Sunday, November 27, 2022
Tuesday, November 22, 2022
When October rolled around, I dug out my battered copy of Dracula for its annual reading and settled down for a few days of feeling slightly jumpy and the right side of being scared (you know that side: a rush of goosebumps when the cat knocks over a plant pot outside - even though the Count would never be that clumsy - or a mild jump when your partner leaves his dressing gown hanging somewhere different and you spot it in the half light of an early dusk). That feeling should only last the duration of the book and a couple of days after before vanishing, never to return...until you read it again the following year.
This year, after putting it down, I gazed across the shelves to decide on my next book. This takes a while as I have about 1000 books, not including N's. He keeps suggesting a 1-in-1-out policy, I keep finding new ways of stacking them so I can pretend I haven't heard that.
This Autumn, it seems I am in the mood for dense, chewy Victoriana, with a side helping of mild Gothic horror. I want a weighted tangled storyline with complex family feuds and backstories that take entire chapters to retell. I want to hear a metaphorical wind howling outside the window, trees thrashing in protest, as a backdrop to the dark matter in my hand. I want to feel the damp chill of a creeping winter dawn.
After Dracula, I settled down to get myself lost in the moors and wilds of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Jane Eyre, settling myself into a warm reading nook while N watched foot-the-ball, and letting the descriptions of wide Yorkshire landscapes take me away from all that. The power balances shifted on the page to the backdrop of feet thunking against wet turf.
Isn't it wonderful how they were able to make the landscape feel so expansive, whilst depicting lives in miniature? And I always find something new when I return to them. Wuthering Heights, for example (read in August). On that reread, I lingered over old Joseph's proselytising, pulpit-raising, style which made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion.
Wildfell and Jane also both contain a supporting cast whose speeches and asides cut through the tension, providing a small moment of comic relief, the brief capering of a jester at times of high tension. I'm more appreciative of those nowadays, and it seems to be a skill we've lost. Now our epic tomes are relentlessly grim and Loaded With Meaning from start to end. You need that lightness to throw the rest of the plot into contrasting shadow.
On honeymoon, I took Lady Audley's Secret, having spotted it on the bookshelves, unread for a few years, and remembering that it included Belgium, which it described as "flat, featureless", a statement I can reveal is partly true. It took up a large part of the suitcase but was forgiven as I, once more, found myself rooting for the Lady Audley as she pivoted and twisted against the confines Victorian society imposed on women, ceaselessly seeking a way out until all routes were closed off.
Back at home, after a couple of misty morning starts, the kind where the air soaks your hair and distant hills appear to be wearing blankets, I reached for Bleak House. It's really the only Dickens I can stand to read without choking on his performative sentimentality and is absolutely perfect for this time of year with its depictions of fog and ceaseless rain, the blackened sooty streets of London. The extraordinary description of the foul Mr. Krook's spontaneous combustion. The icy chill of Lady Deadlock's disdain. Poor confused and persecuted Jo of Tom-all-alone's.
The complete loss of internet at home was a blessing as it allowed me the rare treat of hours of evening time I could give over to reading. But now it's finished, and Esther is happily married, I find myself restlessly scouring the shelves again. It seems that any post-1900 fiction just isn't satisfying right now; thin, sterile things they seem as the weather hurls itself against the windows of the house. A candle is guttering in a draught that reaches me a few seconds later, causing me to wrap the blanket more tightly around my knees. A mug of tea is steaming next to me and there is hot buttered toast for breakfast. It's no good, I can't stop the hand reaching out, fingers extending, grasping until...there!
The Moonstone it is.
Tuesday, November 15, 2022
We’re both fans of the darkly, bitterly funny film, In Bruges with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, which also contains one of the finest comedy gangster performances you’re ever likely to see Ralph Fiennes deliver.
So we set ourselves in the direction of the “fahkin’ fairytale” medieval cobbled city at the end of October. I’d booked a medieval (there is a theme in Bruges) cottage right next to the canal and then booked the Eurostar so we could feel all green and smug. A feeling that quickly evaporated when we realised we were seated facing backwards and my sea sickness (so much worse now that the perimenopause has kicked in) took a fierce grip.
**We took precisely 1 selfie because otherwise, how would we prove we’d been there? But there was absolutely no giggling. Serious selfies befitting of our Great Age (personal age, I mean. There is nothing great about this political age).
