Saturday, June 29, 2013

Country Hoard

With my interest in slower, rural life, Alison Uttley's recollection of a late 19th Century childhood on a farm in Derbyshire fitted the whimsical bill.
Known by me for her successful children's books ( especially A Traveller in Time and the Little Grey Rabbit series ), this title is illustrated with great care by C F Tunnicliffe. 
It's another time and another place, when communities, though often isolated, were cohesive.
   "Anyone who had been snubbed or repressed to silence before other people was said to have "sneaped". A haughty woman would sneap another, an overbearing man would sneap his wife, the wintry wind sneaped us to silence. 
    A person who was too sensitive to cold was said to be nesh. It was often used of one who was unable to endure any hardship. Also it had a kinder meaning. After an illness one was nesh, and must take care. A baby was nesh, and must be guarded." ( P. 127 )

Much is made of the rhythms of farm life, the joys of the recurring seasons, the ties that bind the members of a community and the simplicity of self-reliance.
   "The strange smells of the smithy attracted me, and I stood as near the open door as I dared. The blacksmith was a morose man, in his leather apron, dark and torn. His face was dark, his hair coal black, his temper was irritable, he shouted strange oaths, and threw down his hammer with such a clatter it was like doom. He blew up the fire with wheezing bellows, and a shower of golden sparks went through the hole in the roof to the trees above. He shaped the horse-shoe on the anvil and the sharp clang of the hammer rang through the market place like a bell". ( P. 86 )
The world, as such, exists within reach, for everything necessary is there, within reach, for contentment.
She doesn't ever seem to have had a dull day, but then there was always activity around the farm, and the natural world around it to explore.
 Although looking back, this memoir is also a tribute to the senses, tingling with life.
   "Frummerty, which we had for breakfast at certain periods, was whole wheat, creed all day and night in the oven. "Creeing" meant the art of cooking very slowly in an earthenware vessel, until the wheat formed a jelly. 
    We called the rind of bacon, the sword. Bacon badly cured was reasty. Heavy bread was sad, a most expressive description. We culled the vegetables when we gathered them. Peas and beans were hulled, which meant shelled. The shells were hulls". ( P. 129 )
The twelve chapters ( with names such as 'Sledging', 'Flowers', 'Writing Letters', 'Bathrooms' - with which Alison Uttley grew up without - and 'Field Toys' ) read as a sort of traveller's guide to the past. Although perhaps a little simplistic and rosy to us today, the writing asks to be lingered over.
  This is, of course though, the world seen through a child's eyes, when everything is new.
   "I felt such bliss steal over me as I pulled the sledge up the hill that I knew I had reached the core. There could never be anything more beautiful as long as I lived. If only the snow would stay, if the night wouldn't fall, if the lamplight would always shine from the farmhouse to tell me that home was waiting! I could go on for ever, immortal". ( P. 57 )
It's the sort of book you sigh over, saving chapters for later, not wanting it to end...
...but then, I've got these great, ripping Australian yarns, 'The Bunyip of Barney's Elbow', to get stuck into, so regret won't be lasting long...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Up into the Mountains

