Saturday, 21 December 2013

Paper Bags: Lord & Taylor Christmas

Lord & Taylor Christmas bag.
This was sent to me by my dear friend Lynn in Buffalo.
I'm afraid the photograph isn't very good. It was such a dark day I had to have the spotlights on and however I tried the light was reflected in the glass. I suppose I could have taken this down from the bathroom wall and found somewhere with better lighting, but I'm sorry to say that laziness and other tasks got in the way of that plan.
Anyway, Happy Christmas to everyone.

Monday, 16 December 2013

A Little Bit of Chocolate Does You Good: Nestlé Quality Street

Our stationery supply company sent us a tin of Quality Street for Christmas.
The waft of Christmassy chocolatey goodness when we opened it for the first time was amazing.

Quality Street was launched in 1936 by Mackintosh's but of course Rowntree Mackintosh was bought by Nestle in 1988. There are 12 different varieties in the tin, so something for everyone.
The Quality Street brand was named after a play by J M Barrie who wrote Peter Pan.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Books to Read Again: Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster

Daddy-Long-Legs (1912) is such a charming book. I found it in the school Fiction Library when I was about 14 and read it, and read it again. And I keep going back to it because it's such fun. Written in 1912 it's obviously going to be very dated, but it is so obviously a period piece that the sometimes strange details are interesting rather than annoying.

My current copy is a little Hodder & Stoughton hardback dated 1917. It once belonged to J Vernon Hean of Ashton-under-Lyne, who taught elocution and drama. He marked the opening chapter to show the LAMDA approved passage.

Daddy-Long-Legs was made into a movie in 1955 starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. The film is really not at all like the book - for a start our hero finds our heroine in France (presumably to explain why Leslie Caron is French) rather than in an institution for orphans in Dutchess County New York state, and I found it a great disappointment. Maybe if I hadn't read and loved the book I would have enjoyed the film but it's too late now. Mary Pickford made a silent movie of the book, and another version starred Janet Gaynor and Warner Baxter. And weirdly (OK, weirdly to me) it seems to be hugely popular in South Korea! Who knew? Although, the plot of the 2005 Korean film that I read about on Wikipedia is (how can I put it) not even remotely like the book. Oh yes, and there's a Korean anime TV show from 1990 as well. 

Jerusha Abbott is brought up at the John Grier Home for orphans run by the unsympathetic Mrs Lippett. When she is 16 she is given the chance to go to college by one of the Trustees. He (we only know it's a he because he wants to be known as Mr John Smith and, of course, in 1912 Trustees would all have been men) only asks that his protegee write to him once a month to let him know how she is getting on. Jerusha reckons that John Smith is a name sublimely lacking in imagination and, having caught a glimpse of him leaving the John Grier Home, and seen his long thin spindly shadow, she nicknames him Daddy-Long-Legs. And once she gets to college she renames herself Judy.

Judy's adventures at college include playing basketball, studying english and chemistry, geometry and latin, reading Little Women (an American staple which I never read until I was older than Judy but then I'm not an American) and many other books for the first time, and suffering from a rather dreadful sounding sublingual gland swelling. Daddy-Long-Legs has not previously responded to any of her letters but sends a box of pink rosebuds when he gets her letter about the glands. I must say, I'd rather like to be sent a box of rosebuds if I were feeling ill. She enjoys herself enormously and does very well in her studies, winning and accepting a scholarship much to her benefactor's displeasure. He's a little bit too managing and obviously wants to be solely responsible for her upkeep.

Kite day at the orphanage
Judy spends her summers at Lock Willow Farm in Connecticut where, as it so happens, her wealthy room-mate Julia Pendleton's Uncle Jervis Pendleton spent much of his childhood. Fancy! And Uncle Jervis somehow creeps into the plot. Quite a lot in fact.  When I first read this I was caught by surprise at the end of the book but on re-reading it is quite obvious what's going on. Or maybe I am just a lot older now and it's less likely that a plot will sneak up on me....

Daddy-Long-Legs manipulates Judy in a way that modern readers may find distasteful. However, the plot has a very happy ending and there is a sequel in which it is obvious that the happy ending was no mere plot device. Well, obviously it was a plot device but it continues happy. And you can't really ask for more.

