Author: haftonandkelly

Each Month from my window: late for september and the view from the front door

This is a month late and the pot in question is not strictly visible from my front window. Well, it is, but only in the way property particulars describe a room as having a sea view that is only actually visible if you hang from the window in a precarious manner.

Every time I go in to or out of the house I think I should do something about the container by the front door. When I moved here twenty years ago I brought cuttings of a beautiful hibiscus I had had in my previous garden. One was planted in this pot, the other directly in the soil. It’s not hard to see which plant is happier. The container is large but it is sheltered by the house so it only gets moisture if the rain is falling at the correct angle. A few years ago I stupidly made the problem even worse by adding an agapanthus to the pot. It looked great with the blue flowers on their long stalks against the pinky-mauve hibiscus flowers but this year the hibiscus has simply refused to flower. The roots of the agapanthus are now growing up through the surface as they clearly have nowhere else to go. After the heatwave and thunderstorms of August  a spell of reasonably gentle weather was forecast and I decided that, even though early autumn isn’t the ideal time, I needed to do something quickly before the hibiscus died.

When I finally got the plants out of the pot the problem was clear; it wasn’t a container of soil with plants it was a solid mass of roots, unfortunately completely entwined.

 

 

Some fairly vicious hacking and I had a hibiscus and four rooted bits of agapanthus. A drink, some new compost and a few quiet days and they are all looking surprisingly happy. The hibiscus has its own, spacious container, the front door pot now has a (small) escallonia, a manageable hardy geranium and some bulbs for spring and I have a hedge of agapanthus.

Jane

Red Stars by Davide Morosinotto

Regular readers of these (erratic) posts and viewers on my Instagram (@littlecitygarden) will know how much a book’s appearance matters to me: not just the front cover but the paper, the size, the overall design and, most importantly, whether it opens properly and is pleasant to hold. Almost every day I bemoan the advent of perfect binding and the loss of the stitched book.

Even at first sight this book looked enticing; there were maps, photographs, letters and ‘hand-written’ comments in the margins. Most exciting of all the main text was in two colours, one for each of the twins at the heart of the story, a blue fountain pen for Nadya’s story and a red crayon for Viktor’s. I haven’t seen this since the 1983 hardback edition of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, another book I love. I was captivated by Red Stars before I’d even read the blurb.

In every way the story lived up to the book’s appearance. It is set in Russia between June and November 1941 at the time of the siege of Leningrad. When the story opens the twins are twelve. Evacuated from the city for safety, they plan to jointly record their story in a spiral-bound notebook, one of six they are given by their father. Early on in the journey they are separated, each keeping three notebooks, the plan being that they will put their stories together when they are reunited.

What follows is a brilliant adventure story but not a jolly one in the mould of Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome. There is no going home at the end of the day for ginger beer and cake. The twins are thrown into the midst of war in an uncompromisingly adult world. The horrors they see and undergo are vividly described but these are two children who are determined to survive and be reunited with each other. There are plots and sub-plots with good Russians and bad ones, bad Germans and good ones, and danger and treachery everywhere. The bravery, friendship and loyalty of the two groups of children stand out, meaning that one really cares about the characters.

In 1946 the notebooks are given to Colonel Smirnov of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). It is his task to decide whether the twins are guilty or innocent of a number of crimes and it is his comments that are in the margins. As he, and the reader, work through the notebooks it becomes clear that both Viktor and Nadya were guilty of a number of crimes but that there are mitigating circumstances including corruption at the highest level of the NKVD and the ultimate achievements of the children. It is a clever way of constructing the story because the reader is left uncertain of twins’ fate until the last page. Anyone with a sense of adventure, regardless of age, will be gripped by this story.

Red Stars is published by Pushkin Press on 3rd Sept as a trade paperback at £12.99. Please buy it from a real bookshop.

Jane

Each Month From my Window: July and August

Doing Instagram every day has meant that I’ve rather forgotten about our website. But at least I do have a photographic record of what’s been happening in the garden. The grasses in the front window boxes have flourished so I now look out into a shady green paradise. Even on the hottest days my desk only gets dappled sunlight. A passer-by commented that so many plants must make the room dark but I like working in a green gloom, especially when it is so hot outside.

The hibiscus and agapanthus which share a pot by the front door have surpassed themselves this year, flowering more profusely and for longer than usual. My only worry is that they are definitely running out of root space. It is a large pot but not large enough for what are now two substantial plants. A perennial pea winds its way through the mix but luckily that is in a separate container. For several years I have been looking at the main pot and thinking ‘I must do something about it soon’. I think that ‘soon’ is turning into ‘now’. The problem is that their roots have become completely entangled and I don’t want to lose either plant. Perhaps I’ll just top it up with some more potting compost and wait another year.

