Wednesday, 18 December 2013

A Wintry, Festive, Olde Christmas Miscellany

Let's begin with some rustic old verses by Thomas Tusser entitled 'Christmas Husbandly Fare':

'Get Ivye and hull, woman deck up thyne house:  and take this same brawne, for to seeth and to souse.
Provide us good chere, for thou knowst the old guise:  olde customs, that good be, let no man despise.
At Christmas be merry, and thanke God of all:  and feast thy pore neighbours, the great with the small.
Yea al the yere long, have an eie to the poore:  and God shall send luck, to kepe open thy doore.

Good husband and huswife, now chiefly be glad,
things handsome to have, as they ought to be had.
They both do provide, against Christmas do come,
to welcom their neighbours, good chere to have some.
Good bread and good drinke, a good fire in the hall,
brawne, pudding, and souse, and good mustarde withal.
Biefe, mutton, and Porke, and good Pies of the best,
pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest.
Chese, apples, and nuttes, and good Caroles to heare,
as then, in the country is counted good chere.
What cost to good husband, is any of this?
Good householde provision onely it is:
Of other the like, I do leave out a meny,
that costeth the husband never a peny.'


In Scottish Gaelic, Du'gan means the darkness of a loch, and Du'gan a' gheamhraidh, the darkest time in winter.

'There is a beauty in the trees peculiar to winter, when their fair delicate slender tracery unveiled by leaves and showing clearly against the sky rises bending with a lofty arch or sweeps gracefully drooping.  The crossing and interlacing of the limbs, the smaller boughs and tender twigs make an exquisitely fine network which has something of the severe beauty of sculpture, while the tree in summer in its full pride and splendour and colour of foliage represents the loveliness of painting.  The deciduous trees which seem to me most graceful and elegant in winter are birches, limes, beeches.'      Francis Kilvert, Diary 1870-1879

The burning characteristics and qualities of various types of wood:

Logs to burn!  Logs to burn!  Logs to save the coal a turn.
Here's a word to make you wise when you hear the woodman's cries.
Beechwood fires burn bright and clear, hornbeam blazes too,
If the logs are kept a year to season through and through.
So beech logs for Christmastime and yew logs heat well,
But 'Scotch' logs it is a crime for anyone to sell.
Though pine is good and so is yew for warmth through wintry days,
But poplar and willow too, take long to dry or blaze.
Larch logs of pine wood smell but the sparks will fly.
Birch logs burn too fast, alder scarce at all.
Chestnut logs are good to last if cut well in the fall.
Holly logs will burn like wax, you should burn them green.
Elm logs burn like smouldering flax, no flame is seen.
Pear logs and apple logs, they will scent your room,
Cherry logs across the dogs smell like flowers in bloom.
But ash logs, all smooth and grey, burn them green or old.
Buy up all that come your way, they're worth their weight in gold.

'Still, they did manage to make a little festival of it.  Every year the farmer killed an ox for the purpose and gave each of his men a joint of beef, which duly appeared on the Christmas dinner table together with plum pudding-not Christmas pudding, but suet duff with a good sprinkling of raisins.  Ivy and other evergreens were hung from the ceiling and over the pictures; a bottle of homemade wine was uncorked, a good fire was made up, and, with doors and windows closed against the keen, wintry weather, they all settled down by their own firesides for a kind of super-Sunday...There were still bands of mummers in some of the larger villages, and village choirs went carol singing about the countryside; but none of these came to the hamlet, for they knew the collection to be expected there would not make it worth their while.  A few families, sitting by their own firesides, would sing carols and songs; that, and more and better food and a better fire than usual, made up their Christmas cheer.'
Flora Thompson, Lark Rise To Candleford

Here are some excellent books along the line of old Christmas customs, stories and history:  The Country Diary Christmas Book (my favourite); A Country House Christmas; A Fenland Christmas; Christmas In Shakespeare's England; Charles Dickens' Christmas Stories; Old Christmas by Washington Irving.
'The Children of Green Knowe', by Lucy M. Boston, from 1954, is a charming and cosy story set at Christmas that really isn't just for children (if you still have a little bit of child still in you, that is), in fact I only just read it myself for the first time about three years ago and recommend it.  