Monday, October 24, 2022
As you can imagine, there is something about a wedding that gets in the way of allotment time. Apart from flying visits during the day where I'd dash up there, water and chat to the sunflowers, I didn't really linger. Certainly, my habit of taking a coffee up with me and sitting down to watch the insects fell by the wayside.
But now we're in October and there is no big event to plan and make metres and metres of bunting, or stamp seed packets, or sift wildflower seeds, or source vintage jugs, or panic-source tablecloths for, so now I can switch my attention back to the place that brings me most peace.
I'm planting red and white onions that will ripen over the winter. Garlic and broad beans too. The kale is still going, so I'll leave that in situ, but mainly this month is about tidying down.
The courgettes are done, so I dug those up at the weekend. The french beans too, but I'm letting those die back before lifting them as they're good for setting nitrogen in the soil. The potatoes are all out now too. Only the sunflowers really remain, defiant against the dropping temperatures. And I'm reluctant to cut the raspberry canes down just yet as the bees are still bimbling amongst them, finding nectar where I thought it was all gone for the year.
We got to try our first ever home-grown red cabbage. Shredded thinly, served with beetroot and red onion (likewise) with feta and a standard vinaigrette dressing, it was delicious. Red cabbage salad is one of my favourites. Good job really - there are 5 more cabbages in varying stages of readiness up at the plot.
I've wound the hose up for the last time and strimmed all the long grass down with my inadequate strimmer. It's battery only lasts about 5 minutes, so it takes a good 4 trips to get the whole plot done. A little frustrating but a good excuse for short breaks from the desk this week. I've cleaned the tools and managed not to scream at the spider that wanted to know what I was doing, lifting its comfy trowel out of the dark corner.
The plan is to let everything die down and settle down until November when we'll start making plans for the raised beds. the 4th growing area will be going no dig for next year as I just don't have it in me to dig over another large area like that. I always end up damaged and with large physio bills when I do. Instead, we've been gathering cardboard like there's a world shortage and will soon order in the tonnes of topsoil we'll need.
Then it's the simple task of building the beds, getting the topsoil to the plot, lifting it into the beds...I'll stop there. I already feel the need for a lie down.
Luckily my brother-in-law is a gardener for hire, with a van and the quiet winter period looming, so we'll rope him in with promises of tea, sausage sandwiches and a day's pay. I think the latter may be a more convincing bribe. If we can get my sis and her kids involved, it'll be like an Amish barn raising. Without the barn. Or the beards.
Then it'll be time to move our sights to the far end of the plot. By February, I'm hoping to have that cleared of knotweed, fallen tree branches and accumulated nonsense so the polytunnel can go down there. In short, there are plans afoot.
N and I spent a good few hours in the garden on Saturday. It was looking raggedy around the edges with drooping tomato plants, pots piled everywhere and the corpses of plants that didn't make it through the drought standing like little signposts of guilt about the place. 3 hours later, everything dead or about to be cleared, pots washed and piled neatly, mini greenhouse cleaned and scrubbed, a big yup of stuff for the tip gathered, roses and honeysuckle pruned, we toasted our efforts with mugs of tea and a sit down.
I once heard that Sophia Loren's advice for staying youthful was to avoid 'old people noises', those groans and whimpers and oohs and aahs people of a Certain Age make after physical exertion...or just standing up from the armchair. I'm sorry Sophia, but I made all the old person noises on Saturday. Worth it though.
Saturday, October 15, 2022
We are halfway through October, my favourite month of the year, and it still feels like our feet haven't touched the ground. Thank-you cards have arrived but remain unwritten. I will tackle them tomorrow and hope we're forgiven a little tardiness.
A lot of the whirlwind has been around work as mine continues busy and N started university the Monday after the wedding. At the start of the month, I went to see a performance of Much Ado About Nothing at the Birmingham Rep which was beautifully handled, with signing (some of the actors were deaf) and a sensitive treatment of multiple needs. Hero was actually given some autonomy in this performance, instead of remaining a cipher, a pretty mute thing who has no voice but merely accepts the fates dealt by the terrible men around her. It was rather refreshing.
The last time I'd seen this play, it was a Bollywood version in Stratford, which was a visual feast. I've always loved the sparring between Beatrice and Benedick.
Last Saturday we went to see Mark Steel, the comedian, at Tenbury Wells Regal, a treat of a little art deco theatre, loving restored and working again. I'm a big fan of his 'In Town' series on Radio 4 and he didn't disappoint. Every joke about a place is said with genuine fondness for its strange customs and quirks, there is no malice. Unless he was talking about the present government, but then he could be forgiven that. Especially as the audience felt much the same.
