Books

Bløtkake

This, and many other delicious recipes, come from Jane’s new book, Nuts, Growing and Cooking, which she wrote with Sally Hughes. The first time we discovered Bløtkake (pronounced ‘blurt-kak-ir’) was in Tilly Culme-Seymour’s delightful book Island Summers.  It is a Norwegian birthday cake; at least it was the cake Tilly always had and the moment we read about it we knew we wanted it as our birthday cakes too. It is a wonderful concoction of sponge, cream, fruit and marzipan and makes a perfect centrepiece for any tea table, birthday or otherwise. In the book the cake has to make a fraught journey in a small boat from the mainland bakery to the island, this is not something we would recommend, although one Jane made survived a bike ride to Piccadilly.

Island Summers does not include a recipe for the cake but when Tilly came to sign her books she confirmed that our recipe was pretty near her original.

Ready-made marzipan is fine for this cake but use white, rather than golden for authenticity. You can use any combination of berries, according to your inclination and what is in season.

Serves at least 12; this is very rich and substantial cake, a little goes a long way.

            Cake

  •             300 g /10 oz / 3 ½ sticks soft butter
  •             300 g / 10 oz /1 1/3 cup caster (superfine) sugar
  •             6 eggs
  •             300 g / 10 oz / 2 ½ cups self-raising flour
  •             2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

            Filling

  •             300 ml / 10 fl oz / 1 ¼ cups double (heavy) cream
  •             4 drops vanilla extract
  •             3-4 tablespoons apple juice
  •             3-4 tablespoons strawberry jam
  •             100 g / 3 ½ oz / ¾ cup chopped walnuts

            Topping

  •             300 g / 10 oz marzipan
  •             200 g / 7 oz strawberries
  •             200 g/ 7 oz blueberries
  •             icing (confectioners’) sugar, for rolling out and to dust the finished cake

To make the cakes

Preheat the oven to 180 C / 350 F / Gas 4. Grease 3 x 23 cm / 9 inch loose-bottomed cake tins and line the bases with baking parchment. Even if you have to cook them in batches, it is much easier to cook three separate cakes rather than trying to cut one into three layers. They also rise better.

Put the butter and sugar into a bowl and cream together until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a little flour after each egg. Gently fold in the remaining flour. Pour the mixture into the tins and level out. Bake for about 20-25 minutes. The cake will have pulled away from the sides of the tin and a skewer should come out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few moments. Take the cakes out of the tins, remove the paper and leave on a wire rack to cool completely.

To assemble the cakes

Once the cakes are totally cooled put the bottom layer onto the plate you wish to use; the cake will be almost impossible to move once you have decorated it. Whip the cream and vanilla extract till it forms reasonably stiff peaks. Drizzle 1-2 tablespoons of apple juice over the bottom layer of cake; this will ensure it is deliciously moist and gooey. Spread with a layer of ½ the jam and then add a layer of about 1/3 of the cream. Sprinkle half the chopped walnuts on top. Put the next layer of cake on top and repeat the apple juice, jam, cream and walnut layers.

Put the top layer of cake in place and cover the top and sides with a thin layer of cream. This is not the final coating but merely a ‘glue’ to hold the marzipan in place. Roll out the marzipan into a thin circle, large enough to cover the top and sides of the cake. Remember to roll it out on icing (confectioners’) sugar, not flour. Using the rolling pin, drape the marzipan over the cake. Trim any excess; tuck the edges neatly under the cake and smooth over any cracks.

Cut a large cross in the centre and peel back the four triangles of marzipan. You should have sufficient marzipan left to cut away the triangles and replace them with fresh ones. This isn’t vital but it saves cleaning off the cream and cake crumbs from the underside of the triangles which are now exposed. Hull the strawberries, cut into quarters if they are large and pile into the centre with the blueberries, or whatever fruits you are using. Put the remainder around the cake. Dust with icing (confectioners’) sugar and put into the fridge. The cake is best made an hour or so ahead to allow the filling to soak in. It is fine made a day ahead. Keep in the fridge and ideally remove an hour or so before serving.

