About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Spring awakening – #BlossomWatch

Holywell Bay beachYesterday I posted about the heart-warming sights and sounds of nature in spring. On Monday the most severe lockdown restrictions in England were lifted slightly: Mrs TD and I took advantage of the new rules and drove to Holywell Bay, near Newquay. Apart from longing to see the sea again for the first time in three months, I also wanted to find the holy well in its cave under the cliffs. Whenever I’ve been there in the past the tide has been high and the entrance unreachable.

View out of the cave

The only picture worth sharing: the view out of the cave on to the beach

It was a fine, brisk day, and there were surprisingly few people about. The tide was far out, and I entered the first sizeable cave and took a – not very good – picture. It didn’t look much like the images I’d seen online. On reflection I think this was not the right cave.

The right cave has a natural spring deep inside it, and multicoloured stains on the rocks, caused by the minerals in the rock over which the spring water drips. The holy well itself is named after St Cuthbert.

Legend has it that Aldhun, bishop of Lindisfarne and Durham, was instructed in a vision to transport the relics of St Cuthbert, the first bishop of Lindisfarne, to Ireland. He was blown off course, and ended up at what is now Holywell. He remained there long enough to build a church a mile inland at the village now called Cubert.

This story doesn’t tally with the well-known history of Cuthbert’s relics. The monks of Lindisfarne had to remove and hide the relics several times in the early middle ages to protect them from hostile forces, but the saint’s remains eventually found a permanent shrine in what became Durham cathedral. (I posted on several Cornish holy wells in the past; posts on Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert – link HERE.)

Folk legends have great potency, however; Aldhun is said to have had another vision in which he was told to take the relics back to Durham. While the saint’s bones were being removed from the cave where they’d been stored, they touched the rock-pool’s sides, thereby infusing them with their legendary miraculous healing powers.

Local people, and many from further afield, would bring sick children to the cave on certain auspicious dates to dip them into the healing waters, or to drink the mineral-rich water. Disabled people would leave their crutches in the cave as votive offerings after taking the waters. Stories of miraculous cures, like those at so many other folk shrines, circulated widely.

It’s a nice story, and the cave has a mystical feel to it – even if I was in the wrong one. I should have taken a torch.

Wednesday was Mrs TD’s birthday, and we were able to meet her sister and brother-in-law at a beach a short drive away and go for a walk – and a picnic on the beach in front of the Carbis Bay hotel. This is where the G7 conference will take place in June. Workmen were busy sprucing the place up in readiness. What an inspiring place to gather the world’s leaders to sort out the world’s mess. They could do with a bit of St Cuthbert’s healing influence.

St Ives gullWe moved on to St Ives, eerily deserted. After a short rest on a harbour-side bench, soaking up the warm sun, we passed a small group of strangely tame sandpipers, gossiping and preening on the pavement. My picture didn’t do them justice, so I won’t include it here. Instead here’s a rather truculent gull.

A sea-mist descended with the suddenness of a stage fog machine. Very Stephen King.

It was so good to feel the restorative power of the ocean and beaches again.

White blossomNext day I visited our local park to check on the progress of the blossom. This magnificent tree took my breath away.

So did the symmetrical perfection of this camellia flower.

PS added later: today is the feast day of a saint I’ve posted on several times in the past – the subject of my postgrad research – Mary of Egypt.

Camellia

 

 

 

 

A second year of lockdown walks

It’s the first of April, and spring is in the air: blackthorn, fruit-tree and other blossom and leaf-buds are bursting out everywhere, daffodils are thriving, and our first tulips opened in the warm sunshine yesterday. The national mood is still sombre and resigned to restrictions, but there’s hope with the successful vaccine delivery, and the heart-warming sight of nature reviving with the warmer weather.

I looked back at my April posts last year, when we were in the first weeks of the first UK lockdown, and I started to post pictures of the sights I encountered on local walks – especially the wild flowers, blossom, gateposts and holy wells – so there will be more of that as the anniversary of that time arrives.