'What if my grandmother is a witch,' thought Tolly as he waited in the hall at Green Knowe. He had come across the flooded fens in a boat to reach the old house that stood like an ark in the middle of the flood water.  He'd come to spend Christmas with her in this strange lonely place.  Queer flowers filled the vases and a bird's nest perched on the head of one of the carved oak cherubs who laughed down at him...Tolly's room was up under the eaves of the house, above the Knight's Hall, like a tent under the shape of the roof.   It was full of old things, a rocking horse, a painted chest without a key and a doll's house exactly like Green Knowe...'
Once  I came across a book called 'Christmas Curiosities:  Odd, Dark and Forgotten Christmas', which was full of strange and sometimes shocking visions from Christmases long past, in old postcards and illustrations.  Some of the images were funny, and some very morbid.  Why did Victorians like to send cards with a poor dead bird on the front?  There was a big emphasis on naughty children, some being thrown into a sack or beaten, or being chased by a terrifying devil-like creature, and some of the pictures would surely scare out the wickedness in the naughty wee ones! 
Then there were the advertisements using Santa to promote them.  One was for Ayer's Cherry Pectoral medicine in the 1880's, advertised showing children looking happy after taking the medicine.  It was later discovered that it contained at least 20 percent ethyl alcohol and heroin!
Here is an amusing description of a Christmas music service, from 'Old Christmas' by Washington Irving:
'The orchestra was in a small gallery, and presented a most whimsical grouping of heads, piled one above the other, among which I particularly noticed that of the village tailor, a pale fellow with a retreating forehead and chin, who played on the clarionet, and seemed to have blown his face to a point; and there was another, a short pursy man, stooping and labouring at a bass viol, so as to show nothing but the top of a round bald head, like the egg of an ostrich.  There were two or three pretty faces among the female singers, to which the keen air of a frosty morning had given a bright rosy tint; but the gentlemen choristers had obviously been chosen, like old Cremona fiddles, more for tone than looks; and as several had to sing from the same book, there were clusterings of odd physiognomies, not unlike those groups of cherubs we sometimes see on country tombstones.
The usual services of the choir were managed tolerably well, the vocal parts generally lagging a little behind the instrumental, and some loitering fiddler now and then making up for lost time by travelling over a passage with prodigious celerity, and clearing more bars than the keenest foxhunter to be in at the death.  But the great trial was an anthem that had been prepared and arranged by Master Simon, and on which he had founded great expectation.  Unluckily there was a blunder at the very outset; the musicians became flurried; Master Simon was in a fever, everything went on lamely and irregularly until they came to a chorus beginning "Now let us sing with one accord," which seemed to be a signal for parting company:  all became discord and confusion; each shifted for himself, and got to the end as well, or rather as soon, as he could, excepting one old chorister in a pair of horn spectacles bestriding and pinching a long sonorous nose; who, happening to stand a little apart, and being wrapped up in his own melody, kept on a quavering course, wriggling his head, ogling his book, and winding up all by a nasal solo of at least three bars' duration. '
For various reasons, I find that Christmas stories set in the present to be greatly lacking in atmosphere, they just fail to capture the right mood or feeling for me.  In my mind, at least, I tend to create a kind of romantic mixture of elements from Medieval and Victorian England (in the decorations and mood), with the 1970s of childhood thrown in, which may sound unusual, but it's the way I like it; you'll never find any bland modernistic minimalism from me.
The Box Of Delights is one of the best stories to watch at Christmas, and if you've never seen it, here is the beginning, it's great;  Kay Harker (who I mentioned earlier in 'The Midnight Folk') is coming home from school for Christmas and encounters some rather shifty-looking coves on the train:
   Christmas should always be as happy as possible, and peaceful, with good home cooked food and the right atmosphere, though it can be tinged with sadness for those no longer with us.  A jolly time had by all is what we should all strive for in some way, and when times are bad, at least make a little effort to have a special day, doing whatever you can to make it nice.
 I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas!

Saturday, 7 December 2013 the Countryside


Here is a charming, and I believe old, (uncredited) description of December in the English countryside, in 'The Complete Country Bizarre', edited by Andy Pittaway and Bernard Scofield, 1976:


"Although the year grows old and the December days shorter, one still finds little adventures along the woodcraft trail.  Even before dawn the farmyard cocks sound reveille and the rooks leave their dormitory to seek breakfast in the meadowland.  When the blackbird gets out of bed, he chatters like an old gentleman with a nasty temper.

In the field by the wood are a motley company of birds, which include buntings, bramblings,  chaffinches, greenfinches, and a detachment of sparrows.  On the stubble, titmice give an acrobatic display on some dried stalks, and larks find something that suits their fancy on a piece of old ploughed land.  Linnets wander from field to field in a restless nomadic manner.  By the brook a pied wagtail says 'Chizzit, chizzit' when disturbed.  From the wood an owl hoots before he goes to sleep and a jay is like a fleeting coloured shadow.  Along Blackberry Lane the denseness of the bushes make a safe and warm harbourage  for the birds, and the pine trees shelter a number of goldcrests.  The rickyard also becomes a guest house in severe weather, and the grey church tower is a sanctuary for jackdaw and barn-owl.

Most of the thrush family are fond of berries, and the fruit of the yew attracts the mistlethrush while fieldfares visit the holly.  According to old country lore, a heavy crop of berries foretells hard weather ahead.
The ploughman moves up and down the tawny acres with a plodding gait, which he occasionally breaks at the corner for a brief rest.  On the broken soil, jackdaws, rooks, hooded crows, seagulls, plovers and robins find a variety of food.
Holly is cheerful with red berries, bramble shows a trace of green, dogwood is dyed red, wild clematis is pretty with grey-white plumes, and mistletoe is beautiful with pearl-white berries.

Trees are full of colour when caught in a loop of sunlight.  Oak and beech buds shade brown, the ash is decorated with points of blackish-green, and limes glint red.
Already some shepherds have completed their pens, in readiness for the lambs that may arrive before the month is out.  In the pastures sheep wait for fodder at the troughs, a seasonal picture of the month.  Against a background a rural sounds the hum of the threshing-machine comes over the fields and will continue until sundown.
At nightfall winter moths will flock about the shepherd's lantern as he goes to the fold.  The continuous hoot of brown owls in the moonlight mingles with the dog fox's bark as he journeys through deep shadows in search of a mate..."

Here is the link for my latest music blog:

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Ghost Stories of M.R. James

I love to read spooky old-fashioned ghost stories.  For me they have to have an antique atmosphere, such as in medieval manor houses, castles, old libraries full of dusty tomes, ancient cathedrals, etc... I simply cannot, but rarely, get into the right mode with a modern setting, and also like the genteel quality of the old stories, where one doesn't usually tend to encounter anything so distasteful as great cruelty and violence, gore or obscenity;  these old stories use an unsettling atmosphere to gently guide the reader into a sense of forboding and fright, an implied danger lurking in the shadows.   For me, no one did this better than M.R. James, who has rightfully been called the best writer of English ghost stories. 

Many of his tales involve the settings mentioned above, and the main character is often an antiquary, professor, or collector, someone who is preoccupied with history and past times; and usually a quiet and more solitary and sensitive soul.

This Wordsworth Classics edition of the Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James is the one I have, although my secondhand copy is a bit scruffier than this picture.  I started reading in it quite some time ago, but as I like the stories so much, have rationed them, only reading one here and there.  The other day I did feel a need to read something, and decided that it would be a good idea to finish this collection of stories before the year is out, so started back on this one and don't have much left to finish.  There's something about Autumn and Winter that make one drawn to tales of this kind.  I highly recommend M.R. James to everyone who hasn't read his wonderfully descriptive and spooky stories yet.