The view from the kitchen window is a delightful muddle of hardy geraniums, cosmos and last year’s snapdragons. Also though, the first sign of autumn. Every year my witch hazel starts to develop its autumn colouring when the rest of the garden is still in summer mode. I used to worry that it was because the witch hazel was outgrowing its pot, and it probably is, but this happens every year so I have given up worrying. Writing in the midst of a heatwave I long for some slightly cooler weather but I’m not ready for autumn yet.

Jane

A Pleasant Surprise

I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles whilst on holiday in 2018. It instantly became one of my favourite books. At the time he had only written one other novel, Rules of Civility, which I read recently and also enjoyed. Not quite as much as A Gentleman but it would be hard for any character, fictional or otherwise to be as captivating as Count Alexander Rostov.

 

Via Instagram I discovered Amor Towles’ website, which contains more of his pieces and a link where one can register for news of his writing. He specified ‘rare news’ so I signed up without expecting much to happen. Then yesterday an email popped up with A Whimsy of the World attached. It is almost perfect. Written for his sister, it is the story of Ellie, a charming, slightly wayward and spirited girl. As the story progresses whimsy and wanderlust appear and Ellie follows them on an adventure that takes her from America to the cities of Europe. I say ‘almost perfect’ – it is a mere 15 pages and I would have liked it to have been a full-sized book. But, even so, it is a truly delightful read.

Jane

Instagram: A Little City Garden

I am now on Instagram! Well, to be honest I’ve been doing it for a while but I wanted to get the hang of it and, more importantly, establish a routine. As regular readers will know, our posts here can sometimes be a bit erratic. I would obviously love it if you followed me there as well. As I have a little garden in London I decided @alittlecitygarden would be a good title. As with this website it covers all the good things in life: gardening and also reading, making, baking and exploring London and beyond. This is the great thing about having a tiny garden; there is always plenty of time for other things as well. There are also guest appearances from Matilda the cat. I hope you like it.

Jane

Making June & July: If at First . . . .

This hexagon meadow patchwork was started at least two years ago. I didn’t plan it properly, like Alice it grew out of control and then I ran out of the background fabric. Last autumn I took it apart and was left with a more manageable central panel and four borders. This month I re-planned it as a smaller quilt, altered the side panels slightly and stitched the top and bottom ones back in place. But, because I decided to be slightly slapdash, the edging didn’t quite line up. Four hexagons jutted out from the main pattern into the border. They are at the corners and will slightly overhang the bed so I’m probably the only person who will notice but eventually it annoyed me too much and the side panels were unpicked, again. I have now re-positioned everything properly and am finally happy with it (and it has been quality-checked by Matilda). It just needed to be edged and quilted.

In the interests of economy I decided to back it with fabric I already had. Looking through the cupboard and baskets I realised I had lots of stripey fabric – old shirts, old sheets and a lot of offcuts I was given years ago from a posh shirt maker in Jermyn Street. So I am now making a double-sided quilt with flowery hexagons on one side and rectangular stripes and checks on the other. This means the whole thing will take even longer to finish and that I’ll have to do the quilting super-neatly but it’s been at least two years, what difference will a few more weeks make?

This photo should have shown the correctly-sized quilt in situ but I obviously couldn’t move Matilda.

Jane

Ismail Kadare Historical Nightmare- The Traitor’s Niche

 

The Traitor’s Niche was first published in Ismail Kadare’s native Albanian in 1978,  but the English translation by John Hodgson did not appear until nearly forty years later. It takes up 200 small pages of large type and in size sits on the borderline between a novel and, as Kadare described it to avoid the censors, a novella. However, there is nothing remotely slight about this work, which is both comical and awful and subverts any idea of the normal. It contains all the surreal apparatus of Kafka but expresses it on a vastly larger stage, matches the dystopia of Orwell but is set in the past, and equals the weirdness of Gogol but without his specifically Russian atmosphere. 

The story, and at first sight it appears to be just a story, is set the Ottoman Empire of the early nineteenth century, of which Albania was then a part.  It is structured around the journeys of the imperial courier Tundj Hata and incidents in the lives of those unfortunate enough to come into contact with him. Hata is charged with the safe transport of vital orders and death warrants to the outlying provinces of the Empire, often returning with the decapitated heads of executed traitors, preserved in honey and ice, for eventual display in a high niche in the centre of Istanbul. On his return journeys he presents theatrical displays of the heads in the villages through which he passes and in return for large sums of money, allows the fascinated inhabitants to watch. On arrival in Istanbul the heads terrify and awe the population into subservience.

The Emperor having finally tired of the continual rebellions of Ali Pasha, or Black Ali, the ageing governor of Albania, sends first one general to destroy him and, after his defeat, another who succeeds in his mission but is declared a traitor by his enemies at the imperial court and consequently and like the first pasha, loses his head. Who, of course, but Tundj Hata  should transport these gruesome relics back to Istanbul?

