Friday, 30 May 2014

Pottagers and Squirrels

Today Nancy is coming to lunch. Nancy and Marcia have been friends for rather longer than either of them care to remember: they both married naval officers who elected to enter the submarine service. They are, in the parlance, old naval oppos.

One day – oh, three or four years ago, I suppose – Nancy (who is a member of the Royal Horticultural Society) took Marcia to Rosemoor, an RHS garden in mid-Devon near Great Torrington. This, as you can see from the photograph, is a really serious garden but the important thing is that is has a pottager. As always with a good novelist, nothing is wasted. During the writing of Postcards From the Past, Marcia remembered that visit and, as those of you who have already read the book will remember, Dom has one in his cottage garden.

A really serious garden. (Photo from RHS webwsite)
Since moving here, I have created a couple of raised beds (save a lot of bending, keep things away from rabbits and means the soil can be carefully prepared for each season) but, unfortunately, really a bit late in the season. Anyway, in there are broad beans, nasturtiums, tomatoes, sweet peas and so on. An elevated pottager in miniature. We shall have to see how it progresses. By the way, the paperback of Postcards will be available from September 25.

To say that my life has been dominated in recent days by grey squirrels would be an exaggeration. But only just. If you are a long-term follower of this blog you will remember the fun and games we had with them when we were at The Hermitage. Adjoining our garden was a small broadleaf plantation which was perfect squirrel country and they would pop over the hedge to raid our bird feeders on an ongoing basis. We tried everything we could to stop them whilst at the same time keeping viable feeding stations for birds such as the Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Three youngsters in the garden at The Hermitage
That is not at all easy. Woodpecker bodies and squirrel bodies are about the same size: food in a cage that would keep the squirrels out would keep the woodpeckers out as well. However, woodpeckers can fly which squirrels can't so we tried using unprotected nut feeders in places the squirrels couldn't reach. That turned out to be a big ask. No, that's wrong. That turned out to be an impossible ask. Squirrels are consummate athletes and extremely intelligent. The score when we left was in the order of four hundred and twenty-seven to the squirrel and three to me.

Then we arrived here. Yes, big trees but no sign of squirrels to begin with. It didn't take long before they discovered that once again the Willett's were providing free board (but NOT lodging) to any passing bird or mammal other than the meat eaters (including cats and sparrow hawks) who would have to rely on their usual hunting abilities which might or might not be helped by us upping the prey population. And they are proving just as bad as the ones we had at The Hermitage and, in one case, worse.

A woodpecker and a nuthatch (I think, but it is not easy to be sure) arrive at a nut feeder at the same time. 
Worse because one fellow is slim enough and bright enough to have got himself into one of our caged bird feeders. I took a video of this guy which you can see if you click on the link below.
Male on a nut feeder.
So battle has commenced but I intend to stretch this chap and see what he is made of. New assault courses for him to overcome. New problems for him to solve. I will keep you posted.

You will remember that Roger and I were out on the River Dart a couple of weeks ago. When we go out to take photographs we are allowed to borrow the workboat of the marine engineers, Stephenson Marine of Noss. This is Poppy who is obviously a puppy (look at those paws) and is also a poppet. She belongs to Rob Hingston who owns Stephensons. 
To see the video of the squirrels, CLICK HERE.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Another contract for Marcia

First things first: you will all be delighted to know that Transworld have offered Marcia another two book contract and I am pretty confident that the next book (which will come out in 2015) will be called The Merchant’s House.

Meanwhile, I am confused. Very confused. It’s all down to the fact that I have far too many characters crawling around inside my head and even remembering which book they belong to is proving a challenge. Meanwhile, Marcia is having a holiday – probably drinking a cup of coffee in the nursery (it isn’t really a “garden centre” I am happy to say) at Staverton, just around the corner from the building that housed the offices of Staverton Construction. Her old dad was one of the directors of the company and was responsible for the Bristol office but would travel down to Staverton once a week to attend meetings. Enough of that – back to the real world.

Yes, I have Sir Mungo and Claude, Evie and Camilla, Archie and Ben, Jemima and Izzy and they are all clamouring for attention. Let me explain.

As you know, for the last few weeks Marcia has been battling with putting the finishing touches to the new book, The Merchant’s House, and I have been reading the revised parts on a nightly basis. We really do live with these people and it comes as a wrench when we have to say farewell and look towards the next bunch to invade our lives. This time, however, before those farewells had been made I (we but I deal with these) received the proofs of Indian Summer which I am working through now (well not now, you understand, because I am now writing to you but I was earlier on). The result is a bit chaotic but I shall survive (although I suspect that is more of a personal challenge than a statement of fact).