Here is an excerpt from 'An Episode Of Cathedral History', where renovations  to the Cathedral unearthed something foul from a tomb and many of the residents of the town had fallen ill or died: "Gradually there formulated itself a suspicion -which grew into a conviction-that the alterations in the Cathedral had something to say in the matter.  The widow of a former old verger, a pensioner of the Chapter of Southminster, was visited by dreams, which she retailed to her friends, of a shape that slipped out of the little door of the south transept as the dark fell in, and flitted-taking a fresh direction every night-about the Close, disappearing for a while in house after house, and finally emerging again when the night sky was paling.  She could see nothing of it, she said, but that it was a moving form:  only she had an impression that when it returned to the church, as it seemed to do in the end of the dream, it turned it's head:  and then, she could not tell why, but she thought it had red eyes..." 

Friday, 25 October 2013

Mark Hearld's Work Book: A Delightful World of Nature By A Modern British Artist

This lavish, full-colour book packed with the work of Yorkshire artist Mark Hearld is a feast for the eyes and full of images to inspire one to get busy with the paints.  I first heard of Mark Hearld about three years ago or so and instantly was attracted to his work, and this book was a much desired Christmas present last year, and the first book I read this year.  At the time I found out about his art I quickly discovered some other contemporary artists and for me it was a change to actually admire artists who were alive, as I'd always only been interested in centuries old paintings and artists long gone and had a dislike for most modern art, but this is modern art of a very different type, for this is art inspired by nature and a certain kind of folk art cosiness, not (for me) the scary and incomprehensible modern art of an abstract and cold, hard style with obscure meaning that I was forced to learn a bit about in college.  In more recent years I discovered how limited my art education had been concerning certain times and movements and have tried to make up for it somewhat.  So much of what I had to study I had a strong distaste for, which is a shame for, as unlike the views of some, I believe art should be beautiful, or at least attractive.  I want nothing to do with ugliness in artistic creations, there is enough ugliness in modern society without adding to it, we need good things. 

Mark Hearld's book (which I suspect will be the first of many as he is so amazingly prolific) is full of good things, an abundance of paintings, pottery, linocuts, woodcuts and collages of brightness and charm, many having a look of freedom and looseness in the execution (like the forces of nature such as wind and rain), although other pieces are of a much more controlled and arranged form.  His pictures sometimes look deceptively simplistic, yet when you look further more and more impressive details come into view.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes animal and nature-inspired art or mid-century British art, which is the main inspiration of Mark Hearld.  I do hope a workbook volume two will be published in the near future.
Here are two wonderful videos about Mark Hearld's work:

Friday, 4 October 2013

Forest's Robe: Autumn Verses


Forest's Robe- Penhaligon's Scented Treasury Of Autumn Verse And Prose, edited by Sheila Pickles, is a lovely little book that I've had in my collection for quite a few years.  It is one of those pretty little hardcover books full of old poems, prose and beautiful paintings, this one being all related to Autumn.  Evocative titles of pieces include:  A Mellow Afternoon, Autumnal, The Hayloft, Apple-Picking, The Plough, Autumn Fires, Harvest Time, Wild Plum Jam, Through the Woods, October, Michaelmas Daisies, Gathering Leaves, Apple Harvest...

The book is indeed scented, after all those years that beautiful soft scent is still there.  Having a very sensitive nose and exceptionally keen sense of smell, I usually cannot abide perfume, but this scent is so lovely that it does not irritate, it is a comforting scent.  Here is the description in the back of the book:

"Penhaligon's autumn pot-pourri is called Forest's Robe, composed of the bark, oakmoss, pine cones and other treasures of the forest floor.
Oakmoss is gathered from the old oak forests of Eastern Europe and buckthorn bark comes from the great trees of North America.  These are mixed with cypress cones, bay and uva ursi leaves, bakuli nuts from Malaysia, alder seed pods and cassurina cones from the Mediterranean.
With its natural blend of wood and moss, Forest's Robe has a beguiling green scent which perfumes the endpapers of this book and perfectly captures the spirit of autumn."

Autumn is my favourite season of the year; its special, subtle, quieter charms can delight more than other seasons, although there is boldness in the bright turning of leaves and vibrant flowers that demand to be noticed.

Who could resist a fresh, sweet and fragrant apple? 
Here is an excerpt, from 'A Year in a Lancashire Garden' by Henry A. Bright, 1891:


"Our Apple harvest has been over for nearly a fortnight; but how pleasant the orchard was while it lasted, and how pleasant the seat in the corner by the Limes, whence we see the distant spire on the green wooded slopes.  The grey, gnarled old apple-trees have, for the most part, done well.  The Ribston Pippins are especially fine, and so is an apple, which we believe to be the King of the Pippins.....Indeed all eating apples, with but few exceptions, are best when freshly gathered, or, better still, when, on some clear soft day. they have just fallen on the grass, and lie there, warmed by the rays of the autumn sun."

Monday, 2 September 2013

Country Books

Recently I've been more involved with my music blog and devoting some time to it, but here are some of my nice country and folklore books to look at anyway, until I post something bookish more in depth.  I believe in arranging books together by subjects and strongly object to arranging them by colour,  but it just so happened that so many of these are green and yellow and don't they look pretty together?

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Reading Plans Going Awry

I am usually off on one tangent or another, suddenly becoming mildly obsessed with a particular subject and wanting to read what I can find on it and usually buying several books on the subject.  But reading plans can change as swiftly as they come, a moody or changeable reader (or one with too many interests, like myself) can find themselves abandoning the settled plan and instead of diligently setting forth on an in-depth study of say, Medieval architecture, Arthurian legends, or the Pre-Raphaelites or whatever; one can end up reading something quite different and often much less intellectual. 
I've recently read of other readers lately who have tried to stick with a reading plan and ended up leaving it.  I suppose when we set ourselves a reading list to follow, it becomes a bit like a task and we don't like to feel tied down to forcing ourselves to read something, especially when that changeableness comes on.  

