Friday, 25 July 2014

An early autumn?

Under last week’s blog, Jeanne from Oklahoma said, “We are experiencing record low temps with rain and mist. Absolutely wonderful weather - in mid July!!! Usually we have triple digits with drought so you can imagine how much we are enjoying this break. It's so unusual, it's almost spooky, but I am still enjoying it.” This left me thinking about the weather here because I think I detect something odd this year.

Like the other plant pictures here, this was taken late last night (hence the use of flash) so we can see exactly how things are going.
Hazel nuts - and someone has been nibbling.
Before I go any further, a quick thought. Nancy (from Charlotte, also in the USA) is far more knowledgeable about plants than I am – I shall rely on her for a logical explanation of what I have been seeing and photographing if, indeed, there is one.

Rosa Rugosa hips
The spring was a bit of a blur as we were preparing to move during March and April. There was little point in doing anything positive in the garden we were leaving apart from making sure it was reasonably tidy. We did not have access to the garden we were going to until it was rather too late to do all the things that are needed early in the year to ensure a productive season. Worse, in some ways, I was distracted from the more natural things – flora and fauna – and so was not as aware of the way last spring panned out than I would have been under normal circumstances.

Blackberries in the hedge.
The first realisation that things weren’t quite normal was that the blackbirds seemed to be nesting later than usual and then I began to suspect that for some reason everything was holding back by a week or so. But it is what is happening now that I find most interesting. We are still in July and yet when I look around me it seems that many plants have fruited early and already beginning to take on a look of early autumn. That is not to say that they are beginning to take on their autumn colouring yet but that there is that slightly tired look that I associate with late August. Indeed, and I do not expect most people to agree with this, for the casual naturalist August is the most boring month of all. The birds stop singing and are seen far less frequently and very little comes into flower. But, stop and listen for a moment. Can you here any birds? Quite – and we are still in July.

The beech tree by the front gate is looking very autumnal.
Is that this year's mast or left over from last year?
Actually that isn’t quite true. Although we are some way from the sea the River Dart (which we could see from the windows were it not for the trees and shrubs that grow on its bank) is tidal less than a mile away and we are often visited by gulls: herring gulls in the main. They fill the air with their strange cries as the wheel around the house in the late evening. And then there are just one pair of pigeons who pop in and out and sit in the branches of the trees in the garden cooing gently to each other. And that is that: no thrushes inspiring the evening air, no blackbirds pouring out their rattling challenges, no warblers warbling or sparrows chirping.

This small tree/large shrub is coming into berry. I have no idea what it is and so I am relying on one of you to tell me. It is probably something quite common and I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. We'll see.
Am I right? Has nature somehow started this summer late, rushed through it at breakneck speed and is now already beginning to tumble into autumn (or fall if you prefer)? If I am, why? Any ideas, Nancy?

There are always many charities that appeal for our support. Both of us rate very highly those who provide terminal care for people and one such is the Rowcroft Hospice. This charity, which operates only in South Devon, cares for nearly two thousand people each year. From Saturday, August 9, to Friday, August 15, they will be running a Summer Reading Campaign to help them sell books that have been donated to them. Marcia will be helping with that campaign. She will be in Rowcroft’s shop in Totnes from 11 am on Thursday, August 12, when she will be giving a short talk and enjoying a chat with other supporters. She hopes to be meeting as many readers as possible but totally understands that some of them (such as Jeanne and Nancy) might find getting there a bit difficult.

And there he was. Sitting on the driving seat and daring all and sundry to come and start pinching things. Buddy may not be that big but he knows he’s bigger than everyone else.

PS We would both like to send our best wishes to Traudel who is due to have an operation next Monday. May it happen this time and let us hope for a totally positive outcome.

Friday, 18 July 2014

A Busman's Holiday

Part One – by Marcia

Ways With Words is finished and my busman’s holiday is over: and what a wonderful time I had. It made such a difference to be able to walk to any event that interested me rather than worrying about arriving in time to find a parking space and then joining the end of a long queue. With a Rovers ticket I was spoiled for choice. Sometimes it was difficult to choose between the Great Hall and The Barn; between a poet and a politician, or a biographer and a stand-up comic.

It was utterly inspiring to listen to the philosopher, Roger Scruton, and I’m really enjoying his first novel: ‘Notes from Underground’. Two of my favourite novelists – Helen Dunmore and Jane Gardam – were there, and Penelope Lively got a cheer when, talking about the problems of old age, she said that reminiscing should not be inflicted on the young but should only be allowed between consenting octogenarians. Michael Rosen was brilliant and Sandi Tocsvig made me laugh and laugh. It was so good to see James Long again and remember how, nearly twenty years ago when the festival was very young, he and I, with Joan Brady and Mary Wesley, played croquet in the courtyard on the final day.