So, the sequel is Dear Enemy (1915) in which Judy's other college room-mate Sallie McBride is convinced to take on the massive task of managing of the John Grier Home. Sallie writes to Judy (spoiler: now Mrs Jervis Pendleton), to her admirer and sometimes fiance, Gordon Hallock, an aspiring politician, and to the local doctor Dr Robin MacRae who she finds extremely annoying and often addresses as her 'Dear Enemy'.

No prizes for guessing what happens in the end but along the way we have plenty of adventures with
orphans and Sallie is an interesting correspondent who finds (much against her initial judgement) that
Sallie institutes gardens for the orphans
she enjoys running an orphan asylum and very much wants to improve matters for her small charges. Sallie has a maid, Jane, and a chow chow called Singapore, and is not altogether approved of by most of the Trustees, but against all the odds she makes a terrific job of sorting out  the JGH and ends up enjoying the job far more than she expected.

When I bought this book and re-read it for the first time in years I was a bit staggered to notice how much the book focuses on health: fresh air (rather too much for my taste!) is all important, as is diet, and exercise but also there is much discussion of heredity. Well obviously it must be a good thing to have healthy parents, but to expect a small baby of 2 or 3 to have problems because his mother was an alcoholic, or to report that - of course - the daughter of a chorus girl flutters her eyelashes to get what she wants strikes me as going a bit too far. I have read other early C20th books where heredity and health are all important but this book takes things to extremes with poor Sallie forced into reading a great many improving books (which were highly thought of at the time) by Dr MacRae. I found it really annoying. However, on second re-reading (some years later) I brushed past all the improving thoughts and focused on the stories of the orphans and changes to the dreadful old regime at the orphanage which Sallie tries so hard to implement.

Jean Webster had a great friend who died of TB. She also fell in love with a man whose wife was a manic depressive and he was an alcoholic. They had a child who "showed signs of mental instability" whatever that meant. So obviously all these health matters very important to her, as well as being fashionable at the time she was writing. She was interested in women's suffrage, prison visits and orphanage reform. Very sadly she died in childbirth in June 1916. She was not quite 40.

Like Daddy-Long-Legs, Dear Enemy is very dated. But still very charming, full of great characters and a good read. Both books were illustrated by Jean Webster herself and the drawings, while not perhaps of great artistic merit, are full of life. Daddy-Long-Legs was supposed to have been illustrated by Judy as part of her letters to her benefactor, but no such claims are made for Dear Enemy.

If you come across either book do give it a try.
Sadie Kate, one of the orphans, has just had her pigtails chopped off by Jane

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Tree Identification № 2: Cotoneaster

Cotoneaster is a genus of flowering plants with between 70 and 700 species. This seems a hugely vague thing to say but there's obviously something highly technical that makes plants possibly Cotoneaster and possibly not. And I probably don't know what it is.

At any rate there are a number of different types of Cotoneaster (and for those of you who don't know it is pronounced kəˈtnˈæstər rather than coton-easter) which flourish in this part of London.

There's the flat kind that grows along the ground or up walls which has tiny leaves and flowers on very straight stiff twigs, Cotoneaster prostratus. It seems to grow in every second garden around here. It's happy growing up against walls or under hedges and this year has produced a bumper crop of berries and some gorgeous autumn colour.

Then there's the sort that makes a very handsome hedge. I think it's probably
Cotoneaster franchetii because that's what is usually sold as a hedging plant these days. It makes a beautiful hedge with tiny flowers much sought after by bees, and brilliant red berries. You'd think that the berries would be snapped up by the birds but they are usually to be seen well into the winter, even if it has been very cold and food must be scarce. The leaves are quite tough and leathery and about the size of a finger nail (although narrower) and have quite a pronounced point. The central vein is obvious but the lateral veins only really show if you hold a leaf up to the light. Some years C. franchettii has vibrant red autumn colour; this year many local plants have turned a rich crimson.

You can see that the year I took this photograph our hedge produced no autumn colour at all.

