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.

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.

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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1066 And All That


Do people still read 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, Comprising all the Parts you can Remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates I wonder? And if so do they find it as funny as I do or has it become dated, as humour so often does? Anyway, the spoof history book penned by WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman was published in 1930, so it qualifies for The !930 Club being run by Simon at Stuck in a Book, and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. and I think it deserves  mention.

This is a short review, because I’m cat and rabbit sitting for my Elder Daughter, in Devon (the Man of the House has stayed at home to do some decorating, so I think I have the better deal). I brought the laptop with me, but forgot the book, so I’m trying to write this from memory, which may be unreliable! And it’s a very slender book, so I wasn’t planning on quoting large chunks, because it would give too much away.

The book makes fun of the history books that were popular during the late 1920s, and was originally published in serial form in Punch magazine. It starts with Roman Britain and finishes in 1918, at the end of the First World War, when history came to a stop and America became ‘top dog’. I’ve always thought modern history was over-rated, so I’m with them all the way on this view! It’s full of puns and mixed-up facts and will colour your view of key events in English history for ever more. I first read it while studying the 17th century for A-Level history, and to my mind no-one has ever bettered their description of the Cavaliers as romantic but wrong, and the Roundheads as ‘Right but Repulsive’. And there is poor old King John who is, without doubt, thoroughly Bad, and foams at the mouth when he loses his temper. It always reminds me of AA Milne’s King John, who was not a bad man, but ‘had his little ways, And sometimes no-one spoke to him for days and days and days’.

And there’s a wonderful bit where the authors explain the creation of the Order of the Garter, telling us that the Order’s motto. ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’ means ‘honey your silk stocking is hanging down (or words to that effect). In case you are wondering I gather it actually means Evil (or shame) be to he who evil thinks’, but I’ve never quite understood the Order’s purpose.

There are also some magnificent joke exam papers – one urges candidates not to answer more than one question at time, while another warns that they should not write on both sides of the paper at once.

This probably sounds an odd choice, but I think it’s quite a clever book – you have to know your history before you can play with it like this, and it could be considered somewhat subversive since it pokes fun  at what was then the established view of events and famous figures. And sometimes it’s nice to read something which is laugh-out-loud funny (and for me, this is), and where you don’t have to think too much, or too deeply.


Winter Reading

51h3We7+wILOver the winter months I’ve been reading Melissa Harrison’s Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, published in support of the Wildlife Trusts. I’m not normally a fan of ‘slow reading’ – I tend to rush through a book to find out what happens (I’ve even been known to sneak a peak at the end to see if all goes well), then re-read at leisure. But as I get older I find I’m slowing down, and this book is an ideal ‘slow read’, perfect for considering one, or possibly two, entries each day, usually last thing at night when I can savour the words and reflect on the thoughts expressed. Anyway, today is the Spring Equinox and, as planned, I’ve come to the end and am am now embarking on a similar journey with Harrison’s Spring, which I aim to finish on Midsummer Day.

It’s been quite interesting reading during the periods of snow. After all, as Harrison says in her introduction: “When we think of winter, we often think of snow: deep drifts of it, blanketing our rooftops and gardens, roofs, fields and lanes; white and silent and still.” But she is quick to point out that winter means much more than snow. And here she’s gathered extracts from a variety of authors who see winter in many different ways; man’s place in the natural world, and his reaction to it, comes under scrutiny, and there are pieces about the weather, the stars, birds, insects, animals, plants, landscapes and habitats. There are offerings from keen-eyed naturalists and conservationists, who not only record what they see and hear, but have the ability to relate it to their own lives, and to the world in general. Alongside their observations are poems and excerpts from novels, letters, essays, diaries, memoirs, newspaper articles and blogs. The collection spans some 400 years, and includes authors whose creations were printed in traditional books, as well as writers who use modern technology to display their work.

