Week 57: Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

September in Northumberland caught on camera by Simon Fraser

September in Northumberland caught on camera by Simon Fraser

It can be quite a melancholy time of year, if you are disposed to let such things get to you. For the last week, we have been swathed in shawls of mist: even at mid-day the light has glowed silver with a pearly sheen. The year changes gear, but there is a quiet joy to it, too. We are surrounded by beauty – glass-beaded spiders’ webs, the first golds and crimsons as the leaves change colour –and by abundance. This is a marvellous year for blackberries, hawthorns, rosehips and sloes. The garden is yielding courgettes the colour of sunshine, long French beans and satiny black bean pods too. And still the sweet peas flourish. The NorthernReader household centres on the kitchen, and the gentle rhythms of jam- and chutney-making allow plenty of time for sitting at the kitchen table, reading.

Propped up against a big bowl of apples right now is Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow. He writes like a dream, and the gorgeous photographs (by Marsha Arnold) make this a must-have book for all us hopeful gardeners filled with good intentions. Time, too, to re-read his The Jewel Garden, which is at once one of the most enjoyable books about making a garden and one of the best books about depression that I know. Not the most alluring of subjects, you might think – though part of the point that Don wants to make is that we have to give up stigmatising depression – but his is the most absorbing account of what it is like to suffer from depression that I have ever come across. If you know anyone who is affected (and you probably do, because practically everyone experiences depression at some point in their lives), read The Jewel Garden: it will help you to understand.

Now is the time, too, for the vintage (a word that seems to including more and more of my own lifetime these days: perhaps I could join a Vintage Person Rally somewhere) Ladybird book, What To Look For In Autumn. It is only in researching him for you this week that I have discovered that the author, the really rather impressively named Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson, was – to use a technical critical term – a really interesting chap.   A novelist, essayist, philosopher, and poet, his scientific interests included ethnography and biology. It is quite hard not to feel a tiny bit envious of a life that brought friendship with Joseph Conrad, Gertrude Stein, DH Lawrence, Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas. It had fswallowsor some reason never previously occurred to me that – well, real people wrote Ladybird books, so I am grateful to you. And the illustrations, printed in the slightly gloomy greyish colours that were part and parcel of the Ladybird books’ charm, are by Charles Tunnicliffe, which means that they are accurate, unwhimsical and altogether splendid (should you happen to be passing, Oriel Ynys Mon – Anglesey to those of you baffled by a bit of the language of heaven – is holding an exhibition of his work until the end of the year).

And we can dust down the cookery books with recipes for preserves. For a guide that works, I turn to Pam Corbin and The River Cottage Handbook. For fascination, I am delving into the pages of Florence White and Dorothy Hartley. We should, perhaps, think of Florence White as the pioneer of the Slow Movement. She founded the English Folk Cookery Association in 1928, and jolly sad it is too that it no longer exists: and in 1932 she published Good Things in England, a wonderfully self-explanatory title and a collection of recipes which are both historically interesting and standard-settingly clearly written. Hurray, hurray, Persephone Books have reprinted it. Dorothy Hartley, an artist and social historian, wrote (at her home in Wales) A History of English Food, which, published in 1954, was and still is the undisputed masterwork on the subject. If that makes it sound dry, I have failed you. It is packed with opinion, anecdote and illustrations, and no-one should be without a copy.

All this talk of food! Well, autumn, as Squirrel Nutkin will tell you, is the time to fill larders, count your stores and make ready for the lean times ahead. Writing this has made me realise that, supreme naturalist Miss Potter apart, very few children’s books take autumn as their setting. The reason in simple: children’s adventures tend to happen when they are released from the awful confines of school. Only school stories follow their young heroes and heroines into September, and in them the emphasis is firmly on the perils and conspiracies of a closed community rather than long nature walks. The Walker, Blackett and Callum children, for example, slip completely off the radar between summer (Swallows and Amazons­, Pigeon Post and so on) and winter (Winter Holiday – a bracing re-reading treat to look forward to in somewhat austere January). But we must have Antonia Forest’s Autumn Term on our shelf this week. If you haven’t, do.

This is the time for golds and russets, the purple of heather and the slate blue of the evening sky. This is the time for poetry, then. Despite borrowing from him for this week’s title, I have to confess that Keats still doesn’t make it onto my Desert Island list. Go and re-read ‘Ode to Autumn’ and tell me you don’t find it clunky. And Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ isn’t for me, either. I’d rather have Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Autumn Fires’ and remember all those delicious bonfires of a country childhood.

In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfiresbonfire
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The grey smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!



