Blog

Here’s where I keep my thoughts on things I’ve read, made and listened to.

2019 – Four Hedges

four hedgesTo celebrate World Book Day, which in 2019 coincided with the first meteorological day of spring, here is a review of Four Hedges by Clare Leighton, a book that rejoices in the earthiness of the garden.

Four Hedges is a pocket-sized delight. First published by Victor Gollancz in 1935 and reprinted by Little Toller in 2010, the book charts a year in Leighton’s Chiltern garden of the 1930s. Born in London in 1898, Clare Leighton was an artist, writer, designer and wood-engraver who emigrated to America in 1939, where she settled in North Carolina and taught at Duke University.  As well as creating the woodcuts used in her own books, she also illustrated the works of Thomas Hardy, Gilbert White and Henry David Thoreau. Studded throughout with Leighton’s gem-like woodcuts of plants, flowers, birds and garden scenes, Four Hedges is part art exhibition, part memoir, and part discourse on the individual’s relationship with their home and the natural world around it.

Beginning in April with the ‘piercing grey winds’ of early spring, Four Hedges walks us through Leighton’s garden month by month. It begins by drawing parallels between the worlds of horticulture and theatre: ‘[t]he drama of the year is late in starting and I am in time for the first act.’ This is no how-to-garden guide, but a psychogeographic exploration by an artist of a place intimately known. Arriving back in the Chilterns from a holiday in Corsica, Leighton notes that her return brings with it a sense that her ‘year is out of focus’, the heat of the Mediterranean putting her disjointedly out of step with her garden.

Leighton reconnects to her garden – and to her reality – through digging its earth with her bare hands. Even when she spikes her foot on a thistle, ‘there is this feeling of goodness coming up into me from the ground’. In the 1930s she was already warning her readers against growing too detached from the physical world:

‘We are losing much, these days, when we no longer get this naked contact with the earth. The sensation of touch seems to be fading, and lazily we look at things with our eyes, and smell the more pronounced scents around us, ignoring the vast range of emotion that is within the scope of hand or foot […] we are poor creatures that we should call ourselves civilised, we who have only these blunted powers’.

Although Leighton’s book is no gardening guide, it nevertheless imparts snippets of countryside lore from generations past. Lacey, Leighton’s gardener with a ‘rumbling, earthy voice’, is a Chiltern native who embodies the folk wisdom of an older England. The adage that fair weather at Candlemas is the sign hard winter weather still to come introduces Leighton’s February chapter, and I see that 2018, like 1935, has a February that disappears into a blizzard:

‘By midday the snow has started, blown horizontal across the land by the violent winds, it lies in a thin scatter on the hill-tops, transforming them into high mountains. By nightfall it has begun to settle, and […] I listen in bed to that absolute silence without, which comes upon the earth only when it is covered with snow.’

As I write this the weather is bitterly cold, snow whirling around the house like an icy dervish. Our village’s main road passes by our house, but for the last two says snow has muffled ‘the ugly sounds of civilisation’, plunging us into a near-silent world. Reading Leighton’s winter chapters makes me feel doubly connected to this weather  as it rattles hail down the stove pipe and flings gobbets of snow at our windows.

Standing in the kitchen window I see three goldfinches jostling for space on the bird feeder, and by the hedge a blue tit pokes its beak into the brittle orange beech leaves that still linger from the autumn. As Leighton observed, the white blankness of the snow makes the colours of the birds jump out as its white blankness ‘heightens and burnishes the greys and browns of sparrow and thrush […] dull colours that would pass unnoticed against the usual background of earth and field become infused with life when they stand against snow’. Two bullfinches bounce bright into my garden, puffed up against the weather. The male, vivid coral pink at his breast, swings from the slender branches of the bare weigela, pecking off its buds in his hunger. Under the nearby cypress his pale buff mate nestles her feather-bulk into the mulch of leaves, twigs and grass on the ground, flicking over leaves with her beak in the hunt for insects. The gold finches flash their war-painted red and black faces at each other as they attack the nyger seed, their black and yellow wings a fluttering blur as they compete to perch on the feeder.

As Leighton and I share our gardens and the weather, I feel closer to both through comparing our worlds, seeing my world the sharper for its reflection in hers. Like her woodcuts, Leighton’s prose is precise and clear, clarifying the smudged, untidy world. With her I luxuriate in the ‘gentle, growing rain’ of April with its ‘silky rustle’; thrill at the prospect of ‘sunshine and swallows, apple blossom and cowslips’ when ‘the skirts of the hedges froth white with cow parsley’ in May; and imagine holding my new baby come June when ‘the garden is a nursery of nests and young birds’. My favourite season, autumn, arrives with apples knocked to the ground in a thunderstorm, this new year-spell ‘gently showing the marks of its fingers in heavy morning dews’.

