About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Foxglove and lion

I’m halfway through The Echoing Grove, so a post will be coming soon. Meanwhile, more lockdown chronicles.

Oak treeMy first picture is from yesterday’s walk, when the sun finally came out after a day’s monsoon conditions. The bottom of this valley, to the right of the handsome oak, was once the habitat of an enormous pig. She used to love to wallow in the muddy swamp. She’s long gone, but Mrs TD and I always refer to the lane beside this field as the Pig Lane, and the walk is the Pig Walk.

Lion gate postToday I walked alone down a lane I hadn’t previously tried (Mrs TD was doing her Zoom fitness class). Outside a large house was a pair of stately gateposts (I do like a good stone post), with an unimpressively diminutive lion on the top of each one. No wonder his expression is so morose.

More spring plants are bursting into flower and filling out the hedgerows. The cow parsley is shooting up fast. Robert MacFarlane in a recent tweet suggested that one of its alternative country names, mother-die, was to warn off children from picking it in case they mistook this harmless plant for the similar-looking and Lane with cowparsleypoisonous hemlock.

Foxgloves are springing up fast, and many are just beginning to flower.

The etymology of this attractive plant is unknown, but there have been many suggestions about the origins of the name. I’d recommend an article from the OUP blog by Anatoly Liberman (link HERE), who sifts through the various (unfounded) theories, and concludes that there is no definitive explanation.

It’s well known that the drug digitalis, used for treating heart conditions, comes from foxgloves. FoxgloveThis might explain why Leonhart Fuchs (1501-66), the German scholar and botanist, gave it the Latin name digitalis (meaning finger), as its bell-like flowers would fit neatly over a human digit. In German, according to one etymologist, it’s ‘fingerhut’, meaning ‘thimble’.

The OED’s earliest citation is from c. 1000: foxes clofe, so we can’t identify Fuchs as the source of the English name.

I still favour the folk etymology, which holds that foxes would wear the flowers as gloves over their paws to deaden the sound of their walking as they went out hunting.

Field with buttercupsA mile further on is another lane with this sloping field beside it. Buttercups are still abundant in the meadows, and bluebells, dampened by an early morning shower, are at their peak in the hedgerows and woods.

I’ve still not heard a cuckoo.

 

 

 

Surface and substance: Edith Wharton, The Reef

Edith Wharton, The Reef. Everyman’s Library, hardback, 1996. First published 1912

Anna Summers is a product of the convention-bound world of Old New York:

In the well-regulated, well-fed Summers world the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited.

She’s aware of feelings and romantic aspirations deep inside her somewhere, but as a young woman under the influence of her parents and their prim social set, such stirrings would be considered improper. She has learned to regard ‘the substance of life’ as:

A mere canvas for the embroideries of poet and painter, and its little swept and fenced and tended surface as its actual substance. It was in the visioned region of action and emotion that her fullest hours were spent; but it hardly occurred to her that they might be translated into experience, or connected with anything likely to happen to a young lady living in West Fifty-fifth Street.

 Only love, she believes, could release her from ‘this spell of unreality,’ and construct ‘the magic bridge between West Fifty-fifth Street and life. George Darrow seems the ideal candidate: she feels an impulse of passion for him – but she’s incapable of indulging it, or to abandon the social poise and self-effacing tact so prized in her world. Darrow wants to kiss her, but she wants to talk to him about books and art. He turns to shallower, more compliant young women for dalliance, leaving Anna to berate herself for being so ‘cold’, such a ‘prude’. Being considered by envious mothers of such unbridled young women in her social set as a ‘model of lady-like repression’ is little consolation.

It’s difficult to say much about the subsequent plot without spoilers. On the rebound from Darrow, Anna marries another American, a dull, conventional bore called Leath. He takes her to live in a dismal French chateau that’s a ‘symbol of narrowness and monotony’. His widowed mother lives there with them, a representative of ‘the forces of order and tradition.’ Anna has chosen badly if she expected a fulfilled life. One set of desiccated conventions is replaced by another, older one.

Her trapped existence worsens: she’s desperately lonely and emotionally trammelled, even after the birth of her daughter. When her husband dies, Darrow re-enters her life after a twelve-year gap, and their romance seems set to resume – except this time she’s steeling herself to act more spontaneously, kindle her repressed sexuality, and not drive him away again with her unresponsiveness. Then all kinds of complications set in.

The title of the novel reveals that their love will not sail smoothly. The opening words indicate another kind of reef: ‘Unexpected obstacle.’ Anna has sent him a telegram just as he sets off by train from London to visit her in France. He’s frustrated and angry at yet another apparent snub from her. When a pretty young ingénue crosses his path, history repeats itself, and he turns (with rather cynical and calculated selfishness) to this natural, vibrant spirit, who acts with all the spontaneity, sensuality and joy of living that Anna so palpably fails to access or unleash in herself.

