Hollyhocks in Britain – ‘Roses trémières’ in France …

I’ve often tried to grow hollyhocks (alcea rosea) but with little success. And yet I’ve seen some growing eight feet high in places where you would think nothing would survive. For instance, against a high wall in full sunshine, their roots presumably finding water below a hard, arid, gravel surface.

Hollyhocks, Nassau Road, Barnes

The Anglo Saxon name was ‘holy-hoc’ or holy mallow. A plant from the Holy Land. Gerard, who wrote his Herbal in 1597 knew hollyhock as ‘Malva Hortensis’, part of the Malvaceae family, related to common mallow, rose of Sharon, lavatera and tropical hibiscus.

Hollyhocks were probably introduced to Great Britain in about 1573, although they are mentioned in a poem in a manuscript much earlier. Most likely they hailed from China, via the Silk Roads to Palestine. The seeds would have been brought to Britain during the Crusades.

In France they are known as ‘roses trémières’ – coming from ‘outremer’, meaning from ‘overseas’. Again, from China via the Middle East. The flowers range from shades of burgundy to scarlet red, pink, yellow and white.

Hollyhocks – painting by Caroline Elkington

Unfortunately, hollyhocks succumbed to a rust disease, which spread across Europe and cultivation was almost abandoned by the end of the nineteenth century. However, they have revived and are again an eye catching stalwart of English cottage gardens and even cityscapes. They seed themselves quite easily.

I found that mallow, a related shrub, also part of the Malvaceae family, symbolises health, love and protection. Mallow’s medicinal properties include guarding against TB and inflammatory diseases. It makes me happy to know that these shrubs have flowered magnificently in our front garden for over fifty years – a close cousin of hollyhocks with the same tendency to take on different colours. Another garden nearby has a beautiful blue one.

Mallow as a shrub
Like hollyhocks, mallows come in different shades and colours
Mallow – close up

A couple of years ago I was in Dieppe with my sister and brother-in-law. I’ve never seen such a profusion of ‘roses trémières’ and other glorious flowers, which border the shingle beach – as prolific as all the parked cars. Should they have been triffids, the cars would have been swallowed up. Yet another reason to visit Dieppe, with its castle, picturesque ‘centre ville’ and a house and garden designed by Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll nearby.

‘roses trémières’ by the beach, Dieppe

roses trémières’ in Dieppe – note the castle in the background
a bushel of scarlet ‘roses trémières’ by the sea
‘roses trémières’ Dieppe – toutes directions …
‘deux chevaux’ with ‘rosees trémièresbackdrop – Dieppe
Dieppe – the beach

Maybe hollyhocks flourish better in the sea air. Then what about the ones in Barnes? Well, the Thames is a few minutes away and is slightly salty …

Hollyhocks and ‘roses around the door’ spell out the epitome of English cottage gardens and cream teas – yet their origins are from so far afield.

Cuppa tea?

Just as I feed my mallow shrubs on tea leaves and coffee grounds, which come from plants that continue to grow thousands of miles away … yet coffee and tea are now staples of our daily lives. How would most of us manage without them?!

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I bought a painting of Sarah Bernhardt at the Maas gallery … and found out so much more …

About two years ago, I was walking along Bond Street and noticed a very pretty, small gallery at the bottom of Clifford Street – The Maas Gallery. The painting in the middle of the window which drew me in was of waves – spectacular but sadly, way above my price range. However, I was happy enough that they asked me to leave my email for future exhibitions they might have.

MAAS GALLERY – photograph taken by the owner

In lockdown last October I had a message to say the gallery was moving to bigger premises in Duke Street, St. James’s, after sixty years. Out of curiosity, I looked up the exhibitions they had shown in recent months – one was called ‘In Good Company’. Looking through it, I came upon a pencil drawing/watercolour of the actress, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), by Walford Graham Robertson (1866-1948).

On looking him up, I found that he was a contemporary and friend of John Singer Sargent, who had twice painted Robertson’s portrait – one of him in an elegant, long coat. Robertson himself was also a good friend of Sarah Bernhardt and another actress, Ellen Terry – he painted portraits of both women – the one of Ellen Terry is in the National Portrait Gallery, here in London.

It was as much these connections that motivated me to buy the Sarah Bernhardt painting – as well as being at a price I could afford. It’s a small panel painting – Sarah is looking romantic, standing in a fern filled garden with a dog at her feet. The framing is particularly suited to it.

