Last year I wrote about Bitter Honey by Letitia Clark here. (https://haftonandkelly.com/2020/06/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.
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.
I have compiled two collections of nature poetry and, whilst doing so, I came to realise that many of the very best nature writers never wrote poetry and that many of the most moving descriptions of the natural world appear as prose rather than verse. Equally, writers such as Jane Austen, Thomas de Quincy, Daphne du Maurier and Samuel Johnson may not be best-known for their descriptions of the natural world but write on nature with great insight and feeling.
This anthology dips its toe into fact and fiction, letters and diaries, practical field guides and wild imaginings. Following the seasons, day by day, there are identification notes and musings from bygone times, magical forests and many timely warnings, throughout the ages, of the perils of mistreating nature and taking her riches for granted. Increasingly, it has become evident that humans wield enormous power over the wild places of the earth. There is then the added problem of how best to safeguard nature; Aldo Leopold, writing in 1949 made the point, ‘All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.’ Not all writers even liked the wilderness, Daniel Defoe, while travelling round Britain, went from town to town and deplored the wildness of the Lake District.
Like the Bedside Companion for Gardeners, this is not intended to be a practical manual but I have included entries from field guides where the description is particularly beautiful, interesting or humorous. Anne Pratt, Edward Step and Rev C. A. Johns write so lyrically that their descriptions go far beyond merely useful. Much of the best nature writing allows the imagination to soar and with this in mind I have included the opinions of witches, griffins and a phoenix. Amongst these pieces you will also find bears (grizzly and duffle-coated), cats, dogs and talking ravens. You will discover how to make a cowslip ball, what advice to offer an oak sapling and the way in which many animals become Real.
This is a very personal selection; readers may be surprised to find the novelist Charles Dickens has more entries than the naturalist W. H. Hudson and that the probably lesser-known Aldo Leopold appears more than Gilbert White. These are the books I love and reread: childhood favourites, moving novels and haunting descriptions of nature. In many cases it was hard to limit the number of extracts but the book I found hardest to cut was Jean Giono’s novella The Man Who Planted Trees. Over the years many publishers and readers have taken it to be a true story, and so it should be, a lesson in what one man can achieve in a relatively short space of time. There are many writers who, for reasons of space and copyright, do not have as many entries as I would have liked; my reading life, indeed my life in all respects, would be poorer without the works of John Lewis-Stempel, Robert Macfarlane, H. E. Bates and Roger Deakin. My hope is that the extracts in the collection will lead readers to their and other original works.
The aim of this anthology is to bring the wild world into readers’ homes and cross the frontier line that Richard Jefferies described in 1879. Since then cities have expanded, roads spread and populations grown but the natural world is still there for those who look for it:
There is a frontier line to civilisation yet; and not far outside its great centres we come quickly even now on the borderland of nature.
(From Wild Life in a Southern County by Richard Jefferies)
Nature Writing for ever Day of the Year is published by Batsford on 14th October, £20
The previous post is on Bedside Companion for Gardeners.
I haven’t forgotten about this website but I must admit that the ease of Instagram has tended to supersede the discipline of writing regular posts. Unfortunately, I have been hoisted by my own petard as WordPress has sneakily altered its layout behind my back and I now need to relearn the website skills I’d rather smugly thought I’d mastered.
I have been lucky as I spent two of the three lockdowns researching new anthologies, which will be published this autumn. They follow the same format as the three earlier ones with a piece for every day of the year but these two include prose as well as poetry; the Bedside Companion for Gardeners is a mix of the two whilst Nature Writing for Every Day of the Year is entirely prose. I planned to write about both in one post but I have too much I want to say and two posts will serve as a suitable learning curve for the website.
Of the many anthologies I have compiled, this the gardening companion is definitely the closest to my heart. Much of my adult life has been spent working in gardens, pottering in them or sitting in them, either reading or simply appreciating the outside space. Even when I didn’t have a garden I had window boxes and spent much of my spare time reading about gardens and making plans for when I finally had one of my own. Mirabel Osler wrote in her book A Gentle Plea for Chaos that one doesn’t need to garden to garden. I would take the idea one step further and say that one doesn’t even need a garden to garden: you can visit gardens, peer over walls and round fences, make plans for gardens you might have one day and read about them. The aim of this anthology is to satisfy the last of those activities.
I have deliberately mixed fact and fiction, practical advice and wildly impractical ideas, taking pieces from old gardening manuals, children’s books, Roman diaries and science fiction. My intention was that there would be a balance of the different elements but I hunted down the pieces I liked with no real plan. The result was far too much Dickens, too many pieces about mulberries and cottage garden flowers and vast sections from Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. A few wild flowers have also crept in but most of these would happily grace any garden given the opportunity. I did a little pruning but decided that most pieces should stay. As a result the anthology is a little like a slightly unruly climbing rose, tethered to its framework and following a proscribed outline but every so often shooting off at a wild tangent.
It is not intended to be a practical manual. Each month I have included practical advice from John Evelyn in 1664, Samuel Orchart Beeton (husband of Isabella) from two hundred years later and others from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Some show how little gardening has changed whilst others seem to have been written with another world in mind. There are pieces about gardening on the moon too – by H. G. Wells and Hugh Lofting.
