Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea: Marine Painting in Cornwall from Turner to Wallis

Could you resist an exhibition with a title like that – borrowed from Tennyson?

I couldn’t.

I know I’m not entirely objective; because the exhibition is at Penlee House, just five minutes walk from home; and because I was raised by the sea in Cornwall, because the sea always calls me back and fills me with awe and wonder, with love and just a little fear at how very powerful it is.

But I can say that this exhibition spoke to me of the sea I have looked out at for most of my life in every light, every mood, every weather. And it reminded me that, though some things change, many things remain the same.

I don’t really speak the language of art, but I’d love to show you some of the paintings and tell you some of my thoughts.

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“St Michael’s Mount’ by J W Turner

Turner’s painting of St Michael’s Mount made a striking poster to advertise this show, and it is the first thing you see as you step through the door. It was smaller than we expected, but it was so striking and the subject was unmistakeable. I was amazed to learn that it was painted from sketches from the artist’s only visit to Cornwall, nearly quarter of a century before the date of the painting. The Mount was never quite that tall, but I’ve seen in in light like that, from nearly the same angle but rather further away. It is quite extraordinary that such light can be held in the memory and then expressed in paint.

Luny, Thomas, 1759-1837; St Michael's Mount

“St Michael’s Mount” by Thomas Luny

Turner’s work set next to a very different painting of the same subject. This one has a touch of the picture-postcard about it, but it is as true a picture of our local landmark.

I observed that both artists had chosen the same angle, and The Man of The House explained that east wing of the castle hadn’t been built then and so there would be little to see from the other side. He knows these things because he lived there in the latter years of his childhood – his family lived in one of the harbour cottages you can pick out in Luny’s painting – and he followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a castle guide for a while.

The next painting I must show you was on the opposite side of the room.

The artist was a Post Raphaelite: John Brett.

Brett, John, 1831-1902; Golden Prospects, St Catherine's Well, Land's End, Cornwall

Golden Prospects, St Catherine’s Well, Land’s End, Cornwall by John Brett (1831–1902)

It took me to a part of the coast I know well and I could sit there – or I could sit looking at that painting for a very long time.

There was a smaller painting by the same artist, and if you look at the rocks in the sea – The Brissons – in that painting and in the painting below – a painting I love but have yet to see – you can see that John Brett must have walked and must have loved that stretch of coast too.

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‘The Land’s End, Cornwall’ by John Brett

Brett, John; The Beach at Land's End, Cornwall; National Trust, Wightwick Manor; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-beach-at-lands-end-cornwall-131496

‘The Beach at Land’s End, Cornwall’ by John Brett

That was the first room. I can’t show you all of the paintings, because there were so many of them, and because many of them were borrowed from private collections and for that reason – and in some cases for other reasons – they are not to be seen anywhere else.

In between the two rooms there was an array of smaller pieces. There were drawings and etchings. More sketches by Turner, who clearly right around the Cornish coast. And an etching of Queen Victoria’s visit to St Michael’s Mount by local artist Richard Pentreath. I noticed that he chose the same angle as Turner and Luny ….

The paintings in the second room were later. There were a few familiar names – from the Newlyn School and the St Ives School – but there were many names that were new to me.

Carter, Richard Harry, 1839-1911; The Rising Moon and Day's Departure

‘The Rising Moon and Day’s Departure’ by Richard Harry Carter (1839–1911)

These artists filled whole canvases with sea wonderfully well.  I saw new Cornish names, and I saw paintings by artists from America, from Canada and from Australia who had come to Cornwall to paint. I saw places I knew, and places I thought I knew but couldn’t quite place. It was almost too much.

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‘Moonlit Sea’ by Robert Borlase Smart

The Man of the House was particularly pleased to see an Alfred Wallis. I can’t say that was one of my favourites from this show, but I noticed how very well this naïve artist caught the movement of boats over the sea.

 My favourite painting from the second room was this one.

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‘Morning at Lamorna Cove’ by Lamorna Birch (c 1930)

I pulled The Man of the House right back across the room to see how brilliantly it caught the light.

There’s just one more painting I must show you. It captures another side of the sea, and the relationship between man and the sea; and as the exhibition takes its title from Tennyson it seems right to finish with a painting that takes its name from his work.

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‘Crossing the Bar – A Break in the Clouds, St Ives’ by John Mogford (1873)

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Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea continues until 3rd September 2016.

The Trap by Dorothy Richardson (1925)

When I started to read this, the eighth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’, I found that the pattern of a new home and a new beginning at that start of each book, a pattern that had run through the earliest books of the series and then faded away, seemed to be beginning again.

Miriam was still in London, but she had moved from Mrs Bailey’s boarding house where she had been happily settled for some time to a very different home.

“An old little street. A scrap of London standing apart, between the Bloomsbury squares and the maze of streets towards the city. The light gleaming from its rain-washed flagstones gave it a provincial air and a freshness unknown to the main streets, between whose buildings lay modern roadways dulled by mud or harsh by grimy dust.

Whenever during all her London years Miriam had passed the spot where it opened into the thoroughfare, the little by-way had drawn her eyes; always stating its sequestered charm. Entering it now for the first time she had a sense of arriving nowhere.

 Yet she was an inhabitant of Flaxman’s Court. Up there on the upper floors of the house that remained so quiet before her claim, were room as quiet, her own.”

