Kate Atkinson and signs of summer

Kate Atkinson, Transcription. Black Swan paperback, Transworld Publishers/Penguin (2019)

This is a typically entertaining Kate Atkinson novel: not too demanding, well put together, and pretty forgettable.

Kate Atkinson Transcription coverThe structure is a little confusing at first, with contrapuntal sections set in completely different decades of the life of the protagonist, Juliet. In the first, set in 1981, she’s an old woman who’s injured in an accident – after years living in Italy and back in London on a visit, she’d looked the wrong way when crossing the road.

Next it’s the fifties, and she’s working in a dull job with uninspiring colleagues at the BBC. Then we go back a decade to the most substantial – and interesting – section: the years she spent as a clerk with the secret service. Her job is what gives the novel its title: she’s given the mundane job (considered all a young woman is good for in those unenlightened days) of transcribing on her typewriter the dialogue that’s been covertly recorded of a group of Nazi sympathisers. The flat next door has been set up by a British agent, who poses as another Nazi, as a supposed safe place in which to hold their meetings and plot against the British war effort.

Juliet is much brighter than her job allows her to be, and is soon recruited by her enigmatic bosses to do some real spying. What follows is a le Carré type espionage thriller, with a bit of unrequited love that’s more like a Barbara Pym plot element.

As I said at the start, it’s all good fun, and ideal for these fraught times when I find it difficult to focus on anything that requires close attention.

Bluebells are still flowering in this hedge next to a farmer’s field of rape

Now for other matters. I went for one of our regular local walks in the country with Mrs TD yesterday. It was yet another glorious sunny day, and nature is thriving. Early-developing trees like sycamore have already grown large leaves, but like their slightly tardier fellows they’re still a lovely shade of pale green, almost transparent when the sun shines through them.

A chestnut nearby has been if full bloom for a couple of weeks now, a wonderful shade of magenta. Blossom on most other flowering trees is just about over, but there’s still enough to keep the bees happy – and me.

Ploughed field 1

I posted pictures of this field last summer when it was full of ripe barley. Swallows and martins hunted for insects overhead then – but not yet this spring

Big news: as we passed a farm where late last summer I saw a group of swallows lining up on a telegraph wire, clearly preparing to migrate, I paused to scan the sky. I still hadn’t seen any first hirundine (what a great word) arrivers this spring – and sure enough, there they were! Two swallows, swooping across the valley, tracing aerial arcs at high speed. This is a sight that always lifts my spirits. I’ve been looking out for them for weeks, but this fine weather is blowing down from the north, and is therefore cold – maybe this has deterred them until now.

Ploughed field 2

The view across to the next field, also freshly ploughed. Not a swallow in sight – but what a view

Spring sunshine and apricity

Hare

Perky hare: explanation below

I have the ability to note an interesting piece of information, forget it, come across the same point at a later date and remember it all over again. I don’t think this is an age thing; I’m sure I’ve done this most of my adult life.

An example earlier this week: I read an article in the Guardian newspaper (link HERE) by Hannah Jane Parkinson extolling the virtues of apricity: ‘It was cold, but the sun had lingered, and there existed that glorious mix of chilly air and clear, bright skies.’ I turned to the OED for a formal definition (slightly abridged below):

obsolete:

 ‘The warmeness of the Sunne in Winter.’ Cockeram 1623.

Etymology: < Latin aprīcāt- participial stem of aprīcāri to bask in the sun, <  aprīcus

rare.

 [Verb form apricate:] 1.  intransitive. To bask in the sun.

1691    J. Ray Let. to Aubrey 22 Oct. in J. Walker Lett. Eminent Persons (1813) II. 159   Cæsar, I think, said that verbum insolens tanquam scopulum fugiendum est. I’ll name you one or two, to apricate, suscepted, vesicate.

 2. transitive. To expose to sunlight. Also transferred.

1839    T. De Quincey Lake Reminiscences in  Tait’s Edinb. Mag. July 461/2   Not sunning, but mooning himself—apricating himself in the occasional moonbeams.