What follows is a slow-burning modern tragedy. Can love flourish when it hits the reef of distrust and infidelity? The more Darrow ducks and dives to avoid wrecking the fragile, sinking relationship with Anna, the more his lies and evasions smash her faith in him – and in love.

The Reef was much admired by Wharton’s friend Henry James, and it’s been described as her most Jamesian novel. It is, in the sense that there’s almost no surface ‘action’; the narrative consists largely of dialogue which the reader has to fathom delicately. Hardly anyone speaks their mind. True feeling is largely unspoken. All is (as Darrow himself puts it at one point), nuance. What lies beneath this apparently calm, sophisticated surface turns out to be the reef.

The first part of the novel is focalised on Darrow, and it’s his urbane world view that positions Anna as difficult and repressed. Then Anna’s consciousness takes centre stage (the novel has been filmed, though I haven’t seen it; it would lend itself, I’d have thought, to dramatization). I found myself sympathising increasingly with her as she struggled to overcome her inhibitions, to go with her instincts instead of her will for once, and to forgive Darrow his ‘moment of folly’, a ‘flash of madness’ with the young woman he’d met on his thwarted trip to visit Anna at the start of the novel.

She recoils from his glib self-justifications when he finally confesses. His masculine excuses are ‘a vision of debasing familiarity: it seemed to her that her thoughts would never again be pure.’

She wondered at his composure, his competence, at his knowing so exactly what to say. No doubt men often had to make such explanations: they had the formulas by heart… A leaden lassitude descended on her. She passed from flame and torment into a colourless cold world where everything surrounding her seemed equally indifferent and remote. For a moment she simply ceased to feel.

 Poor Anna. Just as she’d let go and started to allow herself to feel, he accuses her of being ‘too hard’ and ‘too fine’. The imminent wreck of their romance is all her fault, then. But the novel doesn’t end there.

I’ve just started reading Rosamond Lehmann’s 1953 novel The Echoing Grove; it looks set to chart similar reefs in the seas of sexual relations.

I’ve posted about nine other works of fiction by Edith Wharton: link HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buttercups, jackdaws and Zoom

I’ve had some positive reactions to these recent posts on my lockdown rambles and experiences, so will keep them coming. As Jacqui said in a comment on the previous post, nature is a balm to the soul at the best of times – even more so now.

I get a huge amount of pleasure when out on my daily walks with Mrs TD in the countryside near our house to hear the birdsong, which echoes in the valleys and under the canopy of the trees as if we were in an avian cathedral. Today, after spring showers, the path through the trees was redolent of damp earth and young leaves. Cow parsley has started to flower, and copses have a low mist of bluebells.

ButtercupsOn both sides of the path – which is the route of an old mineral railway or tram route to the old docks on the river by the city centre, now long gone – the meadows were vivid green with grass, and shot through with golden yellow – a host of buttercups. My picture can’t do more than hint at the colour. Last time we walked this path, a buzzard stood sentry on a post in this field.

Last night we had the first in what will be a regular Saturday-night family quiz on Zoom. Our daughter was question-master, resplendent in a pink boa and paper bow tie made by her daughter. She looked like Judge Rinder channelling Ru Paul.

Her questions were stretching. Who knew that vanilla came from orchid seedpods? I didn’t.

I found some old seed packets (herbs and salad leaves) in the cellar (sell-by date 2011) and sowed them in a trough. After a week I’d given up on them, but after the recent rain they’ve started sprouting. I’m thrilled. The ones in pots by the kitchen window are still refusing to budge, though – but they were seeds from dried chillis from a local Cornish chilli farm, so I suppose it was a long shot.

I had my weekly Zoom exercise personal training session yesterday in the dining room, with the door open for coolness. A raucous horde of jackdaws gathered on my neighbour’s roof to watch and cackle derisively at my efforts. Mockingbirds. Surely not a sin to kill them.

I regularly stop in our local convenience store for a paper, eggs, or today, beer. The young woman serving there told me that the old man she often talks to outside is a daily visitor. He’s afraid to go inside, fearing infection (odd that he stands so close to her and other people outside), so she brings him out what he needs and chats. He’s obviously lonely; this is his only daily contact with living people.

Some days ago she told me he came inside for once and said he’d got some photos to show her: himself as a young man, in blue suede shoes. “I’m sorry,” she told him, “it’s busy at the moment. Pop outside and I’ll come and look at them when these customers have gone.”

She continued serving – and forgot about him for an hour. “I felt awful,” she told me. “A customer came in and told me there was an old chap outside who looked a bit lost. I went out to him and told him I was so sorry to have kept him waiting. He said not to worry, and showed me his pictures. He was lovely.”

Some people are being selfish and callous during this lockdown, but most, I like to think, are like this kind young woman, taking time out from her busy job to make a lonely old man’s day.

