Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Charleston Literary Festival - calm in the chaos

The Orchard at Charleston

Last weekend I escaped home to Sussex for some much needed peace and to see Carol Ann Duffy at The Charleston Festival. Duffy has been one of my favourite poets for a long time - alongside Alice Oswald - and I have heard her read her poems before but seeing her at Charleston was truly delightful. We all bundled into the marquee thankful that it wasn't the usual howling wind and rain accompanying the event. Just as Duffy started to read a poem, the cows in the neighbouring field decided to pipe up. I am not sure that such things happen at the slick Hay Festival but these messy, honest occurrences are what keep Charleston charming.

Going to Charleston is an annual event for me and my ritual is to have a slice of lemon drizzle cake with my tea before the event.
Lemon Drizzle at Charleston

The tea tent was bedecked in bunting this year and the cow parsley even more abundant than my memory of it from last year. Sitting in the orchard sipping on tea and scoffing cake is one of my favourite things and I look forward to it every year. May in Sussex is a perfect month as everything is fresh and abundant ahead of the withering power of the summer sun. The burnt tinge of August is a future concern and the countryside sparkles with shades of green.

I love the way that the trestle tables and chairs are scattered as if they naturally appear in the orchard.

Carol Ann Duffy read for nearly an hour and, along with the cows, held the audience spellbound as she read both old and new poems. Her dry humour and subtle delivery had us in paroxysms of mirth, particularly 'from Mrs Tiresias' which recounts the myth of Tiresias from the point of view of his wife - the poem is from the collection The World's Wife which I will talk more about in another post as I could write reams about the collection.

During the past week my life has turned completely topsy-turvy (self-inflicted I hasten to add) - I have set many exciting changes in motion which I will elaborate upon as time goes on and things become more certain. So, going to Charleston was a moment of peace before the (hopefully organised) chaos that the next couple of months will be. After my tea and cake I found something pink and fizzy with which to celebrate in the sunshine; heavenly.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

A spot of summer comfort

At long last we have the promise of warm weather. The English summer can be a fleeting and momentary burst of warmth, sparkling light and soft breezes that need to be embraced before the wind changes and torrents of rain set in. Despite this, when I think of childhood summers spent meandering the shores of the Cornish coast it always seems that summer was endless, boiling and a period of complete freedom. Months spent without shoes, eating outside and splashing around in any water I could find rolled on and on until September dawned and those halcyon days drifted off on another path that I wasn't on anymore.

To get me through the endless months of waiting for the summer holiday I would bury myself in the Redwall books by Brian Jacques. Redwall is the name of an Abbey which is at the heart of each book in the series and its inhabitants are woodland creatures. There are now 20 books in the series and I am only one behind as I do still read them. I admit, I no longer read them with the complete absorption of my 10,11,12 year old self but they are comforting and it's a bit of my childhood from which I can't quite let go.

Each book in the series is a heady tale of adventure, quests, battles and feasts. And it was always the feasts which particularly gripped me. My mouth watered as I read about crumble and meadowcream, strawberry fizz, deeper'n'ever pie (favoured by the moles), shrimp and hotroot soup (loved by otters), October Ale and candied chestnuts. I would lazily dream about feasts in the Abbey orchard whilst I was in maths lessons, wishing myself there with all my heart.

Books we read as children are perfect to re-visit when we need some comfort reading. I haven't gone back to the start of the series for a long time so I am looking forward to spending balmy summer evenings in the garden with a glass of Pimm's whilst revisiting my old friends at the Abbey.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

A week of enchantment

This week has been stuffed with a myriad of experiences. Last weekend I took up arms and decided to paint the bathroom - which I had no idea would take me two days! Such a small room but so much work. Anyway, my friend who is currently writing a children's book wanted to go to Kensington Palace as it has turned itself into the Enchanted Palace - perfect for inspiration. The exhibition sounded right up my street (as what girl does not like fairytales?) so I downed tools and met her in the Orangery Cafe for tea and cake before entering the magical palace.

The exhibition focuses on a quest to find seven princesses, all of whom were former residents of the palace. You are given a map to guide you through the rooms and a pencil to write down the names. The rooms all take on an individual theme relating to the life of a royal princess. Not all are happy, for instance one room focused on the danger of childbirth to both mother and child. My favourite room was the room of 'Dancing Princesses' which was lit with blue light and had life size trees dotted around so it was like entering a moonlit enchanted wood. In a glass case was a beautiful dress with red ballet shoes and a tiara which was worn by Princess Margaret, the Queen's sister.

The room obviously referenced Hans Christian Anderson's The Red Shoes which is a favourite fairytale of mine. In addition I adore the 1948 film starring Moira Shearer. My sister bought it for me for my birthday this year and watching it is a regular Sunday afternoon ritual. So the room of 'Dancing Princesses' was like walking into my dream bedroom - I am not sure I will be able to convince Mr Bell that we should turn our bedroom into a homage to The Red Shoes; but it's worth trying?

