I have a bone to pick with Phil Rickman’s publishers. What do they think they’re doing publishing the latest Merrily Watkins novel at such a busy time of year? Now my poor family are going to have to fend for themselves and the tapestry is going to be neglected, while I immerse myself in the latest supernatural happenings at the vicarage in Ledwardine.
I suppose with an immense amount of will-power, I could have put The Magus of Hay on the shelf and waited for a quieter time, but come on – he’s not only given us the first Merrily book for two years, but he’s set it in Hay-on-Wye (my spiritual home). I mean really – how inconsiderate. I have no choice, I just have to read it…NOW!
Well it’s a few weeks since I embarked on a self-imposed challenge not to buy any new books, but instead to read or re-read titles languishing on my shelves (or piled up by the bed, in the bathroom, on my desk – oh you know the score).
So how am I doing?
Umm. First the good news – I’ve managed to avoid buying any new books (for me that is, for some reason, at precisely the same time I start this challenge, my two daughters, brought up from birth in a seriously bookish house, but until now hardly avid readers, have decided that now is the time to be smitten by the reading bug. This is good news, so obviously I’m going to encourage it).
When I started, I was waiting to read A TIme To Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
It’s a short book, describing Leigh Fermor’s experience of monastic retreats. I was intrigued, because in the distant past, I went on a couple of silent retreats and still vividly remember the roller-coaster of emotions I felt while keeping the silence. As I’ve got older, I do feel myself valuing silence much more than I did in those days. I’m not sure I could honestly say I enjoyed the experience back then, but now, I’m pretty convinced that I’d welcome it, at least for a few days. It was fascinating for me to read about Leigh Fermor’s response to longer periods of silence and the rhythmic cycle of the monastic day. I read it, drawing parallels with my own experience and I wonder how it would come across if the reader hadn’t had any similar experience.
After that, I picked up Alison Weir’s Isabella, She-Wolf of France.
I have managed to re-read it – even though I knew how it ended! It was just as interesting as the first read through, and had me wondering how women lived in the Middle Ages, but I think perhaps my views on Isabella have hardened a little over time. I’m sure she faced some truly hideous situations, but I’m not sure she’d have been someone I liked much on a personal level.
And now I have to confess – I think I’m experiencing a few withdrawal symptoms. I have been very good at avoiding browsing on Amazon, but not having a new book to look forward to (even though I’ve plenty of unread books sitting here), is making me a bit anxious. And I can’t seem to feel the same anticipation and excitement about the books I have lined up. Why is that?
Anyway, I’m not about to cave in, so I’ve decided that next I need to read something I haven’t read before – maybe I need to balance a re-read against a first time – so, what will it be?
In a moment of nostalgia, last summer I downloaded to the Kindle the complete works of Anthony Trollope. (I should say I read The Prime Minister for ‘A’ Level and didn’t mind it – maybe because it wasn’t that long after the BBC had serialised The Pallisers). At that time, I remember my English teacher, Alan Holden of Bromsgrove (the same wonderful teacher the actor Mark Williams credited with being one of his heroes – see here), saying that he loved these novels and re-read them regularly. I wondered then what is was about Trollope’s novels that marked them as special to such a widely read teacher as being worthy of re-reading. I’m going to take him at his word, and give them a go. I wonder if he’d be amused to know how long his influence could still be felt.
So off I go to charge the Kindle. I’ll take them one at a time in sequence – it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.
It could be a long summer…
– )O( –
If anyone else is sticking with the challenge, I’d love to know how you’re getting on too.
I was elbow deep in potato peelings when I heard the news last night, that the author Iain Banks had died at the grossly unfairly young age of 59. I’d missed the apparently well publicised announcement that he was suffering from terminal cancer, so it came as a huge shock.
Like many of his fans, I can date my attraction from the mid 1980s and his first novel The Wasp Factory. (I just checked and I have the second edition – 1985). I remember reading it while on holiday in the Highlands, in fact I can even tell you that I read a lot of it sitting in the dunes of Balnakeil Beach near Durness, engrossed.
