Month: August 2013

Two scavengers in a truck?

Oh, and there's a green bin, too...

Oh, and there’s a green bin, too…

I live in a small village in the Pennines. It’s just in the lee of the Pennines, in fact: I used to say that it was ‘in the foothills’, until someone told me that I was making myself sound like Sherpa Tenzing. But I was right – these are foothills. Anyway, our house is served by an excellent local authority (very hot on value for money and citizens’ rights! It is in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, btw).
I’m mentioning all of this because the week started with a public holiday. Public holidays are fabulous (though if you work from home you hardly notice them), but in this village, as I guess in many towns and villages up and down the land, they cause a major anxiety: will the dustman (no, I’m not going to say ‘dustperson’) come on the same day as usual or not?
I have to say that our dustmen are usually excellent and although they may come late after a holiday, sometimes accompanied by relief workers, they try to stick to the correct date. But there is another, related, angst: will the bank holiday have caused the rubbish collection schedule to go awry?
For the past several years, collecting, storing and disposing of rubbish in this community has become, if not a fine art, then at least an activity requiring more patience and practical intelligence than I, for one, possess. I leave all this to my husband, who on Tuesday evenings may be observed standing outside engaged in earnest conversation with a knot of neighbours. All are keen to get it right – otherwise Armageddon may come lurching round the prettily carved millstone which heralds the start of the village, and the streets will be strewn with detritus.
I’m not the expert, as I’ve said, but I’ve worked out this much: We have four bins, which are blue, brown, grey and green… and a green box. The bins are for paper, glass/cans/plastic, garden rubbish and ‘domestic waste’ (I think that means everything else). The box pre-dated the bins, but I understand that it’s for bottles and cans (I am now reliably informed that it has been superseded by a bin, but passes muster as an overflow when the grown-up children come to stay) . Each household is issued with a rota. For groups of houses, there is a bin collection point, to which owners must trundle their ‘wheelies’ (rumbling characterises Tuesday evenings). One bin, the grey ‘domestic waste’ one, is emptied on alternate weeks; the three others and the plastic box in the intervening weeks. Woe betide anyone who puts out the wrong bin, puts the bins out in the wrong place, puts the wrong rubbish in any of the bins or fills a bin so full that it won’t close. The dustmen will then ignore them, refusing to empty them. Recalcitrant or exceptionally stupid householders might even be reported for fouling up the process!
The twenty-first century has debunked or devalued many occupations. Lawyers have lost their gloss and bankers are positive pariahs. Teachers and nurses are still respected by ordinary people, but continue to have scorn sprayed on them by the government. Jobs in high street retailing, always a young person’s industry, have been decimated by out-of-town shopping centres and semi-automated check-outs. It is with a mixture of irony and amusement, therefore, that I observe that the opening decades of this century have witnessed the rise and ever-upwards-rise of the dustman. Dustmen today are no longer Alfred Doolittles or Lonnie Donegan’s ‘My old man’. They are not shuffling, shifty or half-sharp. They are tough and businesslike, assiduous workers running a streamlined system, a system that is vital and in which they are all-powerful. These dustmen are not the bent-over, bandy-legged figures of my youth. They are tall, strong men*, rather smartly dressed in their donkey jackets, uniform overalls and fluorescent gilets, all sporting safety boots and brightly-coloured industrial rubber gloves. Anger one of these dustmen at your peril.
It is a supreme example of social justice at work. Having been a bookseller, which I admit is a privileged career, certainly at what is known as the ‘high end’ of retailing, I’ve often reflected how much we undervalue those who perform the services that make our daily lives run smoothly. Waiters and waitresses have always been near the top of my list of the under-appreciated, because, as a student, I worked as a waitress (also as a chambermaid, which was close to being a slave, in a posh hotel). I’ve no first-hand knowledge of emptying bins (a job at which I’m sure I would be very bad), but I do know that, for at least a century, dustmen were practically the British equivalent of untouchables. How magnificent that they have turned the tables now! More power to their elbow! May their spirits ever increase!
Perhaps by the middle of this century, when we’re told that most of us will be living in cities and have to find new ways of working together with less personal space, dustmen will have climbed much further up the ladder-rungs of the career hierarchy. As university degrees become more devalued and more bright young people choose apprenticeships or go straight from school to manual work, perhaps ‘You might consider being a dustman…’ will be one of the options offered from the career adviser’s portfolio. And, rather as in Eastern Europe over the past fifty years, perhaps some of our greatest future authors will have supported their early writing years by emptying dustbins.
I feel inclined to refer readers of this post to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s wonderful poem, ‘Two Scavengers In A Truck, Two Beautiful People In A Mercedes’, which just about sums up my feelings. Sometimes it’s great to be grungy ‘in the high seas of this democracy’!