Prunus blossomLast week we went to the local National Trust gardens, newly opened, and near enough to count as ‘local’. A lovely prunus was outdoing the beauty of the showy magnolias around it. ‘Oh,’ said a lady admiring it, and reading the label on the trunk: ‘It’s a prune tree.’

Magnolia bloomThe warm, late-March weather had encouraged the bees to explore what seemed to be every flower in the tree. I hope you can see the one in this next picture: it had stuck its head right inside the flower.

Prunus and bee

Late last week my walks were shorter; I’d injured tendons in my hip. So I revisited the path across the valley opposite our house.

This follows the river along the bottom of the valley. Two splendid horses graze in the third field. They are obviously used to the many people who pass by – they didn’t even pause to watch as I walked by.

Early this week, in the hedgerow of a lane I often walk along, I saw the first bluebell of the spring.

Bluebell

I think this is an English bluebell – the flowers seem to be clustered all round the stem

Next time, more blossom and a holy well. I’m also thinking about my next book post – on a Rose Tremain novel that I enjoyed very much, after a few depressing reads.

Horses

A royal bombinator

I was browsing my shelves a couple of weeks ago for something new to read, and picked up my OWC copy of The Eustace Diamonds – the next in the sequence of Palliser novels after Phineas Finn (which I posted about HERE last summer). After skimming through the foreword by the text editor, WJ McCormack, and the first few pages of the introduction, I decided I wasn’t ready in this enervating lockdown for an 800-page, small-print whopper. Maybe when the weather perks up later in the spring.

There was an expression in that foreword, however, that stopped me short. McCormack is writing about the book trade and the business of producing new, modern editions of Victorian novels like this one in OWC’s Centenary Edition of the Palliser novels. Here’s the whole sentence:

[This Edition] has not entered into the fabulously expensive business of establishing new texts which, with bombinating minutiae, often retards or replaces the reader’s engagement with literary history.

‘Bombinating’. The context makes the meaning fairly clear, but I still had to look it up. Here’s the entry in the OED online for ‘bombinate, verb, in current use’ (as always, I’m grateful to Cornwall’s library service for making this resource available free to members):

To buzz, make a buzzing noise.

[a1553    F. Rabelais ii. vii   Questio subtilissima, utrum chimera in vacuo bombinans possit comedere secundas intentiones. (In ridicule of the subtle discussions of the Schoolmen.)]

1880    A. C. Swinburne Study of Shakespeare (ed. 2) iii. 199   As easy and as profitable a problem to solve the Rabelaisian riddle of the bombinating chimæra.

1880    Daily News 21 June   The power of a chimæra bombinating in a vacuum to eat second intentions is scarcely less suggestive of a..solution.

Etymology: < reputed Latin *bombilāre, an erroneous reading (commonly accepted in medieval Latin) of bombitāre to hum, buzz, < bombus hum, buzz

The pejorative (and slightly pompous) sense in the McCormack sentence clearly chimes with that of the Rabelaisian citations here (I’ve resisted the temptation to explore that enigmatic quotation further; more detail is found at the Merriam-Webster site HERE: M-W links it to Greek ‘bombos’, from which derives the English ‘bomb’) – the (over-)subtle (or stringent?) textual forensics of academic literary scholars in editing texts by Trollope, giving too much information and thereby occluding the force of the text itself.

I was aware that the Latin bombus also signified ‘bumblebee’ – a word imitative of the buzzing or humming sound of winged insects in flight. Or so I used to think. Until I came across the Dec. 20 – Jan. 21 post on the OUP Etymologistblog by scarily erudite Anatoly Liberman (link HERE), which queried the sound-imitation notion (in a post that started off looking at the sounds and origins of the words kid, cub and bunny – it’s a brilliant blog for taking you down etymological rabbit (or bunny) holes), pointing out that the word possibly derives instead from ‘humble-bee’. OED states that another variant is the Harry Potteresque ‘dumbledore’.