Leighton’s is truly an artist’s experience of the world, alive to movement and colour, smell and touch. It seems only fair to let her have the last word, on this day of spring and books:

‘Spring is upon us, and will not be hindered by winds or rain, or scurries of snow.’

2018 – Expecting

expectingI’d never been pregnant, never tried to conceive a child, when I first read Expecting by Chitra Ramaswamy. The furthest I’d got down the road to furthering the species was to get married. Although I felt a lot more ready for the thought of bringing a child into the world than I did ten years ago – when the thought was ‘shit, having a baby would be the worst thing that could happen to me right now’ – I was at the ‘if it happened, we could cope’, but not yet at ‘shit, NOT having a baby would be worst thing that could happen.’ I was godmother to a dear girl, the daughter of a school friend, and an inveterate ‘knitting auntie’, knocking up hats, mittens, bootees and jackets for each new arrival. But actually a mum myself? No, not yet.

Part of the reason for my lack of enthusiasm for the baby project was a lack of understanding about how it might make me think and feel, anxiety about how it might change the very me-ness of me. Sure, there were also the massive practical considerations of work and lifestyle and cost (has anyone ever told you how shitty parental pay and leave are in the UK?) but at least there’s some support from the state, and we both have jobs and savings and four grandparents-in-waiting. We had friends who have done it and so can tell us ‘don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal’ and who wouldn’t mind being howled at down the phone at silly o’clock. The species needs someone to do it and, after all, all of us have already been through it, albeit on the other end of things.

But a big stumbling block to overcome before I took the plunge was to try and work out how this massive life-changing thing could affect me. Not just physically – though there is that too – but how I think and feel and cope with the world. In part, this is futile; people always tell me that you can’t imagine what it’s like until it’s happening to you. But I still wanted to try and work it out, and it’s almost impossible to do because there’s barely a book on the subject that isn’t just a handbook advice on folic acid, maternity pads and pelvic girdle pain. Did those words make you shiver? If so, you’re not alone – they made my skin prickle, and that just shows how culturally conditioned we are to finding the whole pregnancy and motherhood thing a little bit disgusting, something that we just don’t talk about before we’re on that giddy journey ourselves, hurtling into the future with nary a clue about what’s to come. Preparing for this journey I didn’t want a car manual, I wanted a story about the place that I’m going to which reassures and excites and makes me feel like I could cope with the brave new world ahead.

Thank God for Chitra Ramaswamy. Her book Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy (Saraband, April 2016) is a magical yet practical and beautifully written monologue on pregnancy, from the pre-conception jitters to the miraculous but traumatic moment of birth. Each chapter follows a month of her own pregnancy but against a background of cultural and literary references from Sylvia Plath to Tolstoy. In fact, those two sources are pretty important, because there simply aren’t that many books, poems, plays, films or works of art which actually depict this most awesome and fundamental of human processes. As Ramaswamy questions:

‘What, then, is the riddle of pregnancy? How are we even to begin to understand it? To find the right metaphors? Or perhaps even to abandon them: to crack open the jar and spill the contents?’

Ramaswamy’s a journalist and the training shows: her research is thorough and wide-reaching, turning up gems in places we wouldn’t have looked as well as those we thought we knew. Some of the works she cites are obviously about childbearing: Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kate Clanchy’s Newborn and Sharon Old’s poem ‘The Language of the Brag’ all take the stage. But others are more unexpected: Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977) isn’t a book about pregnancy at all, but in it Ramaswamy finds surprising parallels between Shepherd’s mountain explorations and her own journey to motherhood. Take Shepherd’s description of water on the hills:

‘I have seen its birth […] and the more I gaze at that sure and remitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled.’

Ramaswamy feels the same about the miniature miracle occurring in the very midst of herself.

There is also the quotidian normality, even familiarity, of this rarely-written-about subject. From the movements of the baby in her stomach to the contractions of birth, the feeling of joyous wellbeing in her sixth month to the protective nesting sensation she often experiences, the refrain is the same: ‘the most surprising part of all this was how unsurprising it felt’. For Ramaswamy discovers that her body is wiser and better prepared than her head, that this most primeval of functions is hard-wired into her very being. It doesn’t take her away from herself, it make her more herself, part of the humanity of humanity.

