A Perfect Book!

The original cover of Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, published by Harper Collins in l973.

I had never noticed before that the canal here was as clear as a chalk  stream. Yellow water lilies drooped like balls of molten wax on the surface. Near the edge of the water drifts of newly hatched fish hung in the shallows,” writes Richard Mabey in the opening chapter of The Unofficial Countryside. And that’s just for starters. He goes on to describe how the last swallows of the season are ‘hawking’ for flies over the water, there’s a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife in the distance, and the towpath is ‘festooned’ with wine-tinted hemp agrimony blooms.

The latest edition of The Unofficial Countryside, beautifully produced by Little Toller Books.

You could be forgiven for thinking he is in the country, but this spot is on the edge of London, right next to a large pumping station. And that, really, is the theme of Mabey’s book, for in it he explores nature in its many varied forms in ‘marginal’ landscapes – motorway verges, dockyards, bomb sites, rubbish dumps, a sewage farm, car parks and gravel pits, as well as gardens and parks. He finds plants, birds, insects and animals flourishing in the most unlikely places. And he also records brief sightings of wildlife and plants spotted from the windows of trains, buses and cars. Nature, as he tells us, is remarkably resiliant. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK to destroy te natural world, and he sounds a warning bell for the future, a plea for us to live with nature. “There is a limit to the recuperative powers of the natural world,” he stresses. “It will always fight back, but it cannot survive outright eradication.”

The book really resonates with me because I’ve always been fascinated by the way plants flourish in the oddest locations. The alley at the back of our house produces an ever-chaning display of ‘weeds’ which push their way though a hairline gap between the Tarmac surface and a crumbling wall. All kinds of grasses have taken root, along with dead nettles (red and white), groundsel, shepher’s purse, dandelions, goatsbeard (or possibly hawkbit, I always have problems identifying them), and even the odd forget-me-not and occasional marigold. The plants attract insects, and the insects attract birds, so a tiny (very tiny!) habitat is established, ignored, I suspect, by everyone except me! Even more strangely, a short walk away, there are plants growing out of the top of the stonework on the Victorian railway arches. Who would have thought anything could thrive in such an unnatural environment, with trains thundering alongside, and a busy urban road below!

Buddleia growing in the stonework of the railway arch near my home.

To be honest, I loved this book so much it’s difficult to know what to mention – I could open it at any page and something to enthuse about. I love Mabey’s writing. His lyrical descriptions of the natural world contrast with his accounts of surrounding urban dereliction, while his emotional responses have a simple honesty. He also includes snippets of prose and poetry, bits of folklore, history, botany and zoology, as well as odd facts about the flora and fauna he enounters.

For example, did you know that a single rosebay willowherb produces 80,000 seeds, each one a ‘superb example of survival engineering’ – little hairy parachutes which will be borne away on the wind. I think that’s pretty amazing, don’t you?

Mabey’s nature writing broke new ground when The Unofficial Countryside was first published in 1973, and it’s every bit as relevant now as it was then and is, I think, very accessible. He celebrates the commonplace weeds and pests that other people may overlook or, worse still, try to eradicate. But he also welcomes rarities and exotics. They all have their own kind of beauty, and they all have a role to play.

A wonky photo of one of Mary Newcomb’s illustrations in The Unofficial Countryside.

A more recent edition has been published by Wiltshire-based Little Toller Books, and it is really beautiful, printed on lovely, thick, smooth paper, with a fascinating introduction from author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, whose edgy style and views are a perfect match for Mabey. Equally well chosen are the illustrations by artist Mary Newcomb, who makes connections the rest of us never think of, like electricity pylons and cowebs. Stand inside the pylon and look up, and you can see similar patterns between the two.

I thought this was just perfect in every way. It’s a lovely book to have in a hard print format, and I would urge you all to please read it.

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What Shall I Read?

