Notes from Town and Country
From Hazel, Highbury, 12 May 2020
Though I have now just about learned how to make video calls from my smartphone, as mentioned in an earlier diary, the practical and technical challenges of the lockdown continue. A friend emailed me recently with the link to a mask-making tutorial on YouTube. We’re all going to have to wear masks and there are likely to be shortages, so why not start stitching now, she suggested. I could make them in different colours for the whole family, including fun ones for the grandchildren. I watched as deft fingers cut, tacked, sewed and turned bits inside out but couldn’t really make sense of it all and decided to leave it for another day.
I was also uncomfortably aware of a parcel that had been sitting unopened on the hall table. I knew what was in it – the kit for recording an SF podcast from home, since we’re no longer able to meet in the office. Eventually I carried it upstairs, unpacked it gingerly and stood by my desk in a confusion of coils and connections, headphones and microphones. In fact, the instructions for setting it up seemed crystal clear, and it all fitted together. I couldn’t believe it. The podcast, of course, is mercifully sound only, but I had a sudden vision of myself as one of those cool BBC types you see on TV these days, talking into their laptops against a background of family photos and well-chosen books. But when I plugged everything into my computer, there seemed to be no relationship between what I was supposed to be seeing and what was appearing on my screen. My husband could offer no comfort, apart from a large drink. Eventually I was rescued by the technical brilliance of our producers Philippa and Lynne, and when it came to the rehearsal, after a certain amount of anxious phoning I could suddenly hear voices . . . The final result will be out on 15 June.
One still evening we walked to possibly my favourite place in the whole area, a community garden to which we have a key, approached through a narrow cut at the end of a nearby road. The cut leads into a maze of small streets in one of which is a green door in a high wall, and beyond is a garden that is truly magical. For me it’s Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, a book I adored as a child. It has the same feeling of a secret place reclaimed from the wild. Indeed you often come across a kneeling Dickon-like figure with trug and trowel, quietly and industriously weeding amid the lovingly planted herbaceous borders. These two acres were once the site of an old railway depot and were turned into a garden by local residents during the 1980s. Now it is maintained by a group of faithful volunteers.
From the lawn and flowerbeds, protected on the street side by high walls covered in roses and other climbers, the ground falls away steeply to the railway line, barely visible through a small terraced orchard with old fruit trees and meadow grasses. Among the beds and paths there are shady seats, a summerhouse and a little arbour. At the upper level, winding paths bordered by cow parsley lead on to a small wood where woodpigeons were cooing. We stood in the quiet and looked across to the allotments bravely straggling up the embankment on the other side of the line, where someone was still digging. It seemed an appropriate place to remember VE Day.
From Gail, Manaton, 12 May 2020
In past years, the girls from the office have come down to stay for a weekend in the spring or early summer. Sadly, not this year. I feel for them, stuck in London and having to cope with the technological challenges of working remotely and missing the buzz of the office where they can share news and problems and conversations with sometimes quite eccentric subscribers.
Jess lives in Harrow, in West London, where her husband Dan is a teacher. He’s now teaching virtually as the students are at home, and when he’s not doing that he’s making protective masks for local carers with a 3D printer, while Jess is fielding all the orders that come in over the phone, by email or via the website, and managing to remain calm and cheerful at all times. For most of the time Hattie and Anna are working from home too, respectively in Wandsworth and Harringay, but once a week each of them now walks to the office in Hoxton to wrap parcels and fill Royal Mail bags for collection.
Down here the bluebells are out, and every year the carpets of blue seem to spread further. Yesterday we followed the poet John Clare’s advice ‘to gaze awhile on crowding ferns, bluebells and hazel leaves’ and walked through woods on the eastern side of the village. (It’s worth mentioning that last Thursday on BBC Radio 4, Melvin Bragg’s In Our Time was devoted to John Clare, a lovely programme that’s available on iPlayer and also contains a reading list.)
