Pleasure of the Week 14: Receiving a Finished Copy

This anthology is not published until the autumn but I have just received the first finished copy. I am in the midst of researching food-related extracts for Bedside Companion for Food Lovers and writing pieces on nature for Urban Nature Every Day but looking through this anthology I am reminded how much I enjoyed compiling it.

Happiness is fleeting – the moment should be seized and this extract from W. E. Henley’s poem Praeludium XXII is one of my favourites:

Between the dusk of a summer night
     And the dawn of a summer day,
We caught at a mood as it passed in flight,
     And we bade it stoop and stay.



Pleasure of the Week 13: Rereading

I love rereading books, particularly novels. If I didn’t work in a bookshop I would probably do it much more but almost every week in the shop I am seduced by a pretty jacket, an interesting blurb or a children’s book I need to read for recommendations. The result is fairly predictable; I have piles of unread books at home along with lists of books I want to go back to and read again. Rereading is mostly pure pleasure; occasionally a book doesn’t live up to my memories but usually I simply enjoy it, discovering details I had forgotten or missed the first time.

Compiling the prose anthologies adds even more books to the piles and lists. I unearth old favourites and make new discoveries. Nature Writing, Bedside Book for Gardeners, Bedside Book for Book Lovers and now Bedside Book for Food Lovers all create a reading backlog quite apart from the direct research for extracts. At least I’ll never run out of books I want to read.

Research for Bedside Companion for Food Lovers has created a slightly more serious (but pleasurable) quandary as it has reminded me of series rather than individual books. First Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is a trilogy but Douglas Adams got carried away and it is actually a trilogy of five books.

E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series consists of six books. Like so many books in this house, I have more than one edition. The hardbacks belonged to a friend, although the first and last are missing. The paperbacks were reissues I bought in the eighties as I wanted my own copies. The friend has long-since died and now I realise I’d like to reread his copies – so I shall need to source the missing hardbacks to complete the set.

More serious is my wish to reread the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. They were recommended by the same friend, who used to ring me at work in Hatchards to read me extracts. I finally read the first one to prove to him that I wasn’t interested in naval fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars. So wrong. I was immediately hooked and read the seventeen that were in print at the time and then waited impatiently for the following volumes. In the end Patrick O’Brian completed twenty in the series before he died, leaving one story unfinished. I remember each book being full of wonderful details so they would not be ones to skip or skim through. I did skip the battles but when I met Patrick O’Brian and confessed this to him, he didn’t seem to mind. He explained that this was why I preferred his writing to C. S. Forrester’s Hornblower series; Forrester is better at battles. I think he was pleased. Reading the seventeen novels took just over three months in the winter of 1995-6, when I think I had more reading time than I do now.  

For those who remember, the friend was John.


Pleasure of the Week 12: Being a Jack-of-all-Trades

As you can probably see from the photo above everything has got slightly out of hand. My dining room table has disappeared beneath teetering piles of books and I am juggling too many projects. This isn’t normally a problem; I like having lots of different things on the go and I tend to work (and play) best when juggling but earlier this year I spent far too long on a book project which has come to nothing. To be honest I suspected as much when I started it but it was fun and will, one day I hope, have its moment. I have learnt not to worry too much about books or book proposals that fizzle, I only take on things I think will be interesting or fun (ideally both) and, on the whole, nothing with writing is wasted, writing anything is always good practice. A couple of unexpected pieces of work appeared but they fitted in with everything else.

Then the commission for Urban Nature Every Day arrived, which was a total but very welcome surprise. However busy I was I would never have turned this down; it is interesting and working on it with Sally (my co-author for Berries, Nuts and Cherries & Mulberries all published by Prospect Books) will be fun. But the research and accompanying outings and business lunches have pushed everything else to one side. I need to get the balance back so I can juggle it with Bedside Companion for Food Lovers, writing for Hatchards’ website and, of course, selling books. I need to find space for patchwork, papier mâché and boats. The garden looks wonderful at the moment but it is coasting and I know that if it doesn’t receive a little more care and attention it will slip from organised chaos into disorganised mess.

Everything is getting sorted and I am confident that, in a few weeks, an ordered balance will be re-established. Until then I’ll just have to manage without my dining room table.


Pleasure of the Week 9: The Contract for a New Book

For the last few years I have, by chance rather than design, edited more books than I have written. My plan was always to keep the two level. Earlier in the year I began compiling Bedside Companion for Food Lovers (my thirteenth anthology) and I have now been commissioned to write Urban Nature Every Day (my thirteenth full book). I am writing it with Sally Hughes and could not be more excited. I have already written three books with her (Berries, Nuts and Cherries & Mulberries, all published by Prospect Books) so we know we work well together. Luckily for this project she knows more about birds, animals and creepy-crawlies than I do, whilst I know more about flowers, trees, weeds and weather. It will involve lots of jolly days out, business meetings in cafes, pubs and restaurants and interesting discoveries.

