Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Volcano, the Big Apple and Me

I am back after an American adventure. As I was flying over Iceland a fortnight ago I had no idea that the volcano was stirring and that I was on one of the last flights to leave the UK. So I merrily watched the in-flight films and tried to digest the, frankly frightening, plane food.

I arrived in Denver for a conference and had a fabulous time visiting the Tattered Cover bookstore which is reason alone to go to Denver. Floors of books and delightfully the secondhand books are mixed in with new books. Comfy armchairs and sofas are provided for people to spend time relaxing in. I wanted to go to Molly Brown's house but, I did have to get on with some work whilst I was there! Denver is a huge city but only has a population of half a million so it feels strangely empty. Coming from a crowded little island I felt overwhelmed by all the space.

I then flew to New York where I was supposed to meet my mum for a holiday. Her flight was cancelled and she couldn't make it out in time so I ended up spending a week in NYC on my own. If you spend anywhere alone it should be New York. I had never been before and it was fantastic. I spent so much time wandering the streets, going to museums and galleries and generally soaking in the city. I also spent a lot of time comparing Manhattan to central London.

I have lived in London for eight years now and I love the city as it has so much to offer. But, I just felt that New Yorkers were 'perkier' somehow. Manhattan felt upbeat and hopeful whereas recently I have been feeling that London has become more cynical and ground down. For example, I actually witnessed people in public places leaving their belongings as they went to collect drinks - this would never happen in London or if it did, your bag would not be there when you returned.

This could be a one off of course but I did feel safer from petty crime - and the major difference was just walking down the street. Fifth Avenue is as busy as Regent Street but walking down the latter renders you bashed and bruised. Not once did someone barge me out of the way, or refuse to move for an entire week! I was flabbergasted. And I think it boils down to this, manners.

I don't think us Brits have the same level of good manners. Our customer service is practically non-existent and if you dare ask a sales person for help in a shop then you almost get openly accused of being unreasonably demanding. If there is a way for us to have no human contact in a store then we will try it, just look at the rise in self-service checkouts.

I was alone in a big city and the number of people who offered help, advice and just conversation was staggering. I have never been anywhere so friendly. In London people are wary of starting a conversation with strangers and I cannot think that so many Londoners would have offered me their spare room if I had been stranded here. I don't think I would. But I had complete strangers offering me a place to stay if I found myself in need of it. I was even offered a place to stay in Tennessee - and I admit, I quite fancied the idea of running away and becoming a country and western singer in a honky tonk bar!

So, my holiday taught me something about human nature and also about myself. How charitable am I? How many people do I barge out of the way when I am pounding the streets of London?

The only criticism I have of New York is the number of toy dogs. I have to declare that I am a cat person so am destined to think this way but I saw a ridiculous number of teeny tiny dogs and some of them were in outfits! I actually saw a dog with sunglasses on - sheer madness.

I have promised my mum that we will go there together as soon as possible. Volcano permitting of course.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

There have always been Starkadders...

A Sussex farm

Sussex in the springtime is utterly delightful. Primroses skirt the hedgerows and Daffodils nod their regal heads in the blustery spring air that drives the tail of winter into hiding. The South Downs become peppered with colour as delicate flowers unfurl their jewelled heads and the trees start to bud. This year's leaves are all in waiting whilst the weather calms and softens. Once the clocks change the new found evening light promises months of frivolity and summery abandon.

My Granny was brought up on a farm in deep, deep Sussex. As a child I would listen, enthralled by both the tales of her father and their animals, and by her knowledge of the countryside. I spent the best part of my childhood walking with her around the lanes and fields surrounding her village learning what each plant, tree and bird were called. Every season would bring fresh excitement and every spring we would go and stand on the fence of the big house, to look over at the sprawling mass of daffodils and primroses that they had in their grounds.

The past few weeks have been full with all sorts of different things so I found myself in a reading rut. I would get part way through a book and listlessly place it back on the shelf as I was just unable to settle with anything. After the fifth attempt at getting through a novel I rang my mother to seek advice. And, of course, she suggested the book that really I should have turned to first. The very book which is perfect for this time of year but also for getting out of a reading rut.

As I opened Cold Comfort Farm for what must be the millionth time (I may exaggerate slightly) I was immediately gripped as Flora Poste rolled up her sleeves and got to work. Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm in 1932. The British countryside changed dramatically in the first half of the twentieth century and Cold Comfort Farm documents the altering state of the countryside through a wry and very English humour.

The peculiarity and sheer backwardness of the Starkadder's who have 'always been at Cold Comfort' is perfectly offset by Flora Poste's very modern, progressive and urban ways. Flora, recently orphaned, goes to stay at Cold Comfort Farm as she has been left with little money so wants to try her hand as a novelist. She realises that she can stay for free with relatives whilst acquiring 'material' for her great work of fiction.

This quickly goes awry as she realises that she is simply better at being interfering and sorting out the lives of the tumultuous Starkadder's than she is at writing. The Starkadder's (who have always been at Cold Comfort) are a family that is easy to mock. Whether it is Amos and his calling to lead the 'Quivering Brethren' or Elfine with her 'poetry' and longing for local gentry-pin-up Dick Hawk-Monitor, the Starkadders are splayed open for ridicule. Adam Lambsbreath with his 'liddle mop' and Seth seething with sexual urges in the corner, Reuben clinging on to his birth right which no one else wants anyway and Judith with her forboding and near incestuous love for Seth. They are all stark mad.

But none more so than Aunt Ada Doom - who as a young child 'saw something narsty in the woodshed' - she holds the entire family in her psychological stranglehold due to the 'narsty woodshed' incident. No Starkadder is to leave Cold Comfort as there have 'always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort'. Her fear of change and modernisation present the perfect challenge for Flora who, through Gibbons' ironic wit, realises that Aunt Ada Doom 'was the Dominant Grandmother Theme, which was found in all typical novels of agricultural life (and sometimes in novels of urban life, too). It was, of course, right and proper that Aunt Ada should be in possession at Cold Comfort; Flora should have suspected her existence from the beginning.'

Flora is an advocate of a 'tidy life'. Her mission is to 'tidy' the Starkadder's which she accomplishes - whilst inadvertantly tidying her own life too, of course.

Some of the first 'tidying' that Flora accomplishes is teaching Meriam about family planning -having had four unplanned pregnancies out of wedlock Meriam, Flora decides, is in need of some tidy advice. But as Meriam says 'who's to know what will happen to me when the sukebind is out in the hedges again and I feel so strange on the long summer evenings?' Flora realises the size of the task ahead of her. Particularly when, during the third week in March, 'Fecund dreams stirred the yearlings. The sukebind was in bud [...] this meant that Micah, Urk, Amos, Caraway, Harkaway, Mizpah, Luke, Mark and four farm-hands who were not related to the family had a good deal of time on their hands in one way and another. Seth, of course, was always busiest in the spring.'

This book is in my top five of all time favourites. It is eye-wateringly hilarious as Gibbons captures English eccentricity and foibles with masterly precision and she also executes the humour through that subtle, dry and nuanced English wit. All the characters are stereotypes - taken from literature, history and I daresay real people. Stella Gibbons pokes fun at our long tradition of rural family sagas in literature and presents us with a perfectly formed romp through an ironic anti-melodrama.

Spring is upon us and if you look carefully in the hedgerows you may just see the sukebind in bud - the long, careless summer evenings will be upon us before we know it. Once the sukebind is in flower, of course.

Beware the sukebind