Bufftailed beeCoincidentally the next morning ended a long spell of cold, wet weather and dawned sunny and warm. When I stepped outside my front door I nearly trod on a large bee. It was very somnolent – or sick. Anxious that it would be squashed by someone, I coaxed it onto a leaf and carefully placed it out of harm’s way in a flower bed. When I returned an hour later it had gone – so I hope it had revived its spirits in the early spring sunshine and taken off to do whatever it is queen bees do in the spring: start a new buff-tailed colony?

I contacted the excellent people at our local wildlife trust, who have helped with identification of various critters for me in the past (the last time I posted about it HERE: a magpie moth). A very helpful man called John emailed back the same day with the information that my picture was of a buff-tailed bumblebee queen (bombus terrestris), adding ‘one of our most familiar bumblebees and one of the first to emerge each spring. As you discovered, they can be very sluggish when it’s chilly and they are still warming up.’

John provided a link to his organisation’s website entry on this bee (link HERE), which included this lovely bit of information about it:

Buff-tailed Bumblebees are known as ‘nectar robbers’: if they come across a flower that is too deep for their tongue, they bite a hole at its base and suck out the nectar. Afterwards, other insects looking for nectar will also use this handy hole. [This entry also has a lovely picture of a worker bee in this family, which instead of a buff-coloured tail has a sort of grubby white one]

Although I decided against starting this Trollope novel in my present disengaged reading state, I’m gratified for this small but (to me) fascinating piece of information about the only true and original ‘bombinator’. And a queen, a royal bombinator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edmund Gosse, Father and Son

Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), Father and Son. Penguin Modern Classics, 1970; first published 1907

The subtitle of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son is ‘A Study of Two Temperaments’. But it’s not really a study of anything, let alone the temperaments of these two characters. It’s a sort of spiritual autobiography, as it tells of the author’s experience to the age of seventeen of being brought up by parents who were members of the strict, extremely austere religious sect the Plymouth Brethren. Both his father and his mother were biblical literalists and evangelical puritans, who considered fictional books sinful.

Edmund Gosse Father and Son cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘Self Portrait as a Young Man’ by G.F. Watts

Edmund was subjected from his earliest childhood to the interminable sermons and services in which his father led the small group of brethren. Reading the bible and the more serious hymns were the main diversions of Edmund’s childhood – though he did manage to smuggle in a little Strumpelpeter. The book describes his struggle to liberate himself from this stultifying education, and the development of his imaginative sensibility against these fearsome odds.

F & S is also partly a biography of his father, Philip, but not really that, either. Edmund had published a more conventional biographical account of the father in 1890, in which it seems a less monstrous portrait was given than the one in this book.

It shares more of the characteristics of a novel; scholars have pointed out numerous details that are simply invented – like the back story of his much-loved mother. His claim in the Preface to be ‘scrupulously true’ is hedged by ‘as far as the punctilious attention of the writer has been able to keep it so’. This is an early indication of the leaden prose style that I’ll come back to later.

In this respect (ie deviations from ‘truth’) it’s a bit like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, serialised in 1914-15 by Ezra Pound in the modernist literary magazine The Egoist; it began life as the autobiographical novel Stephen Hero in 1904, but this was abandoned and refashioned by Joyce. Both books relate the growth of the protagonist’s artistic character – but F and S could hardly be more different in style and tone.

Edmund’s upbringing was much harsher and narrower than Stephen’s in Joyce’s novel, although they both have to summon the strength to reject the dominant religious regime of their environments.

His mother died when he was young, and he was sent to a boarding school where he never settled in. Although his father, an eminent biological scientist, was clearly a loving father in some ways, his ruthless, bigoted insistence on his religious rectitude was chilling and traumatic for the sensitive boy.

It should have been a gripping read – and at times it is. His abandonment in Ch. 12 of biblical hermeneutics for another, literary interpretative system, is dramatically portrayed. His father’s crazed attempts to explain away the growing proof of Darwinist evolutionary theory are a source of embarrassment to his son – and the scientific community to which Philip belonged; these sections are fascinating and chilling at the same time.

