Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jacob's Room is Full of Books - April

I read the April entry of Jacob's Room is Full of Books in the proper month, and decided to re-read it again before I did a post.

In one of those glorious moments of serendipity which happen now and again, I read Susan Hill writing about A.E. Housman's Loveliest of Trees
And since to look at things in bloom
 Fifty springs are little room. 
just after I had seen Monty Don's Instagram photo of blossoms (maybe apple not cherry) and his words:
No apologies for yet more blossom. There is no life long enough to have too much. 
If you'd like to follow him, you may go here. So much beauty - plants and his dogs!

There is quite a lot about the author Edith Wharton this month. I've only ever read Ethan Frome and that's when I was a kid. I hated it.
I discovered Ethan Frome and disliked it. Others think it a small work of genius, but there is something stark and cold about it and it did not ring true to me because it was set in rural America, and above all Edith was a city woman. Still, it is regarded as a great short novel, so I am probably wrong.
I was surprised to hear her say that. I don't think any reader has to feel badly if they go against the flow of opinion about a book. I'd be apologizing all the time in that case! I'm always surprised when I like a book which has also gotten public acclaim.

Susan Hill really likes The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country
She was a great student of human nature. She understood women, but she also knew an unnerving amount about men. She writes about social ambition, social aspiration, social climbing - the nuances of society, and about the cruelty with which it can appear to accept, only to exclude and cast off, any who are not within its charmed circle by right of birth or at least marriage.
Susan Hill writes about Wharton herself:
If you are born into an aristocracy of whatever country, you are an aristocrat for life. You are rooted in a society to which so many aspire to belong and which has formed your taste, manners, beliefs, assumptions, for good, no matter where else you may travel to or in what other country you may settle. It is important to remember this in order to realise just how extraordinary Edith Wharton's life turned out to be, and how unlike most of her own class she became.  ...  She was one of those children who are unhappy not only in their families and backgrounds, but even in their own skin. She was destined to fulfil herself as an adult but her early years were unhappy, because she was bright and noticed things, and because her mother was cold to her. She loved her father deeply, but he was a weak man who vacillated when she asked him to stand up for her against his wife, who even forbade EW from reading novels until she was married.
I found this fascinating. Though I am not interested in her novels, I agree with Susan Hill that "You could find much interest and enjoyment from reading all about her in the good biographies without reading a word of her fiction, and there are coffee table books about the gardens she created, and about her interior design, mainly but not only for her own houses in both America and France."
She was living in Paris when the First World War broke out and very soon afterwards, in August 1914, she opened a sewing workroom for thirty unemployed women, feeding them and paying them a modest wage. The thirty soon doubled to sixty and their work was in demand. She established a hostel for Belgian refugees, and organised the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which eventually looked after almost a thousand child refugees who had fled their towns after they had been bombed by the German army. With her friend Walter Berry she even travelled by car to the war zone, coming within a short distance of the trenches, in order to see at first hand what conditions were like. She compiled and edited a book in aid of war victims, prised money for them out of wealthy Americans and was awarded the Légion d'honneur by the French government. And all this time she continued to write novels, essays, stories - and kept up a large correspondence.
Whew! I quoted so much because I found it amazing, and I thought you would be interested if you didn't already know. The biography she thinks best is the one by Hermione Lee.

She writes of having trouble with moles in the lawn. She won't let anyone kill them so she tries solar mole spikes "and they are not cheap." You put them in the middle of the hills and they emit a noise the moles don't like so they move along. They work! We don't have a big problem with moles. Mostly they are in the field. But I'm glad to know a solution if they do start building on the lawn.

The author has some beautiful pages about trains. There is steam train near her that offers "special steam events - the Santa Train, the annual 1940s weekend" but it also runs on regular days, too. I can't imagine how wonderful it must be to get on a steam train to go do your errands. She says that "steam to those of us who knew it well had an especial charm - though not so much for the railwaymen, who mostly died of lung diseases caused by the smoke and coal tar, or were old at fifty, backs broken from shovelling the coal."

