It is, as I’m sure you will all agree, a terrible thing for a book lover to live in a town where there is no Proper Book Shop. We do have The Works (which closed down some years back, then re-opened) but, without wishing to be rude, it is not what I would call a Proper Book Shop. Consequently, when I go anywhere that does possess one I’m like a child let loose in a sweet shop – and one of my favourite places is Ledbury, where my mother lives, which boasts two excellent independent stores, just a few yards away from each other, and they both seem to be thriving. I find it amazing that Tamworth, with a population of around 70,000, has no book shop, while Ledbury (population 9,636 in the 2011 Census) should have two.
Generally my book buying revolves around second-hand shops, but I like to support independent book stores when I can, and the years since my parents retired to Ledbury I’ve spent many happy hours browsing (and buying) in both shops, and when my daughters were young they would spend hours curled up on the floor in each shop, immersed in books they couldn’t put down.
First port of call as I turn into the High Street is always Ledbury Books and Maps which, as the name indicates, sells books and maps (all new). They stock a good selection of poetry, ‘literary’ fiction and classics, as well as a range of popular non-fiction, and they have a brilliant section for children. There is classical music playing gently in the background, and the staff are friendly, polite, very knowledgeable about books, and incredibly helpful – and books I’ve ordered from them have usually arrived at the shop the following day, or the day after that, which is pretty impressive. And, of course, they also sell maps, and a lot of books about this corner of Herefordshire, neighbouring Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, and the Welsh Marches, many of them written by local authors.
A little further along the road is the Three Counties Book Shop, where the staff are equally pleasant and helpful. The stock is broadly similar, without the maps, but with a very nice area for children, and there is an excellent art department with paints, brushes, sketchbooks and so on (where my mother always used to get her supplies). At the rear (the shop goes back quite a way) are shelves stacked with ‘sale books’ on every subject imaginable – art, sewing, gardening, cookery, history. And if that makes it sound a bit like a discount store, be assured it isn’t, because most of these volumes are a step up from those on offer at ‘cheap’ book stores.
Does anyone else have a favourite book shop? And if so where?
It’s the first day of a new year and I’ve said ‘white rabbit’ (just like Vere Hodgson, further down this post), but I thought it would be nice to celebrate with a selection of excerpts from novels, poems and diaries, accompanied by a few pictures which, I hope, will fit the New Year theme – though I have to admit the post has morphed into a more general piece on ice, snow, January and winter. And I must apologise because the spacing on the poems has gone haywire.
I’ll start with a quiet evening in the company of Gladys Taber, who wrote a year-long account of her life on a Connecticut farm in the 1950s. I suspect her views on New Year celebrations must have seemed old-fashioned even them but I think she’s absolutely right.
Seeing the new year in seems to involve much paper caps, night clubbing, and hangovers for some people. This is not my idea at all, never was. I wish to start my new year with a few people I dearly love, and in front of an apple wood fire, with bowls of popcorn and apples, and hot buttered rum, and Port Salut cheese and crisp crackers. And playing some good music, and reading aloud some choice bits. And feeling so secure in the fact that beginning a new year is a beginning with the same old friends. (Gladys Taber, Stillmeadow Daybook, 1955).
And here’s the Rev Francis Kilvert, writing in his diary on New Year’s Day 1871:
My Mother, Peche and I sat up late last night to watch the old year out and the New Year in. The wind was in the North and the sound of the bells came faintly and muffled over the snow from Chippenham and Kington. We opened the dining room window to ‘loose in’ the sound of the chimes and ‘the New Year’ as they say in Wales. It was bitter cold, but we went to the door, Perch and I, to hear better, I was carrying my travelling clock in my hand and as we stood on the terrace just outside the front door, the little clock struck midnight with its tinkling silvery bell in the keen frost. We thought we could hear three peals of Church bells, Chippenham, St Paul’s, and very faintly Kington. ‘Ring happy bells across the snow.’ (The Rev Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary)
Still on a theme of bells, here’s Lord Peter Wimsey helping a short-handed group of bell-ringers to ring the old year out and the new year in (is there nothing the man cannot do, I ask myself). Anyway, here you are, Lord Peter saving the day:
The Rector pronounced the Benediction, the organ played the opening bars of a hymn and Hezekiah Lavender exclaimed sonorously: “Now, lads!” The ringers, with much subdued shuffling, extricated themselves from their chairs and wound their way up the belfry stair. Coats were pulled off and hung on nails in the ringing-chamber, and Wimsey, observing on a bench near the door an enormous brown jug and nine pewter tankards, understood, with pleasure, that the landlord of the Red Cow had, indeed, provided ‘the usual’ for the refreshment of the ringers. The eight men advanced to their stations, and Hezekiah consulted his watch.
