Sunday, 28 March 2010

Elspeth Thompson

Those of you who followed Elspeth Thompson's wonderful blog, books and garden writing in the Sunday Telegraph will be saddened to hear of her untimely death at the age of 48. One of her talents as a writer was her openness, and I am sure that many, many readers will have felt touched by her way with words, by the sense that Elspeth's unique voice had reached out to them. (And for those who haven't yet read her, you might start with her inspiring piece on gardening against the odds).
I first met Elspeth at university, and feel blessed to have known her. When my sister died of breast cancer, Elspeth's kindness and grace were, as always, evident. On the day of Ruth's memorial service, she rose at dawn, and went to buy lavender at New Covent Garden market, so that the scent of my sister's favourite flower would fill the air. Afterwards, I took several of the pots of lavender home with me, and would always think of Elspeth, as well as Ruth, whenever I saw or smelt them. Indeed, Elspeth's gift that day was one of the catalysts for my founding of the Lavender Trust, a charity which I hoped (as I still do) would remain true to the spirit of Ruth, and others like her, who came to understand that the shadow of death could not take away a profound love of life.
Elspeth knew the meaning of loss, of the darkness at the edge of the light; which may be why she was also swift to cherish those who were dear to her, as well as the gardens that were so close to her heart. Her love of her family, and the gardens she created for them, were entwined; her gardening seemed to me to be an act of faith, as well as a testament to her creativity.
Here is one of the poems that she shared with readers of this blog, for Elspeth was as generous with words as she was with seedlings and flowers.

By Frances Shaw
“Who loves the rain
And loves his home,
And looks on life with quiet eyes,
Him will I follow through the storm;
And at his hearth-fire keep me warm;
Nor hell nor heaven shall that soul surprise,
Who loves the rain,
And loves his home,
And looks on life with quiet eyes.”

Finally -- well, not finally, because the living continue talking to the dead -- is a poem that Elspeth posted on this blog at the turning of the year. Here it is again, for her, wherever she may go...

adapted from the Celtic by Thomas A Clark

May the best hour of the day be yours.
May luck go with you from hill to sea.
May you stand against the prevailing wind.
May no forest intimidate you.
May you look out from your own eyes.
May near and far attend you.
May you bathe your face in the sun’s rays.
May you have milk, cream, substance.
May your actions be effective.
May your thoughts be affective.
May you will both the wild and the mild.
May you sing the lark from the sky.
May you place yourself in circumstance.
May you be surrounded by goldfinches.
May you pause among alders.
May your desire be infinite.
May what you touch be touched.
May the company be less for your leaving.
May you walk alone beneath the stars.
May your embers still glow in the morning.

So, no, not finally, never that, two more poems and comments from Elspeth. When I wrote exactly a year ago on what to read when the clocks go forward, she sent me two poems by Mary Oliver, including the one that was read at my sister's funeral. As she said to me then, it represented a kind of full circle. Dear Elspeth, dearest Elspeth, thank you for remembering the poems. We will remember you.


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The tree of forgiveness and the thing with feathers...

Thank you for all your comments on the previous post, which were so kind and inspiring and reassuring, and just what I needed. In response to some of these comments (in no particular order): I'm afraid I won't be able to stay on in Cornwall for the film club (I have to get back to London for the start of my son's GCSEs), but I will be talking about Coco Chanel at the Du Maurier festival, and would be happy to say hello to anyone then, and answer any questions about the film and its relationship with the truth of Chanel's early life (not that truth is ever immutable, for a woman who reinvented her past).
I have gone in search of James Leigh Milne, inspired by treeofforgiveness. I've also been prompted to read about The Tree of Forgiveness, the painting by Edward Coley Burne-Jones.
What else? My dishwasher has been fixed, hurrah, although when it was pulled out from the wall, a sinister and persistent leak was revealed, which has just been mended (I hope) by a cheerful plumber called Barry. Meanwhile, the oven has started rattling and coughing, which sounds ominous. It's as if the kitchen is complaining after a long winter...
The ladybirds are still flying in, crashing and dying on the windowsill of my study. There is a soft rain falling, and a blackbird singing in the garden, but no sign of the fox today. A squirrel has been eating the buds on the magnolia tree, so I threw a tennis ball at it, which missed; it simply stared at me disdainfully, and carried on nibbling. Daffodils and primroses are blooming in the borders, despite the diggings and scratchings of neighbourhood cats. My elderly cat is back indoors, escaping from the drizzle into the warmest spot on the sofa.
I've been reading Emily Dickinson; good for the sharp days of spring:
"Hope" is the thing with feathers --
That perches in the soul --
And sings the tune without the words --
And never stops -- at all --

And sweetest -- in the Gale -- is heard --
And sore must be the storm --
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm --

I've heard it on the chillest land --
And in the strangest Sea --
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb -- of Me.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Beware the ides of March

