Monday, January 10, 2022

The Girl's Own Annual -1901

I don't generally like second-hand bookshops. They smell fusty and are usually full of poorly curated stock, infused with a sentiment that yellowed pages have a value greater than their words. For a writer, second-hand books mean no commission too—not that I've ever earned more than a pittance through sales. 

But a few months ago I made an exception. There was a pop-up charity stall at the National Trust and for some reason, we wandered inside. Ignoring the displays of hardback novels and Seventies cookbooks I headed to a section of old magazine journals and one, in particular, caught my eye: The Girl's Own Annual from 1901. It's a collection of that year's weekly issues and a fascinating insight into how our lives and expectations have changed — for better and worse.

A little research tells me that the Girl's Own Paper was first published in 1880 by the Religious Tract Society, later becoming Lutterworth Press. Astonishingly, it ran through to the Nineteen Fifties. The weekly journal was a mix of stories and articles focused on the interests and aspirations of girls; its editorial mission was one of self-improvement, urging its subscribers to make the most of their talents, albeit always with an element of decorum.  A modern-day reader might reasonably conclude that its pages are proof positive of the subservience and frustrations that women were expected to bear.

And in the obvious sense, they'd be absolutely right.  

But in another—the one that struck me most—they would be missing something of its virtue. For there is much in this little long-forgotten magazine that we would do well to remember and for which, in its loss to our outlook more generally, I'd suggested we are more diminished than developed.

Take for example, the quality of the writing. Sure, it's aimed at educated middle-class girls, but nonetheless, it's of a standard we simply wouldn't see in magazines today. The weekly stories are full of long passages of complex dialogue, and yet if you stay with them, they are skillfully constructed and a lesson in serialised fiction. Some of the titles made me smile, including the travails of Pixie O'Shaughnessy and the growing pains of little Barty's Star. Others are retellings of classical myths, including The Fair Captives of Castle Vulcan - a tale of love and loyalty. Imagine that in a teenage magazine today!

But it wasn't so much the stories that I liked dipping into as the informative articles and the 'answers to correspondents' pages, both of which shine a light on the opportunities for educated girls at that time. One reader enquires about working in a post office, another about the route to becoming a teacher.  Detailed and encouraging responses are provided—though interestingly, always concluding with a note that on becoming married the applicant would, of course, be expected to resign! 

Turning the pages this morning I found a lovely article on life in a laundry, another on soldiers returning from conflicts abroad that's an early lesson in recognising post-traumatic stress. There's a piece on Eastertide in Russia sitting side by side with this week's Household Hints; pictures of Our Queen Alexandra front a cover, but more commonly it's taken by profiles of women making contributions to science and art. For musicians, there's the Fidelio club which discusses concertos and classical pieces in astonishing depth. And there are regular columns on nature, needlework, points of law, careers, poetry, cooking, geology and puzzles so complex they make the Times Cryptic seem a doddle.  Sport is tellingly absent.

To read The Girl's Own Paper today is like looking through a window to our past. Of course, it was a bright and shiny and rose-tinted one, and I sense that large sections of the poorly educated working classes would have found little of interest—or comprehension—in its content. I know too that it's all too easy to fall into a high-brow lament about a loss of educative endeavour and lessening of standards...  The truth is, there's much more information available today (albeit in different formats) and we shouldn't think that all writing has been reduced to the level of tabloids and Twitter.

And yet still I am struck by its mission and zeal.

Opportunities for women have been rightly transformed in the decades since my time-bound volume was published. But at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, aspects of its stance and choice of content were radical and are worthy of praise today. I wonder, how many readers of the Girl's Own Paper became suffragettes; how many went on to make contributions to art, science, commerce —or fostered those of the next generation, for whom they carried ambitions that had been kindled by their weekly reading of this magazine for betterment. 

An annual subscription in 1901 would have cost four shillings and four pence - about forty pounds in today's money or 80 pence per issue. That seems extraordinary good value to me. So too the five pounds I spent on this quaint volume at the National Trust bookshop 120 years later.  If the magazine was still in print —there was evidently a boy's version too — I reckon I'd subscribe on the spot.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Objects of life #8 — mid century bookcase.

Yesterday, on the turn of the year, I decided to tidy our back room. It's one of those awkward spaces,  useful and yet not quite what it could be; a thoroughfare from the front to rear gardens that we use for coats and boots and anything that might make the cottage look untidy. When I bought this place it was no more than an earthen floored shed; decades earlier it had been used to keep pigs. 