She quotes some wonderful poems about trains, and tells the reader about nicknames for trains.
The last time I heard anyone refer to the old railway companies by their nicknames was in the 1970s when a friend said he was off to watch the cricket but was not taking his car. 'I shall go by the Slow and Dirty.' That was the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway. LNER (London & North Eastern Railway) was Late and Never Early. LMS (London, Midland, & Scottish) was Late, Mouldy and Slow. And of course the GWR (Great Western) was God's Wonderful Railway.
Aren't they just great?!  She had to learn W.H. Auden's Night Mail by heart when she was in school. I wonder if anyone does that now.
This is the night mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order.
Just those two lines make me feel nostalgic for something I've never even experienced. The only trains that went by my house were freight trains but we always ran to the 'banking' and looked down as they passed. Now those are gone, too. 

Susan ends this month with a long passage on some people she knew - the artist John Piper and his wife Myfanwy. Her descriptions of them and their home were most appealing.
An Oxfordshire stone farmhouse, with a big barn to the right, converted as John's studio for his larger paintings. ... Myfanwy was a natural and instinctive cook and, long before it became fashionable, always used local produce, real meat, veg from the garden, other things from farmers or cheesemakers around. And it was far less easy to find those things then. ... I always slept in the Book Room, which was literally that, dark, comfortable, ever-interesting. You only had to look round, reach out a hand to a shelf, to find treasures, and often signed treasures by old friends. The 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, poetry, fiction, topography, France, Venice, art, John's own books, complete Shell Guides to Britain which he produced with John Betjeman. ... I could have spent days in there, looking and reading.
She goes on for pages describing her visits - the food, the conversation, the music, the studio, and John's work. I was thinking what a nice couple and what a lovely life they led. And yes, it was lovely but then we see that all of us have sadnesses, even those whose lives seem so perfect. Their son died, their granddaughter died, and John got Alzheimer's. I just stopped and thought quietly after I finished this April chapter.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Changes in latitudes

A week ago today I spent the whole day with my friend Kay. If you don't know her, please go visit her blog here.

Kay and I met on an online bookstore forum 21 years ago, I believe. The store was called Books dot com. If you type that in now, you will arrive at Barnes & Noble. They must have taken over the name when the original store closed.

This group of women and one man talked about much more than books there. We got to know one another and shared our lives and our families. Many of the members of this group met in person at the bookstore twenty years ago. I couldn't go, but in the spring of 1998 my family went to Arkansas and Texas to visit cousins, and when we were in Texas, Kay and I got together. My cousin certainly thought it unusual that a woman I knew only from the internet was so close to me that I would visit her in person. It's hard to realize now that in those beginning days of internet communication not everyone used it.

The bookstore closed at some point, and a bunch of us, not the man, went to Yahoo and formed a group. One group morphed into another as time went on. Some left, some moved into other groups and brought others with them. It was an exciting time, those early years. Suddenly there were people who understood me and my passion for reading. That was always our basis, but we grew very close to each other for other reasons. We talked about everything. Twenty years later many of us are still close. Along with two other women, one being Les whose blog is here, and another who is not a blogger, Kay and I are in frequent communication. I have never met the other two, but we are closer than most people I know in my "real" life.

So there is the back story. I haven't gone back to Texas since. When Margaret decided she and Hazel would go down to visit her long time friend, I asked if I could tag along, and she said yes. I'll do another posting about the Texas trip, but this one is going to be about my day with Kay.

She picked me up around 1 pm and off we went. She drove me around to show me her area, and then we went to Kay's house!

This type of landscaping is called xeriscape. "a style of landscape design requiring little or no irrigation or other maintenance, used in arid regions."

She then took me to a Mexican restaurant where the food was delish.

A selfie outside the restaurant!

Afterwards we went to the mystery book group she leads at a local library. The subject that evening was any book by Peter May. I have read only The Black House, so far. I'll tell you, the talk in that room was so intelligent and informative. I learned a ton about the writer and his various works. The people were so nice to me, too.

Then she drove me back to my hotel, and we bid adieu... until next time!

Friday, April 27, 2018


I know I haven't been posting much but it has been very busy for a few weeks. Grandchildren involved! So much fun, but hasn't left me much time for writing.