It wasn’t clear why she had moved, it was one of the many things in Miriam’s world that remained unexplained. I have learned as I read her story that was something I had to accept, and I have learned that it is important to observe passing observations as they often prove significant.

It might have been that she was uncomfortable with the relationship that had developed between Mrs Bailey and another boarder; it might be that she didn’t want to be there when the Canadian doctors who had thought so little of her that they left without saying goodbye, made a promised return visit; it might be that the letter that from her friend’s husband that she found when she returned home at the end of the last book caused her some embarrassment; or it might be that she simply felt it was time for a change, or that it was time she found somewhere a little less expensive …

I’m not trying to reach a conclusion; I’m simply trying to explain that with careful reading there is much to appreciate and much  that you have to think about in this series of books.

20160106_193046Even if the title of this book had been something other than ‘The Trap’ I would have known from the start of the book that Miriam would not be happy in her new home. She was sharing a room with another single lady, Miss Holland, and they had only a curtain dividing the room to allow them any degree of privacy. It wasn’t right for Miriam, who valued, who needed, her own space, and though she and Miss Holland were polite and got on well enough they had very different outlooks and were fundamentally incompatible.

Life went on.

Miriam continued to attend political meetings; she continued to work in Wimpole Street; she joined a women’s group; she visited friends; she was courted by Dr Densley, who she had met through Miss Dear ….

But always the story returned to that room in Flaxman’s Court.

There were moments when Miriam was happy, when she found the peace she sought in a space that she had been able to make her own, but there were too many things pulling her down. Her difficult relationship with Miss Holland; an intrusive landlord; noise from tenants in the room below ….

I felt for her, but I was also infuriated by her, because she was so rigid, so unable to accept the compromises that human relationships both require and reward.

I put the book to one side for quite some time.

I prepared to write that this was the weakest book in the series.

But then I began to think that there was something that Miriam was pushing to the back of her mind that was making her unhappy. Her relationship with her friend’s husband, the writer Hyppo Wilson – inspired by Dorothy Richardson’s long relationship with her friend’s husband H G Wells, went unmentioned, even though he had written that letter that she was so happy to receive at the end of the last book.

Was she troubled, was she feeling guilty, about that relationship?

Had something changed?

I doubt that I will ever have answers to those questions, but they made me curious to read more.

I was delighted to find that she did what single women still have to do to this day. She picked herself up, she told herself that she was responsible for her own life and her own happiness, and she set out to make a fresh start.

The writing was light and beautiful again; because Miriam was looking out into the world again.

Maybe it was the death of her sister Eve; maybe it was ending her relationship with Dr Densley; maybe it was seeing her sister Harriett emigrate with her husband and child; maybe it was taking her next steps as a writer; maybe it was seeing Wells – not Wilson this time, Wells – in the distance; maybe it was something else entirely.

Whatever it was that made Miriam decide that it was time for a change and to break with Miss Holland, it has me eager to continue reading.

I am sure that there will be times when she infuriates me; that there will be times when I find the gaps in the story and the things that remain unexplained maddening: but Miriam and her world are so very alive; Dorothy Richardson’s writing is like nothing else I have ever read; and I still want to follow this series of books to the end.

Happiness is Hap Shaped: I have been knitting!

You may recall that in my last A to Z post I said:

“I’m not really a shawl knitter but I am so taken with the history and the patterns in The Book of Haps.”

Since then I have become a shawl knitter, I’ve knitted my first hap, and I’m considering which pattern from the book I should knit next.

I should say that a shawl and a hap are not one and the same; the question of just what the distinction is is complex, but the general consensus seems to be that a hap is a more practical, everyday kind of wrap.

The book mixes knitting history with a wonderful range of hap patterns, and if that has you curious I’ll point you towards Ravelry and towards Hayley’s review of the book rather than ramble for too much longer.

Jen6_copy_medium2Many patterns called to me, but the pattern that called me loudest  was Nut-Hap by Jen Arnall-Culliford .

I loved that it was inspired by birds; the shaping resembling a wing, the tucks lying over one another like feathers, and the colours inspired by the nuthatch. I was pleased that it was a wonderfully wearable piece, knitted with Rowan Felted Tweed – a yarn I love. I was interested that it made use of techniques I kind of knew but could do with practicing – a tubular cast-on, short rows and tucks. But it was the prospect of finding my own bird and colour scheme – and a knitalong – that made it a must-start-right- now kind of project.

I knew what kind of bird I wanted. I wanted a one that would allow me to make my main colour a strong one. I didn’t want anything too exotic; I wanted a bird a might see one day on the beach or in the country. A few possibilities slipped away because the colours were too neutral or I couldn’t match them to the yarn, but it didn’t take too long for me to find my bird.

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The house martin was perfect. The lovely blue on the crown of this head and his back could be my main colour, and the tucks in creamy white, black and two shades of brown would complete the picture. I ordered yarn, I located two very long cables and the right sized tips, and when the yarn arrived I put aside my work in progress and stated straight away.

This wasn’t the largest thing I’ve knitted but it is definitely the longest, and I’ve never made a wrap from a sweater’s worth of yarn before. That was the only difficult thing, manoeuvring such long needles, particularly when stitches were being divided between the two or coming together again on one. The pattern suggested doing those things and working the stitches at the same time, but I found that very awkward and after a few incidents I decided to do one thing at a time. Arrange the stitches and then work them. That might have been a little slower, but it was so much easier.

