Friday, 24 February 2012

At risk of sounding rather proud (which I am, let's face it) I would like to tell you of some rather nice things that have happened recently.

Marcia's German publishers (Lubbe) have decided to reprint nearly all of her books in a new club edition under the Weltbild imprint. Below is the cover of the new Hattie's Mill.

Meanwhile, our agent in France has been approached by a second film company wishing to buy the film rights of Sisters Under the Skin (which she wrote under the name of Willa Marsh). They can't, of course, since these rights have already been sold to Tessalit Productions (France)who have already taken up the second option which means that there is an approved script in place. Watch this space for further developments. However, said agent is offering the new company the rights on other books although we have no idea yet as to whether or not they will be interested.

The following photograph has no relevance but I rather like it. It was taken just after 8.30 on the morning of February 7.

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Writing obviously runs in the family: this was written by Marcia's great-nephew, Inigo, at the age of seven.

The Beach

On the beach I saw . . . the sun shining on the sea.  A line of lobsters. 

From the cliffs I heard . . .screeching of mice. Dogs barking. 

I built a sandcastle the sand felt . . . like flour that you bake cakes with. 

I raced to the cafe. Inside I could smell . . . mussels and french fries. 

I bought a lolly it tasted . . . like lemony chocolate.

*     *     *

Since so many of you expressed an interest in my tadpolearium last year which, if you remember, resulted in my being able to release more than eight hundred baby froglets into the top pond, I shall put up a weekly report on progress this year.

A few nights ago the frogs congregated in that pond, destroying the rural peace with raucous voices and fairly unseemly behavior. The result was that the following morning we found a huge mass of frogspawn. The trouble was that the forecast for the next night was that we would have a very hard frost with temperatures well down. Probably a bit needlessly, I decided that I would put about a gallon of this spawn into the utility room, so I cleaned out one of the plastic containers which make up said tadpolearium and popped the spawn into it. 

Then the frogs seemed to disappear. Since this is very early for spawn, I am now wondering whether that is it or whether we shall have then back again. Usually they stay with us for well over a week. We shall see.

Meanwhile there is no sign of similar activity by our toads who tend to live in the lower pond despite that being where there are all the fish.

Friday, 17 February 2012

More minutiae

As I am sure you have noticed, there is a tendency in these blogs and elsewhere for the photographs to be about the west country and especially the flora and fauna found in the area.

There is very good reason for this other than that I am a bit nutty about taking pictures of the same thing over and over again in the hope of taking one that really pleases me. The very good reasons is so that we have a record of what was out, where and when covering as many species, places and times of the year as we can. Then when Marcia discovers that a book is to be set in a given place and runs from, say, August 2008 to September 2009 we have a reasonably good chance of having a record in my photo files that will help her to describe as accurately as possible what was about there at that time.

She has said when giving talks at festivals, “If I write that such-and-such a plant was in flower in that place at that time of the year it is because I have seen it for myself.”

I have written about this a number of times and it is true. Mind you, there are not just my pictures: Marcia keeps copious notes as to the weather and what she sees when she is out and about.

In the last few books there have been a few unexpected twists and turns. In the book coming out later this year is a typical example. Who would have thought that they would be cut off by snow down by the River Tamar. Unheard of – but it happened and so, because that book was set in that time the characters just have to cope with it.

Naturally neither of us knew that Marcia would be writing before she did – if you see what I mean. So, what happens when she is writing about the years before we started keeping records. Well, to a large extent we rely our memories and meteorological records also come in handy.

Remember 1976? That was the year when we experienced an extremely hot and long dry spell. It started on the first day of Wimbledon (not that we knew that at the time). Throughout the championships, the famous lawns of Wimbledon became drier and drier – despite being watered every night. By the final the centre court looked more like a cameo of Arizona than anything else. Then the heatwave went on for six or seven weeks. You can read about the effect it had on Marcia's characters in Those Who Serve.

Then there were the winters of 1976/77, 77/78 and 78/79 when the west country was hit by serious snowstorms for three years running. One of these had a huge impact in The Way We Were.

