Back home to me

Whooper Swan: engraving by Thomas Bewick

Swan Song by Gill Lewis.
Barrington Stoke 2021

Somehow this was a profounder and more affecting novella than I was expecting. Written for older pre-teens and later readers it’s written from the point of view of Dylan, a lad who hasn’t made a smooth transition from primary to secondary education and has now been permanently excluded from his urban school.

Taken by his mother to stay with her estranged father in Wales he appears to be at rock bottom, friendless in a strange land and offline to boot. But it turns out to be the best thing that has yet happened to him as he learns to look outwards rather than remaining locked in within himself.

Throw away any preconceptions about this being a mere run-of-the-mill feelgood story. It alludes to childhood depression, the difficulties facing one-parent families, loss of loved ones, trauma and the threat of environmental despoliation. And it shows that, given not only the will and the right conditions but also an innate predisposition, it’s possible to see a way through what seems like an intolerable situation.

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The townie’s godsend

Foxgloves, buttercups and orchid, Wales
Foxgloves, buttercups and orchid, West Wales

Wild Flowers of Britain & Europe,
by Wolfgang Lippert, Dieter Podlech,
translated and adapted by Martin Walters.
Collins Nature Guide, HarperCollins Publishers 1994

Wales, high summer, 2013. Hardly tautological as juxtapositions go, but with temperatures hovering near 30° Celsius (the mid-80s Fahrenheit, in old money) this may well be as good as it gets this year.

As usual, the varying combinations in spring of cold or mild and dry or wet weather produce a profusion or dearth of native flowers and their early or late blooming.

This year’s mix has been distinctive, and with the help of pocket guides like this we’ve been able to do a casual audit of what we can see in our excuse for an orchard and lonesome hay meadow.

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“Blossoms passing fair”

An illustrated introduction to Shakespeare’s flowers
by Dr Levi Fox,
Jarrold Colour Publications 1977

A slim 32-page booklet with colour photos on all but a handful of pages, this introduction is designed to emphasise that Shakespeare’s acquaintance of flowers “was not that of a botanist or horticulturalist but rather of a countryman gifted with an acute sense of observation”. He knew the colour of his plants, the seasons they appeared in, the folklore associated with them. In addition the poet ascribed uses to them (some made up, some genuine) and delighted in descriptions of them, in adjectives, simile or metaphor.

Here you’ll find quotes from Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and the history plays, The Winter’s Tale and the poems; the late Dr Fox also includes an endpiece with mentions of Shakespeare’s herbs, from balm to savory, marjoram to wormwood and much in between. As with the flowers botanical names are included, relevant quotes, and interpretations or clarifications of a few more obscure names the poet uses.

Above all the author includes passages from Will’s works with brief commentary giving context, all supplemented by the opening essay. As an historian, archivist and then director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Fox was in a good position to give an authoritative summary of the Swan of Avon’s familiarity with blooms.

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Chicken feed

ceramic hen
Glazed look from ceramic hen

Martin Gurdon Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance:
reflections on raising chickens
The Lyons Press 2005 (2004)

Having travelled from the west coast of Britain all the way to the west coast of the United States, it seemed a little odd to have picked up this arresting title in Seattle’s University Book Store only to find it was written by a fellow Brit. But that’s not the only coincidence surrounding our acquisition of this book, a witty parody of a famous work on tinkering with motorcycles, and this review therefore is split into two unequal halves, the first a gentle appreciation, the second a mild rant. Continue reading “Chicken feed”

Born to be wild

Western Polecat (Mustela putorius)
Western Polecat (Mustela putorius)

Helga Hofmann Wild Animals of Britain & Europe
translated by Martin Walters
Collins Nature Guide, HarperCollins 1995

As we drove down a country road yesterday morning a familiar form crossed in front of us: a polecat. We recognised it by its colouring, the distinctive dark mask over its face, and by its size. What we weren’t familiar with was its gait, because the only previous time we’d seen one was after our field had recently been mowed for hay, and by then the poor creature was quite dead. The cat appeared interested in it, mainly because of the strong scent it had left behind — the second element of its Latin name Mustela putorius means ‘smelly’. We left it for other carnivores to feast on or for a passing buzzard to carry away. To identify it was just a matter of moments Continue reading “Born to be wild”

Fluttering by

buddleiaCharles A Hall Know Your Butterflies
Richard Ward Illustrator
A & C Black Publishers Ltd 1970

In late August the two buddleia on the south side of the house are thronged with butterflies, fluttering by and supping with relish, and it’s easy to understand why this plant is usually referred to as the ‘butterfly bush’. Especially plentiful are Red Admirals, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshell. I always thought Red Admirals were so called because of their stripes but I may have been mistaken, because elsewhere I’ve read that they were originally called ‘Admirable’ because of their bright colours; in fact in most of the ones we see the reds are closer to a deep orange. The Peacock is aptly named due to its distinctive eye-spots while the Small Tortoiseshell has alternating light and dark stripes on the leading edge of the wings, though it never stops long enough for me to spy the blue half-rounds on the trailing edges. Continue reading “Fluttering by”

Kingsley’s riddle

Linley Sambourne
Linley Sambourne

Charles Kingsley The Water-Babies:
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby

Edited with introduction and notes by Brian Alderson
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press 1995 (1863)

The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in 1863, exactly a century-and-a-half ago this summer. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself pretty much a half-century ago in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:

Come read me my riddle, each good little man:
If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.

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