Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Astrology and an everyday story of country folk

If you’re a soap addict, have you ever wondered about the birth date of one of the characters? Does it reflect their personality? How could it? Surely that date was plucked out of the air by a writer who probably had no interest in astrology or how it works. Yet, the character’s natal chart really does describe them. And not only that, but what’s happening in the chart at a given moment also describes what’s happening to them in soap land at that time. What’s more, the birth chart of the actor or actress who plays the character often slots in very neatly with that chart.

Take the case of Helen Titchener, née Archer (brilliantly played by Louiza Patikas), whose story has been dominating The Archers for the past couple of years and whose current marital plight has recently grabbed the national headlines. At the time of writing, she’s being held in custody for stabbing her husband Rob with a kitchen knife. He nearly died from a subsequent infection but appears to have rallied and will no doubt soon leap from his hospital bed to make Helen’s life a misery once again. Because, as those of us who tune in to The Archers know, Rob is a controlling bully who has been systematically undermining his wife in an insidious, subtle and extremely effective way ever since they first met. Helen meekly toed the Titchener line for months by wearing the sort of dreary clothes that Rob liked to see her in and damping down her personality until it became a washed out beige. But she finally flipped when Rob threatened her son Henry, grabbed the kitchen knife that he was brandishing at her (while telling her to kill herself) and stabbed him with it.

As a listener, I was gripped and shaken. As an astrologer, I was intrigued. What does Helen’s chart say? Does it reflect what’s happening in her life? Oh yes, it certainly does.

But before we get on to what’s happening in Helen’s chart at the moment, we need to look at her birth chart to find out more about her personality.

According to The Archers’ website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/3XtJ9HZNYzrBYThlKd0RyRb/helen-titchener), Helen was born on 16 April 1979. She was probably born in Ambridge, but apparently that isn’t a real place. (I know, it came as a shock to me, too.) So I set her chart for Worcester, which must be fairly nearby. We don’t know her time of birth so I set her chart for noon. This means her chart lacks the fine-tuning of such things as an Ascendant (which tells us how she approaches the world, among many other things) and the precise position of the Moon (which moves roughly 12 degrees per day), not to mention the distribution of the planets among the twelve houses of the zodiac, but we still have plenty to work with.

Helen was born with the Sun in Aries and the Moon in Sagittarius (the sign of the archer!), which is a nice fiery combination. She has enthusiasm (think of her passion for the Borsetshire Blue cheese she developed, the earliest prototypes of which sounded vile), initiative and warmth. But this combination also makes her idealistic, so she tends to see the best in others, whether or not the rest of us can spot it. (Her track record in choosing men has been lamentable, to put it politely. A previous boyfriend shot himself. Her current husband is a psychopath. She’ll probably fall for a brutish prison officer next, and then where will we be.)

Let’s look closer at that idealism. Helen has Venus in Pisces (idealistic, romantic, kind, sensitive, easily hurt) in a tight square aspect to Neptune, which is the ruler of Pisces. More idealism, more romanticism, more emotional vulnerability. Possibly even a Cinderella complex and an underlying sense that love involves pain and sacrifice. The Moon may be close enough to Neptune to form a conjunction (sensitive, lacking emotional boundaries, empathy, an emotional sponge). No wonder the BBC website calls her ‘the tragic heroine of Ambridge’.

She also has the Sun in a wide opposition to Pluto. This means there is a tug-of-war over control. It may be internal or she may disown it and project it on to other people. Such as the dreaded Rob, who acts it out for her. (Both the Sun and Pluto can represent men.)

A lot more could be said about Helen’s natal chart, but as I’m trying to avoid writing a three-volume novel about it I’m going to switch to what’s happening to her chart right now. (If this makes no sense to you, let me explain. Although a birth chart is a snapshot of the positions of the planets at the time of birth, the planets keep moving and therefore they can form significant relationships with the birth chart as the progress through the solar system.)