[*In July, in Germany, I watched a refuse collection team; it included an immaculately groomed young woman, who engaged in all the tasks and in the banter.  I have yet to see a dustbinwoman in this country; even though there may be some, they are a rarity.  I blame the grunge ceiling.]

A fiendishly clever murder story… and much more!

The Saint Zita Society

I’ve been a Ruth Rendell fan for a very long time; in fact, since before she was famous.  I remember a conversation that I had with the Hutchinson rep (a delightful man called Frank Storey, who was then on the verge of retirement) when I was the purchasing manager for a library supply company in the early 1980s; I enthused about The Master of the Moor.  Frank had given me a proof copy of the novel on his previous visit.  I told him that I thought Rendell had huge possibilities, especially for the library market; he said that Hutchinson was committed to her, but that sales were still disappointing.

They must have improved dramatically soon afterwards.  I no longer have the proof of The Master of the Moor (nor several other Rendell proofs that have passed through my hands, probably because I gave them to librarians), but I’ve just taken down from my bookshelf a proof of The Bridesmaid (published in 1989) and see that on the title page is inscribed ‘No 413 in a limited edition of 500’.  I think that it’s safe to assume that an author who can prompt her publisher to pay for a proof-copy print run of 500 and then take the trouble to number each volume has arrived!  In the intervening years, I’ve continued to read Ruth Rendell and also enjoy (perhaps even prefer) the psychological thrillers she writes as Barbara Vine.

Opening The Saint Zita Society, her latest book, at its title page, I see that Rendell’s been loyal to Hutchinson and Arrow, both now Random House imprints.  I’ve just completed this novel; it has been a fascinating read.  It’s about the owners of the houses in a well-heeled street in London, Hexham Place, and (especially) their servants.  (Saint Zita, apparently, is the patron saint of servants.)  One of the key characters in the novel, June, is that fictional stereotype, the elderly female retainer.  She’s worked loyally for her employer (a sort of fake princess) for more than sixty years.  June is one of the prime movers in the Saint Zita Society, which the servants of Hexham Place decide to set up as the vehicle of a collaborative effort to improve their lives.  I’m certain that the portrayal of June is deliberately hackneyed, because the other servants in the novel are anything but stereotypes.  They range from the exotically-named Montserrat, who is supposed to be an au pair but never seems to do any work, to the mentally challenged and rather sinister Dex, a jobbing gardener who takes instructions from a deity called Peach who lives in his mobile phone.  Dex has served time in an institution for the criminally insane for attempting to murder his mother. Rendell has always excelled at black humour and the scenes featuring Dex are some of her best.  Then there is Thea, who insists that she is not a servant, yet nevertheless acts in that capacity (unofficially and unpaid) to her landlords, a gay couple.  Thea is a professional doormat.  Even though she knows that people are making use of her, she can’t say no and thus ends up romantically entangled with Jimmy, the chauffeur of an eminent academic who is soft on his servants – and incidentally responsible for introducing Dex into the community – because he started life in humble circumstances.  It is another of the novel’s delights that the many gradations of snobbery pertaining in Hexham Place are captured to a ‘t’. My favourite character is the beautiful and tragic nanny, Rabia, a Muslim woman whose children and husband are all dead because of a genetic disorder perpetuated through intermarrying.  Her father wishes her to give up her post and return home so that another marriage can be arranged for her with a certain Mr Iqbal.  Iqbal himself is a nurseryman whose work brings him several times to Hexham Place.

If all of this is beginning to sound more like a comedy of manners than a modern crime novel, it means I have managed to capture some small part of its essence.  Hexham Place and the characters who frequent it – despite their wholeheartedly embracing the paraphernalia of twenty-first century life, including  Smartphones, satnavs and civil partnerships – do not really belong to a particular time or place.  There is an elegiac quality to The Saint Zita Society and a timelessness that puts me in mind of the later works of another female writer whom I greatly admire: Muriel Spark.  Rendell’s novel has much in common with Spark’s The Finishing School (2005), another work that takes a traditional subject – in this instance life in a girls’ boarding school, instead of Rendell’s tale of servants – and whisks it to a higher plane.  Neither of these books is really about the everyday situations with which they purport to deal.  Both are timeless studies of humanity itself.  There is, however, an additional twist to The Saint Zita Society, because although it deserves to take its place alongside some of the greatest human comedies in the language, it is also, as the reader expects from Rendell and then almost forgets, a crime novel.  Among its many other qualities, The Saint Zita Society is a fiendishly clever murder story.

On the road to self-sufficiency and thrift…

Stocked up...