So, I always carry a camera with me wherever I go and that was the case on Wednesday when I wandered up the lane with Jossie. Here are some of the photographs I took on that walk.
Snowdrops, as I am sure you all know. We have little clumps of then around us in the garden and, as this one is, tucked into the bottoms of the hedges. The buds on the ash to the right are just beginning to swell and turn black.

The first of the honeysuckle leaves.

We expect beech to hang onto leaves through the winter but this is an oak. I have never noticed this before. Of course the beech trees shed leaves the same as all the others: it is really only beech hedges where they stay put and this is in a hedge so that probably explains it. 

A real surprise. Wild strawberries in flower in February! The world has gone mad.

Sorry this is a bit out of focus. No excuse really but my hands were freezing which may account for it. Anyway, primroses: lots of them actually - far too early but despite this cold snap it has been unusually warm

The hazel catkins are beginning to fill out and change colour.

This one needs some explanation. When we had a new telephone line installed (about ten years ago) the posts that hold these things up in the air were all tagged with red notices meaning they were dangerous and needed to be replaced. They had been like that for some time. Anyway, when the engineers installed this new line there was one particular post that was so rotten that they refused to use it - and tied (yes, with string) our line to a handy tree instead. Then last year (I think but it may be two years ago now) they replaced all of them and so we have nice new safe telephone poles. That is one of them on the right. I walk past this one most days and on Wednesday, when I took this photo, I was astonished to see that the badgers had had a very busy night digging - see the hole that I am sure was not there on Tuesday.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A fatal flaw and the flow of words

Since this week included Charles Dicken’s two-hundredth birthday, a misquote seems allowable.

It has been the worst of weeks and the best of weeks.

On Tuesday (yes, the exact day) I booted up the computer and found myself staring at a very scary error message. A quick telephone to Graham (our local computer doctor) confirmed that I should be afraid, very afraid. He told me to touch nothing and he would be over as quickly as he could.

He found a near fatal flaw on the hard disc and discovered that the cause was almost certainly started by our modem going faulty. Don’t ask for I do not understand. All I know is that Graham rang our ISP and asked them to see if they could see a problem and it seems that the modem was clicking in and out in a way that it shouldn’t. Anyway, whatever caused what and in which order is of academic interest only. Putting things right was the priority.

I have an external hard drive and he backed everything up onto that, switched the computer off and took it away to replace the hard disc. It is horrific how difficult life becomes when something like this happens. You feel as though part of you is missing which is ridiculous – if we had been going away for a few days we would not be able to receive any emails, Tweets and all the rest of it so the obvious thing was for me to chill out and wait until yesterday when it came back home. Obvious, yes: possible, no. I spent the whole time fretting unit lunchtime yesterday when the computer was back home and working well and the time came to install the new modem. That took rather longer than I expected and we weren’t fully functional until early evening. Still, all that is in the past and the time has come to relax and catch up.

I am afraid we lost a few emails on the way through. If you sent us one or left a message on one of the web sites and have not had a reply, please accept our apologies and send your message again.

It was also the best of weeks for Marcia has been hard at work on the new book and passed the forty thousand word barrier yesterday. The best part of each day for me has been to read what she has written. Already I am totally engaged in these new characters whose lives she is unfolding and, as often happens, delighted to see some old friends.

Obviously it is far to early for me to reveal anything at all about this new story but I can say that the pictures on this blog may give you a few clues - except for the last which was sent to me by one of Marcia's readers,  Naomi Bates who has these exotics in her garden in Australia.

Meanwhile I am sure you will remember that Marcia had a lovely review in Le Figaro which I tried to translate. Well, a very kind French teacher called Lesley Eyre has sent us a far, far better translation by email and it gives me great pleasure to share it with you all.