Sometimes I went to four events back to back and was very grateful for lovely Beattie and Ross in their van, The Humble Egg, who supplied me with coffee or hot chocolate or tea and cake, depending on what time of the day it was. The courtyard had quite a medieval look with the tents and marquees that popped up to cater to the festival-goers.

There were many familiar faces and many new ones. The WWW Staff were helpful, efficient and fun: pretty Jess – having a week’s break from her work with English National Opera – delightful Charlie, who kept everyone cheerful, poor Olly who had been bitten by a horse-fly down by the river. For that brief time they became friends.

It was so sad to say goodbye. The final event was on Sunday evening, so on Monday morning I went for a walk wondering whether Dartington would have been restored to its more usual tranquility. Instead there was that strange desolation that goes with the end of an event: tents being dismantled, people carrying suitcases, vans and taxis being loaded.

See you next year,’ someone called to a friend.

I came home with that end-of-the-party feeling. Then I reminded myself that Dartington International Summer School starts in a fortnight and I’ve already bought my tickets for some of the concerts.

The party goes on!

Part Two – by Rodney

There was a Peter Wimsey “who dunnit” by Dorothy L Sayers called “Busman’s Holiday” on the shelves at home when I was a young boy. It was not alone – it shared shelf space with almost every other book Sayers wrote as well as countless books by other authors. Each one, of course, represents a good deal of hard work from the moment the characters begin to appear until the final proofs have been read. So when Marcia talks about it being a busman’s holiday she rather overlooks the fact that we spent a few hours trawling around to the east of the River Dart trying to find where the people who have just begun to occupy her thoughts could be living.

You will remember that she had a feeling that the Green Café in Totnes might be important and so we have decided to look in the countryside around the town before going further afield.
Anyway, this is typical farming country where the lanes offer little in the way of views except when you pass a gateway. 

There are lots of these and we stop at nearly every one just in case. This means it can take an hour or so to cover a couple of miles and does absolutely nothing to improve the fuel economy of the car (if we – the car and I working together – achieve ten miles to the gallon we are doing well in these circumstances).

We passed a farm where an untidy tumble of old equipment acted as a background to a lovely rose growing on a fence.

Then we stopped in a gateway for a mug of coffee and I amused myself trying to take a reasonable photograph of a tortoiseshell butterfly that was far too far away for this to be a sensible activity. Eventually I got one that was not too bad.

After winding through the lanes for a little longer we came across a bridge carrying a track over the main railway from London down to Penzance in Cornwall.

There we met Edgar, a retired farmer with a great interest in steam locomotives – one of which was due to pass beneath us at any moment. Out with the video camera – you can see the result if you click here.

Then back home with me asking the inevitable question, ‘Well, have we found what you’re looking for?’

I don’t know,’ Marcia was looking thoughtful. ‘We may have done. We shall have to wait and see.’

This week’s blog dog is a Cairn terrier called Dougal. I have a huge affection for this breed. I think it was fifty-one years ago that my next-door-but-one neighbour (in a tiny hamlet of four dwellings of which was was a converted mill and the others cottages where the miller and his workers would have lived) gave me a cairn puppy as a Christmas present. This, I should add, without asking me whether or not he would be welcome. Well, he was and became my companion for the next seventeen years. Two days that remain firmly etched in my memory: the day we met and the day he died.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Ways With Words

The annual bunfight known as the Telegraph Ways With Words. a Festival of Words and Ideas is under way here in Dartington. That is an interesting title for this festival: when you look at the Ways With Words website the bye-line says “Literature Festivals and Writing Holidays”. Whilst Marcia has been attending quite a few of the events, I have been brooding on what seems to me to be rather a mixed message and thus on to asking myself what makes writing “literature”. I suspect, as Bob Dylan put it, The Times They Are A Changin’.

Where else would you see such a deck chair? 
Fifteen years ago, most of the speakers here would have been people who made a living by writing and many of them would have been novelists. Not so today. Like all such festivals, the speakers tend to be people who are, for one reason or another, in the public eye. True, they have all written books but they are here not because they are great writers but because they are the sort of people that draw crowds. Some of them have even written a novel.

The other day the Great Hall was packed to over-flowing to hear Princess Michael of Kent. Many of those will line up after the event at the Waterstone's marquee where she will be signing copies of her first book The Queen of Four Kingdoms. It tells of events in high places in the 15th century and is described as an historical novel being part one of a trilogy. (I cannot help but remember what Mary Wesley said to Marcia after she had signed her first two-book contract. “And are you sure you can write a second book?”)

Perhaps surprisingly, I am very glad that there are these celebrity writers – they help to support an industry (book publishing) that is in serious trouble and without which “working novelists” such as Marcia would be out of a job.