The summer before last, I wanted to dip my toe into British archaeology, make a light study of chalk hill figures, stone circles, and continue reading more folklore and country books.  This all tied in with some paintings I was doing and an idea for a music project.  I had previously read John Aubrey's Natural History of Wiltshire and Stuart Piggott's books on William Stukeley and Antiquaries and other books over time. This was the stack of books I meant to read:

I even bought some more books to go along with these, but apart from the West Country folklore books,  I didn't get very far and ended up reading very different books.   This year one plan of mine was to read about the bohemian Bloomsbury set, particularly Vanessa Bell, who I think was an extremely interesting artistic woman.  This is my collection of Bloomsbury and related titles, which I will go into in more depth at a later time:
I had previously read 'Bloomsbury At Home' by Pamela Todd, and last summer the utterly wonderful 'Romantic Moderns' by Alexandra Harris; but apart from browsing through the other books, I haven't even begun to read them!  Most of my reading time this year has been in vintage fiction, and I've been getting through a lot more books this year than normal.  But now at this time I am reading the wonderful 'Albion: A Guide To Legendary Britain' by Jennifer Westwood, which fits in with that earlier list, but I confess that I feel guilty that I have not been reading history as much as I should and feel a poor scholar for not having more discipline in continuing my personal studies of history; medieval history being a great interest to me.  When I constantly see those shelves of books, so many of them still to read, I feel I've been too lazy.  I get very excited over history books and one of my favourite bookish things to do is to explore the bibliographic sources in the back of books, which is very interesting and can set you off onto lots of other, older books on a subject.  
So I am striving to be more scholarly in my reading, and while I don't promise to follow a set plan, I do intend to carry on with being more disciplined in getting a certain amount of history reading in.  It has been fun to just wander and read lots of fun books too though (like vintage Puffins), and I will still do that.
 I would be interested to hear of others and their view on reading plans, so do please comment.
(By the way, do visit my companion Music blog over here:
for some good music featured, if you like that sort of thing)

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Midnight Folk by John Masefield


 No doubt there are many of you that have heard of  'The Box Of Delights' by John Masefield; if not from reading the book, then through watching the utterly wonderful 1980s television adaptation.  This is a book I've wanted to read for years, but wanted an attractive hardcover edition for my library.  The Folio Society has produced a beautiful edition of this and the preceding book 'The Midnight Folk', from 1927.   I've had my eye on those but when looking at them more in-depth, found that even though the cover designs are wonderful and striking, I wasn't overly keen on the inside illustrations, so went searching for an older hardcover of 'The Midnight Folk' and found the perfect one (shown above).  This edition must be somewhat rare as it's the only one I found on the internet.  It is from The Reprint Society, London, 1957, with illustrations by Rowland Hilder;  I'm delighted with it and the beautiful cover art and design in dark cream on midnight blue. 

This story is a delight, as we follow young Master Kay Harker on a fantastical jumble of adventures and alternate realities and to secret worlds (involving a search for lost treasure); where animals (and toys) talk and interact with Kay, people are not what they seem, and magical journeys occur.  We clamber into hiding places and spy on wicked witches and scheming villains.  Portraits speak and landscape paintings move.  Poor Kay has much to endure with his beastly governess Sylvia Daisy (who obviously doesn't like children).   The inside flap of the dustjacket  gives this description of the tale within:

"Kay Harker lives in a big house with his governess, Jane the cook, Ellen the maid, and Nibbins the black cat.  Nibbins is one of the family of the Midnight Folk.  So too is Bitem the Fox, Blinky the Owl, Rat, Otter and a whole tribe of other friends, bears, dogs, rabbits, cats and horses, all of them Kay's toys. Kay is bent on discovering the long-lost Harker treasure.  With the help of the Midnight Folk he makes nightly investigations into the mystery which lead him into all kinds of marvellous  adventures.  Sometimes Kay is convinced that he is dreaming, but at other times there is proof that his midnight wanderings in search of clues are no fantasy but actual fact."

Here is a passage from Kay's first night of adventures:

"Kay slipped on his slippers and followed Nibbins into the little passage:  Nibbins closed the door behind him and bolted it.  "I'll lead the way," he said.  "Mind the stairs:  they're a bit worn; for the smugglers used to use these passages.  But there's lots of light.  Take my paw, as up we go."  They went up some stairs in the thickness of the wall; then a panel slid up in front of them and they came out on to the top landing.  Nibbins closed the panel behind them.  It was dark night there on the landing, except for a little moonlight.  The house was very still, but looking down over the banisters into the hall, Kay thought that he saw a shadow, wearing a ruff and a long sword, standing in the moonlight.  The cuckoo-clock in the nursery struck twelve.  "All the house is sound asleep," Nibbins said.  "Jane and Ellen are in there in those two rooms.  They little know what goes on among us midnight folk.  Give us a hand with this ringbolt, will you?"  In the oak planks of the floor there was a trap-door, which Kay had never seen before.  Together they pulled it up:  beneath was a ladder leading down to a passage brightly lit like the other...
There were seven old witches in tall black hats and long scarlet cloaks sitting round the table at a very good supper..."

Fortunately, as in the best books, the baddies are defeated and all turns out well and happy; which includes the arrival of the lovely Caroline Louisa, who we will hear more from in the next story, 'The Box of Delights.'

This book was a splendid read, sometimes there was so much going on that it could be bewildering, and I think that some of the terms and references might be difficult for younger readers today, unless they are very mature and well-read and read more old-fashioned books.  The old-fashionedness of it is one of its great charms, and what drew me in to seek it out.  This is a book that I simply didn't want to end. 