None of which is particularly relevant, except for the process of relooking and sorting —the putting of our lives in order and hoping they might stay that way; which of course they won't. 

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have the patience to try.

In the corner of the room was a mid-century bookcase that I bought when I was twenty-one years old for my first ever house. I'd seen it for sale in a newspaper small ad of the type that nobody bothers with these days. And I remember the elderly lady who sold it to me: she was small and solid with deep-dyed hair and bright features that hinted at the beauty in her youth. She was almost seductive and insisted on my having tea and offering me a small table she was selling too. For years it was in our summerhouse until (to my deep regret and in a moment of unthinking) I disposed of it as clutter.

Why do I remember that encounter so vividly?  And why do I recall it so often? I must have forgotten a thousand equivalent meetings, and yet, I could show you where her flat was in Cullercoats, overlooking the sea in the north east of England. I could tell you with confidence that the bookcase cost me fifteen pounds and that I gave her an extra two for the small table. If I took a moment I'm sure I could bring to mind the smell of her perfume. It seems our minds hold onto memories as randomly as we do the objects we own.

And as I get older, the two become almost indivisible.

The bookcase has been with me in all my houses since that day, even if, like the space between our gardens, it's not always been fully utilised or appreciated. For the last year, it's been squeezed lengthways between a wall and a wardrobe that stores our coats; when we pulled it out yesterday, its shelves were crammed with a plethora of 'stuff' that hadn't quite got another home. Someone in a more objective mood would've taken the lot to the tip.

But then, they wouldn't have been looking closely. For despite its utilitarian appearance, the cabinetry is precise and cleverly designed. To help its movement and assembly, the shelving dismantles and fits together with a jigsaw-like accuracy; the panels are subtly coloured, the hinges smooth, the doors satisfyingly snug. It would be easy to mistake the workmanship as coming from a famous maker like Ercol or G-plan, but in fact, it's anonymous. Which I rather like, as it avoids the temptation to put a price on something whose value isn't about money at all.

That said, I'm told that mid-century furniture is enjoying something of a renaissance. It seems my taste of forty years ago is finally becoming trendy. As we dusted it down and cleaned the glass my teenage son said,  I guess this is going in your fancy new study?  And he was right; it fits perfectly too — between the chairs where I like to read and the pebble tables which though an iconic design irritate me a little with their fiddliness.  Oh, I do so wish I had that table I threw away. 

Coming to my study this morning I had no intention of writing about this. But then yesterday I had no idea that the bookcase would find its home and feel so appropriate at last. It's as if the sorting of objects helps to clear our minds too, suggesting possibilities and settling ideas into place — not dissimilar, perhaps, to the way we store books on shelves; an ordering of our memories, of significant moments... the putting of our lives on display.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Encounters 7 — Vultures

All photos by Justinn Bunn

I first saw vultures when I was twenty-six years old. It was the year that Stephen Roche won the Tour de France and I cycled across the Pyrennes on a tandem with Rebecca. For most of our trip, we carried little more than a change of clothes, our passports and a couple of baguettes stuffed in the saddlebag. We were young, fit, and unphased by challenges I wouldn't look at today.

At the top of the Col d'Aubisque, there's a section of tarmac that's cut into the cliffs, creating a suspended belvedere road with a vertical drop on one side and a distinct absence of barriers between you and the abyss. It's about the worst place I could think of to suffer a puncture or to lose concentration after toiling to the top.  As we rode over the summit, they were circling above us.

And I remember our stopping to watch them, marvelling at the ease with which they rode the thermals, gliding across the valley that had taken us all morning to climb. There's an elegance to the flight of vultures that transcends that of any other bird of prey, and which ironically, in its effortless grace, strengthens our stereotype of the species. 

Vultures, we believe, are cold, calculating, patient...

It was two decades till I saw one again. I know this for I remember the day with photographic clarity. We'd been walking with the boys in the Aravis mountains; it was scorching and we'd taken a route too long and too steep for Jane who was pregnant. That evening when she went to the loo, the bowl filled with blood and her face with tears...

She needed time alone, so I rode my bike up the Col de la Colombière. I wanted it to hurt, pushing every sinew; screaming at the mountains... and their indifference. As I pedalled the last incline—without elegance or grace—there were two Lammergeiers wheeling in the sky. These, the largest of the European vultures, have learned to drop bones onto rocks so they shatter into pieces small enough to swallow. 