The provisional cast-on gave a lovely edge, but it was a struggle with so many stitches. I hadn’t used the technique for a long time and, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I should have practiced on a smaller piece – a hat maybe – first. There are quicker methods – an alternate cable cast-on gives a quite similar result – but I do think that this one is worth the extra effort.

20160807_183222After that I was off, knitting miles and miles of rib with short-row shaping. The pattern suggested wrap and turn but I went for Japanese short rows. I’d been wary of them when a read about using strands of yarn as markers, but I learned a while ago that I could use lockable stitch markers of safety-pins instead, and that they were much simpler that I thought. I tried them and I loved them; particularly that because they were marked I knew exactly where that were.

That stage took ages; I liked that look of it, I enjoyed seeing that shape emerge, but I was so happy when it was over.

The tucks were so simple – separate the knits and the purls, work stocking stich on the knits, bring them back together to create the tuck, then work a few rows of rib and start the process again with a new colour. This phase was so much quicker!

The piece is completed by grafting the knits and purls together. Again the process took time, but it was definitely worth it. The sequence of moves had never quite lodged in my head but after bringing so many stitches together I think it’s fixed now.

20160807_183121The finished hap? I’ve never knitted anything else quite like it, I love it, and I appreciate what I’ve learned from it.

I took it out to the Morrab Gardens to photograph a day before the end of the knit-along. And since then the weather has either been too warm to wear it or too damp and grey to take decent pictures.

I’ve thought of knitting another one in different colours, but if I do that won’t be for quite some time.

Because I realised that what I really wanted was to take more colour schemes from nature. I don’t have a good eye for that sort of thing, and I am so pleased that this project taught me that I can look at the world around me and put colours together that way. A few days ago, when I was out with Briar, I took a picture of the beach at low tide: blue sea, brown and grey rocks, yellowy-green seaweed …. I can match the colours and I have a pattern in mind ….

A Cornish Collection: Staying Close to Home

“The scene grew wilder as the train swept on; trees and hedges were left behind; there were no more cornfields, nor cottages with bright flower gardens; the end was approaching, the Land’s End; and soon there would be nothing, except the granite and stunted gorse, and the foaming waste of sea. It was like a beautiful woman growing old; South Devon was youth; Eastern Cornwall her early married life; then at Truro middle age; and so on into the desolation and decay of old age. Burrough wondered whether he too had left behind the trees and flowers; whether he too had passed through the flowering woods and the luxuriant lanes; whether he might be coming, in more senses than one, to the untrodden wastes; to end at length among the cruel rocks and the stormy sea.

It was a waste which was not all a waste. Upon the magnesian soil grew the flesh-coloured Cornish heather, which no art short of witchcraft could induce to grow east of Truro. In the villages down below, accustomed to the roar of the sea, were semi-tropical plants ; and the hydrangeas were bushes and the fuschias were trees. The wide sweeps of treeless land were still beautiful, and so was the air. It was the air after all that was the best. It was fresh and pure, and so soft that to breathe it into tender lungs made all the wide difference between pleasure and pain.

Respectable people had not breakfasted when Burrough reached Penzance. He found it difficult to believe that when the hands of the clock had last stood at half-past seven he had been in his cottage by the gorge, and had  no idea of setting out upon a pilgrimage.”

From ‘A Pixy in Petticoats’ by John Trevenna

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The Terminus (Penzance Station) by Stanhope Forbes

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Early in the 18th century Davies Gilbert, poet and hymn-writer of St Erth, created a set of verses from Cornish place names, to celebrate the euphony of the Cornish tongue:

Vel an drukya, Cracka Cudna
Truzemenhall, Chun, Crows an Wra
Banns Burnuhal Brane Bosfrancan
Treeve Trewhidden Try Trembah

Carn Kanidgiac Castle Skudiac
Beagle Tuben Amalvear
Amalibria Amel whidden
Skilliwaden Trink Polpeor

Pellalith Pellalla-wortha
Buzza vean Chyponds Boswase
Ventongimps Roskestal Raftra
Hendra Grancan Treen Bostraze

Treghnebbris Embla Bridgia
Menadarva Treveneage
Tregaminion Fouge Trevidgia
Gwarnick Trewey Reskajeage

Luggans Vellane-vrane Treglisson
Gear Noon-gumpus Helan-gove
Carnequidden Brea Bojouean
Dryn Chykembra Dowran Trove

Menagwithers Castle-cotha
Carnon-greeze Trevespan-vean
Praze-an-Beeble Men Trebarva
Bone Trengwainten Lethargwean

Stable-hobba Bal-as whidden
Tringy Trannack Try Trenear
Fraddam Crowles Gwallan Crankan
Drift Bojedna Cayle Trebear

Haltergantic Carnaliezy
Gumford Brunion Nancekeage
Reen Trevasken Mevagizzy
Killow Carbus Carn Tretheage

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Brett, John; St Ives Bay; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/st-ives-bay-83317

St Ives Bay by John Brett

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“Behind the headland that cushions Navax point and Godrevy Point, and behind Godrevy lighthouse, which was Virginia Woolf’s eponymous lighthouse and stands sentinel on its own island of rock, and beyond the long arc of bone-coloured sand, fuzzy with sea spray, hemming the semicircular bay beyond us, St Ives shines in the far distance, white and glimmering, like Jerusalem by the sea. The sea which is frantic and chaotic, driven directly ont the sharp rocks below by a hard, solid wind, leaving the water shredded and annihilated, every part of this surface a fizzing, furious bright mass of bubbles and froth and spume and spray. Those white horses which have cantered across the steppes of the Atlantic now race each other neck and neck over the last few furlongs, galloping and rising towards the finishing line and hammering into the wall of the coast, vaporising in glittery rainbows of molecules and light.”

