The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland (2018)

I live very close to the sea, close enough for the house to shake and sea spray to wash the widows when the full moon brings the highest of tides and there is a strong wind behind it; but with a road and a promenade separating us, and a house that has stood since the late 19th century, we feel safe and secure, for the rest of our lives at least.

Juliet Blaxland’s house by the sea is rather less secure; and this book was sparked by a timely prompt, to which she responded:

The house on the edge of the cliff was demolished this week, which means we are now the house of the edge of the cliff.

She knows that her house will have to be demolished in a few years time, because the soft cliffs are crumbling under the relentless pressure of winds and tides, and so the land on which it stands will be undermined.

This memoir of one of the last years spent in the house of the edge of the cliff takes the form of a journal, and each month there is an image, a well chosen piece of poetry and prose, all of the details of seasonal produce and events that you would expect a countrywoman to record – and the distance from the edge of the cliff and its change from the previous month. In some months there was no change at all, in other months there were visible losses, and over the course of the year the distance fell from 24 to 19 metres.

The author wrote about that with wit and with grace.

You will not find the church of St. Nicholas, Easton Bavents, in your Pevsner guide to the buildings of Suffolk, nor will you you feel guilty when you repeatedly fail to be present in your pew as a regular member of the congregation, for you have the perfect excuse for missing matins on a Sunday morning: you are not a fish. As our parish church sits quietly on the seabed, part buried here, recognisable pieces of architecture there, perhaps a little buttress among the silvery bass swimming round the ruins beneath the waves, the memory of its existence adds to the sense of calm.

The house on the edge of the cliff was rented, but she had grown up in the area; and this is a book about much, much more than that one house and coastal erosion.

Each month’s journal records the world around her and considers a different subject. Some are clearly seasonal – there are winter storms, there is a summer night on the dunes, there is an attempt to create a crop circle – but there are others that simply reflect life in the country, and how some things have changed while others remain the same.

The writing is rich and evocative, and it is also clear-sighted about the practical realities of living on the east coast and the prospects for the future. The coastal area that Juliet Blaxland knows and loves is in many ways different to my coastal home, but her writing has allowed me to come to know it well and to understand the depth of her feelings for the place she calls home.

Her thoughts were wonderfully wide-ranging, she found so many different things to write about, but themes recurred: the acceptance that nature cannot always be controlled and that there are times when it much be allowed to go its own way; the the increasing speed of change and the importance of considering its consequences; and the ultimate realisation that even the longest of human lives is insignificant when compare with the lifetime of the setting of those lives.

Not all of her interests interested me, the quality of the writing was a little variable, but I was always engaged.

I loved her voice, I loved that she was able to see beauty and charm in simple, everyday things that many people wouldn’t notice, and I particularly loved that she saw hope for the future in the power of nature and the knowledge that tides must always turn.

The physical book is a lovely thing, and it caught my eye in my local bookshop before it was first long-listed and then short-listed for the Wainwright Prize. I was delighted to see that progression, and I would be happy to see it progress one step further ….

Its final words are, inevitably, elegaic:

When our part of this nature-wrought and romantic place goes, the memory of life here will go with it. Where once Chuffy the Brindle Greyhound bombed about the beach and Cockle the Cockerel gently heralded the dawn with his rural sounds, and our skyline  hens laid beautiful blue eggs, and our vegetable garden thrived, and we loved the place so much, one day, where all that had been, there will only be a particular volume of sky over the sea which will hold all these memories in its air, and the people on the beach will not know.

And it catches those memories beautifully.

Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane (1931)

Many stories set in Irish country houses have been told over the years, but few have the magic that is found in Molly Keane’s novels, when she wrote about a past that she remembered, with both love and clear-sightedness.

She began this story with a tumble of sentences, that fell somewhere between poetry and prose.

…. People drove about in dog-carts and pony traps.
Invitations were issued to tea.
Tea parties mattered too.
Women who powdered their faces were fast
Women who painted them – bad.
Hunting, low wages, feather boas, nipped in habit coats, curly bowlers, bunches of violets, black furs and purple hats were much in vogue.
A book called Three Weeks was both enjoyed and abused ….

Then eight year-old Easter Chevington wakes up early,and explores the delights of the nursery, until she hears her nanny stirring and creeps back into bed so the day can really begin. She is in her father’s country house, Puppetstown, where she lives with her father; her Great-Aunt Dicksie, who has lived there all her life and spends her days happily in her garden; her two boy cousins Evelyn and Basil, who are just a little older than her; and their beautiful widowed mother Aunt Brenda, who thinks that she will marry again one day but for the present is happy to be indolent in such a lovely setting.

