Books to read during ‘lockdown’ times

The thing I miss most at the moment is having a conversation in the company of friends who make me laugh with abandon. There are different types of humour – and it’s the one thing that makes an immediate bond with someone when you recognise that you have a similar type. It’s not easy to explain that feeling which hits the spot and maybe best not to even try and analyse it – another situation could be a ‘coup de foudre’ when you fall in love across a crowded room (or anywhere for that matter) with a stranger. That doesn’t happen quite so often though – it’s never happened to me. But at the heart of it, it’s inexplicable and wonderful. You don’t need or want to know the reason why – it just is.

I’ve been reading a lot during ‘lockdown’ and since my mind often goes blank when somebody asks me what I’ve been reading, I’ve acquired a small notebook. I write a couple of sentences under the title and author of each book to remind me of the story. The notebook must be ‘handbaggable’ because it’s no use sitting down to lunch with a friend at a favourite restaurant if said notebook is lurking on its own at home. Unless, of course, you do have a super memory … I did used to have one for names … I still have a good memory for faces.

There are a lot of amusing and entertaining books but few where I’ve been unable to stop myself laughing out loud. If you can spontaneously laugh out loud, surely that’s a good thing for your state of mind. Here are some suggestions to try out … or encourage you to find your own … these, for me, are special.

‘Notes from a Small Island’ (1995) and ‘A Walk in the Woods’ (1997) by Bill Bryson
‘The Humans’ by Matt Haig (2013)
‘A Good Man in Africa’ by William Boyd (1981)
‘Bird Brain’ by Guy Kennaway (2013)

Although these books were published some time ago, I only just read the William Boyd – mentioned also in my journal entry on Wallingford. It hit the spot so many times! I have read Matt Haig’s ‘The Humans’ twice and laughed out loud again. Bill Bryson is always a real treat. A favourite since I came upon ‘Notes from a Small Island’, I have greedily fallen upon each new offering. I came upon ‘Bird Brain’ through a friend – it’s utterly hilarious. I think Guy (the author), must be Banger …!

All of these books fit in with my personal take on ‘life in general’ and I very much like all the authors too. At the moment there are lots of articles in the papers on the best books of 2020 – it’s also worth looking at many others.

I’m now adding a few more books I’ve been reading recently to balance out the laughter quotient. These are books which stay around in my conscience.

‘Little Deaths’ by Emma Flint (2017) is set in New York in 1965 and based on a real and shocking event. It’s absolutely riveting and is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read, set in the atmosphere of an Edward Hopper painting – ‘The `Nighthawks’.

The writing doesn’t miss a beat, the characters are so well drawn I would be able to recognise them if I met them in the street. This story would make a wonderful ‘noir’ film … gripping and sinister, harrowing and tragic. It haunts me still. I’d be the casting director – in my dreams!

‘Little Deaths’ by Emma Flint (2017)

I’ve already written a piece on ‘The Mirror & the Light’ by Hilary Mantel. I can’t praise it enough. The trilogy, starting with ‘Wolf Hall’, following on with ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ and finishing with the ‘The Mirror & the Light’ is an unbelievable achievement. It’s in a category of its own. I just feel lucky to have had the chance to be alive at the same time as this trilogy was written. This is literature that will last down the ages.

To learn more about Hilary Mantel, read her autobiographical memoir, ‘Giving up the Ghost’. She is truly a phenomenon! ‘A story of childhood that is also a piece of history’ (Rachel Cusk). ‘Brilliant, sardonic and extraordinarily moving’ (Helen Dunmore, ‘The Times’).

‘giving up the ghost’ a memoir by Hilary Mantel (2003)

Someone recommended me to a series of books, which introduce a great detective in the making – including a touch of hoped for romance, which is always just that tantalising step too far away … read them in sequence.

Abir Mukherjee 1 & 2 (2016, 2017)

The four books are set mainly in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1920s, the detective being one, Sam Wyndham, with his ever present Sergeant (Surrender-not) Banerjee, who keeps him on the straight and narrow. The deeper they get themselves into the murderous tangles of opium dens and the seedier side of the city, the more dangerous and shocking the discoveries they make. ‘Mukherjee weaves crime and history together with great skill’ (The Times). I hope he is busy writing the next one …

Abir Mukherjee 3 & 4 (2018,2019)

Another detective story, which was a great find, is ‘Only To Sleep’ by Lawrence Osborne. He takes the Philip Marlowe character (by Raymond Chandler) and puts him in retirement on the borders and badlands of Mexico and California. ‘Osborne and Chandler are a perfect match’, says William Boyd in ‘The Guardian’. This is an excellent ‘noir’ thriller – ‘sumptuous and sinister, languorous and tense’ (The ‘Sunday Times’). I also found the writing hugely atmospheric. Unputdownable … Lawrence Osborne understands how louche characters tick … he may be one himself …

‘Only To Sleep’ by Lawrence Osborne (2018)

Eric Ambler was a brilliant thriller writer. ‘The best ever’, said Graham Greene. It’s worth knowing that some of his books have been reprinted recently. I read them all.

Thrillers by Eric Ambler (1938-1940)

Earlier this year I re-read ‘The Day of the Jackal’ by Frederick Forsyth while on holiday. Chillingly brilliant! It was made into a gripping film, starring Edward Fox as the ruthless assassin. Great for a long train/plane journey. A powerful story – how Forsyth builds up the tension is spectacular. I felt I could hardly breathe towards the final climax. The film is also excellent.

‘The Day of the Jackal’ by Frederick Forsyth (1971)

A short novella called ‘The Shepherd’ is a thriller of a different nature – and just the thing to read in one go by the fire on your own with a glass of wine/whisky to hand. The tension is almost unbearable – the ending brought tears to my eyes. A wonderfully atmospheric piece of writing which I will never forget. Perfect.

‘The Shepherd’ by Frederick Forsyth (1975)

‘Our Man in New York’ is a non-fiction thriller. I knew nothing about this story and found it enthralling. It’s about the two ‘Bills’ (Stephenson and Donovan), who helped to change the course of WW2 by encouraging America to enter into the war and who are the stars in this MI6 undercover story – I was hooked from the first page. We owe a lot to people we didn’t even know existed.

‘Our Man in New York’ by Henry Hemming (2019)

‘Fascinating … Hemming has done a superb job’ – Ben Macintyre in ‘The Times’.

Recently, there was an article in ‘The Sunday Times’ about the writer, Sarah Dunant, telling about the house in London which she had lived in for thirty years and was about to – somewhat reluctantly – sell.

Next day, I was in Waterstones and having completed a course in the history of art some years ago, starting at the Renaissance, I was attracted by two books of hers – historical fiction about the Borgias. ‘Blood and Beauty’ (2013) and ‘In the Name of the Family’ (2017). They opened my eyes to a different view of the Borgia family (who originally came from Spain). ‘Blood and Beauty’ starts when Rodrigo Borgia, cardinal of Valencia, becomes Pope Alexander VI. It takes on the story of his family, especially of his daughter, Lucrezia. This was a savage time, governed, in what was to become Italy, by small principalities, all wanting to be more powerful than their neighbour.

Dunant paints a very different picture of Lucrezia Borgia than the one most of us think of. You live and breathe alongside her and become very involved with her hopes and fears.

The Renaissance was a flowering of talented artists and sculptors creating the most beautiful art in this part of the world. But it was also a violent society, full of danger and terror – you had to have your wits about you to survive and often, that wasn’t enough.

Both these books are hugely exciting and enjoyable.