As I wallowed in the novel pleasure of this word, it occurred to me that I’d seen it before. I didn’t remember where or when, but it has the lustre of a half-memory. A search on the Guardian website revealed another article dated February 2019, explaining the same word. That would be when I first read it, inwardly noted it, then promptly forgot it.

Apricating this afternoon in my front garden reminded me that it’s a precarious activity; you could sit in a tee shirt, reading your book, then a blast of breeze hits the back of your neck and you reach for a padded jacket and put the hood up. Then feel too hot when the breeze drops and the sunshine beats back in.

It sounds like it’s related to the word April – the best month for apricity – but it isn’t. One popular theory is that ‘April’ derives from the Latin aperire, ‘to open’, as it’s said to be the month when the earth opens to produce new fruit (according to etymologist W.W. Skeat). But this is folk etymology, says Anatoly Liberman in his entertaining and erudite OUP language blog (link HERE). He’s also sceptical about the other explanation: that it’s from Etruscan Apru (Greek Aphro – “Aphrodite”). Though I rather like to think of April as the month of Venus.

Btw, Liberman has a fascinating trawl through the origins of another apr- word, ‘apricot’, in a follow-up blogpost HERE.

Anyway, apricity is an apt term at this time of year in southwest England: spring is well under way, as my recent posts have illustrated (blossom, buds, opening fruits).

St Austell bay bluebellsOn Friday we went for a walk on the south coast. Bluebells were coming into flower (not very clear in my picture, I’m afraid), and it was a fine day for apricating: the air was chilly, but when we sheltered from the breeze there was a delicious warmth from the spring sun. We regretted not taking a picnic.

Over the weekend we reverted to one of our regular local walks. I’ve posted pictures of these horses before.Horses On this occasion they looked less mournful than usual, but they still have an air of melancholy – like they know something bad is about to happen that we’re unaware of.

The little statue of the perky hare at the top of this post is the nearest I’ve got for years to seeing the real thing. Not as big or scary as that giant rabbit that’s apparently been kidnapped in England this week.

CelandinesI wanted to try and capture in my pictures the effect of that spring sunshine on the scenery; these celandines (I think that’s what they are) and the foliage around them were gleaming in the light as if varnished.

I’ve made several batches of wild garlic pesto this spring, gathered from riverside woodlands nearby.  I’ve also stir-fried it in spring greens – delicious. This patch grows beside the lane we walk along, just before the horses’ field.

Wild garlic

 

 

 

 

 

 

More spring signs #BlossomWatch

A digression from the usual literary stuff again today; a word of the month is forthcoming, along with some more posts on books.

Over the last couple of weeks Mrs TD and I have taken advantage of the relaxation of lockdown restrictions to go further afield for our daily walks. Last week the weather was Portscatho bayfine but cold (that’ll be the word of the month, coming up next) and we took a picnic breakfast (and new coffee flask) to the south coast.

The cloud was just beginning to burn off as we arrived at Portscatho bay. We’d got there early, anticipating a crowd, but we were only the second car there. No doubt the numbers will increase when people from upcountry start to staycation down here in Cornwall.

Blackthorn bushesWe took the coastal path east along the clifftop. The blackthorn was in full bloom. At times it formed a sort of tunnel that we passed through – like a bridal couple heading for the church!

The blackthorn seems to be exceptionally wonderful this spring. Maybe I’ve just not looked closely enough at it in the past. From a Blackthorn blossom closeupdistance it looks nothing special, but looked at close up it’s glorious.

More recently we’ve mostly walked in the country lanes around where we live. It’s strange and a little upsetting to see the same signs of new spring growth that we noticed so vividly this time last year, during the first pandemic lockdown in England.

It’s heartening to see these fresh shoots and buds of new life; but also a little disheartening to find ourselves still in this precarious position over a year on from its inception. I believe these attractive catkins are willow:Catkins

 

Beach breakfast

Breakfast on the beach

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