The lives of the three children were filled with joys. They ran and played in the grounds; chasing the peacocks in Aunt Dicksie’s garden, distracting Patsy, the young boot boy, and running rings around O’Regan, the gardener. They ran rather wilder in the surrounding countryside; and they had so many  adventures and days to remember, out with their dogs and their horses.

Molly’s Keane’s writing was so rich and evocative that I could have been right there with them; and it seemed that though the seasons may change life at Puppetstown would always be the same.

Through a tangle of elder and laurel and twisting rhododendron they penetrated with the effortless accuracy of complete custom, to find themselves in the dim dark aisle of the Nut Walk. Here silence burned like a still flame behind green glass. The children’s sandalled feet padded without noise up the loamy path. The day was kept without. The golden July day was defeated. And beyond this darkness Aunt Dicksie’s own strip of garden lay like a bright sword of colour beneath the sun.

In the autumn the Nut Walk was the jolliest place of all. Filberts lay on the ground, splitting their creamy green jackets; round hazel nuts, polished like so many brown boots, were there to pick up. And walnuts, all ready to be crushed with enticing messiness from their coating of black slime, awaited the adventurer. But today the Nut Walk was drawn into itself, in a green and secret spell of quietness. Without words, the children hurried down the length of it an dropped themselves from a four-foot wall into the cheerfully brazen field below.

The Great War barely touched the family at Puppetstown. Easter’s father was killed, but he had always been a military man, he had often been away, and it had always been expected that one day he would not be coming back He was mourned and then life settled back into its usual pattern.

Aunt Brenda enjoyed the company of a British army Captain from the local garrison; but his visits were noticed by Irishmen fighting in another war, and so Aunt Brenda would witness the assassination of her Captain. Shocked the core, she rushed her sons and her niece to safety in England.

Great-Aunt Dicksie refused to go with them, insisting that she would not surrender her family home. She bolted the doors, she turned the ponies loose and she learned to live with just her memories and Patsy for company. Her garden became the focus of her life,  she spent the little money she had on seeds and bulbs;  leaving the house to go to rack and ruin, and dressing herself from the old clothes left in different wardrobes.

The  cousins learned to move in English society, a world quite unlike the one they had left behind. Evelyn was happy there, he fell in love with an  society beauty; but Basil still felt the pull of Ireland, and Puppetstown. He knew that Easter had inherited the house when she turned twenty-one, and he thought – he hoped – that she felt the same way.

“England,” Basil said; “she’s too crowded. We want a littler, wilder place. We’re half-English, both of us, Easter, but we haven’t got the settled, stable drop of blood that goes down with the English. Easter, the thing is we don’t see quite the same jokes. Isn’t this a mad way to talk? My dear, don’t think me an ass, but you do laugh in the wrong places for them. You’ll never be a success here – why you’re even conscious of their ghosts. Easter, dear, let’s run away from them all.”

“Where?” said Easter. The flame in Basil smote her eyes too, there was a sudden spear of light thrust through all her unacknowledged dark. “I know,” she said. “Basil listen, we’ll go back to Puppetstown. It’s everything that England’s not. And Aunt Dicksie’s there. And I’ve all my money. No one can stop us.” She hovered, disappointed here, “All the same – they’ll try. They’ll talk. We’ll have to slip off, Basil. Never tell a soul.”

They do just that, with no comprehension of how much they have changed since they left Ireland, and without thinking that Aunt Dicksie and Puppetstown could have have changed in their absence. Can they restore the house to its former glory, and have they grown up enough to all settle down happily together?

Molly Keane told a wonderful tale in this book.

I loved the arc of the story, and I loved the different arcs of the lives of the different characters. The country house and the people who lived and worked there came wonderfully to life; and their stories spoke profoundly, about family, about home, and about Irish history.

The ending was perfect.

I’d love to know what happened next; but I’m happy to be left to wonder, and to think about those halcyon childhood days at Puppetstown.

Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain

In 1954, two quite remarkable things, that may or may not be connected, happened at the Saint Antoine vineyards, in the Beaujolais wine region:

  • The vintage was of exceptional quality; a wine that in the years before and the years after would be considered as no more that a decent table wine was lauded for a single year.
  • A man saw an unidentified flying object. He reported it to the authorities and they filed away his report, another to add to the exceptionally high number of similar reports that year.

Twenty-four years later, in 1978, that same man recognised the same unidentified flying object that he had seen in a very famous film. When he said just that, he wasn’t taken seriously, and so he went home. He decided that it was time to drink his last bottle of that wonderful 1954 vintage; he added a splash to his dog’s bowl, as he always did; and then they went out for a walk. Neither of them were seen again, and it seemed that they has disappeared into thin air.

That is simply the introduction; and it will all be explained in the main story, which begins in 2017 and is full of the charm, the warmth, the lightness, the humanity, for which its author is renowned – and, of course, a dash of the fantastical.