Calloo! Callay! Oh Frabjous Day! My first parcel of books has just arrived from Little Toller, and it will definitely not be the last – they are soooooo BEAUTIFUL!!! I was only going to buy this, for #ReadIndies month, because Karen made it sound so irresistable:

But when I looked at the website there were so many lovely goodies I treated myself to this…

And this…

I thought that was very restrained, and three seems a good number for a book order, don’t you think? Not too many, not too few! But now, of course, I am on the horns of a dilemma, because they all look so good I cannot decide which one to read first – I’ve read the first page of each, and still can’t make my mind up! Has anyone read all three, and if so, do you have a favourite?

Square Haunting

Dorothy L Sayers who I mentioned in my last post, also appears in this one – Square Haunting, by Francesca Wade, which is about five women who broke new ground in their professional and private lives between the First and Second World wars, and all lived in the same London Square (though not at the same time).

Their chosen location was Mecklenburgh Square, on the edge of Bloomsbury – and one of them was Dorothy L Sayers, who moved into a room in the square in 1920, which had once been occupied by imagist poet and writer Hilda Doolittle (known as HD), whose somewhat colourful life also features in the book. Alongside Sayers and Doolittle we meet Medievalist and pioneering economic historian Eileen Power, classical historian Jane Harrison, and novelist Virginia Woolf. In their day, all were renowned for their work, but only Sayers and Woolf have retained their fame, and the other three are all but forgotten, which is a shame, because they’re equally deserving of a place in history but, hopefully, Wade’s book will go some way towards a revival of interest.

She tells us: “Sayers’s greatest novel, Gaudy Night, would turn on the question of how women ‘cursed with both hearts and brains’ might preserve their independence and find intellectual stimulation without relinquishing the pleasures of partnership – a dilemma that occupied all the women in this book.”

And she explains: “These women were not a Bloomsbury Group: they lived in Mecklenburgh Square at separate times, though one or two knew each other, and others were connected through shared interests, friends, even lovers. HD and Sayers lived in the square when their careers had hardly begun, Woolf and Harrison at the very ends of their lives; Power lived there for almost two decades, Sayers and Woolf just one year each. But for all of them, in different ways, their time in the square was formative. They all agreed that the structures which had long kept women subordinate were illusory and mutable: in their writing and their lifestyles they wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women. In Mecklenburgh Square, each dedicated herself to establishing a way of life that would let her fulfil her potential, to finding relationships that would support her work and a domestic set-up that would enable it. But it was not always easy. Their lives in the square demonstrate the challenges, personal and professional, that met – and continue to meet – women who want to make their voices heard.”

That may make Square Haunting sound like a scholarly text book, but it really isn’t, because Wade tells the women’s stories with warmth, compassion and a touch of humour, and she crafts her narrative as if she were writing a novel, so you turn page after page, wanting to more about these women – where they came from, what happened to them after they left square, and what made them the people they were. Wade also tells us a little about the people these women’s world – historians, poets, authors, artists, philosophers, politicians and activitists.

Dorothy Sayers began her writing career while living in Mecklnburgh Square.

I particularly liked the section on Dorothy Sayers, who created the wonderful amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey in her room at Mecklenburgh Square. At a time when she was an unknown writer, with little money and few possessions, Sayers (who comes across as being much more fun and subversive than I imagined) derived great pleasure in giving her hero the things she couldn’t afford. She enjoyed spending his fortune for him, and Wade quotes her as saying: “When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it.”

That made wonder if we’ve all been taking Lord Peter too seriously! But Sayers’ story also made realise how tough life could be for a single woman on a limited income trying to carve out a career for herself, and gave an insight into her reasons for keeping an illigitmate birth secret, having her baby son brought up by an aunt, and passing him off as her nephew when she adopted him many years later.

I feel I should give some account of all five women, but it would take too much space, and Wade has written about them so well that I shall leave you to find out more by reading her book. However, I must say a quick word about Virgnia Woolf as it’s from her writing that the book gets its name. “I like this London life in early summer – the street sauntering & square haunting,” she reveals in her diary in 1925. Years later, when she and husband Leonard moved from Tavistock Square to Mecklenburgh Square -on the eve of the Second World War – the allure of London was beginning to pall, and she was unhappy for much of her time there. She and Leonard were at their country home in Sussex when the square was bombed in 1940, and their house, along with many others, damaged beyond repair.