It’s usually the outer planets – Uranus, Neptune and Pluto – that are active when something really dramatic or significant happens. Each of them carries a lesson for us. Pluto teaches us about transformation and it often does this by dredging up major problems and triggering confrontations.* Pluto is currently in Capricorn and is edging ever closer to making a square aspect to Helen’s Sun – an echo of her natal Sun-Pluto opposition. It means that things she’s tried to bury will come to the surface so she can work through them. And the anger, hurt and frustration she’s felt over her marriage to Rob are obviously part of that. It also means potentially serious problems with authority figures.

Uranus is the planet of surprises and shocks. Events that happen during a Uranus transit can make it feel as though the rug’s been pulled out from under our feet – an astrological maxim for Uranus is to expect the unexpected. Uranus is currently in Aries and is making a conjunction with Helen’s Sun. Uranus shouts ‘Wake up!’ When Uranus conjuncts the Sun we want to break free from limitations, to revolutionise our life in some way. It can be wonderfully liberating. But, of course, that depends on how we act on Uranus’s message. Do we make rational choices or do we go off the rails? (Think midlife crisis.) And it also depends on whether Uranus is doing other things in our chart. For Helen, who has a Sun-Pluto opposition, when Uranus touches her Sun it also connects with her Pluto. Boom! Uranus opposition Pluto brings fresh awareness of what needs to change. This can be a shocking realisation, especially if we are trying to cling on to those things that need to change or we’re even denying that they exist. It might lead to an internal battle that has an explosive outcome, as in the case of Helen using that kitchen knife on Rob.  

Lots of other things are happening to Helen’s chart as well. One of the most worrying is that Saturn, the planet of limitations, is hovering around her Moon. The Moon represents motherhood, among other things. What is Saturn saying about Helen’s relationship with her son Henry and her unborn child? As things stand, Helen will be giving birth in hospital but while still in custody – very descriptive of Saturn conjunct the Moon, even if it is a rather exaggerated picture of what most of us might expect. But what happens next? Will Helen’s contact with her children be severely restricted? Or will Saturn give her the backbone for which it is so renowned, so she finally talks about what happened so she can protect her children? Her story in The Archers clearly has a long way to go before we can relax whenever we hear her voice.


* Astrologers often sound as though they’re saying that the planets make things happen. This isn’t really the case – what we are saying is that there is a correlation between the actions of the planets in the sky and the actions of the people affected on the ground. But if we were to say that each time it would get very wordy indeed, so we use astro shorthand.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Orange Aid

It's that time of the year again. The only time of the year, actually, when you can buy Seville oranges - those bitter fruits that are just asking to be turned into delicious marmalade. Like so many good things, their season is relatively short (from early January to roughly the middle of February), so you need to keep a keen eye open for when they first appear in the shops. I’ve already made my first batch of this year’s marmalade, with batch two to follow this weekend. And then there will be batch three …  

If you’ve never made marmalade before, you’ve missed a treat. Once you have made your own marmalade, you’ll be congratulating yourself all year. Or, at least, until you’ve run out of the stuff and have to wait for next January to come round. Which is why it's always wise to make more than you think you need. 

Here is my recipe. It appears in my book Red Sky at Night, along with recipes for many other good things.  


Makes about 4.5 kg (10 lb)
1.4 kg (3 lb) Seville oranges
1 large lemon
3.4 litres (6 pints) water
2.7 kg (6 lb) preserving sugar