Until then I hadn’t read much outside the classics I’d studied for A level, so his novel came as quite a surprise. You can see from the reviews, he included in the beginning of the book, he wasn’t to everyone’s liking….
But I was one of the very many who thought he was wonderful.
Over the years I’ve read my way through a number of his Iain Banks books – the Other Half likes his sci-fi titles better (Iain M. Banks).
If you’ve been here recently, you’ll know that inspired by Susan Hill, I am undertaking a challenge not to buy any new books for a year, but to read the ones I already have but haven’t read, or re-read titles that call out for another airing.
As you can probably see, all my Iain Banks books are well and truly read. In the normal course of things, I wouldn’t have put any of his titles on my list for this challenge, but after this sad news, I may well re-read The Crow Road, which I think is my favourite of all. (Occasionally if I can’t sleep at night, I try to remember the body count and sequence in The Crow Road).
One of his books that I didn’t buy, was his travels in search of Single Malts. This was out of pique – having spent a couple of years doing my own informal whisky tours and being peeved that he’d got a book out of it.
But it is my sincere wish that he is now sitting in heaven at a bar stocked with all the best single malts and with the Black Bowmore on tap.
I appreciate his works may not be to everyone’s taste, but I was a fan and so to his family and fans world-wide, I for one extend my sincere condolences – a sad day indeed.
I still haven’t decided whether I have enough will-power to go without buying books for a year (or indeed a few months)- see hereBut just in case, I thought I’d start picking out titles from the shelves – not too many though, a few at a time might be best.
I came up with three candidates for my already-owned reading list.
Two titles are books I bought on trips to the second-hand book shops in Hay-on-Wye.
Hay is one of my favourite places – what bibliophile wouldn’t appreciate a whole town filled with books. When I used to live within an hour or so’s drive away, I managed to exert some self-control on my book buying habit, but now that we live further away, trips to Hay have taken on special status. Now, whenever we go, I have to try to contain the urge to fill the boot of the car with everything I find (and believe me, you can get an awful lot of books into the back of a large estate car). It’s probably something in my mind that worries it might not get any more books, so had better make the most of it while it can.
Now do you see why I’m not sure about going for months without a new book…
Anyway, bulk buying does tend to mean that the odd book or two gets forgotten on the shelf before I get around to reading it.
This is what’s happened to Memoirs of A Highland Lady, by Elizabeth Grant, and Greater London, Its Growth and Development through Two Thousand Years, by Christopher Trent.
The third title I’m putting on my list is Alison Weir’s book about Isabella of France – Isabella She-Wolf of France, Queen of England.This one I have definitely read although it was a few years ago now. I watched the repeat of Helen Castors programme about the early queens of England, and thought I’d like to reread this title.
I can pinpoint my initial interest in Isabella to a school trip to Berkeley Castle in the 1970s, and seeing the room where Edward II was reputedly murdered. I think one day I might work out an Isabella & Edward tour, there are still quite a few places they would have known where you can visit, including Berkley Castle, Gloucester Cathedral and Castle Rising.
I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I am a bookaholic. This habit means that I get up to things I probably shouldn’t, such as reading reviews for books I’ve never heard of, just because they are links at the end of the last book I finished on my Kindle.(Yes, I’m a book tart, I keep my Kindle by the side of my bed, on top of the pile of real books that I’ll probably have on-the-go at the same time).
And following links is a dangerous thing to do, because before you know it, you’ve discovered something else you just have to read (which I know is how the powers-that-be want us to react), and of course this can lead us off on all kinds of tangents.
But I love all that. Before the advent of the internet, I’d spend hours, quite literally hours in bookshops, browsing. Now, with the benefit of reviews and alternative suggestions and ‘people who also bought’, my horizons have widened, I’ve read about topics I didn’t even know existed before – and been happier for it.