And in a couple of days, Margaret, Hazel, and I are off to Texas! A longtime friend of Margaret's (and mine) lives there, as do our cousins, and my dear friend Kay!

I'll write when I get back.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Quote du jour from Call the Midwife

This was Vanessa Redgrave's voiceover at the end of Season 7, episode 5 of Call the Midwife.

Fear can keep us tethered.
Terror can clip our wings.
But trust eases pain.
Hope can lighten the sky.
Love makes us courageous.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Stillmeadow - April

"And a song sparrow woke me at dawn with a cool, liquid note. It sounded like spring itself." So Gladys Taber writes in her April entry in The Book of Stillmeadow, and just this morning I heard the song sparrow for the first time this year! I've written about the song sparrow before in my letters here and here and really a few other places, too. It is one of my favorites. I love thinking about hearing the same bird at Windy Poplars Farm that Gladys heard all those years ago at Stillmeadow.

She writes of seeing a "whole flock of robins". I've not seen a flock, but the robins have definitely come. This year they showed up earlier than ever before. We heard them on February 21, and saw them two days later. That month was very warm, but even when the snow came again and the temperature dropped, we would occasionally hear them. Now they are singing and bobbing all day long.

I wonder if any of you live in an old house with old-fashioned storm windows. We had them for many years after we moved here, but have now replaced them with double-paned, insulated windows. We don't have to do anything except take the screens off in winter, an incredibly easy process compared to what we used to do. Gladys writes about those old windows.
At last the storm windows are off. I usually begin thinking about taking them off the first nice warm day in February. But the more sane members of the family point out that in New England there are blizzards even in March, and the old glass in the little-paned windows may be beautiful, but doesn't keep out the wind very well.
Last fall when the windows went on, they had been freshly painted and all the identifying numbers painted over. Every window in the house is a different size, but not different enough for the naked eye to measure. So, on a day when it was below zero, one of those sudden drops to remind us of winter, Jill and George and I ran round and round the house with windows, none of which ever fitted anywhere. It was like one of those maddening puzzles enlarged to life size. I dare say most families don't have difficulties like this. Further, the windows hook inside as well as out, and all the inner hooks are at differing levels. This involves someone's running in and out of the house and rabbiting around and back, hooking and unhooking again.
But now it's spring again, and the storm windows are a problem of the past. I must remember this year to have them all numbered.
We have a shed kind of room that still has one of these storms so I can show you, if you've never heard of such a thing!

 It made me a little sentimental for the old windows as I read Gladys' words, but honestly they were a lot of work, and didn't keep the winds out particularly well.

Gladys writes about a subject I thought was new thinking.
And then, one clear morning, George comes in with a smile to say, "I'll plow the garden today; I'm doing the upper meadow anyhow. Ground's all right."
We stop whatever we are doing and rush outside to watch the great plow ride along, turning the rich soil. It is a tie between us and our forefathers; it is something we inherit from the land itself. It is always new and always old. The blades of the plow are silver in the sun as the earth breaks from the sterile grasp of winter and folds back. ...
 We have been all over Mr. Faulkner's book about not plowing, and Mr. Bromfield's and Mr. Ed Robinson's too. Jill is a fiend for Keeping Up with Modern Trends. And I fear it is really due to my romantic feelings that we go on in the old-fashioned way, plowing the garden. But I point out to the family that we have crops out of this world, anyway; carrots a foot long and tender as butter, elegant crisp celery, rich tight lettuce. So why not go on plowing?
There has been a lot written in the past few years about not tilling, not plowing gardens. That it isn't good for the soil to tear it all up like that. That's one of the reasons for so many raised beds everywhere. You don't have to till them. Well, we did go to raised beds for a few years, and I had many pictures of them on the blog, and now we've gone back to a regular garden. For two years we've tried cultivating it with various tools, but when we had a rainy spring last year the weeds took over. We couldn't keep up with them, and I was very discouraged. Years ago we had a heavy tiller. It was a big thing that I couldn't use, but it did a terrific job of cleaning up the garden and tilling in the manure in the fall.

