Four Hedges

It seems hard to believe with drifts of snow heaped against the door, but today’s World Book Day coincides with the first meteorological day of spring. To celebrate, here is a review of Four Hedges by Clare Leighton, a book that rejoices in the earthiness of the garden.

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Asphodel, Clare Leighton

Four Hedges is a pocket-sized delight. First published by Victor Gollancz in 1935 and reprinted by Little Toller in 2010, the book charts a year in Leighton’s Chiltern garden of the 1930s. Born in London in 1898, Clare Leighton was an artist, writer, designer and wood-engraver who emigrated to America in 1939, where she settled in North Carolina and taught at Duke University.  As well as creating the woodcuts used in her own books, she also illustrated the works of Thomas Hardy, Gilbert White and Henry David Thoreau. Studded throughout with Leighton’s gem-like woodcuts of plants, flowers, birds and garden scenes, Four Hedges is part art exhibition, part memoir, and part discourse on the individual’s relationship with their home and the natural world around it.

Beginning in April with the ‘piercing grey winds’ of early spring, Four Hedges walks us through Leighton’s garden month by month. It begins by drawing parallels between the worlds of horticulture and theatre: ‘[t]he drama of the year is late in starting and I am in time for the first act.’ This is no how-to-garden guide, but a psychogeographic exploration by an artist of a place intimately known. Arriving back in the Chilterns from a holiday in Corsica, Leighton notes that her return brings with it a sense that her ‘year is out of focus’, the heat of the Mediterranean putting her disjointedly out of step with her garden.

Leighton reconnects to her garden – and to her reality – through digging its earth with her bare hands. Even when she spikes her foot on a thistle, ‘there is this feeling of goodness coming up into me from the ground’. In the 1930s she was already warning her readers against growing too detached from the physical world:

‘We are losing much, these days, when we no longer get this naked contact with the earth. The sensation of touch seems to be fading, and lazily we look at things with our eyes, and smell the more pronounced scents around us, ignoring the vast range of emotion that is within the scope of hand or foot […] we are poor creatures that we should call ourselves civilised, we who have only these blunted powers’.

Four Hedges, p.92

Although Leighton’s book is no gardening guide, it nevertheless imparts snippets of countryside lore from generations past. Lacey, Leighton’s gardener with a ‘rumbling, earthy voice’, is a Chiltern native who embodies the folk wisdom of an older England. The adage that fair weather at Candlemas is the sign hard winter weather still to come introduces Leighton’s February chapter, and I see that 2018, like 1935, has a February that disappears into a blizzard:

‘By midday the snow has started, blown horizontal across the land by the violent winds, it lies in a thin scatter on the hill-tops, transforming them into high mountains. By nightfall it has begun to settle, and […] I listen in bed to that absolute silence without, which comes upon the earth only when it is covered with snow.’

Four Hedges, p.147/8

As I write this the weather is bitterly cold, snow whirling around the house like an icy dervish. Our village’s main road passes by our house, but for the last two says snow has muffled ‘the ugly sounds of civilisation’, plunging us into a near-silent world. Reading Leighton’s winter chapters makes me feel doubly connected to this weather  as it rattles hail down the stove pipe and flings gobbets of snow at our windows.

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Bullfinch swinging on the weigela

Standing in the kitchen window I see three goldfinches jostling for space on the bird feeder, and by the hedge a blue tit pokes its beak into the brittle orange beech leaves that still linger from the autumn. As Leighton observed, the white blankness of the snow makes the colours of the birds jump out as its white blankness ‘heightens and burnishes the greys and browns of sparrow and thrush […] dull colours that would pass unnoticed against the usual background of earth and field become infused with life when they stand against snow’. 20180228_120533Two bullfinches bounce bright into my garden, puffed up against the weather. The male, vivid coral pink at his breast, swings from the slender branches of the bare weigela, pecking off its buds in his hunger. Under the nearby cypress his pale buff mate nestles her feather-bulk into the mulch of leaves, twigs and grass on the ground, flicking over leaves with her beak in the hunt for insects. The gold finches flash their war-painted red and black faces at each other as they attack the nyger seed, their black and yellow wings a fluttering blur as they compete to perch on the feeder.

As Leighton and I share our gardens and the weather, I feel closer to both through comparing our worlds, seeing my world the sharper for its reflection in hers. Like her woodcuts, Leighton’s prose is precise and clear, clarifying the smudged, untidy world. With her I luxuriate in the ‘gentle, growing rain’ of April with its ‘silky rustle’; thrill at the prospect of ‘sunshine and swallows, apple blossom and cowslips’ when ‘the skirts of the hedges froth white with cow parsley’ in May; and imagine holding my new baby come June when ‘the garden is a nursery of nests and young birds’. My favourite season, autumn, arrives with apples knocked to the ground in a thunderstorm, this new year-spell ‘gently showing the marks of its fingers in heavy morning dews’.

Leighton’s is truly an artist’s experience of the world, alive to movement and colour, smell and touch. It seems only fair to let her have the last word, on this day of spring and books:

‘Spring is upon us, and will not be hindered by winds or rain, or scurries of snow.’

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Happy World Book Day from snowy Ceres

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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.

 

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?

Mapping literary landscapes

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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?