The book takes us from the tail end of autumn, through the depths of winter, to the point when we know spring is on the way. It opens with the late great Roger Deakin talking about a ‘sharp, sugaring frost’ and its effect on the leaves of the trees, and closes with a prose piece from poet Kathleen Jamie. “Every year in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky,” she says, and adds: “The year has turned. Filaments and metallic ribbons of wind-blown light, just for an hour, but enough.”

Sandwiched between those two is a wealth of other goodies. In fact, the book is so jam-packed with wonderful things that it’s difficult (and unfair) to pick favourites, but I have to mention Charles Dickens’ matchless description of the mud, fog and rain of ‘implacable November weather’ and Virginia Woolf’s magical, mystical account of a frost fair (from Orlando, which I haven’t read, but I will now). I shan’t forget freed slave Olaudah Equiano’s first enounter with snow, or Henry Williamson’s description of a howling blizzard which made me feel chilled to the bone. But there were two entries which really stood out for me.

First there is a letter from poet and children’s author Anna Laetitia Barbauld, written in 1814, which could almost be describing some kind of seasonal affective disorder. She’s not exactly unhappy – indeed, she seems relish the warmth and comfort of her snug parlour, but she is certainly in the grip of a winter inertia which prevents her taking any kind of action or thought, and I’m sure many of us can empathise with her. She writes:

“There are animals that sleep all the winter; – I am, I believe, become one of them: they creep into holes during the same season; – I have confined myself to the fireside of a snug parlour. If, indeed, a warm sunshiney day occurs, they sometimes creep out of their holes; – so, now and then, have I. They exist in a state of torpor, – so have I done: the only difference being, that I have all the while continued the habit of eating and drinking, which, to their advantage, they can dispense with. But my mind has certainly been asleep all the while; and whenever I have attempted to employ it, I have felt an oppression in my head which has obliged me to desist.”

My second stand-out entry is Anita Sethi’s moving account of the garden she and her mother began creating at their Manchester home one winter. Looking back on her childhood Sethi, now a journalist, writer and critic, explains how it helped develop her sense of identity. She writes: “Cultivating our garden was also a process cultivating deeper and richer sense of self, a sense of calm in the self, of comfort to the skin, a greater understanding of a connection wit the earth, even here in the heart of the inner city.” I loved this, and they way Sethi sees winter as a time of renewal and growth, of connections, hope, light, new beginings and belonging. It was such a positive and uplifting story.

Harrison’s choices – and what the authors have to say – is sometimes unexpected, but they will all make you think. As with any anthology I found myself considering things I would have included, and there were a few I couldn’t engage with, but over all I found it an enchanting book, and enjoyed re-visiting old favourites and making the acquaintance of authors I hadn’t come across before, but definitely want to explore further (there are brief biographical details of contributors, but I’d advise keeping a pen and paper to hand, so you can note down titles and authors if you want to read more). Her aim, apparently, was to celebrate living landscapes, and to inspire people to get out and enjoy the countryside and wildlife. With all the terrible things happening in the world at the moment, this may seem small and unimportant, but I think she’s right. There is a need to conserve and preserve our wildlife, but apart from that, walking in the countryside can make you feel better, physically and mentally, and even in urban areas there are usually parks and green spaces, and however small they are, and whatever the season, you can always find something to look at – a bird, an insect, a flower in bloom. 

Cats, Books and Squares!

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Cat in a bag… This is Gimli, who has a passion for bags and boxes!

Another bookshop post I’m afraid… because I’ve been staying in London for a few days looking after my younger daughter’s cat while she and her boyfriend went ‘Up North’ to see his family, and London is full of bookshops, so my ‘No New Books’ resolution has gone by the board! But London is full of all sorts of other things as well, and I had a lovely time wandering around looking at people, and buildings and parks, and thinking about the history beneath my feet. This is, I think, known as flaneusing, as described in a recent post by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, where she reviews Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin. A flaneur is a man who saunters around observing society and flaneuse, obviously, is the female equivalent. I find the word and the concept quite fascinating, and really must get hold of the book at some point.

