Saturday, December 27, 2014

Reality Check

In May I went to Appleton woods with Meg, Ben
and their father Tom, and found this sea of bluebells
I'm not longer going to apologies for failure to add to this notepad during the year, but instead to accept the reality of this being, probably, an annual catch-up/look back. It's a measure of the laid-back feel of this Christmas that I started writing on Christmas Eve, but because of the able assistance and innovations of the Christmas Elves [aka Gillian and Phil, who have abandoned their usual interactive computer designing to fiddle with a chestnuts and pancetta dressing for the sprouts, and apple and prune stuffing for the Bird.  But what's been happening? My first literary anthology Pleasures of the Garden was published in March, and seems to be doing rather well. Next March sees the publication of Pleasures of the Table and the year after that Pleasures of Nature. It's great fun roaming through my ragbag attic of literary memory, as well as combing my own shelves and those of the London Library for inspiration.
I'm now working flat out on a book I've long wanted to write, a survey of books about the Thames of all kinds, some early chronicles and seekers after the picturesque to gritty modern day psychogeographers. The Thames has threaded its way through my life from childhood, when I crossed it at Richmond to get to school in Hampton, walked beside it to the ice-rink of a Saturday, shook to the Rolling Stones on Eel Pie Island and learnt to sail in a Merlin at Tamesis Sailing Club, to now, when I have a British Moth sailing dinghy and my camping punt Dulcibella to play with on the peaceful waters above Oxford. To be published by the Bodleian Library in 2016, Writing The Thames  will be similar in approach to my Writing Britain.

In April, I met up with Fran, Gillian and other friends and contemporaries for the 50th anniversary of our arrival at Newnham College, the turning point of my life. Strange occasion, struggles to recognise life-worn contemporaries, and full of startling flashbacks to our blithe Then, - we're so much wiser now.
Early in May, I had a little Lake Country spree - being filmed on locations around Coniston and actually on Peel Island for a Location Featurette on the DVD of the remastered 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons. 
In June, I enjoyed exploring George Herbert's country around Salisbury, after having been inspired by John Drury's wonderful Music at Midnight. Then I went to a conference about Helen Waddell. Both are writers who, like T H White, remain enduringly important to me.
I had a lovely intense week working at Gladstone's Library in June; took a day off walking in Anglesey and found this lovely gate: I also revisited Plas Y Newydd, enjoying the Rex Whistler wall paintings and memorabilia. It is a tragedy that he died so untimely in the Normandy landings.
Old age caught up with me in July, I developed a lurgy of the innards that sent me to hospital and knocked me out for six weeks; cancelled trip to Norway and Baltic cruise with brother Peter. All is now well thankfully.

Once recovered, as well as working on the Thames book, I had a great summer on it: punting more often than sailing, lunching moored on the boom by the Henley finish line in a punt made by John Eade (creator of Where Thames Sweet Waters Glide)), who knows far more about the river than I ever will.
Gardening was also productive, especially for potatoes: having just enjoyed the film Despicable Me, I was delighted to unearth this vegetable minion. The grandchildren aid and abet.
In September, Henry Eliot, who organised the Malory Caper a year or so ago and is now making a living as a literary walker, organised a Lake Poets weekend. We stayed at Greta Hall, once the home of Robert Southey and S T Coleridge, now an excellent B&B. Everyone took on a literary character, then we tramped hills and dales quoting relevant poems. We all took turns to cosy into these huge wooden hands; they can be found on the western shore of Derwentwater, just north of Manesty.

In October, Fran and Meredith and I took the Waverley steamer to Southend; it was a wonderful way of seeing the estuary, the part of the Thames I know least well. Waverley  is lovingly maintained by volunteers, and have been restored to her original grandeur, with tea-, dining- and drinking-saloons, gleaming mahogany benches and lloyd loom chairs. Most spectacular of all is her engine, a jungle of huge steel pistons, brass dials and copper wires. She leaves from Tower Pier and returns at night: the bridge opens for her, which is especially fine at night, when the bridge looks hung with diamonds.

In November, I went to stay in Venice with Gillian and Phil; they met me at the station with wellies as there was an 'acqua alta', as exceptionally high tides are called. Halfway through my visit we went to Ravenna, as I love the mosaics at Torcello, and was keen to see the  famous much earlier ones at Ravenna. I hadn't realised how strategically important it once was, hence the splendour of its churches. The mosaics have been amazingly preserved/ restored, surely a mark of how much they have been loved. Next year, I'm going in June, so I can go out on the lagoon in Granseola, their newly acquired vintage boat.

Later that month, proud granny watched seven-year-old Olivia being the inn-keeper's daughter in the English National Ballet's Oxford production of Coppelia; she was chosen because she is a star of her theatre club. She bustled about in a very composed manner, and even came on all alone dancing in a whirl with another small boy. Curtain calls were made very diverting by her bouncing up and down in delight.
Finally, we held our annual family get together at brother John's house this year; Peter couldn't be there as he has just remarried and is in Cape Town. But ten of our children and an ever-increasing third generation were there. No picture as yet, but here's the 2013 one, which was held at my house, to be going on with.

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year Resolution . . .

. . . Is not to leave so long between posts. So, spurred on by a kindly prod from Mary Addison [whose fascinating embroidery blog is much recommended],  here is a rapid catch up of what has been a wonderful year in lots of small ways. First of course, the new comer: Betsy Billings born 28 March, and now trying valiantly to walk as well as her big brother Lenny - seen right waiting to walk on as Father Christmas. After the long cold spring came one of the best summers for a long time - happily co-inciding with a wonderful new harbour for two-thirds of my Thames fleet - Wizard, a Mirror dinghy acquired with grandchildren in mind, and the good punt Dulcibella were conveniently ensconced at the end of Brian and Jean Carroll's garden, which runs down to the Thames just above Bablockhythe. Tilly, Tom and Meg made the most of her, while Dulcibella repaid her pretty mooring under a weeping willow by taking guests to the Carroll's daughter's post-wedding lunch for short cruises up the Thames.

