Wednesday, November 18, 2015

November update

Gales in the wake of Storm Barney are lashing the frighteningly lofty four-trunked eucalyptus tree that is the tutelary deity of Nutwood. No Howard's End style pig's teeth  in its trunk, but my little domain would be the poorer without it. I remember standing under it at a garden party years before I moved here; the son of the house told me that it had been cut down to the ground in 1986, but had sprouted four branches. It's braced at two points to prevent any one trunk crashing down. Cross fingers.

The long garage behind the beech hedge
The rose garden and a shaggy mock-orange veil my
 work hut from the garden house
has been rebuilt as a black-elmboard-clad annexe; a granny-pod one day perhaps, but for now rented to a cheerful and active young couple who spend a lot of time on outdoor adventures. The garden is as jungly as ever, but it's been a wonderful autumn for lasting - roses and nasturtiums and a very late flowering canna still making a brave show. But hard frosts forecast for the weekend, so the party's almost over. I'm spending early mornings on the Alyce project in my little garden study, then after taking Leo for a walk and having breakfast switching to the library to work on my latest project, a book about fictional homes which amount to characters - Howard's End, Mandelay, Wuthering Heights, Bleak House, Poynton, House of Seven Gables, and so on. The difficulty will be circumscribing the subject's boundaries, but at the moment I'm having fun researching. Off regularly now to the peace of the Taylorian Library's classic cube, to read books there. One's own home is so distracting.
I've just finished checking the proofs of Writing the Thames, which is set fair to becoming my best book ever. I know the world and his wife will come up with things I have left out, but I have certainly got a lot in. Here's my favourite picture, George Dunlop Leslie lounging against his punt pole with a group of artist and writer friends near Henley [copyright reserved, so please don't pinch it]:

The Bodleian Library, who are publishing it in March 2016 have been incredibly generous with pictures, and I'm looking forward to talking about the book at the next Oxford Literary Festival.
The third of my anthologies for the British Library comes out in February 2016; rather good to have two books being published the year I reach three score years and ten. I'm enjoyed senior status at the minute - not too many of the frailties to come, and a new confidence in the way I live my life.
So to a whistle stop summary of the year as preserved in photos -
 The first few months were devoted to racing for book deadlines and recover from a kidney stone; in May I took Ben and Meg to Osterley Park, where they dangled for the willows while Tilly was giving birth to Wilfred Timothy Eiliv, named for his Irish grandfather and Norwegian great-grandfather.

On a later visit to Oxford, Ben and Meg had a ride in a 1920s Trojan car owned by David Hambledon, who has a large fleet of Trojan vehicles, ranging from bubble cars and motor bikes to delivery vans, lorries and even a tractor. We met because David has an obsession not only with Trojans, but with establishing which Trojan it was that Arthur Ransome drove. Only two very murky and ancient photographs of AR's car remain, and even mega-enlarged, the number is not clear.

John Eade, author of the excellent Thames lore website, brought his own camping punt to Oxford for a week so that we could explore the city's waterways. We took turns to punt from Bablockhythe through Eynsham, King's, and locks and past Port Meadow [noting the hideous warts of the new student blocks that now ruin the famous vista of the city from  the north. We left the  the main river downstream of Osney lock, and ducked and wove along the very narrow stream that  behind the industrial estate, after a mile or so taking the left fork. This led us, bent treble at times, to The Fishes at North Hinksey, but as the river was low we couldn't continue past it and under the Botley Road beside The George [now Richer Sounds].  Nor could we follow another fork that must once have taken boats all the way to South Hinksey. But we did manage to turn left along the Bullstrake stream, go under the Botley road and down the left hand side of the new Waitrose, and fork left behind it to reach the Binsey Lane Bridge, where a low weir and a fallen willow blocked the river.  On the way back, we turned right, and had a long and lovely punt northwards through utterly peaceful waters, thick with water lilies over which brilliant blue and green dragon-flies hovered.

We passed Binsey Church on our right, and if it hadn't been for a fallen willow, we could have punted under the A34 and reached Wytham, though the stream was rather fast after we reached the left fork that would take a canoe back to  the Botley Road, The George and The Fishes. We'd seen the start of this stream tumbling down a two foot weir on our way from Eynsham Lock to King's Lock. It is I believe the relic of a medieval cut that gave water-borne pilgrims a direct route to the famous Holy Well at Binsey Church, whether they were approaching from the north or the south. WE returned via Osney to Port Meadow, and John moored for the night beside The Perch.
Next day we  explored the Oxford Canal, lunching well at the Anchor in Aristotle Lane, but came back to find a sneak their had stolen John's camping stove. We went on as far as the Duke's Cut [scene of a murder in Colin Dexter's The Wench is Dead], then rejoined the Thames above King's lock, and returned via Godstow to Port Meadow. I liked this splendid quote from Herman Melville's The Temeraire, wittily inscribed on one of a series of exceptionally battered live-aboard hulks.
John explored the Cherwell on the third day of one of the sunniest weeks of the summer; Leo and I met him for lunch at the Victoria Arms to hear about his adventures without us. Many years ago, when I kept Dulcibella at St Catherine's College, my then husband Tom and I reached Islip in her.

