Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Making of the British Landscape

I’ve just finished reading the 800-odd pages of The Making of the British Landscape (ISBN 9781846142055) by Francis Pryor, who many will know from his TV appearances on Time Team, as well as Britain BC and Britain AD, which he adapted from his books of the same name for Channel 4 television. He was a field archaeologist for many years, specialising in the Fenland area of eastern England, and best known for his work at Fengate, Cat’s Water, and subsequently at Flag Fen, on the edges of Peterborough. Previously President of the Council for British Archaeology, he now divides his time circannually between writing, broadcasting, and sheep-farming.

The title echoes W G Hoskins’s The Making of the English Landscape, first published in 1953, which I read when I was a teenager. It made quite an impact on me, and I have been interested in the development of these countries’ landscapes (my interest is also in Wales and Scotland) ever since.

Hoskins wasn’t much help with towns and cities, and I sometimes struggled to apply the ideas from his book to the landscape I was looking at, it all seemed so much more complicated, the land being – that wonderful word – a palimpsest of thousands of years’ changes. To be fair to Hoskins, he was inventing a new discipline, in effect, making it up as he went along, and we know so much more, and have so many more scientific techniques, nearly sixty years later. Online resources now mean that some areas of the country can be researched using the Historic Environment Records, Extensive Urban Surveys, Historic Character Assessment Reports, or a more specific example, the Cornwall Industrial Settlements Initiative. But all this new information needs fitting into the larger context to fully understand it.

So a new book on the subject, a big fat one at that, is much to be welcomed. With the subtitle ‘How we have transformed the land from prehistory to today’, the book is arranged chronologically, and its scope is vast – starting with the retreat of the ice, Palaeolithic hunters, and rising sea levels in the Mesolithic flooding the plains and wetlands of Doggerland to create the North Sea and English Channel, taking us through to the present-day ‘Sat Nav Britain’. As Francis says, taking us from one time of major climate change to another.

There is a lot of historical and archaeological information to put things into context here; obviously very strong on the archaeology, but also covering, inter alia, architecture, industrial archaeology, garden history, geology, and planning policy. As usual, Francis doesn’t shrink from taking a polemical view, and if that stimulates debate, for example about planning or industrial agriculture (or soil-mining as I think of it), then so much the better.

Our modern landscape is strongly influenced by the underlying geology, soil, and what went before. Learning to unpick the details is enjoyable, making a walk an informative and interesting activity, rather than a pointless ramble. I’ll never have enough knowledge to be a Stewart Ainsworth, but this book provides the material to enrich any walk, urban or rural.

With its enormous breadth in time and subject matter, and covering the whole of Great Britain in varying amounts of detail, I can’t imagine anyone not gaining a lot from reading this book. It’s well-illustrated with maps, figures, colour plates, and monochrome photos (which could perhaps have been reproduced more clearly, but are far better than those in the proof copy I saw). There are copious endnotes, a ‘further reading’ section, a bibliography, a glossary and an excellent index. It’s a proper size, too, quarto rather than a large coffee-table book.

There is more information and a short interview with Francis on the Penguin website, and he’s at the Hay Festival on June the 3rd.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Stoke Newington literary festival 2010

Stoke Newington’s first ever literary festival is from 4th to 6th June 2010. London’s historic home to radical writers, thinkers and dissidents plays host to a diverse array of today’s most interesting authors and poets.

Those appearing include science fiction writers China Mieville and Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Orange Fiction Prize Shortlister Monique Roffey, politicians Tony Benn amd Diane Abbott, poets John Hegley and Katy Evans-Bush, Beer Writer of the Year Pete Brown hosting an event in his local The White Hart, and media favourites Jeremy Hardy and Phill Jupitus.

You can follow Stoke Newington literary festival on twitter.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

JG Farrell wins 1970 'lost' Booker Prize

The Liverpool born author J. G. Farrell has won the 1970 'lost' Booker Prize with his novel Troubles set in Ireland in 1919, just after the First World War and against the growing tension in the move for Irish independence.

Farrell, who died in an accident in 1979, also won the 1973 prize for The Siege of Krishnapur. Had Troubles actually won in 1970, Farrell would have become the first author to win the Booker twice.

