" 'I thank you, sir, I thank you,' her murmured, and placed George Herbert between Spenser and Piers Plowman on the shelf. 'You give me great wealth for the gift of a book is the gift of a human soul. Men put their souls in their books. When one man gives another a book then three souls are bound together in that most happy thing, a trinity. "
"... He ground indigo leaves, pulped and dried them to a powder, mixed them with palygorskite and heated them in copal resin to a rich dark zaffre that could colour a night sky at that moment of dusk to dark. He fired ochre to the almost-black of midnight. Cooked white lead to the yellow of noon. Cooked it again to the red of dusk. He soaked saffron with egg white, transformed the scarlet stamens to citron golds. Discovered the magic of salt. Mixed it with mauve-tinged azures, violet reds. Boiled roots, and thickened the dye with turpentine and alum. He found vermilion sunsets in mercury sulphide, fired them to an orange cinnabar. He ground berries to a pulp, discovered purple when he mixed the juices with acid, ultramarine when he mixed them with alkaline. He ground up malachite, found cyan and celeste, celadon and olive. Ground up madder, found crimson, ruby and alizarin. Crushed azurite, inhaled lungfuls of deep blue, as if the air were now visible.
Then he bound these colours, set them, with gesso, plaster, linseed oil, sap from cherry trees and resin from sweet pines. He melted wax. Dabbed at his creations with paintbrushes made from fine horsehair, and swept colours across reams of white parchment paper, over and over, until he'd sought out some arcane perfection. His pigments were luminous and brilliant. They did not fade in the sun, in the wind or the rain. They lifted skies and made rich the blue red earth."
From Jakob's Colours by Lindsay Hawdon, a quite superb debut novel that is also a heart-rending read.
"One day, we go to the square in front of St. Paul's Cathedral, where the booksellers are. To our surprise, we find none of the quiet reverence one associates with reading.
The shops are adorned with brightly coloured signs that enchant me: ships, water nymphs, Moors' faces, bishops' mitres, snarling dragons and Saracens' heads. As for the shopkeepers, they have the same stentorian voices as the vendors at Cheapside or Leadenhall. You'd think you were at the vegetable market, save for the Latin mixed in here with the English.
'What do you require, my good sir?'
'The Mirror for Magistrates! New illustrated edition!'
'Freshly printed! Never before published!'
'Buy my map of the New World!'
'Chronicles and homilies!'
'Come on! Come on! Take a look at my book! All you need to conjure the perils and pitfalls of the sea!
'Read my Book of the Courtier! With engravings! Custom and decorum, all explained!'
It is the same at the Royal Exchange, between Cornhill and Threadneedle Street, where all the world's merchants meet to discuss their business. On the first floor there is a row of shops: apothecaries, armourers, bookshops, jewellers, mercers and haberdashers, all vaunting their wares - a fashionable garment here, a love potion there, wigs and fragrant musks; one sells beard brushes, another handbells; there are coat linings, purses, the finest Toledo blades ... I forget.
The place I find most entertaining is the area around the Exchange. Here is a mosaic of fruit sellers, hawkers and chimney sweepers, apprentices dallying gaily with housemaids, and clerks scurrying hither and thither, all in a commotion, a monstrous choir of carters thundering past, their singing often audible above the racket, shouts from tavern gardens, farriers' hammers, carpenters' mallets, the din of smithies, barking dogs and the laughter of all those who, like myself, feel infinite pleasure at this monumental symphony."
"The space that stories grant us, by allowing us to bail out some of the emotional and logistical paraphernalia we carry with us in the real world, makes extraordinary things possible. With our minds free of everyday concerns and the volume turned down on our interior monologues, we have the scope to engage in creative activity of our own, as our imaginations construct the fictional worlds sketched out by the words before our eyes."
