Still on the hunt for spring, I found these late-arriving bluebells:
Some valiant pansies:
The first of our apple trees in Scotland just coming into bloom:
The Pieris with its pink early leaves:
And this one. I can never remember the name of this shrub. Can someone out there remind me?
Enough of garden pictures. After what is reported to be one of the coldest springs ever, things are finally moving. The birds seem to be frantic in trying to rear and fledge their offspring. They’re so hungry that we’re spending about £9 a week on their food. The fat blocks were disappearing with extraordinary rapidity, and one of the causes came to light quite by chance. David happened to be looking out of the bathroom window and saw a rook on the lawn with what appeared to be a piece of toast. The rook’s mate flew down and they studied their loot, then flew off with it. It was a brand-new fat block! Just think how heavy they are. There are no rooks’ nests very near, so they must have had to carry it some distance, but it would have fed their young for some time.
The rest of the garden birds were very disconsolate until we replaced it. Usually they only need to cope with quarrelling starlings with their vicious beaks. Strange birds. Bad tempered, aggressive, loud-mouthed, yet so beautiful. I was watching one as the sun caught it today – shades of peacock blue, gold and a flash of fiery red, then, in the shade, a deceptive dull black.
For most of May we were in Herefordshire, later than we are usually there. It’s never exactly a holiday, as there’s always work to be done as well as friends and neighbours to catch up with in the village. After our lunch with fellow members of the Historical Writers Association in Chester at the end of April, I followed Ben Kane’s progress as he tramped the length of Hadrian’s Wall in full Roman army kit, a wonderful effort! Together with two other ‘Roman’ novelists, Tony Riches and Russell Whitfield, he was raising money for Combat Stress and Médicins sans Frontières. The last time I looked they had raised around £13,500. Ben suffered badly from blisters, but otherwise coped very well and I’m sure it will have given him real insight into the physical side of the Roman soldier’s life.
Our eldest son and family came for a long weekend, which was lovely as they live in Derbyshire and we don’t see them as often as we’d like. General help with house and garden maintenance was very welcome, and we had a dinner at the local pub – a beautiful Mediaeval half-timbered building – which has a gourmet restaurant.
We made a trip down to Cardiff to visit David’s mother’s cousin and his family. He is a former Welsh international rugby player, then a teacher and finally the chief inspector of schools in Wales. We spent some time sorting out more of the family history, particularly the story of his grandmother, David’s great-grandmother, who was a remarkable woman. Married twice, mother of nine, when she was widowed she ran a woollen mill which manufactured blankets and clothing, and employed thirty-five packmen who travelled all over the Welsh valleys and mountains with their packhorses, effectively as a nineteenth-century version of a mail order company! She must have been astonishing, and I feel there should be a novel in there somewhere. Some day, perhaps . . .
As usual, we had a day in Hay-on-Wye, but we never seem to manage to be there at the time of the Festival, which is a pity. Another jaunt took us to the Monkland Cheese company, http://www.monklandcheesedairy.co.uk/ , a very successful enterprise in the small village of Monkland near Leominster. They make a number of their own cheeses and sell a wide variety of others, on site and online. They also serve lunches and teas – excellent homemade soups and cheesy light meals.
One of the highlights of our time in the Welsh borderlands was meeting Rosie de Courcy and her husband Hugh for lunch at the Features in Ledbury. For years I’ve corresponded with Rosie, who is senior editor at Head of Zeus, but we had never met face-to-face before. The four of us had a great time. I think our lunch lasted about three hours!
We came north via our daughter’s home in a Leicestershire village, where we celebrated the second birthday of a grandson, before heading back to Scotland. Immediately after reaching home, we were off again to another lunch for the Historical Writers Association, this time in Edinburgh, where about a dozen of us had an excellent lunch at Iris, a newish restaurant. Really, I could get to enjoy all this high living!
In between all the rushing about I’ve managed to do some reading. First on my list was Jim Crace’s new book, Harvest. Carefully written so that it does not give away either the time or location of its setting, Harvest could be taking place somewhere in England, probably in the Midlands. It is neither on the coast, nor in the mountains. There is good agricultural land, some woodland, and a bit of boggy ground – so anywhere in the middle of England. (It could, of course, be taking place in some other European country, on the basis of the terrain, but the names and the country practices definitely are English.)
As for the date, well, it is the period of the enclosures, which could be any time between about 1500 and 1800, but it feels like sixteenth or seventeenth century. The village is tiny, remote, without even a church, just a few cottages and a rather run-down manor house. It is so cut off it has no awareness of the outside world, so even if the time is the 1640s, these people would be ignorant of the war going on elsewhere.