1982. Tom tilling first garden at Windy Poplars Farm.

After a lot of thought, this year we bought a Mantis. It is much smaller and easier to use. 

It should be just right for our little patio vegetable garden. I'll keep you informed as the season goes on.

When we first bought this old house, there was a storage area in the cellar. It hadn't been used in 25 years, since the mother and daughter who lived here began moving to an apartment in town for the winter. It was, to use Gladys' word "romantic". Just being there made me think of growing a year's supply of food and having a cellar full of potatoes and carrots. It was, however, decrepit and not worth trying to fix up. Also, all that food would draw mice, or worse. But I still feel a yearning when I read of root cellars. 

Gladys writes:
The cellar at Stillmeadow is very romantic and pleasing, and entirely impractical. But I like to look at the heavy, hand-hewn beams and the great stones of the the fourteen-foot-square chimney, and the old rough wall stones as I work at clearing out and rearranging the fruit shelves, even if I sometimes wish I had enough shelves and cupboard space to keep the place neat and tidy.
One of the many blog posts I have had in my head is about the stones in our cellar. They must have been pulled out of the fields in the 1800s, by what? Oxen, probably, or very big draft horses. How I would love to time travel and see that happening. Because this may indeed be my stones posting, I'll show you what they look like.

You can see in the first picture one of the house supports, a vertical log with the bark still on it. We don't have many of these left, but there are still a few in the ceiling.

They used what was around - the trees in the woods and the stones in the fields.

Forty some years ago, there was a lot of press about old farmhouses, and country living in general. I loved being part of that lifestyle, and I still do love it, though you sure don't read much about it anymore. Once in a while, I see an article about a young couple going off to live in the country, and I hope the movement becomes popular again.

Gladys talks about the importance of nature in such a moving way. Her words are just as meaningful today, and I will close this month's report with her dream. "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."
I had a strange wish yesterday. I wish the men who are going to form the peace for the world would all have to come to this spot, and jump across the free-running brook where the sand lies golden under the amber water, and climb this little obscure country hill and just stand awhile on the violet-covered slope. I would ask them not to say any fine brave words about peace and the new world, nor to make those glittering promises I hear over the radio from them all, that have no real bones under the oratory.
None of them, for a little time, would be politicians or dictators, or world rulers. I would ask them to smell the quiet air and listen to the tranquil country sounds; the dog after a rabbit, the first birds pricking the stillness with sweet voices, the thunder of a horse in his stall at the next farm, the bark of a fox near Kettletown.
I would ask them to remember when they were children and believed in life. Power and expansion and new territories and national glory would mean nothing at all. They would be just a group of middle-aged men

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Jacob's Room is Full of Books - March

Though there is mention of many spring flowers, Susan Hill's Norfolk seems decidedly cold in March. She describes the wind thus:
I am not going out again probably until June. The wind is like a razor blade shaving off a layer of skin.
Can't you just feel that wind through her words?

In the end I decided it was far too dangerous to go out. Slates were flying.
At the time of writing the book she has lived in Norfolk for five years. She muses on the notion of one's place.
Funny old county. Norfolk, though as I have only lived here for five years, I suppose that I am not entitled to comment. And I will never feel 'Norfolk' any more than I felt 'Gloucestershire'. What does that mean? It is a sort of patriotism, of the right kind. It is an instinctive rooted-ness in the corner of the country where one first saw the light of day. It is attachment. Love. Yes. But an adopted county can never be the same. I have lived in other counties for far longer than I lived in Yorkshire, where I was born, but they haven't left much trace.
Do you feel this way about where you were born compared to other places you may have lived? I wonder if this is a common feeling throughout the world. Do my American readers feel differently about this subject than my English readers? I wonder if living in a small country makes a difference. Fascinating food for thought.

I live about 8 miles from the house I grew up in. I lived on a street in a town, and now live in the country in another town. I don't look upon the old house as more 'home' than here. But I do look at my childhood hometown as 'my' town. Now this may be because I don't live in town, now. I don't walk the streets, and I don't know that many people here. My house and land here make up my world, whereas when I was a kid and later a young adult, the whole town was mine. As I said, fascinating thoughts.