" ... in almost all of my Edinburgh novels the characters inevitably at some stage make their way to Jenner's, that great Edinburgh store which dominates one end of Princes Street. Jenner's has always represented Edinburgh - or at least a certain part of Edinburgh - distilled. Edinburgh primness and respectability is, of course, a huge joke that we all enjoy. Jenner's, with the grandeur of its building, and its tea room, is the very embodiment of the old-fashioned city - its face turned firmly away from any form of coarseness or vulgarity. Of course life, for most, is distinctly not a matter of cream teas and perjink respectability, but it adds to the texture and variety of a city to have such things in our midst. (Perjink, incidentally, is a Scots word that I think Edinburgh should claim for itself. Perjink is neat and tidy, perhaps a bit fussy. And it is the fussiness that makes it a real Edinburgh word. Edinburgh is not at all fantoosh - another wonderful Scots word. Other cities can be fantoosh (flashy and showy), but not Edinburgh. If you want to buy anything really fantoosh, you probably have to go somewhere other than Jenner's."
That's from A Work of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh by Alexander McCall Smith, and in a typically personal note to the picture shown above (Jenner's Tea Room, 1895), a place he describes as "the headquarters of genteel Edinburgh", he goes on, "Jenner's features in a number of the Scotland Street novels - not least as a place where the characters go while the author is deciding what should happen next." Sad to say, the tea room visited by Domenica and friends no longer looks as it did in 1895.
For 'Cornflower in conversation' with this much-loved author, click here.
"... one of the most characteristic and compelling features of [Tolkien's] books is their ability to evoke a palpable sense of untold stories and unexplored vistas, of landscapes glimpsed at the edges of other foregrounded pictures, that are at once suggestive, enticing and unbreachably distant: we desire to go there (to hear the story), and at the same time know it is, for now, unbearably beyond our reach - like the luminous countries glimpsed through windows in fifteenth-century Italian paintings. The means Tolkien uses to achieve this effect are, most usually, names: unglossed but resonant, with a felt (because real) internal consistency and meaning. This is the fruit of the linguistic background of his tales; the languages, he insisted, presupposed a world they described, and so by devising the one he necessarily created the other. This is exactly the function that technical philology had for Tolkien and for scholars like him: words and phrases implied a reality, a world inhabited by their speakers and best described by these very words."
From Tolkien by Raymond Edwards - which I warmly recommend.
"As long ago as 1924, Vita had recorded simple everyday occurrences guaranteed to make her happy: 'walking on crisp snow; running a stick along railings; stamping on a nut; stripping the shell from a hard-boiled egg; writing with the really ideal nib*; plunging into the sudden comfort of warm water on a cold night'. Each inspired a sensation she labelled 'through leaves' on the analogy of the uncomplicated pleasure inherent in kicking one's way through dry leaves on an autumn walk. Though not intended as an inventory of personal fulfilment (Vita's list omitted Harold [her husband], poetry, gardening, her houses, Ben, Nigel [her sons], dogs and intimate friends, it indicates something of the nature of her engagement with her world."
"Ségolène ... expressed herself in a more delicate, more graceful Italic hand than Bilodo had ever had the good fortune to admire. It was rich, imaginative handwriting, with deep downstrokes and celestial upstrokes embellished with opulent loops and precise drops - a clean, flowing script, admirably well-proportioned with its perfect thirty-degree slant and flawless inter-letter spacing. Ségolène's writing was a sweet scent for the eye, an elixir, an ode. It was a graphic symphony, an apotheosis. It was so beautiful it made you weep. Having read somewhere that handwriting was a reflection of a person's soul, Bilodo readily concluded that Ségolène's soul must be incomparably pure. If angels wrote, surely it was like this."
"It was cool on the river, the smooth green glide so much nearer and intimate than the sea had been. The water bucked and writhed beneath the boards at first, but as they progressed they settled into an even slide. The rising smell of the water reminded Isis of ink, when you put your nose to the neck of the bottle - a dark, swilling breath of unborn words."
From Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister - which is excellent, by the way.
"Ally likes Latin. It seems more like Maths than like French, a language with an integral logic. English words are slippery, leaning on each other and on unspoken presences, on ghosts, for their meanings. Latin is so tightly woven that it barely needs punctuation, the relationships between words so clear that the order in which they come doesn't matter. Life would be easier if we spoke Latin.