Monday, 29 July 2013

A Rambling Miscellany Of Summery Verses and Pictures

 As we are in the midst of summer, it seems a miscellany of summery verses gathered from various books and songs would be a lovely seasonal touch.  Imagine being under a shady tree with a particularly fine picnic laid out, and of course, the temperature not too hot with a gentle breeze.  Lose yourself in all this romantic imagery of nature in Summer.
"The word 'summer' comes from the Sanskrit asma, meaning 'half-year'.  Like the year itself, summer is divided into seasons, low summer, midsummer, high summer.  Low summer is scarcely more advanced than high spring because several species of migrant birds have only lately arrived, and the woods shine as they did in May.  Midsummer is more spacious.  From dawn till dusk the sun spans our waking hours and overlaps them with a long arc which George Meredith drew with a short line: 'This was a day that knew not age.'   High summer bestows almost a surfeit of colour and scent, for the corn is yellowing, the chrysanthemums are flowering and the honeysuckle yields a second crop..."  J.H.B. Peel, from Calvacade of Summer Riches

"A Brimstone butterfly drifted with the wind over the waving grasses, and settled on the shallow cup of a tall flower, John-go-to-bed-at-noon.  The bright flowers were closing, for the sun was high.  It paused for an instant only, and then fluttered over the hedge and was gone.  Came a common white butterfly-a weed of the air, hated by the countrymen; yet part of summer's heart as it flickered like a strayed snowflake in the sunshine, passing the whorled spires of red-green sorrel and glazed petals of buttercup, living its brief hour among the scents and colours of summer. 
Vibrating their sun-crisped wings with shrill hum, the hover-flies shot past:  the wild bumble-bees sang to themselves as in a frenzy of labour for their ideal they took the pollen from the roses in the hedge; the cuckoos sent call after call of melody from the distant hazel coppice.  The sound of summer was everywhere, the earth filled with swelling ecstasy-everything so green and alive, the waving grasses and the hawthorns; the green kingdom charged and surcharged with energy, from the wild strawberry to the mighty, sap-surfeited bole of the oak.  Although so still, the vast earth was humming and vibrating, the crescendo of passion reached gradually while the sun  swept nearer, day by day, the zenith of its curve."  Henry Williamson, Meadow Grasses

Gather Meadowsweet For Its Invigorating Scent:
"Meadowsweet originally 'mead-sweet', takes its name from its use in flavouring honey-mead drinks.  It is reported that the flowers boiled in wine and drunk to make the heart merry.  The leaves and flowers far excel all other strewing herbs, for to deck up houses, to strew in chambers, halls and banquetting houses in the Summer time:  for the smell thereof makes the heart merry, delightest the senses." Gerald, Herball 1597
"Also used against fevers and malaria, meadowsweet contains a substance similar to aspirin.  In the Highlands it is called Crios Chuchulainn, 'Cuchullain's belt' because the great Ulster hero revived himself by binding it around his waist."  from, A Celtic Book of Days

"The high grasslands on a summer day have an idyllic quality.  They are remote and quiet.  They are green and kind to the eye.  They are ease to the feet, the flowers have great variety and a new beauty, and the very pebbles among which they grow have a sparkle and show of colour...Take a little tent and remain in the quietness for a few days.  It is magnificent to rise in the morning in such a place."   Sir Frank Fraser Darling, The Highlands and Islands

Summer has spread a cool, green tent
Upon the bare poles of this tree;
Where 'tis joy to sit all day,
And hear the small birds' melody;
To see the sheep stand bolt upright,
Nibbling at grass almost their height.
How much I marvel now how men
Can waste their fleeting days in greed;
That one man should desire more gold
Than twenty men should truly need;
For is not this green tone more sweet
Than any chamber of the great? 
W. H. Davies

"Is there any light quite like the June sun of the North and West?  It takes trouble out of the world." 
 Sir Frank Fraser Darling (1903-1979) Island Days

SUMMERY VERSES in Scots from traditional Scottish folk songs

Oh the Gallowa' hills are covered with broom, Wi' heather bells, in bonnie bloom;
Wi' heather bells an rivers a', An I'll gang oot ower the hills to Gallowa'...

High up amang yon Hieland hills
There lives a bonnie maiden,
And she's gone oot ane fine summer's night
To watch all the soldiers paradin'....

Oh the summer time is come and the trees are sweetly bloomin'
And the wild mountain thyme grows amang the bloomin' heather...

Let us go lassie, go, tae the braes o' Balquhidder,
Whar the blueberries grow 'mang the bonnie Hielan' heather;
Whar the deer and the rae, lichtly bounding thegither,
Sport the lang summer day on the braes o' Balquhidder.

Noo the summer's in prime, wi' the flooers richly bloomin',
Wi' the wild mountain thyme a' the moorlan's perfumin';
Tae oor dear native scenes let us journey thegither,
Whar glad innocence reigns, 'mang the braes o' Balquhidder. 
Robert Tannahill

Too quick despairer, wherefore wilt though go?   
Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,
Soon will the musk carnations break and swell
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,
Sweet William with its homely cottage-smell,
And stocks in fragrant blow;
Roses that down the alleys shine afar,
And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,
And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,
And the full moon, and the white evening star.     (Matthew Arnold)

               SUMMER, by John Clare

The oak's slow-opening leaf, of deepening hue, 
Bespeaks the power of Summer once again;
While many a flower unfolds its charms to view,
To glad the entrance of his sultry reign.
Where peep the gaping speckled cuckoo-flowers,
Sweet is each rural scene she brings to pass;
Prizes to rambling school-boys' vacant hours,
Tracking wild searches through the meadow grass:
The meadow-sweet taunts high its showy wreath,
And sweet the quaking-grasses hide beneath.
Ah, 'barr'd from all that sweetens life below,
Another Summer still my eyes can see
Freed from the scorn and pilgrimage of woe,
To share the Seasons of Eternity.

"It was a bright morning in the early part of summer; the river had resumed its wonted banks, and a hot sun seemed to be pulling everything green and bushy up out of the earth, as if by strings.  The Mole and Water Rat had been up since dawn, busy on matters connected with boats and the boating season; painting and varnishing, mending paddles, repairing cushions, hunting for missing boat-hooks, and so on..." Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious wood-bine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine;
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight....
                           William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

Paintings by: Samuel Palmer, Eric Ravilious,  Tirzah Garwood, Charles Robinson, Inga Moore, Vanessa Bell, unknown, Inga Moore,  Arthur Rackham, Helen Allingham, Stanley Spencer

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Discovering Old Bicycles

I came across a photo of this Shire Album book cover and think it looks an interesting, attractive little book.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Isle of Skye: Armchair Travelling

A wise man once said: 'Skye is not a place but an intoxication.'