Sarah Bernhardt by Walford Graham Robertson (1866 – 1948)

As well as being an actress and sculptress, she acquired an amazing menagerie of animals, whom she adored. They included a lynx, a parrot, a boa constrictor, a lion, a tiger cub, three cats, several birds and dogs, a jaguar, six chameleons, a chimpanzee called Darwin and two alligators – one of whom died of a surfeit of champagne.

champagne rainbow

The other alligator was shipped to her apartment in Paris. As it was being unpacked in its drugged state, her Manchester terrier went to see what was going on. Its furious barking awoke the sleeping reptile, who unfortunately made short work of said dog.

Sarah Bernhardt ordered that the alligator be shot – she had the head stuffed and put on the wall of her apartment, with a notice underneath. ‘My beloved little dog – his tomb’.

Alligators – by John Singer Sargentbook cover

Rupert Maas, the owner of the gallery, had told me that Walford Graham Robertson (WGR) had written a book – ‘Time Was’ – a collection of reminiscences of his famous and celebrated contemporaries in art and literature, many of whom were also good friends – John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Oscar Wilde, Ellen Terry, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry James, Henry Irving, Count de Montesquiou – to name a few … later on in his life, when Robertson moved for the most part to the Surrey countryside, he met Kenneth Grahame, of ‘Wind in the Willows’ fame. The links are so many.

Diverted by extraordinary stories of alligators, I now returned to tracking down ‘Time Was’ and a trawl through Abe Books threw up a copy in very good condition from Jacques Gander, an antiquarian book dealer. A lucky find.

‘Time Was’ – the reminiscences of Walford Graham Robertson

Robertson comes over as a very likeable, observant and thoughtful individual, modest about his own talents – he was a prolific painter, illustrator and writer and did both sets and costumes for the theatre – and he was obviously dearly loved by many of his friends and acquaintances of the time. The more I got to know about him while reading ‘Time Was’, the more keen I was to own this painting he did of Sarah Bernhardt.

I would have liked to have known WGR. He was knowledgeable and curious about finding things out, a lover of art and books and the theatre but also somebody who was a good listener, interested in other people, kind, intelligent and not seemingly self centred. A joy to spend time with, in fact …

On the back of ‘Time Was’ are comments by critics. J.C. Squire of ‘The Observer’ writes, “His book is a delight to read and I think that it will leave many readers with a feeling that I have myself, namely, that one would rather go round the world with the author than with many of the famous people whom he writes about.”

Opinions by the critics on ‘Time Was’

‘Punch’ writes “His whimsical and sensitive impressions of studio and stage are the unique commentary of an artist, and dramatist sufficiently masterly to be loved as one of themselves by painters and actors and sufficiently the ‘prentice to return the love with a certain self-effacement and veneration.”

Others mention his humour, his ‘bouquet of wit and kindness’ and “as for good stories the book bubbles with them.” He may not be remembered himself today but John Singer Sargent asked to paint his portrait. Whistler, who was known for his faint praise of other artists – and I quote from Robertson’s book, ‘Once – only once – he (Whistler) really liked a painting of mine, a small portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, and I remember him carrying it about the room, putting it in various lights and ejaculating at intervals – “No, but I say – eh? – isn’t it – eh? – isn’t it – pretty?” – and the word ‘pretty’ was not used opprobriously.’

I wonder if that is the portrait I now have? I like to think so. I found it difficult to get a good photo and, like Whistler, carried the picture around, looking for the best lighting. He probably did a better job …

I was also interested in the fact that Robertson became obsessed with William Blake and collected many of his drawings and paintings. Blake was born in 1757 and one of his books ‘The Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ still sells today.

Blake was a creative polymath and poet, a philosopher whose thoughts on scientific understanding made him prophetic about such discoveries as the atom. He would also have experimented with all types of drugs and was wildly extreme with an unusual sex drive. He often read aloud to his wife in the garden, both of them naked. I remember a story about two women who used to race around Soho with large pairs of scissors, cutting off anyone’s long locks who came into view. Blake would have found this eccentricity very entertaining.

Most of all, he was a ‘futures’ man, who instinctively saw ahead of his time.

Songs of Innocence and of Experienceby William Blake (1757 – 1827)

And the fact that WGR loved Blake and collected so much of his work makes me find him even more fascinating as a person. Robertson bequeathed his collection of Blake’s work to the Tate Gallery on his death in 1948.

As all this was coming together, I spoke by chance to someone I worked alongside at Oxford University Press in the early 1970s. She recommended reading ‘The Man in the Red Coat’ by Julian Barnes, which is about Samuel Pozzi (1846 – 1918), a French society doctor and pioneer gynaecologist, born in Bergerac, France, who lived out his extremely successful professional and complicated personal life against the backdrop of the Parisian Belle Epoque.

The Man in the Red Coat’ by Julian Barnes

And the first reason for including him here is, like Robertson, he also had his portrait painted by John Singer Sargent, wearing a glamorous, long, red robe, which Julian Barnes analyses in a very entertaining way. And, secondly, Pozzi and Robertson both knew Sarah Bernhardt.