“Time!” he said.
He spat upon his hands, grasped the sallie of Tailor Paul, and gently swung the great bell over the balance. Toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; the nine tailors, or teller-strokes, that mark the passing of a man. The year is dead; toll him out with twelve strokes more, one for every passing month. Then silence. Then, from the faint, sweet tubular chimes of the clock overhead, the four quarters and the twelve strokes of midnight. The ringers grasped their ropes.
The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. (Dorothy L Sayers, The Nine Tailors)
Moving away from celebrations for a moment, here’s John Clare in sad and reflective mood, poor man. I think there must have been long periods when he himself felt cast off and forgotten by the world.
The Old Year
The Old Year’s gone away
To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
In either shade or sun:
The last year he’d a neighbour’s face,
In this he’s known by none.
All nothing everywhere: Mists we on mornings see Have more of substance when they’re here And more of form than he. He was a friend by every fire, In every cot and hall – A guest to every heart’s desire, And now he’s nought at all.
Old papers thrown away, Old garments cast aside, The talk of yesterday, All things identified; But times once torn away No voices can recall: The eve of New Year’s Day Left the Old Year lost to all.
In contrast, here’s the opening lines of a poem I remember from my own childhood. It’s a very short couplet, but seems to me to be full of joy, and to capture the excitement of snow falling.
January brings the snow, Makes our feet and fingers glow. (From The Months by Sara Coleridge)
And while we’re talking about snow, here’s a piece by Jean Sprackland, in Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach. which makes me long to walk in the magical, alien landscape where frothy sea foam turns to ice.
Nine o’clock on a January morning. I crunch my way through sand dunes hardened and sheened with frost, then slither over a sheet ice, which is the winter beach. Under the ice, pale bubbles swell and skitter away from my tread. The tidelline is an ice-line a sparkling white ribbon of frozen froth, curling away into the distance ahead and behind.
And the landscape in Sylvia Plath’s New Year on Dartmoor is just as strange – ‘awe full’ rather than awful perhaps, though it is that as well.
This is newness : every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.
Then there’s Vere Hodgson, whose wartime diaries are a joy to read. I love her juxtaposition of the terrible things happening around her with the homely everday goings-on, and the little things that gave pleasure or concern.
Slept well and said white rabbits on waking. This is a good start. The cat much better. He was able to walk without groaning. He ate and drank, and so seems to have turned the corner – like the British Commonwealth.
Devastating news from Mr Bendall about All Hallows, Barking by the Tower. He seems to think it is quite destroyed. I knew it had had a bomb, but I thuoght it was only on part. I must go up and see on Sunday. They say still how awful everything looks. The whole of Finsbury St, where Mr Hillyard’s office was, is flat.
The doctor called and said Miss Moyes’ ankle is fractured in three places, and if she does not go carefully she will have a permanent limp. There seem to be a few more eggs and oranges in the shops. (January 1, 1941, Few Eggs and No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45)
From the shortages of war-torn Britain I’ve turned to the sumprtuous New Year Feast in Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight translated from Middle English by Simon Armitage. (Please note, I abandoned any effort to replicate the line spacing).
The first course comes in to the fanfare and clamour of blasting trumpets
hung with trembling banners, then pounding double drums and dinning pipes, weird sounds and wails of such warbled wildness that to hear and feel them made the heart float free.
Flavoursome delicacies of flesh were fetched in and the freshest of foods, so many in fact therewas scarcely space to present the stews or to set the silver bowls on the cloth. Each guest received his share of bread, or meat or broth; a dozen plates per pair – plus beer, or wine, or both!
Still in Medieval mode, here’s King Arthur, pulling the sword Excalibur from a stone because Kay has forgotten his own weapon, and needs one to fight in the New Year tournament. There are various versions, including Malory, of course, and TH White but I’ve plumped for this bit from The Sword in the Stone, in Volume 5 of Newnes Pictorial Knowledge, which belonged to my father when he was young, and was one of my favourite books when I was young because it contained the ‘fable, myth and legend’ section. Here Arthur pulls the sword from a bar of steel set into the stone.