‘Blood and Beauty’ and ‘In the Name of the Family’ by Sarah Dunant

I found a book in the house called ‘The Wave’ by Susan Casey. It’s about surfing giant (100 foot) waves. Having picked it up just out of curiosity, I was unable to put it down. The ‘San Francisco Chronicle’ writes … ‘Immensely powerful, beautiful, addictive and, yes, incredibly thrilling … Like a surfer, who is happily hooked, the reader simply won’t be able to get enough of it’. And that’s it, in a nutshell. I read this book cover to cover and wanted more.

‘The Wave’ by Susan Casey (2010)

I will never surf big waves myself but ‘The Wave’ conveys what it’s like to be out there – awe inspiring and sometimes (always?) terrifying. There’s a great adrenal rush, and it’s a fabulous read, especially when many of us are stuck inside most of the time.

A book which unexpectedly made the bestseller list for many weeks and which I had picked up out of curiosity of its title is ‘Prisoners of Geography’ – ten maps that tell you everything you want to know about global politics. I thought I needed to know more about this subject, although party politics leave me cold – but we all rely on good governance. Sadly missing at the moment.

‘Prisoners of Geography’ by Tim Marshall (2015)) – new edition now updated

I love maps and I love travel and here I get to know the most fascinating things about so many countries. This is how Dan Lewis from Stanfords, WorldTravelGuide.net puts it …’Marshall’s latest book explains how politics is nothing without geography, in his crisp and compelling style … What he really excels at is capturing the psychology of nations and giving maps a power that politicians must tame.’ It’s a really original way of looking at the world, which I find compelling. For example, how rivers, mountain ranges, swamps and the climate have changed the fortunes of war.

As I’m talking about different countries and their relations to one another, ‘Great Cities Through Travellers’ Eyes’, edited by Peter Furtado caught my attention. This is an anthology – good bedtime reading – including well known writers from past and present telling about their visits to thirty eight cities from Alexandria to Hong Kong, Berlin to Tokyo, Paris to San Francisco, London to New York … etc. Good to dip into in tandem with ‘Prisoners of Geography’.

‘Great Cities Through Travellers’ Eyes’ ed. Peter Furtado (2019)

My favourite travel writers include Bill Bryson, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Michael Palin +TV series, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Levison Wood + TV series, Andrew Martin and Andrew Eames.

Patrick Leigh Fermor is probably well known to most people who read books on travel. He was born in 1915 and in 1933, aged eighteen, he set off to walk across Europe, beginning his life as an intrepid adventurer. He’s a colourful, passionate figure, full of energy and the joys of living and all his books are still popular, lining bookshop shelves. I recommend ‘A Time of Gifts’ and ‘Between the Woods and Water’ to start off.

He ended up living in the Mani region of Greece and his book ‘Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’ describes how his journeys led him to build a house here. Patrick Leigh Fermor has become something of an icon to travellers everywhere. He died in 2011, aged 96. His home is now open to visitors at certain times of the year.

‘A Time of Gifts’ (1977) and ‘Between the Woods and Water’ (1986) by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Michael Palin is so well known and has kept diaries of his many travels – these have all been filmed from ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, ‘Pole to Pole’. ‘Full Circle’, ‘Sahara’, ‘Himalaya’ and ‘Around the World in 80 Days: 20 Years On’.

Although I’m talking about books here, the boxed set for TV called ‘Travels with Palin’ might get you to feel you have been away after all! He’s full of enthusiasm and empathy, even when stretched to the limit half way up Everest and he makes you feel that you too could manage this – when I’m thinking that I definitely couldn’t.

He’s probably the best international diplomat we’ve ever had, without being a diplomat. He inspires love of our fellow human beings and his travels are told with his illimitable style of ‘why am I here?’ humour. He’s such an enjoyable person to show us the world – this is a series of travel nobody should miss. Again, I feel lucky to have been around at the same time as Michael Palin. He’s a generous spirit.

A box of travels with Michael Palin

Colin Thubron is an acknowledged master of travel writing. I have read only two of his books. He wrote ‘Behind the Wall – a journey through China’ in 1987 which would be interesting to read again now. There are a great many journeys to choose from and he has won many honours and prizes for his work. He was made President of the Royal Society of Literature in 2010. ‘Thubron writes very well indeed … He carries with him the talisman of erudition combined with intuition’ (The Sunday Times).

‘Behind the Wall’ (1987) and ‘Journey into Cyprus’ (1975) by Colin Thubron

‘He is the most admirable of guides, deeply versed in the rich history and archaeology of the island (Cyprus), delighting in the legends’. (The Sunday Telegraph).

Andrew Martin wrote ‘Night Trains’ about sleepers. I include him partly because I had my own adventures on these sleeper trains through Europe in the 1960s. He also wrote about trains speeding through Europe in ‘Belles and Whistles’, which I have yet to read. ‘His wonderfully well informed, anecdotal prose punches more than just tickets’ (The Times). His book, ‘Underground, Overground’ gets this comment from The Sunday Times – ‘A jaunty history … studded with little observational gems … he can stop you in your tracks with a well-turned phrase’. Just my cup of tea!

With plane travel being so doubtful at the moment, trains may have a revival. Look up the site for ‘The Man in Seat 61’ – he knows everything about train travel and keeps you up to date. I was once allotted a seat on the Eurostar and was ‘ravie’ to find it was number 61! Small pleasures keep us going …

‘Night Trains’ by Andrew Martin (2017)with illustrations

Following in the footsteps of Agatha Christie, Andrew Eames’s ‘The 8.55 to Baghdad’ is packed full of information as he leaves London, en route for the Middle East.

‘The 8.55 to Baghdad’ – Andrew Eames (2004) with illustrations

He follows the route to the Middle East taken by Agatha Christie on her own after her painful divorce. She herself wrote a diary containing her adventures, travelling to archaeological sites in Iraq, Syria and Mesopotamia, which she describes with a wonderful dry wit. The title is ‘Come, Tell Me How You Live’. It gives you a completely different take on her. Not just a successful crime writer!

This is also when, happily, she met her second husband, archaeologist, Max Mallowan. Eames keeps Agatha in his sights but also stops off at various venues on his way – e.g Zagreb – once the pinnacle of ‘high society’. He has a self deprecating sense of humour and is highly entertaining.

I especially enjoyed his description of a visit to the celebrated baths/hamman in Damascus, reminding me of my own ‘steamed up’ experience in Aleppo in 2002. His descriptive powers are exceptional. I almost feel I’ve been to Baghdad. (I did get as far as Palmyra in 2002). I’m now looking forward to reading his book ‘Blue River, Black Sea’ – about his adventures along the Danube.

Paul Theroux wrote ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ about his journey from London to Asia by train in 1975. He’s a wonderful writer, his opinions very much his own, with a wry and honest take on people and events. There’s no prettifying of life in general but at the same time he sympathises with the human condition – and sometimes the description is pretty raw! One of my favourite characters is Duffil, surrounded by his mysterious paper bags on the train.

You feel you are alongside Theroux and I like his ironic sense of humour in how he approaches the world – the dialogue is very amusing. He prefers to travel alone he says – I understand that and I can also imagine he might be a quite difficult person to travel with … In 2008 he tried to repeat this exact journey, entitled ‘Ghost Train to the Eastern Star’. His descriptions are no less vivid than before. Excellent reads – especially when we can’t go on our own or with another until ‘lockdowns’ are a thing of the past.

‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ (1975) and ‘Ghost Train to the Eastern Star’ (2008) by Paul Theroux

‘He has done our travelling for us brilliantly’ (William Golding). ‘Relaxed, curious, confident, surprisingly tender, Theroux’s writing has an immediate, vivid quality that gives it a collective strength’ (The Sunday Times).

Levison Wood’s ‘Walking The Himalayas’ was voted Adventure Travel Book of the Year at the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards 2016 and he has gone on to explore many other places like the Silk Road, the Nile, the Americas and Arabia. The TV series which accompanies the books is illuminating, in some cases being filmed by Levison himself – both the good and the bad. Wood is a former paratrooper, who was out in Afghanistan. He also has a history degree.

