Grasmere Journal.

However, this journal was never written for public consumption: Dorothy wrote that she kept it ‘so that I will not quarrel with myself’ and ‘to give Wm pleasure by it.’ Yet Dorothy was a skilled diarist: she had already kept an account of their life at Alfoxden and would go on to write Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland in 1803, which she hoped would be published. Her wish never came true within her own lifetime; the Wordsworth scholar Ernest De Selincourt remarked that she was ‘the most distinguished of English prose writers who never wrote a line for the general public.’

However the impact of her writing is undeniable, particularly the impact of her journals on her brother’s poetry. The nature of this creative relationship is a fraught topic of literary debate, as William’s poems seem to draw heavily on Dorothy’s diaries for not only descriptions of specific events (seeing daffodils on the shores of Ullswater, travelling through London at sunrise) but even in their use of metaphors, similes, and the emotional response felt by the viewer. But what was the true nature of that creative relationship – did William stifle Dorothy’s creativity? Worse, did he appropriate her words and ideas and publish them under his own name? Did Dorothy subvert her own creativity in order to support her brother?

Lucy and Pamela’s readings of the creative relationship between the siblings are similar, though not identical, but both believe that this relationship has been wilfully and anachronistically misunderstood by biographers. Lucy began by saying ‘history has made Dorothy William’s acolyte’. Not William, not Dorothy, but the critical reception to their writing has interpreted their relationship thus. Both Pamela and Lucy agree that Dorothy was not an ‘adjunct’ to William, that there was no exploitative element to their relationship. Dorothy, Mary and William all read – or at the very least, heard passages from – the journal, and Lucy paints a picture of the three sitting down together in 1804 reminiscing about the walk by Ullswater in 1802, the siblings’ memories aided by the journal in an (albeit imagined) conversation which drew Mary into their shared history. ‘William later attributed the lines ‘They flash upon the inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude’ to his wife, and said of Dorothy ‘she gave me eyes, she gave me ears’, so this collaborative creativity seems to have been genuine, and in part acknowledged.

Secondly – could their relationship be described as incestuous? The dialogue also focused on interpreting one key episode in the Wordsworths’ lives: what happened between Dorothy and William just before his marriage to Mary Hutchinson in 1802. Dorothy’s journal entry of 4 October of that year details her actions and emotions, but this poses an irresistible challenge to biographers, for several lines of the journal are crossed out and cannot easily be read. Theories abound as to who crossed these out, and why – do they, perhaps, contain the suggestion of an incestuous relationship between the siblings? Pamela Woof relates how, in 1958, an early editor of Dorothy’s Journal, Helen Darbishire, took the manuscript to be examined under infra-red light in an attempt to decipher the words hidden beneath the unknown censor’s scrawl. This confirmed that the ink itself dates from the same time as that which Dorothy used to write the original entry, dispelling theories that a later descendent of Wordsworth, the censorious Gordon Graham Wordsworth, excised passages from the Journals in this way. Pamela’s own reading of the lines is not ‘and blessed me fervently’, but the distinctly less passionate ‘as I blessed the ring gently’. Yet Pamela does not deny the strength of feeling between the siblings: ‘Dorothy certainly was in love with William’, but for her the incest ‘myth’ is just that, not a credible theory about the nature of their relationship.

For Lucy the exchange of the wedding ring by William and Dorothy of the morning of the wedding is without doubt ‘an important ritual at a threshold moment.’ She reminds us that sisters were, at that time when unmarried sisters were often supported by their married siblings, central to the wider family dynamic. But for her, too, the incest theory holds no water.