 

What we talk about when we talk about walking

Most of my recent posts have been about non-literary topics. I’ve been chronicling our rural walks during the UK lockdown, which has restricted our movement and curtailed travel – we’ve now missed two scheduled trips to Spain, and may not make it to my brother’s wedding in Cyprus in June. We hold socially distanced clandestine meetings with Mrs TD’s sister and her husband in the underground carpark of our local Marks and Spencer store.

Woodland pathHere’s the view of the start of the path through the woods near the end of our road. The whitebells at the top of the path are superseded lower down by bluebells. The leaves, which a week or so back were just green buds, have now burst into delicate shades of green, soft to the touch as a baby’s skin.

Kenwyn 40 stepsThe blue sky and sunshine just glimpsed through the canopy was replaced on this walk a couple of days ago by spring showers half an hour later.

Many of our walks take us past Kenwyn church, about which I’ve written several times lately. This next picture is the view from the edge of the churchyard down what’s known locally as The Forty Steps. Shame it wasn’t thirty-nine, so it could have had a literary connection.

PeacockFrom the bottom of the steps we walk towards the hamlet of Idless. There’s an excellent farm shop outlet there that has been a lifesaver lately: they deliver fresh local produce to our door. We’ve often heard the screams of peacocks on this lane. A couple of days ago I saw one of the culprits for the first time. He was perched on an outhouse roof. My picture is a bit blurred as I had to zoom in on him from 40 metres away. How can such a handsome creature emit such a raucous, ugly sound?!

Today’s walk took us towards the city Chestnut flowerhospital, past the golf course – still being kept immaculately mown, even though no-one is allowed to play any more. Overlooking the main road is a magnificent horse chestnut, which has just burst into flower. I’ve never noticed before just how beautiful these multiple blooms are. These are among the first trees to come into leaf and flower. Meanwhile the central reservation on this busy dual carriageway is beginning to turn multicoloured: golden poppies and marigolds are flowering, sown a couple of years ago as part of the Wild Truro initiative. It makes a bleak commuter rat-run into a natural haven. Soon the red poppies will be out.

As we walk, Mrs TD and I have discovered our topics of conversation have fallen into a pattern. For the first half hour or so we talk about the current crisis: the inept posturing and bluster of our politicians; the shortages of key equipment by the underpaid workers at what our rhetoric-loving leaders love to call ‘the front line’. By turning the virus into a hostile ‘enemy’ (or even ‘an invisible mugger’, of all things) they can portray themselves as heroic defenders of their people. Gunslingers in pinstripes.

FordThen we spend a half hour discussing what to have for lunch and/or dinner. This is a hot topic since we try not to go near supermarkets at present; even with social distancing measures in place, many people seem to ignore them. Our food stocks are therefore a little depleted, and we have to show some culinary ingenuity.

During and after these two topics we intertwine comments on the scenery we’re walking past. On today’s walk, for example, down a lane we’ve not explored before, we took a short detour to look at this pretty ford. An exotic, oriental-looking rhododendron was in glorious bloom just beyond – just glimpsed in my picture. The little bridge looks like the ones on Dartmoor. It must be very old.

In a previous post I mentioned seeing house martins for the first time this spring. Still no swallows. And I’ve still not heard a spring cuckoo for maybe a decade. This is the month to hear them.

Caroline at her blog Beauty is a Sleeping Cat is embarking on ‘Post a Day in May’; I doubt I’ll manage a daily post, but I’ll try to keep these lockdown chronicles going. There should be a book post soon: I’m just finishing Edith Wharton’s The Reef.

 

Crawdads, house martins and a Bentley

Another book recommendation from Mrs TD was Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (Corsair paperback, 2019; first published in the US in 2018). I was sceptical when I started reading, thinking it was turning into a fictional misery-memoir/romantic murder mystery (not a particularly digestible mixture). Mrs TD said to persevere.

I did, and found myself enjoying it. The murder mystery is quite tightly plotted, and there’s a colourful depiction of Kya, the young protagonist whose abusive father drives all her siblings and even her loving mother away from their squalid shack in the middle of a North Carolina coastal swamp. When the father abandons her too, when she’s only about ten years old, she learns to fend for herself and develops a fierce independence, tempered by a fear of being taken in by the authorities. Their success in getting her briefly into a school teaches her only that she was right to be wary of ‘civilisation’.

The romantic part of the novel is a bit contrived, I thought. Kya is a sort of Little Mermaid figure, out of her element in the world of ordinary people, as they are in her world. They call her disparagingly ‘The Marsh Girl’, and spread rumours that she’s feral and dirty.

But she still falls in love with one of the young men from the nearby town, and he with her. As with the mermaid, their story is fraught with danger and difficulties. The complication involves another relationship that veers badly out of control for her.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the vivid realisation of the natural world Kya is so at ease in. Owens has previously published non-fiction in her role as a wildlife scientist in Africa – this is her first novel. Her naturalist’s expertise is well deployed without becoming too intrusive. She’s able to make the reader see and hear the birds, insects and other animal and vegetable life in the teeming, lush swamp.