Fitting, this weekend, to celebrate a Scottish poet. After all the breath-holding of the referendum, the NorthernReader household is so grateful not have been deserted.  Thank you, Scotland.

better together


Week 23 Books for a Starry Night

I hstars at Sycamore Gapave seen the Milky Way.  Here on the edges of the Kielder Dark Skies, when we step out and look up, we see light, but it is the light of millions – perhaps billions – of other worlds and their suns.  Sometimes the sky is so thick with stars that it is hard to find a patch of darkness between them.  With my knowledge of astronomy previously limited to being able to spot Orion and the Plough, I need more books.

No matter how hard I try, most astronomy guide books do not hit the spot.  Somewhere between Baby’s First Book of Looking Up (sadly, not an actual title, but one I’m now itching to write) and Professor Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, my allergic reactions to charts and numbers bigger than about three kick in and I realise that I’m not absorbing a single word of what I’m reading.  This is my personal tragedy and not the fault of the books, many of which I’m sure are excellent.  And I’m afraid I could never get past Patrick Moore’s magnificent eyebrows, striking style of delivery and awesome ability to play the xylophone to get to grips with what he was actually saying on The Sky at Night.

So my firmest grasp of the finer points of star-gazing has come from Antoine St-Exupéry (don’t lie to me: you knew this was going to happen).  For those of you who have been living on another planet (sorry) or for other unfathomable reasons have not yet read The Little Prince, let me explain.  Briefly.  St-Exupéry’s hero, the eponymous and otherwise nameless princeling, falls to earth from an asteroid, where he meets the book’s narrator, an airman who has just about survived crashing in the desert (which is what happened to St-Exupéry himself: the crash and the almost-dying of dehydration, definitely: the meeting with a small alien, more debatably).  After philosophical musings that are gently profound, the Little Prince prepares to leave, telling the narrator not to watch him leave, not to be upset if he leaves his body behind, and to remember him laughing whenever he looks at the stars.  Oh, go and read it. You’ll feel better for having done so.  And once you’ve done thvol de nutat, you can add St-Exupéry’s Earth, Wind and Stars to your reading list (you could also start wearing Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, named in honour of another of his books.  And Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez rave about it in their completely indispensable Perfumes: the A-Z Guide).

Most stars in fiction exist in the fevered genre of science fiction which is on the whole not my sort of thing.  How very great an achievement, therefore, that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – which is on several of its many levels a work of science fiction – should be so hugely enjoyable, memorable and informative. If I feel I can bandy terms such as Alpha Centauri and Betelgeuse, it is entirely thanks to the very-much lamented Douglas Adams.

John Donne tells us to ‘Go and catch a falling star’ among his bitter list of things one is more likely to be able to achieve than bump into an honest woman.  Harsh, Jack, harsh: and jolly unfair as he and Anne risked all for love but she paid the higher price (we will definitely talk about Donne one day, because, this little example of misogyny notwithstanding, he is fabulous and I want you to love him).  Poets, on the whole, have a bit of a thing about stars (I am prepared to concede that ‘a bit of a thing’ is not the most scholarly term I have ever used but hey, we’re all friends here).  Shakespeare, obviously: not just his star-cross’d lovers, but his ever-constant star as well.  A favourite – do you know it? – is Walt Whitman’s ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’: he too was left cold by the charts and diagrams, and ‘rising and gliding’ he went off by himself and ‘from time to time/ Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.’  A rebuke to pedants everywhere.  It’s that ‘from time to time’ that’s so perfect.  Sadly, I run into my usual problem with Keats in ‘Bright Star’: I think it’s the final ‘swoon to death’ that makes me irritable and inclined to mutter, ‘Oh, pull yourself together’ – which is very rarely the most helpful approach to the Romantics who, on the whole, like themselves like that.

Enough of looking up.  What about AJ Cronin’s The Stars Look Down?  Set here in the north-east and written in the 1930s, it is a quite gripping and moving tale of the hard life of a mining community: the novel was an influence on the creators of Billy Elliott.  Longfellow felt the indifference of the ‘cold light of stars’, but sadly, his poem, ‘The Light of Stars’ is fatally flawed by being recognisably his, frankly: it’s the dum-di-dum rhythm and the trite rhyming.  I’m sorry if you love him: but think what fun you’re going to have when you shake of the repetitive beat of Hiawatha and read some real poetry instead.

A last one to balance on the pile of bookGalileos by the bed – for where better to contemplate the stars?  we can always leave the curtains open – Bertolt Brecht’s A Life of Galileo. We’ll talk about reading plays, if you like, some time soon, but Brecht is a good one for reading (and we’ve already started to think about the joys and pitfalls of translation – last week, you simply can’t have forgotten already – so we’re all set).  I have few regrets in life, but here are two: not being born at the right time to see Charles Laughton play Galileo – Brecht wrote the play for him – and not having seen Simon Russell Beale’s performance at the National Theatre in 2006.  Now Ian McDiarmid is the RSC’s Galileo.  Let’s hope the production gets added to their splendid new streaming-live-to-cinemas-everywhere service.  Meanwhile, hand me my star book and my telescope, and grant me a cloudless night tonight.