Arthur rode back, but when he reached the house, he found it was locked, for all the servants had gone to see the tournament. In anger the youth rode away, despairing to think that his brother might not have a weapon with which to fight.
Then he suddenly remembered the sword he had seen in the churchyard as he was coming out of church that morning.”Kay shall borrow that!” he cried, and he rode forthwith to the church. The two knights who had been on guard were gone to prepare for the mock-fights, and no-one was there. Arthur leapt off his horse and ran to the stone. He took hold of the sword, and pulled. It came forth from the steel easily, and with joy in his heart the boy ran back to horse.
And finally, because I never can resist it, I’ve included Keats’ The Eve of Saint Agnes (or a very small part – it’s much too long to include in its entirety, but you can find it here). It’s set on January 20th rather than the first, but I don’t think that matters, and it tells the tale of star-crossed lovers eloping to live happily ever after. It’s also one of the most beautifully written poems you’ll ever encounter – the first stanza always sends a tingle down my spine:
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was! The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold; The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold: Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told His rosary, and while his frosted breath, Like pious incense from a censer old, Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death, Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.
In contrast, inside the castle is warmth and light and rich, bejewelled colours, and there’s a wonderful account of exotic sweets and fruits Porphyro gathers for his beloved Madeline.
And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep, In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d, While he forth from the closet brought a heap Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd; With jellies soother than the creamy curd, And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon; Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one, From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.
Inspired by Sei Shonagon’s lists in the Pillowbook, along with thoughts of New Year Resolutions, I have embarked on a Spring Clean (well, a Winter Clean if you want to be accurate). Feather duster in hand, I’ve donned my pinnie, cleaned out the (electronic) filing cabinet, and put things back in their correct categories. The bin is overflowing with rubbish, and all those half-finished oddments that have been mentioned on the blog but remained lurking in the corners of the virtual drawers have now been rescued and brushed down so they are fit to be released into the wider world, with a helping hand from the WordPress scheduler! Fingers crossed, it means posts on Wolf Hall, The Fortnight in September, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Jane Austen should appear over the next week or so.
A bit of re-reading may go on, so I can jot down my thoughts on some of the books read but not written about (that may not be good grammar, but I think it makes sense), then I can hang on to them so there’s always a few things in hand. And I’m aiming to make some inroads into the TBR pile, especially all the old Virago Modern Classics, which have burst the confines of the bookshelves, and are now staring reproachfully at me from various spots around the house – every time we open a cupboard a green-spined Virago tumbles out!! I have decided that 2018 will be My Year of Reading Unread Books that I Already Own!!!
I’ve even signed up for some challenges, hoping it will strengthen my resolve.. With this in mind, I’m planning to join in What’s in a Name, Back to the Classics, and the Official 2018 TBR Pile. In January the Virago Group over at The LibraryThing is reading Emily Eden’s The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House, while over at HeavenAli’s blog there’s a year-long readathon marking the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, and I have enough unread Sparks to meet most of the categories, with maybe a couple of re-reads thrown in for good measure – unless I happen to spot any more in Oxfam.
And I have a Little List, so I know what I’m doing. That’s the theory anyway. I may, as usual, get horribly side-tracked, and have long periods where I don’t post anything at all, but my intentions are good. And books are meant to be read – they shouldn’t be left sitting on shelves.
Two posts for the price of one today! This is loosely connected to the 1968 Club because Stuck in a Book Simon has reviewed the autobiography of Frank Baker, who wrote the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Miss Hargreaves, and when I came across this picture quite a while ago it reminded me of her. So I wrote this post, then thought I was being silly, and it’s been languishing in the drafts ever since. But today it seems kind of apposite…
Look! It’s Miss Hargreaves! Only it isn’t, of course. It’s Canadian artist Emily Carr.
Don’t you think she (the lady on the right) looks a bit like the central figure in Frank Baker’s book of the same name? For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s one of the best novels ever (read about it here). Basically, it tells the story of Norman, who invents the elderly and eccentric Miss Constance Hargreaves (pronounced Hargrayves), and is more than a little taken aback when she comes to life and visits him! She alights from the train accompanied by a dog on a purple lead and a cockatoo, as well as a bath, two trunks, assorted bags and a harp.