Kya also reminds me of Mowgli, more at home among the wildlife than with humans. The gulls are her closest friends. The herons watch her with curiosity and fearlessness. The swamp creatures copulate with and eat each other with heedless abandon. Some of this (a little crudely) points up what’s going on in the human story.

I suppose it was an ideal escapist read for these trying times. I’m still struggling to engage with more demanding reading; this novel provided an insight into a completely different and unknown world.

The language often had me turning to Google: local terms like ‘hush puppies’ (not the uncool shoes), ‘po’boys’ and ‘crawdads’. These are crayfish, and the expression in the title about where they sing is a local saying for something like ‘over the rainbow’ or ‘back of beyond’, because of course crayfish don’t sing. I don’t think they do.

View from the country towards the cityJust to finish here’s a picture from my walk early this morning. The recent sunny weather has been replaced by grey and cloudy skies mostly for several days here in Cornwall. This is the view towards the city from a field a half mile or so from my house. You might just be able to see through the haze the spire of the cathedral, piercing the horizon in the middle of the picture. The Carvedras viaduct that I wrote about here recently is also just about visible towards the right.

Yesterday we made a rare trip to the supermarket to buy provisions for ourselves and an isolated neighbour. Only one person per household allowed in at a time, so I prowled the carpark while Mrs TD did the food shopping (we take it in turns). The timing was good: I saw the first house martins of the spring, two of them slicing the sky over the rooftops in scimitar swoops.

Also spotted in the carpark: a middle-aged man in rock-star shades parked an enormous blue Bentley. A few minutes later the young security guard who’d been supervising the socially-distanced queue walked up to the car, opened its doors with the keyfob remote, and started taking pictures with his phone camera. He told me he’d praised the car to the owner as he entered the store, and the guy handed over the keys and told him to go take a closer look. “Really?” the young man asked. “Sure,” said the man. “It’s only a car.”

This young man was so excited he FaceTimed a friend and filmed himself in front of the car, and sitting in its opulent leather seats. “It’s like driving your lounge,” he beamed at me. He couldn’t believe the owner could be so offhand about handing him the keys to this expensive car the size of a battleship. It made his day – and (with the house martins even more so) mine.

Stitchwort, periwinkles and politicians

I’ve continued with daily rural walks with Mrs TD – our permitted exercise during the present CV19 crisis. We’re averaging about 4-5 miles per day, so get to see how new growth is burgeoning as spring warms the earth, watering it with April’s sweet showers.

Stitchwort

Stitchwort

I downloaded a plant identifying app, as I was becoming frustrated by not knowing what so many of these fresh new flowers were. These delicate little white ones are everywhere in the hedgerows and field fringes at the moment. My app tells me they’re greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea), a species of chickweeds.

Various sites online inform me that this wild flower is strongly associated in folklore with fairies. Whoever picks it will be ‘pixie-led’, or enchanted by the bitter-sweet realm of faerie, and become disorientated. One of its local names is adder’s meat, apparently because children were warned that if they picked this flower they were sure to be bitten by this lurking snake. Another consequence of picking it was said to be thunder or lightning. It was also known as satin flower and easter-bell starwort – the latter because of the configuration of the flower’s five petals.

The name stitchwort derives from the old belief that the plant could cure a stitch in the abdomen. A more ancient Greek herbalist claimed that if a pregnant woman drank a potion made from it, she would give birth to a son.

As for ‘wort’: this is from the OE ‘wyrt’ meaning root, vegetable, plant, spice. In the past it tended to be an element appended to the part of the body or the ailment for which the herb or plant was supposed to benefit when taken medicinally. Alternatively, it was an element attached to the time of year at which it flowered (as in easter startwort or St John’s wort – around 24 June).

Periwinkles

Periwinkles

In an earlier post I included a picture of a pale blue-violet periwinkle growing in the hedge at the bottom of my garden. Recently we’ve come across many clusters of them. The OED online gives its etymology as from post-classical Latin pervinca, with various explanatory suggestions – that it’s from a magical formula, or associated with pervicus, ‘stubborn’, possibly from pervincere, ‘to conquer completely’ (with “various suggestions” but no details). Another online etymology suggests it was in Middle English associated with beauty, a paragon, but also, weirdly, with evil.

Ancient yew tree in the grounds of Epiphany House

Ancient yew tree in the grounds of Epiphany House

It’s a member of the genus Vinca, but I have no idea what this name might signify. It does seem to accord with the ‘conquer’ meaning of the Latin which it resembles, but this may be coincidence.

Mrs TD asked for her thoughts to be included in today’s post. I’ll add some more pictures from our recent walks to lighten the mood a little.