In June, the makers of the new film of Swallows and Amazons invited myself and the other executors of the Arthur Ransome Literary Estate to watch filming at Coniston and on Derwentwater. Captain Flint's houseboat seemed a little small, especially with a huge film crew aboard, but her rakish and artistically fatigued appearance were just right for Captain Flint's floating writing retreat. The dinghies were perfect, and we were pleased to see that no life-jackets were worn on camera - although they were snappily pulled on over the heads of the feisty young cast as soon as they were off camera. The film should reach the big screen next summer. It'll be interesting to see how it compares with the charming, but now  dated, 1970s film made by Richard Pilbrow.

The author, son-in-law Joe, Sam, Olivia and Lenny
The great local discovery of the summer was Hitchcopse Pit, between Cothill and Frilford, once a shallow quarry, now a miniature paradise perfect for adventurous children's games, even if the little lake is too small for boats. It's now regular Leo-walking territory, and on a fine weekend when grandchildren are visiting we often take a picnic tea there. The sand is as fine as you find on a beach, and the cliffs full of enticing caves and rocks stacked like a giant's stair-case. The woods through which you reach it are full of bluebells in early summer. The nature reserve spreads out in all directions; further east there is another even smaller former quarry full of sand-martins nests and exposed levels of geological strata. I'm fascinated by geology, but find it hard to get my aged brain to retain which layer of what came when.

Readying the Zephyr
In July I went to stay with Gillian Crampton Smith and Phil Tabor in Venice again, this time to go to the Feast of the Redeemer, once scene of the legendary bridge of gondolas. As they have a traditional boat, we were allowed to moor in front of the ranks of spectators who lined the banks of the Guidecca. It was indeed spectacular, with fireworks fired it seemed straight at us rather than over us from the opposite bank for so long that I began to wonder if this was a little like what being in the trenches must have been like. Next day we realised the boat and our clothes were thickly covered with cinders...
But once is enough. Venice is far too hot in July, and there was no wind for sailing. though I tried my hand at stand up rowing. Still, much useful progress on the Thames book in my delightful air-conditioned little room in their apartment, with. as evening approached, heavenly cooking scents coming from the kitchen and the tinkle of ice entering a Campari soda!

It's been a good year for the garden. Luke and I maneuvred the long neglected stone sink that came with us from Chalfont Road in front of the Columbian Printing Press's old inking table, which I brought back from Brecon, where the press was once stored, and made this attractive display under the quince tree that is now thriving in front of the house. A bumper crop this year. Sunflowers were my other triumph [ it will be evident that I am a very amateur gardener indeed].

In August, I noticed that a rhino had been born at the Cotswold Wild Life Park - a surprise, apparently, and amazingly the second this year. Olivia and I went to see him frolicking about in a hilariously thuddy sort of way. He is the third baby to join the crash, which is apparently the rather appropriate collective noun for a herd of rhinos. Also adorable were a litter of otter kittens racing around their stream, bullying each other and snuggling together turn and turn about.

Another success was a visit to the Millett's Farm Falconry Centre, which boasts over 80 birds of prey, including eagles and owls, which are so tame that they are let loose to fly in daily demonstrations. You can also be photographed with one on your wrist.

Fox achieved remarkable lift-off
September saw us all assembled at a wonderful shabby chic mini-mansion just south of Bristol for Daisy's 40th birthday bash. Its huge garden, trampoline and most of all swimming pool meant that there was non-stop action for young and old alike

At the end of September I decided to revisit Pier Cottage, on Mull, where I had stayed Ruari and Antonia McLean many times in the early 1990s. After Antonia died, and Ruari moved away, I stopped going, but last year's trip to Lewis had whetted my appetite for the Western Isles - so too had the move there of an Oxford friend  Browsing the holiday cottages, I came across the Library at CArsaig, and immediately recognised it for the one-time home of Ruari's superb collection of Victorian colour illustrations and fine printing of all kinds. They of course have all been sold, but the Library now boasts comfortable sofas and armchairs, a splendid central wood-burning stove and a spacious deck that juts out over rocks where you are more likely than not to see otters disporting themselves and, on the outer skerries, dozing seals.  First I visited Graeme on Luing (pop. c.170), one of the legendary Slate Islands just south of Oban, which were hacked into weird shapes to provide roofing slates for  the world for three centuries, exporting eight million a year in their heyday. Now they can boast the world stone skimming championships. Graeme and Sylvia live in Cullipool, and from the hill above it Leo and I could see the cliffs that soar above Carsaig. There was a fine ceilidh that night, with strenuous dancing and an outstanding fiddler, all to celebrate the medal worthily awarded to John Blackwell, who has raised thousands for charity over the last twelve years and shows no signs of stopping.
Staffa-style rock formations on the coast path east of Carsaig
And so back to Mull, a voyage down memory lane indeed. Ruer and Antonia's son David was staying in the Family End, and a pair of regular and devoted tenants had taken the main cottage for three weeks. I was glad to see that it still had its superb grape vine lining it sunporch; we all feasted on them. It was a week of much writing, talks by candlelight, long walks along the shore in both directions, a visit to the little visited south shore of Iona and another to Tobermory, where a rainbow blessed me as I sipped a single malt and enjoyed a cigarillo.