On Tuesday it was our monthly V&A Women's Institute meeting which is always enjoyable but was made especially so by the guest speaker who is the blogger and author Jane Brocket. Jane gave a wonderful talk about how she has managed to turn her creativity and domestic skilfulness into a full time occupation. She brought in some of her quilts to show us and I am now totally inspired. For the past few months I have been doing patchwork by hand. I am not a natural at sewing so, inspired by Jane, I am going to throw caution to the wind and buy a sewing machine so that I can have fun instead of fiddling about with papers and tacking and all that malarky.

I also acquired some new books this week which is a pretty normal occurrence, however this transaction did involve me having to lay my pride to one side as I have purchased a book with the worst cover ever. It is truly horrendous and, frankly, it's embarassing that I own such a book when I am such a snob about my volumes. Still, it was only 50p in a charity shop and I will be secreting it away in a dark corner of a very dark room as soon as I have read it.

The offending article is After the War by Frederic Raphael who wrote The Glittering Prizes, a book which I really enjoyed so hopefully After the War will be just as good despite sporting the cheesiest of covers.

I also bought some other 50p books: The Way Through The Woods by Colin Dexter, an Inspector Morse novel so pure indulgence as I love Morse, The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark as I really enjoyed both The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and A Far Cry From Kensington and another copy of the children's book Redwall by Brian Jacques. I now have three copies but it was only 50p and I couldn't bear to leave it alone on the shelf with no guarantee of a good, appreciative home. I will do a full post on Redwall as I have loved the Redwall books since I was about ten years old and they are partially responsible for my obsession with bells - along with, The Bell by Iris Murdoch, the actual sound of church bells and various other bell-related experiences.

As for Persephone Books Reading Week, I have really enjoyed reading everyone's Persephone Books related posts. I am part of the way through House-bound which is, true to Persephone form, a great read. Fingers crossed Claire and Verity will host another reading week later this year as I don't think I can wait until 2011 for another excuse to buy more Persephones!

The enchantment continues today as I am about to go for afternoon tea at Beas of Bloomsbury with Rachel (Book Snob) and we are meeting Claire, Verity and a whole (insert collective noun) of book bloggers in, my favourite part of London, Bloomsbury. Actually, what is the collective noun for book bloggers?

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Miss Buncle's Book saves the day

Endpapers taken from a design by Vanessa Bell used in Miss Buncle's Book published by Persephone Books

Hotels can be isolating, bizarre and frankly surreal. Whilst I was alone in New York I was staying in a pokey little hotel with dark corridors and a really terrifying lift. The shaft had no roof so you could look up through the gap and see the sky. I don't think that an engineer had been near it since the 1920s and it clanked its way jerkily to my floor at the top of the building. Negotiating the metal sliding door and external heavy door was a real test of strength and skill. If I managed to escape the clutches of one door I could just as easily get squished by the other. I wasn't very good at it and a cleaner had to (very kindly) show me the trick. Which involved speed and agility - neither of which I have.

My room was clean and had a clear view of the Empire State Building which was really exciting. I was out and about all day so it was a relief to get back to my room and rest my weary legs - the unfamiliar noises of the city and hotel were soon forgotten about as every night I would open Miss Buncle's Book and lose myself in the little piece of England that I had brought with me.

Miss Barbara Buncle has run out of money so as an enterprising woman she sits down and writes a bestseller - Disturber of the Peace. Barbara Buncle's book is about a village and it's inhabitants and is a gripping portrayal of life in Middle England. However, it is not strictly a work of fiction.

Barbara Buncle has spent her whole life in Silverstream, she is considered odd, pitiful and a 'typical' spinster. But Barbara Buncle has a gift - she is an astute and insightful observer and has the ability to pierce to the core of the human soul. Her work of 'fiction' is more of an account of the people of Silverstream; renamed Copperfield in Disturber of the Peace.

Miss Buncle's Book portrays English village life at its best. When the peace is disturbed and the mirror has been turned around on to its inhabitants. The characters in Disturber of the Peace are easily recognisable to the inhabitants of Silverstream as they are the characters. For some, this makes for uncomfortable reading as Miss Buncle portrays them warts and all.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this truly English novel as DE Stevenson flays the village open and presents all the stereotypes for us to gawp over and laugh at. But overriding this was the wonderful message that the most overlooked amongst us can achieve the most unexpected of things. Through hard work, perseverance and an iron will Barbara Buncle transformed her life. She strode out and took a risk, in taking that risk she disturbed the peace and found happiness.

The gentle pace and lightheartedness were exactly what I needed to end my days tramping the streets of New York sightseeing. There is no greater comfort than a book to sink into and lose yourself in - especially when it is a book that has been published by Persephone Books.

This week is Persephone Book Reading Week, hosted by Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files. The next Persephone I have on my list is House-bound by Winifred Peck which I am really looking forward to and hopefully I will have time to finally read Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton which has been on my pile of books for an absolute age.