Making marmalade is a time-consuming process, so make sure you’ve set aside several hours, preferably with something good to listen to on the radio. Preparation is important, because everything must be ready when you need it. Ahead of time, make sure you have enough jam jars, either with their own lids or with a packet of the special waxed and cellophane circles sold for jam-making. Wash the jars thoroughly (otherwise the marmalade will go mouldy), drain and stand them on a baking sheet until needed. You can use granulated sugar instead of preserving sugar, but the latter contains more pectin and therefore ensures a better set. Another option is to use one bag of golden granulated sugar instead of preserving sugar, to give a good flavour. Scrub the oranges and lemon in warm, soapy water and rinse well. Cut in half and squeeze to extract all the juice. As you work, pour the fruit juice into a large preserving pan and tip the pips (as well as any large chunks of membrane) into a bowl. Slice the squeezed oranges and lemons thinly, and place the peel in the preserving pan. Pour the water into the pan. Place the pips in a square of muslin and tie into a bundle, then add this to the pan. Put the pan on the stove and simmer gently for 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the peel is very soft and the liquid has reduced by about half.

At this point, put two saucers in the fridge. Preheat the oven to 140°C/275°F/Gas Mark 1 and put the baking sheet of jam jars in the oven to warm; this sterilises them and stops them cracking when you pour in the hot marmalade. Remove the muslin bag from the pan, squeezing out all the liquid, and discard. Pour in all the sugar and stir well until it has dissolved, then turn up the heat and bring to the boil. Continue to boil for 15 minutes, remove the pan from the heat, then test for setting point by putting a small dab of marmalade on one of the cold saucers. Let it cool, then draw your fingertip across the marmalade’s surface. If it forms a wrinkled skin, the marmalade is set. If not, return it to the heat and boil for another 5 minutes or so before repeating the test.

As soon as the marmalade has reached setting point, take it off the heat, stir it and then leave for 15 minutes. Carefully remove the jam jars from the oven. Pour the marmalade into the jars, cover the tops with waxed circles if using, then put on the lids or cellophane circles immediately so a vacuum will form as the marmalade cools. Wipe any drips off the jars and leave to cool, then label. And then eat!



Thursday, 24 April 2014

In the market

Have you ever been to a country market? If the answer’s no, you’ve missed a treat. We are living in Devon at the moment, and on Easter Saturday there was a big market in Hatherleigh, which is our nearest town.
Hatherleigh is no stranger to markets. It’s been having them since 1220, and at the moment there are four a week – a sheep market on Mondays, a general market on Tuesdays, a cattle market on Thursdays and a car boot sale on Sundays. Not needing any sheep or cattle – and not even a car boot, come to that – we go to Tuesday’s general market. It is a bustling, untidy and friendly affair, where you can buy a weird and wonderful assortment of things, from cheap packs of chocolate to jars of homemade jam, from old galvanised buckets to balls of wool, and from purple sprouting broccoli to pains au raisin. There is pretty much something for everyone, including things that you didn’t know you wanted and, I must admit, some things that you already pretty sure that you’ll never want. Some of the stallholders earn part of their living from the Hatherleigh market, including the baker who drives up from Tavistock with his van full of delicious, real bread. People – both shoppers and traders – come from miles around to that Tuesday market. It’s partly a social event and partly a shopping expedition. There was even a snow white gander walking around it last Tuesday. He looked very confident as he strode about, going up to stalls and giving them the once-over. How do I know he was a gander? It was easy. He was wearing a pale blue bow tie.
On Easter Saturday, the well-dressed gander was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he’d spent all his money on Tuesday. Instead, there was a toffee-coloured goat called Herbie, who stood patiently if rather hesitantly while people stroked him. He was gazing into the middle distance, possibly searching out straw hats that might serve as a light mid-morning snack.
It’s anyone’s guess how many people came to the market on Saturday but it felt like half of Devon and a dollop of Cornwall. The car park, which has space for hundreds of cars, was full by eleven o’clock and had been closed to newcomers. The sun shone, people laughed and chatted, children jumped up and down on the bouncy castle, the Hatherleigh Ukulele Bashers strummed away, and the food hall offered irresistible temptations. We bought bread and cheese for lunch, chocolates made from goats’ milk and bottles of Somerset cider, and then we walked home, up the narrow street with its old cottages that are crammed hugger-mugger and the two cats that are always asleep on a sunny windowsill, cresting the hill and then down into the wider country lane, its grass verges studded with primroses and tiny violets. We peered into the ditches where, two weeks ago, we’d seen hundreds of tiny tadpoles. They had vanished by Saturday, and so had the water they’d been swimming in. Had they survived, we wondered, or had the lack of rain killed them off?
Something else that is in danger of being killed off is the Hatherleigh market. The land on which it stands is being sold and the council agreed unanimously that the sale should go ahead, allegedly in the name of progress. The exact nature of this so-called progress is debatable.
Part of the car park is going to be turned into a housing development and another part of it will be given over to a supermarket. (Which will be Hatherleigh’s second supermarket. And it’s not a big town.) What is left of the parking space will apparently be available for the people coming to the markets. But will anyone come? The streets of Hatherleigh are narrow and twisting at the best of times, a legacy of its medieval origins, and they are always clogged on market day because even now there isn’t enough space in the car park so cars overflow into the neighbouring streets. If there isn’t anywhere to park, the market will die and 800 years of tradition will go with it.
If you recounted this tale to Eeyore, happening to catch him post-lunch in the Hundred Acre Wood, he would soon tell you how the story will end. And no doubt the well-dressed gander, and Herbie the goat, would agree with him.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The friendly ghosts