Many of these pieces are set in time, which is why I have given the date the original book was written or first published and the author’s dates. Styles and opinions in both gardening and literature change over the years, often dramatically. The Romans took a practical approach to gardening but, during the unsettled times of the Middle Ages, gardens in literature were frequently used as a backdrop for lovelorn suitors. As life became more settled, gardening became a practical and useful option for more people and manuals began to appear. One of the first, by Thomas Tusser, was written in verse as he felt the working man would understand and remember poetry better than prose. In the late eighteenth century professional designers began to play an important role in the gardens of the rich. William Kent, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and others were loved and hated in equal measure, arousing passionate feelings and prompting novelists such as Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock to poke fun at their ‘improvements’. From then on, everyone had an opinion about everything. Old-fashioned flowers were charming or outdated, fountains esteemed or unwholesome and some grottos fit only for toads. Shrubberies, temples and topiary have all, at various stages, been in or out of fashion. Some writers intend to be amusing, notably Heath Robinson on poets and Karel Čapek on the dangers involved in watering, whilst others have become humorous as time advances and tastes change. I have tried, but not very hard, to be fair to all sides; I dislike most of Capability Brown’s improvements, love all old- fashioned flowers and like the idea of poets wandering round my garden (in return for a modest fee) in search of inspiration.
I strongly believe that sitting quietly, simply enjoying your garden is as important as any horticultural activity. Without a little work: planting, pruning, weeding, etc. there would obviously be no garden (I am not writing for people who have full-time gardeners) but I agree with W. H. Davies that, ‘What is this life, if full of care / We have no time to stand and stare?’ Although I would take it one step further and recommend sitting. My hope is that, as well as keeping this anthology by their bedside, weather permitting, readers escape from everyday life and take it into their garden, onto their doorstep or beside their window and read it with the beauty of a garden close by, even if the garden in question is a single window box or a pot of herbs by the back door.
Not wholly in the busy world, nor quite
Beyond it, blooms the garden that I love.
From The Gardener’s Daughter
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Bedside Companion for Gardeners is published by Batsford on 14th October, £20
Of course this isn’t an accurate birthday but thirteen years ago my book The Tiny Garden came out in paperback and this witch hazel came into the garden. At the time I expected the witch hazel to outgrow its space within a few years but it has behaved with impeccable, if surprising, restraint and grown to exactly fit the space I have for it.
One cold February day I was told by my publishers that Emma Townshend, who wrote for The Independent on Sunday, wanted to come to the house and interview me about the book. Ecstatic, I said ‘Yes, of course, delighted!’ I put the phone down and panicked. She was coming to see my garden . . . . . with a photographer . . . . .in FEBRUARY. I probably shouldn’t admit this but, much as I love my garden, I rarely spend much time in it between November and March other than to plant tulips and prune the roses. The front garden has all the bulbs as that is the part I walk through every day and is also the part I look out onto from my desk. The back garden has nothing. It has ‘structure’ but in February this consists of two sets of tables and chairs, two benches, a summer house and a lot of empty-looking pots. The perennials are all tucked up asleep in the ground and the annuals have yet to be grown. It had been a mild winter so there was still some trailing lobelia, and a few straggly snapdragons but that was about it.
I realised I needed hellebores and perhaps a decent shrub. A newly-bought Christmas box would be too small, Daphne too expensive and, so I thought, witch hazel too large. I made an emergency trip to RHS Wisley to see what they had flowering. Not much else apart from early bulbs. As I wandered round the nursery area I saw a perfect witch hazel, neatly fanned rather than spreading in all directions. It was Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Rubin’ so the scent wouldn’t be great but that didn’t matter as I intended the plant be seen from the kitchen window, forming an airy screen between the main flower bed and the table and chairs beyond. The advice from everyone was that, even in a pot, you shouldn’t try to grow witch hazel in a tiny garden; it would either take over or die.
My ‘Rubin’ has proved everyone wrong. It is now a large fan, providing me with an all-important burst of colour and beauty in late winter, a lovely green screen in summer and another burst of colour in autumn when the leaves turn yellow, orange and russet before they drop, revealing a pretty good structure for the rest of the year.
The hellebore was bought at the same time and, despite its rather indeterminate colour, I’m fond of it. A true survivor, every year it is sat on by tulips in late spring and then smothered by annuals such as cosmos in summer. It lives in a rather unattractive plastic pot which is a useful size but little else to recommend it. I tend to try and hide it in between the front garden fence and the shrubs so the tall flowers are visible but not the pot. A few weeks in February and March are the hellebore’s brief moment of glory.
I reasoned that cake would make up for any deficiencies in the garden so I made my stand-by apple and cinnamon loaf cake. It is easy, delicious and can be eaten at elevenses and tea, or with cream as a pudding. The recipe, along with pear and chocolate and cherry and almond variations, is in my book Orchard, written with Chris, and there are more variations with hazelnut and plum or gooseberry and almond in Nuts: Growing and Cooking and Berries: Growing and Cooking respectively, both written with Sally Hughes. The photo is the pear and chocolate variation which is possibly my favourite variation but it needs pears at exactly the correct moment of ripeness – juicy but still firm.
Luckily Emma and Teena Taylor, the photographer, both liked cake and, to my relief, saw the charms of the garden. You can read the article and see the baby witch hazel here.
I would obviously love you to buy any or even all of my books. But from a real bookshop please, once they’ve been swallowed up by the faceless online giant you might miss them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.