Willa Marsh is Jane Austen with the humour of Blake Edwards. She knows how to portray the English countryside which, since Austen, everybody imagines to be inhabited by spinsters looking for love, and by single landowners out to seduce. In her latest novel, Murder at the Manor, the author imagines two disgraceful old aunts who are quite happy to lace their tea with hallucinogenic plant extracts and ghostly spirits worthy of Conan Doyle. That’s the British touch. And as for the humour, it pops up regularly, black and caustic. The most wicked characters are never the ones you suspect, and the good ones always end up revealing a somewhat twisted nature. Here, Clarissa thinks she has won the lottery when Thomas, a charming widower, offers her his heart and his beautiful manor house. The young Londoner is very soon disenchanted. The countryside is very dull with no friends and no entertainment. And isn’t the beautiful manor haunted? Enter a handsome cousin. There is an accident. Then Clarissa’s best girlfriend arrives and becomes involved.
Willa Marsh has the reader wrapped round her little finger. She goes from burlesque to tragedy as coolly as an English aristocrat, with humour tempering the cynicism of the story. Welcome to the manor!

Much, much better. Many thanks, Lesley.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Hedges - specifically here in Devon

The other day I read that Devon had some of the oldest hedges in the country, some having been around for over a thousand years. This caught my imagination and so today’s blog will be about the hedges that line our lane.
You can judge the width of 'Main Road' from the tyre tracks in the snow,
The lane is officially called by the Royal Mail ‛Main Road’. No one ever uses this title although, since it is the only road that connects the small village to our west with the tiny hamlet to our east, the name is apt. Historically what is now a very rarely used footpath was the ‛main road’ as it offered a more direct route between the village church and the hamlet. What changed that? I have been unable to find out but in the late nineteenth century there was a revival of Methodism in this area and a new chapel was built on the fringes of the hamlet and facing what is now ‛main road’.

My guess is that our lane was just one of a maze of footpaths used to move stock between fields as they ate up the grass. The lane still fulfils that purpose: sheep mainly but sometimes bullocks and store cattle. When we first moved here there was no barrier between the garden and the road save the five bar gate which is often left open to get cars in and out. It was a couple of days after we moved in that we returned to find the lawns torn up thanks to a herd of bullocks that had visited us. Now we have an inner fence to avoid that happening.

Anyway, I thought I would look into how you can tell the age of a hedge. There seems to be a generally accepted formula based on the fact that the hedges would have been planted with something that stock found difficult to break through (usually hawthorn) and that other species would invade as the years passed. So the method is simple. Count the number of shrubs or hard wood plants in a stretch thirty yards long. The age of the hedge in years is 100 for every hard wood species it contains plus 30 (I don’t know why 30). The figure you end up with will be accurate to within a couple of hundred years unless something odd has happened (such as the hedge being planted with more than one species on day one).

There are problems. What species count? We have six species that certainly do count: oak, ash, hawthorn, blackthorn, holly and hazel. Well, that gives us an age of 630 years for starters. However, there are two roses – the pink dog rose and the white field rose – as well as ivy and honeysuckle which are all woody shrubs but I am not sure that they count.
Oak, cut right back in the autumn, regenerates each spring.
Ash - with ivy - taken today.
The hawthorn berries appear in autumn.
Blackthorn comes into flower before the leaves arrive.
Holly, also taken today, with some ash in the background.
Catkins are already forming on the hazel.
The pink flowers of the dog rose as opposed to . . .
the white of the field rose, seen here climbing hazel.
If they do it makes these hedges over a thousand years old which is actually quite possible. Two of the farms near us are mentioned in the Domesday Book and, since they needed to drive animals along lanes that were stock proof, I think it is reasonable to assume that our lane was used back then, much as it is today.

There is one rogue element – a single beech tree. Actually it grows in a part of the hedge where there is no holly for thirty yards either side so it would be unfair to add it to the list.

Up on Exmoor there are miles and miles of beech hedges. They are almost all about two hundred years old. Exmoor was a Royal Forest which was sold off in 1818, John Knight bought quite bit of it and he and his family turned all the better, more sheltered land into farms. In the process they also built miles of metalled road to provide good access and used beech to hedge those roads.

Hedges, of course, provide wonderful cover for birds, insects and small mammals. Perhaps the fact that we have such old hedges surrounding us explains how we manage to attract such a huge variety of birds into the garden with very little effort on our part.