I still spend hours in bookshops, as I said I’m a book reading tart, and I’ll grab my fix from any number of sources – charity shops are a guilty pleasure…
But I digress.
The thing is this, on my most recent link-fest, I managed somehow to discover Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time To Keep Silence and Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing.
Spending time wandering around old ruined abbeys has undoubtedly given me a taste for understanding more about the monastic life, there is a sliver of me that yearns for silence and contemplation, so I decided I’d give Fermor’s book a go.
But at precisely the same time, I read the synopsis for Susan Hill’s book about the year she spent, not buying new books, but revisiting the ones on her shelves that she either hadn’t already read, or wanted to reread. And it was as if a giant violin string had gone twang in my head. Because I know that I have forty odd years worth of books living around me, a certain number of which I haven’t actually ever got around to reading and yet more that I keep telling myself I would like to go back and read again.
I wondered if I had the capacity to do the same thing – to spend a few months not buying anything new, but instead getting reacquainted with books I already own.
It would be quite a surprise if I could do it. I think I can say with hand on heart, I’ve never been more than a couple of weeks without buying something new to read in the last forty years. So, I’m thinking about this as a bookish challenge for the rest of 2013. It would certainly amaze the other half, but I don’t know what I’d be like to live with – would it be like going cold-turkey? Should I do it?
I haven’t made up my mind yet. I’ve ordered A Time To Keep Silence, so that might be the last new purchase of 2013 – or it might not.
I felt like Victor Meldrew this morning when I opened the curtains to lashing rain and a dark grey sky. Somebody has kidnapped the spring – I want it back – NOW!
Just when I thought it was safe to put a couple of my thicker winter jumpers back in the wardrobe, here I am again dressed up like a Michelin Man.
It felt particularly silly after reading the weekend supplements. (We have a neighbour who has an arrangement with a friendly newsagent to give him his surplus supplements, so we get the magazines, travel, gardening, money and TV review pieces, just not the news – a fabulous arrangement).
Here’s a selection of the latest ‘must-haves’ from the weekend….
You’d have hypothermia if you went out in that kit around here today.
But it’s all a bit academic as far as I’m concerned. My capsule wardrobe (I think that’s what the fashion journalists call it) consists of jeans, T-shirts, fleeces & cardigans. In winter I wear them all, layered up, and in summer (whatever that is) I wear fewer jumpers. This probably also has something to do with choosing to camp in the Scottish Highlands most summers, where you’d be quite rash not to have the option of a jumper or two for the cooler days.
In fact I’m quite sure that I am almost the antithesis of the target weekend supplement reader. I don’t go to posh restaurants,our garden designs itself, our house is not valued at over £1million, I don’t watch much TV and although I like to cook, my grocery budget doesn’t run to fillet steak as a mid-week supper.
That said, I still love flicking through the papers. I feel a contented detachment – able to appreciate, without any need at all to emulate. I’m sure it wasn’t always the case, but perhaps that’s what growing-up is about, or perhaps it’s what refusing to grow-up is about.
I think this headline sums up what they are really all about,
Umm, well, I’m happy enough with what I’ve already got.
In other news…
Warning: Don’t read any further if you’re allergic to needlepoint or history.
Which word do Shakespeare’s King Lear, The Sound of Music, Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, a 1970s Prog Folk group from South Africa, the Jesuits, and the Neolithic long barrow, Wayland’s Smithy, all have in common?
Can you guess?
Need a clue?
Think – mischievous gossip, or ‘fly-by-the-gibbet’
I’m rather partial to odd, old or unusual words. I’ve heard flibbertigibbet mentioned several times and assumed it was a word that described flighty, probably female, silly behaviour – I’ve called my girls flibbertigibbets a couple of times, although obviously this gets me the pointy tongue look of contempt – but today I was flicking through Brewer’s Phrase and Fable (as you do), and happened to read its definition.
Well I never. It turns out that it was a name given to a fiend and used by Shakespeare in King Lear, it was also used to mean a mischievous gossip and was originally a term to describe meaningless chatter.