That story begins with a man named Hubert ,who lives in a building in Paris that has been in his family for generations; though their stake has diminished over the years, and Hubert only owns the apartment where he lives. After a sparsely attended residents meeting he goes down to his cellar to look for something; he spots a dusty bottle of 1954 Vintage Beaujolais; but then he realised that he had locked himself in.

Hubert’s cries for help are heard by an American who has just arrived in Paris for the very first time, and who has rented an apartment for the duration of his trip. Bob is startled, but he is delighted to meet one of his temporary neighbours, and to be invited to share the bottle of wine. Two more residents arrive home –  Julien, a cocktail waiter at Harry’s Bar, and Magalie, a restorer of antique ceramics – and they are invited along too.

Next morning, the quartet who had drunk the vintage wine woke up in 1954.

It took them some time to realise what had happened. Hubert, who had the strongest ties to the place where he lived and his history, was first.

Hubert loosened his tie and walked rapidly back home, trying as best he could to make sense of the morning’s events. Unless it was a dream, Salvador Dalí was staying at the Hotel Meurice, all the buses were vintage, street sellers had reverted to using hand-drawn carts and the large moustachioed man surveying his building work whom he’d greeted as he left this morning was none other than Monsieur Bouvuer himself, the founder of the charcuterie of that name. The charcuterie that had opened in 1954. Hubert stopped. 1954. The same year as the wine.

Bob, who was a stranger to the city, took was last to realise what had happened; but having someone with them who was unfamiliar with the country was a blessing for the group, because he had accepted Francs in exchange for his US Dollars and when he knew what had happened he was happy to share them with his new-found friends.

It was lovely watching the four of them out in the Paris of 1954 – which was beautifully evoked – and their adventures brought lovely and diverse qualities to the story.

  • Hubert met a long-lost relative, he discovered that his story was rather different to the one he had been told, and he learned something that could be very useful to him in 2017.
  • Julien went to the bar where he worked met its founder – Harry MacElhone – and impressed him and his customers by creating a wonderful new cocktail.
  • Bob did the things he had always intended to do on his holiday, and he did something that he hoped might change his future.
  • Magalie went to the haberdashery where she thought she might run into the grandmother who had brought her up and who she missed terribly.

It was lovely to move through the city with them, and to spot many notable figures who were in Paris in 1954. I won’t name them all, but I must share one encounter.

Still thinking out how his new cocktail would turn out, Julien paid little attention to the couple who had come in and sat down at the bar. They were discussing the dress the woman would have to wear for the preview of a film in New York. Her elegant companion smiles, ‘Just two more fittings, Audrey, I promise.’

‘I’m counting on you, Hubert. This film is important to me and it’s also important to do justice to your creations,’ replied the young girl in delightfully accented French.

Julien turned to look, and froze. The young girl with the short hair and dark eyes smiled at him and asked, ‘What is that pretty purple drink?’

‘It’s something I’m trying,’ stammered Julien, ‘with violet syrup. But no one has tasted it yet.’

‘I love that no one has lasted it yet,’ enthused Audrey.

‘I’ll have one too,’ said the elegant young man.

As he prepared their cocktails, Julien listened discreetly and deduced that she had made a film, ‘Sabrina’, which took place in Paris and was about to be released.

‘What do you think?’ asked Julien anxiously when she had taken two little sips

‘What do I think?’ she repeated, looking doubtfully up at the ceiling before looking at Julien. ‘It’s very, very good!’ she declared, with a disarming smile.

All of this was lovely, but it wasn’t something that could go on for ever.

Julien had been able to put together a plan of action to take the four friends back to 2017, because he was  the great-grandson of the man who went missing in 1978, he knew what had happened in 1954 …. but would it work?

The resolution of the story was not as strong as what had gone before, because there was an awful lot to sort out. It was all sorted out, but the plot mechanics and contrivances overwhelmed the charm of the characters and their experiences for a while.

I can’t think of a way it could have been handled better though, there’s nothing I would have wanted taken out to make things simpler, and so I am thinking if it as the small price that I had to pay for all the lovely things in this book.

I might have used the would lovely too many times, but I think it’s the right word for this book.

It’s not perfect, but it is a lovely confection.

China Court by Rumer Godden (1961)

This book tells the story of the days immediately before and after the death of a Cornish matriarch, who knows that, given the chance, her children would sell her beloved home.

That alone would have made me pick up the book, because I love the author, and because I love that this story is set in china clay country; a part of Cornwall that I have rarely read about in fiction, though it is an important part of the county’s history and heritage.