We have met up with some of the RHS course crew a few times since it came to an end in May, most recently yesterday. Generally at each other's houses or in a garden centre. Mostly, the talk is not about gardens or gardening careers, but about families and plans and life in general. Children and pets run around. We eat. We chat. We swap cuttings and bulbs.
Lured in by how much I'd enjoyed the films, we started watching Rings of Power and got 3 episodes in before I declared I did not care for any of the characters, and I did not care for a stroppy Galadriel, and I did not care for meaningful looks where a simple "this is a terrible idea and we shouldn't do it" statement would do. But Ghosts has restarted which makes me joyous, as does the new puppy on Gardener's World, all wriggly legs and ears. Bake Off continues to reach new heights of silliness and I don't care in a good way; it is the icing on the bun on the bake that is unnecessarily complicated but still, somehow, delicious. I think I might be in awe of Noel Fielding's eyeliner.
The Cheltenham Literary Festival is on. I haven't been to an event there since I saw Audrey Niffenegger speak in 2010. Back then, I was living a different life, writing a different blog. Now I'm living this one and looking forward to seeing Ian Hislop talk about his Desert Island Books tomorrow with N. I've long admired Hislop's intelligence and wit, so this should be interesting. And yes, I do have a list of desert island books of my own, and have already decided that, should I ever be on the Desert Island Discs, I will reject the copy of the bible for the collected novels of the Brontes.
Speaking of which, I will not be watching the new film, Emily. I'm sure it's a very good film but I feel that all biopics take liberties with the truth and Emily Bronte has suffered enough at the hands of people taking liberties with her truth.
But I have reread the book recently, and Jane Eyre, and Dracula. This month always calls for Victorian novels, I feel, and I've got a copy of Lady Audley's Secret to hand, a blanket to curl up under and Nordic socks to wear to keep my feet warm. These socks are simply amazing. Warm enough to keep my toes from feeling froze, even without slippers or within wellies, whilst not keeping them so warm I end up with unpleasantly sweaty feet. Consider this a wholehearted recommendation.
Some mornings, I've got myself out of the house for a walk along the canal just as the sun breaches the trees. The air has that autumn smell of woodsmoke, fog, damp bark and earth that is so wonderful. The colours make my smile wider and my step springier. I'm enjoying Mabel's fluffier coat, the return of soup to our lives, the shine of conkers against the paths, the moon rising a little higher and brighter against the darker skies.
Once we return from Bruges, a proper hunkering down will begin. Fewer excursions, a retreat to warmth and light behind our doors. I love the whole process of Wintering, when my overstimulated brain is allowed to rest, when I naturally wake later and don't feel that surge of 'must do' that comes from the lighter half of the year. I am a natural hibernator.
Autumn, I've been waiting for you.
Saturday, October 1, 2022
Sunday, September 18, 2022
Oh Lindisfarne, you are so beautiful and strange. Driving over the causeway, a mild frisson of fear that maybe you've got the tide timings wrong, and the sea is going to come rushing at you as you get halfway, is always something special. The vast flat expanse winks with shallow saltwater pools as you cross. One day, I've promised myself, I'll do it by foot to get a real idea of what it would have been like, back in the 7th Century, to undertake that crossing. A leap of faith that even I, a faithless person, can appreciate the magnitude of.
Whizzing across on tarmac just doesn't contain the same profundity.
And once across, everywhere you look, that shimmering North Sea surrounding you, the air full of gull cries and oozing seaweed smells. Boats lean drunkenly into the sands, lobster pots sink into each other with resignation. Years ago, when I first came here, there was a sandwich shack selling fresh crab sandwiches. I couldn't see one this time around.
There was also that strange glitter in the eye of residents, a twitch to the professional smile, that indicated they were, at the end of this long summer, coming to the end of their patience. It's a look I recognise. It's a look I once had. It states very clearly, to those in the know, that the person before you has dealt with approximately eleventy-billion people asking the same damn silly question about the tide/Vikings/whereabouts of ice cream/Lindisfarne Gospels/insert own tic-inducing question.
Like a parent of small children, they will have been repeating the same information/issuing the same demand (do not feed the dog pickled onions! Yes, you have to get across before the sea starts coming in! Do not put your sister's fingers in the electric socket! No, you cannot eat ice cream in the museum!) since time immemorial (or, generally, since around March when the weather starts to get a bit nice and people think they'll start taking trips again) and they are oh-so-tired.