Many Suburb roads still have the original hedges which were planted in the early years of the 20th century so Cotoneaster hedges can be spotted in Oakwood Road, Denman Drive, Blandford Close and Westholm. They are a welcome change from the now ubiquitous Privet and in fact make a good choice for a small front garden as you get a narrow hedge that doesn't bush out and take up too much room. Impatient modern gardeners want fast growing hedges of Laurel or Photinia or worse, Leylandii. Laurel and Photonia have large leaves which don't look good when you clip the hedge regularly, and as for Leylandii - there's no stopping it. Before you know where you are it's as tall as the house. But plant a little row of Cotoneaster and in a couple of years you'll have a well-mannered hedge that won't need cutting back every week, won't overwhelm your garden, and will benefit the local wildlife.

Also to be found in the Suburb are Tree Cotoneasters. This is simply a term for species of Cotoneaster
which will, as the word suggests, grow into trees. There are some planted as garden trees, but the most obvious are to be found in the section of Asmuns Hill between Willifield Way and Erskine Hill. When these houses were built in about 1909 - 1910 the street was planted with Tree Cotoneasters. No record of the Latin name was kept so it's not clear exactly which species was planted. However, these are quite short-lived trees and by the time I was taking an intelligent interest in street trees there were none left. The road was planted with a mix of pink flowering cherry and crab apples and birch; whatever happened to be available.

When the local Trees & Open Spaces Committee agreed a plan for street tree planting with Barnet Council, high on the list was replacing lost planting schemes so in the late 1990s first one, and then two or three Cotoneaster frigidus were planted in Asmuns Hill. I think C. cornubia was also planted. The planting is still mixed because you don't fell a perfectly healthy tree simply because it doesn't fit your planting scheme.  One day perhaps the road will look as originally intended.
Tree Cotoneasters have narrow strap-like leaves (although essentially, er, leaf-shaped), perhaps 7cm long and quite leathery. The veins are quite pronounced giving a slightly quilted effect that doesn't really show in photographs. The white flowers come in clusters and are followed by bunches of pinkish red or bright red berries. The bark is a little like Cherry bark but it's not what you really look at. This is a handsome tree; its main attraction the mass of leaves and fruits although sometimes they seem too heavy for the slender trunk. 

Plenty of autumn colour this year

Monday, 9 December 2013

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Books to Read Again: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Do you know where your towel is? If you've read and enjoyed this book I'm sure you will remember it is vitally important to carry a towel with you at all times. It really is the most massively useful travel accessory, except perhaps for your copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy the most remarkable of all books ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor.

The only trouble for me is that I've read this book so often I know great swathes of the text off by heart and I hear lots of it out loud in my head with the voices of the actors from the radio show speaking the words. So I haven't been able to read it for years.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy started life as a BBC Radio 4 programme in 1978. It was such a success it was repeated twice in '78 and rapidly turned into a book and a record. In those far off times it was a double LP (on vinyl) available from Megadodo Publications for £7.25. There were several more radio series and four more books (I absolutely refuse to read the other alleged sequel which wasn't even written by Douglas Adams) which were sort of based on the radio shows. Or only a bit. Or indeed, not at all. And of course there was a BBC TV show and in due course a film. And some computer games. And a commemorative towel. And there's a whole website too which is not really the same thing but you can find it here

I remember going to bed early to listen to the radio on my own, so I wouldn't be interrupted in the middle of the programme. No Listen Again features in those days, no downloading a podcast.  You had to listen when you could. And along with many other people I was bowled over by this strange and downright weird story, and I couldn't get enough of it. And the theme tune was brilliant too: Journey of the Sorcerer by The Eagles from their 1975 album One of These Nights. Check it out on iTunes or somewhere but remember the movie version of this tune is all wrong (OK, for purists like me the movie version is all wrong).

If you think you don't like Science Fiction (and my question to you is: why not?) give it a try anyway. Because it is more than Science Fiction, funnier than most for a start. It's a funny, clever adventure that just happens to be set out in the wilds of the galaxy.