Draw up a chair and let’s talk about ghosts. After all, it’s the week of Hallowe’en and All Souls’ Day, making it one of those times of the year when our thoughts traditionally turn to departed spirits. Hallowe’en is said to be the day of the year in which the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, thereby allowing the two worlds a greater chance of contacting one another. All Souls’ Day falls on 2 November and is the day in the Christian calendar when prayers are said for the souls of ‘the faithful departed’. Many of us hope that those souls are resting peacefully, but we can’t always be sure that they are.
No wonder our thoughts can turn to dank churchyards, shadowy figures and a sense of creeping horror during these early November days. We enjoy scaring ourselves with ghost stories, safe in the knowledge that they’re only fiction. They aren’t true. We can switch on the lights and chase those phantoms away. Can’t we?
It depends on whether you have a natural affinity for ghosts and other spirits. Are you one of those people who has had several uncanny experiences over the years, experiences that you can’t explain away as being a trick of the mind? Perhaps these were corroborated by other people, making you even more convinced that you saw or heard or touched something that wasn’t of this world. Or are you someone who longs to meet a ghost but has never managed it, no matter how often you seek out haunted houses or hang around churchyards at dusk? Maybe you don’t believe in such things at all, assuring yourself that there is no scientific proof that they exist. Perhaps you’re right, or perhaps you’re simply whistling in the dark to make those unnerving shadows melt away.
As for me, I’ve had some very strange encounters with what I am absolutely certain are ghosts. Such things have happened to me, on and off, throughout my life. And I had a good start, growing up in a house that was haunted by the ghost of a little girl who enjoyed playing tricks on us all. Not only was every member of the household (four adults and two young children) aware of this ghost because of her endless pranks, but people in the neighbouring houses used to see her in our garden and ask who she was. Has she gone away? Apparently not. I was told recently that she is still seen in that garden from time to time.
Such corroboration is helpful when deciding whether what you’ve seen or heard is a truly a ghost or if there is a more pragmatic but less dramatic explanation. Because – especially if you’re of a susceptible and imaginative disposition, or you’ve spent the day scaring yourself out of your wits with the help of M R James – it’s very tempting to tell yourself that any odd noise or peculiar trick of the light has a supernatural origin. Essentially, it is wise to adopt the policy of Sherlock Holmes and examine every logical explanation for what has happened, so that ‘whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’. And, where possible, to compare notes with other people who have witnessed the same thing. Well, when I say ‘people’, perhaps it would be better to say ‘living creatures’, because ghostly experiences don’t only happen to humans.
Some years ago, I and my husband wanted to move home and spent months searching for the perfect place. Finally, one Sunday lunchtime, we knew we’d found it. It was a very pretty 17th-century house with a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere. The couple who owned it showed us into the sitting room. I was admiring the inglenook fireplace when something by the door caught my eye. A dark-haired young woman was looking at me in an inquisitive but affable fashion. And then she simply wasn’t there any longer. I wondered if I’d imagined the whole thing, but suspected I hadn’t. Anyway, we bought the house and moved in. The previous owners had left several pieces of furniture behind, including a nice rocking chair in the sitting room. A couple of days later, three of our friends came over to supper, bringing two dogs. These are the sweetest and most well behaved dogs you could ever wish to meet, yet the moment they went into the sitting room they began to bark and growl at the rocking chair. We’d put it in the corner between the inglenook and the door. The dogs weren’t bothered by any other part of the house, but that corner really worried them.
Then several members of my family came to lunch. It was a hot day and we ate in the garden. My niece went indoors and when she came back she told me she’d seen a ghost. I asked her to show me where this ghost was. She led me straight into the sitting room and pointed at the rocking chair. Had she seen a man or a woman? A woman, she told me.
We lived in that house for three years. Sometimes I would be woken at night by the sound of a woman singing contentedly. We only felt her presence in the big upstairs bedroom and in the sitting room, but she wasn’t frightening. She simply felt like another member of the household. And the house retained its happy, welcoming atmosphere.
Unfortunately, we had to sell the house. Several people wanted to buy it but each time the sale fell through. It was almost as though the house was waiting for the right owner to come along. One afternoon, a couple arrived to view it, and it was clear from the enchanted looks on their faces that they’d fallen in love with the house just as we had. They made an offer that same day, and we were confident that this time the sale would take place. When they returned a few days later to have another look at the house, the husband asked me outright about the ghost. He had sensed her on his first visit – and there was no doubt in his mind that she was female. When I asked him if he was aware of her throughout the house, he said he could only sense her in the big upstairs bedroom and in the sitting room. He also said he wanted her to stay. He liked her. 
We liked her, too. She was a friendly soul. And most of the ghosts I’ve encountered over the years have been equally benign. Although not all of them. But theirs is a story for another time. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The power of a good book