Since returning from my holiday at the end of July, I’ve spent a considerable portion of my time freezing fruit and vegetables.  My husband has been growing produce for several years, a neighbour having generously allowed him to fence off part of a paddock for the purpose.  This year is the first year that we’ve had a glut, so, in the interests of both quality of life and thrift (quickly skating over the cost of a new freezer and pasteuriser and their running costs!), I’ve taken up food preservation on an almost industrial scale.  I wasn’t going to mention this, as I thought it might bore you, but now I am, since today’s newspaper contains half a page of tips from the wife of the new Governor of the Bank of England on how to avoid spending too much on pencils, folders and pencil cases when preparing for ‘back-to-school’ (she recycles everything: I’d have hated her if she’d been my mother, as I loved buying stationery at the start of a new term, the more colourful and expensive, the better; besides, imagine her embarrassment if one of her kids were to flaunt a pencil with ’10 Downing Street’ inscribed on it! I recommend that she visits Poundland – of which more anon).

So, here are my top five dos and don’ts for successful freezing.  I’ve included some advice on harvesting the crop as well – think Nigella Lawson (I wish!) with a touch of Alan Titchmarsh.


  • If you have to pass beehives on your way to your vegetable garden, DON’T walk across the front of the hive.  This will annoy the bees, particularly if your favourite colour is blue and you are wearing blue clothes, which to a bee is (pardon the simile) like a red rag to a bull.  Instead, walk round the back of the hive, even if this means bumping your head on the low-hanging branches of any apple trees that might just be growing there.  (In the good life, experience is everything.)
  • If a horse should put its head over the fence that separates your garden from the paddock, DON’T offer it a handful of whatever it is you’re harvesting, however much it appreciates your friendship.  If you do, next time you look round, you’ll find four or five horses, all of which seem to have the necks of giraffes and the effrontery of Barbary macaques.
  • DON’T allow marauders into the kitchen to steal handfuls of the raw peas or fruit that you’ve harvested and prepared.  Bolt the door and make them go out and pick their own.
  • DON’T bother to blanch peas.  They’re fine placed straight into the containers from the pod and you can munch them as you work – after all, you picked and shelled them.  (But you will have to blanch beans, otherwise they turn brown).
  • It’s a good idea to chill the water that you plunge vegetables into after having boiled them for one minute to blanch; but DON’T do this by adding ice cubes.  It is sossy, inevitably causes you to skim across the kitchen on the one that got away and requires a new batch of ice cubes for each lot.  Instead, place a freezer brick in the water.  My mother-in-law, who never did culinary tasks by halves, once gave me one only slightly smaller than Sisyphus’s rock; but two ordinary ones will do the job.


  • DO use small plastic boxes (rather than bags) in the freezer.  They stack better and protect the contents.  Recycled Chinese takeaway cartons are excellent (although on no account allow this as an excuse for increased male consumption of chop suey).  My rather poncy local supermarket sells boxes at £2 for eight.  I bought up all its stock (three packs of eight) and, in desperate need for more, for the first time entered Poundland’s less portentous portals, where I found similar packs of eight costing what it says on the shop.  While there, I also bought a book that I’d been looking for about British colonial Africa, which is probably the most unlikely literary find I’ve ever made!  Poundland rules, OK?  But never let it be said that Christina is cheap, like Maureen 118 212.
  • If you think ahead and buy ice cream to accompany your defrosted fruit, DO conceal the tubs behind items unlikely to appeal to the male psyche – e.g., ‘cubed beetroot for borscht’.  Understand that this may not be a sufficient deterrent: the tubs may also need booby-trapping.
  • DO label the boxes with the date and note of the contents – though there is no need to go overboard.  Mine say ‘Peas, July 2013’ or ‘Beans, August 2013’.  It is a mistake to convert labelling into an art form: “White Lady, sliced.  Harvested 6th August at 06.00 on a dewy morning, sun just peeping through.  Blanched and chilled between 10.10 and 10.20 hours.  Put to freeze at 10.30 hours.  Twelve ounces: serves four.”  Apart from the time that it takes, it will turn you into a freezer nerd.  And no, I don’t harvest beans at 06.00.
  • DO fill the freezer pretty much to capacity if you can.  I can’t prove this personally, but all the electricity companies say that this cuts down on fuel consumption (and who would doubt their integrity?).
  • DO remember how much stuff you’ve got in there, especially when you’re shopping for fruit and vegetables in the winter.  You don’t want next summer to come round and find that you’re still eating last year’s produce, having in the meantime absent-mindedly spent a fortune and incurred thousands of airmiles on asparagus from Peru.