Anyway, I digress (but maybe that is all part of flaneusing). No trip to London is complete without a visit to the Persephone Bookshop, and the nicest way to get there is to walk from Euston Station, taking in the Wellcome Collection and some of the Bloomsbury garden squares. The Wellcome Collection is fabulous and houses the most wonderful collection of medical exhibits collected by pharmaceutical company founder Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). It’s like a cabinet of curiosities on a grand scale, with some really bizarre things, so alongside blood-letting equipment and old surgical saws are magical amulets and a shrunken head – all sorts of objects from all sorts of places and all sorts of time periods, all designed to make people better, though I’m not at all sure how efficacious some of them would have been. Modern medicine is one of the things that convinces me progress is a Good Thing, especially when it comes to childbirth – avoid this display if you’re of nervous disposition! The Wellcome also has an interesting programme of touring exhibitions. The current one is ‘Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine’, but I’m saving that for my next trip! In addition there’s an excellent cafe and a small branch of Blackwell’s Books, where I succumbed to this, because it is such fun – a kind of alternative art activity book.


Fortified by tea and cake in the Wellcome I walked up through the gardens in Gordon Square, Woburn Square and Russell Square, which I always think of as being little green oases in the busy city, though at the moment they are so muddy I’m not sure the word ‘green’ is totally appropriate, but even so daffodils and crocuses were blooming in Russell Square Gardens – the first I’ve seen this year.

A daffodil in Russell Square.

These three squares were developed by the Dukes of Bedford, who owned a lot of land in the area, and were named for family connections. The 6th Duke’s second wife was Lady Georgiana Gordon, daughter of Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon; Woburn, as I expect you’re all aware, is the family estate, and Russell was (and, presumably, still is) the family surname.

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Georgian terraced homes Woburn Square.

The four sides of each square are lined largely with terraced houses – but don’t let that word ‘terraced’ fool you. These are not cramped Victorian homes for the working classes, but elegant Georgian establishments for well-heeled middle class professionals and businessmen who could afford servants to look after the children and do the cooking and cleaning. The central gardens were created for the residents, and surrounded by iron railings to keep the hoi polloi out. I guess garden squares like this must have inspired Mortimer Square, in Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, with its ‘gracious and imposing’ houses, and the central gardens fenced off with high wooden palings because the iron railings had been taken for the war effort (it’s set in the aftermath of WW2).

Anyway, I digress. Again. Today these three garden squares are open to the public, and boast a surprising amount of plants and wildlife – on a good day you can see birds, squirrels and a huge variety of insects. New railings have been errected to replace the ones removed during the war, and there are paths, water features, information boards, pieces of public art, and refreshment kiosks. On a sunny day you can sit and read, or just watch the world go by, and if you’re feeling energetic you can hunt for blue plaques or track down unmarked links to the past. When they were young author Virginia Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa Bell lived in Gordon Square (at number 46).

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Queen Square.

From Russell Square you head for Queen Square (and another garden). This was once called Queen Anne’s Square because a statue there was believed to be a memorial to her, but it is now thought to represent Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, who was treated for mental illness at one of the houses in the square.

Then it’s on to Great Ormond Street where you walk alongside the hospital, the first to provide beds for sick children, founded in 1852 by Dr Charles West, who was a friend of Charles Dickens. There I encountered a small boy in a wheelchair, with a tube in his nose, laughing and waving delightedly, and when I wave back he got even more excited, and his mother smiled and waved as well. Was he one of the young patients I wondered, for a breath of fresh air? Great Ormond Street takes you to Lamb’s Conduit Street, and the Persephone Bookshop where I bought these:

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I love the colours of this crochet blanket against the dove grey books.

Long Live Great Bardfield, by Tirzah Garwood and A London Childhood of the 1970s, by Molly Hughes were both on my Wish List, and I was going to get The Carlyles at Home, by Thea Holme, but at the last moment I changed my mind and got Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout instead. The shop is such a treat to visit, very calm and restrained, with shelves full of dove grey books, classical music playing softly in the background, and low lighting. There was even a vase of daphne scenting the air with its glorious perfume. The staff are there to help if you need them, but are happy to let you browse uninterrupted, and it’s all a bit like walking into someone’s book-filled sitting room. By the way, if you’ve lost any of those lovely Persephone bookmarks, they sell spares for 50p each.