I cannot recommend Expecting highly enough. As someone who may take the path to motherhood soon, it feels like a life-raft in a sea of uncertainty about pregnancy, helpful yet humorous, intimate yet universal. Not a car manual, but a true friend of a book, one that any person with the remotest to connection to the miracle of life could turn to again and again.

2017 – The Outrun

liptrotLast year I received a sneaky proof copy of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. I love getting my paws on proof copies with their banner forbidding resale, knowing that I’m one of only a handful of people who get to see a book this new. It’s a bit like seeing my god-daughter when she was only a few weeks old, or another friend’s baby at two days’ newly hatched, before anyone else has told me about what they are like and I can find out for myself entirely.

But now the book is out in the world and so I can talk about it. On paper it sounds like a bit of a misery memoir: girl comes back home to Orkney follow stint in rehab for alcoholism, trying to heal herself through writing and being close to nature. But Liptrot’s story is anything but miserable: she finds that her life is full of resonances that for years she was too busy to hear, but now echo to her from unexpected corners and reverberate through her new self. If this sounds rather hippy or saccharine, Liptrot’s writing isn’t that either. It’s bright and clear and incisive, like the clean blade of a knife. There’s an inherent danger to her story too. It is the tale of one living closer to the edge of the normal world than might be safe or comfortable.

The story begins when she meets her parents for the first time. Her father’s manic depression shapes the family’s life with its violence: he smashes windows, believes he can control the weather, and is periodically sectioned, as he is on the day Amy is born. The opening chapter describes the scene acted out beneath the whirring blades of an Orkney helicopter, a baby cradled in her mother’s arms in one wheelchair as her straight-jacketed father is brought out in another on his way to a mainland asylum. Liptrot’s prose gives nothing away and it is only in the closing words of the chapter that we realise that the two wheelchair-bound adults are her own parents, and this is the first of many dramatic and extreme events in her life.

As a teenager Liptrot longs to get away from something she sees falsely described as an island paradise, and in her 20s she moves to London. The city’s ‘hot pulse’ seems so far away from Orkney’s windswept emptiness that the two places feel like polar opposites: for the first half of the book the two appear in defiant contrast to each other. Liptrot goes clubbing several times a week, drinking heavily and ‘searching headlong for a good time’. But after Liptrot has reached her nadir, gone to rehab and returned to Orkney, similarities between the two creep into Liptrot’s writing. The noise of the waves crashing into the island reminds her of the roar of London’s traffic; the sea’s luminescence is like the neon of a night club. Her two worlds are deeply intertwined and represent not the two extremes of living that she thought they did, but different ways of engaging with the same reality.

The book’s title comes from an Orcadian field name, the outrun being the largest field at the top of farm where the ewes and their lambs graze in summer and where the Highland cattle overwinter. But to ‘out run’ something means to race away from it, to reach a safe place by being fleeter of foot than one’s pursuer. And there is a chase at the heart of the book, but perhaps not the one you’d expect.

sunbathingThe narratives of chased and chasing are familiar to me from another autobiography of alcoholism and depression, Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain. Both describe the out-of-control searching for something at the bottom of a bottle, the desperate efforts to escape from or to a place by being the drunken sailor on a tipsy ocean. But where as Lewis’ drinking is an attempt to outrun her own depression (and her mother’s), Liptrot’s seems to be an attempt to catch up with the violent mood swings of her father, to mimic the highest highs and terrible lows that shaped her childhood. She’s almost drinking to outrun him, not herself, to go higher and faster and giddier with each bottle.

I completely understand this drinking and behaving recklessly to make your moods match what you think they should be. Like Lewis and Liptrot, I too had a period of mental illness in my twenties – I was sectioned when I was 22, and had a prolonged period of doing silly and dangerous things simply because I felt so awful that I didn’t care about the consequences. It was as if I was trying to make my reality align with my feelings, which were so extreme that they just didn’t make sense to me.

In Lewis’ words, which I read obsessively during my own rehabilitation, I had to ‘come back to my senses’. This realisation that sanity lies close to one’s physical senses is shared with Liptrot, and I loved hearing about how her new sober world expanded beneath her finger tips, under her toes when she swims in the sea, above her ears and her eyes as the birds and the weather freewheel above her. She becomes fiercely observing of the natural world, working for the RSPB counting corncrakes and inhabiting a tiny pink cottage on the even remoter island of Papa Westray during the winter. Her senses are sharp and raw, but she can trust them, and she uses them to inch herself to her life. Her writing seems like an extension of those sensory experiences: natural, fascinating, and utterly keen.