Ibooknet member and Irish books specialist Karen Millward, has several copies of Troubles in stock at the time of writing.

There are two books on Farrell by Lavinia Greacen - J. G. Farrell the Making of a Writer (Bloomsbury , 1999) J. G. Farrell in His Own Words Selected Letters and Diaries (Cork University Press, 2009) which might interest those intrigued by this writer whose reputation continues to grow thirty years after his death.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Local Literary Connections

Local Literary Connections by Nigel Smith of Bagot Books

I was pondering local literary connections and people’s need to find them the other day. Some places seem steeped in literature – the west of Surrey seems to have had a lot of well-known writers living there, whereas the area of Surrey I live in doesn’t. The only author of note (that I am aware of) that ever lived in Ashtead was Beverly Nichols, and his Merry Hall trilogy is a fictionalised account of his time here.

This doesn’t stop people finding as many tenuous connections as they can. For example:

Daniel Defoe : went to school in Dorking.

George Eliot : used to enjoy walking near Dorking.

Charles Dickens : stayed at a hotel in Dorking and the town is mentioned in The Pickwick Papers.

Jane Austen : set The Watsons in Dorking (Austen almost certainly would have visited the town as she lived for a while in Bookham, which is only a few miles away), and, the most famous Dorking literary connection of all: eponymous Emma has a picnic on Box Hill.

George MacDonald : he did actually live in Ashtead, although only for a few months - he came here to die and had his funeral here. I don’t think he ever put pen to paper while he was here, unless it was to sign his will.

The writer mentioned most often, and the one most local people seem to have heard of, in connection with Ashtead, is Samuel Pepys. He has a small cul-de-sac named after him. Now, Pepys lived in London and Brampton in Huntingdonshire, but his cousin had lived in Ashtead (it is speculated that Park Farm was his house) and the young Samuel visited his family there. He came to Ashtead at least twice during the period he was writing his diary, but didn’t seem to think much of it.

25th July 1663 [He had come to take the waters at Epsom but there was no room available so] “I went towards Ashsted, and there we got a lodging in a little hole we could not stand upright in. While supper was getting I walked up and down behind my cosen Pepys’s house that was, which I find comes little short of what I took it to be when I was a little boy.” The other visit mentioned in his diary, in 1667, involves Samuel bringing some friends to show them his old haunts, but he was unable to find the footpaths through the woods he remembered from his childhood, and he sprained his ankle badly as well. That’s about the sum of Pepys’ Ashtead connection. And for Ashtead, that’s it really.

However, there are a couple of local literary heavyweights with stronger connections. Jane Austen’s writing was influenced by that of Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840), who lived for some time at Westhumble near Dorking. She was a friend of Samuel Johnson (Hester Thrale introduced them), and she wrote of their meetings in her Diary. She spent five years of her life (1786-1890) “her talents wasted in the folding of muslins” as Horace Walpole put it, as Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. And then, while staying with her sister Susanna Phillips near Westhumble, she visited the French émigrés living at Juniper Hall at Mickleham – refugees from the French Revolution – and met a General Alexandre D'Arblay, who she married in 1793 at St Michael’s Church, Mickleham.

Fanny wrote a number of plays (mostly unperformed), four novels (Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer), but is probably best known for her Diary which was published posthumously in 1841.

Not far at all from Fanny Burney’s Camilla Cottage is Flint Cottage. Here, one of my favourite Victorian novelists lived and worked: George Meredith (1828-1909). He married Thomas Love Peacock’s daughter, a widow, who ran off with a Pre-Raphaelite painter nine years later. She died in 1861 and Meredith later married again, moving to Surrey.

Flint Cottage sits in a hollow at the foot of the dip slope of Box Hill, and a Swiss-style chalet in the garden still exists; here Meredith used to write and entertain his friends (including Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and J M Barrie). William Sharp described it as

“a little brown wooden house of the simplest, but to many friends richer in ardent memories than any palace in treasures … with its outlook down grassy terraces and pansied garden-rows across to the green thorn-stunted slope of Box Hill, and its glimpse leftward up that valley where still in nightingale-weather may be seen in a snow of bloom the wild white cherry which inspired the lines:

Fairer than the lily, than the wild white cherry / Fair as an image my seraph love appears …”

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Diana of the Crossways, and The Egoist are among his more famous novels; Richard Feverel was his earliest, and it caused him problems for some years because of its sexual frankness – “I am tabooed from all decent drawing-room tables” he said. Later in life he advised Thomas Hardy not to publish a book as he felt it would jeopardise his career as a novelist – advice from the heart. My favourite title of all his novels is ‘The Shaving of Shagpat’, but the book itself is written in the episodic style of a humorous Arabian Nights and is, in my mind, his least enjoyable book.