Finally, I have one tip that can be either a DO or a DON’T, depending on your point of view:

If you want to pick and freeze blackberries, you may choose to ask your husband to accompany you, as he will probably know all the best places, can reach higher and further into the brambles than you can, and may be impervious to their thorns.  However, be aware that he may also be paranoid about other blackberry pickers discovering his favourite spots, especially if these are close by a road.  He may therefore expect you to squat down behind the brambles every time a car passes by, in order to avoid drawing attention to your blackberrying activities, which is not only murder on the knees, but will convince your dog and other dog-walkers and their dogs that you are mad.  The choice is yours.

I hope that this has been useful… and at least as interesting as pencils.  Happy freezing!

Disclaimer: All characters in this post are fictitious.  No husbands or mothers-in-law have been harmed in the freezing process.  (Though chest freezers do lend themselves to…  no, I won’t go there.)

This story never loses its allure…

Richard III and the Murder in the Tower

I’ve written before about my interest in the Wars of the Roses and Richard III.  The whole nation’s awareness of this monarch and his deeds was triggered earlier this year by the discovery of his skeleton in a car park in Leicester.

As a result of both this and the television series The White Queen, based on several novels written about the Wars of the Roses by Philippa Gregory, I’m sure that both historical and fictional accounts of Richard’s reign must be achieving buoyant bookshop sales at present.  If so, it’s a bandwagon that I was happy to jump on myself when I visited Blackwell’s Broad Street last week, by buying a book that I’d not encountered before, Richard III and the Murder in the Tower.

The topic, of course, is a familiar one.  This book, which was published in 2009, is yet another enquiry into the fate of the princes in the tower, Edward IV’s two sons Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York.  Unlike many of its predecessors, however, it is a scholarly and very balanced account which, whilst not attempting to provide a definitive answer to the question of who killed the two princes (and indeed whether they were killed), presents all the facts that are known about the events leading up to their disappearance and sets down the possibilities of what could have happened to them.

The author, Professor Peter Hancock, is an American academic, which may be the reason why he is able to tell his story with such dispassionate flair.  It’s a curious fact that most English people who are interested in this story become heated partisans of either Richard III or Henry VII; I’ve noticed that the same phenomenon applies to discussions about the next English civil war that was to take place in the middle of the seventeenth century, one that was arguably even more bloody and brutal than the dynastic fight to the death between the houses of York and Lancaster.  On some topics, English people have a reputation for showing undemonstrativeness to the point of being phlegmatic, but many are fiercely curious about their own past and correspondingly committed to allegiances to historical characters who may or may not have been supported by those of their ancestors who actually knew these people.  (From what I know of my own antecedents, for example, I’m pretty convinced that they were Cromwellians, not Royalists, though I should have preferred them to have been the latter.)

To return to Professor Hancock, he has painstakingly examined all the available documents relating to the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII and, although he has not turned up much new material, his keen eye for detail and astute interpretation of the facts have resulted in some very plausible alternative accounts of what may have actually happened.  I won’t say what these are, for obvious reasons.  He also encourages readers to consider the actions of the protagonists from the point of view of their contemporaries and the mores that prevailed at the time, rather than through the filter of what we now consider to be acceptable civilised behaviour (though it should be added that struggles for power today are conducted with just the same naked savagery as they were in the Middle Ages).

If I have any quibbles, they are all minor ones.  Professor Hancock devotes a chapter to each of the key players, including Edward IV’s mistress, Jane Shore, except, inexplicably, Elizabeth Woodville, his queen.  I should have been fascinated to know what he makes of her role – my curiosity whetted further by Philippa Gregory’s fictional rendering of this enigmatic consort.  The text is also somewhat repetitive in places, perhaps because it was written over a long period of time, perhaps because the structural device of considering each of the main players makes repetition inevitable; if the latter, it is a small price to pay for the all-round appraisal that such an approach allows.  Finally, Professor Hancock has a few favourite words that grate on the ear.  The one that I dislike the most is ‘assumedly’, which he uses in the sense of ‘I assume that’.  However, I confess I prefer this to that other conjectural phrase so often cropping up in history books: ‘He [or she] must have …’

I finished reading this book on the same evening that the final (tenth) episode of The White Queen was televised.  I’d enjoyed the serial up to that point, but was dismayed by the ham acting and poor fight choreography that characterised its conclusion.  From the melodramatic deaths of Edward of Middleham and Anne Neville at the beginning to the risibly shabby reconstruction of the Battle of Bosworth that was meant to be its climax (it appeared to be carried out by half a dozen extras having a mock skirmish in a wood on a Sunday afternoon), for the entire hour this dramatisation teetered perilously on the brink of farce.  Professor Hancock’s book, which I picked up again after it was over, provided a refreshing contrast.  I recommend it to anyone who is intrigued by Richard III and the fate of his nephews.

Faster food and fashion… This irks!