Our copy of the book is a little battered
It's the story of Arthur Dent who lives a quiet life in the west country until one day he is rescued from the sudden destruction of the Earth by his friend Ford Prefect (not his real name). Suddenly it turns out that Ford comes not from Guildford as he had previously claimed, but from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. For those of you who don't look up at the sky much, Betelgeuse is in the constellation of Orion. Ford is a roving reporter for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the book within the book) who got stuck on a backwater planet (the Earth) for 15 years and is thrilled to be getting back into space.

Imagine my surprise when I started reading this book after so long; I found the Hitchhiker's Guide is a sort of smartphone. Or mini iPad. Well, it's a handheld device with about 100 buttons and a screen 4" x 4" and is crammed full of all the information you need to travel across the galaxy. Sounds a bit limiting doesn't it? What about the rest of the universe? And you can't even check anything on imdb or update your facebook status!

But how prescient Douglas Adams was. He's invented the smartphone years before we all had our own computer, before the great pc or mac debate (Adams was a massive and vocal Apple fan), well before anyone had to worry which smartphone to buy. The Guide itself sounds a lot more fun than some of the po-faced travel info you find online these days. And why don't smartphones have the words Don't Panic printed on them in large friendly letters? I think a lot of people might find it helpful.

Ford whisks Arthur off to a Vogon spaceship but they are rapidly ejected into space (they fail poetry appreciation) to face certain death. Luckily they are rescued at the last second by the improbably improbable brand new starship Heart of Gold recently stolen by galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Ford's semi-cousin) and his girlfriend Trillian (who Arthur once failed to get off with at a party in Islington). And together with a depressed robot called Marvin they embark on a pan-galactic adventure. Although in Arthur's case, his quest is more for a proper cup of tea.

Also featured are Frankie Mouse and Benjy Mouse. But if you haven't read the book I'm not about to spoil it by telling you why.

The crew arrive at the legendary planet of Magrathea and I'm not going to tell you any more about that either because it would spoil the plot. However, I will say that the answer is 42, and the question may or may not be how many roads must a man walk down?

Go on. If you haven't tried it yet, give it a go. It really is worth reading this truly brilliant book. And if you like it these are the sequels (sort of):

  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
  • Life, the Universe and Everything
  • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
  • Mostly Harmless.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Books to Read Again: The Far Distant Oxus by Katharine Hull & Pamela Whitlock

Another series courtesy of my mother's childhood library. As with so many of my mother's books, her original copies were given away when she went off to university and two of my books were found (oh the triumph!) at a local school fete for a couple of pounds each. I can still remember the book stall was set up underneath a row of lime trees. Instead of the usual tables it was a run of elderly wooden bookshelves. Very inviting but quite hard to see the stock in the gloom of the limes. The Far Distant Oxus and Escape to Persia belonged to a Margareta Olsen who wrote her name in them in February 1943. Unbelievably Oxus in Summer, also found at a fete, was a present to John Compton Miller in 1939; he grew up to marry my mother's cousin Josephine. My mother was a bridesmaid at the wedding in 1951. I think this is a first edition.

The Far Distant Oxus
Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock were at boarding school together and wrote the first book in their spare time. Considering they were in different forms and different school houses this was a pretty amazing feat. The fact that they wrote a great book for children who love adventure stories, or ponies, or both, makes it all the more amazing. They also drew all the pictures, although I don't know who drew the maps.

This trilogy really should be better known. The writing is fresh and the plots are somehow quite different from very similar stories written by adults. Remember that in the 1930s 14 or 15 year olds were thought of a children. As they said themselves, they were stories written for children by children.

Hull and Whitlock sent their book to Arthur Ransome, author of the Swallows and Amazons series. He read it and took it straight to his publishers Jonathan Cape who printed all three Oxus books. They also printed another book by Hull and Whitlock called Crowns. I have a copy but have only read it once.

The first book introduces us to Bridget, Anthony and Frances Hunterly who have been sent to stay at Cloud Farm, the Exmoor home of Mr & Mrs Fradd. Their parents live in Sumatra which is too far to travel to even in the summer holidays. The Fradds keep ponies. The Hunterly children are mad about riding. Three ponies, Talisman, Timothy and Treacle are chosen and the adventure begins.

