Ireland Reads Day: Squeezing in a read (or two)

Today’s Landing Tales post is written in support of the #Ireland Reads day, so I want to talk a little about my memories of my early reading life (once upon a time in Birmingham) going back to where it all started, with a quick delve into the Landing Book Shelves. I hope to give you a little insight into what started me off on a lifetime love of books and reading. And of course, today I will certainly be squeezing in a read. Though in fairness, it’s more a case of trying to stop me squeezing in a loooong read…

My relationship with books goes back a long way. Like many people, I can trace that love back to all those old familiar nursery rhymes and songs, many of which will never be forgotten. Then it’s a short step onto children’s poems such as those of AA Milne, whose ‘The King’s Breakfast’ was one of my early favourites. Nowadays, just like the poor old king, ‘I do like a little bit of butter to my bread’ in the mornings! Although, I am also of the view that ‘marmalade is tasty, if it’s very thickly spread’, so I’m at one with the Dairymaid on that issue.

Now, as Paddington Bear afficionados know well, he is also a confirmed marmalade fan, usually keeping a spare marmalade sandwich under his hat for emergencies. Apparently, it’s a well-known fact that bears who come from Darkest Peru like marmalade,

“Where was it you said you’d come from? Peru?”
“That’s right,” said Paddington. “Darkest Peru.”
“Humph!” Mrs. Bird looked thoughtful for a moment. “Then I expect you like marmalade. I’d better get some more from the grocer.”
“There you are! What did I tell you?” cried Judy, as the door shut behind Mrs. Bird. “She does like you.”
“Fancy her knowing I like marmalade,” said Paddington.

If I were to attempt to compile a top ten childhood favourites list, then Paddington may well be at the top. Not least because, as an adult of (ahem, mature) years I can still sit down and chuckle over one of his adventures, which really do stand the test of time. Take a bow, Michael Bond.

I think that I have probably mentioned on here before, The Treasury of Children’s Classics collection that I had as a child, which still survives, albeit in a very battered state, with the cover selotaped together. It contains a mixture of extracts from classic tales and several poems. It was my first introduction to the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Dickens, Shakespeare (via Lamb’s Tales) the Arabian Nights and Susan Coolidge, to name but a few.

book cover with Aladdin, Pinoccio, Don Quixote
A childhood favourite

But it was the verses that initially drew me into the book, when I was too young to appreciate extracts from Robinson Crusoe and the like. I enjoyed the humorous poems best, such as John Drinkwater’s ‘Washing’, which I am sure struck a chord with many a child. Here’s an extract:

What is all this washing about,
Every day, week in, week out?
From getting up till going to bed,
I’m tired of hearing the same thing said.
Whether I’m dirty or whether I’m not,
Whether the water is cold or hot,
Whether I like or whether I don’t,
Whether I will or whether I won’t.-
“Have you washed your hands, and washed your face?”
I seem to live in the washing place.

Of course, this poem seems particularly innocent and old-fashioned in our Covid era of required hand washing, when handwashing doesn’t just relate to a grubby child in from playing in the garden, who can’t see why a bit of dirt would hurt a jam sandwich.  Or in Paddington’s case it would be sticky paws from eating directly from the marmalade jar.

The themes of washing and general cleanliness link to my final choice for this post (though believe me, I could go on but I have to stop somewhere), which is The Family from One End Street written and illustrated by Eve Garnett (1937).  The family is the Ruggles family, father Joe is a dustman and his wife Rosie takes in laundry:

Mrs Ruggles was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. “Very suitable too,” she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.

Mrs Ruggles has a sign outside their little terraced house proclaiming, ‘The Ideal Laundry. Careful Hand Work’ and the house is often full of clothes, steam and folded laundry. Joe and Rosie have seven children, the youngest still a baby so life is busy and full of activity and comic adventures. If you know Alan Ahlberg’s picture book Peepo!, then you would recognise these books as sharing the same working class world of the 1930s and 40s. Clothes drying by the fire, kids playing in the yard and the mother in her pinny doing the chores. Though in Mrs Ruggles’ case, working as we would now term it ‘from home’ as well as doing the family tasks. These stories could be sentimental, dealing as they do with a poor family whose children seem to be constantly taking boots to be repaired, yet who have a happy life. Yet, they aren’t at all saccharine sweet, merely very funny and thoughtful. And Eve Garnett’s black and white sketches speak volumes.

I’ll wrap it up for now, but I’d love to hear about your favourite childhood reads or what you’re reading for #IrelandReads, so drop me a line below if you’d like to do so. Now, I will just go and #SqueezeInARead!

Armchair Travelling: The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee

This book was a Christmas present from The Bookworm, so it hasn’t been on the Landing Book Shelves for long. In fact, it is more of a bedside table guest, before taking up its final place as a bona fide Landing resident. I had never before heard of the author and illustrator Chiang Yee (1903-77), or his nom de plume The Silent Traveller, so it was a new discovery as well as a lovely Edinburgh souvenir. The colour plates of the watercolour views of Edinburgh are of very good quality, beautifully reproduced and certainly make me long to visit the city again.

My copy of the The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh, according to a pencilled note inside the cover is a first edition (1948) with no name of any previous owner inscribed. It is without dust jacket, pale yellow cloth bound, in very nice condition, though my photograph probably doesn’t do it justice. I will just digress here to mention that I recently read Martin Latham’s The Bookseller’s Tale, which has a chapter called ‘Signs of Use’. Here, he talks about the various ways in which readers down the centuries have engaged with texts, writing in notes and comments. One thing I always look for in a second -hand book is the name of a previous owner or a dedication from the giver, perhaps; however, not in this case.