Classic & Italian side
I’ve not had a gripe about words and their usage for some time. However, last night an old irritation re-emerged as I was preparing dinner.
I hate colloquial abbreviations that turn a perfectly serviceable – and sometimes quite beautiful – word or phrase into a much more humdrum, not to say unintelligent, expression. This is an irk (I’ve just made a noun of that!) that goes way back into my childhood. I grew up in an era when the relative affluence of the 1960s was taking consumerism to new levels and my mother frequently sent me on errands to our local shop, which (even then) belonged to Spar. As part of the independent retailer drive against the supermarket chains which, even in towns like Spalding, were just beginning to take hold (my Uncle David, who also kept a shop and didn’t belong to any kind of co-operative, was always railing against them), the shop usually displayed a few items marked ‘special offer’. As a nine-year-old or thereabouts (I admit that I was probably an insufferable little prig!), I remember the strong sense of semantic outrage that I felt on the first occasion that I heard the shopkeeper describe one of these as ‘on offer’. Now, of course, this is such a familiar term that ‘special offer’ has almost disappeared from usage; many retailers even use the term ‘offer’ without a preposition.
Since then, many similar slimmed-down inventions have offended my ear. The term ‘Brussels sprouts’ is a case in point. My father frequently abbreviated this to ‘Brussels’, which I felt gave the vegetable, although it provided good, solid English fare, a hint of continental exoticism. I was not so delighted when I came to live in Yorkshire and found that the locals always call them ‘sprouts’ – a less attractive word I could hardly conceive of!
Then there were ‘high heels’, those potent rites of passage into womanhood that girls aspired to and were once not allowed to wear until well into their teens. I’m not quite sure when this happened – possibly longer ago than I realise – but I note that now they are always called ‘heels’. Ugh! If you’d used this word to my grandmother, who was not particularly enamoured of the male sex, she would immediately have understood that you were referring to a couple of less-than-satisfactory men, not a pair of glamorous shoes.
And, while we’re on the subject, what about ‘mains’, as in ‘main course’? It’s another one that’s crept up on me. When was the second word dropped? Did restaurants not have enough space on menus and billboards to write the whole phrase? It sounds like an apology for a waterworks.
And now – wait for it! – as I discovered yesterday evening, Sainsbury’s is describing its garlic ciabatta bread as ‘a classic and Italian side’. A classic and Italian side of what? Of course, I know that it refers to ‘side dish’, or, as the Americans would say, something to be presented or eaten ‘on the side’. But why not say so? Why mangle the language in this way and diminish both the magic of the words and their sense?
Perhaps I’ve now become an insufferable much older prig… or perhaps I have a point.

The ‘grande dame’ of English bookshops!

Blackwells Broad StreetBlackwell
Last Friday, I experienced the rare treat of visiting Blackwell’s Broad Street, the Blackwell bookshop chain’s flagship shop in Oxford. It is a bookshop that I know quite well, though it is two or three years since I was last there. It is one of a handful of large world class bookshops in this country – as readers of this blog will know, my own particular favourite is Waterstones Gower Street, but that is partly because it holds strong personal associations for me and is therefore much more of an old friend than Broad Street. Gower Street is like a rather quirky intellectual woman of a certain age, always coming up with racy surprises of which you might not have thought her capable. She’s one of the liberated ‘new women’ of the early twentieth century, as her Arts and Crafts clothing and the pedigree of her creator, Una Dillon, both demonstrate. Broad Street, on the other hand, is the grande dame of British bookshops. She is an eminent Victorian, offspring of the sternly teetotal Benjamin Henry Blackwell, whose fine bookselling tradition was carried on by his son, also Benjamin, and very famous grandson Basil (‘The Gaffer’) who presided over this shop and its sister stores for more than sixty years.
It was not the first of Oxford’s bookshops that I visited on Friday, but, once through its surprisingly modest front door (it could be the entrance to any moderately well-to-do person’s house), I wondered why I had bothered with the others. Here were riches indeed! And cared for by very professional staff who seemed never to intrude on browsers except at that vital moment – which they must have sensed by some kind of invisible booksellers’ radar – when I was stumped and needed help.
I didn’t actually find the exact book that I wanted – I’m not sure that this book even exists, as I was searching by topic rather than title, but I spent an enchanted two hours in the shop nevertheless. I came away with three purchases, but could have splashed out on many more. I was also delighted to see four copies of Almost Love and two of In the Family on the shelves of the crime fiction section. I happen to know from my previous life that the crime fiction buyer in this shop is probably the best in the country, so I am doubly appreciative that he has chosen to stock my books.
Blackwell’s Broad Street also has a great coffee bar in which people may really be seen looking at and talking about the books they have just bought (instead of just reading the paper or examining their shopping); it has also several brilliant, if eclectically-arranged, second-hand sections. If you know Oxford, I am sure that you will have visited this bookshop. If you don’t know it and should ever find yourself in the city, I recommend that you include Broad Street in your itinerary!