Jane

 

An Admirable Cult

There are surprisingly many good books, some great books and of these a very few also achieve cult status. Joyce’s Ulysses is an obvious example, even if there are many readers who find it hard to connect with.  A slightly less well-known example is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita which however is hugely entertaining and a far easier read. Although written in Stalin’s Russia between 1928 and the time of Bulgakov’s death in 1940, state censorship prevented its publication in book form until 1967, and even then much of the text had been removed or altered.The 150,000 initial copies were sold out within hours.  

In 1973 a complete and accurate Russian text was published. Subsequently at least three and a half million copies have been sold worldwide. There have been at least six English translations. The book has proved hugely influential. It has inspired 8 films, untold TV and theatre productions, numerous dance works and ballets, and many graphic and comic novels. Its content has provided a recurring theme of pop music; for example Mick Jagger’s Sympathy for the Devil. It has its own specialist website (www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/) and dedicated tours of Bulgakov’s Moscow take place as they do for Joyce’s Dublin.

One reason for its success is simple; it’s a very good story. The plot is based on a visit by the Devil and his entourage to Stalin’s intensely atheistic Moscow during the inter-war period.  Satan arrives disguised as the curious Professor Woland (“platinum crowns on the left side of his mouth and gold on the right. .. Mouth somehow twisted … Right eye black, left – for some reason – green. “).. What chaos follows!

Woland’s visit is linked to an unpublished novel written by the eponymous Master about Christ’s trial and Crucifixion in Jerusalem (“Yershalaim”) and Pontius Pilate’s ineffectual attempts to save him. The manuscript’s rejection and vilification by the Soviet literary establishment has brought about the Master’s madness and confinement into a rather upmarket state-run lunatic asylum and his alienation from his mistress, the adorable Margarita.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first is principally a satire on human greed and vanity and in particular upon the Soviet literary establishment and Moscow’s newly rich citizens.  The sycophantic writers are organised into a fictional association, Massolit. Based in a luxurious clubhouse, Griboedov’s; their every material need is catered for at very best prices. “But sterlet in a silver chafing dish, sterlet slices interlaid with crayfish tails and fresh caviar? And how did you like the fillets of thrush? With truffles? Quail a la genoise? Nine-fifty!” Massolit’s Chairman, Berlioz, is unfortunate enough to deny the historical existence of Christ to Woland, when he appears at the start of the book. Woland claims he has arrived in Moscow at the invitation of the State to expose the fraudulent nature of black magic. He then predicts, and he and his associates bring about, Berlioz’s death by decapitation from a tram

Berlioz’s sidekick, Ivan Nikolaevich “Homeless”, becomes deranged and transferred to the asylum. A theatre performance by Woland results in citizens losing their clothes, chasing after apparently convincing money and revealing the most embarrassing secrets of their private lives. Woland’s associates include a memorable and enormous black cat, Behemoth, who talks as well as making poor jokes, shoots pistols and tries to pay his tram fare with Russian money. The goings on are memorably funny and inventive with elements of slapstick, magic realism and science fiction.

The second part of the book, whilst equally imaginative and comical becomes more focussed on the ideas of love and courage. Woland and his associates have taken up residence in the flat formerly occupied by Berlioz, enlarged infinitely by the use of the “fifth dimension” into the setting of the Devil’s Walpurgis Night Ball on May Day’s Eve. Because of her love for the Master, Margarita acts as the Devil’s hostess at this spectacular event. She is transformed into a witch and flies naked through the night with her maid Natasha (not without a little far from innocent fun tormenting the Master’ critics in Massolit) before facing a parade of the great sinners of history, all revived from the dead by black magic.  Her eventual reward from Woland is to join the Master in a state of blissful eternal peace while Pontius Pilate is released from a shadowy post-death hell.

Bulgakov draws on a vast variety of sources and influences to make a separate and convincing masterpiece. Goethe’s Faust and the tragedy of Man’s nature is perhaps the most central. Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, you name them, their influence can be recognised with ease. So can references to Freemasonry, the Manichean nature of the universe and the US Ambassador’s Ball of 1935!  I even had fun trying to connect the antics of the Soviet police and secret agents around Woland’s apartment with memories of Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in Rue Morgue. There just might be a connection.

In a way, none of this actually matters. The book is just a great read. It’s freely available from nearly all good booksellers and at £6.99 (Pocket Penguin edition, admittedly on rather poor paper), is cheap. So cheap it will actually cost no more from your local independent bookseller than the Internet after allowing for postage, so you can feel both virtuous and shrewd in supporting them!