The first Silent Traveller book was published in 1936, when Chiang Yee brought out his book on the Lakelands, followed by London in 1938 and several more in the following years. The ‘Silent Traveller’ image was his own styling. He comments in his engaging ‘Unnecessary Introduction’ that, ‘It is perfectly natural to be silent when travelling alone’. But he went on to explain that the name originated with his Chinese pen name Ya-Hsin-Chê, which means Dumb-Walking-Man. He said that he chose this name for himself after spending several years as a civil servant and politician, which involved ‘talking night and day for five years or so’. However, I was amused to note that The Silent Traveller also mentions a Birmingham editor who once called him the ‘The Not-Too-Silent-Traveller’ so he obviously wasn’t averse to a chat at times.

  • The title page of The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh showing a painting of the Scott Monument
  • Pale yellow cloth hardback cover of The Silent Traveller
  • Painting of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh
  • Painting of St Anthony's Chapel & St Margaret's Loch
  • Painting of Lady Stair's House, Edinburgh
  • Painting of Edinburgh Castle

The author was an artist, poet, writer and calligrapher from a city called Juijiang (written Kiukiang at the time) on the banks of the Yangtze in Jiangxi province. By the time that his Edinburgh book was published, he had lived in Britain for several years, having left China to study in London in 1933. This book is based on a few visits Chiang Yee made to Edinburgh, the first being in 1937, then 1943 and 1944.

The Silent Traveller records his walks around the city, describing his impressions of parks, monuments and buildings. He delights in the effect of the weather and different lights on Edinburgh’s notable features with an artist’s sensibility. One thing that features very frequently in his walks is (perhaps not surprisingly) the rain. It seems that The Silent Traveller must have frequently been ‘The Wet Traveller’, but that never diminished his enthusiasm or curiosity for Edinburgh’s beauty or its history. At one point he remarks that, ‘My affection for rain increases each time I behold a familiar scene take on a new and enchanting aspect through a veil of rain’.

Alongside describing visits to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Botanic Gardens and so on, Chiang Yee discusses art, literature, philosophy and poetry from China and the West. He quotes verses from Chinese poets and includes a few short pieces of his own, inspired by a particular location. He also talks about the differences and similarities between Western and Chinese art; of materials, techinique and perspective. As he points out, ‘It [watercolour] is a point in common between our two countries’ going on to say that ‘Art is an international language which, unlike a spoken language can be understood by all peoples’.

Chiang Yee’s black and white sketches and his watercolour paintings of Edinburgh illustrate the larger tourist sites and beauty spots; also, odd corners and small incidents that he recalls. I look forward to being able to take it with me on a walk around the city and compare his views of the city with present day Edinburgh. And I definitely plan to track down a couple more volumes in this series, particularly his Dublin book. Chiang Yee also wrote several other books including children’s books and works on calligraphy and art. A biography came out in 2010, written by Da Zheng: The Silent Traveller from the East-A Cultural Biography (Rutgers University Press). I was delighted to discover that Chiang Yee has had the honour of a Blue Plaque on his former home in Oxford, where he lived from 1940-55. Something to look out for on a future visit.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has come across The Silent Traveller series, if so do drop me a line.

Recipes: from an Old Farmhouse by Alison Uttley

Cover of Recipes from an Old Farmhouse

An evocative image

I wanted to follow up on the last Landing post on foraging-related books with another foody feature. This book is part memoir of a Derbyshire country childhood and part recipe book by children’s writer Alison Uttley (1884-1976), who was best known for her Little Grey Rabbit series and also the Sam Pig books. The recipe book was first published by Faber and Faber in 1966 and I recently treated myself to the copy shown here, which is in very nice condition. Something to cheer me up during the spring Lockdown! It is a beautiful little hard back book decorated with black and white sketches by Pauline Baynes. The drawings complement the text beautifully. Recipes has been reprinted more recently, but I opted for a copy of the original edition and wasn’t disappointed.

Alison Uttley gives us recipes that her mother used in the farmhouse kitchen, including recipes given by friends and neighbours. These were named for the donor, for example ‘Mrs Lowe’s Parkin’. The book is divided into sections with anecdotes, reminiscences and recipes. If you wanted to try out any of the items, you would need to scale down and adapt the recipes as Uttley gives the quantities and methods as they would have been used by her mother at the end of the nineteenth century in the farmhouse oven. So, you would need to figure out the oven settings and alter the timings accordingly. The recipes aren’t laid out as recipes as we would find them in a cookery book nowadays, but they are easy enough to follow. I’m planning to try one or two of the cakes or puddings in smaller quantities.

I have found overlaps with my foraging post as in a few of the recipes given, Alison Uttley talks about foraged ingredients gathered by the family. I was particularly taken with her account of the annual cowslip gathering expedition with her mother. They took a clothes basket out with them to fill with blossoms. She describes it beautifully here,

Black and white illustration of the author's mother and the maid picking cowslips, with the children in the background

Picking cowslips

One morning in April my mother would announce that we would pick cowslips for cowslip wine. We would set off after breakfast, the servant girl, my brother, my mother and I, with a clothes-basket, and several smaller baskets. It was exciting to run down the first big field, deep down to the gate that led to the cowslip field. By the gate we left the clothes-basket, and we each took another basket and began to gather the flowers.