She’s upset with our government’s apparently worsening response to the pandemic. Measures to suppress the spread of the virus, as done in parts of Asia and in Germany, such as testing, tracking and isolating, weren’t taken, and those that were came too late.

The notion of ‘herd immunity’ was poorly judged. Let the weaker members of the community be sacrificed for the good of the rest, seemed to be the strategy. A chilling form of eugenics, in fact.

Here's a red campion to brighten this part of the post

Here’s a red campion to brighten this part of the post

Our prime minister was successful in the election because of his bluff, blustering ‘Get Brexit done’ approach. He’s not the man for a crisis that threatens people’s lives. What’s needed now is a different kind of leadership, based on honesty and integrity.

She wanted to add that she dislikes the rhetoric and imagery from the field of the military that’s used everywhere by politicians and the media: we ‘battle’ or ‘fight’ this ‘invisible enemy’. When the PM was in intensive care, infected by the virus, his stand-in said he was ‘in good spirits’– this while thousands of others were dying. This implies that those who don’t survive the horrible disease lack the ‘spirit’ or fight to combat it. Why can’t our politicians be straight with us, and use appropriate language? Treat us like adults, not children. Stop massaging the truth. Be transparent and honest.

She also feels disempowered. Who do we contact to say we’re unhappy with the way things are going? Parliament sat (in virtual form, mostly) for the first time in weeks yesterday, so those in charge have acted with impunity.

Blossom beneath the Carvedras viaduct (see earlier post)

Blossom beneath the Carvedras viaduct (see earlier post)

One good development, she says, is that the social care system is finally getting the recognition and attention it deserves. Whenever we mention (and praise) the excellent work done by the NHS, we should include the care sector. We’d both like to thank all of those working so hard for us: in the health and care sectors, but also vital workers like deliverers of goods, postal workers, those who work in the shops and supermarkets that are still open, and many more who tend to be taken for granted (and are poorly paid).

We understand that our government has had a huge task in trying to deal with this crisis. Some things have been done well. But they need to change the way they communicate with us.

Here, to end on a brighter note, is another fine gatepost.

Trewinnard gatepost

Trewinnard gatepost

 

 

Of dictionaries and cicadas

Lisa Hill’s recent post (at her blog ANZ Litlovers) on Pip Williams’ new novel The Dictionary of Lost Words was timely. A week or so back I watched the 2019 film ‘The Professor and the Madman’, directed by the Iranian-American Farhad Safinia, based on the 1998 book by Simon Winchester with the less strident title The Surgeon of Crowthorne – a sort of joint biography of James Murray, who in 1879 became the editor of the New English Dictionary – later known as the Oxford English Dictionary, and of W.C. Minor.

Minor had been an army surgeon during the American Civil War, after which his mental health deteriorated. Having moved to England, he shot and killed a man in Lambeth in 1872, was found not guilty at trial on the grounds of insanity, and was committed to what was called, in those less forgiving times, the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Crowthorne in Berkshire. Minor read the appeal by Murray’s team for contributions of quotations from the major works published in the English language that would illustrate the evolving meaning of words from their earliest usage. He became one of the most prolific of contributors to the project, and Murray went to visit him often from 1891.

The film has a powerful, committed performance as Minor from Sean Penn. Mel Gibson got to air his dodgy Scots accent again (yes, ‘Braveheart’ wasn’t his finest hour) in a strange bit of casting as Murray. As a film it was pretty poor, but gave a reasonably sympathetic account of the early struggles to get the OED project off the ground (Murray didn’t live to see the final volume of the first edition published in 1928).

Lisa’s post describes Pip Williams’ novel as a kind of counter-factual feminist vision of how the OED might have been compiled if it hadn’t been such an androcentric product of the late Victorian patriarchy. It sounds fascinating, and I commend Lisa’s post to you.

She has some interesting things to say about the OED’s entry for loaded words (in terms of gendered usage) like ‘service’, ‘bondmaid’ and ‘delivered’.

Cover of Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything

That’s the famous photo of Murray in his Scriptorium

This morning while looking for something to read next (after Donna Leon), I noticed on my shelf another Simon Winchester history of the OED, The Meaning of Everything, published by the OUP in 2003 as a sort of sequel to The Surgeon. I’d forgotten that I’d read it, and spent some happy time leafing through it.

There are some fascinating photo portraits of some of the key figures in the development of the OED. Right at the start (and on the cover in my picture) is Murray himself in his Scriptorium, where he began to pigeon-hole the millions of slips of paper sent in by contributors like Minor, on which were handwritten the citations illustrating usage of words. There are also images from earlier dictionaries of the English language, like Cawdrey’s (one of my earliest posts was about this, and other forerunners of Murray like Blount, Minsheu and Mulcaster: link HERE).