Levison fits in naturally with local people and their culture, exploring the history of wherever he is and giving you the reality of the dangers and risks in how he travels – there is a natural seam of spirituality about our planet and its peoples that runs through his journeys because of the way he writes. He’s honest and brave, a risk taker capable of making lasting friendships on his travels as well as being astute enough to avoid being murdered in certain situations. He makes us understand the rest of the world better and has gone to places I would never be able to go, so widening my horizons too. Books to immerse yourself in with the added interest of the TV series.

‘Walking The Himalayas’ and ‘Eastern Horizons’ by Levison Wood, with colour illustrations

The next book is an enormous treat for anyone who takes it up. Written by Tom Michell, it’s a unique real life story about a young English teacher in South America and his meeting with a penguin.

‘The Penguin Lessons’ by Tom Michell

It’s a sublime read, which will always have a special place in my heart. Be enchanted – laugh and cry – and fall in love with the penguin. This is a story to lift your spirits, especially at this ‘lockdown’ time.

‘Sweet Bean Paste’ is by Durian Sukegawa and translated from Japanese by Alison Watts. It’s like a miniature painting about unusual friendships that arise from learning how to cook high quality ‘dorayaki’. Like understanding symbols in a painting, it opens up new treasures. The whole is deceptively simple, poetic prose, softening the harsh reality of life with a world full of cherry blossom. Delightful and thoughtful with a perfect front cover (this is what first caught my eye) by Pietari Posti.

‘Sweet Bean Paste’ by Durian Sukegawa (2017)

If you find you like this book you may also like another Japanese quirky story by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot), called ‘Before the coffee gets cold’. Told through a visit to a certain old back street café in Tokyo, which has been serving good coffee for over a hundred years, it explores what you would change if you could go back in time and also who would you want to meet again for one last time… it’s a tempting offer by the café owner (with risks attached).

‘Before the coffee gets cold’ by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (2019)

I just finished another contemplative book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Hisham Matar. ‘A Month in Siena’ evokes a place that has captured his heart since he fell for Sienese painting as a young man. Finally, twenty five years later, he gets to stay in Siena and pursue his dream. Deeply thoughtful and beautifully executed.

‘A Month in Siena’ by Hisham Matar (2019)

At the moment there’s a lot of talk about ‘rewilding’ our countryside, maybe partly brought to the fore through ‘lockdown’, which has meant more people have turned to the countryside for long walks, whilst working from home. Also, there are a lot of beautifully filmed TV series about nature and the environment which, often unwittingly, we are systematically destroying – watch the David Attenborough programmes, ‘Springwatch’ and ‘Autumnwatch’ brought to us by Chris Packham and ‘Countryfile’, which we watch every Sunday evening on BBC. It’s not all doom and gloom – we can still make the world a better place – but we actually need to do it right now.

A recent programme which I recommend to destress in this modern busy world, noisy and breaking the speed limit with with technology, is ‘The Last Igloo’. It follows one of the last hunters in East Greenland with his dog sledge and shows how he must build his own night shelter – an igloo – on his hunting expeditions. Spoken by him alone in Inuit with subtitles, it certainly gives pause for thought. We follow him through pristine, silent snowfields, leading me to think how fragile life is – and how beautiful. We, need to stop and think and to some extent, change our ways if we want to preserve our planet. Not a book, but it strikes a powerful chord.

‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree is an inspiring read of the return to nature of a British farm. ‘A hugely important addition to the literature of what can be done to restore soil and soul’ (The Guardian). ‘This joyful, poignant memoir tells the story of exhausted land becoming a rich ecosystem again, and in doing so, forces us to rethink farming.’ (The Times- ‘Books of the Year’).

The first chapter tells of Ted Green, who gives a fascinating eye opener on the survival of oak trees. I learned an enormous amount about how the natural world works as an ecosystem, what goes on underground that we are not aware of and how we are, unknowingly and gradually destroying it. Look up the Knepp estate in West Sussex from where Isabella Tree and her husband handed their 3,500 acres of exhausted farmland back to nature. It’s exciting, important and full of hope. Wildlife is thriving there once again.

‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree

On the environmental theme I much recommend ‘Green Swans’ by John Elkington, which challenges industry to an enormous system change, now very urgent. It’s a positive book aimed at business but it also concerns all of us who benefit by using energy of one kind or another. We all need to understand the immense changes about to come into our lives and move with the times, whether we like it or not. Again, it’s not all gloom and doom …

‘Green Swans’ by John Elkington (2020)

‘Green Swans’ is inspiring and positive – we need to hold on to those words at the moment but more than that, we must act now if everyone is to benefit.

‘John Elkington’s prescription for a new way of doing business – one that nurtures the “Green Swans” of the future – could not come at a more crucial time. As we race towards a doomsday scenario where we do irreversible damage to our planet, we have to urgently set the reset button’. (Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever and now co-founder and chairman of ‘IMAGINE’, who writes a foreword to ‘Green Swans’.

Linked to the book is the story of Sacha Dench, who flies with swans (watch her astonishing video) and the sculptor, Nicola Godden. Find out more on John’s website – john@volans.com.

An audio version of ‘Green Swans’ will come out in 2021.

As this strange Christmas season approaches, I’m finishing with a traditional English offering from Laurie Lee – ‘Village Christmas’. We need comforting.

‘Village Christmas: And Other Notes on the English Year’ by Laurie Lee

And given that food has a special part to play in this festive season, two new books have just been published. I haven’t yet read them but they both look delicious …

‘Scoff’ by Pen Vogler (2020) and ‘The Food Almanac’ by Miranda York (2020)

I hope that even if you only read one of the books I’ve suggested and enjoy it, I’ll have made a small contribution to someone’s Christmas holiday. Season’s greetings to all.

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Harbingers of Autumn ‘At Home’

Holidays cancelled or changed to the UK only. Some people got away over the summer but testing for Covid-19 brought hassle to airports and a hasty return from places like France to catch the last trains home through the Channel Tunnel before restrictions were put in place. Some of us stayed put – but reluctantly.

We wore masks to go into shops – hand sanitiser awaited us at the door. Some people couldn’t contain themselves when it was still warm and sunny and a photo of sunbathing crowds on Bournemouth beach showed that ‘social distancing’ was being completely ignored.

We preferred the calm and relative solitude of Richmond Park and Kew Gardens on our doorstep.

Kew Gardens

The warm weather continued as we enjoyed having lunch outside in our own garden. We had planted nettles after watching Chris Packham on television, urging people to leave wild corners to encourage natural habitats – particularly for insects, which aren’t always visible. I remember as a child seeing swarms of midges dancing in the sunlight and was aware that they didn’t seem to be around so much now. Few butterflies this summer, mainly white, a tiny blue, a brimstone, a comma, two peacocks and a lone red admiral – there are industrious bees but less of them – I must plant more bee loving flowers next year.

We watched David Attenborough’s film, ‘Extinction’, telling us that so many species in the wild had declined disastrously since the 1950s. We’re on a downward path … and yet there are good stories too. A great way of keeping up with both the bad and the good is to watch ‘Countryfile’ on Sunday evenings (BBC). It’s a window on what the rest of the country is doing, especially if you live in a city. There are a lot of inspiring projects and people out there …re-wilding is the word of the moment … both in cities and the countryside. ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree who talks about the Knepp estate in Surrey where she lives is an inspirational read. What she and her husband continue to do is impressive.

nettles caught in the evening sun
eucalyptus leaves and a small spider’s web
Japanese anemones – windflowers
the last apple – full of juice
a splash of sunflowers
Mexican grasses

I bought these dried grasses in the hopes that their upsurging habit would cheer me through the next few months. I had a bunch of alstroemeria in the kitchen and when it began dropping its petals I saved the few blossoms left.

complementary colours
our own ‘strawberry’ grapes

These grapes have pips and are small, yet have a great flavour. They cover one wall of our house. We juiced them and the juice freezes well. I’m using it to cook with Bramley apples instead of sugar for an excellent ‘home made’ dessert. Just add cream… and throw in a few sultanas for good measure.