The jackdaws and gulls were busy cleaning up the remains of people's picnics.
All of this has made me think about what is meant by “literary”. According to my Oxford dictionary, literature is defined as: “Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit“. From that one would assume that a literary festival would have such works at its centre. Clearly matters have moved on: literary festivals are (like any other business) trying to make a profit and we live in the age of the celebrity. The result is that this festival has only a few novelists in the programme. Having said that, Marcia was thrilled to be able to go and hear Helen Dunmore and Jane Gardam (two of her favourites) and hopes to meet up with our old friend James Long whom we haven’t seen since he moved up to Bristol some years ago.

The birds weren't the only ones here to work. Waterstone's marquee stocks all the books being discussed at the festival. Here is Emma-Louise holding Farmageddon - a terrifying book about the consequences of factory farming, was written by Philip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott. Mr Lymbery was kind enough to give me an interview before his talk. If you would like to see what he had to say, please CLICK HERE.
To me creative writing is at its peak when the writer can so describe landscape as to enable the reader to smell the heather, the sea or whatever and to bring such life to the characters that the reader can really fall in love with them. Hacks, people like me, who write about factual events (be that as as a journalist, a newspaper commentator, a biographer or technical writer) can write well or badly but they will never meet that definition of literature. Let me give you an example.

The Great War in Europe in the years 1914 to 1918 was one of the most horrific moments in the history of the world and one that has long fascinated me. I have never really understood why it happened nor why for four long weary years there was a military deadlock. I have read a fair number of historical books dealing with the period just before and during that war but none has ever created the sort of emotional connection that one needs properly to understand such events.

All the tents, stalls and banners really did create a great "vibe" at Dartington.

Then I read Ken Follett's “The Century Trilogy”: The Fall of Giants, The Winter of the World and The Edge of Eternity. Although the fact that nobody seemed able to stop almost sleep walking into the war, I now have a far greater understanding of how people felt at the time and not just on one side of the conflict but from all sides. Is that great literature? Most critics would not rate Ken Follet that highly but he managed to speak to me and I know from all the messages we receive (by comments on the blog, emails and letters) that Marcia speaks to all of you. What more can a novelist hope to achieve?

She just can't help herself. Cuddles with Willow who (quite reasonably) is seeking reassurance from her owner. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

Literary festivals and family reunions

Today is day one of the annual Ways With Words festival held here at Dartington. Many years ago (longer than either of us care to remember) it was at this festival that Marcia gave her first talk. She was then one of the unknowns – or so the organisers judged. She was booked into the smallest venue available, the tickets sold out and then Marcia was advised that she would be moved to another, bigger hall. This should have given her more confidence but it actually increased her terror.

To this day, Marcia hates speaking in public (and especially about herself) but she is so incredibly good at it that nobody who has been to one of her talks really believes that to be true but I can assure you it is.

Anyway, since that first time she has appeared at a number of other Ways With Words and at festivals as prestigious as the Oxford Literary Festival and as local as the one held at Tavistock. Each one evinces the same response.

‘Why do they want me? I’m a writer not a speaker,’ she wails. ‘Don’t they understand that it’s the books that matter. Anyway, when novelists stand on their hind legs and start talking about themselves, nine times out of ten they intrude between the reader and the books and that is always a bad thing.’

Well, this year I bought her a Rover Ticket for this festival which means she can go to everything she wants to. It was by way of a birthday present but I had to give it to her a month early (you can’t wrap a festival in pretty paper and keep it until the day). She has gone off to listen to Jonathan Miller speaking in the Great Hall which I am sure she will thoroughly enjoy. I walked over with her so that I could take some pictures. It was, would you believe, raining.

Somewhere in the middle under an umbrella is Marcia.
This year there is also an exhibition of sculpture here, small pieces some of which, as you can see, are pretty weird.

Head Above Water, Body and Soul Together
This and the two below by Tati Dennehy (stoneware ceramic)

Lie Dee Down

Ghost Dog

Woman with Mandolin by Anne-Marie Moss (French Limestone)
 On Sunday we are off to Dartmouth for a family reunion lunch. Working out who is who in the family is not one of my things but it certainly is for Hugh, the eldest son of Josephine, daughter of my mother’s elder sister. We all lived together during most of the war years and, as a result, Jo and I were very close: she is more like a sister than a cousin.

Jo, Ken and baby Hugh moved to Canada (an exchange posting for Ken who was a helicopter designer working for Bristol Aeroplane Company) and then, at the end of that contract, down into the US where Ken moved to Boeing. In time they were all granted US citizenship – Hugh’s three siblings being born there were Americans from the first yell.

Hugh is passionate about the family. He has spent many hours working out who is who and, starting tomorrow, various members will descend on Dartmouth from the US, from Canada, from Switzerland and, of course, various parts of the UK. It will be good to catch up with people I haven’t seen for a long time and to meet some for the first time. My main sadness is that Jo and her husband Ken will not be there although Jo’s brother (another Ken which has led to confusion in the past) emailed me the other day to say that he and his wife Patsy would be coming.

It will either be great fun or a terrible disaster. Let us hope it is the first.
Look at those paws!
This is a superb example of a Bernese Mountain Dog