I have lived in London on and off pretty well all my life (apart for a brief time in Edinburgh) and love it. Some time ago I wrote for a delightful magazine called Lost in London. It celebrated the ‘green within the grey’ and was a beautiful publication which came out about three times a year and culminated in a book in 2013. I loved writing for it and discovered a great many wonderful green places within the city. I can’t wait to visit them again.


Pleasure of the Week 8: Hatchards Authors of the Year Reception

I don’t normally like parties but this one is different. Hatchards is the oldest and, biased I may be, best bookshop in London, opened by John Hatchard two hundred and twenty-five years ago. Every year, since the mid-twentieth century, they have held a party for all the authors who have supported the shop during the previous twelve months. It is a delightful affair with champagne and all the very best authors gathered together to enjoy themselves. There are no publishers, no signings and no customers. I am in the uniquely privileged position of being both staff and author. This year the party was particularly timely as the previous day Sally (with whom I wrote Berries, Nuts and Cherries & Mulberries) and I had signed a contract for a new book. But that will be next week’s pleasure.


Pleasure of the Week 3: The Perfect Spring read, whatever the weather

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April

Just as dogs are not only for Christmas and this book is not only for April but it is the perfect spring read and I reread it almost every year. Four women, dissatisfied with life for a variety of reasons, rent a small castle in Italy for the month of April. The country, the castle and its owner all work their charms and, without spoiling the details of the story, it is safe to say that everyone’s lives are improved. A truly uplifting book which proves happy endings do exist. I have four different editions; these are the prettiest.


Pleasure of the Week: 1 Happy Poems

These posts have become very neglected. This is partly because WordPress has changed and my technological ineptitude and intolerance means I haven’t mastered it. The main reason though, is that I love Instagram which, thanks to tutoring by my goddaughter, I have mastered. Anyway I am making a New Year’s Resolution to post more here. I know it is March but that means I won’t give up in January or February. Also I have decided to put up a brief post each week and there are forty weeks left in 2022 which seems like a neat number. Each week I’m going to post something, probably book, food or gardening related which has given me pleasure.

This week it is the cover of my forthcoming anthology, A Happy Poem to End Every Day. These colours aren’t quite accurate; trust me, it is a beautiful, jolly yellow with brilliant birds flying all over it. There 366 delightful poems which will make you smile. Batsford are publishing it and it’s coming this autumn.


Making Plans with the Help of an Expert

The Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show always prompts me to look at my garden and plan for the future. The fact that the show was held in September rather than May this year has, in a way, been an advantage; I like making plans in September, I suppose because of years of starting the new academic year at this time.

The Show Gardens, even the small ones, are usually impractical for the average gardener but there are always ideas one can use: flower combinations, interesting plants for shade or even imaginative paving. When the flower show was cancelled last year and delayed this year till autumn I felt my (tiny) plot was in need of some new inspiration. Tom Stuart-Smith provided me with that inspiration. Now I have been to Chelsea, I am returning to his book, for more ideas, both sensible and wildly impractical for my little plot.

Ever since I saw Tom Stuart-Smith’s first garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 1998 I have wanted him to write a book. I loved the way he combined plants and made a formal, traditional garden look interesting and different. But gardens at flower shows only give you a single glimpse of a designer’s ideas. Now, after over twenty years’ wait we have a book on his gardens and ideas. Drawn from the Land is a magnificent book; it describes twenty-four projects including private commissions and public garden such as RHS Wisley in Surrey. There are design sketches and fabulous photography. Each garden is described by Tim Richardson, one of the most engaging being Tom Stuart-Smith’s own garden, The Barn in Hertfordshire, just across the lane from the house where he grew up and first developed his passion for plants and gardens. There are also two essays by Tim Richardson on planting and design and two by Tom Stuart-Smith in which he reveals his influences, inspirations and methods.

I bought the book when it was published in May and since then it has variously sat on the kitchen table, on a bench in the garden or in the summerhouse, my three favourite reading spots. I have dipped in and out of it and marvelled at the gardens and the stories behind them. As with the Chelsea gardens, all outscale my tiny London patch but in every garden I have found something of interest, even if I can only dream of putting some of the ideas into practice.

Unlike many of the beautiful books published on gardens this one is beautiful and genuinely interesting. Tom Stuart-Smith, by working with nature and the landscape creates unique and very wonderful gardens. Writer and historian Tim Richardson is the perfect person to describe both them and their stories. 