I wondered if Robertson and Pozzi ever met, although there is nothing to suggest in ‘Time Was’ that Robertson ever went to Paris, even though Sarah Bernhardt lived there most of the time. But Pozzi did come to London. Julian Barnes starts off his book recounting a time when Pozzi and two friends (Count Robert de Montesquiou and Prince Edmond de Polignac) came to Liberty’s in London – Pozzi to buy both furnishings for his house in Paris and tweed material for his suits.

WGR became good friends with Sarah Bernhardt. In Paris, Samuel Pozzi also became good friends with her – she called him ‘Docteur Dieu’ as he did at least one operation on her. She often called on him for medical advice and it’s more than possible that he became her lover for a short while. Moreover, they continued, like WGR, to be friends for life.

But what really intrigued me about Pozzi was the rich and full life he led and, surprisingly, how few enemies he made during his life in this age of the ‘belle époque’, as he moved confidently among the ‘glitterati’ of the art and theatre world.


As a doctor/surgeon, he was talented, admired and celebrated by his peers. He was tall and handsome, had married into money, his wife, Thérèse Loth-Cazalis, being the daughter of a railroad magnate. He was also a collector of paintings, sculpture, tapestries, books, fine furniture and interesting objects from around the world. He had good taste. And overall, he seemed to be blessed with a very well balanced personality, using all his talents and charm to great advantage. He advanced the progress of medicine in many ways and he should be remembered for that alone.

Paris – stone lion, Place des Vosges

I became more and more intrigued by Pozzi. In his desire to learn more about and improve medical procedures, he made trips both to the U.S. and to Brazil and Argentina to visit hospitals and was astonished by the quality of medical care in those countries. He was curious, outward looking and determined to find cures for all kinds of illnesses, so as to relieve human misery. He also kept in touch with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, New York, set up initially by two brothers from Lancashire, England.

His first trip to Britain in 1876 was to attend the British Medical Association’s conference in Edinburgh, where he met Joseph Lister and learned about the sterilisation of wounds, operating theatres and of surgeons’ hands. This opened up a lifelong series of exchanges with European and American colleagues. Pozzi worked for thirty five years at the public Lourcine-Pascal hospital in Paris, putting all the information he gained into practice. At another hospital, the Broca, he got his artist friend, Georges Clairin, who incidentally was also a close friend of Sarah Bernhardt, to make a huge wall painting. Today, we try and make hospitals more friendly to patients. Pozzi maybe planted the seed of this idea. The results of all his researches made him very well known in his field and he was fêted and celebrated during his latter trips to the U.S.

As a surgeon, he went on to specialise in gynaecology. It was rumoured that he had affairs with many of his patients but there is no hard evidence to support this. Pozzi was discreet about his private life although, especially through his daughter’s diaries, we hear that his marriage was not happy and that during the latter part of his life his house in Paris was divided into two parts. He lived in one and his wife, her mother and the children in the other. They never divorced. However, Pozzi was seen with his mistress, Emma Sedelmeyer Fischoff, on many occasions as they travelled around Europe together.

Pozzi was a Darwinist, a man of science and reason. His wife was from a deeply religious Catholic family and much influenced by her mother, who lived with her and found Pozzi unacceptable. Perhaps that is why the marriage was bound to fail. I like to think though that Thérèse’s fortune was put to good use by her husband. He was a phenomenon and I would very much liked to have met him.

Paris – toujours créatif, toujours original …

A two volume treatise on ‘Gynaecology’ which Pozzi wrote was very well received and probably helped to make him the first person to be awarded the First Chair in Gynaecology in Paris in 1884. Later on he became a military surgeon in the First World War. He was also for some years mayor of Bergerac in south west France, where his family came from. He seems to have possessed enormous energy and drive, along with all his other talents – a trait I envy!

And yet this man also made time to enjoy the good things in life to the full and I feel, unlike many men of his type, who are often too egotistic to have true friends, he did have close relationships with both men and women and appreciated their various creative talents. He looked out at the world, he wanted to make a difference for good in his field and he also seemed approachable and relaxed – he loved life, he embraced opportunities and gave as much as he took.

Robertson and Pozzi are quite different personalities but I find I am drawn to both of them, even as they were both drawn to Sarah Bernhardt … and John Singer Sargent was himself drawn to paint the portraits of both men.

‘The Man in the Red Coat’ by Julian Barnes is beautifully produced and is full of fascinating characters and anecdotes. A much recommended read.