But the prose style is the turgid Victorian type, and it makes for a mostly plodding narrative. There are some welcome lighter moments – as when young Edmund decides to forgo trying to proselytize his schoolmates, concluding he’ll ‘let sleeping dogmas lie’. He also tries some delightfully naïve strategies to test the power of his father’s jealous god, which lead him to deduce that this god isn’t all he’s cracked out to be. This is a classic account of a Victorian crisis of faith – although it seems Gosse never entirely abandoned his Christian faith; he simply rejected his parents’ extremist version of it.

The narrative ends when Edmund’s father, with the help of the Christian writer Charles Kingsley, gets his son (aged seventeen) a lowly post as a clerk at the British Museum reading room. There he was under the supervision of William Ralston, who was, as Edmund was to become, an advocate and translator of Scandinavian literature – especially of Ibsen.

Ralston, who was also a champion of Russian literature, introduced Turgenev to the London aesthetic scene. Gosse met the Russian novelist in 1871 at Ford Madox Brown’s salon, which was frequented by the likes of Pre-Raphaelite artists, and writers including Swinburne and William Morris. I wonder if Gosse would have read Turgenev’s novel about a young man’s rebellion against a father whose values he can’t share; even the title – Fathers and Sons (in most English translations) – is similar. Constance Garnett’s version, titled Fathers and Children, was published in England in 1895, and it’s difficult to imagine Gosse wouldn’t have read it. The basic stories are very different, but the father-son dynamic is equally problematic.

Constance Garnett was married in 1889 to the son of Richard, the keeper of printed materials at the British Museum where Gosse initially worked – another link in this literary chain.

Henry James was a friend of Edmund Gosse’s during his time in London in the 1880s. At first just casual, the relationship became more intimate over time – James thought Gosse amiable, ‘an endlessly amusing companion’, but ‘second-rate’, as Leon Edel has it in his Life of HJ. Edel sees Gosse as a flatterer, and describes it as ‘one of the most literary-gossipy friendships in Victorian annals.’ James is said to have quipped that Gosse had ‘a genius for inaccuracy’ – presumably referring to his literary biographies and criticism, but the point could also apply to F & S.

It’s a pity Gosse chose not to add a second volume to his account of his youth; it would have been interesting to hear his redacted, rosy-tinted story about how he became a middle-ranking man of letters who loved to hobnob with writers with genuine literary talent.

 See the excellent, informative post on F & S by Bookish Beck at her blog HERE

 

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong. Picador Books, 2015. Stories originally published in the 1950s and 1970s, I think

 I’ve read one Elizabeth Jane Howard novel, After Julius (link to my post HERE) – a rather melodramatic tale of tangled, thwarted love. I also know of her as the author of the four much-praised Cazalet novels, about the lives of middle-class characters, with the focus on the women (from what I’ve read about them). I was not expecting the hair-raising ghoulishness of two of the stories in this collection, therefore.

Elizabeth Jane Howard Mr Wrong coverThe title story, ‘Mr Wrong’ is about a car bought second-hand by a nervous, lonely young woman called Meg; it turns out to be haunted by a gruesome murderer and his victim – who starts to come after the callow, vulnerable new owner. The narrative and the story’s  title subvert with grim relish the trite social assumption that all a reserved young woman like Meg wants or needs from life is ‘Mr Right’.

‘Three Miles Up’ is like a nightmare version of those cosy tv programmes in which minor celebrities chug along picturesque canals in narrowboats. The two men in a boat invite a mysterious young woman to join them – they find her apparently asleep by a tree on the canal bank. Things then take a decidedly spooky and sinister turn as they decide to explore an overgrown branch canal that’s not on any of their maps.

After a bit of searching online I discovered that EJH had worked as a secretary for the Inland Waterways Association. This was a charity devoted to the conservation and promotion of Britain’s canals and waterways that was co-founded by Robert Aickman, the writer of supernatural ‘strange stories’, and with whom she had an affair. This liaison also led to her contributing these two stories and one other to the collection We Are for the Dark (1951), to which Aickman himself added another three. Interesting that she should create such vastly different genres of fiction.