There is quite a sad bit that Susan Hill shares with the readers of Jacob's Room is Full of Books about the late Duchess of Devonshire. Susan had (has?) a publishing company and
Nearly twenty years ago, I enjoyed thinking up, editing (with Sophy Topley, her younger daughter) and publishing Debo's book, Counting My Chickens. We had massive amounts of fun. ... My small publishing company sold many thousands of that book, and it rode high on the best-seller lists for ages. Her dedication reads 'To the co-editors, with love'. So I must have done something right.
But one day, about a year after it was published, I received a tiny envelope in the post which contained a letter on a tiny sheet of paper. I am not exaggerating. She was given to using very small sheets of headed notepaper inside very small envelopes. In this letter, Debo told me that she had put together a second volume of her pieces - my heart leaped - and that it was to be called Home to Roost. John Murray was to publish it. It was a done deal. 
What I did wrong and why she did not think my small publishing house worthy of her any more, I will never know, because we never communicated again. I was deeply hurt and very upset.
Susan had even "put together and privately printed" a collection of tributes - To Debo, on Her 85th Birthday. From Her Friends. She says that Debo cried when she got her copy.

This was really painful for me to read. But I don't think it is an uncommon experience to have someone suddenly "drop" another person, with no explanation.

She writes about two formerly well-known writers who are not well read today: C.P. Snow and J.B. Priestly. Have you read their books? Susan Hill knew both the men, and says of Priestly:
But I think he would have minded very much that no one much under the age of fifty has read or even heard of him - at least not beyond the brilliant revival of An Inspector Calls which is also a standard GCSE text these days. At least he would have been pleased about that.
It is a melancholy thing to consider once famous writers being forgotten, and how they would feel about it. On the other hand, they might be re-discovered. The British Library Crime Classics publications are bringing back writer after writer that many of us find delightful. And the whole e-books industry has introduced me to many authors I had never heard of. So, perhaps there is hope for Mr. Snow and Mr. Priestly.

Susan Hill tells a very funny story.
Took some books to the charity shop. Included a couple of my own, spare paperbacks.
Nice lady serving. 'Oh, thank you so much. Oh, and a Susan Hill book! She is very popular.'
SH: I'm pleased to hear it.
NLS: Actually - here are two on the shelf that are signed copies. 
SH: Wow!
NLS: Oh yes. (Leans over confidentially.) We can get 10p more for them if they are signed.
A little like being at one's own wake, isn't it?! 

She notes that:
I am certain that writers are formed in part by the books they have read and absorbed and it troubles me that not all writers or aspiring writers are Reading Writers. Increasingly, I meet creative writing students who do not read. They are ignorant of the best. They are often even ignorant of the worst. So how on earth can they want to write themselves? How do they know what it is all about? Read, read, read is the only advice I give, if asked. Read those writers who are better than you or I will ever be. In the end, that is the only way you will learn.
 Susan Hill's March chapter was quite pensive, with many thoughts about writers and reading from the Ladybird books to Robert Lewis Stevenson. I learned a lot and greatly enjoyed her literary month.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Stillmeadow - March

I began writing this two weeks ago when it was indeed March, but life has been busy and I'm just getting around to working on the post again. I love Blogger's draft facet. I've had to delete a couple things I wrote because the time has passed, but it is nice to find my words intact and waiting for me to finish.

March isn't my favorite month, and I can't quite put my finger on why. I love February, probably mostly because it is my birthday month, but also because the sunshine in that month is so dramatic, so bright on the white, white snow. It feels like the best of winter. In my memory most February days are sunny, while I'm certain that isn't the real truth. Even though spring began on the 20th at 12.15 pm my time, March doesn't feel like spring. Maybe if I lived where my heart lies in England, the daffodils and snowdrops would make me feel differently about the month, but there is no such flower here. The daylilies may be an inch out of the ground if it has been warmish, but that's the only green you will see.