From Walking Away by Simon Armitage

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Visiting Lanyon Quoit by Joan Gillchrest

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Cornish Hevva Cake

It is said that a cliff-top lookout, known as a  huer would shout ‘Hevva!, Hevva!’ to alert fishing boats to the location of  pilchard shoals. And that Hevva cake was baked by the huers on their return to their homes, the cake being ready by the time the crews returned to land.

Makes 1 Thin Cake

Ingredients:

200g plain flour
a pinch of salt
½ tsp ginger powder
½ tsp cinnamon powder
50g granulated sugar
100g salted butter (or lard)
100g currants
2-3 tbsp milk

Method:

Grease a large baking sheet and preheat the oven to 190C/170C(fan). Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl, adding the salt, spices and sugar. Tip in the butter and work the mixture together with your fingers until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Incorporate the currants and bring the mixture together into a stiff dough with milk – 2 or 3 tbsp should be enough. Transfer the dough onto a well floured surface and roll out until little over 1cm in thickness. Move the rolled out cake onto the prepared baking sheet and score the top so as to resemble a fishing net.Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown, sprinkle with a little more sugar and serve warm.

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Porthgwarra by Ernest Proctor

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“I rode into Penzance and explored the town thoroughly … I found it a curious mixture of a place, the new gentility of the seaside town mellowing the ancient coarseness of the fishing port. The Metropole Hotel was part of the new gentility, a modern building that faced the sea and catered to visitors anxious to breathe the sea air in refined surroundings, but the town’s high street was far older than the esplanade and stood further inland to remind the visitor that a sea view had not always been considered desirable by the inhabitants. The mixture of old and new was emphasised, however by the new market house at the top of historical Market Jew Street and by the new public garden with their semi-tropical vegetation a stone’s throw from the narrow streets and cobbled alleys around the harbour. And beyond the harbour, reducing both the old and the new to insignificance, rose the fairy-tale castle of St Michael’s Mount …”

From ‘Penmarric’ by Susan Howatch

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“And to-night, ladies?” suggested the faithful Charles. “Wouldn’t you like to row round the Mount?—When you’ve had your tea, I’ll come back for you, and help you down to the shore—it’s rather rough, but nothing like what you have done, ma’am,” added he encouragingly. “And it will be bright moonlight, and the Mount will look so fine.”

So, the spirit of adventure conquering our weariness, we went. When I think how it looked next morning—the small, shallow bay, with its toy-castle in the centre, I am glad our first vision of it was under the glamour of moonlight, with the battlemented rock throwing dark shadows across the shimmering sea. In the mysterious beauty of that night row round the Mount, we could imagine anything; its earliest inhabitant, the giant Cormoran, killed by that “valiant Cornishman,” the illustrious Jack; the lovely St. Keyne, a king’s daughter, who came thither on pilgrimage; and, passing down from legend to history, Henry de la Pomeroy, who, being taken prisoner, caused himself to be bled to death in the Castle; Sir John Arundel, slain on the sands, and buried in the Chapel; Perkin Warbeck’s unfortunate wife, who took refuge at St. Michael’s shrine, but was dragged thence. And so on, and so on, through the centuries, to the family of St. Aubyn, who bought it in 1660, and have inhabited it ever since. “Very nice people,” we heard they were; who have received here the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and other royal personages. What a contrast to the legendary Cormoran!

Yet, looking up as we rowed under the gloomy rock, we could fancy his giant ghost sitting there, on the spot where he killed his wife, for bringing in her apron greenstone, instead of granite, to build the chapel with. Which being really built of greenstone the story must be true! What a pleasure it is to be able to believe anything!

Some of us could have stayed out half the night, floating along in the mild soft air and dreamy moonlight, which made even the commonplace little town look like a fairy scene, and exalted St. Michael’s Mount into a grand fortress, fit for its centuries of legendary lore—but others preferred going to bed.

So we landed, and retired. Not however without taking a long look out of the window upon the bay, which now, at high tide, was one sheet of rippling moon-lit water, with the grim old Mount, full of glimmering lights like eyes, sitting silent in the midst of the silent sea.”

From An Unsentimental Journey through Cornwall, by Dinah Maria Craik

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I Can Just Hear a Robin Above the Roar of the Stream. Cot Valley. February 2015.