But Dorothy’s life and writing should not only been looked at in relation to her brother – what about the language of those autobiographical writings? Frances Wilson, author of The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008) described it thus: ‘Her prose is defined by modesty and reserve, by the fear of what might happen were she to let herself go.’ This is, however, only one possible interpretation. Pamela Woof, quoting Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, says that one ‘might see, and notice not’ – but that in contrast, Dorothy always notices. What Wilson sees as ‘modesty and reserve’ Pamela sees as acutely reflective, referencing the image of ‘hawthorn on the mountain like orchards in blossom’ as indicative of Dorothy’s passion for nature and ability to respond sensually and creatively to the world around her. Pamela revels in the ‘less concrete images’ from the Journal, images elusive yet present: ‘a hidden bird, ‘a breath of fragrance independent of the wind’, perhaps allowing them to represent Dorothy herself – someone who is present in both the diaries and her brother’s poems, but only as a fleeting, though inspiring, presence.

Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words

Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words – the authorised biography, Boel Westin (2014) trans. Silvester Mazzarella

Long before Tove Jansson’s death in 2001 I longed to learn more about the enigmatic author of the Moomin books. When I first encountered these stories as a child I had no idea how to pronounce her name nor, as the biographical blurb inside the front cover gave no clue as to her gender, even whether it was a man or woman’s name. My maternal grandmother began our family’s love affair with the Moomins in the 1950s, when she read the Moomin comic strip in the newspaper and subsequently bought the books (in English) for her six children. My mother, aunts and uncles became devotees and my cousins were similarly infected with Moominmania – one of them even has a large tattoo of Moomin wallpapering his stomach. I loved the names of the characters – Snufkin, whompers, hemulens and mymbles – for their humour and implied affection between the author and her creations. And when I had my first car and house of my own, I kept a copy of Tales from Moomin Valley in the glove box, to read on my way home on the regular ferry crossing of Windermere. It felt entirely appropriate, given the amount of sailing and bathing done by the Moomins and their friends, and the stories fitted neatly into a couple of short journeys across the lake.

Tove on sofa

When my good friend Simon over at Stuck in a Book was sent a (free!) copy of Life, Art, Words to review in early January, I was both beset by jealous and huge excitement, and immediately treated myself to a hardback edition (the only one available). And throughout the wet, cold weeks of January, as my fiancé and I settled into our new home, hunkered down into the hillside above Grasmere, I devoured it in nightly installments.

‘She wrote no autobiography – she left that to Moominpappa. The nearest thing was her collection of stories of childhood, Sculptor’s Daughter (1968). But she spent her whole life writing a book about herself in pictures and words. Together, her many self-portraits, from those sketched in her diaries up to her last large-scale paintings, create a narrative of the self known as Tove Jansson and form a visual autobiography. It presents her, launches her, masks her and documents her.’

So beings Boel Westin’s tour de force, a 523-page epic which brings together Tove Jansson’s life, art and words. Tove Jansson’s family were unusually creative and both her parents were  artists in their own rights; her father Viktor Jansson was a sculptor and her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson a graphic artist. Her brothers Lars and Per Olov became a cartoonist and an photographer respectively.  Tove was the eldest and only daughter in this household, and even from infancy her parents nurtured her artistic talent. She also became the subject of their  art, starting with sketches by her mother (always known as ‘Ham’) of Tove from when she was just a few days old. There never seems to have been any doubt in Tove’s incredible artistic power by he family, and although she is now best-known for her Moomin creations this book gives full credence to her other talents as an artist, satirical cartoonist, children’s author and short story writer. The first half of the book follows her through school, art college, to Paris to live the bohemian dream in her atelier, back to Finland to live with her family again, and finally to her own studio and home in Helsinki. The ominous threat and presence of war form the background to this personal narrative, which also weaves in the story of Tove’s lovers: the painter Sam Vanni, the hugely charismatic left-wing politician Atos Wirtanen, the theatre director Vivica Bandler, and the love of her life, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä.