From Transworld came the blurb they are putting our with the proof copies. Here is what it says:-

Some memories are best forgotten . . . Some won’t ever go away . . .

For retired actor Sir Mungo, his quiet, home village in Devon provides the perfect retreat. Close by are his brother and his wife, and the rural location makes his home the ideal getaway for his old friends in London.

Among those is Kit, who comes to stay for the summer, bringing with her a letter from her first and only love, Jake, and a heart in turmoil. Years have passed since they last saw each other, and now he has written to Kit asking if they could meet again.

As the summer unfolds, secrets are uncovered that will shatter the sleepy community, and even tear a family apart. But those involved soon realise that the only way to move forward might be to confront the past.

The evocative and moving new novel from the international bestseller Marcia Willett.

Also in the post this week were copies of books from Holland and Poland. 

The covers are so very different, aren’t they? The top one comes from Holland, The Sea Garden, and the second from Poland, The Children's Hour. 

Enough about the vagaries of literature – I want to talk about blue tits. These tiny birds are an ongoing pleasure to us both and we are now back in the business of having a proper bird table which means they are around nearly all day long. In the garden are a number of very old and quite magnificent trees including, alongside the lawn, a couple of wonderful oaks. Some experts estimate that Quercus robur is home to more than four hundred different species of insect and many of these are of great importance to those blue tits when they are feeding their young.
This photograph is not very good (it should have been sharper) but I love the expression on his face. Not that it is an expression, of course, all Blue Tits have the same look.
We have a table with a couple of chairs on that lawn, just under the flight path between the bird tables and these two oaks. It follows that I have been trying to capture some video of a blue tit landing on the tree, find a caterpillar or two and then off, beak bulging bugfully. No chance. None at all. It all happens too quickly so that by the time I have the camera pointing in the right direction they are somewhere completely different. In any event, they have probably disappeared into the foliage long since. I did manage to get a second or two of a blackbird, worms trailing from his bill, but only in very poor light conditions. I have yet to look at it properly but I suspect it will end up in my Zebra file.

And then in came this Great Spotted Woodpecker. We used to see these on a daily basis when we were at The Hermitage and it looks as though it will be the same here.
Another lot we haven't seen since those days is the Nuthatch.
That, since you will have no idea what I am talking about, is a sub-file of “Inputs” which is a sub-file of “Video” and it is called Zebra because these things are arranged alphabetically and I can be pretty certain it will stay at the bottom. It contains a few hundred video clips that I know are really rubbish but which, for no good reason other than sentiment, I can’t delete.
Luna was so intent on her owner that no matter what I did she just wouldn't look at me for long enough to take a decent picture - when she did glance in my direction for a second or two, she closed her eyes.
Well, you can't blame her, can you?

Friday, 16 May 2014

Will my editor like it? And watering cans.

As Marcia awaits her editor's comments on the last manuscript, I am reminded of another novelist for whom Totnes became home: Mary Wesley. She and Marcia knew each other when Marcia started writing but before she had a publisher. During this period, Mary was always very supportive. Then came the day that Marcia received her first contract. They met – quite near to The Brioche as it happens – and what Mary said has remained with Marcia ever since.

“Many congratulations. You will never be happy again.”

“What?” asked Marcia.

“Well, you will finish another book and then you will enjoy ten minutes of euphoria. That will be followed by all the questions. Will my agent like the book? Will my editor like the book? Will the great British public like the book?”

Long silence and then. “You have signed a two-book contract you say. Are you sure you can write another book?”

I had just walked down Totnes High Street to meet Marcia when I saw this artist painting East Gate. As I took his photo I realised that there, in the background, was Marcia. These novelists get everywhere.
It may not sound like it but Mary continued to give Marcia encouragement and they remained friends until Mary died. I have a vision of them on the lawn in the Inner Courtyard at Dartington Hall during a Ways With Words Festival. The sun was shining. A game of croquet was in progress: Mary Wesley and James Long versus Marcia Willett and Joan Brady. Marcia and Joan lost: Mary and Joan fiercely competitive, James and Marcia far more laid back. Four very different novelists but all hugely talented.
So, I thought I would put these two creative people together for you.
The one on the left needs no introduction. The one on the right is local artist Stephen Bower. He has a gallery at 1a High Street so, if you are in Totnes, why not pop in and see what's on display?
Oh, and yes, Marcia could write another book.