Chris

The 2016 London Print Fair

The 2016 London Print Fair is now on running from today, Thursday 5th May until Sunday 8th May with more information available at http://www.londonprintfair.com/. If you are in the market for, or want a good look at an amazing selection of top class prints then it’s definitely worth a visit. Last night I went to the Press View; and the quality and variety of works present was frankly exceptional. A couple of images will have to represent a complete box of delights; it wasn’t easy to choose but both show the high standard of items available.

While nothing there is really cheap, there are a remarkable number of items that represent good long term value. Two acquatints each immaculately printed in red and black from two separate plates,by George Baselitz and shown by Till Verclas, were on offer for around £3,000. If your taste runs that way to modern German art, they seemed relatively inexpensive.

Christopher Mendez has several good dark early states of Piranesi’s Veduti di Roma at somewhat over over a thousand pounds and a really fine impression of a print of Poussin’s Landscape with Funeral of Phocion was significantly under half that.

Andrew Edmunds, likewise located just inside the main entrance to the left as you come in, seemed to be doing very good business indeed with an epidemic of red dots covering much of his stock after half an hour. An exceptional item was Gillray’s The KING of BROBDINGNAG, and GULLIVER (image below) in wonderful and brightest early colour, not especially cheap at around £8,000 but frankly when are you going to get one as good? It was unsold, although attracting a lot of attention from potential buyers, when I left last night.Whether it remains available today is an open question.

The King of BROBDINGNAG, and GULLIVER. H.Humphrey, 26 June 1803. JAMES GILLRAY 1756-1815

There were also plenty of very fine items for more serious money. Some of the Grosvenor School lino-cuts, printed in colours by Cyril Power and Sybil Andrews, were selling towards the top end of the tens of thousands of pounds. Gilden’s Arts Gallery had a nice large Miro for around £20,000. Osborne Samuel had some prints from Eric Ravilious’ submarine series in very attractive fresh condition, although for non- trivial prices around £12,000.

Finally there is just room to mention and illustrate below, a superb (but very definitely ‘price on application’) four colour lithograph of The Sick Girl by Edvard Munch shown by Frederick Mulder. I wish, if I win the lottery!

Chris

 

 

Novellas Save Trees

I rarely make New Year’s Resolutions. This year I did – along with ‘eat less cake’ and ‘feed the pots in the garden regularly’ was ‘write a post for the website every two weeks’. Two weeks seems to have become three and a half months. The less said about cake consumption the better. At least I still have the chance to keep the pots in tip-top condition.

My excuse is that I have been writing a catalogue for Hatchards Bookshop. Our Favourite Novellas of the Past Two Hundred Years was published this week and it, together with Berries: Growing and Cooking (published in May), seems to have taken up all my time.

Interestingly, in Britain there is no exact definition of a novella; the Oxford English Dictionary description is splendidly vague specifying ‘a long short story or a short novel’. The word comes from the Italian ‘novella’ meaning new. In Germany it is a different matter; the story can be any length but must centre round a particular event. Stefan Zweig’s A Chess Story is an example, one of the few included in the final selection. Our criteria were that it should be able to be slipped into a pocket and devoured at a single sitting: on a train, relaxing in a deckchair in the sun or curled up by a roaring fire.

While I didn’t have total control over the choice of titles, the Hatchards catalogue could equally be called Shortish Books which Jane Mostly Really Likes. Mollie Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day was included – not strictly a novella but one of my best-loved books and certainly a quick read. The Blotting Book by E. F. Benson (the author of the Mapp and Lucia stories turns his hand to crime) and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (not really a story at all but rather a series of descriptions of cities Marco Polo has supposedly visited, each more fantastical than the last) were also included, which slightly stretched the limits but are short books I wouldn’t want to be without.

As well as rereading some of my favourites I made some wonderful discoveries. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather is a genuine novella and tells the story of an unusual Victorian heroine making her life in the harsh Nebraskan Plains of the American West. It is wonderful and I fully intend (soon) to read the other two titles in the trilogy: The Song of the Lark and My Antonia.