Aubrey says that social life in Ancient Rome was at least as complicated as in nineteenth-century Manchester. He says that no language is proof against what is not said, that people lie and, more interestingly, keep silent, in every tongue on earth, including Greek which is even more highly inflected than Latin. Anyway, the ghosts in English are what makes it interesting, those Viking and Norman presences floating about in our sentences and our poetry."
"I have always preferred writing short stories to writing novels. Not that there is much similarity and not that a writer can usually get away with writing only one or the other (Katherine Mansfield almost did). Stories of all lengths and depths come from mysterious parts of the cave. The difference in writing them is that, for a novel, you must lay in mental, physical and spiritual provision as for a siege or for a time of hectic explosions, while a short story is, or can be, a steady, timed flame like the lighting of a blow lamp on a building site full of dry tinder."
Jane Gardam, from her introduction to her collection The Stories.
"The library, especially this room, reminds her of a ship, a tier of decks and ramparts. Lulled by the scratch of the moon-faced clock, you can look out at the clouds and it appears to be sailing, the windows those of a galleon, and beyond them a rigging of rooftops and masts. She has become friends with it now, feels a magnanimity towards its foibles and idiosyncracies, its smells, moods, foolishness and sadness, that she doesn't feel towards people. There are as many moods of this library as there are rooms, and rooms exist here as cells in a body, small cavities, industry and conversion, creation and transportation, and between them all runs an intricate arterial network of corridors, pulleys and lifts. There is Sir Godfrey's, dark-ceilinged, filled with the smell of pencil lead and warm wood, pierced by needles of light that fall from narrow windows across the floor of a vaulted tunnel of narrow bays leading through the proscenium to an inner sanctum - a Holy of Holies - chamber of staircases, balconies and ladders unfurling height upon height of still more books; a magician's tower, an Aladdin's cave, where coloured light from jewelled panes falls upon pages not to be touched with bare hands yet pored and wrinkled and smelling like skin; upon letters written by men so long dead their tongues have become obscure and strange-sounding, but are themselves illuminated and stand up quick and brilliant as if the ink hasn't yet dried...
She walks to her seat beneath the row of small suns, surveyed on either side by a border of luminaries, faded heads, ancient leaves, cracked cornucopias, furling scrolls - for this is also the home of the gods: masters, poets, philosophers, 'auctors' all, who studied here before her and whose works now fill its shelves. The eyes of the gods follow her. 'What about this one?' they mutter. 'Will she have something to say?' They stroke hoary chins. 'There is possibility,' they say, 'but there is also doubt.'"
"Of all reformers Mr. Popular Sentiment [the well-known novelist] is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing left for him to do. Mr. Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest. Namby-pamby in these days is not thrown away if it be introduced in the proper quarters. Divine peeresses are no longer interesting, though possessed of every virtue; but a pattern peasant or an immaculate manufacturing hero may talk as much twaddle as one of Mrs. Ratcliffe's heroines, and still be listened to. Perhaps, however, Mr. Sentiment's great attraction is in his second-rate characters. If his heroes and heroines walk upon stilts, as heroes and heroines, I fear, ever must, their attendant satellites are as natural as though one met them in the street: they walk and talk like men and women, and live among our friends a rattling, lively life; yes, live, and will live till the names of their calling shall be forgotten in their own, and Buckett and Mrs. Gamp will be the only words left to us to signify a detective police officer or a monthly nurse."
"... The tea consumed was the very best, the coffee the very blackest, the cream the very thickest; there was dry toast and buttered toast, muffins and crumpets; hot bread and cold bread, white bread and brown bread, home-made bread and bakers' bread, wheaten bread and oaten bread; and if there be other breads than these, they were there; there were eggs in napkins, and crispy bits of bacon under silver covers; and there were little fishes in a little box, and devilled kidneys frizzling on a hot-water dish; which, by-the-by, were placed closely contiguous to the plate of the worthy archdeacon himself. Over and above this, on a snow-white napkin, spread upon the sideboard, was a huge ham and a huge sirloin; the latter having laden the dinner table on the previous evening. Such was the ordinary fare at Plumstead Episcopi."
