One of the pleasures of these days as we move toward the equinox, is to enjoy the signs of life in the garden.
In our garden I've taken a great deal of pleasure in noticing the seed potatoes shooting their leaves through the surface of the soil. They are planted in a box frame filled with very fine soil and fertiliser. At last count, there were, I think, 16 shoots to be seen. That leaves no more than one or two yet to appear. Excited by potatoes growing? Some would say there are far more exciting events and processes in the world, and so there are, but that does not take away the pleasures of the garden.
The vegetable garden, all in box frames, is showing life in every planting. We have already eaten some of our mini-cauliflowers. More are coming along nicely, and cabbages also are looking good. We have been eating rhubarb for some time and much more is coming along vigorously. Carrots, too, are making rapid headway.
In the flower gardens we have a number of beautiful Dutch iris in bloom and many more in bud. A week from now we should have a very good display. Seven bearded iris are in bud, not far from opening. There are many more which will bud up very soon. Bluebells in the back flower garden are blooming in great profusion among the rose bushes. Our first three or four roses of the new season have opened up and shown us their wonder. Who could resist the loveliness of a rose, no matter what its variety. A rose shows us what beauty can be.
Why is growth of plants in a garden such an experience of pleasure for us? Is it because, in a garden, we work with life, with natural impulses of a fecund world? Is it because, in the case of the vegetable garden, we are involved in the basic matter of growing food which will sustain our own lives? Is it because, no matter how matter of fact we are in our garden plantings and tendings, we sense there is mystery and magic in the growth of a tiny seed to mature plant?
The flower garden pleasure is perhaps related to the fact that the beauty of colours and form of, say, an iris, a bluebell, a rose, a pansy or a petunia are colours and form of a living, growing entity and therefore colours and form of Life? Try as they may, artists are unable to reproduce the colours of flowers with any exactitude.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) put the matter this way: 'God Almighty first planted a garden; and, indeed. it is the purest of human pleasures.' It certainly is.
I met Snow White.
I didn't know it was she at first, though I should have expected the unexpected. I was, you see, in Wales, the land more of legend than any other I know.
This Wales is the country of the Mabinogion, the stories that lie at the heart of being the Cymru, tales that immediately tell me that I, a Sais, do not belong, though sometimes I have felt a powerful homesickness for Wales, the land that cannot be my home.
This Wales is the land of Arthurian legends which, with little if any historicity, are true in the only way that matters:They live in the national identity.
This Wales is the land of druidic tradition, alive in the Eisteddfodau, and wherever the poetic spirit of Cymraig manifests here in Aberystwyth or Llangefni or there in Llangollen or Llanelli or whereever else in the land of poetry and song.
This Wales is the land where even historical figures like Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, or Owain Glyndwr take on mythical proportions in their heroic status, almost as venerated as a rugby player wearing the red shirt. Even the national symbol of Wales, the red dragon, is mythical, yet a reality around which the Welsh will rally to a man, to a woman.
So, if you will allow my reasoning, it should not have been surprising that I met Snow White in Wales. Yet it was. I did not know immediately because whenever I had thought of Snow White, I saw in imagination a young woman dressed in white with long, flowing hair, bright red lips and short of height. But the woman standing before me was, while not tall, a respectable five feet three inches or so, but was not wearing lipstick at all and was clothed in a cream blouse and green skirt. She was very pretty and spoke with the softest Welsh voice.
I was visiting the primary school in North Wales where, many years before, my children had been pupils.
"My name is Eirwen, she said.There it was. I heard her say it. She was Snow White. How I would have loved, as a child, to have had Snow White as my teacher! And here, in this small school in Wales, children were taught by Snow White. What lucky children they were.
As for me, I have never forgotten the day I met Snow White.
Since then I have also met Snowdrop. Her Welsh name is Eirlys. It is a lovely name, and Eirlys is a lovely person. But she lives in Hampshire and it's not the same.