The two things about his writing that stand out for me are the strong female characters in his novels, and in both his poetry and prose the intimate descriptions of the countryside settings – often Surrey or the Thames, but various other parts of England and on the European mainland also.

George Meredith left Flint Cottage to the National Trust, presumably expecting them to keep it in trust in perpetuity. However, last year the 99-year lease was for sale for £1.35 million.

But all this begs my original question, which was why people need to find literary (and televisual, for that matter) connections? I presume 'Shakespeare's Country' was the original, but now as well as Hardy's Wessex we have Cookson, Heartbeat, and Emmerdale Countries, Ian Rankin's Edinburgh, and so on. It's understandable that people would like to know or visit the country that a particular novel is set in - Antony House, the Cornish National Trust property which was the location for the Tim Burton Alice film, has seen visitor numbers swell tenfold. Notwithstanding whether this is a Good Thing, why are people so desperate to find some famous association (however slight) with their home town?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sweet Disorder in the Balkans

Sweet Disorder in the Balkans by Marijana Dworski

A story of how book-dealers very often buy rather more than books, and a warning that perhaps they shouldn't or how the Lady Sybil Stewart collection came into her possession.

Embroidery, knitting, weaving and sewing are all pass-times, for which I am psychologically and constitutionally unsuited. I do not have the patience, the dexterity or the eye for detail to even consider embarking on these particular art forms. However, I love traditional textiles, especially those of the Balkans and the Near East, and rarely come home from abroad without some woven or embroidered 'piece' in my luggage.

Over the course of years selling books on Southeastern and Central Europe, I have had many requests for books on Hungarian, Polish and Balkan embroidery and costume. All these countries, particularly post World War II, produced publications in their own languages on the subject and many are profusely illustrated with photographs from ethnographic collections.

However, useful as these books are as works of reference, they cannot compare with the charming illustrated books on costume issued almost throughout the history of publishing. One of my particular favourites, and now of course so very hard to find, is one of Frederic Schoberl's series on the 'World in Miniature', published in the early nineteenth century. My personal copy of "Illyria and Dalmatia" (1821) is a charming two volume book in 16mo and in a later but very sympathetic half-calf binding with gilt decorated raised bands to the spine. The book comprises 32 hand-coloured engravings and short (rather subjectively viewed) texts on the various inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsular in their traditional outfits.

Romanian (or Rumanian or Roumanian) folk costume and craft was popular amongst the Bohemian set in 1920 and '30s London and the rather scandalous, Queen Marie of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, forged many links between the two countries. Books on Romanian costume, Romanian craft and Romanian folk lore published at the time are not uncommon with Studio's 1929 Peasant Art in Roumania being a good early example. The Romanians themselves also published books on folk art for the foreign market both before and after World War Two. Banateanu et al's lavish work: 'Folk Costumes, Woven Textiles and Embroideries of Rumania' (1958) is a typical example and an excellent source of reference.

Despite the plethora of publications on the area since Victorian times, good libraries on the Balkans are scarce and some years ago, I was tempted to the West Highlands to view the books of a family who had had close connections, both personal and diplomatic, with Serbia and the former Yugoslavia. The owner of the books, one of those 'redoubtable' English ladies was now old and unable to live alone in her Highland home. The house was being sold. The books themselves were interesting, albeit somewhat damp but there were few of value. It was just as I was taking my leave that the daughter of the family, threw open the lid of a large chest and exclaimed: "What shall I do with these?" It was a huge chest and brimful with traditional Yugoslav costume and other textiles. What an offer. I bought the lot. Refusing the offer of the chest itself, I drove the five hundred miles home barely able to see out of the back for coloured and patterned materials. I showed them off to all my friends; the embroiderers and weavers amongst them exclaiming at the detail and marvelling at the antique items: tiny and encrusted with gold thread. Another friend lent me an Edwardian tailor's dummy and a traditional Croatian dress became a symbol of my business and a tourist destination in Hay. But what to do? You can have too much of a good thing. My floors are already covered in Kilims, my walls have hangings galore and my sons won't wear the dresses. Some three years later having done little with this gorgeous collection - moving it occasionally from spare-room to attic and back, I feel it is time for Sybil Sturrock's textiles to leave my hands.