It sounds idyllic but it was also hard work for all of them, Uttley describing herself as ‘dazed with stooping to the ground’ after a few hours of picking. It sounds as though the children were allowed to go off and play though, while her mother and the maid carried on for the whole day. But of course, the work didn’t stop there. What Uttley refers to as ‘peeping’ was the next task: removing the flowers from the stalks and calyces. That task must have been mind-numbingly tedious as well as an instigator of repetitive strain syndrome. I find it bad enough picking stalks off fruit for a modest sized batch of jam, so I’m not sure how I would have coped with that mammoth preparation session.

Black and white title page illustration for the chapter on beverages, showing entwined branches with culinary equipment hanging off them.

Chapter title page

I’d actually love to be able to try making a small batch of cowslip wine, but cowslips are quite rare now in Britain and also in Ireland according to Zoe Devlin’s website, wildflowersofireland.net. However, she does go on to point out that the plant has made a comeback in Ireland in recent years, so perhaps it will continue to spread.  In his foraging guide Food for Free, Richard Mabey suggests that the huge quantities of petals used in making ‘one of the very best country wines’ has probably contributed to the flower’s scarcity in Britain. He comments on the ‘devastation that some of these recipes must have wreaked on flower populations’. Thankfully now, you can buy cowslip seeds as well as other wildflower seeds to grow in your own garden and even up the balance a little. I somehow doubt that I will be able to grow enough flowers to make wine, though cowslip growing is to be one of my projects for next year (I have the seeds ready!) As far as beverages are concerned, I think I will have to stick to making elderflower cordial, the only problem there being that the best blooms always grow too high to reach!

I hope to return to the book for another Landing post, when I have had a go at some of the recipes. Meanwhile, I will decide where to go for August’s Landing Tales post when I have scoured the book shelves again!

Are there any Alison Uttley fans out there? Does anyone remember her Traveller in Time, televised by the BBC in 1978? I loved the series then, but wonder how it would stand up now.

(Pauline Baynes illustrations scanned from my copy of Recipes) 

 

Two ‘Wild Food’ books: Food for Free and Wild and Free

Before we go any further I would just like to say that it’s a moot point whether these books a) really count as Landing Tales reads as they don’t live in that shelf region and b) would really be a better fit into our retired craft and garden blog Curiously Creatively. I say moot point, because whatever the arguments either way, these foraging books are what I have decided to feature in today’s blog post. And anyway, as you all already know, I can be somewhat flexible as to what constitutes a bona fide Landing Book Shelves title. As to the subject matter, I refer you to the Landing Excursions category and to the occasional garden or cookery feature that creeps in here. So that’s that out of the way then…

Front over of the 1992 edition of Food for Free showing a variety of plants.

Food for Free, 1992

Food for Free by Richard Mabey (Harper Collins 1972, 1992) was given to me about a year ago and is a former library book, so it had already performed much service by the time it passed into my hands. I think there has been a more recent reprint, which I may try to buy. Wild and Free by Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín, (O’Brien Press 1978; Wolf Hill Publishing 2013) actually belongs to The Bookworm, though I confess that I have rather commandeered it lately. This is what happens when you buy people books that you really want for yourself! Both books were originally published around the same period, looking at British and Irish wild food respectively. There is of course much overlap between the two books as far as flora and the uses to which they were/are put. Each book has its own approach, Food for Free being more of a field or gatherers guide to edible plants. It gives notes on habitat, season and details on how many of the plants have been used in the past, sometimes with basic cooking instructions. For some plants, the text merely notes that the plant is edible (eg the White and Red varieties of Dead-Nettle) without any further detail. In contrast, Wild and Free presents a collection of methods for a range of dishes, cordials, wines, jellies etc based on a seasonal foraging calendar and tried and tested family recipes. The Ó Céiríns write in detail of about twenty-four sources of food, giving plenty of instructions for making such tasty items as elderberry syrup, nettle soup, crab apple wine and a whole host of blackberry treats. There also seems to be a lot of beer and wine recipes!

As the Bookworm and I have a penchant for foraging, they are both handy books to dip into now and again as we like to extend our foraged food range now and again. Up until this year, I’d say that we have arrived at a fairly regular pattern of free range goods, focussing mainly on berries. Usually we end up with a good supply of blackberries, haws, rosehips, rowan berries and elderberries in the freezer for jelly making. We have used various recipes for preserves, but most frequently the Thane Prince book mentioned over on Curiously Creatively. The exception to all of the berry harvest is elderflowers, which we have picked for a lovely refreshing cordial in the last few summers (one batch already made so far this year, we hope to do another). Wild and Free gives a recipe for Elderflower pancakes that I would like to try for a change – I imagine they’d be great for a weekend breakfast.

Cover of Wild and Free showing blackberry jam & fresh berries.

Wild and Free, 2013

But in this particularly strange spring and summer, with the help of our two foraging guides, we have branched out slightly and explored some new foraged food. For quite a while we have been thinking of turning towards having a go at collecting some young ‘greens’ from the wild plants on offer to see if we could make a meal out of wild vegetables. As Richard Mabey points out, ‘It is easy to forget, as one stands before the modern supermarket shelf, that every single one of the world’s vegetable foods was once a wild plant’. This is obvious if you think about it, though as The Bookworm pointed out, you can quite see why nobody ever thought that cultivating and selling nettles was a great idea. Though maybe, a cultivated nettle would have no sting?