She was very small, very slight, with a perky, innocent little face and speedwell-blue eyes. Perched on top, right on top, of a hillock of snowy white hair: buttressed behind by a large fan-comb, studded by sequins and masted by long black pins, lay a speckled straw hat. Over a pale pink blouse with a high neck and lace cuffs, she was wearing a heathery tweed jacket; a skirt to match. Round her neck was a silver fur. Resting on one stick, she was holding the other, and the umbrella was on her arm; they were black ebony sticks, with curved Malacca handles.
The sticks are missing, and the dog, and the bath, but there’s something about the expression and stance of the artist that reminds me of Miss Hargreaves – perhaps it’s all that luggage, but I do think it somehow captures her spirit. They’re both pleased with themselves, and with life in general, I think. I imagine Miss Hargreaves looking very like this, and the luggage, the bird, and the big, black umbrella are just as I imagine them because, although Baker’s book was published in 1940, the events described happened a decade previously, when elderly ladies like Miss Hargreaves were still rather Edwardian Edwardian in appearance and outlook.
The picture (which should, apparently, be referred to as a cartoon), was painted by Emily Carr (1871-1945) to illustrate her account of her time in Paris, but I’ve no idea what it is called. She travelled to the city in 1910, at the age of 38, to study ‘the New Art’, and was accompanied by her sister (the rather drooping figure on the left), their trunks, and an ill-humoured parrot called Rebecca. The picture and information were featured on Parisian Fields, which is one of my favourite not-about-books-blogs. Canadians Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie are lucky enough to spend a great deal of time in Paris, and their love for the city shines through. Their posts are quirky, well written, and beautifully illustrated with their own photographs, as well as old postcards and pictures. Their historical research is excellent, and they’re attracted by things off the usual tourist trail, like street lights, seats, doorways and adverts.
You’ll find masses of information about Emily Carr on their site, but I’m sure they won’t mind if I tell you that the picture was shown at an exhibition, Sister and I: From Victoria to London (Royal British Columbia Museum, 2011).
Emily Carr’s time in Paris seems to have marked a pivotal point in her career. She’s known as a post-impressionist and modernist, and her bold, brightly coloured work celebrates Canadian wildlife and the native people. This picture, with its detail and muted colours, is very different to the bold, bright paintings she is best known for.
This week saw the ‘snap’ General Election take place here in the UK, with feelings on both sides of the political divide running high before, during and after the event. Personally I love elections – once upon a time I could cover a count, spend the rest of the night watching the results roll in on TV, get the Darling Daughters off to school nextmorning, and be at my desk by 9am to write a front page lead for the mid-week edition, and a detailed report for the main paper. Alas, those days are long gone, and keeping track of what’s happening leaves me emotionally and physically drained, this time around more so than ever, but it was incredibly exciting, with twists and turns worthy of a thriller plot, and a very unexpected ending.
The who;e thing was so intense that even I felt the need for something quiet and soothing, so I was delighted to find some antidotes to election fever recommended by the Book Foxes over at Vulpes Libris (a ‘collective of bibliophiles talking about books’ which is one of my favourite book blogs).
Yesterday’s calming, peaceful choice was a quirky look at postcards from Book Fox Hilary, who prefers old-fashioned picture postcards (sent and received) to mobile phone photos, and is convinced they will make us all feel more peaceful. She recommends a wonderful Twitter site, PostcardFromThe Past, with images of old postcards and snippets from their messages. Unlike her, I don’t think the page would lure me away from elections, but it is very, very addictive, especially if you find a place you recgnise! And, apparently, its daily postcards have been compiled into a book, Postcarda from the Past, Collected by Tom Jackson, which sounds fascinating, as does Boring Postcards, collected and arranged by Martin Parr RA, which she also mentions.
Anyway, Hilary’s post sent me scurrying off to look through my box of old post cards, acquired from various sources. I particularly like this one of Windsor Castle and the River Thames, bought for a few pence in a junk shop because we used to have picnics along there when I was a child! It’s postmarked July 14, 1969, and the stamp was fourpence in old penny.
It’s probably a nostalgia thing, but I like old postcards and their faded, forgotten messages – I can spend hours rootling around in boxes of postcards in second-hand shops, dreaming up tales about the writers and their recipients, and looking at pictures of a world which seems quieter and less busy. And there are all those lovely old stamps, which is an added bonus.So I’m inclined to agree with Hilary when she says: “To soothe the soul in times when the world seems to be going crazy, I recommend postcards – tiny vignettes of beauty, or humour, or memory (one’s own or someone else’s). These collections of postcards work a little magic.”
