Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Of roses and feasts

Thanks to everyone for sweet birthday wishes and lemony messages. It was a perfect English midsummer's day, the roses in my garden all bursting into flower at once. There was tea and champagne and a Victoria sponge cake from my younger son (filled with jam and cream), and other treats -- a pot of lavender from a friend, three new rosebushes from my mother, a pair of earrings (delicate gold and mother-of-pearl), and some wonderful books: including a recent edition of Sappho, Stung with Love (Poems and Fragments), with a preface by Carol Ann Duffy. The translation is by Aaron Poochigian -- a musical, lilting interpretation, like this one, from a fragment discovered on a broken piece of pottery:

'... roses without number
Umber the earth and, rustling,
The leaves drip slumber.'

Duffy writes of Sappho: 'She was a great celebrator, had a poet's and a woman's eye for the 'gorgeous'; for flowers -- chervil, rose, marigold and sweet clover; for smells -- frankincense, aniseed, myrrh and honey; she loved the moon and 'The glitter and glamour of the sun'; she loved... a good party, 'a gleaming feast'.

Yesterday evening, I visited a friend; we sat with two others on her roof terrace, high above dusty London pavements, close to the top of the plane trees, eating cherries soused in grappa, with homemade meringues and ginger icecream. We talked of heartbreak and romance, of the differences between men and women, of the fragile threads that weave into something whole.

Now the waxing moon rises beyond the magnolia tree at the end of the garden. I have just been outside in the warm darkness, watering the roses, counting my blessings, wishing that the petals would never fall, seeing them drop, pale and beautiful, to the ground, knowing that other buds will take their place; hoping that this moment, this one that now hovers, might stay with me always, wishing again that this one... and that one... could remain unfaded, even as the years turn, as they must do; unbroken, as clear as a word on a page.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Lemon cake, champagne cocktails and Jane Austen

I had an impromptu girls' night in yesterday evening -- an alternative to the World Cup, although a few of us watched the first English goal, before conversation kicked in. I baked a lemon cake -- my favourite recipe (weigh four eggs, cream together the same quantities of butter and sugar, add the eggs, fold in the same amount of self-raising flour, then the juice of three lemons, a dash of milk, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. After baking, pour over a mixture of lemon juice and granulated sugar, which makes a tangy, crunchy topping. Serve with creme fraiche); meringues filled with whipped cream and raspberries; and the easiest lemon tart (the recipe that my mother taught me to make when I was a child: a packet of crushed digestive biscuits -- sometimes I use Hobnobs or ginger snaps instead -- mixed with a little melted butter as a base; with a lemony filling that magically sets without any further ado; you just mix a tin of condensed milk with a tub of double cream and the juice of four lemons). As you can tell, I love lemony puddings...
We drank champagne cocktails -- simply add a dash of cointreau to the fizz -- and talked and laughed immoderately, in between admiring the White's Fine Edition of Emma that my friend Kaye bought me for my birthday (which isn't til next week). Its cover is designed by Amy Gibson, a graduate in fashion from Central St Martin's, now working for Topshop.
Today, I am feeling slightly fragile -- I blame the cointreau, though wouldn't have missed out on it last night -- and eating left-over cake and meringues. Have also been browsing through the wonderfully comprehensive new website, created by Professor Kathryn Sutherland (the ultimate Jane Austen expert), which reunites Austen's fiction manuscripts for the first time since 1845, when her sister Cassandra died and the manuscripts were dispersed.
Blasphemy, I know, to talk of these manuscripts in the same breath as lemon cake; but somehow or other, the blend has worked wonders for me this weekend.
Please do try this at home...

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Tillypronie in June

A brief visit to Aberdeenshire, where sunshine is broken by rain showers, and a mysterious thunderstorm this afternoon, when the skies were alive with a strange light. Afterwards a mist arose from the ground, and a cloud in the shape of a hare scudded above, then dissolved.
Last time I was here it was Easter, and the snow was still lodged in thick icy drifts; the azaleas were broken-limbed, pine trees cracking and creaking, their branches collapsing with great sighs. But two months on, the garden at Tillypronie has emerged again, just in time for tomorrow's opening. The bluebells are flowering, a month later than those further south; bees bumble in the fresh growth of heather; azaleas and rhododendrons blossoming in a sudden burst, their scent drifting across the lawn.
Oh, how lovely is June; this great rush forward, when the days are lengthening, and even at midnight, there is light at the edge of the sky.
In the morning I must return to London, but tonight I am here, where the lapwings fly.

Which is as good a reason as any to read this poem, Two Pewits, by Edward Thomas:

Under the after-sunset sky
Two pewits sport and cry,
More white than is the moon on high
Riding the dark surge silently;
More black than earth. Their cry
Is the one sound under the sky.
They alone move, now low, now high,
And merrily they cry
To the mischievous Spring sky,
Plunging earthward, tossing high,
Over the ghost who wonders why
So merrily they cry and fly,
Nor choose 'twixt earth and sky,
While the moon's quarter silently
Rides, and earth rests as silently.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Bowood, again (and again)

On Sunday I fled from London and book proofs to visit one of the most glorious gardens in England, just in time to see its famous rhododendrons in full flower. Bowood is a magical place, where history seems alive within its walls, and the gardens have been tended over centuries. The 18th century house is full of extraordinary treasures: from Napoleon's death mask to Byron's Albanian robes; from a spray of orange blossom in Queen Victoria's wedding bouquet to the records of Dr Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen gas while working in his laboratory at Bowood in 1774. There are angels and centaurs, lions and stags, and an elephant in an Orangery. It's the kind of house that I imagined as a child, reading C.S Lewis's Narnia stories; rather as he described in the opening pages of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe': 'the sort of house that you never seem to come to the end of... full of unexpected places... and then a whole series of rooms that led into each other... lined with books -- most of them very old books and some bigger than a Bible in a church.'
I didn't take myself off to sit in a wardrobe in an empty bedroom, although I might have been tempted to do so several decades ago; but I did wander through a glade of rhododendrons, some of which were first planted over 150 years ago, having been brought back to Bowood by intrepid Victorian plant collectors, who discovered them in the Himalayas. Amidst these exotic specimens are equally luscious azaleas and magnolias; and then there are the wisterias, waterfalls of lilac and white flowers, cascading down walls and over pergolas, forming doorways to yet more garden landscapes, like the 17th century Dutch paintings that seem to miraculously reveal rooms beyond rooms beyond rooms.
The flowering season of the rhododendrons is brief -- just a few more weeks, perhaps, through the high summer days of June -- so if you happen to be in Wiltshire, or thereabouts, I do hope you find yourself in this English Arcadia, discovering more of its famous glories, hidden corners and secret hideaways, where time seems to stand still, even as the blossom blazes and fades.