As you might have guessed, nettles were one of our target greens, having been meaning to make nettle soup for years. Funnily enough, we were rather wary about the idea of picking something so stingy to eat! Tip: stout gloves are required. It is also worth poiting out that venturing near a nettle patch with ripped jeans means that you get your knees stung at the very least. In the end, our foraging and cooking went very well thanks to the handy recipe in the Ó Céirín book. In the chapter on nettles, the authors retell a story about St Columcille and his Lenten instructions that his soup of nettles, water and salt should have nothing else ‘except what comes out of the pot stick’. The enterprising cook apparently hollowed out the pot stick and poured milk and oats into the broth. A much more substantial meal. Inspired by a note in Mabey’s book, we have also tried Goosegrass or Sticky Weed, which he tells us was recommended in spring soups and puddings by the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706). We did ours in a pasta dish, which seems to be a much more twenty-first century twist on things.

Moving on to something that we still haven’t tried yet, I was tentatively considering looking for mushrooms and fungus. Mabey’s book has a section on fungus, which I found fascinating reading. I would love to try foraging for edible fungus, but I am aware that I need to do much more research first. At some point I hope to attend a workshop as a starting point, though I’m not sure if I will ever feel confident enough to try it for myself. In the meantime, I am happy to try to merely spot a few examples. The authors of Wild and Free describe a lovely foraging session, when they once gathered bags full of field mushrooms on a walk, which sounded fantastic. Sadly, we don’t live within easy reach of green fields, despite our lifting of distance restrictions now. That’s one for the future. Meanwhile, I will settle for our usual delicious berry harvesting.

I would love to hear from anyone who forages or who has any good book recommendations to pass on to us.

School Adventure: Dimsie Among the Prefects

Cover of Dimsie Among the Prefects; faded green cloth with a letter D as decoration

Dimsie

For this post, I have lighted on a book that pre-dates the Landing Bookshelves by many years as it is one that my mother had as a child. You might recall that I have previously included one of her old books, A Coach for Fanny Burney so I thought that I would dig out one or two more titles as Landing browsing from time to time. Dimsie Among the Prefects by Dorita Fairlie Bruce (1885-1970) is part of a series set at the fictitious Jane Willard school, which begins with Dimsie goes to School published in 1921 (original title: The Senior Prefect). Among the Prefects was published in 1923, though my mother’s green cloth bound hard back edition is an Oxford University Press reprint from 1940. I assume that it must have had a dust jacket at one time but I’m not sure; I certainly don’t remember it ever having one.

The edition is by this stage rather elderly and battered, as you can see from my scans, so it wouldn’t fetch the price that some of the higher quality copies can command. I was surprised to discover that the earlier Dimsie editions can be quite pricey (a 1923 edition of Among the Prefects for £88, without a dust jacket), however ABE also had a 1940 edition in good condition for £9 For instance, which isn’t too bad. I am tempted to order the first in the series as I’ve never come across a copy in my second hand bookshop moochings.

When I was younger, I had a somewhat lukewarm relationship with boarding school stories. I wasn’t a devoted fan by any means, yet I was drawn back to them every now and then. I dipped in and out of various series over the years; the idea of boarding schools had a fascination for me. I suppose this was because it was something that I knew nothing of in real life; for me boarding schools were just places to be found in stories, much like secret gardens and mysterious islands. Maybe it was just that as one of four siblings, I liked the idea of going off by myself somewhere. I also enjoyed adventure stories and school stories often involved adventures of some sort. I loved the boarding school part of the Katy series, when Katy and her younger sister Clover go away to school (What Katie did at School). It seemed a terribly grown-up thing for them to be doing.

I first read Among the Prefects more years ago than I care to remember and I haven’t really looked at it since then, despite seeing it on the shelf every time I visit my mother. I was trying to re-capture the pictures in my mind from that first-time round, but it’s a bit like trying to recall memories of the first time you visited a certain location or to recapture a dream. The impression is there perhaps but the detail remains tantalisingly out of reach. I remember liking the camaraderie between Dimsie and her friends. I must have been quite young when I read the story as I have retained the impression of the girls being terribly grown up and sophisticated. Of course, I also liked the tuck boxes and teas in the study aspect of boarding school life (not realising that this was a privilege only for the older girls) and not for the grubby lower school!

Decorative title pages of my edition of Dimsie Among the Prefects.

Title page



Dimsie

This story then is a further instalment of the adventures of a now seventeen-year-old Dimsie Maitland and her friends, who have all been members of a society called the Anti-Soppists since their Lower School days. This was explained as, ‘a league for the suppression of anything and everything that they considered to be “soppy”. Many and varied were the things that came under their ban’. One of the banned things was writing poetry, particularly morbid verse. In this episode the members of the league are shocked to discover that one of their number, Jean Gordon has been furtively penning poetry. As her accuser points out, ‘I counted a dozen poems, and in every one of them somebody is dead! And she has the cheek to think she can go on being an Anti-Soppist after this!’

At the start of the book, Dimsie is appointed to be one of the six school prefects. She is a very popular and admired figure amongst the younger girls and is trusted and valued by the headmistress Miss Yorke. I don’t think it’s really plot spoiling to say that Dimsie is well on her way to being Head Girl in a later instalment. For anyone interested in the series titles in order, there is a Wikipedia page on Dorita Fairlie Bruce, but the reference given to an author page is sadly now defunct. I have searched for an author society or a fan page but no avail. If anyone knows of one, I would be interested to hear about it.