To the Moomin reader, Atos and Tuulikki seem curiously familiar, their characteristics amusing and comforting, because they inspired Tove to create some of the most popular inhabitants of Moominland. Atos Wirtanen’s joyful easiness, his old green hat, and lack of concern for material possessions are also apparent in the wandering musician Snufkin; Tuulikki (always know as ‘Tooti’) is present in both the name and nature of the energetic figure of Too-Ticky. ‘It is the nature of biography to pick a path through work and life, and move backwards and forwards between various types of material – in Tove Jansson’s case, between words and pictures.’ Boel Westin mimics that ‘path picking’ herself, as she follows the meta-narratives of Tove’s creations as a way of the shaping the biography. This is almost a dual biography: that of Tove, but also that of her most famous creations, the Moomins. The two run more or less in parallel, but the publication and production of the Moomin stories strongly shapes the narrative shape of the second half of the biography.

However, by this point in the book I had begun to loose enthusiasm for this type of ‘editing biography’, which seemed to move away from the familial and personal and into long battles with editors and publishers. Little vignettes captured me momentarily (the chapter on Tove and Tooti’s round the world trip was fascinating) but the book seemed to slide towards a kind of distant respectful recounting of the practical process of presenting the Moomins to the world, and away from what drove Tove Jansson to write, draw and create in the first place. Perhaps I will feel differently when I return to it in a few months or years, perhaps I simply overdosed on too much Tove in a short space of time. The first half of the book is brilliant, insightful and entertaining; the second slips away until Tove herself becomes only a vague and slightly impersonal presence. But I’m now off to order Sculptor’s Daughter

Want to hear another opinion? Try Stuck in a Book

In the Blood

In the Blood – A Memoir of My Childhood, Andrew Motion (Faber, 2006)

On a dreary January day I picked up this book, knowing virtually nothing about Andrew Motion except that he’d been the ‘safe choice’ Poet Laureate before Carol Ann Duffy, and that he’d once refused permission to use a recording of one of his poems in a small exhibition on classic poetry. I did not have the impression of him as someone who would write a particularly fascinating autobiography.

In the Blood (Faber, 2006)However, I was curiously drawn to it, not least because I had a long afternoon stretching out before me when my only task was to print and fold hundreds of letters, so anything was a welcome distraction. And as so often is the case with Faber, the book itself is an attractive book, with red thorns curling across the cover and the title and author’s name picked out in red and black tipsy capitals. Printed on textured paper, it felt slightly rough to the touch, but the spine seemed unbroken, the pages unthumbed. A bad omen?

As it turns out, no. In the Blood  is a bloody book: Motion’s family are upper middle-class and hunt, shoot and fish with their set, and Motion appears both smeared in fox blood and dripping with the blood of a recently-shot deer at various points. Although I am not an advocate of blood sports, this detail served as a particularly visceral metaphor for the vicissitudes of growing up, whilst placing Motion firmly in a recognisable social milieu .

Motion (and how fitting to have such a vibrant abstract noun as your surname) is a deft turner of phrase and tale. His autobiography opens with the description of one day in late adolescence. The themes of first love, or at least first lust, and burgeoning adulthood quickly shift towards the side of the lens through which we are looking at Motion’s life, as a far greater and darker event is about to overshadow his world. We then jump back to early childhood, and then further back into the half-remembered, half-mythologised world of older Motions and Bakewells.

However, when he gets to senior school (Radley College) time seems to slip from Motion’s grasp. He’s preparing for his O-levels, and then suddenly he’s 12 years old again, and mere paragraphs later he’s about to start his A-levels. Before long I’d lost track of the order of what happened during his teenage years; perhaps this was simply mimetic of the confusion that he felt during that time (although it seems to be the period in which Motion felt most comfortable and purposeful), but it struck me as slightly lazy writing, as if he almost couldn’t be bothered to write as carefully as he had done in earlier chapters.

