"To watch rain pock the surface of a chalk stream, feel mizzle on the chill skin of your face or smell petrichor rising from summer-dry soil is to be baptised into a fuller, older, and more deeply felt relationship with the natural world."
Melissa Harrison's At Hawthorn Time, a beautifully wrought, unsettling novel of contemporary rural England, impressed me greatly when I read it a couple of years ago. Although that was fiction, the author's skill as a nature writer was more than apparent in it, so I didn't hesitate to buy her most recent book Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, "an evocative meditation on the English landscape in wet weather".
I'm currently reading the second of the four walks, in Shropshire in April. On Easter Sunday, in a country lane, the cow parsley is starting to come out, and it reminds Melissa of Edward Thomas's poem 'It Rains', "with its lovely sense of the lushness of spring rain on new green growth, and its clear sense of rain's oblique relationship to memory and the past:
It rains, and nothing stirs within the fence Anywhere through the orchard’s untrodden, dense Forest of parsley. The great diamonds Of rain on the grassblades there is none to break, Or the fallen petals further down to shake.
And I am nearly as happy as possible To search the wilderness in vain though well, To think of two walking, kissing there, Drenched, yet forgetting the kisses of the rain:
Sad, too, to think that never, never again, Unless alone, so happy shall I walk In the rain. When I turn away, on its fine stalk Twilight has fined to naught, the parsley flower Figures, suspended still and ghostly white, The past hovering as it revisits the light."
This and another Thomas poem, "Rain", are discussed here.
"For many cultures, the practicalities of ink - legibility, permanency and consistency - have gone hand-in-glove with rather more diffuse, emotional, even reverential considerations. The ancient Chinese used inks perfumed with cloves, honey and musk. The scents, it is true, helped cover the odour of the binders used - yak skin and fish intestines were common - but these inks sometimes also contained powdered rhinoceros horn, pearls or jasper. In medieval Christian monasteries, the act of copying and illuminating manuscripts, of putting wisdom and prayer to paper, was seen as a spiritual process in itself.
Black ink also had a devotional relationship with Islam: the Arabic word for ink, midãd, is closely related to that for divine substance or matter. An early seventeenth-century recipe in a treatise on painters and calligraphers contained 14 ingredients; some, like soot and gallnuts, are obvious enough, but others - saffron, Tibetan musk and hemp oil - are far less so. The author, Qadi Ahmad, was under little doubt of ink's numinous power. 'The ink of the scholar,' he wrote, 'is more holy than the blood of the martyr.' "
Postmen all over the country must be finding their bags weighed down with Persephone Books' latest releases, if my Instagram feed is anything to go by. I daresay no one reading here will be unaware that Tirzah Garwood's autobiography Long Live Great Bardfield, and Every Good Deed and Other Stories by the much-loved Dorothy Whipple have just been published, and doubtless many of you already have your copies and are well into one or other of them as this is book post of the best kind.
Ian Rankin's latest Rebus novel, Rather Be The Devil, will be out next week; Mr. C. read it in an afternoon and promises a review, but for now says it does not disappoint.
"In August 1947, Diana Athill travelled to Florence by the Golden Arrow train for a two-week holiday with her good friend Pen. In this playful diary of that trip, Athill recorded her observations and adventures - eating with (and paid for by) the hopeful men they meet on their travels, admiring architectural sights, sampling delicious pastries, eking out their budget and getting into scrapes. Written with an arresting immediacy and infused with an exhilarating joie de vivre, A Florence Diary is a bright, colourful evocation of a time long lost, and a vibrant portrait of a city that will be deliciously familiar to any contemporary traveller."
"An orchard is not a field. It's not a forest or a copse. It couldn't occur naturally; it's definitely cultivated. But an orchard doesn't override the natural order: it enhances it, dresses it up. It demonstrates that man and nature together can - just occasionally - create something more beautiful and (literally) more fruitful than either could alone. The vivid brightness of the laden trees, studded with jewels, stirs some deep race memory and makes the heart leap. Here is bounty, and excitement.
Taking us through the seasons in England's apple-growing heartlands, Pete Brown uncovers the magic and folklore of our most familiar fruit, showing its place at the heart of our lives."
A Florence Diary, Diana Athill, Dorothy Whipple, Every Good Deed & Other Stories, Ian Rankin, John Rebus, Long Live Great Bardfield, Persephone Books, Pete Brown, Rather Be The Devil, The Apple Orchard, Tirzah Garwood
Any Human Heart by William Boyd; another one I've yet to read, but I saw the television dramatisation of this, Mr. C. read it and gave it high praise, and Boyd is jolly good!
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver; perfect for this time of year, there's a review of this excellent ghost story here, and good news for Paver fans, Thin Air - set in the Himalayas in 1935 - has just been published.