Please, sir, may I have more noir?

The Holy Thief
The Holy Thief is the third of the three books that I bought at Bookmark when I was in Spalding. I left this one until last because my son, who specialised in twentieth century Eastern European history at university, put me off it slightly by saying that novelists who write about Stalinist Russia never quite get the historical backdrop right. However, having begun this novel towards the end of last week, I found that I couldn’t put it down and finished it within a couple of days.

William Ryan has obviously researched the Stalinist period very well. He offers a select bibliography at the end of the novel, among which are the works of Orlando Figes, whose social history The Whisperers also made a great impression on me when I read it. He doesn’t obtrude his knowledge of the period (a skill that I always think is the hallmark of a distinguished writer), but in my view – and of course neither Ryan nor I really knows! – he has captured perfectly the seediness, uncertainty and underlying paranoia that permeated the whole of life when Stalin was the Russian leader. Very skilfully, over the course of the novel, he also manages to convey the futility of many of the brutal and savage actions carried out in the name of the state by the Stalinist regime. Lives are snatched or broken, but to what effect? It is as if the waters close over the people and events that have been targeted and the whole monstrous machine just creaks on as it did before, a savage animal against which the only defence is to remain in the shadows.

Captain Alexei Korolev, the hero of this novel, is an interesting take on the protagonist of the Russian crime thriller. He owes something to Le Carré’s George Smiley, but of course he belongs to an earlier part of the twentieth century and he is much more establishment than Smiley: he is a policeman, not a spy. Smiley already knows that ideologies are tawdry, slippery things and destroy the soul and that being a devotee of the truth – if the truth can be defined – is dangerous; Korolev, who has been a successful CID officer, has to discover this inch by inch, the hard way, by becoming the victim himself. In the process, he comes face to face with the terrifying yet essentially faceless members of the organised criminals who control Moscow’s criminal underworld.

If I have any criticism to make of this novel, it is that in places it is almost not dark enough. Ryan certainly doesn’t go in for gratuitous violence or sensationalism, which I applaud, but sometimes his writing seems to convey a sense of optimism that is not warranted by the period and events of which he writes. In Figes’ The Whisperers, there are no good people left: all those he describes know that they cannot rely on friends, family members, even sons or daughters, not to betray them; whereas in The Holy Thief morality, generosity and even taking the risk of offering casual kindness to strangers still prevail amongst people principled enough and brave enough not to allow their standards to drop. But that is where fiction diverges from reality: a novel is not a meaningless collection of events: it has to carry some message to the reader. Stalin’s Terror, on the other hand, had no proper meaning, no message: it simply channelled the crazed paranoia of one very powerful man into the brutal gratification of his sadistic henchmen.

This is undoubtedly a potent read and one that I enjoyed very much!

The bounty of a summer’s day…

Clematis étoile violette

Clematis étoile violette

Today has been one of those perfect late summer days that you look on and savour when it’s the bleak middle of winter. The sun has been shining, but a gentle breeze has prevented the heat from becoming oppressive. When we took the dog for a walk this morning, the wheat was almost ripe and straight, unspoiled by the rainstorms of a couple of weeks ago; the barley stubble was pure gold. By lunchtime, I’d written my quota of words for the novel I’m working on. The garden is a pleasure to be in: it hasn’t yet matured into its blowsy, trollopy autumn look and the late summer flowers are still blooming. The clematis étoile violette is at its spectacular best.
Peacock butterfly

Peacock butterfly

Honey bee foraging

Honey bee foraging

The flowers of our golden marjoram and oregano are attracting our honey-bees and the many kinds of bumble-bee that seem to be flourishing this year (I like the red-bottomed ones!) and there are more butterflies than I’ve ever before seen here – the peacock butterflies have been especially prolific and one popped in to be photographed before we helped it back to the yellow buddleia.
Cox's orange pippin

Cox’s orange pippin

There will be a good apple crop later, as the ripening Cox’s orange pippin shows. And there is crab for dinner tonight!
Aside from the beauties of nature, the day got off to a wonderful start, with two very generous reviews of Almost Love, by Elaine Aldred and Trish Nicholson, to join Valerie Poore’s excellent one; all are on the DI Yates page of this website! May I wish you, all three, a summery bounty – you spent a great deal of time and care over these, as well as over the reading of the novel – and may I also extend warm greetings to all who visit and comment here.
A wonderful day. And a shameless excuse to share some photographs.