However , as you might expect from a poet, the crafting of the words themselves is the book’s redeeming feature. Never mind poetry in motion, this Motion’s prose is as lively, vivid and dramatic as you could wish for in autobiographical writing. He inhabits the mind of his younger self with convincing ease, presenting conversations and memories in such a moving and authentic way that you have to remind yourself that these infant rememberings must be coloured with the filter of adult comprehension. Motion and his readers seem tragically drawn towards his mother, and the book is peppered with premonitions of her final illness and fragility. These hints always spurred me on to find out what would happen to her – and Motion himself. I began to care for them as a family, their struggles and actions seeming wholly real, sometimes sad and often endearing. It mixed pathos with humour and resilience, and made real and rounded characters of Motion’s family. And it made me want to read his poetry, in part to see if any of these episodes had crossed over from prosody into verse.

What’s next?  I am impatiently waiting for a delivery of Tove Jansson’s new biography Life, Art, Words so expect to see a review of it on here very soon!

Discriminating brevity

Over the last few months I have continuously struggled to write blog posts about classic literature, largely because I wasn’t reading much of it. Then I realised what I had actually been reading and enjoying were biographies and autobiographies. I’d raced through David Millar’s Racing Through the Dark, which followed hot on the wheels of Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race – even though I am hardly the keenest follower of cycling, comparing these two accounts of the pressures and personalities of pro-cycling was fascinating. It helped that, for sports autobiographies, both were incredibly well-(ghost)written. Kudos to Daniel Coyle and Jeremy Whittle, as well as Millar and Hamilton, for that.

So I decided to shift the focus of this blog to life writing. I hope you, my small readership, will not mind.

Open Book (Robert Sparkes)

Open Book (Robert Sparkes)

Wonders of the Everyday – Dorothy Wordsworth

Wonders of the Everyday – Dorothy Wordsworth

Silhouette of Dorothy as a young woman (The Wordsworth Trust)

Silhouette of Dorothy as a young woman (The Wordsworth Trust)

This blog is yet to look at the life and works of that sometimes under-appreciated but nonetheless literary resident of Dove Cottage, Dorothy Wordsworth. For the first time, the Wordsworth Trust has an exhibition solely dedicated to Dorothy – if you haven’t already seen the ‘Wonders of the Everyday’, it is open until 5th January and contains a huge variety of rarely-seen material. The Journal is contained within four tiny volumes (the fifth has been lost) and has recently been placed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.

One year younger than her more famous sibling, Dorothy was the only girl in a family of four boys and after her mother died when she was six, she only rarely saw her brothers. Dorothy was a prolific letter-writer and diarist, and it is thanks to her Grasmere Journals that we know what life in Dove Cottage was really like for the Wordsworths. It was not only William (referred to hereafter as ‘Wm’) and Dorothy who lived together in Grasmere; their brother John also spent several weeks and months sharing the small cottage with his siblings, and in 1802 they are joined by Wm’s new wife and childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson (MH).

What we now called the Grasmere Journals were never intended for publication – Dorothy states the reasons for keeping a journal as ‘so that I will not quarrel with myself’ and ‘to give Wm pleasure by it.’ Although she was not celebrated as a writer during her own lifetime, her extraordinary sensitivity and responsiveness to art and nature were remarked upon by those who knew her. Thomas De Quincey, friend of the Wordsworths and subsequent tenant of Dove Cottage, observed that:

Is the young woman in the top corner Dorothy Wordsworth? (The Wordsworth Trust)

Is the young woman in the top corner Dorothy Wordsworth? (The Wordsworth Trust)

‘Her eyes were not soft nor, were they fierce or bold; but they were wild and startling, and hurried in their motion. Her manner was warm and even ardent; her sensibility seemed constitutionally deep; and some subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her’.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who perhaps was even a little in love with his close friend’s sister, noted that, whilst she was not startlingly beautiful, ‘her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature’ and ‘her information various.’