Oxus in Summer
Very soon the Hunterlys encounter the mysterious Maurice, his beautiful black pony Dragonfly and his black labrador Elita, and through Maurice they meet Peter and Jennifer Cleverton and their ponies Grey Owl and Goosefeather. It does emerge that Mr Cleverton (the only parent we meet, and he's not around very much) knows the Hunterlys' father and suggested Cloud Farm as a suitable place for them to stay.

The Hunterlys are invited to join Maurice and Peter and Jennifer for a night time adventure. Soon we have a camp built where two rivers meet (Peran-Wisa), complete with wooden cabin for rainy days and a tree house and then after sundry other adventures our heroes build a raft and paddle down the river, the Oxus river, to the sea. The expedition travels partly on horseback which is sensible as they have to abandon the raft when they reach the Aral Sea. On the way home in a wonderfully real detail, they run out of food and have to forage for supplies; a dinner of blackberries, nettle soup (sort of) and a few carrots is not very sustaining for adventurers.

All the place names are taken from Sorab and Rustum by Matthew Arnold which our heroes had read at school. I tried to read the poem myself but found it impossible unless I read it out loud so I never did finish it. I always find poetry difficult.

Escape to Persia
The second and third books run on similar lines although the Clevertons are in France for much of Oxus in Summer. The stories include amateur theatricals, a pageant, and a scavanger hunt. A pony that falls into a pit is rescued. There are horse races and they teach their ponies to play polo. And the Hunterlys bet their Aunt Angela that they can make their way to Exmoor (Escape to Persia) without her help. Poor Aunt Angela didn't realise the bet was serious. You can tell these are characters who won't stop having fun or thinking about Persia just because the book has come to an end.

I grew up reading the Swallows and Amazons books from when I was about 7 or 8. It was only when I was in my late teens that we found these books at the fete. I wish I'd been able to read them sooner because they are terrific adventure stories that I know I would have enjoyed very much.

Escape to Persia
On the other hand, Maurice, the true hero of the Oxus books, is a very romantic character. I think you can tell that the books were written by teenage girls (even if they'd never heard the word) because Maurice just oozes romance. For one thing, we never discover his surname or where he lives and you don't get much more romantic than that. Perhaps I wouldn't have appreciated that if I'd read them when I was younger. Maurice guards his anonymity closely. Peter Cleverton is at the same school but he knows better than to say anything. And in Oxus in Summer when the Hunterlys think Maurice has gone away without saying goodbye and search his few possessions, he sees them pick up his diary. They haven't read it but the thought that they might have sends Maurice into a rage. There's a fight and a candle is knocked over and the hut at Peran-Wisa is burnt down. It is a dreadful moment. The ensuing feud takes up a sizeable chunk of the book. 

Although I read quite a lot of pony books as a child these books have far more to offer than most. I see that Fidra Books are currently reprinting the first of the series. I'm willing to bet that most of their customers are people who read the books as children and are thrilled to be able to find a new copy, or who want to present one to a child or grandchild. 

I don't want to reread these books every year, but it's good to go back to them every so often to meet the characters again. And I do love a good map. All the endpapers are maps and the one from the back of The Far Distant Oxus is especially nice showing the journey to and from the Aral Sea.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Books to Read Again: The Abbey Girls series by Elsie J Oxenham

I'm really not sure exactly why I reread the books in this series again and again. It's a bit of a mystery.

The first book in the series Girls of the Hamlet Club was printed in 1914, but the series really got going when Joan and Joy Shirley were introduced in The Abbey Girls (1920). I don't know what edition my copy is, but here is the frontispiece. Here we see Joan for the first time; at this stage our heroines were too poor to go to school (obviously the village school would not do) and lived in a ruined abbey where Joan's mother was caretaker. Only later did they come into money, either by inheriting a fortune from a long lost grandfather or by marrying well.

Joan is offered a scholarship to go to Miss Macey's school with the girls in the picture but she gives up the opportunity in favour of her cousin Joy who "needs" school. Joan gets to go to school too in the end.