 This year, I had a lazy time on the water, no great ambitions, just poling between Northmoor Lock and the Ferry Inn, where a nicely chilled half-pint of cider became a regular tradition, then mooring in a remote backwater for a swim and relaxed research with books to gather material for my forthcoming (April 2014) literary anthology Pleasures of the Garden. The trip to Lewis in April inspired me with an interest in geology, and I did an excellent weeklong afternoon course on Wiltshire's geology at Marlborough Summer School. Great opportunity to visit old haunts and old friends, and the course was an excellent mixture of theory and excursions, on which Leo could come too. I stopped to gaze at Clements Meadow, our home for ten years, and luckily was noticed by the lady of the house - when she heard we'd lived there, she invited me to look round - it is now immeasurably grand with indoor swimming pool and gym; the larder a loo, the butler's pantry a chintz banquette. And on the market, as it happened, for fifteen times what we sold it for. Still, no regrets.
Clements Meadow and its new owner
Funny seeing the 'Adam' pine fireplace we found in Kirkcudbright and painstakingly stripped and put in still ensconced, and sad that the dining-room panelling has all been taken out. But it needed much wealthier owners than we were, and it was great to see it so well looked after. I rather miss the printing presses - we had a Victoria treadle platen and a Columbian, complete with eagle rising and falling. Too big for our first Oxford house, this lived for many years in the barn of friends' cottage on the slopes of the Brecon Beacons, but was sold in the early 1990s. Pity: I now have room for it again, and it is tempting to take up letterpress printing once more. I still have a wooden block alphabet and lots of picture blocks, including some very rare ones by Robert Gibbings for his never published Erehwon.
But I digress, as one does when revisiting old haunts. There was quite a bit of that this year, including Brecon and (left) Claed-waen-hir [sp?] in June, and Cornwall and (right) Surfside in November. The view to Godrevy lighthouse was as miraculous as ever. I was disappointed of moonsets, but  loved the introduction of sand-yachts to the never-ending beach. Gwithian and Hayle Bay excellent on geological rock formations too, and more rockface work was offered by taking part in the scouring of the Uffington White Horse - which was so much fun that I am determined to make it an annual excursion. Another ancient monument was visited in July, when Henry Eliot, the enterprising re-enactor of the journey of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims form Southwark to Canterbury, appealed to me to get involved in a similar tour of sites mentioned in Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur.
We spent the night in Amesbury, where Guinevere is reputedly buried in the Abbey, then had a privileged early morning visit to Stonehenge, where Merlin and Meligraunce told their tales. On then to Camelot in the shape of Cadbury Castle, where more Knights of the Table Round
held forth to an admiring audience of us and a large but fortunately docile herd of Holstein heifers. Then on to Glastonbury, and moving accounts of the apparent death but hopeful resurrection of Rex Quondam Futurusque.
The warm and tranquil summer meant much rewarding gardening - bumper crops of red and blackcurrants, Borlotti beans, firapple potatoes and tomatoes. I discovered answer to glut of tomatoes: halve and spread in large roasting pan with drizzle of olive oil, and sprinklings of salt and sugar [essential] and leave to rot in bottom of Aga/slow oven for at least four hours. Sumptuous result to flavour most things, or just eat. There was also a magnificent quince harvest, resulting in much delicious quince jelly - easily the easiest way of coping with these concrete hard fruits. Cover with water and boil whole until soft enough to cut up, then let cook more slowly; strain through jelly bag ( a pillowcase will do) and add rather less than half as much weight of sugar.
In early September I treated myself to a week with Gillian Crampton Smith and Phil Tabor in Venice.
Lovely weather enabled us to eat both breakfast and supper on their twin roof terraces.
We also had a great day out to Vicenza, admiring Palladio's many villas, most of all the Villa Valmarano al Nani - the Villa of the Dwarfs. Apparently it was entirely staffed by dwarfs to prevent its young owner from realising that she was unusually limited in stature. Photographs showed that it was badly bombed in the war; now it is marvellously restored.
I'm not a Henley person but I did enjoy picnicking in John Eade's elegant punt tied up to the centre river boom right at the finish line.

It was also very good to rejoin Medley Sailing Club, undoubtedly the most congenial riverside sailing club imaginable, ghastly as the panda-faced Stalag Luft Seven buildings erected by the University at Castle Mill are. Roll on their being shortened, clad in timber, covered with vigorous creepers or, preferably, obliterated. But Gipsy, British Moth 852, is very happy to be back home,
September brought some lovely pictures from new young scholars - Fox on the left, Meg on the right: long may their enthusiasm last. Since then I've been immured in the garden fastness of my well-insulated workhut [much warmer than the house itself, especially when the sun floods in through its many windows, working on Alyce: Book of the Duchess. First draft is now being read by various daughters. I know it isn't good enough yet, but perhaps one day it will be. As to more realistic books, an advance copy of Pleasures of the Garden (to be published in April 2014) has just arrived, generously illustrated, and looking very handsome and substantial. It was great fun to comb great gardening writers to create a collection of horticultural gems, and it is wonderful to be able to make the most of the British Library's magnificent picture resources. The British Library have now commissioned a new literary anthology provisionally titled Pleasures of the Table – and Pleasures of Parenting may be on the horizon.