Virginia Woolf spent a year in Mecklenburgh Square.

I loved this book. I’m only sorry it wasn’t available when my younger daughter was living in London, and I spent hours wandering around Bloomsbury, with its gardens and squares, on my way to the Persephone Bookshop. I must have unknowingly passed Mecklenburgh Square – or even wandered into it – without realising its history. But better perhaps, to visualise it as it was In 1917, when TS Eliot visited Hilda Doolittle (his colleague on the Egoist magazine). “London is an amazing place,” he wrote to his mother. “One is constantly discovering new quarters; this woman lives in a most beautiful dilapidated old square, which I had never heard of before; a square in the middle of town, near King’s Cross station, but with spacious old gardens about it.”

NB: If anyone wants to know more about Mecklenburgh Square, there is a fascinating website at

http://mecklenburghsquaregarden.org.uk/. It focuses on the garden which is private, but opens to the public once a year during Heritage Weekend. The site focuses on the garden, but also has a lot of information about the square’s history and the well known people who lived there during the 18thC and 19thC, as well as various campaigning organisations which were based there, including The People’s Suffrage League, and The Women’s Trade Union League.

Agatha in Mesopotamia

51cLgdgyOeLMore Agatha Christie – not fiction this time, but her recollections of the time she spent in Mesopotamia with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowen. I spotted Come, Tell Me How You Live whilst browsing the internet, and it conjured up memories of long-ago history lessons when we learned about Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, home of the Sumerians with their mysterious cuneiform writing, and their great epic poem,The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s earliest literary/religious texts.  I wasn’t even sure what replaced Mesopotamia, but I gather it covered most of modern-day Iraq and Kuwait, as well as parts of Syria and Turkey.

Agatha first visited the area in 1930, when she was invited to join Leonard Woolley and his wife on a dig at Ur. Within months, she married his assistant Max Mallowan, and worked alongside him on five excavations in the years before the outbreak of war. She was obviously fascinated by the region, its people, and its history. Early on she tells us she is often asked how she lived in Mesopotamia, and she responds:

“It is the question, too, that Archaeology asks of the Past—Come, tell me how you lived? And with picks and spades and baskets we find the answer. ‘These were our cooking pots.’ ‘In this big silo we kept our grain.’ ‘With these bone needles we sewed our clothes.’ ‘These were our houses, this our bathroom, here our system of sanitation!’ ‘Here, in this pot, are the gold earrings of my daughter’s dowry.’ ‘Here, in this little jar, is my make-up.’ ‘All these cook-pots are of a very common type. You’ll find them by the hundred. We get them from the Potter at the corner. Woolworth’s, did you say? Is that what you call him in your time?’

She’s not bothered about palaces and kings. Her interest is in the lives of the potter, the farmer, the tool-maker, and the expert cutter of animal seals and amulets, and I can relate to that – take me to a stately home or castle, and I head for the kitchens and servants’ quarters! I would have liked to see far more about the history of Mesopotamia and the archaeological finds that were unearthed (many of them photographed, cleaned and labelled by Agatha). When she writes about the past and the relics left behind, her interest and curiosity shines through:

I pick up one find on the slopes of Tell Baindar. It appears to be a small shell, but on examining it I see that it is actually made of clay and has traces of paint on it. It intrigues me, and I speculate vainly on who made it and why. Did it adorn a building, or a cosmetic box, or a dish? It is a sea shell. Who thought or knew of the sea here so far inland all those thousands of years ago? What pride of imagination and craftsmanship went into the making of it?

Just think what she could have done if she’d turned her hand to historical novels rather than crime stories!. What she does give us is a lively account of  her day-to-day life.

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Max Mallowen, Agatha Christie and Leonard Woolley on a dig in Mesopotamia.