The narrative moves back in time to tell stories of previous generations who lived there, not in the way of most novels that have stories set in different points in time, but in a way that feels completely natural and right. Sometimes a thought, a sound, a sight can spark a memory can stir a memory; sometimes of just a moment of time and sometimes of a whole story of people, places and incidents long past.

That is exactly the way this book works. Rumer Godden did this same thing in an earlier work, A Fugue in Time, and in this book she works with more characters, more history, and – I think – rather more refinement.

I was captivated with the story of the elderly matriarch, who was cared for by a lady not a great deal younger who had been her companion; by the story of a granddaughter she called to her side, who had loved the house as a child but had not been there for many years, as when her mother was widowed she had decided to return to her native America, and pick up the threads of her career as an actress; and by the story that played out when daughters returned, with husbands in tow, to look over what they thought was their rightful inheritance.

China CourtThat story became so real to me, and so did many stories from the past. I’m thinking of Eustace and Adza, who bought the house and established the dynasty. I’m thinking of Lady Patrick, the daughter of a wealthy and aristocratic family who eloped with the son of the house and struggled with her changed circumstances, her faithless husband and two young sons. At first I couldn’t warm to her, but as I learned more of her story I came to empathise with her. And I am thinking of the wonderful Eliza, who seemed to be cast as the spinster daughter, and who overcame her anger about her situation to set the course of her own life, by insisting that her brother formalised her position as housekeeper and by pursuing her own interests – especially the books that she loved dearly – when her time was her own.

It felt quite natural to move between all of those different stories. When I bought my book I had made sure that I had a family tree to refer to, but I didn’t need it for very long at all’ such was the skill of the author at bringing the house and its occupants to life.

She wrote so beautifully, she picked up exactly the right details, and it really did seem that she had walked through that house, unseen, among all of those different generations; understanding the pull of – the importance of – China Court, as a home and for its own sake.

There was such skill in construction of the story and in the telling of the tale. The present was written in the past tense and the past was written in the present tense, which might sound odd but it was wonderfully effective; and I loved the way the two could switch, sometimes even in the same sentence, feeling completely natural and right.

One character had a story in the present and the past. Ripsie was a child from the village and she became the constant companion of Lady Patrick’s two sons, Borowis and John Henry, while they played outside but as they grew up she found that she was often excluded from their world. Because she had fallen in loved with Borowis, who was brave and spirited, she clung on. When she finally realised that he didn’t love her and that he didn’t even see her as someone who had a place in his world, the steady and sensible John Henry was there to catch her before she fell. They married, and when Ripsie became the lady of the manor she slipped into the role so easily that she could have been born to it.

I’m reluctant to pick a favourite from so many wonderful characters and stories, but I think I have to say that I loved Ripsie and her story the best of all; both for her own sake and for what it said about the best and worst of society and of human nature.

The antique Book of Hours that she treasured and kept with her always provided headings for each chapter; a lovely reminder of the spirituality that is threaded through so many of Rumer Godden’s books, a lovely thing in its own right, and as I came to the end of the book I realised that it was also an integral part of the story.

I also realised that the author had chosen the pieces of the history of the family and the history of the house that she would share carefully and cleverly; to illuminate the past, and to show how the past can shape the present and the future.

I did miss the other pieces of history that weren’t shared; and though I understand that not everything could be told, the characters I met and the stories that I learned are so alive in my mind that want to know and understand more.

My only other disappointment was the ending. The reading of the will, the fallout from that, the discoveries that were made, were all wonderful; but there was just one thing that I couldn’t quite believe, the resolution of that was rushed, and the very final scene was unsettling and has not dated well.

There were so many more things that I loved, and those are the things that have stayed with me since I put the book down.

A Seasonal Collection: Raspberries

What a splendid day!” said Anne, drawing a long breath. “Isn’t it good just to be alive on a day like this? I pity the people who aren’t born yet for missing it. They may have good days, of course, but they can never have this one. And it’s splendider still to have such a lovely way to go to school by, isn’t it?”

“It’s a lot nicer than going round by the road; that is so dusty and hot,” said Diana practically, peeping into her dinner basket and mentally calculating if the three juicy, toothsome, raspberry tarts reposing there were divided among ten girls how many bites each girl would have.

The little girls of Avonlea school always pooled their lunches, and to eat three raspberry tarts all alone or even to share them only with one’s best chum would have forever and ever branded as “awful mean” the girl who did it. And yet, when the tarts were divided among ten girls you just got enough to tantalize you.

The way Anne and Diana went to school was a pretty one. Anne thought those walks to and from school with Diana couldn’t be improved upon even by imagination. Going around by the main road would have been so unromantic; but to go by Lover’s Lane and Willowmere and Violet Vale and the Birch Path was romantic, if ever anything was.