With others writing about their summer journeys and some doing that via armchair travelling, I thought a special destination (reluctantly only) via books would be in order now.
Let us now journey to The Isle of Skye. I've felt drawn to the Isle of Skye for many years, but haven't actually been there...yet; for I feel it in my bones that I will get there.  I also was interested in it as Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull owned part of it and the Strathaird estate from the late 1970s to the mid-late 90s.

It takes very little to transport me to that Scottish island feeling, that sense of timelessness and the carefree state of mind that one has in that kind of wild surroundings.  It could be the sound of the sea, a fiddle tune, the natural, delicate and varied colours of a woollen scarf, and the intense lure from distant ancestry.  It has inspired my own music and painting, I've painted several landscapes, for sometimes one just needs to paint a mountain!  Here is one of mine from years ago, using it as an idea for a logo for my Thistle Cottage Recordings musical cottage industry:

I've gathered a few books together from my shelves specifically about, or set in, the Isle of Skye. Shall we browse through the selection?   There is 'Portrait of Skye And The Outer Hebrides' by W. Douglas Simpson,  'Skye & the Western Isles' by James & Deborah Penrith, 'Skye:  The Island And It's Legends' by Otta Swire, and 'Old Skye Tales' by William Mackenzie.  Then two mysteries with a Skye setting:  "Wildfire At Midnight' by Mary Stewart (which I read last year), and 'Master of Morgana' by Allan Campbell McLean, which I began reading last night.

From the lone shieling on the misty island, 
Mountains divide us, and a waste of seas;
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we, in dreams, behold the Hebrides.
" The Island of Skye-the 'Misty Isle' as it has long been the largest but one of the Hebrides.  Its main mass lies north-west and south-east, running out at its broad upper end into three long promontories of Trotternish, Vaternish, and Duirinish, divided from each other by Loch Snizort and Loch Dunvegan.  Midway from the long western coast projects the squat mass of Minginish, flanked by Loch Bracadale and Loch Scavaig.   Beyond the latter the bold headland of Strathaird is isolated by Loch Slapin and Loch Eishort from the long transverse butt of the island, known as Sleat and Strath, which in shape is uncommonly like a gigantic fish's tale.  The island is 49 miles in length.  It's breadth varies from 7 to 25 miles.  But owing to the irregularity of the coastline, and the great number of fjord-like lochs, no part of the interior is as much as 5 miles from the sea.  The total length of coastline is over 900 miles.  Skye contains 690 square miles, most of which is moorland and mountain.  Of the mountains, three main systems may be distinguished. The principal one is the grand group of the Cuillins, in the south-west, forming the base of Minginish.  Without question these are the most magnificent of British mountains."  (Portrait of Skye and the Outer Hebrides, W. Douglas Simpson, 1967)

There is much folklore, history, many books on Skye, and fiddle tunes, folksongs, folk bands from there or about there. 
  "Thanks to its stunning scenery, romantic associations and accessibility, Skye is the most visited of all the western islands and has been for more than a century, since the railroads and steamships of the Victorians brought the islands of the Inner Hebrides that much closer to the bursting cities of the mainland.  There are some purists who insist that Skye is no longer an island, and that somehow it's not the same singing the Skye Boat Song while speeding over the bridge that has kinked it firmly to the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh since 1995.   (Skye & the Western Isles, Penrith, 2007).
From traditional Scottish Folk band Ossian, the tune 'The Sound of Sleat:
  The 'Dun Ringill' video by Jethro Tull:
and Fish n' Sheep n' Rock n' Roll from 1987, about Ian Anderson's music and the salmon farm in Skye as well, which you can find easily.
The Corries with 'Skye Boat Song':
So we must gather our bags, not forgetting the Ordnance Survey map, sturdy walking boots, rain-proof jackets, some non-effective midge repellent, etc...and wend our way to the train station. 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Folklore Of The Cotswolds

From my Interesting Book Covers series.  I bought this many years ago on holiday, I think from the 15th Century Bookshop in Lewes, Sussex.  It's an excellent volume in the Folklore Of The British Isles series by the great and legendary folklorist Katharine Briggs.  The artwork is striking and very good, but no matter how many times I see the cover, that face is rather alarming!

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Agatha Christie: A Reader's Companion

'Agatha Christie- A Reader's Companion,' is a MUST if you are an Agatha Christie admirer.  It is a beautiful book and an absolute delight to browse through, being a compendium of all of her books and the date and synopsis of each story.  The most exciting feature of this book is the photographs of the artwork of the original dustjackets.

Another guide that goes into more depth than this one (but without the striking pictures) is 'The New Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie,' another Must Have for mystery readers.
   I've been an Agatha Christie fan since the age of eleven, but unfortunately I don't have a record of all her books I read in the early days, as I only started making a reading record several years later.  So, because there are so many titles, I sometimes wonder if I may have read a book in the past or not.  I have read some favourites multiple times, but I'm sure I have many more to read, and I'm glad that I haven't read them all....yet!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Traditional Crafts: The Rural Industries of England & Wales

The Rural Industries of England & Wales III: Decorative Crafts and Rural Potteries.
 This is a handsome hardback book I bought to add to my collection of traditional craft books, which has a preference for books from the seventies; there was a great number of wonderful crafts books produced in that decade.  It was the lovely cover design that attracted me.   This edition was published in 1978, but the original edition was from 1927.

The chapters are on: Decorative Crafts and Their Place In Village Life; Lace-Making, Home Crafts and Industries, Rural Potteries, Lapidary Workers.