Here’s another of my postcards, found in an old book, showing the Statue of the Memorial Well at Chawnpore, in India, but sent from Lucknow, by an unknown author who only signs his/her initials – I.P. I think, or I.D. but they are a little difficult to decipher. I assume the sender was a soldier or civil servant, serving or working in India. He likes being out there ‘all right’ but finds it very hot. And who was Miss A Walker (who had sent him a ‘nice’ photo)? Was she his sweetheart, sending a picture of herself? A maiden aunt or some other relative? The schoolmistress?
And here’s the back, showing the message from IP and the ‘India Postage’ stamp priced at one anna.
Oh dear, I got side-tracked there, so back to Libris Vulpes, and Wednesday’s post, which provided something quite different, when Colin wrote about Eve Garnett’s The Family From One End Street, one of my own childhood favourites – but not necessarily a book I would have chosen for its calming qualities. However, it does provide a kind of oasis of peace in a world gone mad, giving a glimpse of a vanished way of life, with simple pleasures and old fashioned values, untouched by the troubles of the outside world, so I can see why someone might select this.
But it would be hard to argue with Monday’s offering, The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff, chosen by Jackie. I’ve always thought this explanation of Taoism is every bit as delightful as Milne’s original Pooh stories, and I defy anyone to read it without smiling. Whenever I read it I can always feel the stress draining away, word by word.
Actually, my favourite anti-stress read is a poem – The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by WB Yeats, which never fails to induce calm and tranquility, and conjures memories of deserted Irish beaches and the heather-covered hills where my grandparents lived However, when it comes to fiction Pooh is definitely one of my favourite ‘Keep Calm’ reads, closely followed by Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and almost any of Jane Austen’s novels – I’ll plump for Pride and Prejudice I think. And what about writing inspired by the author’s childhood, like Lark Rise to Candleford (Flora Thompson), Laurie Lee’s classic Cider With Rosie, or Dylan Thomas’ enchanting A Child’s Christmas in Wales?
At this point I trawled through the index of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, which doesn’t mention election fever, but does prescribe the ‘elegant prose’ of Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady as a ‘balm’ for anxiety. I have to admit it’s a long time since I’ve read any Henry James, and I’m not sure his work would make you feel calm or peaceful, but I might give this a go.
The authors’ idea for combating stress sounds more like what we’re looking for. I haven’t read The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, but they make it sound so delightful I may buy it. It is, apparently, a slender novel about a French shepherd who decides the world needs more trees, and it is ‘ impossible not to feel peaceful in his company’.
It’s hard to say what makes a successful ‘calming read’, but looking at the Book Foxes’ suggestions, and thinking of my own choices, I think it’s interesting that there seems to be a preference for children’s books. Nostalgia and familiarity also appear to play a part, and we obviously need something happy, with simple story lines, where the real world has no real impact, and where we now all will end well – comfort reading I guess. Does anyone else have any thoughts on the matter?
*You can read the full text of the Book Foxes’ calming reads on their website, Vulpes Libris.
If you’ve not yet discovered the Tea or Books podcast hosted by the lovely Simon (from Stuck in a Book) and Rachel (from Book Snob), then pop over and listen to their latest offering, which is all about novels based on real events and real people. They’ve been looking specifically at A Pin To See The Peepshow, by F Tennyson Jesse, and EM Delafield’s The Messalina of the Suburbs, which are both based on a notorious murder case. Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were hanged in 1923, for the murder of her husband Percy the previous year, although it seems Edith took no part in the killing.
I gather the two authors treat the story and its characters very differently, and I’m intrigued to find out more, especially as the case itself is so well documented, which could inhibit any efforts to turn it into fiction. Anyway, I’ve downloaded the Delafield book to the Kindle, and have pulled Peepshow from the Virago bookcase and started reading, but I haven’t finished yet (the problem with reading several books at once is that it takes a long time to complete anything, so I’ll report back on this one later). Margaret Atwood tried something similar in Alias Grace, a fictional account of a double murder in 1843: I didn’t think this was as good as most of her other work, but it might be interesting to re-read it alongside these two.