They are, I think, the most magnificent of birds.

Lammergeiers are also rare and have only recently returned to the Alps. I learned later that the ones I saw that day were from a reintroduction scheme based in the valley. Three years ago, walking in the Sixt Passy nature reserve, a warden showed me the one breeding nest in the region. The parents did not return while we waited. 

And so, it was almost another twenty years before my next encounter.

This October I made a short visit to France, climbing the Point de Chalune in the crisp autumn sunshine. The peak is a two-hour walk from the top of my favourite cycling col: the l'Encrenaz above Les Gets. We were lucky with the weather: Mont Blanc in full view to the south; Lac le Man to the north. At the summit, two men with binoculars were recording birds for a survey—not that much of interest had appeared, one said. 

Until that is, he finished his sentence. For no sooner had the recorder sat down than my friend Justin asked, what are those birds approaching us?  There were seven of them in all: five griffon vultures and two enormous Lammergeiers. They drifted above and below us, like a squadron on reconnaissance. The surveyors whooping with delight, furiously taking note of their maturity and size. 

In jest, our new friends credited us with the show, suggesting that vultures liked to smell out the English.  Nous ne sommes pas anglais - nous sommes gallois, we replied, and they laughed. The Welsh, they said, must not be so tasty!  With that, the birds departed, swooping over the valley in the direction of the Désert de Platé.  

And before we'd gathered breath, they were gone.  

Saturday, November 27, 2021

My piece of heaven - a big black tin box.

All writers need space, and not just in their heads. Dylan Thomas wrote in a hut by the boathouse at Laugharne; Hillary Mantel has a flat that's separate to her home; John Clare used the corner of his cottage, scribbling poems to the light of a fire. Without a dedicated area, our work is distracted and the words disrupted and detached.

When we came to live permanently in Pembrokeshire I needed an office. And when I say need, I mean that in a more visceral than physical sense. I could have cobbled together a workspace upstairs, but it wouldn't have been mine. What I wanted was a home for my thoughts as much as my things. To write I need order and silence and the familiarity of reference... it's a complex formula that's felt more than reasoned.

And so, a project began.

We would first clear the garden once and for all; the groundworks would make room for a sizeable building. That in turn, would allow a reordering of the cottage: we could incorporate storage, shift the oil tank, rebuild the patio...   Quite how it would all turn out, I wasn't sure. But then I always start from notions, and often from memories too.

My paternal grandfather had a shed. He called it his cabin and it was made of tin and wood. He'd sleep there after going to the pub and it was full of nails and string and had our drawings on the walls; there were net curtains on the windows and it was perhaps the happiest place of my entire childhood. I'd long dreamt of having something of the same.

And like my grandfather I'd build it myself, or at least as a collective. 

Which is why if the notion came from me, the design was my son's, who's usefully an architect. The build was then handled by my friend as I strode around project managing in a tinkering sort of way, considering and revising, changing details here and there... just like I do with my writing. 

I looked and learned too, becoming a chronicler of vernacular tin and the versatility of this simplest of construction materials. On my phone are dozens of photos of outbuildings and garages and even whole houses. There's a village hall down the way that I have my eye on for project number two!

Meanwhile, the new shed, if we can still call it that, has cost me twice what I paid for the cottage. To be fair, that was thirty years ago, and no reasonable expense was spared in our specification. Do it once; do it right was our mantra, or at least it was mine. And as. result I now have an office with a loft and a garage type storage area and ethernet connections... and beautiful bi-fold doors that open to the garden.

It was worth every penny. 

For I love it, and it gives me pleasure every day. And that it was designed by Daniel just adds to the joy. It's a light and airy space, with an aesthetic that nods to this cottage's agricultural past. When I first came here, there was a tiny garage across the road; nobody owned it as such, though my neighbour used to keep his junk there. After he died it was demolished and something of my view was gone; something beautiful lost.

And so in a sense, I've replaced that too. My black tin monolith is a homage to what once was there, and more generally to this village and its single windswept street. Some don't get that at all; others, see it straight away. 

As for me, I feel it. 

Like the words that I'm writing, and the space that I'm occupying.  Which currently is rattling as a gale blows outside, rain drilling the roof.  And yet I'm warm and happy here where I am... in my body and my head.  

And of course, in my shed.

P.S. For those who'd like a deeper peek into my little world, here are some more pictures of the writing shed and its construction.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Reflections on my glasses?