That Istanbul, although in some ways recognisable to those who know it even now, is filled with the mythical apparatus of a totalitarian state that far exceeds even the actual unpleasantness of the later Ottoman Empire. It contains not just the Traitor’s Niche, but the Palace of Dreams, responsible for interpretation of all forms of visions and symbols. The Palace of Caw-Caw is responsible for the total destruction of prohibited cultures and histories, and the ancient Palace of Psst-Psst, responsible for the creation and manipulation of rumours. It is not surprising that much of the book is filled with the dreams, visions, imaginings, recalled memories and associations of the main characters that substitute for any unknowable but objective facts about the state of the Empire. Hata day dreams of the state as a head, wondering to what animal it might belong when that head is situated in the centre of its body. He can only think of an octopus, and once he has done so, “Scared that he might have entertained a sinful thought, he banished the image from his own head”. The next night, Hata reaches out to touch the locks of the severed head he is transporting and “Then everything repeated itself as on the previous night. His brain resembled some clinging creature with the inner luminescence of a glow-worm, whose slime smeared the domes of mosques and mausoleums, banknotes and the wombs of women awaiting insemination.” That distorted persistence of nightmarish memories, while the state seeks to banish all forms of independent thought and action, is one of the underlying and unifying themes of the book.

Kadare’s book, despite its Ottoman setting, constantly references both the history of Albania and the oppressive political regime under which he wrote and whose censors he sought to evade. By the time Hodgson’s translation appeared in 2017, Enver Hoxha’s government had long fallen, leaving the arrays of crumbling concrete fortifications and pill boxes along the coast as little more than a curious memory of his paranoid fear of attack by an unknown and probably unknowable enemy and a tangible symbol of a regime that could express itself only through totalitarian control over the entire state and its inhabitants.

Direct opposition was likely to result in elimination and any form of criticism, whether in literature or otherwise, needed to be carefully disguised to have a  chance of the work, and indeed the author, surviving the apparatus of the state. Accordingly Kadare’s work tended to be distanced in time and place, making full use of political allegory and using the myths, dreams and folk tales found in his writing to create a highly effective mesh of symbols and allusions that represent the control of the state over all forms of individuality, to the extent of eliminating even memory and history.

Read it if you haven’t already, and please try to buy it from an independent bookseller for now, more than ever, they really need your support.

Chris

Each Month From my Window: June – Irises and Berries

The view from my desk is lovely – London is almost obscured by plants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I bought Dutch irises from de Jager on a whim. I’d never grown them before but they were cheap and looked pretty. I shall certainly grow them again. I’d rather forgotten about them so when the first one popped open in the trough by the front door I was delighted. Brilliant blue and bright yellow, standing tall and sturdy, it was a delight. With hindsight I should probably have positioned them with a bit more artistic care but that doesn’t matter, there is always next year and they are now firmly on my Buy Again list.

My garden is so small that I cannot boast a fruit garden but I do grow Japanese wineberries, mulberries and blueberries and, like everything else in the garden, they are clearly visible from my windows.

The Japanese wineberries are beautiful plants and delicious fruits that are almost impossible to buy. The spiny red stems trail against the white walls and, as the fruit is hidden inside until the last minute, birds tend to ignore them. Possibly Matilda patrolling the garden also helps as a deterrent. They ripen successionally, meaning there are enough berries to scatter on porridge or a pudding every day from late June onwards.

The mulberry is Morus rotundiloba Charlotte Russe, ordered from the Chelsea Flower Show in 2017, when it was Plant of the Year. It sits in a pot, is 1.5m x 1.5m and this year has a bumper harvest. Like the Japanese wineberries it really deserves its space in the garden. The fruits are juicy, tasty, beautiful, impossible to buy and I have been harvesting since 30th May.

 

The same cannot be said of my blueberries. Some years ago a friend was ordering blueberry plants and, as bulk was cheaper, I went in with him. The draw was that some had pink fruits, yes pink blueberries. This was a plant I could not turn down. They arrived as the inevitable twigs and have since grown into straggly, not very attractive bushes. They occupy space on one of my precious sunny walls and, so far, have failed to fruit properly. All this could be forgiven but for the watering regime involved; they don’t like London tap water. I don’t have room for a water butt so, whenever it rains, I put out plastic trays, bowls and basins and then store the water under a bench in old milk bottles. In wet winters this is easy but in dry weather, such as we’ve had recently, I become obsessive. At the first sign of any cloud I rush out with the containers, only to be disappointed later when it turns out the promised shower has bypassed my garden. On the morning of June 5th I was woken at ten to five by the sound of rain. Proper rain: cats and dogs, stair rods, buckets, sheets, torrents. All the words that we had forgotten in May. I had left out four trays but I seriously considered leaping out of bed to collect more containers. By the time I realised this was going a bit far, the rain had stopped.