Lover’s Lane opened out below the orchard at Green Gables and stretched far up into the woods to the end of the Cuthbert farm. It was the way by which the cows were taken to the back pasture and the wood hauled home in winter. Anne had named it Lover’s Lane before she had been a month at Green Gables.

“Not that lovers ever really walk there,” she explained to Marilla, “but Diana and I are reading a perfectly magnificent book and there’s a Lover’s Lane in it. So we want to have one, too. And it’s a very pretty name, don’t you think? So romantic! We can’t imagine the lovers into it, you know. I like that lane because you can think out loud there without people calling you crazy.”

From ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by L M Montgomery

* * * * * *

‘Raspberries’ by Johan de Fre

* * * * * *

The raspberries
in my driveway
have always
been here
(for the whole eleven years
I have owned
but have not owned
this house),
yet
I have never
tasted them
before.

Always on a plane.
Always in the arms
of man, not God,
always too busy,
too fretful,
too worried
to see
that all along
my driveway
are red, red raspberries
for me to taste.

Shiny and red,
without hairs-
unlike the berries
from the market.
Little jewels-
I share them
with the birds!

On one perches
a tiny green insect.
I blow her off.
She flies!
I burst the raspberry
upon my tongue.

In my solitude
I commune
with raspberries,
with grasses,
with the world.

The world was always
there before,
but where
was I?

Ah raspberry-
if you are so beautiful
upon my ready tongue,
imagine
what wonders
lie in store for me!

‘The Raspberries in my Drive’ by Erica Jong

* * * * * * *

‘Raspberry Leaves and Grass, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine’ by Eliot Porter

* * * * * * *

Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is quality of thought, a state of mind. Of course we have our moments of depression; but there are other moments too, when time, unmeasured by the clock, runs on into eternity and, catching his smile, I know we are together, we march in unison, no clash of thought or of opinion makes a barrier between us. We have no secrets now from one another. All things are shared. Granted that our little hotel is dull, and the food indifferent, and that day after day dawns very much the same, yet we would not have it otherwise. We should meet too many of the people he knows in any of the big hotels. We both appreciate simplicity, and we are sometimes bored – well, boredom is a pleasing antidote to fear. We live very much by routine, and I – I have developed a genius for reading aloud. The only time I have known him show impatience is when the postman lags, for it means we must wait another day before the arrival of our English mail. We have tried wireless, but the noise is such an irritant, and we prefer to store up our excitement; the result of a cricket match played many days ago means much to us. Oh, the Test matches that have saved us from ennui, the boxing bouts, even the billiard scores. Finals of schoolboy sports, dog racing, strange little competitions in the remoter counties, all these are grist to our hungry mill. Sometimes old copies of the Field come my way, and I am transported from this indifferent island to the realities of an English spring. I read of chalk streams, of the mayfly, of sorrel growing in green meadows, of rooks circling above the woods as they used to do at Manderley. The smell of wet earth comes to me from those thumbed and tattered pages, the sour tang of moorland peat, the feel of soggy moss spattered white in places by a heron’s droppings. Once there was an article on wood pigeons, and as I read it aloud it seemed to me that once again I was in the deep woods at Manderley, with pigeons fluttering above my head. I heard their soft, complacent call, so comfortable and cool on a hot summer’s afternoon, and there would be no disturbing of their peace until Jasper came loping through the undergrowth to find me, his damp muzzle questing the ground. Like old ladies caught at their ablutions, the pigeons would flutter from their hiding-place, shocked into silly agitation, and, making a monstrous to-do with their wings, streak away from us above the tree-tops, and so out of sight and sound. When they were gone a new silence would come upon the place, and I – uneasy for no known reason – would realize that the sun no longer wove a pattern on the rustling leaves, that the branches had grown darker, the shadows longer; and back at the house there would be fresh raspberries for tea.

From ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier

* * * * * * *

Front cover of ‘Green’s Nursery Co’ Catalogue 1910 with an illustration of ‘Syracuse New Hardy Raspberry.’

* * * * * * *

I was picking raspberries, my head was in the canes,
And he came behind and kissed me, and I smacked him for his pains.
Says he, “You take it easy! That ain’t the way to do!
I love you hot as fire, my girl, and you know you know it too.
So won’t you name the day?”
But I said, “That I will not.”
And I pushed him away,
Out among the raspberries all on a summer day.
And I says, “You ask in winter, if your love’s so hot,
For it’s summer now, and sunny, and my hands is full,” says I,
“With the fair by and by,
And the village dance and all;
And the turkey poults is small,
And so’s the ducks and chicks,
And the hay not yet in ricks,
And the flower-show’ll be presently and hop-picking’s to come,
And the fruiting and the harvest home,
And my new white gown to make, and the jam all to be done.
Can’t you leave a girl alone?
Your love’s too hot for me!
Can’t you leave a girl be
Till the evenings do draw in,
Till the leaves be getting thin,
Till the fires be lighted early, and the curtains drawed for tea?
That’s the time to do your courting, if you come a-courting me!”

