Wednesday, 27 January 2010


So many lovely comments from everyone on 'I Capture the Castle' that I re-read it, in between couture shows in Paris. The clothes on the catwalk were amazing -- clouds of frothy pastels and cream tulle at Chanel, like spring blossoms -- and then Dodie Smith reminded me of why clothes matter; of the desire and frustration that they elicit; of what they reveal of us, as well as what they cover up.
There were no green arms in Paris, but plenty of fur coats in the freezing wind. A chic Parisian friend of mine said, 'why is it that Englishwomen only ever wear vintage fur?' I said, because we feel guilty. She said, oh, so typical of the British.
My top style-tip from the front row: woolly grey tights that could have come from the John Lewis schools department. Truly. You read it here first...

Friday, 15 January 2010

Of chocolate, Horlicks, and furs

So, my son arrived home safely, via Virgin, and term has started again, and the days are getting a little longer, and slowly, slowly, the winter nights will move toward spring.
I am not good at the winter, but have been doing my best to see the bright side, after feeling (literally) under the weather. (Such a true expression, when the skies are low and grey.) A very kind friend brought me a large box of Celebrations and a jar of Horlicks, both of which are good. I've discovered that Horlicks Light is not the same as the real thing (you add water, yuk, instead of mixing a paste with milk, like in the old days), but Horlicks Original still exists, hurrah.
Have also been much cheered by I re-reading I Capture The Castle, and laughing about the episode with the fur coats. Chapter 6: Rose and Cassandra visit London for the day, after the death of their Aunt Millicent, who has left them her furs. This is a surprise, as Cassandra has always believed that Aunt Millicent disapproved of furs. Anyway, they go to pick them up from the storage department of a shop that sounds to me like Harrods as it once was:
'The pale grey carpets were as springy as moss and the air was scented; it smelt a bit like bluebells but richer, deeper.
"What does it smell of, exactly?" I said. And Rose said:

However, Aunt Millicent's furs are revealed to be very unheavenly: 'We shook them out and examined them. There were two very long coats, one of them black and shaggy and the other smoothish and brown; a short, black tight-fitting jacket with leg o'mutton sleeves; and a large hairy rug with a green felt border.
"But whatever animals were they?" I gasped.
The white-haired woman inspected them gingerly. She said the brown coat was beaver and the short jacket, which had a rusty look under its black, was sealskin. She couldn't identify the rug at all -- it looked like collie dog to me...'

All this from the author of The One Hundred and One Dalmations. I'd love to have had the chance to ask Dodie Smith what she really thought about fur... She writes about the desire for it (the fur department of the heavenly shop smells different, 'an exciting smell') and its ugliness, as well as its dark allure. She wrote 'I Capture The Castle' on the West Coast of America, at the end of the second world war, while terribly homesick for England; the Dalmations came later, in the 1950s. But where on earth did Cruella de Vil spring from? Perhaps not earth -- she is too Satanic... but I always thought it intriguing to discover that as a schoolgirl, Cruella drank ink.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Snow white and the mean reds

It's cold outside -- well below zero, and the snow on the ground has frozen into an icy mask -- and I am feeling anxious (I'm waiting for my younger son to fly home from New York tomorrow, and I wish he was here, home safely). My mind has been lurching all over the place, and in between pacing, I've remembered the bit from Breakfast at Tiffany's, when Holly Golightly explains about the mean reds. They're not the same as the blues, she says:
'No, the blues are because you're getting fat or maybe it's been raining too long. You're sad, that's all. But the mean reds are horrible. You're afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don't know what you're afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don't know what it is...'

I'm not sweating -- it's much too chilly, even with the heating on -- and I think perhaps I've got a touch of the dark blues, rather than the mean reds.
And no chocolate in the house, nor any Horlicks. Tonight I need Horlicks in bed, not Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Of snow and ghosts

More snow has fallen, and I ventured out this morning, wrapped up in more layers of padding than a Michelin woman. Aberdeenshire looks beautiful but unrecognizable from the place I first came to in June. Back then, I picnicked beside the loch that you can see in the second picture; or rather, you can't see it, because it's iced over and covered with thick snow.
The gates look like the ones that lead to Rebecca's Manderley, I think, although no ghosts are visible here in Tillypronie. True, it has a touch of the Gothic about it, like Du Maurier's 'House of Secrets', or Bly, the mansion in Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw', which is as much a part of the narrative as Manderley in 'Rebecca' -- set alone, far from any other dwelling, surrounded by woods and hills, and hidden from the road. But even though Henry James visited here, it's not as brooding as Bly. Nor is there any sign of the sinister ghosts that whisper in those houses. In fact, this house feels like a friend, especially when it's cold outside.
But if anyone is still brooding about 'The Turn of the Screw' -- as I am, after watching its dramatization on the BBC earlier this week, transposed from the end of the 19th century to just after the First World War (a fictionalising of a fiction that seemed to come to a dead end, at least for me, in a much less expert way than James' own narrative within a narrative) -- here is a passage from James' original novel; a single sentence that twists like the novella in which it appears. (Sadly, as you will have noticed from this blog, I don't possess a fraction of James' mastery of long sentences.) Although the BBC drama was spooky -- the governess particularly unsettling -- I still think the book is far more frightening; more ambiguous, closer to the edge of madness, and beyond into the darkness of the true unknown...