Singer Sargent’s father was an eye surgeon, his mother (née Singer), an artist. They lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts and ended up living in Paris and other European countries, leading an itinerant and peripatetic lifestyle. This move from the U.S. happened initially because of a girl child that died aged two years old and led them to have a change of scene.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy. Ultimately, this decision would be advantageous later on, given both his artistic talent and the connections he was able to make. Singer Sargent was also a good linguist.

I’d love to go back to that period as an invisible onlooker, tracking down all these people and their professional and personal links to one another. Impressionism was on the rise and in later years Singer Sargent left portraiture, which had made him a good living, for landscapes painted in oils and watercolours.

Evan Charteris wrote of Sargent’s watercolours in 1927 – ‘To live with Sargent’s watercolors is to live with sunshine captured and held …’ These pictures have also captured and held me ever since I saw them first. I know who I am when I look at these paintings – Singer Sargent is my ‘Docteur Dieu’!

Book cover

I bought a painting – and it unlocked a treasure trove. It’s in my bedroom to remind me that we all have our short time in the light and to remember others of a different era, who shone brightly for a short time – some of them for longer.

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‘Wilding’ the garden – Chris Packham style …

After watching Chris Packham (Springwatch) on television, we decided to let our (small) lawn grow wild this year – except for a narrow path, (which I snipped with scissors), running through the middle, so I could get to the washing line. It meant that in the morning my feet and ankles were covered in dew – I got to like this, knowing we were offering a home to lots more insects. For the first time in ages I saw an earwig – it fell from one of the drying sheets on the line into the grass. Just as well I didn’t meet it in bed!

Insects have declined by 75% in the last fifty years. Without them, the planet ecosystem will not survive and that means we won’t either. In 1963 Rachel Carson’s book, ‘Silent Spring’ warned that the amount of pesticides being used was destroying not only insects but soils too. More recently, climate change has highlighted this.

To know more, read ‘The Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse’ (£20) by Dave Goulson, who is a professor of biology at the University of Sussex. He has also written a book on the different types of bees and founded the ‘Bumblebee Conservation Trust’.

We are slowly waking up to the reality of our depleting ecosystems but we need to act much faster. There is still hope as long as we manage to convince most people of the danger in time and get many countries involved in regeneration. Nature doesn’t recognise man made borders. We have a difficult task ahead but more and more people, both young and old, are taking up the challenge. A programme to watch on Sunday evenings is ‘Countryfile’, which really helps to understand what is going on and how we can all make things work in new ways.

Going wilder
A jungle of colour …
Mimosa and rosesnot exactly wild but both very beautiful
Wild foxgloves
The bottlebrush plantCallistemon – which is hardy and drought friendly
enough to make a daisy chain …
Nettles drenched in evening sunlight

Certain types of butterfly lay their eggs on the underside of nettles. We imported a few plants and they have multiplied – somewhat aggressively!

Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly …

Not exactly wild – but a great favourite of bees and a strongly fragrant perennial.

Some plants are seen as weeds, partly because they arrive unannounced and grow so freely that they become invasive – like alkanet. The bees love the intense blue flowers but their rough and hairy leaves, tough tap roots and greedy nature need a firm hand. Plants like herb robert and the frothy white blossoms of the herb, sweet cicely, come back each year and are welcome, as is the evening primrose, a tall and sturdy plant with creamy yellow flowers. Lady’s mantle loves to spread too, often with a dewdrop in the middle of its fan shaped leaves. They just choose where to show up, wherever suits them. I like that.

Someone gave me a few seeds of quaking grass, also known as rattlesnake grass because of the shape – like a rattlesnake’s tail. They have interwoven themselves with the geraniums. Nipplewort flew in and found itself a place under the apple tree. There is now an App on your phone which will give you the Latin and common names of any plant you happen to come upon. Brilliant!

quaking grass

Our mallow shrubs in the front garden were here before us, so must be at least fifty years old. They continue to produce hundreds of flowers in August/September, visited by bees. I give them tea leaves and coffee grounds, a prune in the Autumn and they reward me ten times over.

Mallow- a cousin of the more exotic hibiscus

Different types of poppies have appeared at random, their seeds blown in on the wind from other gardens, or from further afield. We had scarlet ones with black centres, huge mauve, pink and purple ones and the ubiquitous, smaller, yellow ‘Welsh’ poppy, which sews itself all over the place and doesn’t mind growing in between the paving stones.

I’d like to have enormous swathes of poppies – reminding me of paintings by the Impressionists. Opium, which they produce, and which is a powerful drug, shows the darker side of their history. Opium Wars. Addiction.

The poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Lt. Col Macrae, describes the poppies that grew on the battlefields after the First and Second World Wars, remembering those who gave their lives so that we might have better ones. The symbol of Remembrance Sunday is the red poppy.