Trains, I agree, are not everyone's preferred means of travel (though as one who has been in love with traids since he was a little boy it's hard for me to see why). In Australia we do not have trains of high-enough quality to encourage people to be excited by trains travel. That being the case it's easy to understand why some in the Great South Land might assume that trains everywhere are like those to be seen and experienced here.
That's a pity. Train travel elsewhere, particularly in Europe, is a different matter altogether. top-rate trains run many times a day between the major cities of the continent, one or two of them private, most of them public.
The daily sign of love for me,
A strong familiarity
That draws us yet together.
The warm, soft touch of a hand long known
The seed of a tender thought well sown,
No dark hour can smother.
Through sweet memories of time and place,
In words and clues we climb and trace
The paths we've walked together.
Our yearnings, joys, pains, tears are met -
Not great things from the years and yet
All building together.
If my understanding serves me ill
And all seems emptiness and vain,
Then take my hand in yours again,
And tell me that you love me still.
The Sadness of a Non-Gastronome
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French lawyer of the 16th and 17th centuries, might be expected to have been of conservative, sombre mind. However, having also been a gastronome, the latter state of being seems to have prevailed over the former on at least one occasion.
In one of his publications he shared a certain view of those not attracted to the gastronomic delights of the table. ‘Those...to whom nature has denied an aptitude for the enjoyments of taste,’ he wrote, ‘are long-faced, long-nosed, and long-eyed...They have dark, lanky hair, and are never in good condition. It was one of them who invented trousers.’
There are no doubt many expressed views capable of disturbing a man of sensitivity. Neo-Nazis can cause a ripple or two within. Banning the sale of single-malt Scotch whisky could cause a man to sit up and take notice. To be forced to listen to popular teen-agers’ music might cause one to question whether God had temporarily left his heaven. Yet Brillat-Savarin has taken me to a different level of shock. My spirit leapt in alarm within me like a gaffed salmon. I am, you see, not one who graces the tables of feasts designed to send the electrons of palates into a frenzy. I find television chefs and their newspaper-journalism counterparts extraordinarily skilled at being boring. And I am more than happy to have a plate of Italian smothered in parmesan or a container of Chinese take-away.
My alarm, I must point out, is not due to one assertion of M. Brillat-Savarin’s only. I am just a little disturbed by his reference to trousers. I have always felt that they were a particularly suitable item of clothing for one of the male sex. I have never felt that a skirt would suit me, though I do believe that a kilt worn by a piper in a Scottish regimental parade of pipes and drums can look masculine enough. Still, though I have Campbell blood, I have not been tempted to wear the swinging tartan. And because I left school a sufficient number of decades ago to challenge my arithmetic, I eschew the wearing of shorts. Am I demonstrating a lack of taste by wearing trousers?
By the way, if he felt so strongly about trousers, what did M. Brillat-Savarin wear in court?
That isn’t all. The other assertion that causes distress is that which deals with the matter of long noses, long faces, long eyes, dark lanky hair and poor condition. If his assertion is true, and he states it very confidently, then I must be the joke of the female sex wherever I go. Perhaps it is only good manners or kindness that keeps them from laughing openly when I pass by.
Another by the way. I don’t know what M. Brillat-Savarin looked like. I can only assume that he was a fine-looking fellow who took the girls by storm. As for me, I shall go to the bathroom and glance fearfully into the mirror. And hate M. Brillat-Savarin.
TONY GATESNov. 2015
The Vale of Deadly Nightshade
It’s surprising what an interest in trains and railways can lead to. In this case my interest led me to what is perhaps the least attractive place name in England, the Vale of Deadly nightshade, not far from Barrow in Furness in the northwest of England.
I know of it only because, in the days prior to the 1923 grouping of the very great number of private railways into four large companies, the Furness Railway had a station named Furness Abbey. It was located in the Vale of Deadly Nightshade. The Cistercian Abbey, close by the station, is now in ruins.