Feeling peckish now? That passage comes from Trollope's The Warden which our very informal Cornflower Book Group is reading this month. There's still plenty of time to pick up the book if you'd like to read it, or if you already know it well, do join in the chat about it from Saturday the 29th. (I've just finished it and found it completely charming.)
"I love the feel of a book. I love the touch and smell and sound of the pages. I love the handling. A book is a sensual thing. You sit curled in a chair with it or like me you take it to bed and it's, well, enveloping. Weird I am. I know. What the Hell? As Bobby Bowe says to everything. You either get it or you don't. When my father first took me to Ennis Library I went down among the shelves and felt company, not only the company of the writers, but the readers too, because they had lifted and opened and read these books. The books were worn in a way they can only get worn by hands and eyes and minds; these were the literal original Facebooks, the books where faces had been, and I just loved it, the whole strange sense of being aboard a readership."
"Spring returned to England. Birds followed ploughs. Stones were warmed by the sun. Rains and winds grew softer, and were fragranced with the scents of earth and growing things. Woods were tinged with a colour so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a colour at all. It was more the idea of a colour - as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts."
"The night before Mr. Norrell was due to perform the magic, snow fell on York and in the morning the dirt and mud of the city had disappeared, all replaced by flawless white. The sounds of hooves and footsteps were muffled, and the very voices of York's citizens were altered by a white silence that swallowed up every sound. Mr. Norrell had named a very early hour in the day. In their separate homes the York magicians breakfasted alone. They watched in silence as a servant poured their coffee, broke their warm white-bread rolls, fetched the butter. The wife, the sister, the daughter, the daughter-in-law, or the niece who usually performed these little offices was still in bed; and the pleasant female domestic chat, which the gentlemen of the York society affected to despise so much, and which was in truth the sweet and mild refrain in the music of their ordinary lives, was absent. And the breakfast rooms where these gentlemen sat were changed from what they had been yesterday. The winter gloom was quite gone and in its place was a fearful light - the winter sun reflected many times over the snowy earth. There was a dazzle of light upon the white linen tablecloth. The rosebuds that patterned the daughter's pretty coffee-cups seemed almost to dance in it. Sunbeams were struck from the niece's silver coffee-pot, and the daughter-in-law's smiling china shepherdesses were all become shining angels. It was as if the table were laid with fairy silver and crystal."
"I can trace my relationship with the short story back to my earliest days as a reader, but my true connection came when I was twelve years old, the year I read Eudora Welty's A Visit of Charity. There had been other stories before that ... but A Visit of Charity ... seemed infinitely more grown-up to me. It didn't reward the reader with a plot twist at the end or present a clear moral imperative. Even more startling was the fact that this author, whose photograph and biographical paragraph preceded the text, had only one date listed after her name: 1909, and then a dash, and then nothing. Again and again I returned to that paragraph to look at the long, gentle face of the author. She was both alive and in a textbook, a coupling I had never seen before. As sure as I was by the age of twelve that I wanted to be a writer, I was not at all certain that it was the sort of thing the living did. The short-fiction market was cornered by dead people, and this Eudora Welty was, as far as I could tell, the first one to have bucked the trend. I decided at the start of seventh grade to cast my lot with the living, and chose Eudora Welty as my favourite writer. Four years later, when I was sixteen, Miss Welty came to Vanderbilt to give a reading. I got there early and sat in the front row, holding my big, hardback Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty, which my mother had bought me for my birthday that year. It was the first reading I had ever been to, and when it was over I had her sign my book. I held it open to the wrong page, and she looked at me, and said, 'No, no, dear. You always want to sign on the title page.' And she took the book from me and did it right. For the sheer force of its heart-stopping, life-changing wonder, I will put this experience up against anyone who ever saw the Beatles."