Happy New Year

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda
From the calendar of the Tres Riches Heures, created for Jean, Duc de Berry. He is shown seated right (in blue) while members of his household exchanges New Year gifts.

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).

Ravilious the vicarage in winter (2)
The Vicarage in Winter, Eric Revilious.

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)

New Year nine tailors
This painting of Bell Ringers is by Henry Ryland (1856-1924), and is kept at the Christopher Wood Gallery, London.

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)

louviennes sisley
Snow at Louveciennes, Alfred Sisley, 1878.

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)

honor c appleton
Children Playing by Honor C Appleton.  

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.

A panoramic Winter Landscape with a Multitude of Figures on a Frozen River, Hendrik Avercamp, 1610.

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!

Arthur draws the Sword from the Stone, by Walter Crane.

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. 

EThe Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkeness attending the Revelry (The Eve of St Agnes), William Holman Hunt.


New Year, Resolutions and an Arthurian Sword

It’s New Year’s Day… And here is the Wart, on New Year’s Day, pulling the
Sword from the Stone in the Disney cartoon of the same name. The film
 was based on TH White’s The Once and Future King,

Happy New Year Everyone! Since people seem to be making resolutions and planning for 2015 I feel as if I should too, even though I know from past experience that I rarely stick to the lists I draw up. I’m toying with the idea of joining a couple of blogs. I like the idea of finding a bookish connection for every one of the traditional English counties, so Reading England 2015 sounds fun, but I don’t want to be tied down to too many books, so maybe I’ll aim for a lower level and just read half a dozen books for this one. And the What’s in a Name Challenge sounds fun – I could do this one easily using books from the TBR pile, and there aren’t that many books, so I’d still have plenty of time to read anything else that takes my fancy.

In addition, since most of my reading seems to be limited to British authors, and I am woefully ignorant about writers from other countries and cultures, I would like to try and read more foreign authors. I’ve got some Australian books on a shelf, and Zola and Balzac on the Kindle, so that would be a start!

Meanwhile, I seem to have gathered a pile of books by my armchair while ‘catching up’ on Radio 4 over the Christmas period– I love BBC Radio’s readings and dramatisations, and there have been some real goodies over the last couple of weeks. I’ve enjoyed TH White’s The Once and Future King, Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring and The Diary of a Provincial Lady, by EM Delafield, which are all old favourites so, of course, so I had to hunt out the books for some re-reading. And I’ve also ended up with a stash of other Arthurian books, and a copy of Christina Hardyment’s biography of Malory, which someone gave my mother, and she gave me!

A Walter Crane illustration of Arthur pulling the
sword from the stone.
Then there was Susanna Hislop’s Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations, a fascinating mix of myths and science, which had me standing out in the garden gazing at the stars and contemplating the universe. This book has been added to my Wish List, and I’m considering taking a trip out one night somewhere with a better view of the night sky – there are too many roofs and lights where we are, which is a shame, because there have been some lovely clear night skies while the weather has been so cold and frosty.

I’m looking forward to listening to Fay Weldon’s The Girls of Slender Means, which is the current Book at Bedtime (I like listening to serials in one fell swoop – I get frustrated with them because I want to know what happens, even when I’ve read the book!). And I’ll be glued to the radio for much of today for a marathon session of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – though I’m not sure I’ll remain uninterrupted until the end!

Anyway, from this surfeit of riches TH White’s The Once and Future King seems the most suitable inspiration for New Year, because it is New Year Year’s Day when Arthur pulls the sword from the stone. If you remember, the newly-knighted Kay is to fight in a great festive tournament, but he’s left his sword at the inn, so he sends Arthur back for it. However, the inn is locked, and Arthur, determined to find a weapon for his foster brother, takes one from an anvil set in a stone in a graveyard.

Arthur, or Wart, if we’re following White (because, as he says, it more or less rhymes with Art, which is short for Arthur) must be the only person in the kingdom who knows nothing about this sword in the stone, which miraculously appeared on Christmas Day. According to White, the sword is ‘stuck through an anvil which stands on a stone. It goes right through the anvil and into the stone. The anvil is stuck to the stone. The stone stands outside a church’.

He pretty much follows Malory, who tells us in Le Morte d’Arthur of a ‘great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:—Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England’.

Arthur, knowing nothing of all this, hands the sword to Kay, who initially lays claim to it, before admitting it is Arthur’s achievement But the noble lords of the realm are not happy and refuse to believe this seemingly base-born lad, a foundling, of unknown parentage, is really the son of dead King Uther. There are contests on Twelfth Day, Candlemas and at Easter when the knights gather to pit their strength against Arthur – but on each occasion he is the only one who can draw forth the sword, so he is finally crowned at Pentecost.