Kurt Jackson

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“The Towans, as the sandhills or dunes on the north-east side of St. Ives Bay are called—that barren place mentioned in the last chapter where a horde of fugitive thrushes found snails enough to save them from starving—is a curiously attractive bit of country. It is plainly visible from St. Ives, looking east over the water—a stretch of yellow sands where the Hayle River empties itself in the Bay, and, behind it, a grey-green desert of hummocky or hilly earth, where the hills are like huge broken waves in “fluctuation fixed.” And in a sense they are waves, formed of sand which the ocean brings out of its depths and exposes at low water, to be swept up by the everlasting winds and heaped in hills along the sea-front; and no sooner are the hills built than the wind unbuilds them again, carrying the yellow dust further inland to build other hills and yet others, burying the green farm-lands and houses and entire villages in their desolating progress. This, they say, was the state of things no longer ago than the eighteenth century, when some wise person discovered or remembered that Nature herself has a remedy for this evil, a means of staying the wind-blown sands in their march. The common sea rush, Psomma arenaria, the long coarse grass which grows on the sand by the sea, was introduced—the roots or seed, I do not know which; and it grew and spread, and in a little while took complete possession of all that desolate strip of land, clothing the deep hollows and wave-like hills to their summits with its pale, sere-looking, grey-green tussocks. As you walk there, when the wind blows from the sea, the fine, dry, invisible particles rain on your face and sting your eyes; but all this travelling sand comes from the beach and can do no harm, for where it falls it must lie and serve as food for the conquering sea rush. If you examine the earth you will find it bound down with a matting of tough roots and rootlets, and that in the spaces between the tussocks the decaying rush has formed a thin mould and is covered with mosses and lichens, and in many places with a turf as on the chalk downs.”

From ‘The Land’s End’ by W H Hudson

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French Crabbers (in Newlyn Harbour) by Harold Harvey 

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“Cornwall is very primeval: great, black, jutting cliffs and rocks, like the original darkness, and a pale sea breaking in, like dawn.

It is like the beginning of the world, wonderful…”

D. H. Lawrence

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To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (2016)

I fell in love with this book; it captured both my head and my heart, completely and utterly.

My expectations were high, because this is the second novel by Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey, whose first novel, The Snow Child, had me very nearly lost for words. I remember reading it when it was shiny and new, and being delighted when ‘my’ book went on to be a huge success, much loved and much lauded.

I was thrilled when a copy of this second book, a rather bigger book, arrived. When I examined it more closely I saw that it had elements in common with the first book, but it also had a great deal to make it different and distinctive. And to make it a real progression for the author.

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At the centre of this story, set in Alaska at the end of the 19th century is a husband and wife.

Sophie was a young teacher, in love with the natural world, when she met Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester. He was intrigued by the young woman who was completely unflustered when she was caught up a tree; and she was captivated when he took the time and trouble to find and lead her to the nest of a hummingbird. I was very taken with them both as individuals, and I loved them as a couple.

I have found many things to love in this novel, but it was this marriage that I loved most of all.

Early in that marriage the Colonel was tasked with leading a small team on an expedition into territory that was unmapped and unexplored by white settlers. Sophie hoped to follow him to Alaska, but she was obliged to settle at barracks, as far from her family as she would be from her husband. The story is told through the journals that they keep while they are apart.

The two narrative voices are wonderfully vivid and real, and I was pulled right into both stories. I lived through a journey through country that was beautiful but full of danger; and though dull days at barracks that were made interesting by the company I was keeping. When I put the book down I kept thinking about the things that concerned my two protagonists, as if they were people I knew. And there where times, when I was reading the words of one, that I found myself reading from the perspective of the others.

When I stood back a little I appreciated learning about history I had thought of little before; a time when territory was sold from Russia to America, over the heads of its native population. I appreciated how well the author threaded the same images and themes through each journal, and who naturally many of those things repeated through the book.

I’m trying not to mention specifics – its much to early in this book’s life for that, and you must read them first-hand – but there are so many lovely details, so many different emotions to feel as you follow the progress of these two lives.

The story moves slowly, but there was always something that was vivid and real to hold my attention: an image, an event, an idea, a description, an emotion ….

The raven, portrayed on the cover, is very significant to the story. It’s the story of a woman ahead of her time and a man who respects the past but looks to the future. It’s a story underpinned by folklore; that feels natural and right, maybe because those old stories came from that country where the small native population accepted that nature and tradition should hold sway, where things were very different.

That 19th century story is framed with contemporary letters between Walter Forrester, the Allen Forrester’s great-nephew, who is coming towards the end of his life and wishes to gift the writings, and the various artefacts from the journey to the Alpine Historical Museum; and Joshua Sloan, the exhibits curator of that museum.

I though I might resent being drawn out of the story of Sophie and her Colonel, but I didn’t at all. I loved watching a friendship grow between two very different men, I loved that they felt the same way about the history that I did; and their story provided a wonderful context for the past human drama and for the history of their country.

There are so many things I could say; they are as many things that I can’t quite put into words; but whatever I say I know that I won’t be able to do this extraordinary novel justice.

I can see that the author loved the people, the history and the county she wrote about; that she must have taken such trouble to research so many things, to make the people in her story, and everything about them, live and breathe, and to create a novel that is complex and detailed and yet utterly accessible.

This is fiction, inspired by history, and I can’t quite believe it’s not real.

I didn’t want to let go, but I know that this book will stay with me, and that I will visit it again.

Blood Symmetry by Kate Rhodes (2016)

Over the course of five novels Kate Rhodes has grown into a top-flight crime writer. I don’t read a great deal of contemporary crime, but there is something about the way she writes, the way she portrays her characters, that has me eager to read each new book as soon as it arrives in the world.

This book opens with a perfectly executed scene.

It is early morning and a woman – a doctor and a single mother – is jogging on Clapham Common with her young son in tow. It’s something that she does everyday, but this day is different. Because she is being watched, by a couple who have a particular interest in her.

Later that day her son, Mikey, is found, wandering alone. He is distressed and disorientated, and he will not say a word.