This also reminds me of the famous lines from Rupert Brooke’s poem: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field, that is forever England.’ The ephemeral beauty of poppies which return each year in the French landscape are a timely reminder of thousands of senseless deaths. Poppies incite powerful emotions. And opium is addictive.

At this point, on a more cheerful note, I’d like to recommend Michael Pollan’s latest book, ‘This Is Your Mind on Plants: Opium – Caffeine – Mescaline’. The book is divided into three parts. The first chapter is about the poppy, ‘papaver somniferum’, from which he makes a tea and, unbelievably, tells the story of the criminality of growing poppies in the U.S.A. Ten plus years in jail! Just don’t fiddle with the pods …

It’s a great read – like having a conversation with the author. Caffeine, which concerns the second part of the book, has him sitting down outside his favourite café, with his ‘addictive’ cup of coffee. I’d love to join him but he then ‘goes cold turkey’ for three months, as an experiment.

Mescaline comes from certain cacti – I probably wouldn’t use this myself but after I’d read the book I knew so much more about poppies, coffee and tea and what certain cacti can produce – all of it fascinating.

Pollan’s also a bit of a wizard with words and a good communicator. He reminds me of an English journalist, Hunter Davies, whose book, ‘Happy Old Me’, made me want to invite him out to lunch. I find them both very entertaining and I’m sure would be welcome companions – in completely different ways.

‘Welsh’ poppy

I don’t have pictures of red and pale mauve poppies but there are plenty on the Internet. That’s partly because the flowers come and go so quickly and I didn’t have many. However, I dried the petals when I found them on the ground.

Mind you, not only the petals. The dried seed pods look very good in flower arrangements. Some pods are huge, the ones in the photo below are tiny by comparison. It’s what you might do with the seed heads that concerns the U.S. government. Floral decorations are happily exempt!

Welsh poppy with seed heads
Larger seed head of red poppy

That was something of a digression from wilding my garden but I hope it opened up some doors of perception …

I passed a neighbour’s house and gloried in the blue of her ceanothus in the rain. Not wild but again, perennial.

Penny’s Ceanothus
Anne’s roses in her front gardenseen from my study
Cranesbill/common geraniumthese spread across our garden unchecked …

It’s interesting to see what plants flourish and what disappear when left to their own devices … the monsoon rains this July, causing flooding in neighbouring houses with basements, followed by 30 degree heat, have made everything larger and more feral than usual. And the ancient apple tree is bowed under the weight of the fruit this year.

I hope we’re increasing our pollinators and making our garden more friendly for the diverse lives of insects.

Below is a photo of our roses, which have flourished in this wilder place, despite the advances of bindweed and nettles. A colourful and hopeful note to end on this ‘wilding’ ramble.

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Down by the river Thames – Barnes, June 2021

A quite exhausting day with the ever present, pushy Zoom in annoying evidence. In the early evening we escaped and walked down Nassau road towards the river, following a slight breeze, to rest our eyes and blow way digital cobwebs.

Something different and special was going on. The sun was deciding to call it a day, making cloth of gold reflections on the water and creating wonderful silhouettes of birds and boats. Many families of geese and goslings were circling the yachts. A swift, high in the sky, swooped down suddenly and disappeared into a hole by someone’s chimney stack.

Three yachts on the Thames at Barnes
Swans, geese and goslings caught in the evening sunlight
The river Thames with yachts and wild valerian

I think there must have been a race earlier on – maybe downriver. It was wonderful to see so many boats, just a few minutes walk from home.

sole yachtsman
The Thames – cloth of gold …

Home to a nautical supper of ‘moules marinière’ in a white wine sauce with new potatoes and steamed samphire. And a fresh baguette. Enough to make you forget about ‘Zoom’ – until tomorrow!

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Lockdown days

I’m trying an experiment. Some days I’m up in blue skies and other days I’m down in the mud. I decided to find something for each day of one working week to illustrate beauty and optimism in the world. I’m starting from home – looking at things locally, since we’re in lockdown. I don’t know how this will work out but it’s a positive step to relieve the ‘boxed-in’ feeling.

MONDAY Cold and overcast. The domestic chores of the day loom. Washing, hoovering, ironing. Making sure the recycling is outside in a tidy state for collection. The amount of cardboard packaging is alarming, having to depend on deliveries rather than go to the shops. Up at 7am with a hot cup of green tea. Good start.

beautiful bubbles – washing up!

A book I’ve ordered from Waterstones, ‘Klara and The Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro, arrives. The design, its colours and presentation, are terrific – they are by a Japanese designer called Toshiyuki Fukuda. It makes my day. I dip in to the first few pages and am reassured I will like reading it.