It was time to stretch our legs and enjoy exploring further afield. Close by we have the river, the Common, our ‘village’ pond and its inhabitants – and even a welcoming Côte restaurant.

Bordeaux clock

This clock is shaped like the trays that bring food to the tables in Bordeaux restaurants. I’m missing crossing the Channel, eating French food, immersing myself in the ambience of a country I know well. But at the moment France is out of bounds. However, our local restaurant by the pond serves French food and has the atmosphere of a ‘brasserie’. And it’s still open! * But, as it turns out, not for long, with a second lockdown on the way …

OUT AND ABOUT

The weather is unstable – either fiercely wet and windy with a low grumbling of thunder, followed by flashes of sunlight, and sometimes an unexpected and welcome perfectly clear blue sky day … I have purchased a wonderfully ‘fits in your pocket’ raspberry coloured umbrella from Peter Jones. It weighs hardly anything and can also be used as a sunshade – one of my favourite, successful ‘buys’. It also comes in blue and blows in and out without disaster when assailed by sudden gusts of wind.

changeable weather patterns

The river Thames is five minutes walk away and we cross over Barnes Bridge to the Chiswick side. The tide is going out. It smells of the sea – where it came from.

Barnes – the outgoing tide
Barnes Bridge – good spot for mudlarking?
on the shoreline
Barnes – evening light

There’s a small reservoir called ‘The Leg O’ Mutton’ by the Thames in Barnes, which makes for a great forty minute stroll around it – good to fit into a ‘lockdown’ day.

Leg O’ Mutton reservoir by the Thames in Barnes

Many herons can be seen perched on wooden rafts in the water. Their nests, in a huge plane tree, are very rough and ready – but enjoy great views over the river and the reservoir. I counted fifteen +.

One end of the reservoir often dries out in summer and has massive reed beds.

reed beds, Barnes
fallen leaves in a pool after rain …
Is it edible? I’m not sure but I won’t risk it!
Autumn leaves

The roads in Barnes are quiet and empty of people, except for the High Street and Church Road, where the shops offer almost everything you would need in lockdown. My formidable Scottish aunt said you could survive very happily on porridge, herrings and potatoes – and possibly a secret ‘wee dram’ – mine being red wine … and not so secret …

Strolling over the Common with conkers and chestnuts underfoot …

spiky
I’m going to plant this conker

Although we wear masks in all the shops and on public transport – otherwise, I don’t for the most part – spiky coronavirus lurks even though you can’t see it – I am reading a book about microbes …’I Contain Multitudes – the microbes within us and a grander view of life’ by Ed Yong. It’s fascinating and very readable. Best to know about them as you can’t get away from them. They inhabit everywhere – even inside you! We wouldn’t survive without them but sometimes some of them kill us. Such is life on this planet …

a witchy tree near Barnes pond
ripples on Barnes pond
Barnes – trees by the pond
Bright sun on Barnes Common – October 2020
Egyptian geese and mallard ducks – Barnes pond
Barnes pond – towards the end of the day

On the way home I buy a pumpkin for Hallowe’en. A small one will do as this year we may not get many visitors – I buy some ‘mad meerkat’ gums for ‘trick or treat’ – just in case and end up eating most of them myself …

Homeward bound …

I used to buy a swede or a turnip to make the Hallowe’en creepy mask but it’s much easier to carve the pumpkin.

a bit of a rough cut – but suitably scary to fend off witches on broomsticks

It happened to be a full moon on Hallowe’en and I somehow managed to get this photo, which surprised me – the night sky must have been very clear!

man in the moon

And so we carry on into November and the Trump nightmare we hope against hope to avoid …

face mask
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The Thames at Wallingford … time for a change

We have a chance of three days away as lockdown is lifted – for the moment. Where to go, especially as coronavirus was still ‘out there’ ? It had to be less than two hours drive from home and by a river, where we could walk and take a picnic. If it rained a lot, we needed to stay somewhere with a large enough room, where we could read in comfort.

I spent a couple of hours searching on the internet, getting sidetracked and eventually swooping down on Fyfield Manor in Benson, next to the airfield, outside the town of Wallingford.

Fyfield Manor
Fyfield Manor – lily pond
Entrance to Fyfield Manora lion graces each side …

This house is the oldest in south Oxfordshire and was once owned by Simon de Montfort in the 1200s. It has been extended over the years but we had breakfast in the oldest part, at a long, polished elm wood table. I’m curious to think of the people who have passed through here – Simon de Montfort probably wouldn’t have been eating avocados, which we had on toast with eggs.

Fyfield gargoyle – don’t stand under here!

The apple trees were heavy with fruit. A stream with secret inlets ran through the gardens.

Fyfield Manor – secret garden
Fyfield Manor

The fading light still held the warmth of a summer evening as we made our way on foot through a small ‘nature reserve’ to our first supper ‘out’ since March – at ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ in Ewelme. A white egret soared above us.

Watercress beds at Ewelme

We explored these watercress beds that run through the village before succumbing to the delights of fish and chips with a long Peroni beer. The warm ambiance of this country pub with cheerful waitresses was such a special treat.

Night fell suddenly as we navigated our way back to the manor. Darkness is quite different in the countryside – it can suddenly surround you, hem you in – making you feel you’re not quite sure of the way home. The trees become witchlike in the wild wood, strange noises of nocturnal creatures break into the cloaked silence. Another treat awaited us in the form of a large and comfortable bed.

Twilight

Our room was barricaded off with sanitiser but we had both a sofa and wing armchair, with a tray of teas and coffee. Wifi worked well and I had brought with me ‘A Good Man in Africa’ by William Boyd – one of his I hadn’t read. His father was a doctor and he was brought up in Accra for much of his childhood.

The house is owned by a family and next morning the tinkle of the piano somewhere downstairs by the children and their play in the distance reminded me of the film we had recently watched again after a long time. ‘A Room with a View’, based on the book by E.M. Forster. Very enjoyable.

We woke to sunshine. Thinking we should make the most of it, as the weather forecast was for rain, we were soon parked up by the river at Wallingford, a ten minute drive away.

The Thames at Wallingford
The Thames at Wallingford – marigolds

Children were swimming by the bridge, which still includes the vestiges of the original one.

summer holidays by the river
walking by the river’s edge
blue boat at Wallingford
well endowed figurehead

Walking along the river bank, an electric boat came into view. It’s in the middle of the photo with a canopy and can take six to eight people. The cost is about £50 an hour.

Electric boats for hire – see centre of photo

There are fields along this part of the Thames path.

Fields by the Thames at Wallingford
The Thames path
Wild flowers by the Thames, Wallingford

On our way to explore the town John saved a bewildered peacock butterfly that had flown into the church. We met a man who said he often found dead ones among the pews.

church aisle
sunscape window
flower basket by Wallingford bridge
net curtains with a twist
Wallingford – the marketplace

It was time to find a picnic lunch. We ended up with bread, cheese, mango and water melon. Simply delicious, sitting in an idyllic spot by the river watching boats of all shapes and sizes coming and going. Thinking of Mole and Ratty by the riverbank, and ‘Three Men in a Boat’. Rivers in summertime have a very calming influence. I could sit here all day.

just messing about in boats …

Wallingford is a Saxon fortified town and its earthwork ramparts were built in the late 9th century as part of a defence against Danish attack. By the 11th century it was the most important town in Berkshire and a castle was built by William the Conqueror which became the most important in southern England. Wallingford is one of only four towns mentioned in ‘Magna Carta’ in 1215.