Our route takes us down the bridlepath, through a small ford and then up a concreted track known locally as Dolly’s Folly. There’s a long and convoluted story behind the name involving rights of way and obstinacy and a general falling-out – the stuff of novels – but now the rights and wrongs of the issue have been forgotten, the protagonists are long dead and only the track remains. It takes us sharply up to a ridge where we cross a cattle-grid to a metalled road. A little further on and we’ve reached a gate. Here a footpath winds through scrub oak, birch and hazel. Beneath the trees the bluebells stretch as far as the eye can see and their drifting perfume is heavenly.
On we walk, up and round and up again, past gorse and hawthorn and bracken until, puffing a bit by now, we are on Manaton Rocks. (A great name for a music festival, said a local friend with a glint in his eye . . .) The view from here takes in the sturdy granite church towers of North Bovey and Moretonhampstead, Bovey Castle (built by W. H. Smith of the eponymous chain of stationery-cum-bookshops), Easdon Down, a glimpse of the High Moor and then, turning to the west, Bowerman’s Nose, Hayne Down, Hound Tor and distant Haytor.
A brief rest and then we plunge down the other side, through rhododendron and laurel. Here we are on land that belongs to Half Moon, which was once the village pub. In the 1950s it was bought by Daphne du Maurier’s sister Jeanne and her lifelong partner Noël Welch. Jeanne painted and Noël wrote poetry, and together they created a Marian garden and built an oratory tower. Jeanne died before we moved to the village but Noël lived on into her nineties, a tiny bird-like woman with a fierce intelligence and sharp tongue but also possessed of a tremendous sense of fun and a real appetite for life.
Talking on the phone to a friend the other day, she asked, out of habit I suppose, what we’d been up to and what news there was. I had to confess there was absolutely no news and that I hadn’t set foot outside the village for almost a fortnight. However, there is news of a sort. Someone recently emailed us a ready reckoner for estimating the age of an oak tree. We have one very large oak by the entrance to our house, so this morning we got out the tape measure. The oak’s girth measures over 16 feet, which means it’s approximately 290 years old and so first saw life not long after George I came to the throne. Somehow I find that both pleasing and comforting.
From Anna, Harringay, 12 May 2020
I’m now comfortably settled in my office in the corner of the living-room, wicker chair blocking the entrance to the kitchen, the folding dining-table repurposed as a desk, a graphic novel acting as a makeshift mouse mat (greater surface area and flatter than most paperbacks) and my laptop balanced on a book. The book must be a fairly sizeable hardback, and one that I’ve just read to minimize distraction. The current title that fits the bill is Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, a group biography of five remarkable women who lived on Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury between the wars, among them Dorothy L. Sayers and Virginia Woolf. Finishing this biography led me to read Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees which has been sitting on my bedside table for months. Mirrlees (a translator, poet and novelist) lived with the classicist Jane Harrison, one of the women in Square Haunting, and the 1926 fantasy novel was mentioned in passing, prompting me to act upon the coincidence and finally open its pages. A strange tale to be sure, but one I was glad to get lost in.
Seeing central London through the eyes of the Mecklenburgh Square women has turned my mind to virtual wanderings and memories of student days in Bloomsbury, an area dense with publishers and bookshops – all with their doors sadly closed at the moment. I find myself in these parts less frequently now but, when we can do such things again, I look forward to browsing in the London Review Bookshop and tucking into a recommended read over something sweet in the attached cake shop.
Part of my job at Slightly Foxed is being a bookshop rep: providing information about new publications to independent bookshops in the UK and overseas each quarter and keeping their bookshelves topped up with our wares. I love talking to these booksellers and hearing comments from customers, news of bestsellers and stories from the shop floor. These exchanges led to our Bookshop of the Quarter series, which shines a spotlight on a favourite indie each season. The parties, book launches and events we’ve organized with our booksellers over the years have taken me to so many different, brilliant book havens – Cogito Books in Northumberland, Harris and Harris in Suffolk, One Tree Books in Hampshire, John Sandoe’s in Chelsea and Much Ado Books in Sussex to name just a few. Bookshops are having a tough time at the moment, so do please support them if you can. They’re doing all within their power to get good reading to their customers, with many able to take orders and deliver books. We’ve put together a list of many of our bookshops’ services and we’ll update and add to this as the situation evolves.