According to Anthony Powell, books do furnish a room. And you have only to look round any room that I’ve ever lived in to see how true that is. Actually, in the case of my office you might even suggest that books can clutter a room, but we’ll brush that thought aside.
Books also have the power to heal. Well, they do for me, at any rate. From the Dr Seuss books that I used to love as a small child, which were a particular solace whenever I was laid low by whichever bug was doing the rounds at the time, to the Katy series by Susan Coolidge and a lot of Enid Blyton in between.
Books can also have the power to make me ill. I discovered that in dramatic fashion one summer when I was engrossed in a novel whose protagonist was dying from a particularly unpleasant form of liver disease. As the book progressed, I felt increasingly ill. I found that I was experiencing many of the symptoms that the main character was going through. I knew I’d come out in sympathy with her and that I wasn’t really ill at all, except that somehow I was. But the book was far too good to abandon – I had to know what happened. Normally, I’m sorry to finish reading a book if I love it, but on this occasion I was very relieved. And so was my liver.  
For obvious reasons, these days I avoid books that are going to make me unwell. But when I am ill (which doesn’t happen very often, even though this blog may give a very different impression), I know exactly which books to choose because of their restorative properties. I once cured a bad back with the help of PG Wodehouse. He wasn’t actually there yanking me about, you understand, but he didn’t need to be because I was in the sublime company of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. The bad back melted away within days and I’d found two friends for life.
Nancy Mitford is another cure-all, especially The Pursuit of Love, which I first read when I was in bed with a terrible cold. Within an hour of starting the book, I felt so much better that I celebrated with tea, toast and blackcurrant jam. Dear old Nancy has also cured me of murderous hangovers on more than one occasion.
Miss Read, with her Fairacre and Thrush Green books, is a guaranteed restorative. She cheers me up if I’m unhappy about something, too. Maeve Binchy also came to the rescue once, at the start of a year in which it felt as though all the Fates had come together simply to use me like a dartboard, as they hurled various misfortunes my way. Everything seemed to be coming apart at the seams, so it was bliss to be able to disappear into Maeve Binchy’s novels and forget about the maelstrom raging around me.     
My mother once took a purler while wearing a pair of shoes that were too big for her and broke her upper arm. It had to be strapped to her side, which meant many nights spent sitting up in bed with a bag of frozen peas wrapped round her arm, too uncomfortable to sleep. Her nightly companion was Dick Francis – but only in the form of his novels, I hasten to add. Unfortunately, she read so many of them that she couldn’t bear to look at a single one ever again because they always reminded her of that dreadful time. She also went off frozen peas.
According to Anthony Powell, books do furnish a room. And you have only to look round any room that I’ve ever lived in to see how true that is. Actually, in the case of my office you might even suggest that books can clutter a room, but we’ll brush that thought aside.
Books also have the power to heal. Well, they do for me, at any rate. From the Dr Seuss books that I used to love as a small child, which were a particular solace whenever I was laid low by whichever bug was doing the rounds at the time, to the Katy series by Susan Coolidge and a lot of Enid Blyton in between.
