Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A Christmas Scene From 'Sir Gawain And The Green Knight'

This king lay at Camelot one Christmastide
With many mighty lords, manly liegemen,
Members rightly reckoned of the Round Table,
In splendid celebration, seemly and carefree.
There tussling in tournament time and again
Jousted in jollity these gentle knights,
Then in court carnival sang catches and danced;
For fifteen days the feasting there was full in like measure
With all the meat and merry-making men could devise,
Gladly ringing glee, glorious to hear,
A noble din by day, dancing at night!
All was happiness in the height in halls and chambers
For lords and their ladies, delectable joy...

Then the first course came in with such cracking of trumpets,
(Whence bright bedecked blazons in banners hung)
Such din of drumming and a deal of fine piping,
Such wild warbles whelming and echoing
That hearts were uplifted high at the strains.
Then delicacies and dainties were delivered to the guests,
Fresh food in foison, such freight of full dishes
That space was scarce at the social tables
For the several soups set before them in silver on the cloth.
Each feaster made free with the fare,
Took lightly and nothing loth;
Twelve plates were for every pair,
Good beer and bright wine both.

Wishing a Merry Christmas to all!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Joan Aiken's 'A Small Pinch of Weather and Other Stories'

Joan Aiken's 'A Small Pinch of Weather and Other Stories' is a book I finished reading last week, and it is completely wonderful and utterly entertaining.  Joan Aiken is one of my favourite authors (having over 100 books published) and she possessed an incredible imagination.  I've read various books and collections of stories for years (but have a long way to go to reading everything) but this particular collection of stories may be the most fascinating read so far.  This is pure escapism, and we have magic and fantasy as a part of normal life in these tales, they definitely take one away from the mundane.

This collection was first published in 1969, and my copy shown is a 1977 Puffin Books edition, with very eye-catching cover art.

A few of the stories concern the Armitage family, and these are a lot of fun to read.  There is a new book available of all the Armitage family stories in one volume, 'The Serial Garden,' which I felt compelled to order and am awaiting its arrival.   Here is bit from the story 'Broomsticks and Sardines', where Mark and Harriet's (the Armitage children) schoolteacher has been teaching her class some very strange things of a magical nature, which they are putting to use: 

"Mr Armitage, in his study, could hear raucous shouts and recriminations going on between Mark and Harriet and the Shepherd children, ancient enemies of theirs in the garden on the other side...  'Will you stop that hideous row,' exclaimed Mr Armitage, bursting out of his french window.  A deathly hush fell in the garden.  He realized almost at once, though, that the silence was due not so much to his intervention, as the fact that where little Richard, Geoffrey, and Moira Shepherd had been, there were now three sheep, which Harriet and Mark were regarding with triumphant satisfaction.
'Did you do that?' said Mr Armitage sharply to his children. 
'Well -yes.'
'Change them back at once.'
'We don't know how.'
'Geoffrey - Moira - your mother says it's bed-time.'  Mr Shepherd came out of his greenhouse with a pair of secateurs. 
'I say, Shepherd, I'm terribly sorry - my children have changed yours into sheep.  And now they say they don't know how to change them back.'
'Oh, don't apologize, old chap.  As a matter of fact I think it's a pretty good show.  Some peace and quiet will be a wonderful change, and I shan't have to mow the lawn.'  He shouted indoors with the liveliest pleasure,
'I say, Minnie!  Our kids have been turned into sheep, so you won't have to put them to bed.  Dig out a long frock and we'll go to the Harvest Ball.'
A shriek of delight greeted his words."

The titles of these short stories are delightful too, you just know you are in for something interesting:
A Small Pinch of Weather
Broomsticks and Sardines
The Boy Who Read Aloud
The Land of Trees and Heroes
The Cost of Night
The Stolen Quince Tree
Smoke From Cromwell's Time
The Apple of Trouble
The Lilac in the Lake
Harriet's Hairloom
A Leg Full of Rubies
The Serial Garden

Here is the description of this collection at the beginning of the book:

"You will find a small pinch of weather and more than a pinch of a thousand other things in this book of short stories by Joan Aiken, who is one of the most truly original and versatile writers for children today.  Here are funny stories-about the school where Harriet and Mark Armitage learned spells instead of ordinary lessons-and sad, romantic, magic tales about a king who lost all the darkness in his land, the beautiful lost princess Freylinde, a sinister story about a phoenix and a leg full of rubies, and a fascinating story about Mark and the wonderful garden he built from cereal packets.  Not to mention the story the book is named after.
All in all, this is about the most unexpected, out-of-the-ordinary books of short stories you can imagine.  The sad stories are spiced with wit and the funny ones tinged with sadness, but the one certain thing is that you will never feel too sure what will happen next."