It set me considering other novels based on real life – although not necessarily on crimes. To start with, I thought it must be quite difficult to write about real situations and people, because you while you can interpret things in your own way, you can’t alter known facts, and your portrayal of someone might vary from the generally accepted view. But many novelists mine their own lives or their family histories – think of Jeanette Winterson with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, or Antonia White with Frost in May and its ‘sequels’. Or does the fact that these books grew out of personal memories rather than public knowledge set them apart from books turning real life into fiction?
And what about historic fiction? If that’s not based (however loosely in some cases) on people who actually existed, and events that really did take place, I don’t know what is. For example, there’s Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, where we know exactly what happens, yet she keeps us on the edge of our seats, watching the machinations of the Tudor court, unable to warn the participants of the fate that awaits them. And Beryl Bainbridge also used real people as inspiration – you wouldn’t think there is much left unsaid about Dr Samuel Johnson, but in According to Queeney she revealed a lonely, vulnerable man, while still acknowledging his irascible temper and uncouth ways. .
All in all, I’m inclined to think that an awful lot of fiction is a retelling of real events, altered, presented from a different perspective perhaps, and related by narrators who are not always reliable.
Simon and Rachel covered a lot of ground in their discussion about books based on real life (though I don’t think they mentioned any of the ones I thought of). Books they highlighted included Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee, and Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, as well as Gyles Brandreth’s The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries and Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s controversial play about Mozart. Does anyone else have any ideas about fictionalised books based on real life and real people?
PS: I spent an enjoyable few hours catching up on some of the older podcasts I missed during my absence from blogging, and ended up adding things to the Wish List, though I ought to concentrate on the existing TBR pile.
PPS:If you’re signed up to iTunes, you can find Tea or Books on their iTunes page.
“Other things in the world are white but, for me, porcelain comes first.”
Here is a piece about The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, by Edmund de Waal, which was panned by most professional reviewers, and I can’t understand why, because I absolutely loved it. I heard it first when Radio 4 abridged it for a Book of the Week (I am, as you may have noticed, a huge fan of BBC Radio 4). It took me a long time to acquire the book, even longer to get round to reading it, and longer still to write about it – but here, finally, are my thoughts (after a second reading).
De Waal, an acclaimed ceramicist, intended to spend a year tracing the history of porcelain, and visiting the three ‘white hills’ which became central to porcelain manufacture in China, Germany and England. His quest took him longer and further (in distance and time) than ever he dreamed and is unquestionably a pilgrimage, for not only does he seek the ‘sacred’ places of the porcelain industry, but he also searches for enlightenment. As he travels he reflects on his own life and work, and his journey becomes a kind of meditation, a paean to porcelain, clay and life itself. It’s a lovely meandering sort of book that wanders from topic to topic and place to place, embracing history, science, politics, art, culture, kings, paupers and alchemists. Especially alchemists.
I had no idea that porcelain is not the same as other china, or that making it is a kind of alchemy, where one type of material is mixed with another and they are magically transformed into something completely different. Porcelain, it transpires, is not just white clay. It’s a special sort of white clay (kaolin), mixed with a special sort of stone (petunse), in exactly the right proportions, and fired at exactly the right temperature (an incredible 1,300 degrees Celsius), so it fuses together to become beautifully transparent and luminous, like a kind of glass.
Nor did I know that Europeans spent much of the 17th and 18th centuries obsessively seeking a formula so they too could make this mysterious china, which was imported – at great expense – from the East, and was available only to the fabulously wealthy. The process of making it (like the production of paper, gunpowder and silk), was invented by the Chinese, who kept their manufacturing method a closely guarded secret. And from the earliest days the history of porcelain, the most delicate and beautiful of china, has been marked by the blood, sweat, tears – and even deaths – of the men who laboured to make it.
The tales of those men, and of those who collected porcelain, are gripping, and de Waal’s journey is fascinating. His search for the origins of his craft took him all over the world, to palaces and prisons, cities and slums, museums and mines. He admits he is obsessive, but his love of porcelain, and the raw materials needed to create it, are infectious, and his accounts of the process of making, and his own responses, are intriguing. And he has the ability to clothe the bare bones of history, bringing the past to life in a way that makes you feel yes, this is the way it must have been.