In this episode, the main strand of the story concerns Dimsie’s mentoring of new girl Hilary Garth (niece of Dimsie’s friend Rosamund), who is a devotee of school stories and thinks that life will be just as it is in books. She arrives at school under the firm impression that school will be just the place to have lots of adventures. Also culled from books are Hilary’s ideas about school meals. She is amazed that the girls have jam for tea, rather than just illegally at midnight feasts. As one of her new schoolmates points out, ’Those books you’ve been reading are all wrong…Perhaps you haven’t noticed that plate of buns lower down? And twice a week we have cake – fruit always.’ A useful lesson indeed for all of us school story afficionados. Dimsie undertakes to keep an eye on Hilary, which proves to be no mean task as the new girl is determined to extract her quota of adventure from her new school. Naturally, this all leads to a dramatic crisis towards the close of the book, at which time moral lessons are learned, bonds forged and even the despised poetry (though a more uplifting variety!) finds a role.

Anyway, it’s probably now about time that I had a re-read! Are there any Dimsie fans out there? Drop me a line in the comments if so.

Frankly Feminine: A Little Worldly Advice from the 60s

Cover of Frankly Feminine, spine facing

Frankly Feminine, 1965

Frankly Feminine: A book of comprehensive information and advice for the woman of today was edited by Eileen McCarthy, published by The Grolier Society Limited, London, 1965. However, despite the publishing date, much of its content seems to me to hark back to the 1950s rather than the Swinging Sixties, with its emphasis on the hearth and home.

I have had this hefty lifestyle tome for several years, a birthday gift from He Who Put The Shelves Up. True to my usual form, I haven’t ever sat down and read it from cover to cover, though the Bookworm has virtually done so in my stead. She can quote bits of advice on various bits of social etiquette with complete confidence (which can be rather disconcerting at times!)

The Editor’s begins, ‘For today’s woman the world is limitless. She can come and go about the continents and the oceans; soon, if the fancy takes her, she may be exploring space, and setting up home on a satellite.’ However, McCarthy goes on to write, ‘but we shall always have the trick of finding our greatest contentment within a small and homely circle.’ Apparently ‘today’s complete woman – who sees the stars around her and finds her happiness still in her home, with her family, and friends’ is for whom this book is written.

So, all of that sets up a contradiction straight away; modern woman can do all sorts of things, but her place is still really in the home, especially if she wants to be ‘complete’. Even if she does make it into space, she will still want to be a homemaker on Mars. Oh, not forgetting that she will still have to maintain her figure to get the husband to put into said home in the first place.

A glance at the book’s contents reveals that Frankly Feminine tackles everything from beauty to gardening and room design to house insurance, as well as wedding, maternity, childcare and family life. The book also offers a crash course in cookery, covering baking, cuts of meat, types of fish and cooking for Christmas and other events. You could even learn basic plumbing and carpentry techniques from this handy volume. As the book chidingly points out, ‘Handywomen sometimes fall down on jobs because their toolbox is poorly stocked.’ The book is full of useful household management-type practical tips (handy in a pre-internet era). How about the removal of stains for instance? Frankly Feminine gives a comprehensive list of likely fabric stains and their removal. You could probably find an answer to almost any household problem. And, in these days of soul-searching about how much impact we have on the environment, perhaps some of the domestic advice could come in useful again. Anyone up for making some homemade cleaning products?

Frankly Feminine seemed to have its eye firmly on the better class of woman (complete or otherwise), giving advice on what household linen to buy and what cutlery will be required when setting up home for the first time (fish knives and soup spoons definitely, though you could apparently buy mustard and salt spoons later). And there are hints about keeping your silver cutlery in good condition. There was plenty of detail about dinner service buying and discussion about different sorts of glassware (Scandinavian, Venetian, French etc) including what sorts of glasses are for serving which wine. There was a clear expectation that the readers of this volume would be hosting dinner parties.

The fashion and beauty advice do take priority though, with careers, interview advice and driving tips trailing behind in the pecking order. There is much emphasis on having and keeping a good figure to the extent of having a ‘Plump-up routine’ for women who would like to gain or re-gain curves. Plenty of advice here for looking after face, hair, hands and neck too, though there is not a single non-white woman to be seen in the book and a definite fondness for featuring pretty, slim blondes in the Grace Kelly line. I was fascinated to read the section about foundation garments. I have somehow never associated girdles with this era. But here you can find instruction on the buying and wearing of appropriate underwear. Apparently, it was most important to get, ‘exactly the right garments that are going to pull you in, smooth you out, or prop you up in the right places.’ Sounds like a major task indeed. But never fear, it was a ‘matter of joint operations’ between a woman and her trusty fitter to ensure that the girdle producing the ‘slickest job’ for her ‘particular anatomy’ would be purchased. Phew, that’s alright then.

Much of the personal relationship advice (with men, family, friends) given in the book sounds so jarring to a 21st century ear, as Irish Times journalist Rosita Boland discovered in 2014 when she and some friends reviewed that section. Frankly Feminine encouraged women to see men not as friends but as potential husband material. The opinion of Boland’s readers was not generally favourable to the tenor of much of the advice given. That’s not surprising when you read, under the sub-heading ‘Giving in’:

There is no real equality between the sexes, and those who think otherwise are merely deluding themselves. Women have freedom, opportunity – but this doesn’t put us on the same footing as men. Fortunately, we aren’t natural world-shakers. We know that success doesn’t put its arms round us when we’re tired and can’t sleep at night. So, if we’re wise, we know when and how to give in gracefully. The benefits it brings are well worth while.