The ides of March have come and gone this week, which may or may not explain why I feel quite so jittery. No Shakespearean soothsayer has come to warn me against the ides; life in my quiet north London street has not taken on the tragic proportions of Julius Caesar's Rome, as far as I can tell, although a sinister, possibly suicidal legion of foreign harlequin ladybirds has invaded my study through the south-facing window, most of them dying soon afterwards.
There have been glorious bursts of sunshine, in between sudden showers; the daffodils are finally blooming; the cat is warming her old bones on the grass. A fox skirted past her this morning, but she seemed not to notice; I kept a watchful eye on both of them, but the fox was simply passing through, up and over the wooden fences into neighbouring gardens.
Yesterday I made one of my mother's fail-safe recipes from my childhood: a packet of ginger biscuits, crushed and mixed with a little melted butter, then patted to form a base on a spring-form cake tin; topped with a tin of condensed milk mixed with a tub of cream, and the juice and zest of several lemons. This works like magic: the lemon juice thickens the creamy mixture, and it all sets in the fridge to form something that tastes far more delicious than the sum of its parts.
The dishwasher is broken, after a decade of patient service. I'm hoping it can be fixed, as I've lost faith in the zen art of washing up.
But the good news is that I found my copy of Angela Carter's essays: 'Shaking a Leg'. Here she is writing in the London Review of Books in 1985 on Elizabeth Wilson's study of fashion, 'Adorned in Dreams': fashion matters, she says, 'Because women do love to dress up, and also to dress down: we dress to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to transform ourselves, to amuse ourselves... to pass unnoticed in the crowd, to pass messages about ourselves, to pass the time.'
Memo to self: find Elizabeth Wilson's book; sweep up dead ladybirds; move on from melancholic superstition; embrace the spring...

Thursday, 11 March 2010

These are a few of my favourite things

I just wanted to share some discoveries; prompted by a beautifully wrapped parcel that arrived in the post this morning, containing Paul Morand's 'Lewis and Irene', which I'd ordered a few days ago from an antiquarian book sellers in Gloucester City, New Jersey (I love the way the internet brings lost books to light for those who seek them). It's a 1925 first edition, hand-cut pages, and dispatched in pristine white tissue paper, for a very reasonable price ($21) from
I also want to recommend the Pushkin Press as a publisher of many forgotten treasures, including several of Paul Morand's books, in excellent translations by Euan Cameron. Morand was a friend of Chanel's, a writer and diplomat; a man with a terribly flawed past, who found a way of telling his story (and many others) through the prism of 'Venices'. He has been described, memorably, in the New York Times as 'one of the great nomads of 20th-century French literature, racing through the apocalypse with the haste and glamor of an Orient Express.' Definitely worth reading for anyone intrigued by the shadows of Venice...

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The silence of the dead

I've just run out of space while writing too long a comment, prompted by people's interesting responses to the previous post. What I didn't have room to say was this: that here is a piece worth reading about Jessica Mitford's silence on the subject of her childrens' deaths. Whether or not you agree with it, it's definitely thought-provoking. I now want to read her letters.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Of Swinbrook and the swan

So annoying, I just spent half an hour creating a loving post about Swinbrook and the Swan and the Mitford letters and the graves in the churchyard and the Duchess of Devonshire, with lots of links, and then it all came crashing down without saving. And now I have to take a DVD of The Hurt Locker (grueling viewing) back to Blockbuster and buy a birthday present and write a column for the Sunday Telegraph, and I've lost my train of thought regarding the aforementioned Mitfords and their views on food. Also, I did lots of links to other good blogs, having been directed there by your excellent comments on my previous post (thank you to book shelf and everyone else). Anyway, am feeling woebegone about the lost words, but maybe the point was simply to write them.

Friday, 5 March 2010

A new look for an old Mitford

I am just surfacing from a week of too little sleep and too many deadlines, but this is my reward. Penguin have reissued several Nancy Mitfords with fresh new covers for spring, including Wigs on the Green, which has been out of print for almost 75 years. I've never read it before, despite being a Mitford fan, so I'm curious to discover the novel that she did not want reprinted in her lifetime. First published in 1935, it was Mitford's third novel, and was sufficiently autobiographical to cause a rift with her sisters Diana and Unity. According to the excellent introduction by Charlotte Mosley, the character of Eugenia Malmains is a thinly disguised portrait of Unity, while Captain Jack modeled on Diana's lover and future husband, Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists. When Mitford's publisher asked her to consider reissuing the book in 1951, she refused. "Too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as funny or anything but the worst of taste," she wrote to Evelyn Waugh, "so that is out."
Initially, Nancy had hoped that 'Wigs on the Green' might amuse Diana, but this was very far from the case. Charlotte Mosley reveals that 'The main reason for her refusal [to reprint the novel], apart from the jokes about Nazis, was that the book had caused such furious reactions within the Mitford family: Unity threatened never to speak to her again and Diana, who had recently divorced her first husband for Mosley, more or less broke off relations until the end of the war. Added to this, no doubt, was Nancy's unwillingness to revive the memory of Unity's suicide attempt in 1939 and her consequent death in 1948.'
Charlotte Mosley has already proved herself to be an exemplary editor of the Mitford sisters' letters -- every time I dip into her satisfyingly abundant book, I always discover another plum. Here is Nancy's letter to Diana, written from Paris on 4th September 1947:
'Yesterday I stood at Dior for two hours while they moulded me with great wadges of cotton wool & built a coat over the result. I look exactly like Queen Mary -- think how warm though! Ad [a cousin of the Mitfords] says all the English newspapers are on to the long skirts, & sneer. They may, but all I can think of now one will be able to have knickers over the knee. Now I'm nearly fifty I've decided to choose a style & stick to it, & I choose Dior's present collection [Christian Dior's second collection, which kept the nipped waist of the New Look, but had longer and fuller skirts.] Simply, to my mind, perfect... Some French paper has said that Queen Mary's dress for THE wedding [of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip] is to have a huge pocket over the stomach -- what can she being going to put there. Diana [Cooper] says a baby kangeroo...'
Am going to make myself a cup of tea now, toast a hot-cross bun, and read more...