As I flipped through the pages I came across a delightful passage from K. M. Elisabeth Murray’s 1977 biography of her grandfather, Caught in the Web of Words, about a typical day’s bout of his dictionary-related correspondence (all written by hand, of course, with a second ‘fair copy’ as well). These included requests to the director of the botanical gardens at Kew for information about the first record of an exotic plant, and to various contemporary authors about the meanings of words they’d used in their novels or poems.

One of these was to Lord Tennyson, ‘to ask where he got the word balm-cricket, and what he meant by it’, in his poem ‘Dirge’. A footnote explains that this is another term for the common cicada, and is a mistaken translation from the German Baumgrille, meaning tree-cricket. It wasn’t Tennyson’s mistake originally – he’d borrowed it from an 18C author.

‘Dirge’ was first published 1830, revised 1842. With seven stanzas of six lines each, it has an unfortunate refrain, repeated twice in each stanza, at lines three and six: ‘Let them rave.’

It appears to address a person (a woman?) reposing in their grave, while the busy world raves on round them (Van Morrison was to use a similar image). It’s full of intrusive archaisms, like ‘Thee nor carketh care nor slander’. Carketh – even the inflection is archaic. From the Middle English via Old French and Latin (meaning ‘burden’); here’s the OED online (how James Murray would have loved computers and the internet: they would have shortened his work by decades) –

That which burdens the spirit, trouble; hence, troubled state of mind, distress, anxiety; anxious solicitude, labour, or toil. (In later use generally coupled with care.) archaic.

The poem’s troubled, stumbling rhythm is largely trochaic, I suppose to give a melancholy air; instead it makes it almost impossible to read aloud and make sense, hampered further by some weird imagery and awkward archaisms:

The frail bluebell peereth over

Rare broidery of the purple clover.

Let them rave.

‘Rare’ here seems to be OED online’s (rare) sense of ‘Of colour: thin, faint, pale’, or maybe ‘exceptional’ (as in the old ballad’s refrain about ‘rare Turpin, hero’).

Here’s the bit with the cicada:

The balm-cricket carols clear

In the green that folds thy grave.

Let them rave.

It’s hard to hear the raucous scratching screech of a nocturnal cicada as ‘carols clear’. As so often with early Tennyson, the imagery sounds impressive and mellifluous, but doesn’t stand much close scrutiny in terms of meaning. Still, a poem should not mean, but be, as someone famously said.

PS a ‘dirge’ – a song or poem of lament or mourning, suitable for a funeral – derives from the Latin Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam (“Direct my way in your sight, O Lord my God”), the first words of the first antiphon in the Matins of the Office for the Dead, created on basis of Psalms 5:8 (5:9 in Vulgate). (Wikipedia).

 

An odd couple: John O’Hara and Donna Leon

John O’Hara, New York Stories (Vintage paperback, 2018). Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (Arrow paperback, 2004; first published 1992)

Recently I’ve found it hard to concentrate on reading. This is strange, given that we now find ourselves with unusual amounts of unconstrained time on our hands. Maybe it’s because I’m so preoccupied with the anxieties and stress caused by the pandemic. People I know have been infected. Our daughter works in the NHS. Yesterday I went to the local hospital for an MRI scan, and it felt like entering a war zone: security guards at the entrances, no visitors, face masks compulsory, staff hidden behind PPE.

Before the limits on travel were introduced nearly a month ago I’d started reading John O’Hara’s New York Stories. I thought the short form would be less demanding in terms of concentration required. I was wrong.

Front covers of O'Hara, New York Stories, and Leon, Death at La FeniceThere are 32 stories in the collection, with publication dates ranging from the early 1930s to after O’Hara’s death in 1970 (he was born in 1905). They range widely in length, too, from what might now be called flash fiction – vignettes of just a couple of pages or so, which are often very well done – to a 58-page novella ‘We’re Friends Again’. They’re not arranged chronologically or thematically, but alphabetically by title. Steven Goldleaf in the Introduction believes this was to enable the stories to stand on their own merits – the consistency of which O’Hara was said to be very proud of.

I found them pretty uneven, and mostly unsavoury. There’s some good stuff here, but also a seediness that swerves into nastiness. Perhaps it’s the gritty competitiveness of metropolitan life that he explores, but the stories weren’t to my taste. They lack humour, too. Some are quite funny, but that’s another thing. Businessmen play cruel tricks on each other, or bicker viciously. Showbiz types scratch and grumble. Society ladies and guys who frequent swish clubs display a mix of snobbery and ennui, duplicity and venom. Married couples spar and dissimulate. There’s a lot of cheating – in the trickery and sexual senses.

Many have puzzling qualities, with some enigmatic endings. This elliptical approach to short fiction became a hallmark of The New Yorker magazine, where most of these stories first appeared (according to Goldleaf, again). I ended many of them with a ‘so what’ feeling.

I gave Mrs TD a copy of Donna Leon’s first Commissario Brunetti crime novel, Death at La Fenice, for her birthday. She enjoyed it, and recommended it to me. It was a good choice for a lockdown – in my restless mood I found it pleasantly diverting.