When fear overpowers reason…

Pendle Hill, from the village of Barley

Pendle Hill, from the village of Barley

A week ago today I took the day off and went with my husband to meet friends in order to walk up Pendle Hill in Lancashire. I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since and have finally been spurred to do so by a book review I’ve just read – of which more shortly. I’d never been to this part of Lancashire before and had no idea of how beautiful it is.
Pendle Hill, which is perhaps best accessed via the picturesque village of Barley, is well worth the steep climb that it demands of those intent on reaching the top. It is a windswept plateau unprotected against the elements, even on a fine summer’s day (though a stone circle, grouse-butt style, has been erected as a kind of refuge); once you have arrived at the summit, it is possible to see much of the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales (including the Three Peaks), Derbyshire’s High Peak, North Wales and, on a very clear day, so I’m told, the Isle of Man. The 360˚ view is truly spectacular.
Aside from the wonderful panorama of Pendle Hill, the area is famous as the home of the defendants in the Pendle Witch Trial, in 1612. Twenty people from the Pendle district, sixteen of them women, were tried at Lancaster Assizes for witchcraft. The crimes that they were accused of committing were diverse, varying from murder by witchcraft to ‘bewitching’ people or animals, usually by causing them to fall sick or die. Some of them were sentenced to death; others had to stand in the pillory in the markets of Clitheroe, Padiham, Colne and Lancaster.
Their stories make sobering reading. Those indicted of witchcraft were usually, but not always, old women. One of the most renowned of the Pendle witches was Ann Whittle, alias ‘Chattox’, who lived in the Forest of Pendle. She was indicted on several counts of sorcery and admitted (probably under duress) that some fourteen or fifteen years before her arrest she had sold her soul to the devil. Her daughter was also accused of witchcraft. The nineteenth-century chroniclers of the witches conclude their account of her story as follows: “… no longer anxious about her own life, she acknowledged her guilt, but humbly prayed the judges to be merciful to her daughter, Anne Redferne; but her prayer was in vain.”
The roots of the Lancashire Witch Trials were political: they formed part of the Protestant response to the Counter-Reformation that reached its peak in this country during James I’s reign. More locally, they played on much older superstitions that had survived in rural societies, possibly from pre-Christian times.
What I didn’t know when I visited Pendle Hill was that there was a Lincolnshire equivalent to the Pendle Witches. Two sisters, Margaret and Philippa Flower, were hanged for witchcraft in Lincoln in 1619. They were therefore the exact contemporaries of the Lancashire witches. Their story is told in Witches: a tale of sorcery, scandal and seduction, by Tracy Borman, a newly-published book which was reviewed in The Sunday Times on 11th August and which I shall certainly buy and read. Yet more interesting, from my perspective, is that the Flower sisters were employed as maidservants at Belvoir Castle by the Earl of Rutland and were accused of bewitching his children, one of whom died. Belvoir Castle and Burghley House were the two great houses of the area in which I grew up and I visited them several times during my childhood. I also knew Lincoln well. The present prison was built in the late nineteenth century, in gothic style, and before that prisoners were held in the eighteenth century gaol at Lincoln Castle; the Flower sisters were probably locked in the Castle dungeons. Public hangings took place above the upper town, from the north-east tower, until 1868. (My stepfather’s mother’s family kept a theatrical boarding house in Lincoln and she was a small child there, almost, though not quite, within living memory of the hangings: she died in the 1980s, when she was well into her nineties. She remembered tales of the scene, with cheers and jeers from the watching crowd below.) Taking them as a yardstick of how little progress civilisation had made in the intervening three centuries perhaps makes it less surprising, if no less shocking, that women were being put to death for witchcraft only four hundred years ago. Even more shamefully, old women have been persecuted simply for being old and misshapen during my own lifetime. When I was a primary school child, there was a row of tumbledown cottages that I had to walk past every day. Two of them were home to two ancient ladies with wispy white hair. One was almost bent double. She walked very slowly with a stick, her eyes usually fixed on the ground. She had warts on her face and the prognathous chin that very old ladies sometimes develop. It’s difficult now to say how old she might have been: as she’d spent most of her life without benefit of the National Health Service, she may not have been as aged as she looked. But I remember quite clearly that schoolboys used to shout ‘Witch!’ at her as they passed, if she happened to be standing outside. With hindsight, I shudder at the pain she must have felt, and that she had to suffer because she was old and ‘different’. It can be a pale reflection only, I know, but still it offers some insight into the anguish and terror that the Lancashire witches and Margaret and Philippa Flower had to endure before rough hands finally put them out of their misery.
Could such persecution happen today? In Western society, not in its literal form, perhaps, but Arthur Miller’s inspired choice of the Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible to illustrate Senator McCarthy’s irrational pursuit of communists and the Cleveland child abuse investigations both illustrate that modern parallels still exist. Old women may no longer be the prime targets, but we still harbour primitive fears of people who are different, and, motivated by fear, are still capable of turning upon them savagely.