The narrator, Walter Thirsk, is an outsider, who has come to the village as the personal servant of the lord of the manor, Master Kent, when he married the heiress to the estate. Walter had married a village girl and moved into one of the cottages, becoming, by default, one of the villagers. Though liked well enough, he remains an outsider. Walter and Master Kent have known each other since infancy, Walter’s mother having been Kent’s wet nurse. Now they are both widowed.
The story opens the morning after the heavy work of the barley harvest, when the villagers awake late to the sight of two fires. Strangers, two men and a woman, have made a camp with a fire at the edge of the wood, and the master’s pigeon house and barn are also on fire. The strangers are accused of lighting the latter, though Walter suspects a drunken prank by three young men of the village. The two men amongst the strangers are cruelly punished and one dies. Step by step, disaster overwhelms the village. Another stranger, a mild-mannered surveyor, is seen to be drawing plans of the whole estate. Then a violent bully, a cousin of the master’s late wife, rides in with his entourage of strongmen and lays claim to the land. The people will be driven out, the cottages pulled down, the woodland felled. All will become the domain of sheep. There are more deaths and disappearances, and through it all the strange woman, vengeful and beautiful, moves in the shadows. Is she causing the deaths? Is she a witch, as some think? Are the villagers themselves involved in witchcraft? Or is it the work of the unwelcome kinsman, come to destroy the village and its way of life?
Over the space of just a week, Walter sees the plenty of the last harvest turned to the barrenness of a village where he alone remains. This is an achingly beautiful yet savage requiem for a way of life which was destroyed by greed and selfishness. A book which hits you in the solar plexus.
One of my fellow writers at the Chester lunch was Paul Dowswell, who said that his YA novel, The Cabinet of Curiosities, had received good reviews, but then just faded. As it is set in Renaissance Prague, I thought it sounded intriguing, so I decided to get a copy. From its dramatic and frightening opening to the very end, this is a page-turning read any young adult – or older adult – will enjoy. I can see teenage boys in particular, readers of Anthony Horowitz, being gripped by it.
Young Lukas, whose father has been burnt at the stake by the Inquisition for the mildest of reformist views, is making his way across Europe from Ghent to Prague, where he has been promised an apprenticeship with his uncle Anselmus Declerq, physician and apothecary to Rudolph II, the eccentric Holy Roman Emperor. Readers may know of him through his association with astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, and John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s alchemist and astrologer (though they do not appear in this novel). Lukas falls in with a young streetwise thief and trickster Etienne, whose unorthodox skills enable the two of them, after some narrow escapes, to reach Prague.
Once in his uncle’s household within the castle, Lukas begins to learn his new trade and is even privileged to see the emperor’s extraordinary collection of weird and wonderful objects kept in the suite of rooms called his cabinet of curiosities. (There is a useful author’s note at the end about these.) Unfortunately, Lukas is restless and through Etienne falls in with a dangerous group of criminals in the city, who involve him in several lawless escapades. At the same time he is befriended by the daughter of the Spanish ambassador, who makes use of him for her father’s unscrupulous ends. How Lukas discovers a fatal plot and how he attempts to sabotage it form the climax of the story.
The uneasy, precarious atmosphere of Prague under an unpredictable emperor (who clearly suffered from what we would call clinical depression) is very well conveyed. This is a world where one false step at the wrong moment can mean imprisonment, torture and death. Lukas suffers the first and comes very close to the other two, in a tale whose pace never falters.
I’d also been in correspondence with Tim Griggs, who sent me a copy of his nineteenth century novel, Distant Thunder. The nineteenth century is not my favourite period of history. I think it’s a hang-over from school, when I opted out of A Level History because my school always chose to do the Victorian period, which seemed to be all sewage works, railways and factory acts. It didn’t appeal, although I had loved history from an early age, everything from the Greeks up to the seventeenth century, with a bit of the eighteenth thrown in (the French Revolution could hardly be called dull). However, Tim’s book looked promising.
There are two intertwined stories. Frank Gray leads a comfortable life in the British Raj until, in 1893 when he is 14, his mother is attacked by a British officer and dies. Frank, his younger brother Gifford, and his father are sent home to England, his father having been dismissed by his employers, Dearborn & Co. because of the scandal. Mr Gray dies on the homeward journey and Frank and Gifford soon find themselves destitute.
The second strand concerns Grace Dearborn, daughter of the nouveau riche owner of the company, reared in wealthy and privileged circumstances but beginning to question a society where a vast gulf exists between rich and poor. She is encouraged by the radical housekeeper, Mrs Rossiter, who takes her to protest rallies in London and indoctrinates her into politics.