IMG_0956

However the book which stands head and shoulders above all the others in the catalogue is The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. Written in 1954, it tells the story of Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd who reforests the high plateau of Provence where he lives. He gradually transforms the harsh and barren landscape by planting seeds and saplings as he follows his flock. Undisturbed by the horrors of two World Wars the trees continue to grow, creating a ‘natural’ forest which baffles the authorities. With the trees comes life; springs begin to flow again.

‘As the water reappeared, so there reappeared willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, flowers and a certain purpose in being alive. But the transformation took place so gradually that it became part of the pattern without causing any astonishment.’

For many years I thought this was a true story and it was originally written in response to a request by an American editor for a piece on an unforgettable character. The publishers had wanted an actual person but Jean Giono had chosen to write about a character that would be unforgettable. The story was rejected and published not long after by Vogue. It should be a true story. Many people are wary of planting trees because ‘they take so long to grow’. Few would think of trying to alter an entire region by planting seeds and saplings. This book shows what is possible. It was written to make people ‘love planting trees’ and Jean Giono says ‘It is one of my stories of which I am the proudest’.

I went to RHS Wisley intending to take some photos of trees to accompany this piece. There was lots of beautiful fluffy pink and white blossom, delicate pale green new leaves and dark, solid evergreens but it was all extraordinarily hard to photograph. I now have a new respect for the photographers of tree books. The blossom stood out clearly for me but the camera included a lot of background plants that my eyes had blocked out. The sky couldn’t make up its mind whether to be blue or grey and did not failed to create a suitable backdrop. Here, instead is a host of goldenish daffodils.

IMG_0866The Man Who Planted Trees is published in paperback by Peter Owen, with wood engravings by Michael McCurdy, a loose print of one of his engravings and an afterword by Norma L. Goodrich or in hardback by Harvill Secker, with wood engravings by Harry Brockway, a foreword by Richard Mabey and an afterword by Aline Giono. I have both editions and each has its own merits; either way it is the text itself which really matters.

 

Do read this book. If you buy it, please do so from your local bookshop, or indeed any bookshop. If people don’t use them, bookshops, like so many other things on this planet, will become extinct and, too late, we shall be sorry.

Jane

A Fitting End for a Christmas Tree

When I was a child we always had Christmas trees with roots, which were (fairly) regularly watered and then planted in the garden after Twelfth Night. The result was a copse of motley trees, one or two with stray decorations still attached. The only tree which really thrived was one Dad planted crookedly after too good a lunch. It grew into a giant Leaning Tower of Fir, ever a reminder not to garden when too merry.

When I came to London I hated the fact that the first part of every year was marked with dead and dying trees lying sadly on the pavements, waiting to be taken away. It is not so bad now there are proper recycling systems but, even so, being shIMG_0589redded seems a sorry end for the trees after all the joy they have given us. Thanks to Helen Macdonald’s book H is for Hawk I have now learnt that there is a better way. I’m giving the whole passage here, which will make this post rather long and is probably an infringement of copyright law but it is too good to cut. And, with any luck, it will make you want to read the whole book.

(Helen and her mother have spent Christmas with her friend Erin and his parents, on the coast of southern Maine. This is their last morning there.)

‘I sense a plan is brewing. And a minute later I’m helping him drag their huge Christmas tree out of the room and onto the snowy lawn, tip snaking through the rough trail it makes, branches skittering over and cutting through the crust that glitters in the sparse light. We prop it up in the deep snow as if it had grown there. I have no idea what is going on.

            ‘OK, Macca, let’s burn this!’ he says.

            Puzzlement.

            ‘It’s traditional. It’s what we do here. In ‘America.’

            I don’t believe him for a second.

            ‘In England we dump them on the street, traditionally,’ I say. ‘Absolutely let’s burn it.’

            ‘I’ll get the firelighter!’ he yells. I can feel the madness to this, its contagious pagan glee. He runs back from the house with a squeezy bottle of firelighting gel and in the snowy hush, fog collecting around us as the thaw turns ice to water that hangs in the warming air, he decorates the tree with gloopy green strings that drip and stick like glutinous tinsel.