Although none of the other seven stories in Mr Wrong have a supernatural element, several are quite acrid in their depiction of disastrous marriages and other relationships. Spouses have affairs and fight with their partners; parents neglect their children. ‘The Whip Hand’ has a monstrous controlling mother of a child performer who shows signs at the end of becoming nastier than her mother.

In ‘Child’s Play’ a spoilt 18-year-old newlywed returns home after a row with her husband to seek solace from her doting father, who turns out to be a serial philanderer. Father and daughter treat the mother, Kate, with contempt.

This story has a nice vignette of the family’s appropriately sociopathic cat bringing a mouse into the kitchen, and ‘forcing’ Kate ‘to meet her glassy, insolent gaze’. It then ‘began to crunch it up like a club sandwich’:

She liked Kate, in a limited way, to share in her triumphs. In ten seconds the mouse was gone, she had drunk a saucer of milk, and was polishing her spotless paws. She kept herself in a gleaming state of perpetual readiness – like a fire engine.

Even the cat has an agenda in this twisted family drama.

Only one story, ‘Summer Picnic’, has a gentler tone, and it provides a welcome respite from this sequence of stories about edgy, tainted lives and loves.

I found some of the perceptions of and assumptions about sexual relations in After Julius disturbing, and these misgivings recurred in reading some of the stories in Mr Wrong. In ‘Toutes Directions’, set in the south of France, there’s a sex scene in which the reader seems to be expected to find the young woman’s submission to a man she’s just met as a kind of epiphanic liberation. Maybe I’m misreading, but I thought it not far removed from rape.

Although the stories are technically quite good, I didn’t much care for the author’s attitudes to her characters and their world of tension. The amorality and caustic misanthropy are depressing and borderline morbid.

First magnolias of springI’ll lighten the mood with a picture taken the other day in a local park – the first magnolias there this spring. My tree is still in bud.

A crab for St Piran’s Day

Today is the feast day of the patron saint of Cornwall, Piran (Peran in Cornish). I’ve posted HERE about the remains of his oratory on Penhale Sands near Perranporth (named after him – it’s also a popular boy’s name in the county).

He’s said in his legend to have arrived on the Cornish coast strapped to a mill wheel, having been consigned to the sea by the king of Leinster, whom he’d angered with his Christian piety. He’s not the only legendary saint to have arrived in Britain by this unconventional means. Piran lived here in Cornwall as a holy hermit in the fifth or sixth centuries; he later became an abbot.

Piran is also said to have rediscovered tin-smelting, by lighting his fire on a black hearthstone which turned out to be rich in tin ore. The tin smelted to the surface to form a white-silver cross on a black background – which accounts for the design of the Cornish flag. Mining – principally at first for tin – was for centuries the dominant industry in this county. Remnants of this industrial activity are found everywhere here – even on the rugged coastal promontories.

Picture: Stemonitis, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In March 2016 a small species of hermit crab was rediscovered on the Cornish coast during a survey by Shoresearch Cornwall – a volunteer programme of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. The species (clibanarius erythropus) had not been seen here for fifty years. After a viewers’ survey on the BBC ‘Springwatch’ programme, this apt name was chosen for it – both the saint and the crab are hermits, and survive the perils of the sea.

I’m indebted to a post on Facebook for knowledge of the existence of this handsome little red-pincered crab. There’s an even better photo of it in that FB post, if you care to search for the Cornish Wildlife Trust page, and today’s entry there.

 

Words and #BlossomWatch

I posted last time on some words that were new to me – I liked their sound as well as their meanings. Here are some more that I came across recently.

Mrs TD drew my attention to this one: bloviate. It was used in a column by Raphael Behr on the Guardian newspaper website, in a piece about his heart attack and subsequent recovery. He referred to Boris Johnson’s first performance (he does like to play to the gallery) in prime minister’s question time after his election win in late 2019: Johnson was ‘basking in his majority, and was relieved to discover that his bloviation didn’t interfere with my breathing’.

