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. LĂ©onie 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. 

Friday, 8 November 2013

Switzerland: Le Chant de Bisse

When we were in Switzerland in August we went for a gentle walk along the village bisse.

A bisse is a traditional method of bringing water to fields which are often some considerable distance from the water source. Essentially it's an irrigation canal. It's really amazing technology when you consider some of these water channels are hundreds of years old and carry water on a very gentle incline for miles. The Bisse d'Ayent was built (I read) in 1442 and runs from the Lac de Tzeuzier to the Mayens d'Arbaz via Anzere.


Of course, as it is Switzerland, some parts of the bisses are fixed to very terrifying cliffs or run through tunnels where you have to crawl. I'm definitely not going to attempt to visit them.

The section that runs through Anzere is more like a nice clean ditch filled with running water alongside a gentle woodland path edged with wild flowers. It's really very pretty.

© Andrew Clark and found on YouTube

This is a photo of the Bisse du Ro between the Lac de Tseuzier and Crans Montana. It looks extremely terrifying and you wouldn't me get to walk along it in a million years. There's a fascinating video which I do recommend but it is very terrifying and just thinking about the overhanging cliff, the huge drop and the narrow vertiginous path make me feel quite sick. I used to be a bit better at heights but in the last 18 months or so I've developed quite severe vertigo. Which is a bit unfortunate given how many heights, and edges, they have in Switzerland.
Obviously I can't take my own photographs of such frightening looking places but luckily for me our local stretch of bisse is a Sunday afternoon stroll in comparison. In fact people I class as elderly attack this stroll with rather more vim than I do but I suspect they are used to struggling up steep mountains to get to the gentle strolly bit of their walk. My excuse is that I come from London and I'm used to flat pavements. Oh yes, and I live at sea level (OK 60 feet above sea level but that hardly counts when you're up a mountain). Anyway, none of the people we meet along the way seem to spend time photographing the flowers and that makes our walk rather slow.

At times the water runs along a metal trough which would once have been wooden, but mostly it's this beautiful ditch all overgrown with wild flowers and while the path along the bisse has quite steep sides, it's not very scarey at all. When there's a rock in the right place, or the bisse turns a corner, the water makes the most lovely sound. This stretch runs through a wood; mostly pine but also whitebeam, rowan, alder and hazel, so it's a wonderfully shady walk on a hot day.

The village is developing up the mountainside so there are houses on the lower side of the path, the back of the building up against the mountain, and more houses up the mountain too. Rather a lovely place to live but a bit of a hike to get to the bakery for fresh croissants in the morning.

One of these houses is called Le Chant de Bisse. Which I suppose translates as the song of the water. It's a shame that the water that runs past the house  is particularly quiet.

We met a family sailing a boat along the bisse. There was a bit of a crisis when they came to a tunnel (a very small path over the water giving access to the handy bench where were having a sit down) and Mummy, or possibly Granny, had to rescue the boat before it got sucked under. We also met the warden of the bisse, Lucien, who checks for blockages and rubbish, and had to stop talking to us to rescue a dog which had jumped into the water to get cool and couldn't get out again.

It was a beautiful blue sky sunshiney day and the crickets singing in the long grass and not a breath of wind. About an hour after we got home the sky turned black and rain thundered down as though it was the end of the world.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Champion Finetta of Ardkinglas (our family dog)

 Look what I found online: two photographs of our deerhound Finetta of Ardkinglas. Amazing. I was only looking to show a friend what a deerhound looks like and googled her name on impulse. And there she was.

Finetta was born on 14 April 1961 and had six brothers and sisters: Fyne, Fearn, Fitzroy, Farquar, Florina and Fanny. What great names for dogs! Anastasia Noble, the breeder, always gave her dogs fantastic names. Her kennel name was Ardkinglas which is famous in the history or deehounds. Four of the litter, Fyne, Fearn, Fitzoy and Finetta herself, became champions.

Finetta came to live with us about the time my brother was born. We were living in Dunoon at the time. It's in Argyll on the west coast of Scotland and isn't far from Ardkinglas House (also in Argyll).

Although I think my father fully intended to call her Finetta, he quickly found that I was too young to pronounce it, or to say the word dog or even doggy. (I ought perhaps to mention that I seem to have had some difficulty with the usual names children use for animals. Total fail on doggy. And when my parents took me to the zoo and showed me the jumbo, thinking this would be easier to say than elephant, I failed on that too: I said bimbom. Bimbom? I was never allowed to forget it.) My brother, of course, was far too small to speak at this stage.

But I could say goggy. So we called her Goggy. Or Gog for posh. Daddy salved his conscience by carefully looking up Gogaidh in the Gaelic dictionary and concluding that it meant a high spirited female. So it seemed an acceptable name. How he managed to work that out I don't know as a swift glance at Google tells me that gogaidh is indeed a Gaelic word; it is a child's name for an egg. Not really the same thing. But it's all so long ago and another country too, so I can't ask any questions.

Goggy lived with us as the family pet until we moved to Germany. We couldn't take her with us so she went back to live with Miss Noble. And became a Champion.

It was terribly sad to leave her behind but very very exciting when she became a champion.

Finetta never had any pups but my mother used to tell me that deerhounds aren't much interested in sex. She used to talk with great amusement about deerhound breeders who became experts with turkey basters to enable their dogs to breed. I have no idea how true this was but she and my father had been very active in the Deerhound Club in the early 1960s so I suppose she knew something about it. I mean, why would you make it up?
 Anyway, here are two more photos of Goggy. This is me aged about 2 ½ in the garden at Dunoon. You can see how confidently I am holding the dog, stopping her from wandering off while my father gets the camera ready. She's taller than me, bigger than I am by miles and bred to bring down a stag, but she's such a big softy she's letting me hold her back with only one hand. My other hand is clutching my teddy. Deerhounds are supposed to be gentle and friendly and she really was.

Ignore my sensible red Start-rite sandals and look at Goggy's pretty white toes.

This is Goggy with my brother. He's 9 months old. and she's 10 months. It's a lovely portrait of the dog; I'm not so sure about the boy!
And I can't resist adding this brilliant photo of Ch. Aurora of Ardkinglas which I also found online. Isn't it just lovely? This was Finetta's mother looking very photogenic and noble in an ideal Scottish landscape.