            ‘Stand back!’ he commands. He strikes a match. A branch catches with a tearing scratch of flame. For a few moments this is pretty: a soft yellow light in the monochromatic gloom. But then there is an explosive, tearing waterfall of rearing flame that bursts into appalling brightness. Erin’s eyebrows go up. He steps back a good few paces. And now I’m laughing so much I can hardly stand. ‘Jesus Erin,’ I shout. It’s as if he’s set light to the whole of the world: a twenty-foot pyramid of flame lighting the lawn, the house, the river, the far side of the river, sending black shadows out from the trees that a moment ago were lost in darkness, and our faces are gilded with fierce orange fire. What the hell have we done? The smoke mixes with the fog so that everything, everywhere is on fire. The incandescent tree, black twigs sintering, clicking, crumbling, and smoke, and Erin and I wearing faces of people who are going to be in serious trouble. ‘I think we might be seeing the fire truck any moment now,’ Erin shouts, and we’re both of us children again, delighted at what we have made and fearful of disaster.

            And then the fire is out. The skeleton stands in the snow, all its complexity gone. Just a thin trunk with a few charcoal branches, already damp in the steaming air. And I stare at the remains of the tree and breathe the smoke and the fog from the air and Erin makes a face at me and I make one back.

            ‘That,’ he says, ‘was excellent.’

            It was. A ritual burn, a ceremony of strange, protective magic. Bad things had fled from that burning tree. We laugh all the way back to the house, leaving the skeleton upright in the snow.’

IMG_0657

This is what I would like to do to my tree; give it a spectacular send-off in return for all the pleasure it has given over the previous weeks. However, I have a small garden in London so it is not going to happen. One day, perhaps. Merry Christmas.

Jane

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is a brilliant read and is available in paperback (£8.99), from ‘all good bookshops’, not Amazon, please.

Milk Chocolate Bramble Cake

Berries jacketI have been hopeless about writing posts this summer, but I do have an excuse; I am writing a book on berries. I am writing it with Sally Hughes and it will be similar to Quinces – a mixture of cookery, gardening and history. This one will also include foraging, as there are so many delicious berries one can collect on country walks or even in city parks and gardens. The book isn’t published till June 2016 but, in the meantime, here is our recipe for Milk Chocolate Bramble Cake.

This is a gentle chocolate cake, rich, but mild in flavour. You need to use dark chocolate in the cake mixture as the flavour of milk chocolate is lost in cooking. For a more intense chocolaty taste, use dark chocolate for the icing too. It is best made with small, foraged blackberries as the large cultivated ones tend to make the cake soggy in parts. Earlier in the summer raspberries are a delicious alternative.Milk Chocolate Bramble Cake 4

Cake

200 g butter

100 dark chocolate

4 eggs

200 g caster sugar

200 self-raising flour, sifted

175 g blackberries

Icing

100 g good quality milk chocolate

140 g butter, softened

140 g icing sugar

2 x 20 cm loose-bottomed cake tins

Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F / Gas 4. Grease the tins and line the bases with baking parchment.

To make the cake:

Bring a large pan of water to boil. Break the dark chocolate and put it and the butter into a bowl which will fit inside the pan. Put the bowl into the boiling water, ensuring that the water does not bubble over the rim. Once the butter and chocolate have melted remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

Add eggs and sugar to the chocolate mixture and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. This shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.

Reserve a handful of the blackberries for decoration and add the rest to the flour. Stir to coat the berries and then gently fold into the chocolate mixture.

Divide the mixture evenly between the two tins and bake for 30-35 minutes. The top should be nicely risen and a skewer should come out pretty well clean. Remember the berries will make the cake juicy.

Remove from the oven, allow the cakes to cool in the tins until you can handle them, 10 minutes or so, and then turn onto a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the icing:

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over hot water as before, remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

Beat the butter and icing sugar until creamy and then mix in the melted chocolate.

Level the top of one cake, if necessary, and spread half the icing onto it. Put the other cake on top and spread the remaining icing evenly over the top. Decorate with the reserved berries.

Amongst other things, we’ve also made (and eaten) Gooseberry and Elderflower Loaf Cake, Raspberry Lemonade, Raspberry Brownies, Heart Attack Pudding, Tartes aux Myrtilles, Cranberry Scones and Strawberry Butter. Perhaps our next book should be on lettuce leaves. Jane.