In 1897, 52 years after her death at the age of 84, William Angus Knight first published an edited version of Dorothy’s Journal, and it has been a puzzle and a joy to its readers ever since. Here is Dorothy’s entry from this day, 213 years ago:
Friday, 17th October 1800

A very fine grey morning. The swan hunt. Sally working in the garden. I walked round the lake between ¼ past 12, and ½ past one – wrote to MH. After dinner I walked to Lloyds – carried my letters to Miss N and MH. The Lloyds not in – I waited for them. Charles not well. Letters from MH, Biggs & John. In my walk in the morning, I observed Benson’s honey-suckles in flower, & great beauty. It was a very fine mild evening. Lloyd’s servants came with me to Parkes. I found Wm at home, where he had been almost ever since my departure – Coleridge had done nothing for the L. B. Working hard for Stuart. Glow-worms in abundance.

As this is a private diary, Dorothy uses her own shorthand and has the customary 19th century disregard for our modern conventions of capitalisation. A glance at Pamela Woof’s excellent footnotes helps to unlock some of the more obtuse references: ‘The L. B.’ is Lyrical Ballads; ‘The Swan Hunt’ refers to exactly that (cygnets were considered a delicacy); ‘Biggs’ is a reference to Nathaniel Biggs, business partner for Wordsworth’s Bristol publisher Joseph Cottle; the Parkes are a family who lived at Nab Cottage, Rydal.

As Dorothy may have seen Grasmere - William Taylor Longmire, Grasmere 1878

As Dorothy may have seen Grasmere – William Taylor Longmire, Grasmere 1878

The true beauty of the Journal s in the way Dorothy notices the natural world about her: ‘a very fine grey morning’, ‘honey-suckles in flower, & great beauty’ and ‘glow-worms in abundance’. Her eye for the miracles of nature is as fine-tuned as her brother’s, if not more so. In a way, her lasting (if largely unrecognised) contribution to the literary world has been to enable Wordsworth to compose poems such as ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ and ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’, both experiences which she records faithfully and in lively detail months or even years before William creates his poems. It is well worth a quick comparison of Dorothy’s entry from 15th April 1802 with William’s poem of 1804:

15 April 1802 journal

15 April 1802 journal

“When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road.
I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway. “

And again, her influence can be seen in this entry from 31 July 1802:
It was a beautiful morning. The City, St Pauls, with the River & a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand Spectacles.

Having read these, I always have to question who is the true originator of Wordsworth’s famous poems – and if they were published today, would they be co-authored?

You can read the accompanying exhibition catalogue for ‘Wonders of the Everyday’ here – https://wordsworth.org.uk/shop/dorothy-wordsworth-wonders-of-the-everyday.html

Water, water every where

National Poetry Day

Water, water every where...

Water, water every where…

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

The theme for this year’s National Poetry Day is ‘Water, Water, Everywhere’, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem of 1798 ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. It’s a gift of a theme for us here at the Wordsworth Trust, where STC and his work feature in our daily tours of Dove Cottage, and also because we live in the wettest part of England, the Lake District. If you’re not already familiar with the poem, you can listen to the mellifluous voice of Ian McKellen in a special recording for the Wordsworth Trust here.

‘Rime’ is not, I must confess, my favourite poem. Although its lines have passed into common idiom (‘an albatross around one’s neck’, along with the aforesaid ‘water, water’) and the images of Life-in-death and the ghostly ship remain with me long after I have closed the book, the rather lengthy preamble is somewhat off-putting, as is the ‘wedding guest’ device.

Coleridge's life mask

Coleridge’s life mask

However, today I performed the entire poem as part of a NPD Poetry Marathon: it took about 25 minutes and it really made me engage with poem’s language. I realised how repetitive it is, but also how effectively that repetition has been deployed. I loved the nightmarish feeling as each new episode loomed into view, more horrific than the last, and felt quite giddy as I recited the final lines (whether from elation or exhaustion, I’m not sure). The audience and performers agreed that one really good outcome of the Marathon was that it gave us the freedom to recite longer poems, which are often overlooked in favour of something sort and snappy which fits in with the usual pigeon-brain poetry-span of people’s attention. In fact, the whole day has been a bit like being tuned into a radio channel playing exclusively poetry, rather than the drone of typing, phone calls, and the whine of the heating system. Huge thanks to everyone who read today – you are all champions of poetry and thoroughly good eggs to boot. You can read the poetry of two of our readers here and here.