The book has a depressing attitude to what a woman might expect from a relationship with a man. Frankly Feminine encourages women to think of men as large overgrown children who can’t really be expected to be relied upon. It says that women should allow for men’s ‘superiority complex’ and that fact that ‘Most men have very little sense of humour about themselves’. Hmm, not very promising. However, some of FF’s advice can be sensible such as pointing out that we can’t expect happiness to come from without (‘like manna from heaven’), it has to come from within ourselves. Also, ‘Never make the mistake of thinking that life would be marvellous if you were doing something different’. Or, as I remember from my childhood, the grass is always greener attitude. Quite a wise observation. As Veronica, one of the readers in Boland’s article pointed out, some of the relationship advice is, ‘like modern positive psychology. All that is beautiful: how to be happy with life’. There are useful and sensible pieces of life advice here, about being confident and independent, but the man/woman advice in particular seems very dated.

As a piece of social and cultural history, Frankly Feminine is very instructive. This is a fascinating book for dipping into, but probably of more use now for the practical angle than the relationship advice. Having said that, some advice would now be out of date, such as the advice that sun-tanned skin was a good thing to have. Of course, much of the social etiquette would now be behind the times, but perhaps the advice on being a good guest still holds true! And the correct way to eat artichokes might come in useful (but not on a first date perhaps) as well as how to mix cocktails.

Maybe FF could form the basis of a reality television show, where women get to try out life as it was once lived? Just a thought…

The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Benefactress front cover showing gilded title & decoration

The Benefactress

I have been searching around on The Landing to find ideas for a new series of blog posts. Obviously, at this stage my projected spring Renaissance has turned into a pre-Christmas Renaissance. So here goes…

As I was scouring the shelves, I once again realised that we have a nice selection of older books, quirky titles and interesting finds. Some of these are books for dipping into merely, others for a straightforward read. In the latter category I have picked out a book that I acquired many years ago and I am ashamed to say, that I have not got around to reading before now. This is a lovely 1911 pocket-sized edition of The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim.

For the sake of the honour of The Landing I decided that it was about time to remedy the omission and read The Benefactress. The snag with reading something so old (and to me rather precious) is that I felt that I dare not just shove it in my bag to read at lunchtime. And as for my fondness for reading in the bath…well some things are just not very wise. Not that I have actually yet dropped a book in the bath (maybe dipped the odd corner here and there) but there’s always a first time. Reading an older book does give a different quality of experience, due to the touch and feel of the book. I’ll just say a few words about this edition before telling a little about The Benefactress for those of you who don’t know the story.

This little book goes back to my Birmingham days, so I’ve had it for well over twenty years, but sadly I can’t remember what book fair or shop this volume came from. Its cover is very similar to that of a poetry chapbook that I have mentioned in a previous post, a sort of suede like texture but I don’t think it is actually leather. Maybe someday I will take it to an expert who will be able to tell me something about the material and how best to care for it (I may have mentioned before that dusting is not my strong suit). I love the elegant gilt swirl of the cover design, which is echoed on the end papers. Unfortunately, the ribbon marker has seen better days, but I still keep it out of a sense of completeness. The page edges have browned with age and there is gilt on the top edges but not the others. I don’t think it’s rubbed off; rather it looks as if they were never gilded in the first place. Judging from the publishing details this edition was published by MacMillan as part of its 7d series (1911), with the first edition being 1901.

But now to the story: The lovely and charming Anna Lestcourt is twenty-five when the story opens and should be full of all of the optimism of youth. However, Anna is financially dependent upon her rich sister-in-law (wife to her brother Sir Peter), a former Miss Susie Dobbs of Birmingham. As was not unusual at the time, there was a trading of new money for an ancient name and family home. All of this leaves Anna on Susie’s hands to marry off successfully, but so far to no avail. Anna remains resolutely unmarried, but not for the want of trying on Susie’s part. Anna’s fortunes take a turn for the better when her late mother’s brother comes on a visit from Germany and takes a liking to his niece. Subsequently he bequeaths her one of his estates, along with its income, which he hopes will secure her a good German husband.  Anna, however has other ideas, not being much sold on the good German husband idea. She forms the plan of opening up her new abode to several distressed gentlewomen, (who would live at her expense) much to Susie’s bafflement. Once in Germany, Anna makes the acquaintance of her new overseer, the local pastor and her nearest neighbour, Axel Lohm, with mixed results. Perhaps not surprisingly, the plan to fulfil the role of a benefactress does not go entirely according to plan, but I won’t plot spoil. Suffice to say that human nature will out. I will leave you to discover whether or not the marriage to a GGH comes to pass.

As I was reading the first part of the book, I found myself developing a certain sympathy for Anna’s sister-in-law Susie. Now this may have been a case of Brummie lasses sticking together, but I felt aggrieved on her behalf as Von Arnim portrayed her in a definitely unflattering light:

And the Dobbses were one and all singularly unattractive—a race of eager, restless, wiry little men and women, anxious to get as much as they could, and keep it as long as they could, a family succeeding in gathering a good deal of money together in one place, and failing entirely in the art of making friends.

Clearly, one could not come from the mercantile classes in Birmingham and be in any way cultured, socially adept or indeed philosophical (her husband was a philosopher). At the same time of course, her money came in very useful to save the aristocratic Lestcourt family from penury and to restore the family pile. Naturally too, Anna deplored Susie’s vulgar taste in furnishings. Thankfully Von Arnim did give Susie the occasional good line, “Really,” added Susie, twitching her shoulder, “you might remember that it isn’t all roses for me either, trying to get someone else’s daughter married.”

And she has a point; who would want to be trying to marry off a sister-in-law who doesn’t even want to be co-operative. It must have been particularly galling for Susie, since it was Anna who had all of the social cachet that she lacked.