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The Persephone shop is such a treat!

The building, apparently, was built in 1702-3, and has a basement which remains almost unchanged. The street was developed by Nicholas Barbon, who is thought to have been the first person to sell fire insurance to householders (during the reconstruction period after the Great Fire of London, so I imagine he must have done rather well for himself). He rejoiced in what must be one of the most unusual middle names ever ‘If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned’ bestowed upon him by his father, the Puritan Praise-God Barebone (remember the Civil War, and the Interregnum, and the Barebone’s Parliament?).

Lamb’s Conduit Street gets its name from a water conduit installed or restored by William Lamb in the 16thC, which channelled water from a tributary of the Fleet River into open wooden pipes, allowing it to run down into the city. He also provided 120 pails for poor women so, presumably, they had something to carry the water in!


The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

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OK, it’s December, and Japanese Literature Challenge 11, organised by Meredith at, is almost at an end, but it runs until the end of January, so I’ve got a few weeks yet to join in. My track record on this challenge is not good – I’ve signed up a couple of times, only to find Life, the Universe and Everything got in the way. Last year I spent so much time with my mother that I did very little else, and this year I don’t seem to have got myself into gear at all. But during that time I have read several Japanese books, and even typed up a few notes, but never got round to posting them. So I’ve done some re-reading (I hope that is OK) and tried to knock my thoughts into shape.

First up is The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon, which I’ve read several times, and dip in and out of it when the mood takes me, and on each occasion different things leap out me. It is, I think, utterly delightful – a description that Sei herself uses frequently when telling us about life at the imperial palace in Japan a little over 1,000 years ago. She was a lady-in-waiting for the Empress Teishi, and the book is the most wonderfully lively, gossipy account of her life, like a diary on a grand scale, with stories, poems, lists of things she did and didn’t like, historical information, comments about people, and details about clothes, customs, festivals, weather and so on. Actually, I guess the nearest modern equivalent would be a blog!

downloadSei is very entertaining, and very opinionated (in a nice kind of way), and her voice comes down through the centuries loud and clear. She was clever, quick-witted, could be very funny, loved clothes, and had a keen enjoyment of the small things in life – sunshine, a flower, a lovely view, a beautifully written and presented letter, floorboards polished to a reflective shine… She joked with her female companions, flirted with good-looking men, and was an astute observer of people, capturing the characters and foibles of courtiers, officials, servants, priests, dancers and whoever else she came into contact with.

Her adulation of the imperial family sounds excessive, but they were regarded more or less as Gods, so her attitude reflects the time. And she didn’t suffer fools gladly (she was awfully snippety about people she didn’t like), and was very conscious of her position and her own abilities, so she can seem a little self-important and pompous. However, to offset that she had a sense of humour and could laugh at herself. Above all, I think, she had a great joy in life.

I suppose she could be regarded as a bit of an air-head, because she ignored major events and concentrated on the everyday, but it’s those little details that bring her world to life (and, in any case, most people are much more interested in small issues that affect them directly – when I worked on a local paper we would get swamped with letters about dog poo and bus shelters, but plans for roads or huge developments often went unnoticed).

download (1)The imperial palace where Sei lived and worked was a city within a city, a world apart and women were were enclosed within that. Their lives were circumscribed, and Sei and her companions peered out at the world through the blinds in their carriages, or the screens that surrounded rooms in the palace. They received visitors (for themselves and the empress) from behind these screens, but would make sure the edges of their garments could be seen, even if their bodies and faces were hidden! There were rank upon rank of officials, all with the most splendid titles, with clearly prescribed duties, clothes and areas of interest. There is mention, for example, of a Minister of the Left, of the Smaller Palace of the First Ward… Doesn’t that sound grand? Appearance and position were paramount, and the court was aesthetic, refined, elegant, with rules and rituals, where nothing seems to change.