To bloviate is to talk at length, especially in an inflated or empty way. Perfect for characterising our illustrious leader’s rhetorical style.

Last year I was working on a project for a health service institution. Part of my background reading turned up the expression nosocomial infectionsIt means those acquired while a patient is in hospital (or other place of treatment). Derived from the Greek nosos – disease, sickness, and komein – to take care of, attend to, it seems first to have been used in English in the mid-19C. Apparently ‘nosocome’ was a 17C word for ‘hospital’.

Not surprising that the word is starting to appear more frequently in the media in these days of Covid infection and transmission.

Some dictionaries give a related, equally prickly and polysyllabic term: iatrogenic infections. These are acquired after medical or surgical management, whether or not the patient was hospitalised. Not a semantic distinction most of us are called upon to make, fortunately. It’s from the Greek iatros – physician, and the element gen – producing, creating. It’s where the word ‘geriatric’ also comes from.

Blossom treeAnother lovely sunny day today. I walked to a local park to find the blossom tree Mrs TD discovered earlier this week. She took this picture. The Japanese have the lovely word hanami for the practice of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers, especially the gorgeous spring displays of cherry and plum blossom.

Magnolias are just beginning to flower, too.

The insolent squirrels have been searching our flower beds for crocuses, but have been less successful this year.

Some words and creeks

I’ve just finished a book of short stories by Elizabeth Jane Howard; some of them were quite nasty. I need to think about them some more before posting on them.

So another of my occasional asides into language today. I’ve been collecting words for as long as I can remember; I like to note down new ones (to me), or others that I just like. Here’s one I came across in a nature column in The Times recently: petrichor. It’s funny isn’t it how a word you were unfamiliar with seems to keep popping up once you’ve clocked it. It was used soon afterwards on a not particularly memorable Netflix programme, ‘The Wilds’. It was a sort of Lord of the Flies/’Lost’ mashup with teenage girls on an island. One, a studious type, used petrichor in a flashback scene of a family game of Scrabble.

It means the pungent smell of earth after it’s made damp by rain. From Greek petros, rock, and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in mythology.

One word leads to another. My online dictionary pointed me to related words: argillaceous: of, or containing, clay (Latin argilla; Greek argos, white).

The word minaudière appeared in an auctioneer’s ad in our local paper last month. It was an item that featured in a recent sale. According to Wikipedia the word was a French term for a coquettish woman or flirt, from the verb “minauder” (to flirt or simper – so not very politically correct. I rather like that word “simper” btw).  It’s a (luxury) women’s fashion accessory, a kind of decorative or jewelled evening bag with cases or compartments for cosmetics or other small items. It was first used in the 1930s and attributed to Charles Arpels of Van Cleef & Arpels. Minaudières were usually metal plated, oblong, sometimes made of gold or silver, lacquered or covered in stones or mother-of-pearl. Some were fabric – brocade, silk. Some had a lanyard or chain to place over the wrist.

A linked article describes an étui: a woman’s ornamental case, usually carried in the pocket or purse, for holding small items like folding scissors, hairpins, bodkins (another fine word), etc. The word derives from the French for prison – a place for being shut up or confined. They were usually another expensive accessory and made of ivory, precious metal, tortoiseshell, or…shagreen. But I’ll not go down that linguistic rabbit-hole.

I went for my first bike ride in months today. It was a beautiful day: crisp but clear, with mostly blue skies and plenty of sunshine. I’ll end with some pictures of another tidal creek, not far from the ones I posted last time. Even when the tide is low and there’s lots of mud on show, it’s still a lovely sight. Curlews call and add to the sense of tranquillity.

Malpas creek confluence

The same creek at its confluence with another river. Didn’t have my glasses on, so these are a bit blurred, I’m afraid

Anemones

Here’s a gratuitous picture of some anemones that have just flowered in a pot by my front door

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines – and a kestrel

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines. Sort Of Books, 2012

This was lent to me along with Findings – an earlier (2003) Kathleen Jamie book of essays mostly about the natural world. My post on that one is HERE.