Joan Aiken wrote books for adults and well as children, but as with the best writers, the children's books can appeal just as much to adults, and they possess humour that appeals to all ages.  I will be bold and say that you should have this book, particularly if you like beguiling tales by authors with boundless imaginations, and I doubt that anyone has/had a more vivid imagination than Joan Aiken, she really was amazing.

Monday, 3 August 2015

London In Books

London has a history of being one of the most interesting and culturally rich cities in the world, though sadly it is not the place it once was, and my interest in it lies in its past.   Along with the numerous museums, it still has a goodly amount of history to be seen, despite the incessant destruction of the past by so many "progressive" types, who would love to demolish the handsome buildings still mercifully left standing and turn this great city into a place of ghastly skyscrapers and car parks.   This is something I've thought about quite a bit recently, after reading the fight against such a thing on the excellent 'Spitalfields Life' blog and elsewhere.  It seemed a coincidence when recently going into the nearby secondhand bookshop (that had nothing of interest on the previous visit) that there were some books on London that seemed to be waiting just for me, and I left with these four:

These are excellent books with superb photography (and they were a great deal, as I traded in some unwanted ones as well)  and fine additions to other London books already had.  Here are a few of them:

There are also fiction books set in London, including some recent British Library Crime Classics and  other vintage mysteries.  

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Gilbert and Sullivan: The Savoy Operas

If you fancy reading something amusing, frivolous, and entertaining; something that will take you away from the tatty and mundane entertainments of the 21st century, then here is an antidote to those dull, unimaginative ways of passing the book- perusing time.  This attractive Penguin Classics edition contains the complete librettos written by W.S. Gilbert, and it is quite a thick and substantial tome (with a profusion of historical notes).  There is enough here to keep you busy reading for some time, and of course, it is likely to send you hunting out the music as well.  This is often viewed as light-weight material. Yes, there is much silliness and ridiculously shallow and fickle characters, but there is also more going on in these tremendously witty Victorian comic operas than is often realised; and that makes them very interesting.  Here is the description on the back of the book:

"Life's a pudding full of plums:
Together, librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan created some of the best-loved musical works in the world, with a finely honed yet anarchic sensibility that found its expression in upturned logic and extravagant wordplay.  This collection brings together all of their operatic collaborations, from their first joint venture, Thespis, the music of which is now largely lost, to the triumphant comic romps of The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, to less frequently performed gems such as the fanciful The Sorcerer and the acerbic lampoon Patience.  The fourteen Savoy Operas show Gilbert as a great poet and well as a humourist, and illustrations from his Bab Ballads reveal an entertaining comic artist.  The introduction by Mike Leigh explores the often conflicting characters of the two men, and the style, techniques and impact of the operas."
This is particularly timely, as Mike Leigh is in the midst of his production of The Pirates of Penzance at the English National Opera, and there is also a wonderful new music project that I will be focussing on here as well, in the next instalment.
I particularly enjoyed reading 'The Pirates of Penzance' (and how incredibly brilliant 'I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General' is!), 'Patience', and 'The Gondoliers'. 

The G&S operas are:    
Trial By Jury
The Sorcerer
HMS Pinafore
The Pirates Of Penzance
Princess Ida
The Mikado
The Yeoman Of The Guard
The Gondoliers
Utopia Limited
The Grand Duke

This blog could be very lengthy, with quotes from every opera, but we will just look at a few examples. In 'Patience', we have a satirical take on Oscar Wilde, or possibly Swinburne (in Reginald Bunthorne, the soppy poet), the Aesthetic Movement, and The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  In 'Am I Alone', Bunthorne hypocritically declares:

Am I alone, and unobserved? I am                                               
Then let me own I'm an aesthetic sham!
This air severe is but a mere Veneer!
This cynic smile is but a wile of guile!
This costume chaste is but good taste Misplaced!
Let me confess!
A languid love for lilies does not blight me!
Lank limbs and haggard cheeks do not delight me!
I do not care for dirty greens by any means.
I do not long for all one sees that's Japanese.
I am not fond of uttering platitudes
In stained-glass attitudes.
In short, my mediaevalism's affectation,
Born of a morbid love of admiration!

There are also some Dragoons who, out of frustration to attract the attention of the females, decide to pretend to adopt the excessively poetic attitude to impress the girls, who have become smitten by the poetic aesthetes. They attempt to put on an act, as in this song (which is sung with much attitude and posing):

It's clear that mediaeval art alone retains its zest,
To charm and please its devotees we've done our little best.
We're not quite sure if all we do has the Early English ring;
But, as far as we can judge, it's something like this sort of thing:
You hold yourself like this,
You hold yourself like that,
By hook and crook you try to look both angular and flat.
We venture to expect
That what we recollect,
Though but a part of true High Art, will have its due effect.