‘The Fire’ by Edith Nesbit

* * * * * * *

Raspberry and ricotta cake

cq5dam.thumbnail.400.400

Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Total time: 1 hour (60 minutes)

Ingredients

125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
125g caster sugar
1 egg
185g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1 tsp baking powder
250g ricotta
3 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 lemon, grated zest
3 tbsp mixed cut peel
300g raspberries
3 tbsp icing sugar

Method

Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl for 3–4 minutes until fluffy and smooth. Add the egg and mix well. Sift in the flour and baking powder and stir to combine. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface, bring together into a smooth round, and divide in two. Wrap each half in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180˚C, gas mark 4. In a bowl, beat together the ricotta, honey, vanilla and lemon zest, then fold in the mixed peel. Lightly grease a 20cm loose-bottomed cake tin. Roll out each half of the dough to fit the base of the tin. Press one round into the tin and scatter half the raspberries on top, leaving a 1cm border around the edge. Spoon the ricotta mixture over the raspberries, then place the other round of dough on top and press the edges together.

Bake for 35 minutes until golden and set on top, then allow to cool in the tin for 20 minutes before removing. Serve topped with the remaining raspberries, a good dusting of icing sugar and some whipped cream on the side.

From Waitrose

* * * * * * *

Rubus odoratus (Flowering Raspberry) – Paper collage by Mary Delany (1700-1788)

* * * * * * *

The way we can’t remember heat, forget
the sweat and how we wore a weightless
shirt on chafing skin, the way we lose
the taste of raspberries, each winter; but

know at once, come sharp July, the vein
burning in the curtain, and from that light
– the block of sun on hot crushed sheets –
the blazing world we’ll walk in,

was how it was, your touch. Nor the rest,
not how we left, the drunkenness, just
your half-stifled, clumsy, frightened reach,
my uncurled hand, our fingers, meshed,

-like the first dazzled flinch from heat
or between the teeth, pips, a metal taste.

‘Raspberries’ by Kate Clanchy

* * * * * * *

‘The Raspberry Thief’ by Hester Cox

* * * * * * *

Isabel jumped down from a stile and came sauntering placidly towards them, making a charming note of colour with her dress of faded blue cotton and hair of golden red.

“I take it I win,” she greeted them. “I hope you didn’t all think I was dead. I’ve been exploring the fields and hedges. Look what I’ve brought you.”

She held out a large dock-leaf containing about half a pound of small ripe raspberries.

“Wild ones. I found lots of them, and they’re delicious.”

She offered the leaf to Dr. Browning, who helped himself to two or three and asked:

“Where did you find these?”

“Oh, just in the next field.” She jerked her head vaguely over her shoulder. “Have some, Felix, and say you forgive me for having a better bicycle than you. I didn’t cheat. I swear I didn’t. And I never touched my brake. Did you?”

“Of course not,” murmured Felix, oblivious to the raspberries she held out to him in contemplation of her small shining head.

“Then you both deserve to be certified insane,” declared Dr. Browning severely. “It’s time we were pushing on if we’re to get home before supper time.”

From ‘Dead Man’s Quarry’ by Ianthe Jerrold

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‘Still Life with Raspberries’ by Levi Prentice

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Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold (1930)

I started reading this  purely by chance, after spotting it when I was looking for another book. Once I had started I had to keep going and  it wasn’t long before I was kicking myself for keeping it waiting for a very long time. Ianthe Jerrold wrote beautifully and she told an intriguing tale.

That tale opens on the last day of a cycling holiday on the Welsh borders. The cyclists were Dr. Browning; his daughter  daughter Nora and her friend Isabel; his young son Lion; his nephew Charles, who had returned from exile  in Canada after inheriting his father’s title and estate; and his cousin Felix, who was adored by Nora and adoring of Isabel.

When the group arrived at the top of hill  and saw a long descent ahead of them, they agreed that they would free-wheel down, setting off at regular intervals to reduce the chance. Reassembling at the bottom of the valley, they found that two of the group were missing. Isabel, who had set off first, soon reappeared; but there was no sign at all of Charles, who should have set off last.

He was found the next morning, face down at the bottom of a local quarry, shot in the back of the head, with his signet ring missing and somebody else’s bicycle lying next to him.

Felix’s father, Morris Price, the prime suspect. He would inherit the title after managing the estate for many years; he had been in the area when Charles was last seen; he refused to give an account of what he had been doing on the day in question; and his revolver which was used to fire the fatal shot.

He was belligerent and uncooperative at the inquest; an inquest that ended with a guilty verdict being brought against him.