And in the evening a labelled pack of Doctor Clare Riordan’s blood is found on a doorstep in central London ….

The writing was wonderful. I knew that this was crime novel, but it could have turned this story into anything it might have wanted to become. And it quickly became clear than the story would be both distinctive and meaningful. Any concerns I had that there might be echoes of a certain real-life case were swept right away.

29058751Dr Alice Quentin is a Forensic Psychologist, and as the story opens she is beginning a new job as deputy director of Forensic Psychology Unit  of the Metropolitan Police Department. It isn’t the right time for her to take on a demanding new case, she shouldn’t be working on the same investigation as DCI Don Burns now that their relationship was ‘official’ but it was clear from the start that this was an exceptional situation, and that Alice was the best person to work with the child who had to be protected and handled with the greatest care.

She grasped the situation quickly, but she wasn’t entirely happy. Her relationship was common knowledge, and, though she knew that Don had done the right thing when he put it on record, she wished that he had asked her first.

Her work with Mikey showed Alice as a capable and compassionate professional so very well. And the child’s trauma, and his difficult progress as he struggled to cope with his situation, were sensitively and realistically captured. Every detail was right, and I was drawn in and made to care.

I understood Alice’s deep concern for Mikey, and her determination to do everything in her power to help him and to help the investigation that she hoped – maybe against hope – would restore his beloved mother to him.

Kate Rhodes was very clever to set this case against this stage in Alice’s personal life. Because seeing things together illuminated her character wonderfully well. She put a little too much emotional energy into her career, because, while she loved the idea of a more fulfilling life away from work, she had a deep-set fear of being hurt, being unable to cope ….

There is another crime, links are found with other incidents, and everything leads to a very real scandal.

In the late seventies and early eighties tainted blood products were imported into the United Kingdom and their use infected around five thousand with hepatitis C and around twelve hundred with HIV.

To date no government, health or pharmaceutical entity in the UK has admitted liability for the scandal and no compensation has been paid to those infected or affected.

I knew nothing about this history and I can only applaud Kate Rhodes – whose family was affected – for drawing attention to what happened and for incorporating it into this novel so effectively; showing the long-ranging consequences and the differing reactions of those whose lives were touched and damaged.

The plot is very well constructed; my suspicions went this way and that, and I really didn’t know quite how this story would play out until the very end. Every character was fully realised; a real living, breathing human being with a life and a history. Every story within the bigger story rang true.

And life went on for everyone in Alice’s world. Don’s first meeting with Alice’s mother was particularly well done; showing aspects of their characters that I hadn’t seen before.

This is part of a series, and I would recommend starting with the first book and reading them all, but this book could stand alone, and you could read it first and then go back.

I could quite happily read them all again.

They work as crime novels, they work as human dramas; and five times now I have picked up a book and read avidly, wanting to know how the story would play out and caring about the people involved and wanting to know what would happen in their lives.

I will be very surprised if I read a better crime novel this year.

And I do hope that there will be a sixth book.

It feels like time for an A to Z ….

7622ab2bd7a52b6af5825b75c917600aA is for ANNA BILING. I found her painting ‘Lush Green Summer’ when I was searching for seasonal images.

B is for BRYHER. I’ve read three of her books now and I know that a small press has a few of her books in print but I do wish that she was better known and her books were more readily available.

C is for CENTENARY. Mary Stewart was born on 17th September 1916 – does anyone have any plans for celebrating her 100th birthday?

D is for DON’T GO OUT TONIGHT MY DARLING by Rachel Newton. I love this. I love the album ….

E is for ELIZABETH BOWEN. I’m reading ‘The House in Paris’ and I’m very taken with it.

F is for THE FISH LADDER by Katharine Norbury. This book passed me by until I saw the programme for our local literary festival, and when I heard the author ‘in conversation’ I knew that I had to buy a copy.

imageG is for GHOSTBIRD by Carol Lovekin was added to my library pile today.

H is for HAPS. I’m not really a shawl knitter but I am so taken with the history and the patterns in The Book of Haps.

I is for IN PROGRESS. And I’m knitting a Nut Hap.

J is for JUBILEE POOL. It’s been open for a while, but it was officially opened by the Prince of Wales last Monday.

K is for KIP – Darlene’s lovely puppy.

L is for LADY MAISERY. I am so pleased that their new album has been successfully crowd funded.

3054631879M is for MUSKETEERS. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Three Musketeers’ and I loved it at some levels but I was disappointed at others. It’s going to take a while to pull my thoughts together.

N is for NEXT UP TO READ is ‘I, Rachel’ by March Cost.

O is for AN OLD BOOK. I found a lovely World Book Club edition of ‘Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by Rumer Godden in a charity shop yesterday. It looks to be the fiction inspired by the real life events she wrote about in This Far But No Further which I read last year.

P is for PILGRIMAGE. This month’s book is ‘The Trap’. I’d planned to read it this weekend but I was distracted by other books and so now it is lined up for next weekend.

Q is for QUITE EASY WHEN YOU KNOW HOW.  I’ve learned how to do Japanese short rows, I love it, and I don’t think I shall ever wrap and turn again.

174216R is for RABINDRANATH TAGORE. Cirtnecce is hosting a readalong of ‘The Home and the World’ next month, to mark the book’s centenary. I must confess that I didn’t know a great deal about the book or the author, but I am intrigued.