To wit: the exchange I overheard in the Lindisfarne Gospels shop and experience entrance, where we'd gone looking for a bit of Viking history on the island - everywhere else having been a bit light and sniffy on the subject.
"So, these are the real Lindisfarne Gospels in here?" asked a very English woman (no, not me) as she clutched her battered debit card (a day on this island is an expensive day) to her quaking bosom. Bravely asked, I thought, having recognised the glaze and twitch of the stout woman behind the counter and also having clocked the sign outside that said 'replicas'. There is an intake of breath and, as one, the entirety of the population in that space, including me, leaned forward for the answer...
"NOOOOOAH!" Came the roar of a woman asked that question just once too often in a 24 hour period. "Those are in London [she all but spat the word]! These are REPLICAS, like it says on the sign! But you can see allll on 'em pages 'ere. You can't in LONDON!"
At which point, I quietly put down the postcards and headed outside so I could laugh without having a replica holy book thrown at my head, so I missed finding out whether the customer paid up and went in anyway. I suspect she did. It's what the English do.
And where was N? Leaning on a wall outside, eyes closed and wishing he was in a pub after having suffered through the castle and then the priory. To be fair, he enjoyed both but his stamina for old buildings and epic vistas is not quite as well trained as mine. I'm working on it. By the time we get back from Bruges later this year, he will also be able to show unlimited enthusiasm for flying buttresses and an unflagging determination to see one more gargoyle/Medieval masons mark. Or I'll have completely broken him and he'll refuse to go anywhere with me ever again, preferring to whimper quietly on his own at home, rocking gently back and forth, whispering "please don't tell me again why the Dark Ages is a misnomer". I'd say we're at the 50/50 possibility mark of him going either way at the moment.
ANYWAY, back to Lindisfarne. The castle is a stunning piece of architecture and has been nicely done up by the National Trust who've employed their now-standard method of interpretation, printing bits of letters and diaries on to unlikely places. Here, their focus is on the early 20th Century and the members of the Bloomsbury Group who came here, particularly Lytton Strachey, who could be a bitchy little number when he wanted. I always wonder why people invited him anywhere. But there he is, snarking all over a tablecloth or a coat, wittily snarking no doubt, but snark nonetheless. He'd not have got to pudding stage at my house, much less been allowed to stay for weeks as he did here.
But it is charmingly done, and we enjoyed it, although we (I) lamented the lack of information about residents and owners pre-1800 about from one timeline. We also enjoyed the sight of the staff running around like startled chickens when the fire alarm went off. The newest and youngest member of staff, poor lad, repeatedly asking his walkie-talkie "is this a fire alarm?" as if it were some sort of Delphic oracle. As both N and I have health and safety training under our belts and were the nearest responsible adult to him, we informed him that, yes it was a fire alarm, and his procedure right now should be to evacuate people. Yes, even the old lady determinedly doddering off in the wrong direction.
On second thoughts, maybe never invite us anywhere? We can risk assess a scenario in our sleep. We are the most fun at parties. But at least you'll never be sued over a trip hazard.
Luckily for all, it was a false alarm caused by someone vaping (what is the matter with these people?) under a smoke detector, and we were able to troop back in after a half-hour wait surrounded by glorious views. Quite the nicest fire alarm evacuation I've ever been involved in. There was much rejoicing when the all-clear was given.
Then to the Priory, which contained a nice line of simple, hands-on activities (fit the task into the slot) for kids (and me), some nice finds and the most glorious architecture. That's really what you come here for. The sight of those towering arches, the broad sweep of the walls, the expanse of what would have been windows looking out over the sea. You can imagine easily how it would have felt to see these strange ships appear on the horizon, land. Those strange men in their furs, armed with axes that would wink maliciously in the sun, a completely pitiless band of warriors. Would they have been silent, or howling a war cry to the skies as they made their way up the dunes?
I couldn't tell you because there is No Viking History on the island. Despite the Vikings definitely having made history here. It is very strange. I've been told several times that I should go to Yorvik in York for my Viking fix. But I have been there and I have no need to see freshly-graduated students, the ink on their acting degrees still wet, stomping around the entrance asking "do ye be a witch?" in cod-rural accents ever again.
Regardless, Lindisfarne is eerie and beautiful, strange and glorious all at the same time. I wish I could be there in winter, watching the storms rage around the ruins. One day. Maybe. There are other places to get in touch with my Viking ancestry after all. If I really wanted to.
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