Luckily, there was one man outside his family circle who believed him to be innocent. John Christmas, was holidaying in the area with his cousin Sydenham Rampson; and he saw the weight of the evidence but he also observed the reactions of the accused man, and that was what made him quite certain that he was not the guilty party.

He found many lines of enquiry. The dead man had not made himself popular, firing a long serving member of staff and shooting his sister’s dog without a hint of remorse; and maybe someone had followed him back from Canada. The mystery of what the accused man had been doing on the day of the murder had to be resolved. There were also questions to be asked about the changed bicycle and the whereabouts of the murder weapon.

Those enquiries drew in family and friends, the staff of the house and the estate, local people, and a mysterious visitor to the area.

They also threw up some wonderfully disparate clues. I could fit some of them together, I had some idea how the story might play out, but I couldn’t work out everything and I was by no means certain. John Christmas had to think long and hard, but in the end he explained everything and solved the mystery.

I liked the detective and his somewhat reluctant sidekick. It was clear that they were good friends as well as cousins, and I loved their dialogues and that each of them could be both witty and cynical. All of the characters and relationships were well drawn, and I was always interested to find out more about the people in this story. They came from right across the class spectrum, so I could see just how life was in the big house and in the nearby village.

I could have happily spent more time in this part of the world and with many of the people who lived there.

This is a mystery that works because the human story is so good, and because Ianthe Jerrold wrote very well, created a distinctive plot and paced her story perfectly, so that I was always asking different questions and concerned about different characters and incidents and possibilities.  She picked out exactly the right details, there were some lovely touches, and I particularly liked the way she left some subtle clues that I could spot before they were picked up on by her characters.

The ending doesn’t quite live up to what came before – it was a little too contrived and a little too melodramatic.

As  a whole though, the book works.

Ianthe Jerrold was invited to join the Detection Club based on the success of her first two mysteries – this is the second – but though she continued to write for many more years this is the last recorded case of John Christmas and her last work of detective fiction.

I’m interested to see what else she wrote, but I can’t help being a little sorry that she changed course and that I only have one more of her mysteries to read.

John Caldigate by Anthony Trollope (1879)

After reading all of the Palliser and Barchester books, I felt a little lost among the many other stand-alone books by Anthony Trollope that I have yet to read. There was more than one book that I put up and picked down, but when I picked up John Caldigate and started to read I realised that I had found the right book. There was exactly the right balance of things that I know that Trollope does well and things that I hadn’t encountered in his books before.

John Caldigate was the only son of a widowed father, Daniel Caldigate. He was a bright and sociable young man, and while he was at Cambridge he fell into debt. His father, a serious-minded man, who had worked hard to establish himself and only married when he was well enough established to support a family, was bitterly disappointed, but he made the necessary arrangements for his son to sell his future interest in the family estate in exchange for a mortgage on said estate, to clear his debts.

Appreciating what his father had done, wanting to repay him but not wanting to wait around for an estate that he might or might not inherit, he resolved to travel to New South Wales in the hope of making a fortune in the goldfields.

C is for Caldigate

He also resolved that, if he succeeded, he would return and marry Harriet Bolton, the daughter of his father’s banker friend who had arranged the mortgage.

John Caldigate did come home, older, wiser and a great deal richer. His father was delighted to welcome the son he had thought he might never see again. The Boltons were less happy when he presented himself as a suitor, but Harriet was charmed and in time her father and her step-brothers were won over.

The couple were married, a son was born, and they could so easily have lived happily ever after; but a past indiscretion came back to haunt John Caldigate.

He and his friend, Dick Shand, had travelled to Australia third class, so that they could begin to adjust to a new life in which they would no longer be ‘gentlemen’. John met a young widow, Mrs Euphemia Smith, he was smitten with her and promised that he would find her as soon as he established himself. His attraction he her soon faded, but he remembered his promise and he travelled to find her. She was performing on the stage, as Madame Cettini.

That lady and two of his former business partners travelled to England, alleging that the mine he had sold them was worked out; that he had married Mrs. Smith in New South Wales; and that his marriage to Hester Bolton was bigamous.

John Caldigate denied the charge of bigamy, but he recognised that there was a moral, though not a legal claim for the return of part of the purchase price of the mine. He wanted to do ‘the right thing’ but he was strongly advised against ‘buying them off’.

He found himself on trial, and the case against him looked very bad.

There was much drama, inside and outside the courtroom.

The Bolton family turned against John Caldigate and, as Harriet stood firmly by her husband, they took extreme measures to bring her back to the family home and keep her there!

Dick Shand had failed as a miner and turned to drink. He came home knowing nothing about the bigamy case, he wanted to speak in his friend’s defence, but was told that his word was worthless in the light of his past!