‘Klara and The Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

TUESDAY Dull and grey. I make an early morning visit to our local supermarket (five minutes walk away) with my wheelie bag. The staff are super friendly and helpful and I buy a big bunch of daffodils. A welcome note that Spring is in the air.

Daffodils – March 2021

Later on the car won’t start but the flowers give me the energy to ring the RAC. More dispiriting rain later but after supper I watch a fascinating TV programme about Çatalhöyük in Turkey, presented by Janina Ramirez and now designated a World Heritage site. It sends me to bed in an upbeat mood. I’ve learned something new.

WEDNESDAY Overcast and damp first thing but I have to go to the bank. The train is almost empty and it takes only six minutes to get there. On the way to the station I pass a massive mimosa tree in full bloom, which is gorgeous.

Coming home, a wind has blown up and I breathe in stormy gusts of fresh air as I walk across the Common, passing a swathe of purple crocuses and a wild black dog chasing an orange ball. The grass is a vivid green.

On Barnes Common

THURSDAY Lockdown can become very frustrating. Not seeing people face to face for so long makes me very lethargic at some level. A weird fog in my head. This gets much worse when it’s dull and cold with a heavy goosedown sky – like today. I can hear the muffled silence. I hope I don’t go deaf in later life …

In the morning I throw dried mealworms and sunflower seeds for the birds under the apple tree (brownie points) and they are soon pecking away in a greedy fashion. I chase away the magpies because they bully the little birds. The pigeons are making a nest in our bay tree. Birds are what remain of dinosaurs – (I mean, not counting fossils!).

The sun pushes out of the grey blanket at midday and we go for a walk in the park. I fall over in the mud and look as if I’ve wallowed in it like a pig but my jacket goes in the washing machine later on and is as good as new. I have a few scratches but got very close to nature 🙁

Later on, I was tidying up and found a cache of Nevil Shute books. Now reading ‘Trustee from the Toolroom’. He’s a great storyteller. It’s wonderful to find something like that by chance. Like a necklace down the back of a drawer you thought you’d lost. I’m hooked – it’s a good feeling.

Trustee from the Toolroom’ – Nevil Shute

FRIDAY Monsoon type rain swilling down the roof windows, followed by bright sun.

Mimosa branch in the rain – on the roofagain!

The sun wins out and we go for a local walk and see lots more flowers appearing, comment on peoples’ gardens and come home with some delicious baguettes for lunch with cheese and fruit.

An appealing cloud with a silver lining …

We’re going to have ‘moules marinières’ for supper with garlic, white wine and parsley, and new potatoes. A favourite. And so I come to the end of another week of lockdown. Some good moments have lifted the tedium.

And what could be nicer than being sent a very original bouquet of flowers from ‘Storm and Grace’ for the weekend. It contains Ladies’ slipper orchids, Fox grape fritillaries, Neapolitan miniature alliums and butterfly lavender with catkins and cherry blossom twigs about to bloom …

Flowers from ‘Storm and Grace’ for me!

Obviously, I did much more during the week but I can see that the special, uplifting moments mainly include books and flowers, looking up at the sky and learning something new … not to forget good food. It shows how much we depend on the natural world, not only for survival but for pleasure too.

The curiosity factor is big for me as I have always liked finding things out and learning new stuff. We’re lucky to have the Internet and TV as well as books nowadays. Mmmm … I don’t always love these gadgets tho’ … I miss writing and receiving letters.

I’ll finish off with one of my favourite quotes. It’s quite relevant in today’s world. Pause for thought …

‘A person hears only what they understand’ – by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – 1749-1832. You could add ‘sees’ as well as ‘hears’.

Exquisite poppy from ‘Storm and Grace’

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‘To a Green Thought in a Green Shade’

This is a line in a poem called ‘The Garden’, by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) and it came to mind as I explored a gravelled alley way between houses on a daily exercise ramble, passing by a garden fence.

There was a short piece by David Attenborough in ‘The Times’ suggesting how humanity’s relationship with nature could be repaired. Besides the beauty and wonder and diversity of Nature, we also depend upon it for our own lives – we need to breathe, eat and renew our bodies every day and as we damage the natural world, we also damage ourselves.

Fortunately, we are now slowly becoming aware of this and there is a small window of time to try and put things right. Nature can regenerate quite quickly if given the space to do so – we need to make this happen. And there are many individuals working on various schemes all over the world to achieve this regeneration.

DA suggests that we can also reconnect with our natural surroundings by stopping our busy schedules and sitting quietly for ten minutes – in the woods, in the mountains, by the sea, in our garden, even contemplating our houseplants… he says that extraordinary things happen, even in that short time – for instance, do you recognise that bird call? How many insects hove into view and do you know what they are?