Quinces; Growing and Cooking by Jane McMorland Hunter and Sue Dunster

Quince Book and Quinces 1

This is Jane’s latest book, which she has written with Sue Dunster. Quinces were once more common in Britain than apples; now many people don’t know what to do with them, where to buy them or even what they are. Slowly, over the last ten years or so, quinces have become more readily available. For a long time only farmers’ markets sold them, now increasingly green grocers and even supermarkets stock them. This is the quinces season and is the perfect time to acquaint yourself with this fruit which is delicious in both sweet and savoury dishes, can easily be preserved and will enhance a room with an unmistakable yet delicate fragrance.

Quince orchard at RHS WisleyThe best way to get a good supply of quinces is to grow your own, although this year the harvest has been poor, with many trees only bearing a few fruits. Don’t be off put by this though, with any luck next year, quince trees will be laden with fruit. Quinces grow on attractive trees which never become unmanageably large and will improve any garden. They can even be grown in containers. In late spring the trees are covered with the most exquisite, fragrant blossom. This ranges from white to pale pink and is set against a backdrop of furry grey-green leaves. The blossom does not last long, but while it is in flower there is little that can rival it. The trees themselves grow in a twisty, slightly mad, but attractive manner, although some varieties can be trained against a wall in an espalier or fan. The fruit appears in late summer and ripens towards the end of autumn. In Northern Europe the fruit never ripens sufficiently to be eaten raw, but is so delicious once cooked that this really does not matter. The trees are highly productive and fairly unfussy as to where they grow, in particular, the cultivar ‘Meech’s Prolific’ certainly lives up to its name. The trees self-pollinate which means you only need one to get fruit. They are largely disease free and will live to a great age, enhancing your garden and providing you with a scrumptious crop in return for little input.

Quinces were reputed to be the fruit which Paris gave to Aphrodite and it was said that quince trees grew up wherever she walked; they may also have been the infamous fruits on the Tree of Wisdom in the Garden of Eden. Much later Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussycat dined on them at their wedding feast. Quinces came to Europe from Central Asia along the ancient trade routes and they still grow wild in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Turkestan and Iran. They have been used in Persian cooking for over 2500 years, but probably reached Britain in the13th century where they appear in recipes for pies sweetened with honey.

Quince Jelly, jam and Curd

Quinces are deliciously sweet and scented when cooked. They contain a high level of pectin and can therefore easily be made into jams and jellies. Originally marmalade was made from quinces coming from the Portuguese word for the fruit, marmelo. A little goes a long way and the addition of a few slices will transform sweet and savoury dishes. They combine particularly well with apples and pears, but will also go with almonds, oranges and even mulberries, if you can get them. They can be made into cakes, tarts, biscuits and custards. They are used in many Mediterranean and Central Asian savoury dishes including chicken, pork and all types of game. They can be stuffed with meat and used to flavour savoury tarts. There is so much more to them than just the jelly and membrillo commonly found in delicatessens.

Even before you cook with them quinces can be used to scent a room. Once ripened, they are an attractive golden colour and will keep in a bowl giving off a delightful fragrance.Quinces in a bowl

The first part of this book gives a brief history of quinces to put them into context in both the kitchen and the garden. A section on growing quince trees follows which gives all the information you need to select and care for a suitable cultivar. The final part covers storing, cooking and using the fruit, in both modern and historic recipes. Do not be put off by the fact that they usually need to be cooked, so do lots of other ingredients and the rewards for cooking quinces are enormous.

 Quinces Growing and Cooking by Jane McMorland Hunter and Sue Dunster, Prospect Books. ISBN 9781909248410

I would obviously love everyone to buy this book. I would be especially happy if they bought or ordered it from a bookshop; bookshops are an endangered breed and, too late, we may be sorry when they disappear. Jane

 

 

Rumer Godden, An Episode of Sparrows

 

An Episode of SparrowsRumer Godden wrote this in 1946, inspired by the widow boxes on her mews house just off Eaton Square. It was published as a novel for adults, but its heroine is a ten year old girl and it is one of those books that can be enjoyed by anyone from eight to eighty. 