Mr Bagwax of the Post Office travelled to Australia to test a key point of the prosecution’s case – an envelope with a stamp and a postmark – that he was sure was forged!

I have never found Trollope to be good at handling suspense, but he managed it quite well in this book. Though I had a fair idea how the story would play out I was by no means certain that it would, and I did question whether or not there had been a marriage in Australia.

There was – of necessity – a gap in the part of the story set in Australia; but what Trollope could tell of the story there I loved. I could have happily spent more time there and rather less on the voyage and the run-up to the trial. His pacing of this story didn’t quite work for me.

The central question of the story was intriguing: how should John Caldigate, who had made youthful mistakes, whose success came from good luck as much as hard work, be judged?

John Caldigate was a wonderfully nuanced character, he was a fundamentally decent man but he was horribly fallible; as was his father. I loved the way that they both changed and the way that their relationship evolved over the course of the story.

The women on this book were not so well done – I loved Harriet’s devotion to her husband, I loved that she loved her mother despite her trenchant opposition to her son-in law, but her character needed more and it simply wasn’t there.

So, my final verdict is a little mixed.

The story never failed to entertain, I loved the human drama – the gold mining scenes and the trial scenes were particularly good – but Trollope has written better books.

The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray (1926)

Only the very hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by this beautifully wrought and utterly poignant account of a life damaged by war and by circumstance.

It is the story of Helen, who looks back at her earlier life when she is in her forties.

Her childhood was, in many ways, idyllic; with her time divided between the London home of her grandmother and Yearsley, the beautiful Georgian manor house in the country that was home to her cousin Delia, Delia’s husband, John, and their two sons, Guy and Hugo.

The children’s life in the country was happy and secure; they had the freedom to roam through gardens, meadows and woods; and there was one particular tree that they always returned to, naming it ‘The Happy Tree.’

The two boys had much in common, but their natures were quite different – Guy was bright and confident, while Hugh was quiet and sensitive. Helen and Hugh were particularly close; and as they grew up, it became clear that their feelings were much deeper than those of siblings. Neither of then knew quite what they should do, or how to speak of what they knew, and so they just went on with life and found themselves pulled in different directions.

Happy TreeThe boys went away to school and then they went up to Oxford, while Helen was educated at home, with the unspoken assumption that she would remain there until she married and had a home of her own.

She enjoyed visiting  Guy and Hugh, in Oxford at first and then in London. She was drawn onto their sophisticated and intellectual circle of friends; but there was still a distance between her and Hugh. That troubled her, and as neither of them had either the wish or the confidence to speak or act, she drifted into a relationship with a man on the fringes of their circle.

Walter Sebright was an earnest and serious-minded academic, it was clear that he adored Helen, and she accepted his proposal because she knew that and she didn’t quite know how to say no, and could only hope that his love for her would allow her fondness for him to grow into something much deeper.

The match left her family and friends both surprised and disappointed, but because Helen didn’t share her true feeling with anyone, all any of them could do was assume that it was what she wanted and that she saw things in her fiance that they did not.

Helen was to find that Walter’s outlook on life was quite unlike that of her family and friends, and that his less wealthy, middle-class upbringing made him disapproving of the easy path through life her cousins and the lack of thought they gave to their good fortune.

When war broke out, Helen had to watch her  cousins and friends go off to fight, while her husband stayed home, because he was medically unfit and carrying out work that was important to the war effort. She struggled with childcare and with housework, with no help, because even finances allowed there were no domestic servants to be had. Helen was totally unequipped for the life she had to live, she struggled with the consequences of the wrong decisions she had made, and as news of casualties and deaths arrived she grieved for the people she had loved and for the world that she had loved and that she knew could never be the same again.

The writing in this book is so honest and so insightful that Helen’s feelings and experiences were palpable, and though there were times when I felt so sad for her that it was difficult to read I couldn’t look away.

And this is all that has happened. It does not seem very much…I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and someone I loved dearly was killed in the war…that is all. And all those things must be true of thousands of people.

Her story speaks profoundly for the generation of women who lived through the Great War, and it does more besides.

It made me think how our family situation can affect us for the whole of our lives. Helen’s father dies when she was very young and her mother left her in her grandmother’s care while she moved to America to pursue her career. Had Helen’s mother been close at hand maybe she would have questioned her engagement in a way that Cousin Delia didn’t feel she could. And had she been raised to think that she might have higher education, that she might have a career or a purpose of her own, that being a wife and a mother need not be everything, what a difference that made have made.

It made me realise that no matter what our circumstance our, lives can be thrown off course by things that we can’t control, leaving hopes and dreams shattered, and leaving lives adrift.

It made me realise that it is so important to speak and communicate honestly.

All this is the story of one life, told in a voice that always rings true.