I have another half dozen pairs around the house!

This is a picture from my office; the latest attempt at bringing order to chaos, and a wry comment on my writing life. When I posted the image on our family WhatsApp my son replied, 'how long until the hooks are empty?'  For someone who has a reputation for diligence, my absent-mindedness is legendary.

Jane despairs. 

She has two pairs of specs that are always at hand; it's much the same with her keys or handbag. But then, if I ask her to make a bank transfer or phone for an appointment, there's a high probability I'll be reminding her a few days later, and quite possibly the day after and the day after that... In the grist of everyday life, Jane's a 'do it when it's necessary' person, whereas I'm a 'tick it off, so it's sorted' kind of guy.

No doubt the best course lies somewhere in between. For whatever 'it' may be, addressing matters early is seldom as critical as I tend to think. On the other hand, to diminish advance planning or view absent-mindedness as equivalent to ill-discipline would be equal mistakes.

I tell myself that my habit of losing my glasses stems from thinking of bigger and more important concerns. Jane's view is that I should get off my high horse and pay more attention to where I jettison my stuff. Again, the truth—and the best way—is at neither extreme.

And so we compromise, making the most of our respective virtues. You might say we are stronger together, working as a team... oh, I could so easily fill this paragraph with management clichés. For indeed, there is some accuracy in them, as there is in all stereotypes. The important thing is to realise that it's not the whole or only truth. 

But enough of this philosophising, it was only a humorous photo and a little glimpse into my world. Someday I might show you my new 'tin shed'. It was designed by my son—the one who queried how long before the hooks are empty.  And now I think about it, we worked together on it too; his design and my project management skills, not forgetting a little trust on each side.

The end result is the best office I've ever had. To write here is a joy, most days with Oscar curled on the seat by my desk. Meanwhile, the hooks on my filing cabinet remind me that like their magnets to the metal, my eyes to my glasses, Jane to me and vice versa... we all need each other to get along.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Letter to America

If you were to stand on the cliffs near my house looking in a vaguely west-south-westerly direction, the next dry land in your line of sight would be the eastern seaboard of America. To reach it would require 3,000 miles of sailing into the wind, assuming that is, you don't drift north to Canada or slip south to the Bahamas. Only a few centuries ago, thousands of migrants took that chance, departing from the harbours of Pembrokeshire, just as they did from Cardiff and Bristol and Cork. 

I often think about how grim life must have been to impel those early settlers. Anyone who lives here doesn't romanticise the danger of the sea; to embark on that journey in the full knowledge of the risks must have taken great courage. If we add in the one-way nature of the voyage and the ignorance of the land and life they were sailing towards, it's near certain that desperation was their most likely driver.

In what's a free-flowing post, it would be understandable if I were to now veer off my intended course and make comparisons with the migrants of today. After all, there's little doubt that what drives the diasporas from the Middle East to Europe, from Central to North America —or for that matter, from rural to urban India— is a not dissimilar anguish. 

But instead, I'm going to hold to my compass, and reflect, as I did while looking out to the ocean this morning, that it's because of our connection with its past, that North America is simultaneously foreign and yet familiar to us today. In many ways travelling to France is a more alien experience, an idea that's  captured in the classic geopolitical essay question: 'The Channel is wider than the Atlantic. Discuss.'

This tension between the foreign and the familiar was surely key to the appeal of Alistair Cooke's legendary radio broadcast, Letter from America. For over fifty years, he wrote a weekly epistle on the everyday lives and politics of the USA, gently—and generously— exploring the subtleties that are lost in mainstream media. In a sense, it was not that dissimilar to a blog, reflecting on his comings and goings and those of people he knew; building a picture of a place and its people over time. I miss those broadcasts, and more to the point, think we are lesser in our understanding for their loss. 

How I wonder, would Alistair Cooke would have written of the Obama years, or of Trump and the Capitol riots? Here in the UK we tend to think of US history in terms of its presidents and wars, just as we delineate our own in relation to monarchy and conflict. But I suspect Cooke would have focused more on the attitudes and aspirations—as well as the despairs and desperations—that define us more accurately than the words or policies of any politician. 

There's a growing trend in academic writing for what's sometimes called 'history from below.'  In contrast to the traditional focus on supposedly seminal events, this 'micro-history of communities' emphasises the role of everyday struggles and beliefs as underlying drivers of change. When I think of my own village, and the reality that even today I have neighbours who've travelled no further than Cardiff, I wonder if it's not a more accurate perspective on our past, and indeed our present. 