At this point I’m pondering which way to go next – sometimes it’s difficult writing about a book you like, and deciding what to put in and what to leave out, so this is going to be way too long. But I must mention the poetry. Courtiers, men and women alike, were expected to recite from an extensive catalogue of classic poems – and to produce their own offerings, referencing the older works.

And I’m fascinated by their letters which seem to take the form of short, allusive poetry, written with brushes on coloured papers, which were attached to twigs or flowers. They were little works of art, the paper and plant selected with great care so they would be perfect partners for the subject, adding layers of meaning to the message. And recipients were required to send an immediate poetic response, referencing the poem received, as well as any earlier works alluded to – which of us today could do that as quickly and competently as Sei and her friends?

download (2)I’m equally intrigued by the clothes, made from layers of beaten silk, with the edges of each hem a set distance from the surface below, with the women’s wide flowing sleeves artfully arranged so the many edges could be clearly seen. How tricky would it be to replicate that I wonder… And there were strict rules about the colour combinations that could be used, and the styles and colours work at different levels of society.

Alongside the civilised sophistication there are moments of pure fun, like this odd ritual during the New Year festivities:

On the fifteenth day, the day of the full moon, a delightful scene always takes place in the houses of the nobility after the festival food is served. Both the senior and the junior gentlewomen of the house go about looking for a chance to strike each other with gruel sticks, constantly glancing behind them to make sure they aren’t hit themselves. It’s marvellous fun when someone manages somehow to get in a strike and everyone bursts into delighted peals of laughter – though you can certainly see how the poor victim herself feels upset.”

And there’s a wonderful description of how, after a heavy fall of snow, the Empress orders palace servants to make a snow mountain (the equivalent of our snowmen perhaps) and the women bet on how long it will take to melt, and Sei (who has guessed the longest time) goes to great lengths to ensure a groundsman cares for the mountain, and ensures children don’t climb on it and destroy it.

An illustration of Sei Shonagon from an issue of Hyakunin Isshu, produced during the Edo period, at least 400 years after Sei’s death (Wikipedia).

Then there are the lists, which are far more than a simple register of words or names, because she gives her thoughts on her choices, and frequently takes diversions to recount stories, details and explanations that may be only loosely connected. There are ordinary categories like wells, plains, rivers and mountains. But others are very idiosyncratic, with entries which I’m sure many of us would still relate to today. Things that Make the Heart Lurch with Anxiety is headed by watching a horse race (as hard on the nerves now as it was then), and I’m sure most gardeners would agree with her inclusion of slugs in Horrid Filthy Things! There are Repulsive Things, Dispiriting Things, Infuriating Things, Things that Make your Heart Beat Fast, Things that Make you Feel Cheerful, Refined and Elegant Things, Things that Look Better Painted, Common Things that Suddenly Sound Special… the list is endless. I particularly like Things that Give you Pleasure, which features the first volume of a tale you haven’t come across before and are longing to continue – then you find the other volume! I get just as thrilled when I discover a book by an author I love, or track down something I’ve been searching for. Actually, I think it would be rather fun to spend a year compiling lists inspired by those Sei drew up.

330px-Fujiwara_MichinagaNames, spellings and interpretation vary, depending on which translation you read. I have a Penguin edition (on the Kindle), translated by Meredith McKinney, which has an excellent introduction, and lots of appendices, with details about various aspects of life in Japan in the late 10thC and early 11thC. She reveals the little that is known about Sei Shonagon, and reflects on what the purpose of the book may have been. It helped put things into context, because the world portrayed in The Pillow Book often seems very alien – but I think people are much the same, wherever and whenever they lived. The picture (right) by Kikuchi Yosai, shows Fujiwara no Michinaga, was chancellor during part of the time Sei was at court.

For more information about the Japanese Literature Challenge  11, and to find links to see what other people have been reading, go to


The White Road

This is China Clay, pictured in a display at Plymouth Museum. The chunk on the left shows the clay in its natural state (it’s basically granite that rots down, and some crystals from the rock are still there. The piece on the right is what it looks like when its been cleaned and purified.

