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

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