Joan is much too nice. Quite early in the series she is married off to nice and handsome but shy Captain Raymond and goes to Sussex (I think) to have a flock of children: Jansy, John, Jennifer, Jim and Jillian. She stays so much in the background that sometimes it's hard to remember she is still around. But she inherits the abbey from Joy's grandfather Sir Anthony Abinger and thus remains an important character even though thrust firmly into the background.

Joy; annoying, selfish, shallow Joy whose tendency to hold a grudge and upset her friends really annoys me, becomes the focus of the series and lives at Abinger Hall (inherited from her grandfather). She takes in several schoolgirls over the years Jen, Rosamund and Maidlin, and all become firm friends and have many adventures. Though it's hard sometimes to work out what happens when as so many of the stories were written retrospectively.

Joy gets engaged to the boy next door at the end of The Abbey Girls in Town (1925) only next door is Marchwood Manor and the boy is Sir Andrew Marchwood a famous explorer or big game hunter, and as soon as they are married they leave for Africa. After the honeymoon Joy comes home leaving Sir Andrew to lead a safari and he is killed with all his party. Joy immediately gives birth to twin girls Elizabeth Joy and Margaret Joan. Joy looks beautiful in mourning but she spoils the twins quite dreadfully. They grow up quite out of control and amazingly irritating. Joy admits the twins behave very badly but she never does anything about it and later this causes all sorts of problems.

Jen then marries Joy's brother-in-law Sir Kenneth Marchwood and has a load of children. Of course she does. Andrew, Anthony, Rosemary Jane, Michael, Katherine, Christopher and Bernard (I think) and maybe even Simon. Alone of all our heroines Jen prefers boys and determines to give birth to "a morris six'. Despite all her wealth and her happy marriage Jen's life is beset with troubles. Her children constantly have dreadful accidents, ghastly illnesses or dangerous operations. And eventually Ken has a terrible smash (old-fashioned speak for a car crash) and takes a long time to recover before being prescribed a year travelling around the world (how awful) in order to get fully better. In fact he only makes it as far as Kenya where he feels so well he is allowed to go home.

Meanwhile, Rosamund also has a tough time; in The Abbey Girls on Trial (1931) her father who lives in India cuts off her allowance as he has decided at the grand old age of 60 to marry Eleanor, a "beautiful girl", of Rosamund's own age. Having lived at Abinger Hall for years, Rosamund starts a craft shop in a tiny cottage next door to her new aunts' tea rooms. Her father dies at once and his new wife comes home to England, producing a son Roderic Geoffrey en route.

In Rosamund's Victory (1933) our heroine battles to adopt her half brother (always described as a step-brother) because Eleanor is deemed far too silly and selfish to care for him herself not to mention she is determined to travel back to India (where she soon remarries and is never heard from again). One of Rosamund's aunts (Audrey) and two gardener girls (Drena and Lizabel) are allowed to get engaged in this book, and Rosamund herself meets her distant cousin Geoffrey who is described as a cripple and an invalid who will never marry. We don't know precisely what Rosamund does with Geoffrey except that she takes him to some doctors in London who obviously help him a lot. He stops being a cripple and is much less invalidish. He remains delicate but they marry and produce Geoffrey-Hugh, Rosabel Joy and Rosalin Cicely (twins), Rosanna and Rosilda (also twins), and two more boys called Geoffrey John and Peter Geoffrey. Yes, really. Oh yes, and Geoffrey becomes Earl of Kentisbury so lucky Ros becomes a Countess and goes to live in Kentisbury Castle.

Some of these books are very highly sought after and difficult to find. My copy of Rosamund's Victory was bought by my mother in the early 1990s and she paid £165 for it. It's not even a first edition although the cover is in nice condition. Originally it cost 2/-. That's 10p. Most of my books cost £2 or £3 but the more scarce the book the higher the price. My mother had a copy of Biddy's Secret (1932) when she was at school but was unable to replace it as the only copy she could track down was offered at £500.

This story is almost unobtainable now and I'm certainly not going to spend anything like £500 on a book so lucky for me the Elsie J Oxenham Society have recently published it in paperback.