When Frank secures a job working as a stable lad for the Dearborns, their paths cross and initial hostility turns to love. However, Frank has sworn revenge on the unknown officer, who was never brought to account. As soon as he is old enough he will join the same cavalry regiment and seek out the man. Never formulated, never spelled out, it is clear that the only way his goal can be achieved is by killing the officer.
Grace tries to dissuade Frank from joining the army, but is herself sent off to Vienna, where she learns rather more about life than her over-protective father intended. She breaks with her family, becoming a journalist in London, while Frank is caught up in dangerous operations first on the Northwest Frontier in India, then confronting a violent uprising in the Sudan. As the story ranges over these vast tracks of the world, all beautifully captured with their sights, sounds and smells, it seems as though Frank and Grace can never find each other again.
There are some clever twists at the end, when Frank discovers the identity of his prey and learns what really happened on that night when he was fourteen, but I won’t spoil it for you. And the final outcome is also ironic.
This is a vast novel, which the reader inhabits fully, and there are no easy solutions to the problems confronted in its ambitious story. My only reservation is that more people than seem quite likely are depicted as hostile to the British Empire in the 1890s. Yes, there were some at the time, but this has a slight feel of a twenty-first century outlook being imposed retrospectively. That apart, it is a fine novel which will grip you to the end.
At the Edinburgh lunch, I talked quite a lot to Lucinda Byatt, who is an academic and a translator of Italian books, mostly non-fiction art and architecture. She knew my name from my article published last year in Solander (Historical Novel Society) as she is one of the editors of their literary review magazine which now incorporates Solander. As it happens, the current magazine arrived the next morning and I read her review of Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast. This, I thought, I must read. I ordered it and finished it in less than 48 hours, all 405 pages of it.
The book is beautifully produced physically, with botanical illustrations at the beginning of each section, before a ‘recipe’ from John Saturnall’s book of 1681. Each recipe has an ornate header and footer, and an initial letter like a mediaeval manuscript. For example, a Dish of baked Quodling Apples served with a sweet Cream has a row of bees for its header and a hive for its footer. (The recipe includes honey.) The botanical drawing shows gooseberries, currants, blackberries and other fruit. In each case, the recipe has some relevance to the part of the story which follows. The book’s endpapers depict 48 tiny pictures, each with a caption: Milking the Cow, Pack Horse, Bottle and glass, Eagle. Disappointingly, no source is given for the illustrations, which could be seventeenth century. The endpapers look to me as though they might be taken from a child’s reading primer of the period.
So much for its physical form. The story starts in the 1620s, when John and his mother, outsiders in their West Country village, are running for their lives from their hostile neighbours. John does not know who his father was or why the villagers think his mother is a witch, but in a world where rampant sectarianism is dividing ancient communities, anyone who does not conform is in danger.
John’s mother teaches him to read from her precious book of half-magical, half-practical recipes, mixing his lessons with tales of the mythical beginnings of Buckland Vale, where they live. For a time John is accepted by the other children, but when illness strikes the village, he and his mother are again driven out to live in the wild, where his mother dies of exposure, having burnt the precious book. She has left instructions with the parish priest that John is to be sent to work in the kitchens of Buckland Manor, where he makes his way up from lowly scullion to gifted cook, and learns that his mother once lived and worked there.
Throughout, there is the theme of the Feast, the meal of fabulous dishes, like those John has memorised from the book. What does it signify? What is its place in the history of Buckland? The servants at the manor believe the feast is only for the rich. The chief cook says that the feast is for the cook. John’s mother taught him that the feast is for everyone, sitting down together. Food is also used as a weapon. Lucretia, daughter of the lord of the manor, starves herself as a form of rebellion and revenge. John must tempt her to eat, devising ever more succulent dishes – including those codling apples, which are a sensuous token of love.
Lucinda is to be married off to a repulsive cousin in order to keep the family’s covenant with the land, but the Civil War intervenes and all the men from the estate are marched off to fight under the King’s banner. Defeat means the ruin of the manor, despite Lucretia’s valiant attempts to protect her people and her land. Starvation ensues and all, gentry and servants alike, are driven to grubbing for chestnuts under the snow. After the Restoration, lives are rebuilt, but there is no simple, romantic outcome. Or is there? Read it and feast your senses. This is a remarkable book.
No photographs of handcrafts this time. The butterfly cardigan needs one front band, a bit more lace edging and some sewing up. I also have two jerseys for myself on the go, both on circular needles (no sewing up!), so those will probably appear next time.
I’ve now made a substantial start on my seventeenth-century book, provisionally titledFlood. About 38,000 words done so far. Probably a first draft of around 100,000, which will grow when I slot in bits which need extra research.
Onwards and upwards!
Till next time,