S is for SIXTY. I’ve been looking at previews of Rowan 60 and there are many things I should love to knit and to wear.

T is for TO THE BRIGHT END OF THE WORLD by Eowyn Ivey is a wonderful, wonderful book.

U is for UNDERNEATH ALL THAT PAPER – is my desk. We have been incredibly busy, but I am very nearly top of things.

V is for VERY VIRAGO ALL AUGUST. The LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group is gearing up for ‘All Virago All August’. I can’t do ‘All’ but I’m aiming for ‘Very’. Rebecca West, Willa Cather and Rumer Godden are the authors I have in mind.

hedgehog5W is for WOMEN IN TRANSLATION MONTH is coming and I have ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘The World is not Enough’ on my bedside table ready to start reading.

X is for XHIBITION. We have Marine Painting – from Turner to Wallis – at Penlee House this summer and I am quite sure it is going to be wonderful.

Y is for YOU SEE LOTS OF THINGS OUT OF OUR BAY WINDOW and a few weeks ago Briar saw a hedgehog. She went out to investigate – before we realised what it was – and she was bemused by the little spiky creature. We brought her inside and watched his progress across the garden. He was gone the next morning and we haven’t seen him again.

Z is for ZZZZ. After playing ball at the boating pond this morning and visiting my mother’s nursing home this afternoon a certain small brown dog fell asleep – and slept right through supper time!

Summer: A Wildlife Trust Anthology for The Changing Seasons

When a lovely book appeared, the second of four anthologies for four different seasons, I knew that it would hold a wonderful array of perspectives of what summer brings.

28547714Before I began to read I paused to think what I might say about what the summer brings to me.

Here are three things:

It brings lighter evenings, and that means that we don’t have to stay on well-lit streets for the evening dog walk. We can visit the boating pond where Briar loves to jump in the water, and where shoals of tiny fish sometimes catch my eye in the stream. We can visit the gardens where we hear so much bird song, and where Briar has a range of places where she likes to pause for a while to observe whatever might be happening in the undergrowth. Sometimes I watch with her and sometimes I read a book. And we can visit the park, where our progress is similar; there is less bird song but there are squirrels to be observed and chased ….

It brings a new stage in the development of the seagulls who grow up on the roofs of the garages and workshops in out back lane. The chicks grow so quickly and by summer they are almost fully grown, with just their colouring, the last of their fluffiness, and a little uncertainty in their manner to distinguish them from the adults. They are still learning to fly, sometimes falling off roofs, and sometimes walking up the lane, seeing what the world has to offer them. We saw one youngster on the beach a couple of days ago and I think his parents were trying to teach him to swim. One adult was bobbing on the water not far from the shore, one was behind him trying to nudge him in the same direction, but he wouldn’t have it ….

'Summer Landscape' by Raymond Booth
‘Summer Landscape’ by Raymond Booth

It brings visitors to Cornwall. Many of them are lovely, some of them are horribly insensitive to those of us who live here, and the sheer weight of numbers means that there are many places we avoid in the summer. Luckily we know many places that are a little off the beaten track, and whose appeals are maybe a little more subtle that the places whose names you will know. We love the stark open spaces around Madron Carn;  a walk not far from there that takes in a well, the ruins of a wayside chapel, and a long straight avenue of trees; the paths around the village of Gulval, and the fields above it; a number of walks alongside and nearby the river at St Erth; the steady walk to the top of Chapel Carn Brea, the highest point in West Cornwall; following the stream down the Cot Valley; the salt marshes and a lovely garden walk at Hayle. We went to Hayle yesterday, and I have a lovely image in my head of Briar stood in a stream, fascinated by a dragonfly ….

I found gulls, dragonflies, country walks, and so many other things in this wonderful book. It collects together lots of short pieces, none more than a few pages long. Some of them are old and some of them are new; some of them are complete in themselves and some of them are taken from longer works; and because the credits come at the end of each piece I sometimes found that something I thought was old was new and that something I thought was new was old. Because, of course, some things don’t change and one of the lovely things about looking at the natural world is that we can see the same things and feel just the same as generations who have long gone.

There are a range of different styles – there are storytellers, diarists, poets, reporters and conversationalists within these pages – but the pieces sit together quite naturally because there is much that unifies them. They observe and they communicate, in a way that is accessible to both those at home in the country and those who are interested but don’t really know what it is they are looking at.

'A Summer Afternoon' by Herman Wessel
‘A Summer Afternoon’ by Herman Wessel

There are so may highlights that it is almost impossible to pick favourites. I loved bat watching with Jacqueline Bain. I was taken by surprise by some lovely writing that I would never have guessed was by Charles Dickens. I was pleased to climb a hill in the Cotswolds with Vivienne Hambly; I was delighted that Jo Cartmell wrote of replacing her lawn with meadow flowers, reminding me that I have a plan a little like that for part of our garden; I was very taken with Laurie Lee’s list of some of the things that make a summer; and I was so pleased to take a boat trip with Simon Barnes and his son, who has Downs Syndrome and joie de vivre, and reminded me of my brother who had those things too ….

I’m going to pick out three more now, to balance my three. They’re diverse, they’re vivid, and one after another they captivated me.