Week 22: Books in Translation

Right.  A promise is a promise, and, while I am lousy at keeping New Year resolutions, I am, if you will only give me world enough, and time, very good at (eventually) fulfilling babelpromises.  And I said we’d talk about books in translation.

Let’s start with Dorothy L Sayers (and the L, if you’re wondering and can’t be bothered to Google it for yourself, stands for Leigh, and, no, I don’t know why she felt that it lifted her name from the mundane to the inscrutable, but she clearly did, because she insisted on it).  Miss Sayers (oh, alright: she wanted her surname to be pronounced as a more-or-less monosyllable, like stairs without the T.  But I do pronounce it like that anyway – I am also guilty of referring to the author of Blithe Spirit as a monosyllable to rhyme with bard – and I don’t find myself thinking, ‘well, thank heavens that L is there, otherwise I would have fallen into the terrible trap of calling her Say-ers, and social death would inexorably have followed.  But I digress) – where was I? – Miss Sayers shunned few opportunities to air her erudition: which is to say, show off.  So, in Clouds of Witness, much of the plot, and your chance of keeping up with it, faint but pursuing, depends upon your ability to translate the conversations and correspondence that appear in French.  Now, I accuse Miss Sayers of showing off more because the evidence stacks up against her, book by book (needing to know about painting in order to twig to Five Red Herrings; being braced and able to follow the decoding of the Playfair Cipher in Have His Carcase, and so on): but is her assumption that we understand French misplaced or not?  Well, her pretty-much-exact contemporary, Thomas Stearns Eliot (and while we’re on the parallel topic of names and middle initials, you can quite see why Tom went for TS given the hand the font had dealt him), freights The Waste Land with French, German, Latin and Greek – among others – precisely in order to make his point: which is that these languages and cultures are where we come from and we jolly well should be familiar with them.  Which is, of course, a bit of a moot point.  It depends rather on who we, and of course TS Eliot, mean by ‘we’.  He’s clearly no paid-up Romantic and has no truck with the idea that the English-speaking world might flaunt its Saxon, Celtic and Norse antecedents and might not, in truth, have an awful lot in common with the-glory-that-was-Greece and the-splendour-that-was-Rome.  He is also, of course, being deliberately – call it playfully if you will – difficult.  Don’t forget Eliot is the great champion of the metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century: in many ways, his own poems demand the same depth of concentration and commitment as Donne and Herbert.  We are forced to use our brains to translate from difficult into understandable.

But when we translate from one language into another, what do we translate?  The exact words?  Dodgy enough in prose, but when you come to wrestling with the extra demands of rhyme and rhythm that poetry can impose, you might want to sit on the stairs and cry.  Usually, translators concentrate on letting us know what is going on in the unknown language.  That’s why we can find many different versions of the same text.  Take Homer’s Iliad, for example (trust me).  The collection-of-aural-transmission-known-as-Homer produced the thing in verse –in dactylic hexameters, no less.  The great George Chapman trojan_war– yes, that one, the one whose translation bowled over Keats a couple of hundred years after it first appeared – used a range of mostly iambic forms of differing line lengths.  Alexander Pope popped up a hundred years after Chapman and rendered the whole thing into very splendid rhyming couplets.  And then (I’m skipping and being picky: there are lots and lots of translations), there is Christopher Logue’s fabulous, free-wheeling War Music.  Is it a translation or a response?  Well, obviously, you know I’m going to say, read it and make your own decision.

But, supposing for one pleasing moment that you and Ancient Greek are old chums and you can read your Loeb edition unfalteringly over your breakfast egg, I still ask, what is it you are hearing in your mind?  If you are such a linguist that you think in Ancient Greek, I have to break it to you that you are nonetheless not one.  You have different experiences, a different cultural background, a different view of the world.  You know about antibiotics (all that fighting). You know about agnosticism and atheism (all those gods).  You react differently (I hope) to all that really rather casual female-prisoner swapping.  You may even take a dim view of the Trojan Horse (not very Geneva Convention, which also doesn’t cover the dragging of Hector round the walls of Troy, which certainly isn’t cricket).  In other words, you are not having the same reader-experience, even if you learned Ancient Greek as an academic discipline at school or university, as your Bronze Age predecessors (this is of course also true when approaching, say, Shakespeare, and we will undoubtedly discuss reading the past as a foreign country one of these days).

So is there any point in reading in translation?  Well, yes, of course there is, because some taste of Chekhov, Pushkin and Tolstoy is better than none, some sense of what fired Dante, Calvino and Eco enriches our English-speaking lives; some contact with Zola, Flaubert and Stendhal makes us long to know France better.  And the translated text can be glorious in its own right.  I am in no position to pronounce on the original Biblical testaments, Old or New, but I know that when I get the phone call from Kirsty for Desert Island Discs (it can only be a matter of time, surely), when she says, ‘we give you the Bible’, I will make it clear that I’m only playing if I can have the King James version.  And that, dear readers, was produced by a committee.