But we do have the browns! You may remember Gladys writing about the autumn browns in the November entry. It is here, if you'd like to compare with how she describes the browns of March.
The wind, the wild brave wind, has carried off the last of the ice and snow. How wonderful the ground looks! The sharp sunlight falls like a blade on the meadow grasses, on the brown lawn, on the huckleberry bushes in the swamp. All the browns are distinct and beautiful, and why are they different from the browns of autumn? Perhaps the new life under the bark, under the root, makes them more glowing. Perhaps it is the quality of March light, keen as an etching tool.
If you burn wood, you may be tempted to put the ashes/coals down on winter sidewalks. We tried it one year, and what a mess! It took ages for those ashes to go away and we tracked them in for months. Gladys also gave this idea a try.
The floors look grimy and the rugs give back a cindery crunch when you walk on them. All those ashes spread on the icy walk come right back in and lay a heavy, gritty film on everything. 
Gladys writes about the craziness of featuring summer clothes in the store windows while winter is still going on. This is something we shoppers still face today, even while shopping online rather than in stores. I've often found that if I don't buy that shirt at LL Bean's the minute I see it, they will be sold out before the proper season to wear it even arrives!
In the midst of snow and sleet and rain, the shops are showing summer clothes! It's getting so you can hardly buy anything to wear at the time you need it. In summer the nice warm woolens come out for next winter, and in mid-winter pastel sheers blossoms all over town! ... When I was a child, the shops faced the facts. In February the windows were still full of fleece-lined underwear and arctics. Then when the Wisconsin spring finally loosened the river ice and the logs boomed down again, out came the flowered prints.
She naturally writes of spring cleaning. Do you do this? I don't believe I ever did. My mother was a demon cleaner. Her diaries are full of what she cleaned during the day. That would make a very minuscule entry in any diary of mine! Gladys seems to have been like my mother, but even more so.
House cleaning involves washing all the furniture with mild soap and water, and re-waxing with two thin coats of paste wax, well rubbed down. We like all our furniture finished with linseed oil and waxed.
Roz Chast has the best cartoon about this subject. I cut it out and put it on the fridge.

I'm not a collector (unless you count buying books!), but Gladys helped me understand the minds of those who do collect things.
We have a dear friend who was suffering a great grief. She found herself in a desperate state, as we all do at times. So she sat down one day, after a sleepless night, and said, "Now look here, you have got to stop thinking only about this, and about yourself. It's time you did something." She had a short vacation from her job at the time, but family duties kept her confined to the city. "All right," she said, "I'll just collect something." So she spent her vacation wandering in little shops, and riding busses and street cars to remote second-hand stores, and going to the library to read about milk glass. Now she has a beautiful collection of glass; but more, she learned the value of a lively interest in some external things. "Whenever I got too low," she said, "I tried to match the blackberry creamer." 
We didn't need to have our minds taken from anything personal at that moment, but we saw the milk glass she had, and it conquered. And now our own modest collection keeps us in a constant fever of excitement. There is really something amazing to collecting. Going into a dusty, grimy junk shop and seeing two one-o-one plates, for instance, just waiting to come home and be loved. Finding a blackberry egg cup in Roxbury and another just like it in Brooklyn.
She might be writing the thoughts of everyone who has a garden when she says,
Jill and I order just a few more berry bushes, fruit trees, and roses; it isn't too late. Jill reads dreamily, "The fruit is sweet and juicy enough to eat when it is only half ripe. The catalogue says so. In the golden stage. Continue to eat and enjoy it until September, when the skin is rich maroon red and the flesh is tempting gold. ... remove one third to one half the fruit every year to keep trees from breaking down under the load of fruit." ... Just once I should like to see one tree on our land that had enough fruit to break down a branch. Or even to shatter a small twig. But I am always as hopeful as Jill. You never know when the seed catalogue's dream may come true. After all, we had three plums this year.
My particular fruit dream is a raspberry bed like Tom's grandmother used to have. You could walk down the long rows and pick and pick and pick. I can still remember the taste and the size of those berries. I think I could live on them, if I only had a plot full.

I shall end this month's entry with a little video Tom took on St. Patrick's Day. In addition to the "wild, brave wind", you can hear the big wind chimes in the oak tree down the road and Nebby, the donkey.