Books can also have the power to make me ill. I discovered that in dramatic fashion one summer when I was engrossed in a novel whose protagonist was dying from a particularly unpleasant form of liver disease. As the book progressed, I felt increasingly ill. I found that I was experiencing many of the symptoms that the main character was going through. I knew I’d come out in sympathy with her and that I wasn’t really ill at all, except that somehow I was. But the book was far too good to abandon – I had to know what happened. Normally, I’m sorry to finish reading a book if I love it, but on this occasion I was very relieved. And so was my liver.  
For obvious reasons, these days I avoid books that are going to make me unwell. But when I am ill (which doesn’t happen very often, even though this blog may give a very different impression), I know exactly which books to choose because of their restorative properties. I once cured a bad back with the help of PG Wodehouse. He wasn’t actually there yanking me about, you understand, but he didn’t need to be because I was in the sublime company of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. The bad back melted away within days and I’d found two friends for life.
Nancy Mitford is another cure-all, especially The Pursuit of Love, which I first read when I was in bed with a terrible cold. Within an hour of starting the book, I felt so much better that I celebrated with tea, toast and blackcurrant jam. Dear old Nancy has also cured me of murderous hangovers on more than one occasion.
Miss Read, with her Fairacre and Thrush Green books, is a guaranteed restorative. She cheers me up if I’m unhappy about something, too. Maeve Binchy also came to the rescue once, at the start of a year in which it felt as though all the Fates had come together simply to use me like a dartboard, as they hurled various misfortunes my way. Everything seemed to be coming apart at the seams, so it was bliss to be able to disappear into Maeve Binchy’s novels and forget about the maelstrom raging around me.     
My mother once took a purler while wearing a pair of shoes that were too big for her and broke her upper arm. It had to be strapped to her side, which meant many nights spent sitting up in bed with a bag of frozen peas wrapped round her arm, too uncomfortable to sleep. Her nightly companion was Dick Francis – but only in the form of his novels, I hasten to add. Unfortunately, she read so many of them that she couldn’t bear to look at a single one ever again because they always reminded her of that dreadful time. She also went off frozen peas.
A few years ago I went flying and managed to break three bones in my right wrist. My initial interest in seeing my normally straight wrist transformed into an S-shape swiftly wore off, and after three days in hospital I emerged with my right arm, now studded with K-wires, encased in plaster from armpit to knuckle. It was bent at the elbow and only fit for hailing taxis. Unfortunately, as we lived on Romney Marsh at the time, where there are more sheep than people, I was a bit stymied on that score. Anyway, getting to sleep at night was almost impossible, and I needed comfort and entertainment in equal measure. So I reread every Jilly Cooper novel from Riders onwards in chronological order and, happily, unlike my mother and Dick Francis, it didn’t put me off the exploits of Rupert Campbell-Black and his fellow inhabitants of Rutshire. Give up one of my favourite authors? Now that really would make me ill. 