'The limit of this evil time had arrived only when, on the dawn of a winter’s morning, Peter Quint was found, by a labourer going to work, stone dead on the road from the village: a catastrophe explained—superficially at least—by a visible wound to his head; such a wound as might have been produced (and as, on the final evidence, had been) by a fatal slip, in the dark and after leaving the public-house, on the steepish icy slope, a wrong path altogether, at the bottom of which he lay.'

Friday, 1 January 2010

Happy New Year

New Year's Day in Aberdeenshire, and the snow is deep on the ground. I've never been to Scotland in winter until now, and it's astonishing for a Londoner like me to see the Highlands at this time of year. Icicles hanging from the rooftops, drifts of snow up to my waist when I tried to go for a walk in the woods (which look like Narnia), and last night, the most eerie moonlight at midnight. It was a full moon on New Year's Eve, and as we peered out into the darkness, it turned out not to be dark at all. At first, I thought perhaps I was seeing the Northern Lights -- for the first time ever -- but it looked more like Moominland, with the snowy peaks of Morven clearly visible in a strange green light. We could see all the way into the distance, beyond Morven, to the far hills that would usually be shrouded in velvety black. In such powerful moonlight, you could imagine werewolves coming down from the mountain, through the trees and into the garden; fortunately, the only creature that made itself heard was a chocolate brown cocker spaniel called Bill, who was snoring gently on his sheepskin rug.
It's snowing again now, but I am warm inside, and about to light a fire and eat some Bendick's Bitter Mints (particularly good on New Year's Day, I think, because they give the illusion of being refreshing.)
Here's a New Year thought from a local minister, who preached in these parts over a century ago, and he in turn provides an appropriate introduction to Lord Byron, who once walked the hills that I now gaze upon, all pristine and covered in snow. Byron wrote the poem in 1807, inspired by crags of Morven, as well as the curves of a female form. It's a bit gloomy in parts (well, Byronic, as to be expected), but less melancholy, I decided, than posting Thomas Hardy's 'The Darkling Thrush', which the poet dated December 31st 1900, striking a memorably bleak note for the new century.

"For the improvement of the human being himself much has been attempted, and it is to be hoped, something accomplished. In the departments of education and sanitation we have seen quite a revolution. Amid all these changes we trust there is one respect in which we have remained unimpaired – in the love of our kindred and love of our country. May the day be distant when the materialism of this cosmopolitan age shall so blunt the sensibilities of the youth reared under the shadow of Morven that wherever they roam their hearts should fail to be warmed by the strains of the youthful Byron, who sang so sweetly: –

Rev. John G. Michie, History of Logie-Coldstone and Braes of Cromar, 1896

When I rov’d a young Highlander o’er the dark heath,
And climb’d thy steep summit, oh Morven of snow!
To gaze on the torrent that thunder’d beneath,
Or the mist of the tempest that gather’d below;
Untutor’d by science, a stranger to fear,
And rude as the rocks, where my infancy grew,
No feeling, save one, to my bosom was dear;
Need I say, my sweet Mary, ’twas centred in you?

Yet it could not be Love, for I knew not the name, –
What passion can dwell in the heart of a child?
But, still, I perceive an emotion the same
As I felt, when a boy, on the crag-cover’d wild:
One image, alone, on my bosom impress’d,
I lov’d my bleak regions, nor panted for new;
And few were my wants, for my wishes were bless’d,
And pure were my thoughts, for my soul was with you.

I arose with the dawn, with my dog as my guide,
From mountain to mountain I bounded along;
I breasted the billows of Dee’s rushing tide,
And heard at a distance the Highlander’s song:
At eve, on my heath-cover’d couch of repose.
No dreams, save of Mary, were spread to my view;
And warm to the skies my devotions arose,
For the first of my prayers was a blessing on you.

I left my bleak home, and my visions are gone;
The mountains are vanish’d, my youth is no more;
As the last of my race, I must wither alone,
And delight but in days, I have witness’d before:
Ah! splendour has rais’d, but embitter’d my lot;
More dear were the scenes which my infancy knew:
Though my hopes may have fail’d, yet they are not forgot,
Though cold is my heart, still it lingers with you.

When I see some dark hill point its crest to the sky,
I think of the rocks that o’ershadow Colbleen;
When I see the soft blue of a love-speaking eye,
I think of those eyes that endear’d the rude scene;
When, haply, some light-waving locks I behold,
That faintly resemble my Mary’s in hue,
I think on the long flowing ringlets of gold,
The locks that were sacred to beauty, and you.

Yet the day may arrive, when the mountains once more
Shall rise to my sight, in their mantles of snow;
But while these soar above me, unchang’d as before,
Will Mary be there to receive me? – ah, no!
Adieu, then, ye hills, where my childhood was bred!
Thou sweet flowing Dee, to thy waters adieu!
No home in the forest shall shelter my head, –
Ah! Mary, what home could be mine, but with you?