I paid another visit to the St. Andrews branch of Topping and Company today and this is what I bought: Warm Covers: A Scottish Textile Story by Janet Rae (I mentioned it here), biographies of Georgette Heyer (by Jennifer Kloester) and George Eliot (by Jenny Uglow), A.S. Byatt on Mariano Fortuny and William Morris (see this post), and Richard Hillyer's memoir Country Boy (full details here).
The author is one of the Dictionary's most experienced lexicographers, and his account of its history takes it from its origins in the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day. Drawing on previously unexamined archival material and eyewitness testimony, "the book explores the cultural background from which the idea of a comprehensive historical dictionary of English emerged, the lengthy struggles to bring this concept to fruition, and the development of the book from the appearance of the first printed fascicle in 1884 to the launching of the Dictionary as an online database in 2000 and beyond. It also examines the evolution of the lexicographers' working methods, and provides much information about the people - many of them remarkable individuals - who have contributed to the project over the last century and a half."
Language and its usage are ever-evolving, of course, and Oxford Dictionaries keep their finger on the linguistic pulse. Their #OneWordMap is tracking global trends and is currently asking people to submit their least favourite English word! You can do so here**.
*Peter Gilliver praises Elisabeth Murray's biography of her grandfather and says that her book was recommended to him by way of preliminary reading when he joined the staff of the Dictionary.
**Edited to add: as Toffeeapple reports below in comments, the map has been taken down due to misuse.
The book in question is The Surgeon of Crowthorne (also known as The Professor and the Madman) by Simon Winchester; Mel Gibson will play Sir James Murray, the primary editor of the Dictionary, and Sean Penn will take the role of Dr. W. C. Minor, one of its chief contributors and an inmate of Broadmoor, an asylum for the criminally insane.
On this very rainy St. Swithin's Day, here's another extract from Weatherland by Alexandra Harris:
"[...] there is no evidence that the historical Swithin, Bishop of Winchester in the 850s, had any interest in the weather at all. William of Malmesbury recorded in the twelfth century a story which would be retold for centuries. According to this story, Swithin asked on his deathbed to be buried outside the walls of his cathedral, where his body 'would be exposed to the tramp of feet as people passed by and to the rain pouring down'. the legend goes that when, a century later, his bones were taken into the cathedral itself and honoured as the relics of a saint, Swithin objected by sending a downpour. Alas there is little in the way of fact to support this. Swithin was actually given a prominent burial in front of the west door, and if it rained at the time of his reinterment none of those who described the ceremony thought it worth mentioning.
What matters more is that centuries of people believed the story, and one can see why. There could be few more fitting last wishes for an English hero than this request to lie out in the rain. There is the humility of it, and the sense of being in the midst of things, for life and rain can be synonymous and 'the rain it raineth every day' [...]"
A couple of rain-related links: here (in case you missed it at the time) and here (sounds interesting).
"In the rain recently I've been trying to listen. There is not much richness in my hearing yet, but I hope it will grow. There are characters in Thomas Hardy's fiction so knowledgeable in rain that they can find their way across dark country (even when drunk) by comparing the sound of the water on different crops:
'Sometimes a soaking hiss proclaimed that they were passing by a pasture, then a patter would show that the rain fell upon some large-leafed root crop, then a paddling plash announced the naked arable, the low sound of the wind in their ears rising and falling with each pace they took.' " (Desperate Remedies)
"Dickens began Bleak House in the dark November of 1851 and finished it the following year during three months of near-continuous rain. The heavy drops fall ('drip, drip, drip upon the broad flagged pavement') when we first meet Lady Dedlock looking out blankly over a leaden landscape. 'The waters are out in Lincolnshire', and it rains for the first twelve chapters before pausing and raining again. Drops fall with the rhythm of footsteps as they might be heard on the haunted terrace, 'drip, drip, drip, by day and night', so that when Lady Dedlock has finally gone into the icy dark, and Sir Leicester lies distraught, and the house waits in grey anticipation, there is one inevitable sound: 'It is falling still; upon the roof, upon the skylight, even through the skylight, and drip, drip, drip, with the regularity of the Ghost's Walk, on the stone floor below.' "
"The best of Ted Hughes's laureate poems was Rain-Charm for the Duchy, a celebration of first rain after months of drought in 1984. Gift-wrapped as a baptismal offering for Prince Harry, it was really a bardic prayer for a whole stretch of Devon, particularly its rivers and their salmon. The rain brought out a civic streak in the poet of lonely Crow. Drops come 'sploshing' down (there's a wellington skip in the child-like word) and thunder strikes up its brass band."
"What did it feel like to be a woman living in Paris from 1939 to 1949? These were years of fear, power, aggression, courage, deprivation and secrets until - finally - with France's liberation came renewal and retribution. Yet, even at the darkest moments of Occupation, with the Swastika flying from the Eiffel Tower and pet dogs abandoned howling on the streets, glamour was ever present.