The blueberries were for the chop, until I discovered that Matilda likes to lie under them on hot days. They are safe for the moment.

  Jane

A Book in the Garden: Diary of a Modern Country Gardener

In May 2007 I started a gardening diary. The plan was that I would keep an accurate record of which plants did well, successful (or failed) combinations and what I did when. It lives on the kitchen table and I have kept it up, on and off, ever since; although I have to admit that it’s been erratic. The main plan was to learn from it so I wouldn’t repeat my mistakes but, like history worldwide, this is easier in theory than practice. I am still seduced by bulb catalogues and enticing displays in nurseries and I rarely think to consult the diary until it is too late.

Tamsin Westhorpe, author of Diary of a Modern Country Gardener, is more disciplined. Or perhaps more organised would be a better word. I can sit and ramble on for pages one evening and then write nothing for weeks. This delightful book has brief diary entries throughout the year, each followed by reminders of things to do, seasonal plants and amusing anecdotes.

She gardens at Stockton Bury Gardens in Herefordshire – a garden which is 110 times larger than mine and open to the public during the summer. (Well, open during normal summers, as I write it is still closed.) So, at first glance, the diary might not seem very relevant for my garden but Tamsin has an enticing style and the book is full of advice and recommendations that are useful regardless of the size of one’s plot. I have discovered roses and tulips that I want to grow and she has possibly even converted me to they joys of nerines, something that I thought would never happen as I find their bright pinks jarring in amongst the yellows and golds of autumn. The trick seems to be to grow them in a pot, with a green backdrop, rather than in a bed surrounded by autumn colour.

The book starts in February; it was too cold to garden so Tamsin followed the dictates of the weather and wrote rather than gardened. My plan had been to read the book following the seasons but I was enchanted and suddenly I found myself in August even though real time was only April. I felt as if I was wishing my gardening life away, rushing on too fast and missing things, so I stopped. The book now sits on the kitchen table (mostly on top of my diary) and I am reading the entries at the correct time. It requires discipline not to jump ahead but this is definitely the way to get the most enjoyment (and use) from both the book and my garden.

Regular readers of these posts will know how fussy I am about the production of books. Unnecessarily unwieldy paperbacks, hardbacks that spring shut of their own accord and unattractive jackets can all doom a book before I’ve reached the first page. Orphans Publishing have produced a book that is a joy to look at and handle; it has an attractive jacket and charming pink flowery endpapers (of course I judge a book by its jacket and, if possible, its endpapers), it sits open in a well-behaved manner and has a perfect balance of text and pictures. In case you are wondering about their name, Orphans was set up in 1873 by Henry Stanley Newman to generate income for an orphanage and provide a trade for the orphans.  

Jane

You can order the book direct from Orphans Publishing, at the time of writing they had signed copies. Otherwise please buy it from your local bookshop, now they are reopening, they need all your support. 

A Book in the Garden: Bitter Honey

I have quite enough cookery books but my excuse is that I read them as well as cook from them. I’m clearly not the only person to do this as books by authors such as Nigel Slater, are often produced in a format that is easier to read rather than cook from. Even Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat was published in a novel-shaped paperback last year although in this case the book was so thick and heavy it might well have resulted in serious injury if someone had dropped off while reading it in bed.

Many years ago I spent a happy time working with Tish (Letitia Clark) at Slightly Foxed. I was in the bookshop they had at the time and she was mostly based in the office working on the magazine but every so often she would come to work in the shop and we would have a lovely time comparing recipes and discussing cookery books (as well as working, obviously).

My self-imposed rule of ‘no more cookery books’ didn’t apply to her new one which came out this spring. My book-buying rules are only ever guidelines, intended to curb too much excess rather than implementing a complete ban.

The subtitle is Recipes and Stories from the Island of Sardinia. I know Corsica reasonably well and have always wanted to go a little further south to Sardinia but, given the present state of affairs Tish’s book will be a welcome substitute. It is a delightful mixture of recipes, anecdotes and interesting background information. I have never seen the point of polenta, regarding it as tasteless flab or goo according to the consistency. Tish’s recipe, with a ragù of sausage meat, tomatoes and sage, topped with mozzarella, pecorino and basil, has transformed my opinion. Likewise my view of panettone has been changed. I had always viewed it as a poor relation of Christmas cake. Made into a superior bread-and-butter pudding with saffron custard it becomes a food fit for the gods – or ones friends as lockdown eases. Don’t wait till Christmas – this is perfect summer food.  

 Jane

It would obviously be great if you bought this book but, particularly in these difficult times, please remember your local bookshop. You’d miss it if it went.