In the 17th century, Wallingford castle was a major Royalist stronghold before surrendering after a twelve week siege in 1646. Cromwell, fearing that it might be used against him in the future, had it demolished and now only the impressive earthworks remain. We spent the afternoon exploring them. From there you can walk down to the river. Today they are known as the Castle Gardens and are a wonderful place to sit, walk and play. We saw some small boys climbing a steep hillock and sliding down the other side with whoops of joy.

It is worthwhile to spend time strolling around the town with its picturesque houses, shopfronts, churches and pubs. The Castle Gardens and the river walks are all close by one another. This is a great way to learn more about our history …

colourful old wall
exploring …
part of the castle gardens – Wallingford

The earthworks are big enough for cows to graze here …

We returned to the river bank to see a narrow boat mooring, which was full of bicycles and young people streaming off the boat into town. This must be a travel company that specialises in ‘boat and bike tours’.

Wallingford – boats and bikes
boathouse, Wallingford
I used to like sending and receiving postcards … 🙁 – it’s a lost art
returning to the car park via a children’s playground

It was now definitely time for tea and biscuits, followed by curling up on the sofa with my book (which is fabulous!), with no other responsibilities that I could think of. Bliss. Slept well.

The weather hadn’t broken although the skies looked as if the predicted storm might be getting closer.

unpredictable weather …

However, next day John wanted to go a little bit upriver to Shillingford, where his parents spent their honeymoon.

The Thames at Shillingford

We walked past quite a lot of moorings, some very modern, sleek crafts and others, old fashioned, neglected and full of cobwebs, looking as if nobody had visited them for a long time. I now sometimes feel a bit ‘out of the swim’ too. I don’t mind too much because there’s still a lot of enjoyment to be had here and there. There are advantages to being older – and I’m grateful to have even got here, having just read Bill Bryson’s book on ‘The Body’ – but I don’t count it among my favourite things!

Some girls were swimming and loving it – a tempting thought. The river looks very clean and inviting. I should take the plunge …

swimmer at Shillingford

There’s an enterprise called ‘ The Earth Trust’, which is taking in small parts of the low lying meadows and creating backwaters from the river for wildlife to thrive in.

Teazles by the Thames

We passed through groves of Himalayan Balsam, which is pretty in pink but also a massive pest. Not as bad as Japanese Knotweed – but pretty bad, as it spreads like wildfire and suffocates native plants.

a grove of Himalayan Balsam
Heaven!
a cornucopia of reeds

Woke up in the night to sheet lightning, followed by rain.

Next morning dawned with a grey drizzle but the sun was struggling to come out. We decided to go to Dorchester as that’s where the river Thame runs into the Thames. There was a chance to visit the Abbey too.

Dorchester-on-Thames
Side chapel – Abbey – Dorchester-on-Thames

The village was silent and empty. Many shops were closed, including Lily’s Tea Room. We just happened to park outside it and I was disappointed that tea, cakes and gifts were not on offer. The Abbey Museum was closed too. The graveyard was beautiful. Silent except for the welcome buzz of bees. A very English country churchyard.

cottage in the graveyard, Dorchester-on-Thamesphoto by JE

We wanted to see where the river Thame runs into the Thames. It’s a walk across fields, past an ancient site called Dyke Hills, which is a rare example of a pre-Roman town. Sheep were grazing peacefully as we passed on the way to the confluence of the rivers. The Thames Path joins up here at Thame Stream Bridge. The Thames, having more muscle than the Thame, pushes its flow backwards but the water inexorably floods into the bigger river.

It’s so quiet here – only one or two boats passed by. The Sinodun Hills rise up on the opposite side of the Thames. It looks a steep climb to Wittenham Clumps on the top. Maybe on a summer’s day with the wind in our hair… another time.

where the river Thame runs into the river Thames – photo by JE

As we made our way back through the fields to the bridge at Dorchester we met a man with a backpack doing a serious hike. I’d like to walk a part of the Thames Path but I’m impressed by the people who take on the whole of it. I must find a book about it instead!

We were homeward bound, stopping off at a herb farm, where I bought a pot of lemon verbena. The map noted a mysterious place called ‘The Maharajah’s Well’ – worth a visit. A strange story. It’s near Nettlebed.

notes on ‘The Maharajah’s Well’ – photo by JE

Nettlebed also has an excellent dairy, which was featured in a recent programme on BBC – ‘Countryfile’. If we’d known about it then, we would have dropped by and picked up some of their delicious butter and hay rolled cheese.

Onwards to Henley, where we went out to lunch with a friend. She has a beautiful arbutus (strawberry tree) in her garden. I commented on it and such is her generous nature, one appeared for us on our return home.

This was a welcome three days away. I now want to take one of those electric boats on the river. A return trip to Wallingford is on the cards.

A summer’s day in Wallingford

PS Three photos by John as the battery in my camera failed!

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Two lovely men

I talk about these two men in my biography on this site. However, I recently came upon their obituaries when I was looking through old photos and wanted to celebrate the time I spent with each of them. I loved them both.

I had the good fortune to be personal assistant to John St John at Heinemann in the early 1970s. He had his own list within Heinemann and often allowed me to meet the authors. Some of the stories are in my biography. I felt that finally I had found my niche – Heinemann was in Curzon Street in Mayfair and I was able to walk there from our flat in Ebury Street, Victoria.

I ran past Buckingham Palace, through Green Park and via Shepherd’s Market to work. At lunchtime, I’d rush to Berwick Street market in Soho to buy food for supper – Johnny often went to The Reform Club to meet people for lunch. Publishing was very badly paid but full of interesting people coming and going. I was lucky to have spent time with J St J and I learned a lot along the way.

Our list incorporated Peter Drucker on Economics, an Auguste Escoffier reprint of ‘A Guide to Modern Cookery’, a book on ‘Biofeedback’ (for which I was a guinea pig) and ‘The Thousand Petalled Lotus’ by an Indian monk, which got me into trouble! More on this in my biography …

John St John died suddenly of a heart attack, having recently retired. He had just finished writing a history of Heinemann. By then I had left publishing to have our first daughter. It came as a terrible shock. I still miss him.

As I do Oliver Caldecott, who had been at Penguin. He and a colleague, Dieter Pevsner (son of Nikolaus Pevsner), along with David Harrison, set up a small publishing house in Floral Street, Covent Garden, called Wildwood House. I arrived in 1975 as P.A. to Olly on a salary of £2,300 pounds a year.

joining Wildwood House

We published ‘Alternative London’ written by Nicholas Saunders, who also set up Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden with a wholefood shop. This proved very successful and he then added a dairy, a café and an ‘apothecary’, offering alternative natural remedies. Neal’s Yard continues to survive today – they also have a fabulous cheese shop and the walk-in massage rooms are much recommended by me. Look up more about Nicholas Saunders and Neal’s Yard on Wikipedia.

Other books I remember are ‘The Tao of Physics’ by Fritjof Capra, ‘Radical Technology‘ by Godfrey Boyle, ‘The Drovers’ Roads of Wales’ by Fay Godwin and Shirley Toulson, books by Studs Terkel writing about ordinary working people in America, ‘The Unexpurgated Code’ by J. P. Donleavy and ‘The Tao of Love & Sex’ by Jolan Chang.

Jolan Chang lived in Sweden. He came in one day with some special ‘seeds’ which he offered to us (three women) as he said they were aphrodisiacs. We weren’t too keen on his attentions, so finally he flounced out saying that Swedish girls were better lovers. We did publish the book though.