“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.

Cermacist Edmund de Waal. (Pic from his website)

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.

China clay can be moulded, painted, decorated and glazed. These pieces, on display at Plymouth museum, are from the Plymouth Porcelain Factory – the first place in England to make ‘hard paste’ porcelain.

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.

William Cookworthy, possibly painted in 1780, the year he died, by John Opie.

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.

Early pieces produced at the Plymouth Porcelain Factory are on show in the city’s main museum. But it’s hard to get a good photo, because there’s a lot of reflection from the glass. They were painted with English cobalt, which is darker than than the Chinese variety.

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.”

I have a Kindle, so I downloaded this from Amazon, because I always feel a book should have a cover.

Buttons and Threads

Button Box

So there I was, enjoying a nice, slow, leisurely re-read of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and pondering all things Tudor, when I took a break to visit other blogs, and discovered Lynne at Dove Grey Reader was reading The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Lives by Lynn Knight.  She wrote a lovely post about it here, focusing  very much on her own memories, and mentioning all sorts of sewing-related things, including embroidered tray cloths, Cash’s name tapes, haberdashery and, obviously, buttons (what else would you expect in a piece about a book called The Button Box?).

It conjured up so many memories of my own childhood, and sounded so wonderful I just HAD to have it. And, since instant gratification was the order of the day,  I downloaded it on to the Kindle, which turned out to be a Very Good Thing, because this was a couple of months ago, just before I dashed off to Mum when she was ill. Now Wolf Hall is brilliant, but it’s a bit too much of a chunkster to be a good travelling companion, whereas the Kindle, being small and slim, is ideal for journeys. So I left Master Cromwell chatting to Jane Seymour while he awaits my return, and I headed for The Button Box, which was every bit as good as I had hoped.

Buttons from my button tin.

Lest you should think a book about buttons sounds boring, let me assure you it is not – and it’s not just about buttons. Lynn (the writer) selects buttons from her collection to reveal stories about her family’s past, but she also uses them to channel a wealth of information about social history, with the emphasis on women’s clothing and the way it reflects the changing roles of women in society, from Victorian times through to the present day.

Alongside tales of her grandmother Annie (a skilled amateur dressmaker), great-aunt Eva (a smart dresser if ever there was), and her mother in her fashionable cocktail dresses, are accounts of Victorian mourning rituals, adopted babies (or foundlings, as they were once known), Suffragettes and their fight for the vote, working women on limited budgets, middle class women with their clothing allowances, and the vital tasks undertaken by women during two world wars. Knight also explores the lives of the women who made clothes – the dressmakers who stitched their days away, often for very little money, so other women could live out their dreams. And, of course, she describes her buttons, and explores the button making industry, which became established in the UK in the middle of the 19th century and was, for many years, based in Birmingham.

I loved this book and ended up following much the same route as Lynne (the blogger), because as I dipped in and out of the pages I kept stopping to rootle around in Mum’s sewing box (above), and chat to her about the various clothes and household items she stitched over the years, and the things I sewed and embroidered (and still do). When I was a child I loved playing with the sewing box, and it’s still a treasure trove of goodies – even more so now, perhaps, because of the memories it holds. For a start, there’s this:

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Mum’s wooden darning mushroom and the thread she used to mend holes in Dad’s socks.

It’s the wooden darning mushroom Mum used to darn Dad’s socks (he always put his big toes through the ends). The socks were slipped over the mushroom, to hold them firmly in shape while stitching. Does anyone still use them I wonder? Are they even manufactured any longer? And can you still get cards wound around with wool to match the colours of socks?  And what about the fine, flesh-coloured filaments of nylon which Mum once used to mend holes and runs in stockings? It seems so pointless now, when cheap tights are readily available but, as Mum says, stockings were virtually unobtainable during the war, and were still in short supply afterwards, so women did their best to make them last a little bit longer. The habit of looking after things, and keeping scraps and oddments in case they came in useful, became second nature, she explains. It was all part of that of the ‘make do and mend’ culture generated by the war. When I think about it I’m surprised at how the needlework equipment reflects personal and general history. Knight is spot on with her approach because these things, unused by Mum for a number of years, could be considered worthless, yet they reveal layer upon layer of history.