Holidaying in Sardinia, from the Kitchen Table

Last year I wrote about Bitter Honey by Letitia Clark here. ( is the link but it’s the third post that month so you’ll have to scroll down past the garden and Matilda). Subtitled Recipes and Stories from the Island of Sardinia it managed to convert my kitchen and garden into a glimpse of Sardinia several times while we were unable to leave our homes. Now she has written La Vita è Dolce, in the same charming style, but this time with recipes that cater for the sweeter side of life. Many of the cakes, tarts, biscuits, puddings and pastries look magnificent but this is not a fiddly patisserie-style book; the recipes are enticing rather than intimidating. In a recipe for Sbriciolata (a delicious ricotta and dark chocolate almond crumble tart) Letitia describes the crumble mixture as ‘a loose and ragged rubble’ – none of the ‘fine breadcrumbs’ so often called for are deemed necessary here.

A preliminary read-through to find which recipes I’d like to make resulted in a huge list of potential delectables. I’m delighted to discover that Amaretti are easy to make and that there is a cake with Campari – a delicious-looking, upside-down creation with oranges and melt-in-the-mouth yoghurty sponge.

In between the recipes there are short pieces on various ingredients, moka coffee pots and quanto basta, or why recipes can never be exact. Letitia is the perfect cookery writer: opinionated, helpful and easy-going. I made Ricciolinis partly because I love the combination of almonds and cherries but, if I’m honest, mainly because the name translates as ‘little hedgehogs’. They were utterly delicious.

Obviously I think you should buy the book, equally obviously I think that you should buy it from a real bookshop, not the faceless online you-know-what.


Magical Hats

I have a new job – as well as enjoying myself in the Children’s and Cookery departments at Hatchards I am writing for the blog on the new(ish) Hatchards website. Blog Writer may sound less prestigious than Shop Scribe, which was my previous unofficial title as catalogue-writer for the shop, but this is so much more fun. I have been given carte blanche to write about any books I like. I can’t quite believe it’s true – part of me is waiting for an email along the lines of: ‘Do you think could write about this terribly boring business book instead of the one about dragons that you were going to choose?’ But, so far so good, I’m actively being encouraged to read cookery, gardening and children’s books. It’s a dream job come true.

The point of this website has always been to concentrate on the good things in life; and, as far as I am concerned, reading is definitely up there with gardening, baking cakes and making patchwork, so my pieces will probably appear here as well as there. Albeit sometimes tweaked a little. The first book I chose was The Hatmakers by Tamzin Merchant.

Should you judge a book by its cover? Probably not, but most of us do. There are thousands of titles in every bookshop, all vying for the customer’s attention, all striving to be the one that is picked up, taken home and read, although committed book-buyers always have at least one  pile of ‘just about to be read’ books.

There are books you know you want or need: the latest title by a favourite novelist, the book that will tell you how to make the perfect meringue or the one which will ensure outstanding GCSE results. Then there are the ones you didn’t know you wanted – books which cry out to you from the shelf or table, sometimes because of the subject but, more often, because of the cover. The Hatmakers by Tamzin Merchant is one of these books.

Its enchanting cover will stop you in your tracks. There are intriguing details too – the T of Hatmakers is formed from a needle and thread, there is a slightly raised image of a white pigeon carrying a letter and golden stars everywhere. Then, if you remove the paper cover, the boards below have enticing details: a ship, a feather, a reel of thread, several interesting hats and a motto in Latin. Inside there are starry endpapers and even a map (I love a map in a book and, if possible, a family tree).

The crucial point, of course, is whether the story stands up to all this fanfare. It does. With space to spare. It is exciting, magical and, at moments, hilarious. ‘It was a wild and lightning-struck night’ is a great opening and a little further down the page we meet Cordelia Hatmaker, clearly the heroine, who is satisfyingly not afraid of the storm – no one wants a weedy heroine. Then there is the sound of somebody banging on the door and we are off – straight into a thrilling adventure.

The story is set in a not-quite London in the not-quite eighteenth century where Cordelia lives in a magical house with whispering books and an invisible cupboard door. But this is logical as her family are Hatmakers to the Crown, adding secret ingredients to the wonderful caps, bonnets and boaters they make. When her father is lost at sea she is the only member of the family who isn’t upset, after all, she reasons what is lost can be found. But, while she is concerned with finding her father, the rest of the country is worried about the imminent war with France, the increasing (very jolly) madness of the king and the fact that someone is attempting to inflame the ancient rivalries between the various Maker families. This is a spellbinding story wrapped inside an exquisitely-decorated cover.  

It is aimed at 9-12 year-olds but it is one of those books that could also be enjoyed by imaginative adults or read to much younger children. A sequel, The Mapmakers is due to be published in February 2022. As always, please buy them from a real bookshop.