Kathleen Jamie Sightlines coverThis is another highly entertaining collection of meditations and observations on topics ranging from wildlife to Neolithic caves and burial sites, to the whale museum in Bergen and what diseased cells look like under a microscope – nature isn’t just ‘out there’.

Jamie doesn’t only describe things and places: she uses them as the starting point for philosophical, even spiritual musings on their significance – as moments in the historical process that she inhabits at the time of witnessing them.

She loves to project herself back to the times when these marks on the landscape (and human consciousness) were made – as in the essay on her participation at the age of 17 in an archaeological dig of a Neolithic/Bronze Age ‘henge’ site in southern Scotland. We learn as much about what Kathleen Jamie (and the other drifting youngsters helping with the dig) was like at that time as we do about ‘The Woman in the Field’ whose skeleton is discovered.

The lucid, rhythmic language, as in Findings, is evocative – these are a poet’s prose sketches. It’s also idiosyncratic. As early as page 3, in the opening essay on her cruise to the Arctic to see the Aurora Borealis, there’s this, as the visitors land on a windswept ‘goose-plain’:

It’s a stern breeze, blowing from the land, inscousant now, but…it carries a sense of enormous strength withheld.

‘Inscousant’. I looked it up: neither the OED or various Scots dictionaries online recorded it. Google turned up a reference which turned out to be a post by another blogger, writing about this very passage! From the context it seems to mean the opposite of ‘strong’ – is it a typo for ‘insouciant’ (there are a few minor typos in other essays), a dialect word no dictionary recognises, or something Jamie made up?

Jamie is rather fond of other Scots expressions, like this, in a short impressionistic essay on the moon and its cycles:

Of course time passed. As the shadow crept onward, upward, smooring the moon’s light as it went, I half understood that what I was watching was time…

The Scottish National Dictionaries online has an entry on this (I include the first couple of literary citations; I’ve omitted some of the technical stuff):

v1intr. (1) To be choked, stifled, suffocated, to suffer or die from want of air…esp. to perish by being buried in a snowdrift. Vbl.n. smooring, death by suffocation.

Ayr. 1790 Burns Tam o’ Shanter 90:
Where in the snaw the chapman smoor’d.

Slk. 1807 Hogg Shepherd’s Guide 121:
Smooring. This is occasioned solely by the shepherd’s not having his flocks gathered to proper shelter.

 

The unusual vocabulary adds pungency to the otherwise plain, clear style, in keeping with the reflective tone.

Jamie digs deep into her own psyche or soul to discover how the outer world she explores resonates within her. So in that Arctic breeze, exhorted by her guide to listen to the silence, she hears it: ‘radiant’ and ‘mineral’, ‘deep, and quite frightening, and makes my mind seem clamorous as a goose.’

In my post on Findings I singled out Jamie’s gift for imagery; her simile here draws upon the earlier part of the essay where she’d been given a goose feather, causing her to reflect on how these birds had recently flown away from where she was standing: ‘To my mind, geese only travel north, to some place beyond the horizon. But this is that place. From here, they go south.’

What a wonderful way to show how she’d reached the earth’s roof. And it’s a notion delicately and even slightly humorously evoked in that simile, where she subverts the cliché about geese being clamorously silly.

Elsewhere in these essays Jamie brilliantly describes the dynamics and drama of a gannetry (a rocky island on which huge groups of gannets nest), and remote islands where a female killer whale teaches her young how to hunt seals.

Tidal creek in February sunFinally, as has become my custom since the pandemic changed how we live, a few images from recent walks.

We’re lucky to live very near to some beautiful tidal creeks. I’ve posted on this one before – it’s one of our favourite local spots. On the day I took these pictures the weeks of cloud and rain briefly ended and a spring-like sun shone.

Hovering kestrel A kestrel hovered just a few yards away from us, its raptor gaze fixed on the land way below.