 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

A Rye smile


Is it really early July? I’ve spent the past few months writing solidly, proofreading and doing more writing, so the seasons have rushed past my office window and I haven’t had much chance to get out into the fresh (and frequently damp) air and experience them at first hand. I’ll be writing about the results of all this work in the next few weeks.
Despite being so busy, I’ve still found time to go shopping. No, not the sort of shopping trips that involve major credit card usage, followed by major angst when the bills come in. I’m talking about everyday shopping – bread, fresh vegetables, some nice cheese. Not so long ago, we used to buy all these things in a weekly supermarket shop that was slightly frazzling (I always seem to be standing in the wrong place and having to get out of the way) and completely anonymous. It was all rather depressing, and we would often come home with our shoulders hunched around our ears and our nerves standing on end. But then we saw the light. We realized what was on our doorstep.
Doing as much of the weekly shop as possible in Rye has become a huge pleasure. We buy our bread, wine, cheese and salad oils in the farm shop. All our veg and fruit (not to mention local free-range eggs that taste the way all eggs should taste) comes from the greengrocer’s. Rice, flour, the Carley’s organic pumpkin seed butter to which I am addicted and all sorts of other things are snapped up from the health food shop. Books from the Martello Bookshop. All these shops are independently owned. All of them have character. Unlike our erstwhile dashes round a supermarket, this new style of shopping is relaxing and far from anonymous, because we stop for a chat in each of the shops. We keep up with one another’s news, chat to friends and neighbours who pass by, get the lowdown on what’s happening in the town. It’s how we all used to shop, and I never fail to enjoy it. I always come home smiling.
There is a strong tradition of this sort of shopping in Rye, and it’s described in all its glory and complexity by a man who was once a prominent Rye resident. EF Benson, the author of over seventy books, lived in Rye for just over twenty years until his death in 1940. He was a keen and astute observer of human nature, and he was amused by the shopping habits of people in Rye, who tended to collide in doorways with their marketing baskets, or would scuttle out of harm’s way when they saw their current nemesis bearing down on them. He put his observations in a series of six novels that are now known as the Mapp and Lucia novels, in which Rye is very thinly disguised as Tilling (so-named after the River Tillingham which runs through Rye). The series begins with Queen Lucia, which introduces us to the unforgettable Lucia, who lives in the Cotswold village of Riseholme (based on Broadway) and rules the inhabitants with an iron hand that is sometimes lacking its velvet glove. No one ever gets the better of her for long, try though they might. Elizabeth Mapp is cut from similar cloth although, as we discover in Miss Mapp, she is far more malevolent and scheming than Lucia, and likes to have the upper hand in Tilling. When these two women finally meet (and clash repeatedly, like cymbals) in Mapp and Lucia, it’s as though a bomb has gone off. And further bombs are detonated in Lucia’s Progress and Trouble for Lucia. Both these women would be trying beyond belief if it weren’t for EF Benson’s sharp humour, forensic eye for detail, gentle mockery of their pretentions and his wonderful compassion for the vagaries of human nature. (And, coming from the strange family that he did, he’d had plenty of practice at that particular art.)
I have read my copies of the six novels so often that they are now falling apart. Well, they are thirty years old. My mother once had to stop reading Lucia in London on the train because she was laughing so much that everyone was staring at her. If you’ve never read them, give them a go. They might be the best bit of shopping you’ve done in ages. 

Monday, 28 November 2011

A tiny treasure trove

I went to one of my favourite places yesterday. Bloomsbury, in London. Once the home of several literary giants, including Charles Dickens, Dorothy L Sayers and Virginia Woolf. It’s steeped in atmosphere and charm, especially in a city that seems to sprout more retail chain outlets and big-name coffee shops by the day. Where have all the independent places gone? They may have all but vanished from the West End, but there are still plenty of them in Bloomsbury.