I found ladybirds overwintering in the cracks of our sash windows … small black bees turning up in the house … a wasp’s nest, resembling a ghostly white football, prettier though, under the eaves. Even for those who don’t have any interest in the natural world, without the sun and water from rain, human beings would not even exist …

Maybe this year we’ll be able to travel again – think of being in a jungle, say in Costa Rica and seeing and hearing things for the first time that you knew nothing about. I’ve used DA’s article a lot for this piece, so I can spread his ideas further.

To return to my ramble and the prosaic subject of a garden fence. The sun was shining and catching the spaces in the fence with its rays.

Colours lift my spirits. The camera sometimes catches more than the eye can see and makes the ordinary extraordinary. I’m bedazzled and aware of how much I don’t know about our planet and how much I want to learn about it. All because of a walk … and given time to contemplate.

In the same way as people are keeping ways open for hedgehogs, we should keep our brains open to the natural world.

Hedgehog tunnel for travel between gardens …

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Ups and downs in the weather… a few local observations during lockdown …

Heavy rain, storms, floods, howling winds, followed by snow and ice, brilliant sunshine, extremes of temperature … small tornadoes have also been reported in different parts of the country. Climate change can’t be ignored any more.

Mimosa, which comes out in February, soaked in a heavy downpour …

Below are a few recent local photos of the Thames and Barnes Pond, showing the changeable moods in the weather. I’m aware that these influence my own moods too!

I’m a member of ‘The Cloud Appreciation Society’, set up some years ago by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. I’m letting you know just in case you think there are too many cloud panoramas here …

Cloud panorama over the Thames – January 2021
The Thames at Barnes towards sunset – January 2021
Sunset over the Thames at Barnes Bridge – January 2021

During lockdown we may only walk for exercise close to home. As well as walks along the river towpath, enjoying a fresh sea scented breeze in our faces, we are also getting to know a few of our neighbours’ front gardens more intimately, as we ply our course along quiet, residential streets.

Some front gardens still have shrubs and flowers but many of the larger ones have been paved over to house massive SUVs. This could save the price of parking permits but doesn’t save the environment. Maybe if you do this, you should also have ‘bee friendly’ pots of flowers and shrubs surrounding your charabanc.

Concrete is bad because producing it creates an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. Also, rainwater should be able to sink into the earth. Paradoxically, the more front gardens are paved over, the greater the risk of flooding.

Eye catching sunset clouds above Glebe Road, Barnes

Barnes Pond (‘rus in urbe’), makes for a green and pleasant, (socially distanced), rendezvous for grown ups, who sit and chat/read/phone on the surrounding wooden benches, which, in turn, are dedicated to various Barnes residents no longer with us.

Children whizz up and down on scooters and babies in their prams with mothers and nannies are drawn to the water’s edge – ten Egyptian goslings being the latest excitement.

If you go in the rain you are lucky enough to get it all to yourself …

A miserable, rainy day at Barnes Pond – February 2021
A dusting of snow – Barnes Pond – February 2021
Seagulls flying over Barnes Pond – February 2021
Ice covering Barnes Pond – February 2021

And then there was a fanfare of sunshine and blue skies …

Blue ice on Barnes Pond – in full sun – February 2021
Barnes Pond – pigeons wondering why they can walk on water February 2021

These are the days when being out and about beckons – but I also like walking, even trudging, in the rain – as long as I know the sun will return, and that home isn’t too far away. We are lucky to have seasons in the year.

Looking through a bookshelf the other day I came upon a book entitled ‘Since Records Began’ – the highs and lows of Britain’s weather, by Paul Simons. It was the first book to bring together all the extreme weather events in the U.K. since records began – something to dip into while in your warm and comfortable bed, when last week in Scotland -20C was noted, close on the heels of this week, which is reaching 14C or more in the south of the country. What other extremes are in store for us this year, I wonder?

An interesting record, full of fascinating facts
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Orlando – The Marmalade Cat

I dreamed of a handsome, ginger cat and the next day I saw him in the street, unconcerned, strolling along, a curious ‘flâneur’, busy with his day. He reminded me of Orlando, the Marmalade Cat – books I enjoyed reading as a child.

The series, starring Orlando, was both written and illustrated by Kathleen Hale, in a similar vein as we have Quentin Blake today. Orlando became very popular and was taken up by Puffin Books, the children’s part of Penguin.

Kathleen Hale was born in 1898 and died in 2000, aged 101. At one point in her life, she worked for Augustus John and knew many of the Bloomsbury set, enjoying a bohemian lifestyle. After the First World War, when she first came to London from the north of England, she delivered milk in Chelsea with a horse and cart.