Like The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett it is the story of a garden tended by children, but the garden in An Episode of Sparrows lacks the idyllic walled setting of Martha’s one. The garden Lovejoy (the unfortunately-named heroine of An Episode of Sparrows) creates is on an old bomb site in London right in the middle of the grime and noise of the city. It is created using a stolen packet of cornflower seeds and later, soil taken from the nearby posh garden square. A jobbing gardener filled Rumer Godden’s real widow boxes with earth and flowers and a few days later she received a visit from two ladies who lived in Eaton Square. ‘Not a social call,’ they said. Apparently the earth in her window boxes had been stolen from their garden and Rumer Godden was told she should have bought it from the Army and Navy Stores, at ‘seven shillings and sixpence the carton’. This episode forms the basis of the story of An Episode of Sparrows. Lovejoy lives in Catford Street, backing onto the Square where there are fine houses, a gardening committee and a formidable resident in the form of Miss Angela Chesney, who is determined that the ‘street children’ or ‘sparrows’ will not invade her fine garden. 

Lovejoy’s mother is irresponsible and largely absent, her father totally so. She lodges above a restaurant run by the delightful Vincent, who dreams of serving a rich and discerning clientele, rather than the solitary Mr Manley, often his only customer. Tip Malone’s gang rules the Street, but Tip is not a bad boy and his softer side is exposed when Lovejoy bullies him into helping in her garden. She has glimpsed an Italian-style garden through a gate in Chelsea and this is what she wants to create on her bomb site. 

Lovejoy has eyes ‘as cold and grey as pebbles’, fine fair hair and a fierce demeanour. She has learnt how to survive in the Street, not stealing big things, which she knows is wrong, but by taking what she needs. A strong friendship grows between her and the thirteen year-old Tip with surprising consequences, largely brought about by Olivia, Miss Angela’s quiet, unassuming, but perceptive sister. 

It will not spoil the story to say that there is a happy ending; books like this have reliably happy endings, that is part of their charm. In the same way as the Secret Garden makes Colin and Mary happier and better people, so the pansies and cornflowers on the bomb site improve the lives of Lovejoy, Tip and Vincent. Jane.

 

 

Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel

 

 

“I fell in love when I was fourteen with a flower meadow, perfectly set off by a wooden field gate beside the Wye.”

IMG_5318John Lewis-Stempel lives on a farm on the borders of England and Wales, but he is much more than simply a farmer. He has written, amongst other things, three books on the First World War, a biography of James Herriot and a guide to foraging. Here he turns his attention to a single field on his farm, watching it as it changes with the passing months.

He is interested in the history, romance and beauty of the meadow, as well as the nature within it. In January he lies down on the frosty grass to view the bumps and pockmarks that centuries of use have imposed on the land. More comfortably, he lies down again in June, “How lovely it is to lie in a field and dream. . . . Above me the skylark flutters into the haze, all the while singing a silken tent over its territory, until it is a speck in my eye.” These are not the actions or words of an everyday farmer.

Everything is given a name; the sheep include Chocolate, Sooty, Cardigan and, of course, Jumper. While checking these sheep in the evening he is quite liable to be reminded of a line of poetry that suits the moment; the October stars prompt him to hunt out Thomas Traherne, a Hereford-born metaphysical poet:

            The skies in their magnificence,

            The lively, lovely air;

            Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!

            The stars did entertain my sense,

            And all the works of God, so bright and pure,

            So rich and great did seem,

            As if they ever must endure

            In my esteem.

This is a lyrical book, written with a sense of humour; his description of sheep shearing made me laugh out loud. He starts in the approved manner, with the sheep sitting down, leaning back against his legs. Having shorn thirty of the sheep he parks the tractor so he is hidden from view, ties the next one to a gate and finishes the job sitting down. “But I can never tell anyone about it because it is so seriously uncool.” Shearing is clearly best left to twenty-something year old New Zealanders. “My back is broken, and the exertion turned me into the portrait in Dorian Grey’s attic.”

Each month the meadow reveals a new delight, a kingfisher in January, with its mythological status as a bird of halcyon days, followed by celandines in April, turning the meadow into a field of stars. As I read the book I marked the passages I particularly liked and when I finished, I went back to read those special passages again. I found I had marked almost half the book. It seemed easiest to simply read it again, which I did, enjoying it as much as the first time, finding even more to learn and enjoy.

The word ‘meadow’ comes from the Old English mœdw, being related to māwan, ‘to mow’. It is not a natural habitat, but one moulded by the hand of man. “At its best, it is also equilibrium, artistry.” Meadows are one of the few areas where man, and his actions, has created something wonderful. In his reflections on a single meadow on a farm in England John Lewis-Stempel has also written a wonderful book, one that is an utter joy to read. Jane

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