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!

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.