On another walk in a local park I saw a cluster of these lovely violet-purple flowers in a cultivated bed. The shape of the bells resembles bluebells’, but the rest is more hyacinth-like. According to my flower identification app, they are hyacinths. I’ve never seen them this colour before – then we saw some more on another walk on a local country lane. Strange, isn’t it, how something previously unknown suddenly starts appearing often.

Tidal creekTidal creek

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle – and recent walks

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. Vintage Books, 2004. First published in the USA, 1948

Not many novels make me laugh, but this one did, many times. Its narrative form is a sequence of entries in increasingly expensive notebook diaries written by its precocious 17-year-old protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain. They are quirky, intimate and ‘consciously naïve’ (as she’s piqued to overhear herself described as by one of the potential suitors who come on the scene).

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle coverThe plot is a sort of mash-up of romantic-Gothic-silly aspects of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp – all of which are name-checked. The Mortmains are penniless, barely subsisting in their crumbling castle. The sisters’ negligent blocked novelist father spends his time shut in his room reading trashy detective stories; their stepmother is a flaky, impractical bohemian/It Girl (the novel seems to be set in the thirties).

Cassandra is shrewd and decent enough to despair of her pretty older sister Rose’s over-obvious flirting with the eligible rich American boys who take over the big house (and also become her family’s landlords – though they never pay rent). As gold-digging Rose admits early on, she’d ‘marry the Devil himself if he had some money’. But Cassandra is young, romantic and coquettish enough to fall for one of the young men herself.

These contrived entanglements are perhaps strung out too long, but it’s worth sticking with the novel for its constant stream of the ingenuous Cassandra’s humorous observations arising from bizarre situations in and around their crumbling castle. Some of these scenes try too hard (as when Rose is mistaken for a bear), but usually they work. Here are some tasters:

[Cassandra at the start of the novel is pondering what she and sister Rose are to do for money] Surely there is enough intelligence among us to earn some, or marry some – Rose, that is; for I would approach matrimony as cheerfully as I would the tomb and I cannot feel that I should give satisfaction.  

[The sisters have met the wealthy young Americans, and Rose has caught the eye of one them; her mercenary hopes are raised, and they decide to pray in earnest, as they go to bed one night, that Rose will genuinely fall in love with him so that she won’t be a miserable rich wife. Cassandra finishes her prayers, but Rose carries on longer] ‘That’ll do, Rose,’ I told her at last. ‘It’s enough just to mention things, you know. Long prayers are like nagging.’


Some good news for once: Mrs TD and I had our Pfizer vaccinations yesterday – no ill effects or discomfort so far, and all was well organised at our local doctors’ surgery. It’s the first thing the British government has managed well since the pandemic started – though the success of the rollout of vaccines is largely down to the energy and dedication and professionalism of the NHS staff and the volunteers who’ve assisted with the practicalities.

Mrs TD has applied to be one of those volunteers. She was very excited this morning when her high-viz tabard arrived in the mail. She intends to wear it everywhere, even though she hasn’t yet been called to help with the vaccination programme.

I’ll close with some remarks about recent walks. One cold day last week, while Mrs TD had her Zoom yoga class, I went out alone. On a remote lane, high on a hill where the wind was bitter, a well-wrapped-up man passed me: ‘Fresh this morning,’ he said.

This lingered with me for some time. One of those expressions that’s so context-bound. It could have been said by a fishmonger or greengrocer, extolling the qualities of their wares to a potential customer.

Indignant peacockAnother day, another walk, the two of us this time. We passed the smallholding where the group (flock?) of peacocks live; I’ve posted about them several times since our lockdown exercise walks became routine. Mrs TD took this picture of one of the birds perched on the sill of one of the house’s upstairs windows. It was peering in, indignant but also a bit desperate.

I often pass these stones. They lie in a field by the footpath – sheep are grazing there at the moment. They look a little forlorn, like a small, derelict Stonehenge. The sun that day cast shadows that made the scene even more desolate than usual.

Stones