It's getting harder to sell second-hand books from a bookshop now. The world is becoming ever more virtual, maybe less tangible. I believe even most of the second-hand bookshops in London have closed down.
There are some of us though who seem to need the conveyance old books offer more than ever. Finding them is like mining for diamonds.
Regarded as the first modern mountaineer, Francis Sydney Smythe  ( 06 July 1900 - 27 June 1949 ) was unknown to me until now. Not only were his physical achievements more significant than most of us could consider accomplishing, he was also known as a botanist, author and photographer, even as one of the earliest environmentalists.
Over Welsh Hills was first published in 1941. This is how Francis Smythe describes the wind as he knew it, mountaineering:
"The sound of wind has been conventionalised by the theatre, the film, and the B.B.C. into a wailing and whistling, but that is not the sound the climber hears. The worst Alpine storm I was ever in was on the Schreckhorn in the Bernese Oberland. The wind made a noise rivalling the thunder that accompanied it, so that the wind and thunder were almost indistinguishable. There were times when it approached with a roar like an express train in a tunnel, whilst now and then it fell upon us with a sudden tearing, explosive sound as though it were rending the mountain in twain. I have heard this same rending sound in the British hills, a fearsome noise difficult to attribute to so fluid and transparent an element as air. But to appreciate the grandeur of wind you must struggle down through a storm of it and having reached shelter listen to it on the mountain above".( P. 34 )
 I'm not a mountaineer myself, and have no inclination to scale great heights. I do, though, love to get out into open landscape and feel all my senses come alive again after the captivity of city life.
Despite his protestations, this book is not only filled with marvellous photographs, but it is beautifully written. "Smythe's focused approach is well documented", Wikipedia informs us.
Here is Francis Smythe letting you in on a bit of insider knowledge:
"The great advantage of British mountaineering is that it is unnecessary to rise early. For me the early Alpine start, the inadequate breakfast, and rebellious stomach, the boot lace that breaks, the candle lantern that insists on unfolding the wrong way, the stumblings and cursings on the moraine are things that must be endured: they have long since lost their romantic charm. In the British hills a man can rise at a Christian hour, leisurely bathe and dress himself, and tuck away, in peacetime at all events, a substantial breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast, butter, and marmalade before setting forth on his climb". ( P. 25 )
The nearest I got to climbing any mountain was on a school trek in Victoria's high country during winter. As tough as it was - everything wet, the nights freezing, stuck on high spurs totally disorientated - it was delicious. You get to see nature at its rawest, and how it has existed almost eternally. You wake up or if you don't wake up, you fall.
He has the eye of an artist, Francis Smythe: "We climbed past hoary, lichen covered rocks, past trickles gurgling through the peat, and little waterfalls still nailed by the night's frost to the rocks in sheets of rough ice until we came to the snow line. There was not much snow, an inch or so riming the grass, except where the wind had spilled it into drifts, but even that sufficed to transport us to a new world. Up to then we had trodden grass, rocks and heather. Everything had been sunny and light, but up on the snow we entered into a World that was not merely bright but celestially brilliant, and this brilliance seemed to carry us not a few steps further but miles, so that the valleys instantly became dim and remote. To add to this illusion of being suddenly cut off from the world a cloud or two formed and came drifting by, mist so tenuous and thin that it did little to diminish the power of the sun which although low in the sky shone with almost Alpine intensity". ( PP. 29-30 )
The world races on emphatically, as fast as any wind. Necessary and laudable as growth and forward movement are, he, Faisal, the un-climber, says, sometimes I feel we are tourists, rushing from thrill to synthetic thrill, not stopping long enough anywhere to really know where we are, or even, maybe, to know what we are doing. So that is moving forward? Books - especially books like this - anchor me. I feel I am being imparted with rare, valuable information. I feel one of a long line of listeners or readers who hear and see more than the mundane world stops long enough to acknowledge.
The bookshop I work in will be closing soon. Is that a triumph of the new over the old? Perhaps, but perhaps too it's a fearsome rendering.
I'm fortunate to have my shelter and to know I can climb the steepest of gradients.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Choof Choof Choof

It was a bit of an effort to trudge to handsome Kyneton ( an hour away on the train from Melbourne ) today, but I wanted to see its Botanic Gardens again.
If it wasn't for a fear of falling asleep and a cold air that stopped the circulation in my fingers, I would have readily lain here.
First landscaped in 1866, the nine hectares of gardens abut the Campaspe River, which river could do with some serious restoration, so I haven't shown it here. There are numerous oaks, including three cork oaks ( Quercus suber ), pines, firs, Araucarias, things I was too tired to jot down and a Chilean Wine Palm ( Jubaea chilensis ), "listed on the register of significant trees of Victoria". And these, of course, these aloes and grasses.
It being the end of autumn, rare bright colours such as in these Kniphofia and in this splash of Gingko leaves, lift the senses of the weary photographer/onlooker.
If life were a fairy tale I might easily take requisition of this tiny cottage and roam the surrounding grounds as if they were my own domain. I didn't see any bears, wolves or carriages or pumpkins or bowls of what would have been welcome porridge, but there were plenty of magpies here.
Scruffy around its edges, many of its trees dishevelled and with an alarming number of clunky cement picnic tables ( unshown ), the gardens nonetheless open their arms to the visitor and possess delightful quirks:
a rose garden,
with its lovely, rusted iron frames.
A twist and a wave.
More aloes, soldiers standing to attention.
Palms, though this wasn't a balmy day and I almost longed for a fur coat, but I dislike the means by which fur coats are got, so thin clothes and wet boots had to be borne.
I guess I can pretend I'm in the Mediterranean.
Not that the above in situ shack could be called a villa. I've no idea what it's doing here but it's a rather gorgeous bit of another age -
- though this, this Wollemi Pine ( Wollemia nobilis ) is far more ancient, by lineage. Planted by "Neil, the Baron von Hoelloenzon and his brother Grafling Barrington von Hirt, relatives of Baron Ferdinand von Mueller ( the guiding spirit behind the design of the gardens )" on 6th of April, 2008, "to commemorate 150 years of the Kyneton Botanic Gardens".
I staggered on, after lunch, out of here, into the township.
The bluestone has been quarried locally. Should I now move out of the cottage in the Gardens, and slip into a more respectable life here?
Or here? A sort of 1920s French-inspired Aussie thing. I love it.
But I probably love this most of all, "Catherineville", built in 1872. I continued walking, my feet dragging slightly -
- to stop here, at St Paul's Anglican Church, where a friendly local turned around and talked to me, one of the reasons I love these train trips out of Melbourne. See the turquoise glass. Isn't it wonderful?
I returned to the Botanic Gardens, with enough puff left for a quick walk. It's colder here than in Melbourne, so moss and lichen take hold... everything I've seen has taken hold, leading me, however tired, to new and old outlooks, neither of which I could live without.