I chose it largely because we visited Venice – where all of this series of crime novels is set – around this time last year, and we loved it. Leon is very good at capturing the beauty and squalor of this city. The plot concerns the demise of a world-famous conductor at the eponymous Venetian opera house during a performance, and Brunetti’s quest to find out how and why he died.

As with most fiction of this genre, a group of prime suspects (and red herrings) is produced, and the clever Brunetti has to use all his skill to figure how the unpleasant German conductor came to die of poisoning. In this respect it’s a fairly undistinguished narrative. Much of the pleasure in reading it comes from the pungently evoked city setting I mentioned earlier (although there was sometimes just a bit too much map-reading detail of the ‘he turned left up the Zattere and crossed bridge so-and-so into campo X’ type), and the range of quirky, sympathetically drawn characters, some of whom provide warm humour. Most of the characters are convincingly flawed and human.

Brunetti’s family, for example, is vividly portrayed: his smart, resourceful teacher wife Paola and two teenage kids – a feisty girl and sulky, rebellious boy. There are some terrific scenes in which Brunetti visits an arthritic, suspicious old woman, now living in squalor, but a famous opera singer in her youth. Her back story is tragic, and crucial in Brunetti’s unravelling of the mystery. It brings out the horrors and shame of the Nazi era, and Italy’s subsequent history of corruption and graft beneath a veneer of sophistication and culture.

I also liked the way Leon depicts the ineptitude and vanity of the officers who work for Brunetti, and his preening, manipulative and ultimately useless boss. This is why he has to rely solely on his own intuitions and eye for detail to solve the crime. He’s not a deductive genius like Holmes, or puzzle-solver like Morse, or even a psychologist like Poirot (I hope I’ve got all that right: I’m not well versed in crime fiction). Instead he’s just an intelligent, observant and hard-working man with a good set of instincts and deep sympathy for suffering humanity.

There are over twenty titles in this sequence of Brunetti stories. I may well try another if my inability to focus on anything more demanding continues.

More ramblings, a viaduct and holy well

During our recent walks Mrs TD and I have commented on the birdsong, which seems louder than we’ve ever heard it. Maybe it’s our imagination, or else it’s because there’s so little interference from other sounds like road traffic and aircraft. We’d been disappointed not to see more wildlife in our rural ramblings, until the other day. As we walked down a country lane, a deer leapt from the wooded hill beside it, dashed across the road right in front of us, and into the field on the other side. Seconds later another followed, its hoofs clattering on the tarmac.

This horse's two friends were camera shy

This horse’s two friends were camera shy

They looked like adult female red deer: no antlers, but quite large. They darted away so quickly I didn’t have time to take out my phone to take a picture. But what a delightful sight.

The horses in a field were less remarkable, but just as handsome.

Nearer to home is this viaduct. It Carvedras viaductcarries the railway lines across the valley just outside Truro station. It’s called Carvedras viaduct, after the old name for this part of the city, where once there was a Dominican friary (more on this in a minute).

The original viaduct before 1902. By Unknown author – A postcard in the Geof Sheppard Collection, Public Domain

The Plymouth-Truro line was opened in 1859 as a single broad-gauge track (2.14m) for goods vehicles. The 70-mile route traversed numerous deep valleys which required the construction of 42 viaducts. The engineer Brunel recommended the use of wooden fan supports braced on masonry piers to keep costs down. Replacement of these with all-masonry piers began in the 1870s, as it became apparent that this had been a false economy: the annual maintenance of the timber structures was very expensive.

In most cases the new piers were built alongside the old ones. As you can see in my pictures, the original Brunel stumps of piers are clearly visible beside the newer, late-Victorian ones that carry the lines today. The old single-track line began to be replaced from the late 1880s with two standard-gauge lines (for most of the route, but not all). These renovations and replacements weren’t completed for decades.

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opened in 1902, the replacement Carvedras viaduct is 26m high, 295m long, and has 15 piers. Truro is a city established at the confluence of three rivers and valleys (which is perhaps where its original name in Cornish comes from), and the first viaduct the railway crosses as it approaches the city is even more spectacular, the longest of all 42.

These viaducts are impressive feats of engineering, and have a cathedral-like grace and beauty. Jackdaws and seagulls are very fond of them as places to congregate, perch and watch the world go by.

We can see Carvedras from our back door, with the cathedral beyond.

We can see Carvedras viaduct from our back door, with the cathedral beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St Dominic's Well Carvedras houseSt Dominic’s Holy Well is cited in a number of sources, online and in print, as located in the front garden of Carvedras House, beneath the viaduct of the same name. I was able to get this (not very clear) picture by leaning over the front wall. According to Wikipedia it was built in the 17C, but was presumably restored from a much earlier site that had been located in the grounds of St Dominic’s Friary, said to have stood in the grounds of Carvedras Manor. The friary was established in the 13C:

It was an important missionary centre with a church and chapter house. It is known that at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 the Friary had a Prior and ten friars.