And one of the richest pickings of all is the tiny area around Lamb’s Conduit Street, just off Theobalds Road. It’s the home of some wonderful shops, cafés, bars and restaurants, not to mention The People's Supermarket. And you’ll even find a small independent publishing company. I love it round here, if you haven’t guessed by now. If you’re looking for unusual and beautiful Christmas gifts, whether for yourself (surely I’m not the only one who operates a one-for-you-and-one-for-me policy when buying presents) or someone else, you’ll be spoilt for choice here. When Christmas has become another memory, you’ll still find lots to buy or gaze at here. It’s a treasure trove.

Persephone Books is one of the jewels of Lamb’s Conduit Street. The company republishes books that have been largely (and unjustly) forgotten in recent decades. Some of the authors, such as Frances Hodgson Burnett, are still well known (although no longer household names), while others, such as the marvellous Dorothy Whipple, once sold in their millions yet had faded into obscurity until Persephone Books began to republish them. Although No. 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street is the Persephone office, the front of the ground floor is their bookshop, where you’ll find copies of all their titles as well as other enticements, such as packs of postcards, their exclusive tea towels and mugs. You can also pick up a copy of their magazine, Biannually, which includes a full catalogue of their books, plus features about the authors and news of forthcoming events. It’s a glorious shop and the books are unfailingly covetable. If you’re the sort of reader who’s left unsatisfied by many contemporary novels (not to mention some non-fiction books), you could find what you’ve been missing at Persephone Books. The quality of the book production alone is enough to gladden a dedicated reader’s heart, with their dove grey covers, carefully chosen endpapers, and forewords or afterwords by contemporary writers. If you buy a book in the shop, you’ll be given a bookmark that matches that book’s endpapers. Delightful.

One of the newest arrivals in Lamb’s Conduit Street is Private White VC, which sells men’s clothes inspired by the wardrobe of Jack White, who was a First World War soldier. If you’re like me in regretting the demise of British clothing manufacturing, you will be heartened to know that all the clothes sold in Private White VC are made in a factory in Manchester. And, neatly, it just happens to be the factory that was once owned by Jack White himself. The fabrics are woven locally too. As for the clothes themselves, they’re stylish and interesting. You will find great looking jackets, coats, shirts, trousers and jumpers there, as well as gloves, shoes and other accessories. Unfortunately, from a female perspective, they are only made for men. Ah well, you can’t win them all.

Two of my other favourite shops are just around the corner in Rugby Street. Ben Pentreath at No. 17 sells what it calls ‘good things for your home’, and they certainly are good. You’ll find everything from glass baubles to sofas, china jugs to prints and cards. Some of the ‘good things’ on sale are contemporary, others are antique. They have a particularly nice line in antique lustreware china, which is a hopeless weakness of mine.

If jewellery is your thing, then you’ll love Maggie Owen at No. 13. She sells highly collectable contemporary jewellery of the 'wow!' variety, made by a carefully chosen collection of European designers. The shop is beautifully laid out, with displays of necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. There are also cards and gloves (I spotted some very elegant pairs of elbow-length cashmere gloves on my last visit), as well as some enchanting fabric teddy bears and dogs.

And there are other shops in the area too. And cafés. And bars. But the four I’ve mentioned here are my current favourites. I often drift into them and have a good mooch about. The staff are always friendly and welcoming, and there is none of the unpleasant expectation that you get in some shops where you feel pressured to buy something simply because you’ve crossed the threshold. (For me, a cast-iron guarantee that I won’t be making that mistake twice.)

So if you’d like to enjoy your Christmas shopping this year, and buy some fabulous gifts while you’re at it, I’d suggest you head for this tiny corner of Bloomsbury. You never know what you’ll find.