Week 19: Thank You and Other Letters

Ah, the erasing hand of time.  As a small person at school, I remember being taught at some length, in obsessive detail and with cartloads of repetition, how to write a formal letter.  My address top right, their address a little further down on the left, hop back to the right for the date, correct spacing for the Dear Mr Thingummy, the anguished question of whether to indent, the social death attendant upon allying a Yours sincerely with a Dear Sir.  My perfect letter-construction may have knocked ‘em dead in the past, but now that job applications, complaints about the utter uselessness of whatever you have been foolish enough to purchase and even correspondence with your representative in Parliament are all done by email, Facebook or Twitter, I think the time has come to focus the rear-guard action on teaching the necessity for and advanced techniques of writing letters of thanks.

posting lettersYou and your angelic poppets have of course already trotted to the post-box with your Christmas thank-you letters.  You know as well as I do that they should be hand-written up to and including the pencil-wielding capabilities of the author – wobbly X and gruesome sketch of parents will do, although less likely to impress your aunt if you are, say, twenty-three.  They should convince as unique compositions and not all-purpose copies: and if your little treasures are thereby inducted into the world of forgery, cheating and bribing others to do their work for them, at least they are learning useful skills for the modern business world.  The ideal (we did agree we’d talk about advanced techniques) thank-you letter manages a paragraph about something other than all the other presents received.  The consolidating-the-place-in-the-will letter even remembers to ask after the health and well-being of the recipient and her family, dogs and memorable friends.

So, this week we need some role models. And, perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that Francis Scott Fitzgerald is your man (and may I take this opportunity to urge you to see Woody Allen’s sublime Midnight in Paris, (a) because it is perfect in every way imaginable and (b) because it includes the enchanting Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott F).  He sent a letter of great clarity to his daughter Scottie, instructing her on what to write to the woman who had given her a coat, and what to write in a letter to him that he could then show the giver of the coat.  No wonder we remember the man as a genius.

Letters between parents and their children can make bitter-sweet reading.  In the last year, Darling Monster, Diana Cooper’s letters to her son John Julius (more from him in a moment), made for considerably more charming reading than Roger Mortimer’s Dear Lumpy, a sequel of sorts to Dear Lupin (and therein lay the difficulty, for me anyway: I felt that he was infinitely more critical of his daughter than of his son).  Letters about the family can be purest treasure, as anyone who has The Paston Letters by their bed in case of midnight wakefulness (and who has not?) can confirm. Bright Star, the collection of love letters and poems by Keats, had for me the slight disadvantage of, well, being written by he who Byron rather unkindly (but you could love him for this alone) referred to as ‘little Johnnie Keats’.  Reading someone else’s love-letters should be, by definition, a squirmingly embarrassing experience anyway, and re-reading your own (whether written or received by you) sadly nearly always falls into the same category (reader: if you look back at his/her letters, written to you many years ago now, and neither laugh out loud at the sentiment nor murmur, ‘Who was he/she?’, then yours is a love of the true and lasting sort).

Incidentally, even the most syrupy love letter from your past will have the stuffing knocked out of it if you are as unwise as to follow the advice of some websites and write a love letter to your child.  You will understand that, as with all deeply disturbing material on the internet, having stumbled upon it I hastened on with eyes averted, so I cannot pass on the precise recommendations, but I think the authors are labouring under the deranged belief that a letter written by you, sealed in an envelope and kept for your little ones to open when they are adults will bring emotions to the fore.  Well, you can’t argue with that.  Just don’t be surprised when your adult children never visit you again.

Letters between friends are all the better for being less freighted with emotion.  84 Charing Cross Road is rightly a classic, if a jolly slight one, and Virginia Woolf was a correspondent to cherish: but one of the most enjoyable published exchanges is the collection of letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor.  They are particularly splendid when you know that, asked to list her ten favourite books, Deborah Mitford unhesitatingly chose Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water, announcing that she had never read it because she knew she would miss it so once she had finished it (she also petered out at six books, which shows a pleasingly high qualifying bar).

P12 Days of Christmaserhaps best of all are letters of complaint or rebuke.  Sadly, this takes us back to letters from parents to children, of course, but the barkingly mad letters written to newspapers provide more straightforward entertainment.  And, keeping the flickering flame of the Christmas season alive as we falter to the end of the year, let me recommend to you the shrewdly realistic Twelve Days of Christmas by John Julius Norwich (told you), gloriously illustrated by Quentin Blake (hurray!), in which our heroine writes her thank-you letters for the partridge, the pear tree, and all the assorted flocks, herds and swarms that follow.  Good luck with your letter-writing.