Just a few pages from ‘The Charm of Birds’ by Sir Edward Grey communicated his love of his subject, simply and clearly:

“Of all bird songs and sounds there is none that I would prefer to the spring notes of the curlew. I have seen the bird finish its notes on the ground after alighting , but I have not observed if it ever gives them without any flight. As a rule the wonderful note are uttered on the wing, and are the accompaniment of a graceful flight that has motions of evident pleasure. The notes do not sound passionate; they suggest peace, rest, healing, joy, an assurance of happiness past, present and to come. To listen to curlews on a bright, clear April day is one of the best experiences that a lover of birds can have.”

John Tyler provides a stunning account of the short life cycle of a glow-worm, in a narrative that reads like a dystopian thriller:

“When the last sunset colours have disappeared from the sky and the glassy slope behind the brambles has faded from greens to shades of grey, the beetle makes her way to the surface and begins to climb slowly up a grass stem. As she does so a remarkable thing happens. From the tip of her tail a brilliant lime-green light shines out across the colourless hillside. She is a glow-worm! With neither wings to fly nor jaws to feed, her life has now become a race against time. She must use her light to attract a mate and then lay her eggs before the energy reserves that she had saved up during her two years as a snail-eating larva and she starves to death.”

'Summer Path, Padstow' by Amanda Hoskin
‘Summer Path, Padstow’ by Amanda Hoskin

After that it was lovely to relax with a piece written more than a century ago; elegant descriptive writing from ‘Nature Near London’ by Richard Jefferies:

“There is a slight but perceptible colour in the atmosphere of summer. It is not visible close at hand, nor always where that light falls strongest, and if looked at too long it sometimes fades away. But over gorse and heath, in the warm hollow of wheat-fields, and round about the rising ground there is something more than air alone. It is not mist, nor the hazy vapour of autumn, nor the blue tints that come over the distant hills and woods.”

There are so many lovely things that I could pull out from this book.

Some of the pieces spoke to me more than others, but don’t think that there was a single one that wasn’t worthy of its place.

I know that I will enjoy revisiting this beautifully produced anthology.

And I am already wondering what the autumn and winter volumes will bring ….

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders (2016)

This book brings together a number of my literary loves:

  • Victorian England
  • Crime and detection
  • Literary allusions, and
  • A companion to take me through the story.

It’s the kind of recipe that it is easy get very wrong, and so I was delighted to find that Kate Saunders gets it very right.

Laetitia Rodd was the widow of an archdeacon, and, with limited means, she had taken lodgings with Mrs Mary Bentley, and they had become good friends.

She had been offered a home by her brother, Frederick Tyson. He was one of London’s most celebrated criminal barristers, but was is also the father of ten children, with another expected, and his wife was a little inclined to see Laetitia as a poor relation and to expect her to take on the role of nurse of governess rather often. She loved the children, she was sorry that she had none of her own, and so she made diplomatic excuses and moved out.

Fred understood, and he did what he could to help her. He knew that ladies could move in circles that gentlemen could not, and that they could find out things that no gentleman could ever find out for himself. And so, from time to time, he called on her services for work she described as ‘Management and Prevention of Scandal.’

9781408866887That role suited her well. She was what my mother would call ‘a people person’, and at fifty-two,  with many years as a minister’s wife behind her she had the life experience as well as the good sense to deal with whatever was required her. She missed her husband and was glad to be kept busy; and that she had a little more money to make life more comfortable for herself and her landlady was a lovely bonus.

I had been worried that this would feel a little contrived, but it didn’t at all. I was delighted that Fred had thought of a wonderful way to help both his sister and himself, and I was caught up with a wonderful band of characters, all so very well drawn, from the very start.

I was a little sorry that all of this had happened before the story began, and that Laetitia already had a number of cases behind her, but the story had such promise, I was so taken with Laetitia’s storytelling, that I was eager to keep reading and to find out what her next case involved.

Sir James Calderstone, head of the Calderstone family of Wishtide in Lincolnshire, had a problem that he wanted to be handled with tact and discretion. His only son, Charles, was set on marrying a lady who he believed was most unsuitable. Sir James wanted a wedding to be prevented at all costs, but he did not want his son to know what he was doing, and he did not want a breath of scandal.

Charles is independently wealthy, thanks to an inheritance from his mother’s side of the family, so he had no need of his father’s approval. Except that the lady in question – Helen Orme, a young widow who had arrived at Wishtide to teach those same two girls to speak Italian, before catching the eye of their brother – had said that she would not marry him without his family’s consent.

Laetitia was to travel to Wishtide as a new governess to ‘finish’ the two daughters of the house before they went out into society. And, by way of what her brother described as ‘a little genteel probing and perhaps a modicum of eavesdropping’, to uncover the past of which Helen would say very little.

She found that there was a great deal wrong in the Calderstone family, that there was a great deal that Sir James hadn’t told her, that there was a great family secret; and when she met Helen she liked her very much ….

I won’t say too much about the story, but I will say that it was very well constructed, that it drew in a wonderful range of characters and settings, and that I was always eager to keep turning the pages.

The literary allusions are very well done. If you spot them you’ll appreciate them, but if you don’t it won’t spoil the story at all.

There’s a nice streak of feminism; well planted in the story, because the characters and the events are firmly rooted in their own era

Those events escalated to a wonderfully dramatic ending.

If I was picky I would say that I would have liked a few less crime fiction tropes in that ending, but I don’t want to be picky, because I was engaged and entertained very well by this historical mystery.

I was sorry when the story was over; but I’m very glad that this is the first book of a series, and I’m looking forward to meeting Laetitia and her family and friends again.