The lovely cover shows Ruth, a minor character who marries a wealthy business man and is shipped off to live in Paris, with Joy's twins Elizabeth and Margaret.

Poor old Maidlin has been struggling to grow up but silly Joy won't let her. Quite by chance Maidlin has to save Biddy Devine, another minor character from a regrettable (and secret) marriage to a very unsuitable Frenchman. Luckily he sees the marriage won't work almost at once and runs away to South America where he soon dies. Anyway, poor old Biddy (unbelievably calling herself Madame Bidet) has a baby daughter but can't bring herself to confess all to her sister Mary-Dorothy or Joy or Jen or any of the usual suspects. Maidlin forces her to grow up and come home and in the process grows up herself. In due course she meets and marries a well-known musician Dr Jock Robertson and produces twin girls Marjory and Dorothy, and subsequently several boys. But obviously girl babies are better. And I mustn't forget she develops a wonderful voice and makes a name for herself singing in oratorio. (Biddy is later allowed to marry another Frenchman and have a proper marriage. And, naturally, another daughter.)

Meanwhile again, Joy is allowed to remarry at last and chooses the famous conductor Sir Ivor Quellyn. He's nearly as annoying a character as she is so they make a good match. She quickly has several more children, David and Richard. And I think another child.

My copy of Robins in the Abbey (1947) is from the Collins Seagull Library. I've never been quite sure why the Seagull reprints are so despised by fans; I imagine they must be much abridged. But I'd sooner have a poor reprint than no copy at all.

This is the book where Rosamund has her two sets of twins, Maidlin has her twins, and uncountable characters have more daughters all seemingly named after either Joy or Rosamund.

I think it's the weird obsession with having children and naming them all after each other that makes these books so fascinating. I know my mother, who obviously introduced me to the Abbey Girls, thought this was very funny. She used to roar with laughter at the thought of producing two sets of twins in one year!

And the names, which start out fairly normal just get stranger and stranger. Eventually Jandy Mac (Janice MacDonald), who named her first daughter after Joan but always called her Littlejan, has a third daughter and names her Jantyjoy. Seriously? Jantyjoy? What was Elsie J Oxenham thinking?

The Testing of the Torment (1926) signed by Elsie J Oxhenham
I've left out the very important folk dancing element which threatens to overwhelm several of the books to the exclusion of anything else. And then there's the Guiding, the Camp Fire, the music and, especially in the early books, the helping crippled children from London. There's a bit too much hand woven fabric and hand made pottery for my taste too. And of course there's all the exploration of the Abbey. Particularly in the retrospective books characters fall into underground wells and out of windows or are trapped in tunnels all the time. I really do wonder why anyone is ever allowed into the Abbey grounds again. It's an extraordinarily dangerous place.

Obviously there are many many more characters than I have mentioned. At times it's hard to remember who is who. But I think Elsie J Oxenham must have kept very good records because unlike other authors she doesn't muddle her characters. Or if she does, I've not noticed. The books may be wildly improbable but the characters never act out of character, their many children don't suddenly develop a different name or change sex. It's quite an impressive feat.

In addition to the all important folk dancing there's the May Queen ceremony. All our really important characters get to be May Queen and much time is given to describing their costumes which are all based on flowers. So when Maidlin becomes Queen she chooses primroses as her flower and confusingly becomes known as Primrose. Jen chooses beech leaves and little yellow flowers that dance and becomes Brownie even though she is always described as very fair. Littlejan chooses Marigolds and therefore is known as Marigold. As her name is really Joan she is also known as Joan-Two to distinguish her from the original Joan. It's all rather like a Russian novel where all the characters have six names each.

Probably from Elsie J Oxenham's point of view the most important part of these books is about growing up and helping people. All the characters advise and help one another but Mary-Dorothy Devine becomes the chief family advisor and helper. She is one of the characters thought too old to get married (or as a friend pointed out to me, unlikely to find a husband in the wake of the disastrous WWI) so she becomes a writer of books for school girls, and dispenser of good advice. So practical help or sensible advice is lavishly handed out to people in trouble, like Robertina Brent in Robins in the Abbey (her father is badly injured in a plane crash), or anyone less lucky than our heroines. New characters are invited to the Abbey, to stay at the Hall or in the village and whether they like it or not their lives are turned around. The lucky ones start new careers and find wealthy husbands (no point in a poor one obviously) and have children, and those less likely to marry become successful authors. Well, why not?