You can view Marijana's books on the Balkans here.

Balkan Costume and Textile Collection for sale

Balkan Costume and Textile Collection for sale from Marijana Dworski:

A variety of textiles from the former Yugoslavia collected and preserved by Lady Sybil Stewart from 1930s to 1970s.

Following in the footsteps of Edith Durham and conforming to a tradition of feisty female aficionados of the Balkans Sybil Stewart, nee Sturrock, loved Serbia and its surrounding regions. Married to the diplomat, Sir Dugald Stewart (16th of Appin), their term of office in the 1970s was not the first time she had lived in Yugoslavia. Most notably we find that: "WAAF wireless operator Sybil Sturrock was parachuted into Yugoslavia, where she worked with the partisans until they joined with the Red Army and liberated Zagreb" ('The WAAF' by Beryl Escott 2003, Oxford. Shire Press). Dugald and Sybil married in Belgrade in 1947. Serbia, the Balkans and the Near East have long been close to the heart of a particular type of British elite and the Stewarts counted amongst their acquaintances both Fitzroy Maclean and Wilfred Thesiger.

Collecting far and wide in the former Yugoslav, both before and after World War II, Sybil Stewart put together a magnificent collection of 'Yugoslav' costume and textile. Many of these items are antiques featuring typical heavy ornamental embroideries. Even those pieces made in a more modern era and of modern stuffs retain the old patterns and weaves.

Our collection consists of some 150 items, 85 of which are garments or elements of traditional costumes. As well as tablecloth and napkin sets, hangings, throws, woollen bags and other woven or embroidered textiles, other items include a numbered of carved ornaments, some 9 books on embroidery and textiles in Southeastern Europe and a number of dolls in traditional costume. A letter, relating to this collection, from Jennifer Scarce (author of 'Women's Costume of the Near and Middle East' (1987) and one-time curator of Eastern Cultures at Glasgow's Royal Museum of Scotland) is also present.

Offers in the region of £2,875. More details and photographs available. Delivery within the United Kingdom, free. Please contact:

Marijana Dworski
21, The Meadows
Via Hereford HR3 5LF
United Kingdom.
(+44) 01497 820 200

Select Bibliography:

Allcock, John B. and Young, Antonia. Black Lambs and Grey Falcons: Women Travellers in the Balkans. 2nd rvsd. ed. 2001. Berghan

Banateanu, Tancred, Focsa, Gheorghe, Ionescu, Emilia. Folk Costumes, Woven Textiles and Embroideries of Rumania. 1958: State Publishing House for Literature and the Arts

Durham, M. E. High Albania. 1909. London, Arnold.

Durham, M. E. Some Tribal Origins, Laws & Customs of the Balkans. 1928. London Allen & Unwin.

Plese, Adela. Hrvatski narodni ornamenat. 1944. Zagreb.

(Radaus-Ribaric, Jelka) Croatian Folk Embroidery. 1978. Zagreb.

Scarce, Jennifer: 1987. London and Sydney. 'Women's Costume of the Near and Middle East' Unwin Hyman

Start, Laura The Durham Collection of Garments and Embroideries from Albania and Jugoslavia presented to the Bankfield Museum by Mary Edith Durham ... A description. With notes by M. Edith Durham, etc (Bankfield Museum Notes. ser. 3. no. 4.) 1939

Tilke, Max: The Costumes of Eastern Europe. 1926, London. Benn Ltd.

Thornton, Philip. Dead Puppets Dance. 1937. London. Collins.

Varagnac, Andre & LePage-Medvey, E. National Costumes: Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czecho-Slovakia. 1939. London. Hyperion

You can view Marijana's books on the Balkans here.
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