If this is not exactly right, we hope you won't upbraid;
You can't get high Aesthetic tastes, like trousers, ready made.
True views on Mediaevalism Time alone will bring,
But, as far as we can judge, it's something like this sort of thing:
You hold yourself like this,
You hold yourself like that,
By hook and crook you try to look both angular and flat.
To cultivate the trim
Rigidity of limb;
You ought to get a Marionette, and form your style on him.


The madness of 'The Mikado':

Our great Mikado, virtuous man,
When he to rule our land began,
Resolved to try
A plan whereby
Young men might best be steadied.
So he decreed, in words succinct,
That all who flirted, leered or winked
(Unless connubially linked),
Should forthwith be beheaded.

From 'The Sorcerer':
Oh! My name is John Wellington Wells,
I'm a dealer in magic and spells,
In blessings and curses and ever-filled purses,
In prophecies, witches and knells.
If you want a proud foe to 'make tracks'-
If you'd melt a rich uncle in wax-
You've but to look in on our resident Djinn,
Number seventy, Simmery Axe!
We've a first class assortment of magic;
And for raising a posthumous shade
With effects that are comic or tragic,
There's no cheaper house in the trade.
Love-philtre- we've quantities of it;
And for knowledge if any one burns,
We keep an extremely small prophet, a prophet
Who brings us unbounded returns:

For he can prophesy
With a wink of his eye,
Peep with security into futurity,
Sum up your history,
Clear up a mystery,
Humour proclivity
For a nativity- for a nativity;
With mirrors so magical,
Tetrapods tragical,
Bogies spectacular,
Answers oracular,
Facts astronomical,
Solemn or comical,
And, if you want it, he
Makes a reduction on taking a quantity...

Here are some other excellent books on Gilbert and Sullivan that I found a few months ago

From the description of 'Gilbert and Sullivan, Lost Chords and Discords':   "The Gilbert and Sullivan operas were a phenomena in their own time and have lost none of their immense popularity since...the first opera was 1875.  But behind the triumph of successive first nights lay a stormy partnership between two Victorian giants, whose conflicting aspirations often came close to wrecking the collaboration. In a sparkling and witty biography, Caryl Brahms contrasts the lives and characters of the two gifted men:  The quarrelsome but kindhearted Gilbert, mocking with tongue and pen the follies of the era, and the gentle, charming Sullivan, revelling in the life of high society but resentful that his comic operas won more fame than his oratorios.  For although it was the Savoy operas which made their fortune, both Gilbert and Sullivan thought themselves overshadowed by the other and believed that their best work had been achieved alone.  Only the clever management of the wily impresario, D'Oyly Carte, held them together for twenty-five years and fourteen operas."  This book also is full of gorgeous original illustrations, though it seems this book is rather looked on with disdain by some for inaccuracies and embroidering of the truth, but as I'm no expert I couldn't say.

The middle book is a fascinating feast of images, packed full of photographs and illustrations from the posters, programmes, costume designs, etc...over the years, a lavish scrapbook.

In 'Gilbert and Sullivan's London':  "By moving in and around London, backwards and forwards in time, Andrew Goodman unfolds the story of the most astonishing partnership in the history of British musical entertainments against the authentic background of the era in which it flourished.  With much original research and many hitherto unpublished illustrations, Andrew Goodman makes an invaluable contribution to our knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Gilbert and Sullivan in this handsome volume, which is already a classic of its kind.  The book summons up a bygone era in a predominately celebratory tone, recalling the lost grandeur of the city's great entertainment palaces, its atmospheric streetlife and nightlife, its splendour and its squalor." 

One could continue on sharing clever verse after clever verse (my book has many bookmarks in it), but perhaps you will be tempted to seek this out for yourself.  I definitely recommend it.  As for the music, it is lovely, though I haven't fully explored it all yet- dipping into it here and there, though some of the operatic singing can be a bit much in places if, like me, you aren't used to it.

*More books have followed the ones above since this was posted!

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

A Cabinet of Curiosities and Some Eccentrics

If  museums stuffed full of quaint and curious old objects intrigue you as much as they do me, then surely this episode from 'A Cabinet of Curiosities' by Lucinda Lambton, will interest you.  This is the only episode, from this fascinating series, to find at this time, and her enthusiasm and curiosity is infectious; though some of the strange things in this are well, rather strange!