Anna Lestcourt is however a far from heartless girl, who does come to understand that Susie’s position is not a happy one, seeing as she does that, ‘No one cared for her in the very least. She had hundreds of acquaintances, who would eat her dinners and go away and poke fun at her, but not a single friend.’ Yet at the same time, Anna resents been required to do the one thing that that might bring some cheer into Susie’s lonely life. Poor Susie would have loved a wedding to plan for and access to all of those elite hostesses who have so far snubbed her efforts.Front cover & spine showing gilded title & decoration

In The Benefactress, Von Arnim has given us a fascinating mix of characters with decidedly mixed moral standards, from whom Anna learns much in the course of her social experiment. It’s a long time since I read any von Arnim books, the most recent being The Solitary Summer, read a couple of years ago and this is a very different read. I did enjoy the story, possibly enhanced by the delights of finally reading my delightful little edition (despite my misgivings about Von Armin’s rather cruel characterisation of Brummie Susie) and I will no doubt read it again in about twenty years.

I’m not going to promise another blog post soon, though I will try to get back on track. But in the meantime, happy reading!

Picture credits: Chris Mills

 

 

 

 

A Landing New Beginning…

Section of non-fiction bookshelf

A few more to read…

As I am sure I don’t need to point out, it’s been a while since I visited the Landing Bookshelves, so things are a little dusty around here at the moment. The spiders and their cobwebs have certainly taken over here. I have recently found myself at home with time on my hands during the last couple of months so it seemed a good idea to spend some of this time rummaging around in the Landing domain. However I am forced to admit that I have so far avoided doing any cleaning while I browsed. In so doing, I have re-discovered a few treasures tucked away (needless to say, rather dusty ones) and a many still un-read tomes. Plenty of food for thought.

During my enforced stay within the confines of the Landing, I have become convinced that if somebody confiscated my library card (OK, both of them) and my debit card then I would still have plenty to read for a very long time to come. Now, this profound realisation takes me back several years and to the very raison d’être of the Landing blog in the first place. I set myself the task of reading around the bookshelves situated on our landing in 2012 and clearly I haven’t finished yet. Hmm, I wonder why that could be. I must stop buying and borrowing books if I’m EVER to finish this project… Part of the fiction bookshelf

You’ve probably guessed by now however, that although there are indeed (three) bookshelves on the landing itself, the strict definition of the ‘Landing Bookshelves’ has become somewhat of an elastic concept. I have dipped into bookshelves all over the house and most recently have been ferreting in the Bookworm’s shelves while she is away. I also occasionally trawl through books belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up (Am I the only person who buys gifts of books that I would like to read myself? Surely not).

As I have mentioned above, I have strayed somewhat from my original reading plan and I have incorporated library finds, purchases, review copies etc into my Landing blog, which while it dilutes the TBR content, doesn’t (I hope) detract from the range of literary topics covered. I have also really enjoyed having a few writers along to the blog to give a guest post or to answer a few questions on their latest book. The first of these was Andres Neuman, all the way back in 2012. Perhaps an author post is an idea to revisit in the future.

What I am trying to get around to saying here, is that I have really enjoyed writing this blog, despite the fact that my original bookish intentions have gone off the rails at times. Now, after a gap of a year I would like to get this blog back on the road. I hope to get back into a reasonably regular pattern of blogging before the year is too much older. I’m not promising to avoid library reads but I will delve a little more deeply into the extended Landing Bookshelves. I plan to work out a theme for a mini-series of monthly posts and get the old fingers tripping over the keyboard more regularly this year. I have decided that having kept the Landing Bookshelves going since 2012, it was a shame to give up on it without giving it another go.

More soon, but meanwhile if anyone would like to drop me a line to let me know if you have a favourite blog item, please feel free to do so!

 

 

This is Not Your Final Form: Emma Press

Cover of This is Not Your Final Form For this post I am having a change of direction and featuring a poetry book as I have not done so for a quite a while (sadly remiss of me). The collection This is Not Your Final Form (edited by Richard O’Brien and Emma Wright) is comprised of entrants and winners from the Birmingham based 2017 Verve Festival Poetry Competition. This book isn’t a long term TBR item as it only took up residence on my bedside table a few months ago and I did start reading it straightaway. I was browsing on the Emma Press website and as a Brummagem lass now based in Dublin, this collection was too tempting to pass up, so dear reader, I bought a copy. The back-cover blurb says this is ‘a tough, unsentimental love letter to the Midlands metropolis, which finds beauty in concrete and unity in contradiction’. And there is certainly a lot of concrete in Birmingham to inspire conflicting emotions, especially as Birmingham never seems to achieve its ‘final form’. I suspect it never will.

Canals and stories

There are so many poems that I like in this anthology, that it is difficult to know what to feature in a short article such as this. I am simply going to pull out a few themes from the collection that particularly resonated with me, starting with that old saying about Birmingham having more canals than Venice. I think that one cropped up in three poems altogether. Here’s an extract from ‘Birmingham – some advice’ by Rob Walton which amused me, as it suggested that we should change the saying to better attract tourists to Birmingham:

Seems you have ‘more canals than Venice’,
but surely ‘more canals than roads’ would be more impressive.
And wetter. Which could lead to more souvenir towel sales.
I got soaked in Birmingham! How about you?

I like the sound of the idea, but would it work I wonder? Let’s have your tea towel designs on a postcard please! Kibriya Mehrban’s poem takes as its title ‘More Canals than Venice’ and links the man-made waterways of Birmingham with rivers, tears and the currents that brought her family to Birmingham from Kashmir:

We were washed into this world,
soaking it with our colour.
Some stood, splattered, scandalised,
while others called us sisters and brothers,
offered us cloud cover.