This is from an early 14th century manuscript, produced more than 150 years before
Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur. It shows the sword pushed  sideways into the stone.

Spellbound by a Sparkling Story!

Happy New Year people! I’m still here – I haven’t gone anywhere, and I certainly haven’t given up blogging. But I cannot believe I haven’t posted anything since the middle of November, and I haven’t really got much of an explanation. I’ve been trying to get ‘social media’ stuff up and running for Oxfam Lichfield, and I’ve been focusing so hard on that, it seems to have squeezed everything else out – I even wrote an Advent Alphabet, highlighting things in the shops and the charity’s work. Here’s the rhyme for ‘H’ on December 8. 
For warmth when it’s cold
Or shade in the Heat
A Hat on your Head
Makes an outfit complete.

And it was the anniversary of my Father’s death, which always gets me down, and then I don’t feel like doing much. And it there was the run-up to Christmas, and New Year, and my Mother has been to stay, and my Daughters visited, with their boyfriends, and I had a lovely time over Christmas, but The Book Trunk got a bit forgotten! 

Now it’s January 1, and I’m trying to organise myself for the year ahead… Back on the diet, lots of walks planned, crochet and sewing to finish, lists to write – you know the kind of thing. Anyway, Oxfam Lichfield’s Facebook page is doing quite well after being ignored for ages because no-one had any time to do anything with it. It’s generating ‘likes’ and a few comments, and almost runs itself. I take photos, and write little bits, then schedule them to appear. Scheduling is like magic I’ve decided, because you can do masses of stuff in advance, then more or less forget about it all – I should use it more here, and it might stop me getting behind! And I wish I could use it on Oxfam Lichfield Twitter, I’m sure it would make life easier – when I’m stuck, then whatever the weather I tell people it’s ideal weather for buying books! The weather can never be too bad or too good for buying books – wouldn’t you agree?
And I’ve set up a blog for our two Oxfam shops. It’s in what can only be described as an embryonic stage, but I’ve got posts scheduled to appear, someone cleverer than me is going to work on the design and, hopefully, it will gradually acquire its own identity. So you can see, I really have been busy, and haven’t been idling my time away.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a book blog, so I shall stop wittering on about my volunteering project, and enthuse about a book – Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark. With the exception of The Mandelbaum Gate, which I wouldn’t read again even if you paid me, I just love Spark’s novels, and this is one of her best – way up there with my favourites, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and The Girls of Slender Means. 
Spark doesn’t do heroines – she doesn’t do heroes of villains either – but Fleur Talbot is as near a heroine as you’ll find in Spark’s work. Fleur takes a mysterious job as secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver, who is the director of the Autobiographical Association, a very peculiar organisation whose idiosyncratic (positively batty even) members are compiling their memoirs, but no-one has got beyond the first chapter. They’re hampered by dodgy memories and lack of talent, and it falls to Fleur to try and make sense of their efforts .
She herself is writing a novel, Warrender Chase, which Sir Oliver steals, and somehow life and fiction become strangely and inextricably mixed as things Fleur believes she has created in her story actually happen, and it becomes more and more difficult to tell what’s real, and what’s not, and you start to wonder is Fleur a reliable witness to events – or is the whole mad, chaotic story spun out of her imagination.
Actually, Fleur reminds me a little of Pompey in Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper – I know I said you are unlikely to ever read anything quite like it, but I hadn’t read this then, and quite apart from the fact that Pompey is writing a novel while she works as a secretary for publisher, there is something in these characters’ outlook on life, that is similar, and the way they stand back observing things and people.
I assume Fleur is based on Spark, and her thoughts on writing fiction and the creative process are, presumably those of the author. As in much of her other work, Spark raises issues about the nature of reality and fiction, belief in God, immortal souls, love, death, truth and lies. None of the characters ever quite connect with each other, and they all seem to have shaped their own little worlds from their own realities, but none of the realities fit together – and in any case does anyone ever know what truth really is. Loitering with Intent is darkly funny, very witty, beautifully written in classic Sparkling style, and held me spellbound from start to finish. How could anyone not like a book which opens like this:
One day in the middle of the twentieth century I sat in an old graveyard which had not yet been demolished, in the Kensington area of London, when a young policeman stepped off the path and came over to me.
And if you think that sounds gentle, then beware, because Spark is never gentle, and never safe. She’s wickedly funny, but she’s sharp and spiky and can be very unsettling indeed as she probes below the surface of polite society and turns the world upside down, and at the same time she poses those big questions about life, the universe and everything.