Part of the arms of the Abbot of Furness is The Madonna and Child, which the Furness Railway adopted as the centre-piece of its own coat of arms.
The Cavendish family, whose head was the Duke of Devonshire (the 12th Duke of Devonshire is the current head), were residents of the area. The family’s motto was Cavendo Tutus, which translates, ‘Advance with Caution,’ or ‘Safe with Caution.’ Is it more than coincidence that there is verbal likeness with Cavendo and Cavendish? Be that as it may or may not, the Furness Railway also adopted Cavendo Tutus as its motto on its coat of arms.
Such is at least one story of the Vale of Deadly Nightshade. It was clearly once a place of great religious, as well as railway, significance.
Is it too fanciful to say that the Madonna with Child looked gently and kindly over the apparently unkindly named vale? Perhaps so, but life could be rather dull without imagination. I can imagine Bunyan’s Pilgrim trudging, burden on his back, fearfully through the Vale of Deadly Nightshade and being calmed in his fearfulness by the kindly Madonna and child. Bunyan might not take well to associations with the Catholic Madonna, but I see only good in her. Anyway, she appears on the coat of arms of a railway company, so she must be good. She is part of the romance of railways.
Deadly Nightshade is also known as Bella Donna, with the botanical name, Atropa belladonna. The Furness Railway coat of arms also has Bella Donna; its leaves and its florets surround the head of the Madonna.
Linnaaeus, in the 18th century, chose the name belladonna not, it seems, for any reason connected with the Virgin Mary, but rather because one of uses during the Renaissance was cosmetic. Women used the juice of the berries to dilate their pupils in order to gain a seductive look in the eyes. The method was to use the juice in eye drops. No matter that Linnaeus saw deadly nightshade differently, for me the Bella Donna Mary is at the centre of the Furness Railway’s coat of arms.
It’s something of a surprise to me that deadly nightshade belongs to the same botanical family as the potato, the tomato and the aubergine, the poisonous among the edible.
A famous use of deadly nightshade, though rumoured rather than proven, was Livias’s use of it to poison Augustus.
A truly fascinating tradition in the Bukovina are of Romania and Ukraine was a ritual undertaken by a girl to increase her attractiveness. She would enter a field on Shrove Tuesday, dressed in her finest clothes. Her mother was with her. She would dig up a root of deadly nightshade and leave offerings of bread, salt and brandy in its place. She returned home carrying the deadly nightshade root on her head. During the whole process, from leaving home to returning, she would not argue or quarrel, nor would she explain what she was doing. It was believed that were she to do so, the spell would be broken and there would be no increase in her attractiveness.
Such thoughts are stimulated by the Furness railway.
Deadly nightshade, the Virgin Mary with child, Bella donna and the pursuit of beauty all come to mind as I gaze on that coat of arms.
Morning mist, pre-dawn;
Isinglass, trees unearthed.
Violet’s blue hope
flowering too briefly on
a human walkway.
My feet standing on red earth I love;
My body bathing in southern streams
Reflecting cyan hues above,
Blessing a land of ancient dreams.
Dreams in tune with the big land's veins,
Showing a way, a truth, a sign,
To the soul of the dawns, the suns, the rains
That mark the passing of endless time.
Body at rest,
overlaid still with physical pleasure:
Mind at peace,
floating in a warm, shared world of two:
The woman I love lying beside me:
And the truth we have created -
she and I are loved.
O Friendly Death, clear backwater of a bubbling stream
Where calm and peace suffuse through all, yet is a part
Of the ongoing waterway of life, even though it seems,
But only seems, to be the final curtain of a fitful dream;
Remove the dread fear from me of having left behind
The limiting perspectives all, that leave me blind
To all which in the end, though hard to see, can satisfy my heart,
And help me, despite all, a deep sustaining inner stillness find.