He has amassed a staggering amount of information – in places it is so dense I felt a little judicious pruning might have helped. And despite his efforts to organise his data and thoughts into themed sections he’s a bit of a butterfly, darting here, there and everywhere, flitting from one thing to another, but I don’t mind that, and I adore his taste for the quirky and offbeat. He writes beautiful, lyrical prose, and his book is a very personal response to a very individual quest.
His account of visiting China and the Kao-ling mountain, in Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi Province, is spellbinding. This the place where it all began 1,000 years ago. Here, by an accident of nature, kaolin clay and petunse are found more or less side by side, and the ground is littered with discards from the past – centuries-old broken shards and misshapen pots.
“… on and up is a hillside of shards, a tumbling landscape of brokenness, a landscape of all the ways that pots van go wrong. It is not a spoil heap, careless but discrete. It is a whole landscape of porcelain.”
It all seems very exotic, like something from a fairy tale, and I find myself wondering who first combined kaolin and petunse, and why they wanted to… what led them to try that particular technique? Did people realise just how important it was? De Waal sees how these two different materials are extracted, cleaned and refined, and I’m surprised at how dirty and noisy the processes are.
I’m also surprised that Mao Tse Tung was presented with an Imperial Tea Set made in Jingdezhen. The finest, purest clay was transformed into teacups, saucers, teapots, coffeepots, sugar bowls, wine ewers, wine cups, cake plates and cake stands, all in white, painted with candy pink sprays of peach blossom. It sounds an unlikely gift for the Communist revolutionary who was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Even more astonishingly, the clay seam was sealed, just as it had been for the generations of emperors who preceded him, to prevent common people using any leftovers!
In France de Waal considers a porcelain pavilion constructed by Louis XIV so he and Madam de Montespan could enjoy intimate trysts. This apparently, was not created from Chinese style hard porcelain, but from ‘soft paste’, which makes me think of cake icing and modelling dough, and somehow sounds most unsafe.
And in Germany I get lost. All the people, places and science made my head spin – there was just too much information. To cut a long story short, there’s mathematician Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, who uses light, mirrors and lens to boil water, set fire to wood, and melt stone and metal, leading to an interest in porcelain. And there’s Johann Friedrich Bottger, an apothecary’s apprentice, who claims he can create gold from lead (this is 1701, and we are on the cusp between old and new, alchemy and science, superstition and knowledge). The duo end up working together and Bottger eventually produces porcelain.
Back in England there’s a tribute to William Cookworthy, who produced the country’s first ‘hard paste’ porcelain, similar to that made by the Chinese. Suddenly I know where we are: Plymouth, where my Elder Daughter lives. And I realise I have encountered Cookworthy and his work in the city’s museum, without registering the significance, so I squeeze in a return visit, just a couple of days before the museum is shut for a massive makeover.
I love Cookworthy. He’s one of those wonderful 18th century Englishmen who were filled with curiosity about the world around them, and were knowledgeable enough to keep detailed records of their findings, and he deserves to be much better known. A Quaker chemist, he lived and worked in Notte Street (where the Arribas Mexican restaurant stands – I cross the road there when I go to the Hoe or the Barbican). In the mid-1750s he discovered china clay and china stone (the English versions of kaolin and petunse) at Tregonning Hill, in Cornwall. Apparently, after speaking to bellfounders he noticed that the heat from their furnace fused some of the stones lining the mould, so he gathered specimens and spent years experimenting.
He was granted a patent and established The Plymouth Porcelain Factory at Coxside, bySutton Pool (the harbour). The first piece to come out of the kiln looks like a mug, but is actually a cider tankard. It was March 14, 1768 – the date is stamped on the bottom, along with the letters ‘CF’, for Cookworthy Fecit (Cooksworthy made me).
Towards the end of the book de Waal returns to Germany, to track down the haunting tale of the Allach factory where, during ww2, prisoners from Dachau were ordered to make high quality porcelain for the Nazis. Pieces made there include a Bambi, ‘liquid-eyed, spindly legs, head tilted’. Like de Waal, I am shocked that such beautiful porcelain, a symbol of innocence, should have been made in such harsh conditions, for those who upheld such a brutal, killing regime.
At the very end, trying to explain himself and answer the questions people ask, he says:
“I answer that white is a way of starting again. It is not about good taste, that making white pots was never about good taste, that making porcelain is a way of starting again, finding your way, a route and a detour to yourself. That I don’t get bored. That I make them myself.
And that no, I’m not writing. I have written. And I am making again.”