But so happily does flibbertigibbet trip off the tongue, it’s found its way into novels by Scott, the lyrics of ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria’, the name given to Wayland’s apprentice, and the name of a South African group of folk singers – I’m sure there are more… google it and see what you find.
So it is my F word of choice for today.
Now I have to go and pick up my two flibbertigibbets from school – have a good weekend!
Yesterday, I had another trip up to Worcestershire, to visit the churchyard where my mother’s side of the family mainly reside these days.
When my Nan was alive, we would be up there every few weeks, putting flowers on the graves of various relatives. I don’t remember minding that at all. It was also a way to pass on family history – my Mum and my Nan would tell me about the people who’d died before I was born or when I was too young to remember them.
When Nan died, my Mum carried on ‘doing the graves’ as she always called it. If I was around, I’d go with her, but mainly she did it on her own.
When Mum was making her Will, she was adamant that she wanted to be cremated when she died, so that my brother and I wouldn’t have the hassle of ‘doing the graves’. I don’t think this was her only reason, but I’m sure it was part of it.
But the strange thing is this. Ever since my Mum died, I have made a point of doing the hundred and sixty mile round trip, to ‘do the graves’ on certain dates that were important to our family.
Mum and Dad don’t have a grave, but I find that when I visit the churchyard, I can easily feel them there with me. It was the church were they married, so a happy place for them too.
Yesterday morning while I was there, the weather was lovely, warm and sunny. It was a relaxing and somehow a cathartic thing to do.
I’m never seen anyone else doing the same thing while I’ve been there, so I don’t feel too embarrassed when I take the opportunity to talk to the family. I had to apologise to my Nan’s mother – I just couldn’t get her flowers to look right, but I don’t think she minded.
I took my sandwiches up to the bench on the hill that overlooks the churchyard and had a chat with Mum and Dad.
It’s good to take some time out to think about the people we loved and still love, to remember them and to be happy, even as the tears roll down our cheeks.
My spirits were considerably lifted this morning, when amidst the huge pile of debris evicted from number 2 daughter’s school bag, I found a sheet of paper titled Shakespeare Insult Kit.
On two sides of A4 paper, three columns per page, are lists of words used in the works of Shakespeare to deliver insults. The idea is that you prefix any phrase with ‘thou’, then choose one word from column 1, plus one from column 3 and one from column 3.
The results are truly empowering.
Who wouldn’t want to shout ‘thou errent fen-sucked clotpole’ at the person who takes your car parking space, or ‘thou spleeny tardy-gaited skainsmate’ when the dog eats your breakfast.
Admittedly, these phrases don’t exactly trip of the tongue – but surely that’s just a question of practice.
So today I’m starting a campaign to improve the quality of my insults. I shall attempt to replace my usual ‘you plonker’ (actually it’s worse than that, but I’m not going to write what I mostly say), with a heart-felt selection from the list. Perhaps this week I’ll try to perfect;
thou dankish fly-bitten giglet,
thou gleeking boil-brained bum-bailey,
and thou churlish swag-bellied harpy.
How uplifting it is, to know that even in these difficult times, there are still young teachers out there, doing their bit to instil a love of Shakespeare into our digital age children.
When I was at school, (and no, despite what my daughters say, I can’t remember the man himself), we read and acted quite a lot of Shakespeare. No one told us when we were at middle school, that it was difficult, so instead, we just got on with enjoying it.
But – we also lived less than an hour drive away from Stratford-on-Avon, and in those days, could get on the night tickets for the RSC at reasonable prices. So until I left home, I went to most productions, acted by the best Shakespearean actors in the world. I’m sure that helped, because when Shakespeare’s plays are done well, you don’t need to have spent months studying the texts, the stories come to life before your eyes, you simply relax and let yourself become engrossed.
So, if an insult kit is what it takes to introduce a new generation to the treasure of Shakespeare, I’m all for it. I shall do my own bit to encourage a better class of insult – won’t you join me?