To begin at the beginning, her picture of shopping for clothes and other supplies is an absolute hoot. She is humiliated to discover she is viewed as OS (Outsize) and is shunted around various departments – Cruising, Tropical, and ‘suitable wear for our Empire Builders’. it reminded me a little of poor old William Boot, in Scoop, kitting himself out for Africa, the main difference being that Agatha is obviously very practical. She wants comfortable, washable, lightweight garments (including a felt hat which won’t come off). She also buys pencils, and several fountain and stylographic pens – in the desert apparently, pens either spout ink over everything, or refuse to work at all.  And watches are equally temperamental, plus they get lost, or broken, so she buys lots of those too. 

I feel it’s worth reproducing her comments on archaeologists, books and suitcases – remember, Kindles hadn’t been invented!

One thing can safely be said about an archaeological packing. It consists mainly of books. What books to take, what books can be taken, what books there are room for, what books can (with agony!) be left behind. I am firmly convinced that all archaeologists pack in the following manner: They decide on the maximum number of suitcases that a long-suffering Wagon Lit Company will permit them to take. They then fill these suitcases to the brim with books. They then, reluctantly, take out a few books, and fill in the space thus obtained with shirt, pyjamas, socks, etc.

Finally they are off: a train from Victoria, and a boat across the Channel to Calais where they board the Simplon Orient Express and are transported all the way across Europe to Stamboul, and then on to Alep and Beyrout by local trains. I love Agatha’s descriptions of train journeys. Somehow she captures the excitement of rail travel – the oddities of fellow passengers, the railway staff and customs officials (she fears her tin of bug powder makes them think she is drug smuggler). Then there the platform clocks with conflicting times, perplexing currencies, smoke from the engine and the motion of train:

I like its tempo, which, starting Allegro con furore, swaying and rattling and hurling one from side to side in its mad haste to leave Calais and the Occident, gradually slows down in a rallentando as it proceeds eastwards till it becomes definitely legato.

There is no railway beyond Beyrout so Agatha and Max acquire a cook, a chauffeur, a second-hand lorry with ‘optimistic’ bodywork and an old taxi to take them, their luggage, and supplies to their destination, along with the expedition architect, and the foreman. Again, I really liked Agatha’s travel writing:

Yesterday we were travelling within the confines of civilization. Today, abruptly, we leave civilization behind. Within an hour or two there is no green to be seen anywhere. Everything is brown sandy waste. {…} There is something frightening, and yet fascinating, about this vast world denuded of vegetation. It is not flat like the desert between Damascus and Baghdad. Instead, you climb up and down. It feels a little as though you had become a grain of sand among the sand-castles you built on the beach as a child.

They head out into the wilderness, collecting sherds of pottery and searching for a mound (or ‘tell’) which could be suitable for excavation. And that’s not the end of the story, because once a site is earmarked, permits have to be obtained. supplies and equipment provided, local men employed, and somewhere found to live. In the 1930s Syria was still ruled by the French, and throughout their time in the East  dealings with officials, at the bank, and elsewhere, are long and complicate – in fact, nothing ever seems to be straight forward.

But Agatha doesn’t seem to mind roughing it when she has to, and is unfazed by odd food or idiosyncratic plumbing and sanitation – but is less sanguine about bugs and beasties! There are some lovely descriptions of the landscape – I think she really loved Mesopotamia and, in an odd sort of way, I think she loved the people as well. However, she is very much a product of her time and class, and she and Max are very patronising, and very paternalistic towards the Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Turks and Yezidi ‘devil-worshippers’, treating their work-force much as they would a group of squabbling children, who are very likable, but very naughty, and very stupid. I would have to say they’re also pretty disparaging about the other Europeans they meet and work with. I think there was a tendency for the English to regard all foreigners as dirty, lazy, sly, and ignorant!

But other nations seem just as bad.  There’s no consideration for local people and their customs and beliefs, and no attempt to improve their living conditions or provide education, or health care or anything like that. I guess the English (and the French) were not prepared to acknowledge that this was not actually their country. I was horrified at the way the archaeologists lease a group of houses while their own (much posher) home is being built, and seem to think it’s no business of their’s what happens to the 11 families who live there. 