It was women, more than men, who came face to face with the German conquerors on a daily basis - perhaps selling them their clothes or travelling alongside them on the Métro, where a German soldier had priority over seats. How did these women react to their subjugators? What made them collaborate or resist? And did they have any choice? By looking at a wide range of individuals from collaborators to resisters, actresses and prostitutes to teachers and writers, Anne Sebba shows that women, whether they were Nazi wives, spies, mothers, mistresses, or fashion and jewellery designers, had to make life-and-death decisions every day, and often did whatever they needed to survive.
Some women, like the heiress Béatrice de Camondo or novelist Irène Némirovsky, converted to Catholicism; others like racing driver Violette Morris embraced the Nazi philosophy; Coco Chanel even retreated to the Ritz with a German lover. A young medical student, Anne Spoerry, gave lethal injections to camp inmates but was also known to have saved the lives of Jews.
But this is not just a book about wartime. Sebba also explores the aftershock of the Second World War and the choices demanded. How did the women who survived to see the liberation of Paris come to terms with their actions and those of others? Although politics lies at its heart, Les Parisiennes is above all an account of the lives of the people of the city and, most of all, its women and young girls."
I'm always very glad to see a book I've loved get the recognition that comes with a literary prize listing or win, and today it's kudos to James Rebanks in the form of a shortlisting for his The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. That award celebrates a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry which "best evokes the spirit of a place", and James Rebanks' book certainly does that and more besides (there's a short post on it here).
"I remember that as a child I was so absorbed in my tellings to others that they could see what I saw. I could always get an audience. Not that I looked for one, the telling was all, or rather, the seeing. I don't think I write for children, any more than the great Miss Potter. For what? Whom? Well, myself, perhaps; I never think of an audience, that would kill everything. I think all children's books are grown-up books. When children's books are children's books they are not worth reading."
I'm very interested to read the previously unpublished novel The Theoretical Foot, a "long-lost gem" by the marvellous food writer M.F.K. Fisher, which will be out next month:
"Susan Harper and Joe Kelly, in love and hitchhiking through Europe, never want this perfect, passionate summer to end. It is the late 1930s and society frowns on the slack morals of couples living in sin. But these tiresome strictures are swept away when they arrive at La Prairie, the elegant haven on Lake Geneva where Joe's enigmatic friend Sara and her lover Tim preside - where judgement is suspended and time ebbs deliciously away.
Surrounded by orchards heavy with plums and meadows splashed with poppies, lunches are long, youth is languorous and wine flows. As morning gives way to afternoon and sunset brings the evening's festivities, the unseen tensions and desires of the group are revealed, the fleeting yearnings and the long-held resentments.
[...] the novel illuminates moral attitudes in the 1930s and shows glimpses of a refugee-flooded Europe blighted by the rise of Fascism and the menace of another war. Enchanting, light, yet suffused with the darkness of what is to come, The Theoretical Foot is a witty and bold portrait of a bohemian life under threat."
If you've never read Mrs. Fisher's food writing, you've missed a delight. The Art of Eating brings together her five most famous books, and is, in Julia Child's words, "the essence of M.F. K. Fisher"; it's to be read hungrily!
Frank McCourt said of her, "If I were teaching high school English, I'd use Fisher's books to show how to write simply, how to enjoy food and drink but, most of all, how to enjoy life." He's right.
Over thirty years ago, I had what was one of the greatest experiences of my university life, when I attended a series of lectures* by Professor Richard Cobb on life in France under German occupation. During those years millions of men and women had to make horrible choices about how to live their lives, do their jobs, feed themselves and their families; Cobb's message was that those of us who had never had to confront those choices needed to be very wary before handing out either praise or blame.
This deeply humane and civilised attitude is evident on every page of Allan Massie's excellent quartet of crime novels** set in Bordeaux during the occupation. His hero, Inspector Lannes, meets political and personal depravity from both collaborationists and their enemies in the Resistance; his family is split, with one son supporting Vichy and the other escaping to London to join the Free French, and both are young men of integrity; his daughter falls in love with a quixotic patriot who goes off to fight for Hitler on the Eastern Front; and his wife turns away from him both physically and emotionally. He always tries to do what he thinks is right, but so often the choice is between the bad and the worse. The ethical complexity of such a world is a gift to the crime novelist, and Massie takes full advantage of the setting. The novels are also a loving Francophile's evocation of the France of grumpy concierges and long lunches, of Charles Trenet songs and barges on the foggy Gironde, of scruffy bistros and grand hotels. I read them avidly, all four in less than a week, and warmly recommend them.
If you're interested in reading about a timeless - and highly demanding - way of life; living with a deep-rooted connection to a place, and all that that means; a necessary, keen awareness of the natural year; farming sustainably in respect of the landscape; people who are "tuned to a different channel"; shepherding, and the ways of sheep, then I strongly recommend you get hold of a copy of The Shepherd's Life.
It's a very down-to-earth, clear-eyed account of the author's own family history and how it has formed him, and of the rhythms, customs and practices which make up a Herdwick sheep farmer's life in the valleys and on the fells of the Lake District. It's illuminating, engrossing, and excellent.