I made a flying visit to Worcestershire on Monday and not having huge amounts of time to spare, but wanting a few minutes calm and culture, I drove over to Hanbury Hall, which isn’t far from Droitwich.
The little leaflet/map you’re given with your ticket says on the front, ‘Hanbury Hall, Welcome,
Do money and beauty bring happiness?’
Which to be honest, surprised me a touch. You don’t generally get presented with a philosophical question like that, when you go to these places.
Now I presume it’s actually a reference to the various unhappy people who have lived at Hanbury over the last three hundred years. And it has certainly had a few, culminating I suppose, with George Vernon, the last of the Vernon family who originally built the house, who committed suicide in the Hall in 1940.
The Hall had used to be one of the Trust’s less appealing properties. Not many rooms open to the public, uninspiring grounds. It felt dusty and neglected. Not somewhere you’d rush to spend an afternoon with the family. So I suppose, when I first went there, back in the 1980s, it was a rather sad old place.
But over the last few years, something rather wonderful has been happening at Hanbury, and I’ll tell you what I think it is.
I think someone has fallen in love with the house.
Because now when you visit, there’s a lot more to see. Many more rooms are open and they have been dressed sympathetically, so you get a really good impression of life inside the Hall.
The room guide volunteers deserve medals for being the chattiest, gossipiest (I know that word doesn’t exist, but it should), friendliest, I’ve met.
There has obviously been a lot of effort spent in restoration around the Hall and information is always on hand to point out the odd and the eccentric highlights – so much more fun than just telling you about the artists and owners.
And the amazing things they’re doing to recreate George London’s formal garden, just have to be seen. (Both from the ground and from the Hercules bedroom windows).
The tea room is worthy of a visit all for itself, and if you can come away without buying a plant, gift or second-hand book, you’re made of stronger stuff than me.
What this house has now, is money, abundant care, and the love of many people. And it’s always been beautiful, it just hadn’t found the right partners before. I think you can tell, because the atmosphere inside Hanbury Hall is very relaxing. It feels as if the building itself has breathed a sigh of relief.
In which we bravely visit Wrest Park, near Bedford, despite evil weather conditions.
We’ve had some glorious sunny days around here lately, very springlike. Sadly though, Sunday was one of those grim reminders that we shouldn’t yet take spring for granted and that winter could still turn round and bite us in the bottom.
Having felt that I might actually climb up the walls, across the ceiling and down the other side, I decided that I needed to ‘get out of the house’ at the weekend. We didn’t have a huge amount of time to spare, so we stayed local and paid our first visit to Wrest Park, since they’ve introduced a new visitor centre.
Now we go camping in Scotland for our holidays, so we’re not exactly unfamiliar with bad weather, and indeed, such is our spirit, that even rain which my Dad would have called stair-rods, didn’t stop us setting out on our trip.
But, perhaps we bit off just a little more than we should have.
On arrival (and let me tell you, there were half a dozen other mad people there already), we were ‘greeted’ by a poor chap with an umbrella, and told where to park. We worried about him all morning. I hope he was being paid, but I’ve an awful feeling that he was a volunteer. By the time we left, he’d gone – we hope it was to home and a nice hot lunch, not the emergency department for people with hypothermia.
We made our way to the new visitor centre – and decided on a fortifying cup of coffee before we set off into the garden.
Now, only a few weeks ago, we had one of the best meals ever at Goodrich Castle. What a pity that Wrest park couldn’t achieve the same standards, despite having considerably bigger facilities and more staff.
Suffice to say that the presentation of the chocolate cake was worthy of my old school dinner hall. Had they not also overcharged us, I wouldn’t have been so put out, but in my book, if someone makes a mistake, a simple apology and quickly putting it right is what’s called for, not being made to stand around while your tea goes cold and being told to sign bits of paper and provide full address details.
The cafe was not busy – I really hope they get their customer service act together before the season heats up.