House bound, keeping Covid at bay, I looked up Abe Books, a second hand book Internet site. And I found Orlando books. I chose a copy in ‘very good’ condition, where Orlando takes a trip abroad – some wishful thinking here on my part – and two days later he turned up in all his colourful glory.

Orlando – The Marmalade Cat – takes ‘A Trip Abroad’

I was thrilled. I also like Kathleen Hale’s sense of humour, which shows both in her writing and illustrations.

Orlando is at the seaside in England with his family. Being an inquisitive cat, he steps aboard a boat, which turns out to be a ferry, going to France. He makes friends with a sailor called ‘Albair’ (spelling!), who sets him up with a deckchair. He didn’t mean to go to sea!

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ !
Orlando – a French lunch on board
Orlando – a suitable hotel for a marmalade cat
Orlando enjoying the French night life …

His performance pays for a return ticket to England and quite soon he’s home again and ready for another adventure.

Orlando – the marmalade cat with gooseberry green eyes

Maybe lockdown makes me a bit nostalgic for the past. Why did I dream so vividly about a handsome ginger cat, which reminded me of the Orlando books I loved as a child?

Why did I happen to see a ginger cat in the street the next day? Why did one of our daughters unbeknownst, send me a photo of a cat she saw in her garden … who is also rather handsome … and regularly visits Heinrich, the goldfish, in his pond.

Lockdown produces its own mysteries … and unlocked some welcome memories.

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Covid Christmas 2020

Was it worth putting up decorations during lockdown for just the two of us? I didn’t buy a tree and was grateful for that because it seems such a sad waste of trees even though the glorious smell of pine forests infuses the air in your home for a short while. When I was a child, we had a cat who would make a beeline for the Christmas tree and sit in ecstasy in its lower branches every day, sniffing the pine needles and purring like a Rolls Royce.

This is my Scandinavian alternative, which took one minute to install and then a friend sent me a perfect bouquet – so we were all set for being home alone .

adding to the spirit of Christmas Eve

Christmas Day dawned with a bright blue sky – virtual greetings all round before making for the great outdoors and catching the sunbeams across the Common.

The sky on Christmas Day
sun and shadow
willow weaving with ferns and moss
Swanning’ on Barnes Green

It helps to concentrate on small pleasures at the moment … and to slow down and appreciate what Nature has to offer only a few steps from home!

A fox at the bottom of the garden last night, screeching like a banshee, emerald green, red beaked parakeets swooping and shrieking overhead, pretty goldfinches feasting on the niger seeds, and two bold little birds – a wren and a robin – that make sure they get my offering of mealworms under the apple tree.

Robin at Christmas time

The wren escaped me and ducked under the hedge – small and swift, it darts like an arrow … pfft …

simple and elegant
oranges with star anise and cloves – photo sent to me by an artistic friend!
oranges, red berries and pine cones
chimneys with a history … Barnes Common
Leg o’ Mutton reservoir by the Thamesflocks of seagulls and a heron
Barnes Pond – Egyptian geese with ten goslings

Two elegant Barnes residents …

enjoying the sunshine on Christmas Day
Barnes Pond
Our neighbour’s wisteria taken from underneath … could be the Mediterranean – but it isn’t!

And now we’re home again it’s time for a special treat …

Christmas presents

And a Christmas teatime …

The MOST ENORMOUS Panettone – from Lina Stores in Soho …

I had almost decided to send Christmas/Season’s Greetings online this year as the stamps almost cost more than the card now … and yet … and yet … I’m glad I didn’t succumb to the Internet because it was so lovely to have so many cards arriving with satisfying thumps through the letter box, some of whom came from people we hadn’t been in touch with during this Covid year. It made me really value both my old and new friends and that they were thinking of us as we were thinking of them.

A sample of Christmas cards sent for 2020

I have to mention that Robert Braithwaite Martineau’s (1826 – 1869) Christmas pudding is perfect – luscious and painterly on its glass dish.

Our TV series of the year, which we both thought was brilliant (this is a rare occurrence) was ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ on Netflix. We also found a programme with other singers and bands playing Elvis numbers and I became obsessed with ‘You Were Always On My Mind’ sung by Neil Tennant of ‘The Pet Shop Boys’, wearing a suit and tie. He just hit the spot for me.

Some of our musical tastes are the same and some not at all – at the outer end of the spectrum John is for Jimi Hendrix and I am for André Rieu (especially for Christmas). That leaves a wealth of bands and singers in between! I’m relieved I won’t ever be asked onto Desert Island Discs because it would be impossible for me to choose only eight!

There were lots of repeats on TV – extraordinary that Morecombe & Wise still make it for Christmas every year – but I love them. ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ – just sing it and hope!

Hello 2021 …

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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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