Oliver Caldecott – obituaries
a wonderful obituary by Giles Gordonliterary agent
Oliver Caldecott

Whereas John St John enjoyed the Reform Club as his go-to lunch venue – and publishers enjoyed daily lunches in those days – Oliver’s choice was Poons at 41 King Street, Covent Garden – known for such clientele as Mick Jagger and Barbara Streisand.

One uplifting thing about ‘lockdown’ is that I have had time to look back and remember those good times. I hope there will be a few more!

END

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‘The Mirror & the Light’ by Hilary Mantel

These ‘coronavirus’ months at home began with feeling anxious. It settled down into a routine, restful at times, restless at others. Gradually, lockdown started to become tedious and I became desperate to achieve something other than domestic chores – all necessary but many of them repetitive, made worse by not much of a change of scene or social encounters. I don’t like long chats on the phone, Zoom was an alternative but ultimately unsatisfactory, so reading and writing, both of them top of my list in ‘normal’ life, enjoyed more and more of my time.

I read ‘Wolf Hall’ some years ago aboard a Turkish gulet, sailing along the Lycian coast. It took me a while to get into it but something suddenly ‘clicked’ and I was on my way. The second book, ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, didn’t need any support from the first. I was already captivated and rushed straight in.

Instead of adding my own comments here, I ask you to read what the critics said about both those books, which are listed at the front of both ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’. Many of them are very insightful and I would be surprised if anyone who reads them doesn’t immediately immerse themselves in the books.

The last part of the trilogy, ‘The Mirror & the Light’, finally arrived and given my own sojourn in the ‘tower’ during lockdown, it seemed to me to be the very best time to attempt the 900 pages confronting me.

back cover of ‘The Mirror & the Light’

Hilary Mantel lists the cast of characters and their connections to one another at the beginning of each book, along with family trees of the Tudors and their rivals. You need to make yourself familiar with all of this before starting to read if you don’t have a good knowledge of English history.

I’ve now finished the trilogy and I feel like a door has closed. The endpapers wrapping around ‘The Mirror & the Light’ show the sinister Traitor’s Gate at the Tower of London. I have survived the blood and guts of the Tudor Court and I realise we have a living genius in our midst. This is literature that will last. I am mesmerised, entranced – it is as if Hilary Mantel has gone back to Tudor times and, as an emissary, reported back to us in 2020. As Rachel Cooke in ‘The Observer’ noted about ‘Wolf Hall’ – ‘I loved ‘Wolf Hall’, but I was spooked by it too. The voice is so true: I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell’.

Of ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, Jeremy Clarke of ‘The Spectator’ said ‘I am looking forward to being hideously spellbound once more’.

endpaper of Traitor’s Gate, the Tower of London

This is, (I hardly like to call it fiction), based on excellently researched historical fact. It’s like old footage of black and white films suddenly being transformed into colour and life. And then you realise that these people were just like us in their emotions, which often overcame common sense and led to ultimate disaster.

The religious and political bonds with the rest of Western Europe were both intimate and paramount in dictating how Henry VIII behaved both in war and in wives. ‘Catholics and Protestants alike hamstring politics, breed hatred, burn, torture, eviscerate, all in the name of God’ (Peter Green TLS).

Women were bartering tools, often used to gain wealth in land or possessions and not only with the king. If they could not produce a son and heir, they were usually got rid of – sometimes brutally. The Court was a lavish but dangerous place to inhabit – ‘ladies’ did not escape being beheaded too. Cromwell rose to be Henry’s Chief Advisor but he knew he walked a fine line, and would one day probably miss his footing.

When he is investigated for treason you look back in the book and see how threads are woven together to make trumped up charges stick – they are like fine silver and gold chains left to their own devices, hidden in a dark drawer, which tie themselves into knots and cannot be undone. As he became more and more powerful, the Lord Privy Seal failed to keep a sharp eye on his adversaries, some of whom he counted as ‘friends’. But would Cromwell have wanted to take over from Henry as Regent had the right circumstances arisen? I think so.

Cromwell was tough, acquisitive as befitting his position, promoting his family, all the while being aware of his aristocratic enemies who envied him and desired his downfall but he was also thoughtful, with a real eye for the beauty of the natural world and its seasons.

I walk down a street that I now know Thomas Cromwell would have walked down in the mid 1500s in London – and it’s a weird feeling. I’m on the look out for a flash of that orange coat, long gone but orange is still a favourite colour.

Colour, taste and smell infiltrate these characters, these places, the food, the small details of daily life in Tudor times. Hilary Mantel has created both a mega and micro world, which is totally immersive to the reader.

I can’t do better than recommend (again) reading the critics listed quotes at the beginning of the first two books. There is no point in me adding to these brilliant comments. Instead, I’m just going to put down a few descriptions which I found magical in ‘The Mirror & the Light’ and which will, I hope, encourage you to take up the 900 pages!

‘The king wears green velvet: he is a verdant lawn, starred with diamonds.’ He is young, fit and handsome.

Later on, when Henry has become obese and diseased … ‘The king’s beard bristles. He looks like a hog’s pudding about to burst its skin.’

‘In his (Cromwell’s) chamber the air is sharply scented: juniper, cinnamon. He takes off his orange coat’.

In the kitchens …

‘At his feet, eels are swimming in a pail, twisting and gliding; interlacing in their futile efforts, as they wait to be killed and sauced …..

a ceramic eel, given to John

The eels come in, presented in two fashions: salted in an almond sauce, and baked with the juice of an orange. There is a spinach tart, green as the summer evening, flavoured with nutmeg and a splash of rosewater. The silver gleams; the napkins are folded into the shapes of Tudor roses …’

This could also be an image of the Court – the rewards of the flesh, the riches to be gained, the honours to be had but all for a price – some may wriggle out of being beheaded but many will bear the fate of a cruel death before their time … or many years of imprisonment.

‘It is an aromatic custard in a white dish. He saw the gooseberries earlier, tiny bubbles of green glass, sour as a friar on a fast day. For this dish you need fresh hens’ eggs and a pitcher of cream; you need to be a prince of the church to afford the sugar……. The custard quakes in waves of sweetness and spice. ‘Nutmeg,’he says. ‘Mace. Cumin.’ ‘And rosewater.’

And with a final flourish, he freckles the cream with slivers of almonds and a drop or two of elderflower cordial.

Followed by sweet Venetian cakes, often made with ‘syrup of violets’.

Read page 164/5 just for the prose poetry of it.

There are small phrases – ‘a glance rinsed with rage’, ‘eyes like deep ponds on a still day’, ‘striated clouds like bales of silk’, ‘what maggots of ambition might be burrowing into the mind of the Duke of Norfolk’. An exquisite description of plums on page 681, fruits the size of a ‘baby’s heart’.

Cromwell reflecting on his youth, ‘scenting the staleness of soiled straw and stagnant water, the hot grease of the smithy, horse sweat, leather, grass, yeast, tallow, honey, wet dog, spilled beer, the lanes and wharves of his childhood’.

Hans Holbein is the Court painter. ‘In answer to his (Cromwell’s) summons, Master Holbein comes. He trails with him traces of his occupation: the scents of linseed and lavender oil, pine-resin and rabbit-skin glue’.

The Tudor Court is held up as a ‘dark mirror’ to our own world. We haven’t learned enough from mistakes made in the past. Or maybe Mantel’s ‘astonishing insight into human psychology (much of it extremely nasty)’ ( ‘The Spectator’) means we are not able to evolve as we should into a higher understanding of our place on the planet.

Just as the Traitor’s Gate endpapers enfold the book, so does the river Thames contain the city of London in its winding flow, the water reflecting times past and present, storm and calm, rain and sunlight, night and day.