One of the annoying consequences of the current situation is that the local library is closed, and I’ve been unable to research this topic beyond the limited resources available online. Maybe once this crisis is over I’ll return to this subject and add some detail. For example, I don’t know what Carvedras signifies in Cornish; ‘car’ is fort, but I have no idea what ‘vedras’ means.

Mrs TD's sourdough loavesHere to finish today’s CV19 update is a gratuitous picture of some delicious sourdough bread Mrs TD baked. It should cost a fortune to buy at the baker’s: it took her a week just to produce the starter culture (if that’s what it’s called).

Other good things are coming out of this sad time. On my morning walk the other day I passed a house with a tray of lovely fresh cauliflowers outside, and a sign saying: Please take one – free. And a hand-drawn picture of a rainbow, with the people in Britain are displaying as a symbol of hope and solidarity.

And here’s a glorious tree in blossom that we passed on this morning’s walk.

Tree in blossom

Whitebells, St Keyne, the NHS, and a woodpecker

The last couple of days’ walks have furnished material for the last few posts here. I still seem to find it hard to settle down to any serious reading.

The last couple of posts have mentioned St Keyne’s church. I took this picture the other day of a well just by the main entrance porch to the church. It’s covered over with a grill, but through this it’s possible to see a set of stone steps leading down into the dank darkness below. I don’t know if there’s any water there.

This is not the same as St Keyne’s holy well in the countryside near Liskeard. There’s some information about it at this site, which quotes its legend from Richard Carew, antiquarian and High Sheriff of Cornwall, presumably from his Survey of Cornwall published in 1602:

‘The quality that man or wife whom chance or choice attains first of this sacred spring to drink thereby the mastery gains.’

I haven’t visited it myself. I do own a book given me as a wedding present the day Mrs TD and I got married, 25 years ago this summer: Secret Shrines: In search of the Old Holy Wells of Cornwall, by Paul Broadhurst. According to his account of this well, St Keyne lived towards the end of the fifth century, so about a century before St Augustine is said to have brought Christianity to England.

She was one of ‘the fifteen sainted children of the illustrious King of the Brecon Beacons’, and blessed with ‘bewitching loveliness’. Nevertheless she wandered about Wales and then Cornwall, ‘safe from insult or wrong-doing’ by ‘the strength of her purity’, performing thaumaturgical marvels wherever she went.

One such miracle was performed in Somerset, commemorated in the place-name of Keynsham (near Bath). There she turned all the serpents that were infesting the place into stone. A footnote suggests this could be an allegory of the erection of monoliths or crosses to neutralise ‘unbalanced energies’. We could do with some of that power during the current crisis.

Image from Broadhurst's account of St Keyne's Well

Image from Broadhurst’s account of St Keyne’s Well, about 100 years ago

When she retired to Cornwall she made her home near the well that now bears her name. She planted several different types of tree by it, and endowed its water with ‘peculiar virtue’ by her blessing. Robert Southey has a poem about it (full text HERE), telling the tale of a traveller who’s stopped to take a refreshing drink from it, and is told by a local householder that the saint often drank from and blessed this well, and ‘laid on the water a spell’:

‘If the husband of this gifted well/shall drink before his wife,/A happy man thenceforth is he,/for he shall be master for life.’

But St Keyne’s wish had been for equality for women. The man’s tale therefore continues:

‘But if the wife should drink of it first,/God help the husband then!’

Asked if he was drinking this water before his wife, the traveller says he left her by the church porch as soon as they were wed: ‘but i’faith, she had been wiser than me/for she took a bottle to church.’

Serves him right.

Broadhurst goes on to say that the local custom of drinking this well water for luck persisted into early modern times. The well was then rebuilt in granite, as it had begun to deteriorate.

Gate post

Here’s another picturesque gate post

I’ll end with some more images from the last couple of days’ walks.

Today I saw a great spotted woodpecker, furtively shielding himself behind a tree trunk high up when he saw me. Then a jay, standing by the side of the lane; it took off into the trees at my approach. The same trees where the other day a man told me he was engaged in a stand-off with a squirrel.

White bluebellsThese white bluebells (whitebells?) grow profusely in the wood above our house (soon it will be a violet-blue haze of proper bluebells).

As I went to cross a stile to access a footpath that crosses a field, I noticed this delightful little message. Our health service has been under unprecedented pressure during this virus outbreak, and the people have started posting images of rainbows in their windows, not just to thank NHS workers and other carers and services, but as a message of hope. How nice that someone thought to put this little rainbow on a stone in such a remote (but fairly well-trodden) spot.

 

NHS stile

Here’s a shot of the stile with the painted stone just in front and to the left, on a step

NHS message