2016

lemonsThe Land Where Lemons Grow

I’ve always been a fan of lemons as a flavour: as a child my favourite ‘treat’ was a little bottle of Schweppes Bitter Lemon, which always seemed mouth-puckeringly sour at the time, but now seems quite sweet! In the last month I’ve renewed my fascination with them – their origins, scent, how they grow, and what to make with them in the kitchen – through Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow.

Attlee is a garden expert by trade, leading tours and writing books on Italian gardens. She adores plants in all their splendid variety, but it is the citrus family which has really captured her imagination. Although the title makes specific reference to just one member of this family, Attlee’s book covers the whole gamut of the genus, from the three original citrus fruits (pomelo, citron and mandarin) to hundreds of different sub-species.

From the Medici to the Mafia, we discover that citrus lies at the heart of Italy’s economy and gastronomy since at least the 6th century. I was also introduced to several fruits I’d never even heard of: the chinotto, a small bitter citrus used to flavour drinks and sweets; and bergamot, the name of which I knew but which I had believed, rather erroneously, to be a herb. It is in fact an inedible citrus fruit whose powerfully fragrant essential oils form the basis for Eau De Cologne, and have done ever since the perfume was first invented by Johann Maria Farina in 1709.

lemonAttlee’s writing is pitch-perfect, balancing the academic with the anecdotal to create a whole which is so fascinating that when I’d finished, I immediately turned back to the first page and started reading it again. Although she is narrating the tale of citrus development throughout history, the book’s form is non-linear and moves effortlessly between place and time – in some books this jars or can confuse the less expert reader (such as myself), but in Attlee’s hands these connected stories simply weave in and out of each other to create a truly rich and vibrant text.

The Land Where Lemons Grow is a definite contender for my favourite book of 2016 – if you’ve read it, let me know what you think, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Hie thee to a (good independent) bookshop!

2015

hannah hauxwell
Hannah at home in Baldersdale

Hannah Hauxwell

A few years ago I was holiday in Shropshire with a group of friends from university, having a cheeky free holiday in a cottage belonging to one of their relatives. One wet day we went in to Shrewsbury, intent on warming ourselves up with the finest Shropshire ale. En route to a boozy establishment, we could not resist the lure of a charity shop (most of the group are ardent bargain rootlers) and there I found Hannah, a biography of Yorkshire woman Hannah Hauxwell. Although I had no idea who she was, a quick flick through told me that this was a rural history biography, a genre I love, so I parted with £2 and Hannah was mine.

Having grown up without a television in the house, popular cultural phenomena of the late twentieth century generally passed me by. This included Hannah Hauxwell’s landmark appearance on Yorkshire Television’s Too Long A Winter. Hannah’s life was unimaginable demanding by today’s standards, and even by those of the 1970s. Her farm in the North Yorkshire valley of Baldersdale had no running water, no electricity, complete isolation, food hung in bags to keep the rats off: then in her forties, she looked decades older. But what charmed her audience, then as now, was the deep calm and sense of almost childlike wonder with which she viewed the world. She is almost Wordsworthian in her lyric connection to the landscape, her inflection and gentle turn of phrase belonging to a different era.

hannah hThe book itself is a compilation volume written by television producer Barry Cockcroft over the thirty years that he worked with Hannah. It is interspersed with photos of Hannah’s life, but also contains some wonderful images from Beamish, the living museum of the north, showing life in the Yorkshire Dales. Many of them have been digitised in their ‘People’s Collection’ project – have a look here: www.beamish.org.uk/collections/. You can also see a selection of photographs of Hannah published by the Yorkshire Post on the occasion of her 85th birthday, and read about her in People of Yorkshire, volume 7.

Hannah died in January 2018, having spent the last two decades of her life at Cotherstone, small village a few miles from Baldersdale. But Hannah’s name lives on in Baldersdale, for when she sold her farm a conservation charity was able to buy some of the meadowland. They realised that because Hannah’s family had never used artificial fertiliser on the land, it was a haven of wild flowers, unusual grasses and rare animals. They called it ‘Hannah’s Meadow’ and you make a pilgrimage there thanks to the Durham Wildlife Trust: durhamwildlifetrust.org.uk/visitor-centres/hannahs/