Having written all this it's still a mystery why I have read and reread these books so often. Perhaps it's because they are set in a perpetual 1920s/1930s where rich people lead charmed lives and help those less fortunate than they are and the sun always shines. Although the early books hark back to WWI it seems that WWII never impinges on our heroines' lives. But for all their fur coats and large houses and chauffeur driven cars our heroines have plenty of disasters to deal with. And they usually do manage to triumph over disaster in the end. Perhaps that's the thing?

Who knows? The fact remains that I've read them so often I know great wodges of plot off by heart!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Tree Identification № 1: Liquidambar styraciflua or Sweet Gum

Liquidambar styraciflua grows happily in the UK but it's not a native tree. It comes from the southeastern United States, its range stretching roughly from southwestern Connecticut to mid-Florida and then west towards Illinois, southern Missouri and eastern Texas. And it doesn't grow up mountains except in Central America and Mexico where it seems to be part of the cloud forest. That would be fun to see.

The tree was introduced into Europe in 1681 by a missionary plant collector called John Bannister and first grown in the gardens of Fulham Palace, home to Henry Compton the Bishop of London. Bishop Henry seems to have been a really keen gardener and the 17th century was an exciting time with all sorts of new species making their way to Europe. The first time his new Liquidambar produced its fabulous autumn colour must have been a real thrill for him.

The Liquidambar has bright green hand-shaped leaves which have a lemony scent if you rub them between finger and thumb. And because the leaves are hand-shaped it is often confused with a Maple. Maples too (the best known Maples at any rate) have hand-shaped leaves and sometimes it's hard for the beginner to tell these trees apart.

Liquidambar leaves grow alternately on the twig. Maple leaves grow in pairs, opposite each other. These trees also have completely different flowers and fruits, and bark, but the alternate/opposite twigs and leaves thing is the most obvious when you get close enough to look. And Maple leaves don't have that smell so if you aren't sure, give them a squeeze.

Liquidambars have strange corky wings on the twig, sort of edgewise plates of bark. Quite difficult to photograph.

This particular tree was planted on Willifield Green in 1997 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of Hampstead Garden Suburb. Léonie Stephen who was then Chairman of the Residents Association planted it using Dame Henrietta Barnett's ceremonial spade. 

You can see here that the leaves and twigs don't grow in pairs and so this cannot be a Maple.


We had more sunshine and blue skies in autumn 2010 when I took these three photos. Liquidambar autumn colour can be absolutely stunning with some trees producing yellow, orange and dark red leaves all at once. Other trees restrict themselves to just one colour. I don't know why.

Liquidambars were not originally used as street trees in the Suburb. But when the Red Oaks planted in a short stretch of Hill Top became simply too huge for their position, it was agreed that the Oaks would gradually be replaced with Liquidambars. Which don't grow quite so large, and what's more, although their leaves are full of tannin, they still break down faster than Red Oak leaves do. This is a bonus for residents used to seeing their street and garden fill up with fallen leaves very slow to biodegrade. Red Oak leaves take forever to break down.

© female flower
I had to pinch this image of the female flower from a Taiwanese website as I don't have any photographs I've taken myself; they are quite tiny, 10mm, and hard to see. This flower is actually from the Formosa Sweet Gum but the flowers are very similar. There are male flowers too (in clusters but even smaller) on the same plant and together they produce fruits like this:

© fruit
So if you still find yourself muddling Maples with Liquidambars check out the flowers and fruits which are completely different from what you expect from a Maple.

It's a really handsome tree with great autumn colour. You need a big garden or a park to get the best from it. If I had a large enough garden (not very likely) I'd certainly plant one.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A little autumn colour 2013


I couldn't resist posting some beautiful autumn colour. 
First frost of the autumn last night and 
lovely blue skies and sunshine on my way to work this morning.