Before I go, I just want to mention two of my water-themed favourite poems, ‘Inversnaid’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins  and ‘Amphibians’ by Neil Rollinson, which you can find on page 33 of this anthology. ‘Inversnaid’ is the most evocative of Hopkins’ sound poems, rich in internal rhyme and bubbling with the streams, burns and becks which run through it. The Bodleian Library have the manuscript of the poem (and a wonderful recording to boot) – treat yourself to a listen. Although Inversnaid is in Scotland, the poem feels like an invocation to the Lake District and it often springs to mind when I am out walking.

Neil Rollinson's Amphibians

Neil Rollinson’s Amphibians

‘Amphibians’ was inspired by a long period of persistently wet weather here in the Lakes, when Neil Rollinson was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust. He was one of the first poets I met in person: lying on a sofa, with greasy hair and a leather jacket, smoking a cigarette. The poem describes so accurately the kind of desperation and depression that endless rainy days can induce, yet it is a vibrant poem which is comforting and humorous to read.

One more piece of poetry to send you on your way: the Scottish Poetry Library have produced this beautiful video, incorporating 8 water-themed poems for you to enjoy. Happy National Poetry Day!

Attribution: Johannes Jansson/norden.org

100 years of reading…

A really good way to broaden your taste in literature is to do commit yourself to a reading challenge.

Attribution: Johannes Jansson/norden.org

Attribution: Johannes Jansson/norden.org

I’ve just signed up for A Century of Books after being inspired by Stuck-in-A-Book, who has already completed one Century and is about to start his second in January 2014. A Century of Books is just that – a challenge to read one book for every year of a given century. I’m jumping in with 1900 and will blog about my journey through the 20th century over the coming months. Although you could take this up as a New Year’s Resolution, I’m going to make it my Academic New Year’s Resolution and start now. Who’s with me? I’ll be blogging about each book I read – and I’ll be reading them in chronological order, starting with Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad.

Other reading challenges to try are:

  • Six Books Challenge, for those who find reading difficult
  • Book Trust run a series of games and competitions throughout the year for readers of all ages, from babies to grannies and everyone in between
  • The Literary Exploration Reading Challenge at Literary Exploration – they’ve dated it 2013 but you could attempt it any time
  • Follow in the footsteps of A Penguin a Week but with any publisher or series: how about a poetry one using Faber’s iconic poetry series or Persephone’s beautiful ‘neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women’

There are also lots of great online memes and articles to get you thinking about what you read

Right, off to go and collect Lord Jim from his lofty resting place in the library…

Famous Seamus is no more

This late August saw the last days of Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet and playwright who has died aged 74.

The first poem by Heaney I ever read was ‘Blackberry Picking’. In a chaotic classroom with the shame of our former teacher’s breakdown still hanging unspoken in the air, a nervous supply teacher gulped into his beard and read this poem to us:

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.

I can’t say that, at thirteen, I loved it. But it did seem hugely real to me – how could he recall something I had done myself, without having been standing there beside me? My best friend and I thrilled and laughed at the ‘rat-grey fungus’, whilst the pathos in the last couplet encapsulates the feeling I love most about autumn: the hope that the last warmth sun will stay forever and the soft sigh of inevitability that it will not.

DeathOfANaturalist

Studying English at university, I came across Heaney again. This time, he threw me a life raft as I thrashed about in the turbulent seas of Old English Literature, trying to find the whale’s way through the waves of eths and thorns. His beautiful translation of Beowulf allowed me to enjoy the poem, rather than struggling through line after line of painful translation which threatened to rob it of any beauty or descriptive power intended by its initial, unknown, authors.