One of the delights of writing this blog is that I never know what metaphoric shores my words will wash up on. Over the years, I've made connections as far apart as Australia and Alaska, neither of which places have I physically visited. In writing that last sentence I  could have equally have chosen Nepal and New England both of which I've travelled to, but would not pretend to know in any deep sense. Indeed, with the exception of France, I suspect I've learned more about life overseas from the blogs I read, than my limited time abroad. 

A few weeks ago, two US followers of Views From The Bikeshed asked me how they might obtain copies of my books. It seems that copyright laws aren't as internationally seamless as we might wish them to be. No matter, a trip to the post office and the packages were soon on their way to Pennsylvania and North Carolina. What a joy that I could do that so easily... 

Seriously, what a privilege it is to be able to share words across continents.  And what a delight that someone should take an interest in my life and what I have to say, thinking that perhaps it has something of relevance to them. That one copy is now in Pennsylvania is especially appropriate for it was there that the majority of welsh settlers found a home. The other in North Carolina is but a geographic stone's throw from my friend, now resident in Greenville, but who once lived down the road.

In truth, none of my writing is really about me. It's intended to be universal, and if it succeeds it's because the connections between us are closer than we think. This autumn, I had hoped for my latest collection to be published; it's now scheduled for next year. When the first copies arrive I shall send some to the US once again; to those bloggers who follow me and who in their way correspond in return. If I can be so bold, I hope it will be my own small Letter to America;  a tiny contribution to narrowing the width—and the fear—of the ocean between us.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Quince jelly reflections

This week I made quince jelly from the fruits in my garden. It's become an annual ritual; my own miniature harvest festival with a bittersweet tang that marks the start of winter and yet the ending of my busiest period of work. The coming months will be—I hope—ones of less stress and more creative plenty. 

Although even to write that has an edge to it too. 

For only recently I gave a talk to some students in which I claimed the difference between creative and corporate writing is more blurred than it seems. I use much the same skills in crafting a blog post as I do in writing a workplace communication; the need for truth and clarity are as applicable to a company announcement as they are to the personal essay. Yesterday I read for the umpteenth time, Orwell's 'In Praise of English Cooking', a piece that in its rounded perfection would merit a place on any menu for a last literary meal on earth.

Orwell doesn't mention quince in his list of British delicacies, though at one time it was more common here than apples, which were not widespread until the middle ages. Today we consider it more of a Mediterranean or even oriental plant, with Japanese varieties having moderate popularity in discerning gardens. The fruits are hard and inedible when raw, but—in some ways like words—when carefully prepared they have seemingly endless possibilities, with a capacity to surprise and delight as well stimulate the tongue.

My crop this year was ample for our needs. In our former house, we had a long hedge of bushes that produced sacks of fruit but made the processing somewhat of a chore. I now have two small shrubs and yet we harvested enough to make four litres of piquant jelly. Had I had more time, I could have made the pith into membrilo, a delicacy from the Iberian peninsula, more commonly known as quince cheese. 

Alternatively, I might have made quince vodka or quince pudding; my friend and fellow blogger Michelle once cooked a quince tarte tatin which she claimed was delicious. Orwell says in his essay that Oxford orange marmalade is one of England's finest foods, but I wonder if he knew that the word comes from the Portuguese marmalada which means quince preparation.  

On which subject, my annual ritual is more about patience than skill. I don't follow a recipe but simply chop the fruits, cover with water and bring to a simmer...  After an hour at most, I mash the mixture and strain it through a muslin bag. The resulting juice is mixed 60:40 to sugar, boiled vigorously and then decanted into sterile jars. Once it's cooled, you can spread it on your toast the next morning... or perhaps you prefer muffins, or eating it with cheese or merely spooned from the jar.

Who cares, it's all good.

I shall share much of our bounty with friends, for though it keeps well the jelly is best eaten when young. There's a piquancy to the new crop that's more alive and arresting than any supposed depth of flavour that comes with age. Or in plainer English—and the type of words Orwell would favour—it comes with a raw and vigorous smack in the mouth!  

Perhaps that's why I like it so much; why this strange gnarly apple appeals to my sense of self; why its tang is something I crave and yet can't quite fix and even less hold onto?

Quinces it seems are among the oldest of fruits but their taste is the flavour of youth.