…’so I won’t see August, he (Cromwell) thinks. The hares that flee the harvester, the cold morning dews after St Bartholomew’s Day. Or the leaf fall, the dark blue nights’ …

When Hilary Mantel had finished the final paragraphs of ‘The Mirror & the Light’ she went to bed and after a very disturbed night awoke to find that her print portrait of Henry VIII had fallen off her wall.

END

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The Vaults at Waterloo

I didn’t know that these underground tunnels which spider out from Waterloo station even existed. They have been turned into an arts space, which include an underground theatre. Spooky bars with shadowy characters in dark corners made me feel I would never see daylight again.

Oddly, we came upon a family we knew well, who live outside of London. One of the daughters is at Goldsmiths Art College. We enjoyed a drink together in the expectant gloom.

Making our way to the underground theatre through snaking passages and stairways, we arrived to hear the physicist, Jim al-Khalili, talking about his new science fiction novel, ‘Sunfall’. I love his science programmes on television and radio – he’s an excellent presenter. John bought a copy of his book.

The entrance to The Vaults is on Leake Street, a walk south from Waterloo station. I felt I’d entered a wormhole to the 1960s, given the alternative ‘arty’ welcome. The walls of the tunnels are alive as they suck you into a black hole.

starlight cat

This is my favourite ‘graffito’.

behind the screen they can see you …

This is what unnerves me about computers …

man of mystery …

but at least there’s light at the end of this tunnel.

someone to keep at arm’s length …
in a while, crocodile …

This was a bizarre experience – a rendezvous with ‘creatures of the night’. Mind expanding is good!

END

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‘Faces’ on Ludgate Hill by Emily Young FRSS

Walking up Ludgate Hill from Fleet Street, I was about to cross the road towards St Paul’s Cathedral … when

ancient and modernruler

this stopped me in my tracks … and there were more!

warrior
philosopher/poet
athlete
writer

I don’t know what these sculptures represent and so I’ve just put in my own interpretation of the faces. They are magnificent.

‘Emily Young is Britain’s greatest living stone carver’ (Financial Times 2015).

END

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Soap/sapo/sabun – a short history of soap

Sales of soap have rocketed during ‘coronavirus’. A gift of soap has always been welcome – our forced early return from Greece in March, Covid-19 snapping at our heels, had six bars of orange scented olive soap tucked into my luggage, which were happily received by friends.

soap from Greece – 2020

I began to think of the origins of soap, the word coming from Latin ‘sapo’. I looked up ‘soap’ in many different languages and nearly all begin with ‘s’ or a soft sound.

The earliest recorded evidence of soap dates back to 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. A formula for soap – water, alkali and cassia oil – was found written on a clay tablet about 2200 BC.

It’s commonly thought that the process of soap making came from Arabic chemists in the Levant region (of which Aleppo is a main city) and to have moved westwards to Europe after the early Crusades.

Both animal fat and olive oil have been used in soap making. There is also a plant called ‘soapwort’ (saponaria officinalis), which when agitated in water makes a foam, and is a mild cleanser of clothes. It’s also called ‘Bouncing Bet’ – which was a nickname for a washerwoman. However, it’s quite poisonous, so shouldn’t be ingested or used for personal hygiene.

Olive oil rather than animal fat was used in making ‘Aleppo’ soap and the addition of aromatic plants like lavender, germander, yarrow and thyme gave it a pleasant smell. It was said the soap was used by Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and Queen Zenobia of Syria. Besides using olive oil and lye, laurel oil was infused.

soaps – colours and fragrances

As soap making developed, coconut, safflower, sunflower, avocado and argan oils were among others substituted.

Laurel oil was in short supply in Europe and so it was finally dropped there. I’m not sure whether this was a good idea, as looking up the properties of laurel oil – laurus nobilis – I find it impressive! It is a natural antiseptic used in aromatherapy and is also antimicrobial, anti fungal and anti itching. Good for beards and shaving? It is also said to clear mental confusion and clarify thought processes – something a number of us seem to need nowadays …

Soap from Aleppo in liquid form containing laurel oil

And then there’s the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne, ‘daphne’ being the Greek name for laurel. It was a fairly extreme decision that the gods took for this poor nymph to help her escape his clutches! To find out more, look up the painting called ‘Apollo and Daphne’, attributed to Piero del Pollaiolo (approx 1441 – 1496), now in The National Gallery in London. Digression … but I like promoting a favourite painting – this one is quite unusual.

A laurel wreath in athletics wrapped around the head symbolises victory and is still used as a symbol in the Olympic Games. Maybe artisanal soapmakers in the West should look into adding laurel oil into their soap once more.

‘laurus nobilis’ – sweet bay laurel

Soap was also made from animal fat. About 1,000 BC there’s a story (unproven) that Roman women were washing clothes in a tributary of the Tiber on Sapo Hill, below a religious site, where animal sacrifice took place. The clothes became very clean because of animal fat soaking through wood ashes and into the clay soil, which was then washed down river. Maybe just a story but soap was on its way for the Romans.

Apparently, the ruins of Pompeii from 79 AD revealed an entire soap factory. I don’t know if archaeologists would be able to tell what ingredients were used. I’d like to know! At least four baths were found there too. The Romans were renowned for their love of bathing. I may have some Roman genes …

The Greeks also knew about soap from the 1st century AD when they used lye and ashes to clean their pots and statues. But personal use of soap came later.

After the Fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th C AD, the tradition of bathing entirely disappeared from Europe – ( how could this be!) The baths they had built, for example in Bath, in England, unused, fell into decay. Poor hygiene helped to bring on a thousand years of uncleanliness, encouraging several waves of deadly plagues – most notably the Black Death in the 14th C. It was only much later that soap raised its sweet smelling head again.

Actually, the original soap made with animal fat smelled very unpleasant and the discovery of ‘Aleppo’ soap from the Middle East was a great improvement all round. This soap is still made there in the same way today and I bought some in the bazaar in Aleppo some years ago. The laurel oil gives it a slightly spicy, medicinal after note. It is muted green in colour, turning to brown with age.

As this soap slipped along the trade routes of the Silk Road and flowed along the Mediterranean by boat to the West, various changes happened. Soaps could then be made specially for bathing, shampooing and laundry.

This revolutionised personal hygiene in Europe – how did they manage without it all these years? Why did bathing fall out of fashion when the Romans left? It doesn’t bear thinking about!

Soap really was an important lifesaver used regularly. When I was a child, my father (a doctor), always said that washing hands with soap and hot water was a good preventative measure to keep the community healthy. I’ve always been keen on preventative medicine, maybe from listening to him.

Italy (Savona), France and Spain were keen to make their own type of soap, based on the ‘Aleppo’ soap. ‘Castile’ and ‘Marseille’ soap keep these names today from the places where soapmaking started on a major scale in Europe.

Both these soaps are made from pure olive oil and latterly from vegetable oils too in Marseille. They are renowned for their particular mildness. I have bought ‘Marseille’ soap in Provence and visited one of the factories where it’s made – a sight worth seeing. As well as olive oil, it included sea water and alkaline ash from sea plants. Soap for laundry had a different recipe from that for personal use.

soap both for laundry and personal use

Today I buy a soap called ‘Le Petit Olivier’, which has several fragrances and provides both bar and liquid forms. It is natural and completely biodegradable, reasonably priced and very mild.

liquid soap
soap factory – Salon en Provence

The region of Castile in Spain has an abundance of olive groves. They made a bar of soap which was also very mild and effective and in addition was pure white. This became extremely popular with the royal houses of Europe. But it took much longer before soap could be afforded by the general populace.

Even now, Castile soap is one of the best natural and biodegradable soaps on the market that can be manufactured by hand. It is used both for the body and laundry and doesn’t lose its potency after time. It is also used to bathe the sensitive skin of babies. Although there is a bar soap, much of it seems to be sold in liquid form today.