As I listened to Christopher Ricks’ ‘Many Voices: From the Regional’ lecture, Heaney poked me again. This time he used a proggling stick in The Redress of Poetry, hailing the vernacular poet John Clare as his poetic precursor, linked to him through language.  Having grown up in Suffolk, with a paternal family that spoke Suffolk dialect at home, connecting the vernacular with supposed ‘literary’ language was an eye-opener – or perhaps more correctly, an ear-opener.

This, to me, is Seamus Heaney’s greatest legacy: to open ears to the possibilities of language, not shutting doors to literature and history and people.

Literature –who wants a textually transmitted disease?

What is literature? – a nice easy question to get this blog started…

Some best-loved books in my collection

Some of my best-loved books – but do they count as literature?

Jane Yolen describes it humorously as ‘a textually transmitted disease, normally contracted in childhood’ – catchy, but perhaps not altogether definitive. A quick search of some popular online sources gives definitions ranging from Wikipedia’s short and sweet ‘the art of written work’ to Oxford Dictionaries’ ‘written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit’ . This then raises the question of who considers them superior or lasting. For those contemplating studying English at university it can often be bewildering to realise that favourite books are not considered ‘literature’. To me, for example, Rumer Godden’s works are hugely important for the role they played in developing my love of literature. Well-written and witty, they absolutely made me realise that ‘You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’ (Great soundbite, F Scott Fitzgerald.)

For the purposes of this blog I think it is important to keep the definition broad – the work has to be published in the UK, originally in English, and the person blogging about it only has to to demonstrate that, for them, it has artistic merit. I’m reminded of a competition run by the Scottish Book Trust in 2009, which encouraged people to recommend ‘The Book That Changed My Life’ and thereby illustrating the power of the written word to deeply influence people.

As I work in literary heritage education (at The Wordsworth Trust, since you ask) I hope to be drawing on the knowledgeable enthusiasm of my colleagues at various Lit Houses, as well as some friendly literary bloggers from the interweb (you rather spring to mind, Stuck-In-A-Book…)

Each post will look at a different author or literary work and signposted a few bits of further reading or viewing. As this post doesn’t really give you much literature to get your teeth into, let’s start with a look at the building blocks of literature – the language. Some marvellous folks at the Open University have made this handy little 10-minute video guide to English – enjoy!

The Gathering Tide

A couple of weeks ago I was up at St Andrews attending a little nature-writing festival put on by Waterstones. I’m not much of a one for literary festivals – one summer stint at Edinburgh International Book Festival and one spring weekend at 2014’s Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Writing is my sum total to date – but nature writing is one of my favourite genres and I was looking for an excuse to get to know this little seaside town better, as my husband had just got a job there and we’d be moving there in a couple of months. It was also pretty cheaper – £10 per person for a whole day of events, and that £10 fee redeemable against the cost of any books bought. Sold!

gathering tideThe festival space was a corner of Waterstones packed with chairs and guarded by a table containing lots of tasty things to eat: we arrived in the middle of the afternoon to a choice of cakes, tea and juice and happily settled in to some nibbling before the reading started. We were there to hear Karen Lloyd talking about The Gathering Tide (2016), a book which explores the edgelands of Morecambe Bay on the south-western periphery of the Lake District. Having met and married my husband in the Lakes, crossing the sands of Morecambe Bay with him and a group of friends in 2013 (more of which here), it’s fair to say that we know and love this area well – though not anywhere near as well as Karen Lloyd, who spent a year tracing the Bay’s basin to research this book.

Lloyd has a lifetime’s love of the Bay, having moved to South Cumbria as a child and living there still. She’s also dug deeply into the area’s history, hunting out maritime charts and chasing elusive guides to lead her to places like Piel Island, with its King and Castle and pub, The Ship Inn.