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Nylon ladder mendings…. For mending ladders in nylon stockings.

There are reels of thread, some of them old wooden spools – my father used an empty reel to make me a knitting dolly, with four nails banged around the central hole, and I produced yards and yards of tubular French knitting from oddments of wool. Mum’s also squirreled away hooks and eyes, press studs and zips, many of them carefully removed from old clothes. There’s dress maker’s chalk, thimbles, scissors, and all sorts of needles. We’re both fascinated by the curved monsters in the photo below. One of them appears to be listed as a sailmaker’s needle, and Mum certainly never made any sails! Her memory is not what it was, but thinks these may have been some kind of upholstery. Whatever their use, they were considered to be essential items in the workbox.

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These are the hugest needles I’ve ever seen.

I also open up her sewing machine. It’s an electric Singer, a shiny black cast iron beauty, with golden decorations, housed in a solid wood table, with a covering top that swings open to form a work surface. She and Dad bought it 1953, when they went shopping for a kitchen cabinet! It says much for my father’s good nature that they returned home with a magnificent top-of-the-range sewing machine, priced at £60 11s 6d (old money – this was well before decimalisation). They bought it on hire purchase, and the interest pushed the total cost up to £69 4s 6d (Mum still has all the original paperwork for the machine, including the HP agreement).

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I learned to sew on this machine, and it’s the best ever. It stitches its way through any fabric, without having to keep altering the  tension or changing needles, and it it has a lovely even stitch, and is absolutely ace at hems. But the rubber wiring is beginning to perish, so I guess the electrics need looking at.

Tracking down the equivalent value today proved tricky: one site I looked at suggested £1,347, while another came up with £1,791.80. So to try and put things in perspective I read an old Guardian article, and discovered the average weekly take-home pay in 1953 was £9 5s, so the sewing machine was unbelievably expensive, and Mum was the envy of all her friends – a real trendsetter! It was, she says, money well spent. She made all sorts of clothes on it, for herself, and for my brother and I – everything from thick woollen coats to the flimsy net tutus I wore for ballet, as well as curtains, cushions, bed covers and dolls’ clothes. One year for Christmas she made me a doll’s cradle out of a wooden fruit or vegetable box. She padded it with an old blanket, then covered it inside and out with remnants of embroidered white silks and satins left over from a wedding dress made by the dressmaker who lived in the flat above my uncle…. There was a matching pillow and eiderdown (who remembers eiderdowns?) and everything was trimmed with gathered lace edgings (also donated by the dressmaker). It was stitched in secret, after I’d gone to bed, and must have taken her weeks and weeks, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Sadly, there is no photograph of it, but it lives on in my memory, a testament not just to Mum’s skill as a seamstress, but to her love for me.

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It folds away like this, and the worktop bit flaps back over to turn it into a table…
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… Like this. The foot control should be stowed away inside, but I put it here just for the photo, to show how it compares to modern ones. And if you look closely you can see that the wiring looks a bit dodgy.

Oh dear, I seem to have digressed, and this post is getting longer and longer, and I haven’t even mentioned my own button tin, but The Button Box is that kind of book. It invites memories and meanderings, and you could take any chapter and write reams about it. but I really must wind things up.

So here goes. It’s all too easy to dismiss sewing and women’s fashion as frivolous and unimportant, but Knight made me realise how much fashion reflects social customs and women’s position in society. Her book is very readable, and well well researched (she acknowledges her sources in an extensive bibliography, which is nice to see),  and she shows the importance of innovations like home sewing machines, off-the-peg clothing, lightweight easy-to-wash materials, electric steam irons, and modern fastenings. They seem so simple yet, according to Knight, not only did they give ordinary women the chance to be well-dressed, but they freed women from time consuming tasks like washing and hand-stitching, changing lives and opening up new opportunities outside the home.