Notwithstanding that, I enjoyed the book – it gave me a different view of Agatha Christie, as well as providing a glimpse of life in a culture that has vanished.

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Murder in Mesopotamia, featuring Hercule Poirot, must have been inspired by Christie’s time in Mesopotamia.

One Woman’s Year

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January woodcut, by Malcolm Ford, from Stella Martin Currey’s One Woman’s Year.

January…. In this Month, let not Blood, nor use physick,  unless necessity constrain thee; beware of taking cold, for Rheums and Plegm do much increase this Moneth; it’s hurtful to fast long, to drink White Wine fasting is good, Use Meats that are moderately hot, for the best physick is warm diet, warm Cloathes, good Fires, and a merry, honest Wife.

Blood letting is no longer a recognised medical treatment, but winter colds are still as much a part of life today as they were when this was written in 1677, and many people still believe the old saying ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’. The passage is part of a slightly longer excerpt from The British  Merlin, which opens One Woman’s Year, by Stella Martin Currey, which is a kind of diary, or yearbook, originally published in 1953, and recently re-issued by Persephone. Each month starts with a quote from The British Merlin, which was an Almanac (now known as Rider’s British Merlin), full of guidance on a variety of topics , including medicine, looking after your animals, wearing the correct clothes for the season, and planting crops and flowers. Currey’s book could also be considered a kind of almanac: it’s packed with sound advice on all sorts of things, from making sandwiches to getting children to write thank you letters, as well as the author’s thoughts on everyday life. There are excerpts from her favourite books and poems, recipes, and her thoughts on day to day life, whether it’s the first swim of the season, or a visit to the hairdresser, along with accounts of family excursions, children’s activities, and reflections on the ‘most ‘liked’ and ‘disliked’ jobs of the month.  January’s hateful task – dealing with a burst pipe – struck a chord as, like Currey, we live in old house (only our’s is very small), with idiosyncratic plumbing, where the water and sewage systems are linked to neighbours, which can cause a lot of complications and misunderstanding when things go wrong. 

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The horrors of burst pipes!

Another piece which resonated with me was Currey’s description of books for children, and the joy she has found in reading to her two sons. My brother and I consider ourselves fortunate to have grown up in a house full of books, with parents who read to us, told us stories, and told us stories. Many of the books she mentions were (and still are) firm favourites with us – Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Swallows and Amazons, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn, and a host of others…. The month also features a recipe for tuck box cake (she makes it to accompany her elder son to school); a day at the Tower of London, and a trip to the hairdresser, which she finds soothing. And there are lovely extracts from Jane Eyre, and Tea With Mr Rochester, by Frances Towers.

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Historic view! I’ll bet the Tower o London was less crowded and less expensive when Stella Martin Currey and her sons visited it in 1953.

I never quite felt I knew the author – she keeps herself and her family at a slight distance from the reader, and while there is a lot of humour here it’s not laugh-out-loud funny like The Diary of a Provincial Lady. Currey, (1897-1994), was a journalist, novelist and playwright, and she writes well, but has a more serious and informative tone than EM Delafield. Having said that, I thought it was charming, and really enjoyed it. An added bonus is the beautiful collection of woodcuts – a large one at the start of each chapter, and dozens of smaller ones scattered throughout the pages, To start with I thought perhaps they were by Tirzah Garwood, because Currey dedicated the book to her (apparently the two women were friends), but they were created by Malcolm Ford, who taught alongside Currey’s husband. The eye-catching green and purple endpapers are from an early 1950s  fabric design by Shelia Bownas.

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Stella Martin Currey.

***I have to say a huge thank you to Ledbury Books and Maps (one of the nicest bookshops I know), because I was going to order this from Persephone, then I realised it wouldn’t arrive before I went to Mum’s, so I rang the bookshop to see if they had it and would save it for me – and they ordered it specially! They can get single books for the next day, and are incredibly polite and helpful, and very knowledgeable about books, and don’t mind how long you sit on the floor reading. 

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