How old was I? It was before I'd left primary school for the less happy days of secondary education, so I might have been, say, ten. Yes, ten seems to be about right. Ten max. The days before my first long trousers anyway. It was the day - or rather, the night - of my first long-distance train journey, a memorable occasion in a boy's life.
The journey was with my mother. It's funny, I've often thought of that journey, but only now have I asked myself why it was overnight. There must have been daylight trains. To travel during the daylight hours would have been much more pleasant for my mother, if less exciting for me.
We were bound for Sunderland, my mother and I, that shipbuilding town on the Wear which was her home until, as a young woman, she came south to marry my father. To me it was a magical unknown. All places I had never seen had an exciting, mysterious quality. I can recall so well watching, after school, express passenger trains of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway roaring past on their way from St. Pancras, heading for places with names, exotic to me then, and some of them now, for that matter, such as Leicester, Nottingham, Leeds, Derby, Melton Mowbray, Sheffield, Market Harborough, Scotland and the Waverley route. I had been to none of them and the Waverley route was a kind of mystery road. I knew from school that Waverley was associated with Sir Walter Scott and that was enough to excite my imagination.
The words all had a kind of otherworldly feel about them in my mind. I was especially captivated by Melton Mowbray, Market Harborough and the Waverley route. I'd say them out loud, loving the feel on my tongue of their cadences. How fascinating places with such musical names must be!
Sunderland had no special music. Yet it was in the far north-east and there was a touch of mystery provided by what seemed to me then to be its remoteness, a more than adequate compensation for its lack of syllabic rhythm.
My mother ushered me from the magnificence of the LMS' St. Pancras to the dowdiness of the London and North Eastern Railway's King's Cross next door. The comparison, however, was lost on me then. I knew nothing of the glories of Gothic Revival or the disappointment of the nondesript. To me, they were just two huge end-of-the-line railway stations from which the great,fire-eating monsters of the tracks hauled their long rakes of carriages from a stuttering start towards the north.
In the cacophony of shrieking safety valves, steam whistles and sliding steel upon steel, and the shudder of exhaust beats as a locomotive struggled to find traction at the head of its dozen or so carriages, my mother and I walked along a platform to board our train. I looked at the nameboard on the carriage we entered. Tyne, Tees, Thames Express. How it rolled around my head! I did not know the word 'alliteration' but I did know the sensual pleasure of that destination board, Tyne, Tees, Thames Express. The words sang in my head as we took our seats.
I have a vivid memory still of the stop at Grantham, sometime after midnight. The lights of the station were yellowish and the clanking sound of a shunting, workhorse locomotive gave the moment the eeriness of an alien world. This, surely, I allowed myself to imagine, was a place where souls were tormented! I enjoyed letting my mind loose durng those Dantean minutes in Grantham's yellow moments out of time.
We left Grantham behind. The black journey continued towards the north-east. The total darkness of the world outside the train suggested a place where only brave souls ventured. I thought of that great locomotive at the head of the train, its fire piercing the darkness. There, on the footplate, the fireman was working heroically to maintain the steam pressure which kept Leviathan moving. Shovel- open the door - in - close the door, shovel - open the door - in - close the door. The words seemed to fit so well with the rhythm of the train. And the driver, the god-man who could control the monster, peered ahead, hand on the regulator, alert for red signals. Yes, I knew a bit about railways, even then.
As I looked through the window and saw only blackness, the thought came to me, steaming northwards through the night. Yes! The rhythm again. Yet more than that, the words held romance. I let them run around my head - steaing northwards through the night, Tyne, Tees, Thames Express, steaming northwards through the night. The words probably sang me to sleep, a kind of railway lullaby.
So much music. Melton Mowbray, Market Harborough, the Waverley route, Tyne, Tees, Thames Express, steaming northwards through the night...
I have a book on my shelves called Literary Britain. My literary Britain starts with strips of steel fanning out from London; romance and rhythm in steel.