Over the years, inevitably, people move on. Mary has died, Joan has moved to Oxford and James to Bristol. James and I keep in touch – just – via “social media” and he seems to be quite happy. We have lost touch with Joan. This year there will b e another “Ways With Words” at Dartington but, as with all the literary festivals, it has changed. Now the speakers are far more interesting than writers – they are people of the world who can (and do) speak on almost every subject under the sun. As such they are far better value than the novelist who spends most of life in a private world away from the hustle and bustle of real life.

This may sound as if I am unhappy at the changes. Far from it. It seems to me that it is through their books that the novelist lives and by their books that a novelist is best remembered. Too often knowing a creative person (I have a feeling this is also true of composers and painters) gets between the work and the reader/listener/viewer. Some novelists manage to be “people of the world” as well as writers but they are few and far between.

What a difference a few days of sun and warmth can make? Driving home,. we suddenly realised that the ferns on the lane banks has arrived - just like that. A week ago and you were hardly aware of them but now they are obvershadowing everything else.
Marcia says, and I think she is absolutely right, that she has one story to tell (the story explaining how she became a writer) and she has told that story at a number of festivals. Since the people that go to festivals tend to go back year after year and she has no desire to become a bore by repeating her one story to substantially the same audience, she gently but firmly declines all invitations to such events.

Yesterday, my friend Roger and I spent the day on the River Dart so that I could take some photographs and shoot some video. Here's a sample.

Finally, I have good news to share with you: the ash tree lives. Thus we may reasonable expect a splash this summer. I really do need to buy a new watering can (my favourite got lost in the move – no idea how). Some watering cans seem to balance nicely and you can control the flow with ease: others seem to make one awkward and are difficult to carry. I sometimes wonder whether the people who design such simple things ever use them.

Two months ago, Hermione's life was turned upside down when her people split up and neither of them could keep her. It was Katherine who came to the rescue and the two of them are now happily living together. 

Friday, 9 May 2014

A lonely awakening

Yesterday the manuscript of the book that Marcia has been writing was emailed to Dinah, her agent, and then on to Linda, her editor. There is nothing to be done now except to hold our breath and await the response. It is a chilling thought that this manuscript represents a year of work – which means that if it is rejected . . . I am sure I do not have to spell it out.

Anyway, it seemed to me to be totally wrong that she should have a day with nothing to write about so I persuaded her to write this week’s blog. Over to Marcia.

* * * * *

This is the first morning for more than a year that I’ve woken without a whole group of people – their loves, lives, dramas – at the forefront of my mind. They’ve told me their stories and vanished. There was a latecomer – two in fact  whose voices were drowned out in the clamour of the others but they’ve been absorbed into the story and it seems odd, now, that it could have been written without them. It’s strange to be alone again, and very restful; rather similar to when a group of visitors have left after a very jolly, busy holiday. I miss them – but gosh, it’s good to have my head to myself for the moment. Not for too long, of course, or I might begin to feel anxious that I’ve written my last book.

So, having no other demands on my morning, I drive my rather battered old Jimny through the six-odd miles of country lanes to the Farm Shop. This long lane is one of the most glorious I’ve discovered in a lifetime of driving in glorious lanes. The Devon banks are steep: brimming with colour: bluebells, pink campion, creamy cow parsley, shiny yellow buttercup. Occasionally, through a farm gate or from the brow of a hill, the land tips away to reveal the stark uplands of the distant moor; such a contrast from this richly verdant riot of colour.

Today no such view is to be seen. Soft, warm mizzling rain drifts from the west concealing everything but the near aspect – but I don’t care. The splendour of the lane is more than enough for me. I pass two tractors - backing up, darting into a gateway, squeezing past, with cheerful waves- and two cars but these are my only encounters on the entire journey.

I love Farm Shops. Not those great big smart ones whose busy shops sell expensive kitsch pottery and up-market tat; no, I love small farm shops where the produce is very locally sourced and local people sit in the little café to have a cup of coffee, to argue over the merits of a Devon pasty compared with its Cornish counterpart, and to exchange friendly insults and jokes with a neighbour.