When my grandfather first saw a girl in a hijab
working at the local post office,
he cried this city a river.

Mehrban’s poem tells us her family’s story though different generations and experiences. How they found a home in Birmingham despite the hostility of some people. This collection serves to remind us that Birmingham has been the scene of many family stories, some sad, some happy, during its long history. Birmingham also played a crucial role in the story of the modern nation. Rishi Dastidar’s lines say it all:

The middle is where the future started –
our modern world was invented here.
Minds, steam, capital met in manner uncharted –
the middle is where the future started.

 

An unsolved mystery

Continuing with the theme of story, what place would be complete without at least one unsolved mystery? The one featured in this collection was somewhat macabre and has proved endlessly fascinating to later generations as this poem proves. ‘Who put Bella in the Wych Elm Tree?’ by Helen Rehman is about a 1940s murder that remains unsolved to this day. In 1943, four boys were poaching in Hagley Wood when they discovered a skeleton, later found to be that of a female, hidden within a tree trunk. To cut a long story short, there have been many theories and stories around the discovery. These were partly fuelled by the appearance of graffiti that gave a possible name to the dead woman. The poem title references one version of the provocative question, which appeared on locations around the Midlands after the remains were found.

As the last verse tells it, time has moved on, the remains can no longer be located and the mystery endures:

The skeleton’s mislaid, the experts can’t agree,
the boys are grown and gone and lost to history;
she haunts the city’s dreams and grows a mystery.
I wonder who put Bella in the wych elm tree.

Brummie-isms

I move onto what is possibly my favourite poem in the book as it references some of the Brummie expressions that I grew up with and still fondly remember. The strange thing about local quirks of language is that you accept them while young and it never occurs to you to ask where/why/how these expressions came about. Here’s a snippet from ‘Never in a rain of pig’s pudding’ by Jill Munro:

You can take the girl out of Brummagem,
let her leave behind old Winson Street.
dress her in some bostin Southern glad rags,
marry her to a yampy Cockney with some ackers

But don’t throw this babby out with the bathwater,
for so long as it’s a bit black over Bill’s mother’s
you’ll never take the Brummagem out of the girl –
even way down south, she’ll always be Our Kid.

I like the last line, it reminds me of my uncle calling my dad ‘Our Kid’ even though dad was the eldest brother. If anyone wants an explanation of some of the terms in the verses quoted, there is a handy guide on the Birmingham Live website, giving you fifty Brummie and Black Country words and phrases to chew over. Not all the phrases given necessarily originated in or are exclusive to Brum as language travels as people move around the country.

I’m going to finish with my own contribution to the topic of language with one of my Paragraph Planet pieces from 2016, with some of my Brummagem memories.

 

Hepserus: a 75 word piece from Paragraph Planet

I’ll just note that whereas Jill Munro’s poem has ‘faces as long as Livery Street’, I grew up with ‘arms as long as…’. Which just goes to show the adaptability of the local lingo.

That’s it for now and I hope it won’t be too long before I dig another poetry book out of the Landing Book Shelves!  

 

 

Month of Letters Round-Up: Final Stages

Month of Letters yellow logoI did say on an earlier post that I would give you an update on my Month of Letters progress and so here it is. The short version is that I am still keeping going and I think I can safely say I am on track to complete the month. If you want a bit more detail than that, do read on And if you want to look at one of my previous Month of Letters post try here or here. You might want to give it a try yourself next year!

As I have done before I jotted down a list of possible recipients before starting, beginning with family and friends back in the UK. I have begun to see Month of Letters as a wakeup call where I have become slack in keeping in touch with old friends. I then add all of my Ireland based friends, most of whom are in Dublin. I suppose really I end up re-writing my Christmas card list in February (maybe next Christmas I should simply file it away for February instead of putting it in the recycling bin).

Birth of Venus

From Teri

My intention to do something really imaginative in the mail line this year has not actually transpired. In fact, I am being a very thrifty correspondent and operating a ‘using up’ system, which I am aware may sound rather heartless. However, it is all in an environmentally aware kind of a way really. I have collected up so many postcards over the years that to either dump them or buy yet more would be foolish. And anyway, I do have some nice cards to bestow. This year I have been using up my Penguin book jackets, Spike Milligan cartoons and some Chagall cards from The Tate Gallery. I have also indulged my passion for free stuff, acquiring book marks, postcards and tourist information cards to enclose with a note for my international recipients.

Excavation: Iraq 1933-34

From Barbara

The one big difference for me in doing Month of Letters this year is that I no longer have my dad’s birthday to mark, as he died in June 2016. I also used to squeeze in my parent’s anniversary card at the end of the month since it fell at the beginning of March, so that has now gone. I gave the challenge a break last year for these reasons, but decided to return afresh this year and try to include as many people as possible who mattered to me. It’s never too late to make an effort somewhat greater than clicking on a Facebook ‘like’ button for a change. I will say no more for fear of sounding mawkish but you see what I mean.

So now I am on the home straight with only a few more posting

Winnie the Pooh, Piglet & Heffalumps

From Karina

days to go so I might have to double up a bit more to fit in the waifs and strays. I have been writing to my mum more often these days and also sending mail to our daughter who is studying away so I already have been doubling most days. This year I have included some new faces, as I have despatched postcards to new correspondents gained from the Month of Letters membership. This has broadened my range to Canada, Scotland and Northumberland (and I haven’t quite finished). I have added in here pictures of some cards that I have received in return, but the nice thing is that I usually find that replies trickle through into March, which makes February into a nice long month really.

And now I am off to pen my last few postcards of the month!