I will be featuring many other traditional craft books.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The House of the Deer by D.E. Stevenson

On hearing so many good things about D.E. Stevenson's books, and being keen on a certain type of vintage fiction, I felt it was past time for me to begin reading some of her books and borrowed this one from the library (but with a less romantic cover).  Right away I liked her style of writing and knew 'The House of the Deer', from 1971, would be one I would enjoy reading, especially with it being set in the Highlands of Scotland, which I love. 
 Gerald Burleigh-Brown is coerced, by his boss and brother-in-law Sir Walter MacCallum, to take his place and spend a holiday in an old house in the wilds of Scotland with some good friends of his and participate in the deer culling in the deer forest there.  There is much description of deer stalking, which I momentarily thought might put me off, but this is a very good story with elements of mystery, gentle romance, and adventure, and I believe it would appeal equally to men and women.  There are some rather exciting scenes in the second half of the book involving a small gang of dangerous criminals, but I'm giving nothing away to spoil the plot.
Here is an interesting detailed description of the house itself:
"Gerald looked at the old house with interest.  It was on the side of a hill near a burn and was built of rough grey stone.  The windows were on different levels and were of different sizes and shapes:  some were large and square, others were small and oblong.  Those facing west were built into a kind of bow, like half a tower.  Above that the half-tower became a whole tower with windows facing in three directions.  The roof, which was made of slate, was steep and uneven; gables jutted out at all angles and twisted chimneys sprouted in unexpected places.  The pepper-pot turrets, which had been added "just for fun", gave the place a rakish appearance.   "I've never seen anything like it before!" Gerald exclaimed.  "No, and you never will," declared Mac, smiling.
The House of the Deer was unique inside as well as outside.  There was one large room which ran through the centre of the house on the ground floor and had windows facing east and west.  It was used as a sitting-room at one end and as a dining-room at the other.  This was the old part of the house, as could be seen from the thickness of the walls.  The windows were set in deep embrasures which were filled with cushioned window-seats.  Halfway down one side of the room there was a huge stone fireplace with a wrought-iron grate for burning logs.  The furniture consisted of large chairs upholstered in brown leather (which probably had been new in Victorian times) and large bookcases containing books about fishing and shooting and the habits of deer.  There was a work-basket, bulging with grey woolen stockings, on one chair and a pile of papers on another."
The characters and their interactions seemed very real, and I look forward to reading more stories by D.E. Stevenson.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Brasses and Brass Rubbing

This is a handsome little hardcover book with a beautiful cover image of medieval brasses of a knight and lady. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Albion: The Origins of The English Imagination by Peter Ackroyd


'Albion' by Peter Ackroyd, is one of my favourite books.  It is utterly fascinating and when I read it a few years ago, I remember enjoying it and taking my time, slowing down my reading pace to deeply take everything in more fully, to absorb the bountiful prose relating to the miscellaneous subjects contained within.   This is a handsome book which successfully sets out to take the reader on a journey through the cultural history of England, beginning with the Anglo-Saxons and continuing through time, though not in an orderly, chronological manner, but in the manner of a delightful miscellany of topics and times.  This is a book in which one time-travels over the centuries and dips into a vast range of topics; including language, literature, religion, painting, theatre and music hall, music, architecture, philosophy, etc...

Bede, Beowulf, King Arthur, Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Lewis Carroll, Dickens, Hogarth, Turner, Purcell, Vaughan Williams, poetry, Romantics, Old English, London, Victoriana, Gothic style, trees, stone, cathedrals, ruins, gardens...the list goes on and on in the massive range of this book.  Open the pages anywhere and you will find interesting facts, fused with Peter Ackroyd's great talent for compiling and elaborating on history.  He never writes a dull, dry history book, his volumes are filled with fascination and imagination,  history is brought to life due to his method of going below the surface to reveal the facts and facets of everyday life in an entrancing way.

I found this section, in in the chapter, 'Among The Ruins,' to be illuminating:
"It is no paradox, therefore, that the culture of nineteenth-century England, which witnessed the development of an entirely new metropolitan civilisation, should itself have been similarly preoccupied with 'ancient times.'  It is none the less curious that the Victorian age of innovation should also be the age of restoration, that a fervent belief in progress should be accompanied by a deep need for revival, and that a period of unprecedented industrial and commercial expansion should also be a period of unremitting nostalgia...The close association with medievalism also provided an image of organic unity, of a civilisation established upon firm religious and cultural principles, in a period when every aspect of society was being called into doubt."
I can identify with this very much so, for as things in the world generally get more insane, aggressive, shallow, godless, high-tech, ugly, unnatural, etc..., I retreat into old books, art, good music, faith; the real and beautiful things that make one feel comforted, enlightened and inspired.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the cultural history of past times.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Folklore of East Anglia

My Folklore and Interesting Book Covers series:
I've been collecting the Folklore of the British Isles series of books, which were published in the seventies.  These are worth picking up when you come across one, the cover art and illustrations inside are very good and mysterious.  Indeed I have quite a lot of folklore books and they are always fascinating to read.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Alan Garner: Fantastical Adventures

These books above are, unfortunately, the only books I have by Alan Garner, the great and legendary fantasy writer.  The first one I read was The Owl Service, from 1967, which is set in Wales and incorporated the ancient Welsh tales of the Mabinogian  beginning with a mysterious scrabbling sound in a dusty attic and the discovery of old dinner plates found there, decorated with an intriguing owl pattern.  This book is strange, but rather bewitching in a way, I also watched the 1969 film of it as well.

 I didn't grow to really appreciate Alan Garner's writing until the summer before last, when I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.  This wonderful and exciting book completely captivated me and I found it hard to put down.   It was written in 1960, and concerns brother and sister Colin and Susan, who come to the countryside for a few months whilst their parents are abroad. On their rambles they very soon get caught up in a terrifying adventure with evil goblins, a good wizard, elves and so on.  They have some harrowing experiences which are even scarier because they are running about exploring in an unfamiliar landscape, with a freedom that children rarely have today. 
"Once over the ridge,  they found themselves in a dell, bracken and boulder filled, and edged with rocks, in which were cracks, and fissures, and small caves; and before them a high-vaulted beech wood marched steeply down into the dusk.  The air was still and heavy, as though waiting for thunder; the only sound the concentrated whine of mosquitoes; and the thick sweet smell of bracken and flies was everywhere.  'I...I don't like this place, Colin,' said Susan:  'I feel that we're being watched.'  Colin did not laugh at her as he might normally have done.  He, too, had that feeling between the shoulder-blades, and he could have easily have imagined that something was moving among the shadows of the rocks; something that managed to keep out of sight.  So he gladly turned to climb back to the path."
After reading this one, I immediately had to buy the book that continues the story:  'The Moon of Gomrath.'  
"They hurried now.  Whether the change was in themselves or in the wood, Colin and Susan felt it.  The Edge had suddenly become, not quite malevolent, but alien, unsafe.  And they longed to be clear of the trees:  for either the light, or nerves, or both, seemed to be playing still further tricks on them.  They kept imagining that there was white movement among the tree tops-nothing clear, but suggested, and elusive."
 I read little of fantasy type books but there are some I've enjoyed very much and I intend to add more Alan Garner titles to my library in the future ( indeed I've just bought a copy of Elidor which is also a Lions edition, like the last two).  He weaves many threads into his stories, using fantasy, mythology, Celtic legends, history, and uses the landscape in such a way that makes it extremely important. The landscape is a dominant character; it's hills and stones and trees and wildness are the backdrop to everything.  Many of his books are listed as children/young adult fiction, but with all good writings of that genre, the stories are for anyone of any age who enjoys a good tale.  
Alan Garner portrait by Andrew Tift