We had a look around the few rooms of the house that are open to the public, then took our courage in our hands and braved the gardens.
Well, by that time, the stair-rod rain had turned to sleet.
Full marks must go to the brave buggy drivers who kept ferrying people about – I think if they’d had a St Bernard dog with them, they’d have had even more business.
We walked down the canal to the pavilion. Somehow much more atmospheric than the house. My other half always thinks that rather nefarious things probably took place in this type of folly – he may be right, but certainly not in that weather.
Retracing our steps, we went back via the Bowling Green house and the Orangery.
And then, cold to the bone, we gave up and drove home – with the heater turned up very high in the car.
My coat was still wet on Monday morning. How I love the English weather.
We’ll go to Wrest again when the weather improves.
On our recent trip to Hay-on-Wye, I picked up a copy of Mary S. Lovell’s book, Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth. Although I’ve known bits and pieces about Bess for a long time, this is the first time I’ve read a whole biography of this remarkable woman.
Bess was no beautiful princess like her contemporary Queen Elizabeth I, no tragic heroine like Mary Queen of Scots, but she knew both of these women very well indeed and lived a life every bit as moving.
But what I find most endearing, is that this Tudor lady was in many respects a working mother, on a scale that today’s high power executives would have trouble matching.
I won’t attempt to detail everything about her life here. If you’re interested, then there are plenty of sources. Suffice to say that Bess came from fairly humble beginnings (at least by Tudor standards) but through a series of advantageous marriages, and by extremely good management of her resources, climbed to the top of Elizabethan society, being regarded as the second most wealthy woman in England after the queen.
The reason why I so admire Bess, is that she really was responsible for making the very best of her lot in life, things could have turned out very differently for her on numerous occasions, but she learned how to play the system and make it work for her – and she did all this, whilst placing her commitment to the advancement of her family, firmly centre stage.
Throughout her life, she suffered periods of stress and acute worry. Deaths of loved ones, malicious gossip, spiteful lawsuits, court intrigue and plotting and more, but she survived it all, and through what must have been indredible strength of character, she triumphed.
In an age when patronage was essential to advancement, and when many ambitious nobles bankrupted themselves in their pursuit of favour with the monarch, Bess managed to build magnificent new houses, (the original building at Chatsworth and the existing Hardwick Hall are both her creations) without becoming insolvent – what could she teach us today about financial management! Apparently she was meticulous with her accounts – a true hands-on manager.
She was a adept business manager, and a fantastic networker. Over the long years of her life, she was sure to make friends with the right people at the right time – not a question of luck – she set out to do it. But she also seems to have made true and lasting friendships, which implies that she was an authentic person, appreciated for her own worth and recognised for her personal integrity.
What I particularly love about Bess is her energy and enthusiasm for life. Fifty was pretty old in Elizabethan times, but at this age, when others were slowing down and succumbing to illness and death, Bess was as driven and sprightly as ever. She was in her sixties when she started the building at Hardwick – moving into her new house on or around her seventieth birthday. No slowing down for her.
Throughout her life, she seems to have valued and enjoyed the company of children and young people, perhaps this partly explains her joie de vivre. And at her death, Bess had left strict instructions as to the manner of her funeral – not to be too lavish – in fact she had prepared her estate better than most of us would attempt today, to provide the basis for her children’s inheritance.
She ended her life it seems, having achieved so much and still having maintained her sense of humility and integrity – what an inheritance.
I believe that Bess still has a lot to teach us, especially our daughters, about what can be achieved and what are the essential values to hold on to throughout life.
Chatsworth is still owned by Bess’s descendants, the Dukes of Devonshire, and is a wonderful place to visit, although vastly altered since Bess’s time.
Hardwick Hall remains very much as Bess left it and is one of the most stunning great houses of England – it is managed today by the National Trust. If you visit, make sure to see Bess’s needlework – what a woman. Hardwick Old Hall, just a step away from the new Hall is also open to the public and although ruined, is still a poignant link to Bess.