This Farm Shop is opposite a farm. I park near to the entrance and go inside, heading for the café. My life is “counted out in coffee spoons”! A cappuccino, made by Siobhan (‘Lots of chocolate sprinkles?’ ‘You bet!’); afterwards a consultation with Matt, the butcher – without whose advice I’d never dare to choose which cut of meat (‘Lamb’s not ready yet, wait ’til after Easter’) - then a chat with Mac at the check-out. He’s ex-navy so we compare notes on long-past postings, commiserate on how many times we moved house, and he carries my shopping out to the car. We part and my spirits lift as the mizzle is driven away by the sun

A few weeks ago, Rodney mentioned that we missed being surrounded by stock. Well, my people might have gone on their travels but this group of bullocks arrived in the field behind the garden and are clearly enjoying being let out on grass.
Outside I have an exchange with a fellow of much my own age whose delivery van is parked beside my car. I smile at him as I open the car door. He smiles back, heaving in some empty bags, sliding the van door closed.
‘We’ll have to stop meeting, like this,’ he says lugubriously.
‘But however could we?’ I demand.
He shrugs. ‘I could come earlier. You could come later.’
‘Would you break my heart?’ I cry.
He sighs. ‘Life’s hard.’
Then we both burst out laughing and we drive away. Wonderful.

So – back to the real world . . . or is it?

Dede is no ordinary dog. Not a bit of it. Apart from being a delightful brown Labrador she spends most of her time in Chrissy's in Totnes (a hairdressing salon) where she is a great favourite with the customers. 

Friday, 2 May 2014

Thoughts on trees

This week I want to write about evolution. Or, to be more accurate, trees and evolution. At this time of the year, trees demonstrate more than they do another season just how incredibly different they are even though they are all built on the same basic pattern. How did that come about? How could a few differences in the genetic code here and over there result in the sycamore having one sort of leaf and the oak something completely different? Oddly, these two trees do share a common factor: both have buds that are covered by a layer that is opaque. The result is that the new leaves are quite red (I shall be lucky to find good examples because I am a bit late thinking about this but I’ll go out and see what I can find later on). This is because green is the result of the action of sunlight on chlorophyll and, thanks to those opaque bud covers, this cannot start until the leaf emerges. 

Sycamore. The leaves are losing their red tint. The green leaves in the background are, I am sorry to say, common stinging nettles.
Do not touch.
The beech is totally different. Here the bud covers allow the sunlight in and so the leaves are green from the moment the bud bursts: a delicate and very beautiful green.

Beech in all its glory.
Of course when it comes to colour there is probably nothing to beat the maple forests of Canada in the autumn – or fall, if you prefer – a sight I regret I have never seen. Here we have a close relation, the sycamore, but it is a terrible disappointment in autumn. The leaves wither, turn brown and drop. Then, just to add to the mix, there are the evergreens: holly, conifers and so on. As far as leaf colour is concerned these are pretty boring.

I knew it was a bit late to see new oak leaves but here, on this bank beside a lane, there is some that is still quite yellow both in the foreground to the left and further back to the right.
Anyway, why all this? Well it’s all to do with the view from my study window. At The Hermitage there was a deciduous plantation that adjoined the garden and a stand of larch on the other side of the valley. I love the larch which is a wonderful indicator of the seasons with its pale green needles in spring and rich reddy-brown in autumn. Then we moved and I couldn’t see any trees at all. Now we have moved again and there are some really old and magnificent trees in the garden – oaks, beech and ash. My study is upstairs and the garden falls away so it feels as if I am in the treetops. I have been able to watch as they have changed from the gaunt leafless skeletons of winter, through the time when the growing buds and tiny leaflets blur the outline until now when they are fully clothed in their summer foliage. All except the ash tree.

This is the ash tree that stood by the lane just up from The Hermitage. This was taken from the front door.
Have I ever talked about the “sploakometer”? There is an old saying here in England which is talking about when the trees come into leaf: ”ash before oak, in for a soak – oak before ash, in for a splash”. Like so many of these sayings, it does work but only after a fashion. For a start you need an oak and an ash of about the same size and quite close to each other. Then you have to keep your eyes open. Often their leaves come out at more or less the same time – and we have neither a soak nor a splash but something Marcia and I call a “sploak”. Well, we have an ash and an oak of the same size just outside the window here and the oak is in leaf while the ash is not (although there are some smaller saplings that are). It would seem, therefore, that we are in for a dry summer: a splash.

Unless the ash has died.

And here it is again shortly after the snow had melted taken just as the sun was setting. It is a horrid thought that these splendid trees may soon be lost to us (as were the elms not that long ago).
This is a real fear here. “Ash dieback” is caused by a fungus (Chalara fraxinea) which arrived in England a couple of years ago, blown from mainland Europe by the unusually prolonged period of easterly winds we then experienced. Down here in the south west there have been only a few reported cases but in badly effected areas over towards the east this fungus is killing seventy-five per cent of adult trees. Is our big ash tree just biding its time or is it in serious trouble? We shall know in a week or so.
It takes an worried dog to sing a worried song . . . No, that doesn't quite work but you know what I mean. Ben is, what shall I say, anxious. "Am I doing this right?" he seems to be asking.