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Barbara Pym Books

Better late than never, as here we are at the end of Barbara Pym Reading Week.  I first read Barbara Pym several years ago, have now read six or seven of them, and have always have rather mixed feelings over her stories.  I like some of them, but others not as well;  but they are still all well written.  I like the village settings and the more eccentric characters that sometimes pop up here and there, but along with the gentle humour, there is often an underlying melancholy tone throughout the stories, which can leave one with a slight sadness after reading them.  I remember two books that left me with a sadness being 'The Sweet Dove Died' and 'Less Than Angels.'  Another element is the subtle mocking of the characters, as if showing them to be rather silly or even pathetic, which can be mildly unnerving.  So one can begin reading the stories, feeling them to be light, fun, not-too-serious fiction, but soon knowing that there is much more depth and cunning behind the characters and storyline.

The week before last I read 'A Few Green Leaves' which I enjoyed, and this week 'A Glass Of Blessings.'  Both titles were interesting, but the last having a rather exasperating main character, Wilmet, who despite being self-assured, superior and highly observant and critical about others, was rather dim, passive, aimless and utterly self-centred, being blind about what was happening to those closest to her. I felt that she often wanted to be good and useful, indeed she did care about others to a small extent sometimes,  but generally expected to be led by the hand to do anything. This story did have quite a lot of funny lines in it, which I wish I had jotted down before I returned it to the library!

I possess four titles in my library (Crampton Hodnet, Some Tame Gazelle, Jane and Prudence, Less Than Angels);  1980s E. P. Dutton editions with attractively patterned covers and I must say that I was appalled at the covers of the new editions that have been recently republished.  They are cute, but tend to make the books look like just one more of the gang of dreaded "chick-lit" which I can't abide.  I can say the same for the new covers for Mary Stewart's books too.  It's worth seeking out the older printings for better cover designs.


Friday, 31 May 2013

Jago and Litefoot: The Mahogany Murderers

Doctor Who fans may be familiar with the fantastic 1977 story set in Victorian London,  'The Talons of Weng-Chiang,' with Tom Baker.
This particular story is my favourite one because of so many elements, including the delightful pairing of premier pathologist Professor Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago, the theatrical manager and master of ceremonies with a witty way with words.  Being a little behind in knowing about this, I've only recently discovered the amazing treasure trove of audio productions being written and produced by Big Finish, many of them with former actors in Doctor Who, these new stories being set in between the adventures we saw in television. The idea of bringing these two characters back to life after over thirty years was a stroke of genius.  Listening to Trevor Baxter as Litefoot and the rich and fruity voice of Christopher Benjamin as Jago is a treat and to begin in order I started with the first offering:  The Mahogany Murderers.

The tale is set a few years after The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and over time they have "defeated denizens of the daemonic darkness together.  They have stood side by side against threats to the British Empire."  But when mysterious animated wooden figures began being seen in London, a new adventure begins.  This first story consists of Jago and Litefoot recounting their experiences of the mystery, relaying what occurred to each other in a pub.  It is a fine production with a rather intimate feel and serves as a good introduction to the audio box sets that have followed, with five being released and more scheduled.
 I am intending to purchase these sets slowly, and look forward to listening to more adventures with Jago and Litefoot.  

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Oak Apple Day


I always find old holidays and special days and customs fascinating, and as the 29th of May is Oak Apple Day in England, here is an extract about Charles II and the Royal Oak, from Chambers' Book of Days, 1862:
"Among the acts passed by parliament immediately after the Restoration was one enacting 'That in all succeeding ages the 29th of May be celebrated in every parish church and chapel in England, and the dominions thereof, by rendering thanks to God for the king's restoration to actual possession and exercise of his legal authority over his subjects,' &c.  The service of the Restoration, like that for the preservation from the Gunpowder Treason, and the death of Charles I, was kept up till the year 1859.
The restoration of the king, after a twelve years' interregnum from the death of his father, naturally brought into public view some of the remarkable events of his intermediate life.  None took a more prominent place than what had happened in September 1651, immediately after his Scottish army had been overthrown by Cromwell at Worcester.  It was heretofore obscurely, but now became clearly known, that the royal person had for a day been concealed in a bushy oak in a Shropshire forest, while the commonwealth's troopers were ranging about in search of the fugitives from the late battle.  The incident was romantic and striking in itself, and, in proportion to the joy in the having the king once in his legal place, was the interest felt in the tree by which he had been to all appearance providentially preserved.  The ROYAL OAK accordingly became one of the familiar domestic ideas of the English people.  A spray of oak in the hat was a badge of a loyalist on the recurrence of the Restoration-day.  A picture of an oak tree, with a crowned figure sitting amidst the branches, and a few dragoons scouring about the neighbouring ground, was assumed as a sign upon many a tavern in town and country.  And 'Oak Apple-day' became a convertible term for the Restoration-day among the rustic population.... In many old-fashioned and out-of-the-way places, the 29th of May is still celebrated, in memory of King Charles's preservation in the oak of Boscobel, and his Restoration."