The Pendle Inn sign, Barley

The Pendle Inn sign, Barley

The ticking of time…

Carriage clock

Today, August 9th, was my grandmother’s birthday.  Already an old lady in my first memories of her, she was born in 1892.  If she were still alive today, she would be 121, making her only slightly younger than Jeanne Calment, the longest-lived woman ever (reliably) recorded.  I always remember the date of her birth when it comes round, partly because it is only a few days after my own birthday.

My grandmother was eighty-seven when she died.  Although she was nine when Edward VII (whom she saw when he visited King’s Lynn shortly after his coronation) came to the throne, she remained a Victorian all her life.  She dressed in high-necked blouses and ankle-length skirts.  She never bought an article of clothing from a chain store; instead, she was fitted by a dressmaker twice a year for a new summer dress or a new winter dress, for ‘best’, plus two or three more of the almost-identical perennial skirts and blouses.  Every few seasons, there would also be a new coat and a hat to match.  She always wore a hat and gloves in the street and kept the hat on if she were visiting someone’s house.  People in Spalding used to say to me, ‘Is your grandmother that old lady who’s always so beautifully dressed?’ Her shoes were handmade, too. She went to church several times a week and always twice on Sundays.  She had standards.

You’d almost think that the twentieth century was an irrelevance to her, yet she was a bystander at some of its most significant events.  Aged nine, she was lying in bed with rheumatic fever when her mother came in and said, ‘The Queen’s dead.’ (She meant Queen Victoria).  She was working as a nursery nurse in London when her upper middle class employers told her in hushed tones of horror of the murder of the Russian royal family.  Like many other young women, she knew young men who never returned from the trenches.  She witnessed one of the Zeppelin raids on London, and was still living and working there during the General Strike.  She remembered the suffragette processions and was flattered when she was told that she looked like Nancy Astor, the first woman MP.  After she moved to Spalding (to be near her ageing parents) in the mid-1930s, she watched a rally held there in the marketplace by Oswald Mosely and his blackshirts.  She and my mother were making a bed together towards the end of the Second World War when a doodlebug immediately overhead stopped buzzing; they each froze and waited, but thankfully it fell in Bourne Woods, some fifteen miles away.

These are just some of the reminiscences that she shared with me when I was a child (and I was always spellbound by her memories, never bored by them).  Today, I thought it would be interesting to find out a few of the other things that happened in the year that she was born.  It turned out that 1892 was a very eventful year… and, to list just a few of the significant happenings I’ve discovered that happened in that year:

  • Thomas Edison received a patent for the two-way telegraph.
  • Ellis Island began accommodating immigrants to the United States.
  • Rudolf Diesel applied for a patent for the petrol ignition engine.
  • The General Electric Company was founded.
  • The Dalton Gang was apprehended by local townspeople and most of its members shot dead.
  • An anarchist’s bomb killed six people in Paris.
  • The Nutcracker ballet was premiered in St Petersburg.
  • Andrew Carnegie (later a huge benefactor of English and Scottish libraries) amalgamated his six companies into one business and gained monopoly of the American steel industry.
  • The father and mother of the suspected murderess Lizzie Borden were found dead in their Massachusetts home.  It was one of the first murders to arouse widespread public interest.
  • Conan Doyle published The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
  • It was the birth year also of Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy), Haile Selassie, Pearl S. Buck, Vita Sackville-West and Hugh MacDiarmid.  Hugh MacDiarmid was my grandmother’s very close contemporary: he was born just two days after her and died five months to the day before she did.

The story that this miscellaneous list of facts tells is that the seeds of the twentieth century – scientific, cultural, literary and political – were being sown by the beginning of the 1890s.  There can be no period of time that has seen greater changes than the years that my grandmother’s life (1892 – 1979) spanned.  When she was born, motor-cars were in their infancy and girls waited impatiently to be allowed to ‘put their hair up’; when she died, it was already eighteen years since Yuri Gagarin had been launched into space and Flower Power, The Beatles and the mini-skirt had been and gone.  Yet she was not impervious to these events; rather, she seemed to take them in her stride.  In the meantime, she carried on wearing long skirts, visiting her dressmaker and attending church, confident, I have no doubt, that one day the world would wake up from its madness and proper decorum would be restored.

All, apart from my memories, that I have of her are a few presents that I treasure; they include a brass carriage clock of hers, which, as it stood on her mantelpiece, and now stands on mine, seems a symbolic link of time to a bygone age of which she was very much a part.

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