Some of the stuffed animals are somewhat unnerving.  Many years ago I was visiting family, and in a certain uncle's house, he had amassed a number of stuffed creatures, I believe he had killed them all himself (which doesn't surprise me, but I'll say no more on that...) and I found it rather creepy with them all standing about in various poses, as if they were watching, you always expect their eyes to follow you.

Watching this brought to mind a truly odd book I read a few years ago, 'English Eccentrics', by Edith Sitwell, first published in 1933.  Mine is a vintage Penguin paperback, and the cover will not be shown here, as the photographic portrait of Miss Sitwell is ghastly, and I always made sure to turn it face down when reading it, if you've seen it, you will know what I mean.  The book is highly unusual, and often bewildering.  Some of the people described in the book were possibly more insane than eccentric.  The back cover describes this curious tome as such:
An incomparable museum of history's weirder figures- ornamental hermits, charlatans, quacks, adventurers, misers, and men of learning, including:  The aged Countess of Desmond, who climbed an apple tree at the age of 140.  The amphibious Lord Rokeby, whose beard reached his knees and who seldom left his bath.  Mad Jack Mytton, the squire who drank eight bottles of port a day, spent half a million and set fire to his nightshirt to cure the hiccups.  Curricle Coates, the Gifted Amateur, whose stage performances always ended in uproar.  Irascible Captain Thicknesse, who left his right hand, to be cut off after his death, to his son Lord Audley.  Inebriate Professor Porson, the great Greek scholar, who used to 'pounce with his terrible memory' and sometimes with the poker. Pathetic Princess Caraboo, the servant-girl from Devon who stole the heart of Napoleon on St. Helena.  Saintly Squire Waterton, the nineteenth-century Gerald Durrell, who rode a crocodile bareback. 
 Amongst many others also mentioned are Ancients, Alchemists, Wits, and Travellers, as in this fascinating passage:
Even though the phrase, the romance of Commerce is now a cliché, the maps in a commercial atlas neatly cut up, coloured, analysed and diagrammed, are a rich feast for the fancy.  To see where not only castor, camphor, colocynth and cocaine come from, but whence also the emerald, the chrysoprase, the topaz and the tourmaline; where impregnable forests brood, and the yellow fever skulks, and the Buddhist abounds; where those tempests called cyclone, hurricane, typhoon rise up and travel and pass away; what Penang lawyers, supple-jacks, bdellium and carambola may be; and what precise delicacies have their origin in Jipijapa, Rosario and Trebizond - all this can scarcely be acquitted of a romantic flavour.
Thus wrote that great traveller of the mind and of the spirit, Walter de la Mare, in Desert Islands.  The soul needs, not only a resting, but a distance land where it may find romance, and those truths that are not clothed in the accustomed, dusty garb of every day.  In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the Grand Tour was the fashion, in the later nineteenth century, when the exploration of savage lands was the most chivalrous of all deeds, travelling, if not in the body, at least in the spirit, was not only a pleasure, it was a necessity. 
Many of those world travellers brought back extraordinary mementoes from their travels, and created their own cabinets of curiosities, thus many museums were begun.
 There is also 'In Search Of The Great English Eccentric' with Dave Allen, which I found and watched last year, it looks like it was made in the 1970s.  Eccentrics aplenty here, some more odd than others, but at least many of them seemed happy and weren't just spending all their time sitting in front of the television! I believe that being individualistic or idiosyncratic (which indicates intelligence to not just follow the crowd) doesn't necessarily mean that one is eccentric, I think people too easily confuse them.  But I think the world would be a more interesting place if there were a few more gentle and imaginative eccentrics, opposed to just obvious weirdness without intelligence, or just obnoxiousness, that is so much present now.   I like the highly enthusiastic inventor, who was overflowing with ideas:

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Orkney Winter Nights

Winter, in past times, was the most important season for tales; when people would gather round firesides and tell stories and make music.  I was browsing my bookcase full of Scottish books and found the following extracts on just this subject.  This evocative passage is from the introduction to an antique book entitled, 'Around The Orkney Peat-Fires: Being Sketches of Notable Orcadians And Characters, Smuggling Anecdotes, Stories Of The Press-Gang, And Witch And Other Tales.' By W.R. MacKintosh:    
"Prior to the days of cheap periodical literature, neighbours were in the habit of meeting in each other's houses, and, seated round a rousing peat-fire, whiled away the long winter evenings recounting the achievements of notable Orcadians in every part of the world, telling of the eccentricities of local characters, describing all kinds of smuggling exploits, and relating many thrilling incidents connected with the press-gang.  Before "the amers were raiked" for the night, something creepy, generally in the shape of a witch story, was usually thrown in, so that the members of the company wended their way home in the dark, prepared to see a ghost in each waving thistle, or troops of fairies on every rising knoll."
George Mackay Brown is probably Orkney's most famous writer, and he is one of my favourites.  The following passages are from his writings. The first one is from his collection of stories, 'Winter Tales':
"The winter last year was cold and stormy. The first television sets had come to the island.  They were the latest of the never-ending miracles of science, those half-dozen television sets installed in the bigger farms. They held children from their play and old men from their memories in the chimney corner.  The poorer folk who couldn't afford to buy television sets would almost beg to spend their evenings in those fortunate houses where the grey images flickered and came and went. 
I'm glad to say that the enchantment didn't last.  The islanders came to the conclusion that there was probably more fun playing draughts on the kitchen table by lamplight.  The fiddle was taken down from the wall again.  Cherished books were brought from the wide windowsill and opened with reverence and delight.  But while it lasted, even Ben the sailor was under the spell of the television set, going from house to house to that."
"One of the delights of winter is soup- good thick nourishing broth that will outbrave snow and gales." (From Rockpools and Daffodils).  Although for me, who has a gift for making wonderful soups, soup is for every day of the year, in that I could be pleased to have it every day, winter or summer. Making a pot of good soup is very satisfying, easy, comforting, and another form of creativity.  But homemade soup is particularly vital in the winter, it seems to be needed. 
(On Midsummer):  "I must say, I love this time of year best of all.  But, strange to say, there are folk-and I've spoken to them-who find the long light monotonous, or unnatural, or maybe both.  For them, the great thing is the cosiness of lighted lamp and blazing fire after tea-the easy-chair with book or newspaper or TV.  They are the winter people; and who shall blame them, in a way?  For winter has its own magic:  mazes of stars, the changing moon, and rare-come Aurora."

Friday, 16 January 2015

January: A Vintage Description of Nature In The English Countryside

Although country folk say that the worst of winter is yet to come, the gorse on the moor has lighted a few golden lamps to greet the New Year.  And in the woodlands the hazel has hung grey tassels that tremble in the wind; about the keeper's cottage the jasmine displays points of yellow.  On the weathered wall, moss has woven a mosaic of green and brown.  In the churchyard ancient yews will soon open their curious clustered blossoms. 
From a laneside elm, the mistlethrush utters his wild lay and, on days when an icy wind carries snow in his lap, the 'storm-cock' will sing his rattle song in defiance of the weather.  But the robin is more cautious, for when storms are near he sings in the open.  Thus, country lore gives to him the credit of being a weather prophet.
Down the lane a hedge-sparrow sings 'wee, sissy-weeso, wee, sissy-weeso.'  Another name for this bird is dunnock.  From the coppice a great- tit rings his repeated notes that remind one of a file on the teeth of a saw.  From the hedgerow a wren sounds his alarm, for this little brown bird delights to play the sentinel.

Over the wheat field a skylark plays his pipes of Pan.  On an average the lark sings throughout the year, except in August.  As a slant of sunshine touches the side of the wood, a green woodpecker becomes a jester with a laugh, and pigeons coo in contentment.   In the air hovers a kestrel, and the small birds vanish into the lattice of the hedges, and starlings deploy over the more distant fields.  From the oster-beds comes the wail of peewits.  Greenfinches, linnets, still keep together in flocks.  But the snow-buntings will begin to depart, as they are winter visitors.
The following birds may be heard in song this month:  Mistlethrush, thrush, blackbird, wren, robin, hedgesparrow, woodlark, chaffinch, and nuthatch.

When the winter sunshine gives a genial glow of warmth at the lane corner, one may glimpse the gnats in a crazy dance.  They revel in the amber light, and their rapidly vibrating wings reflect the transient gleam of rainbow colours.

The rabbits feed at the edge of the wood, and indulge in a gambol, but the hares seek the shelter of the hedgerow.  Dormice, hedgehogs, and squirrels are still sleeping.  The hedgehog is not worried by lack of food and sleeps on till the sun is sufficiently warm to lure him forth; but on a fine day the dormice and squirrels may awaken to visit their stores, and an occasional pipistrelle may be seen on the wing.   On the upland ridge, baby lambs bleat, and are answered by deep-voiced ewes.  As the twilight deepens, the shepherd lights his pipe, and watches the sunset behind a heavy bank of clouds, which he knows forecasts rain or snow.  Later a pale moon hangs above the hill, and the rugged form of the shepherd is silhouetted on the skyline.      (unknown author)
'Downs in Winter' by Eric Ravilious
*Happy New Year and hello.  How remiss of me to go so long without posting here...I will try to do better...