Britain was laggardly in offering soap to the general public. It was only made in the UK commercially from the mid 1800s.

The rich were able to buy soap before this but it was a luxury item and a ‘soap tax’ was even introduced between 1666- 1714, which meant it was even more out of reach for the majority of people. Maybe that’s where the phrase ‘the great unwashed’ comes from?

Today we have such a choice of soaps on the market and many types of ‘luxury’ soap are given as gifts. That doesn’t in the least suggest that the recipient needs to wash … !

The soap industry now extends into all sort of ‘health’ and ‘beauty’ products made for bathing and the bathroom.

‘luxury’ soap from Italy
exotic scents from Kew Gardens (does contain accredited palm oil)

Andrew Pears started making a high quality transparent soap in 1807 and his son-in-law opened a factory in Isleworth, London in 1862. Pears soap still exists today.

Pears transparent soap
good value but does contain palm oil

William Hesketh Lever and his brother James bought a small soapworks in Warrington in 1886 and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses – formerly called Lever Brothers and now called Unilever. They have expanded into many different products. Pears soap is now owned by Unilever.

B J Johnson was a soap company that changed its name to Palmolive because the name of the soap became so popular. However, today palm oil is beginning to be shunned in products for environmental reasons. The growing of palm oil plantations has led to the destruction of ecologically valuable rain forest.

Adding soap to water lowers the water’s surface tension. Making water molecules stick together less is what helps soaps clean clothes and other things more easily. I’m not a scientist but it’s worth exploring this side of soap/detergent.

Liquid soaps became available in the early 1900s, which made cleaning things other than skin, like clothing, floors and bathrooms, easier. This developed further into detergents, used in washing machines and dishwashers.

Most of us now use soap products every day of our lives and I realise how appalling it would be to live as we do now without this indispensable discovery! Of course, some people might argue with that – just keep a safe distance!

delicious fragrance

And with more and more emphasis on protecting the environment, we want a soap to be natural and biodegradable.

artisan ‘gift’ soap from Ireland

For everyday use, I like the soaps below, which can be bought in ‘Holland & Barrett’. Most organic soaps have paper packaging, which can be recycled – but not all as yet.

well priced and recommended

There’s a big revival for attractive, ethical, artisanal soaps with a vast choice of fragrances – a gift that doesn’t destroy our environment and is a treat to receive. I am a big fan. Soap lifts my spirits. I feel clean and pampered – and all from just something I can hold in the palm of my hand.

small orange ‘guest’ soap – Italy

Here’s a short list of eco soaps I have used and can recommend. There are many more of these ‘artisan’ (handmade) soaps to be discovered.

  • www.handmadenorfolksoaps.co.uk
  • drorganic.co.uk
  • ecobeautyshop.com (Eric Renard and Xavier Padovani are founders of ‘Le Petit Oliver’ soaps).
  • www.madaboutnature.co.uk

Thank you to Wikipedia and ‘soaphistory.net’ for being ‘soap’ mines of information.

The pleasures of using and giving soap

END

PS If you run out of toothpaste, soap is a great alternative!

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Marmalade

Working from home during ‘coronavirus’ lockdown has meant that toast and marmalade, which we usually only have for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays has been added to our normal weekday fare of yoghourt with cereal, fruit and nuts.

Our best choice is ‘Duchy’, organic thick cut but we’ve had to cast around when that wasn’t on the shelves. There’s quite a difference in quality and I became interested in how marmalade came into being in the first place.

It seems that historically marmalade was made of quinces and the word comes from Portuguese – marmelada.

In 1524 Henry VIII received a ‘box’ of marmalade from a Mr. Hull of Exeter. This was probably solid quince paste from Portugal. It was often flavoured with rose water and musk, or ambergris, then cut into squares like Turkish delight and packed into boxes – hence Henry’s ‘box’.

Quince paste is still available – more popular on the continent – it’s an interesting addition to cheese and biscuits. I find it goes particularly well with Manchego cheese.

There’s a note in Samuel Pepys’s diary on 2nd November 1663. ‘Left Mrs Hunt and my wife making marmalett of quinces’. In England in the seventeenth century citrus fruits became more plentiful because of foreign trade.

In James Boswell’s book ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’,(published 1791), there are various references to marmalade. In a letter he writes to Johnson, Boswell says, ‘My wife is much honoured by what you say of her. She begs you may accept of her best compliments. She is to send you some marmalade of oranges of her own making’.

Marmalade, as we know it today, is a sort of jelly consistency, containing the juice, pulp and citrus peel of oranges, lemons, limes or grapefruit – or a combination of two or three. I remember my mother making ‘three fruit marmalade’ for the RNLI every year – maybe 200 pots of it – sitting in serried ranks on the dining room table, ready for the stall on ‘Lifeboat Day’. She also made apricot jam, adding fresh apricot kernels, which was delicious.

The best marmalade is made with bitter oranges from Seville. Cooked with sugar, the taste is both sweet and sharp. The favoured ‘Duchy’ marmalade has a robust taste and the peel is satisfyingly thick, with lots of it.

Marmalade got its jelly quality rather than solid ‘paste’ by pulling it from the heat earlier. Using whole oranges, lemons and sugar with the acid of the lemons helping to create pectin, ‘sets’ the jelly. Nowadays, you can just add ‘pectin’.

The peel should be evenly distributed throughout the jar. To achieve this at home, you should leave the marmalade after its setting point to cool and thicken for fifteen minutes before pouring into the jars.

If you want to look further into marmalade, there are stories, (which are unproven), like the one of Keiller’s Dundee marmalade, which was the result of oranges taken from a shipwreck and made into marmalade, no doubt laced with sea water – or search for the (unproven) link with Mary Queen of Scots, ‘Marie est malade’. Go to Wikipedia, which is a mine of information.

Edmund Hillary took a jar of marmalade up Everest in 1953. Captain Scott took jars of it to the Antarctic in 1910. A solitary jar was found, buried in the ice, years later.

Fortnum and Mason used to sell marmalade in tins, rather than jars. Today they offer a wide range of flavours, including ‘kumquat’ and ‘rose petal’.

English and Scottish migrants took marmalade to Canada, where it remains popular – but it didn’t hit the spot in the U.S.

Paddington Bear always had a pot of marmalade in his brief case and sometimes a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat to keep him going. Sadly, his creator, Michael Bond, died last year but the books and films survive – to the delight of both children and adults worldwide.

This photo might tempt you to sit down with toast and marmalade at breakfast time. Funnily enough, I never want to eat it at any other time of day.

marmalade made with bitter Seville oranges – delicious!

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Lockdown – a view from my study window

The weather in mid-April seemed to range from one extreme to another – damp and cloudy to bright, hot and sunny, still and serene, to windy, gusty and sometimes stormy grey, with raindrops obliterating themselves, almost like machine gun fire, at the window. ‘Coronavirus’ keeps me ‘safe’ at home and I watch these weather patterns, with a cup of black coffee for company.

You notice changes in the weather much more when you’re looking out at your garden all day, sitting at your desk watching the aeroplanes being substituted for flocks of crying seagulls, cooing pigeons, cawing crows, chittering magpies swooping here and there instead of the regular flow of heavy machines on course for Heathrow. One afternoon I looked up and as a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, it made my day …

The beginning … mixed weather patterns
zooming down – clematis montana
cloud closing in …
like a giant dollop of Cornish ice cream

now sporting a jaunty cap

And then came a fierce gust of wind, followed by a flinging of raindrops in my direction, hitting the window with full force – and I caught them, reflected against the cloud.

raindrops are falling

Maybe I should be sending this on to The Cloud Appreciation Society! Anyway, it brought inspiration to my next writing project.

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