Notes from Town and Country
From Anna, Harringay, 19 February 2021
Although I’m not seeing Hattie and Jess in person at the moment (we’re in the office one at a time for now), we’re making our presence known to each other, leaving books we’ve enjoyed on desks to be discovered the next morning. Sometimes a bag of crisps or bar of chocolate accompanies the book, or, during an especially frantic week, a bottle of wine, but the books are the main thing. A peril – and perk – of ordering in books for subscribers is that we inevitably order some for ourselves. Just a couple of recent book swaps have included In the Kitchen, a collection of food-writing recommended by Jess and delicious to dip into, and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, an unusual and beautiful book I felt compelled to press upon the others and then include in our forthcoming Spring Readers’ Catalogue.
I’m lucky that many friends live locally, and I’ve been exchanging books with them as well – we deposit tote bags in porches, call out endorsements for their contents and hope that at some point beloved titles will be returned . . .
These are happy social errands, but longer and more solitary walks call for audiobooks and radio adaptations. I’ve tended towards familiar favourites, so Cold Comfort Farm, the Cazalet Chronicles and Orlando have accompanied me as I stride out. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, adapted as a radio play by Jeanette Winterson herself, was a particularly joyful companion.
The recent snow has meant I’ve had to weave my way round snowmen and slush in Finsbury Park, avoiding icy paths, airborne snowballs and the odd tobogganist as I reach the start of the Parkland Walk. This well-trodden route follows the course of the railway line that used to run between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace, through Crouch End, Highgate and Muswell Hill. The track was only lifted in the 1970s but nature has quickly reclaimed much of it, so in parts it feels a little like an ancient green lane. Still, this being London, it’s no surprise that the brick arches that punctuate the line are covered in colourful and ever-changing graffiti. I’ve walked this path hundreds of times, but I still get a thrill when I reach the spriggan. This human-sized sculpture peers out from under an arch, caught forever between one world and another. Spriggans are thought to be the ghosts of giants and retain their gigantic strength; they’re also mischief-makers, inclined to raise a whirlwind to scare off travellers or call up a storm to blight crops. I try not to see augury in this.
Thick, settled snow is infrequent in London so such days stand out in the memory. One white day a few years ago I found myself not far from the Highgate stretch of the Parkland Walk, on Hampstead Heath. It’s strange that on the heath I always visit Kenwood House in summer and Keats’ House in snow – or perhaps it just seems this way because thoughts of Keats can’t help but conjure the bitter chill of St Agnes’ Eve. On this occasion the grounds were icy and I hurried inside, welcomed into the early nineteenth century to warm up. I’ve been visiting the house for years, wandering through rooms arranged as they would have been when Keats lived here two centuries ago and looking at the books, letters and paintings on display. Among them is Keats’ death mask and the engagement ring he gave Fanny Brawne. This time I arrived just as one of the guided tours was beginning so I tagged along – and it was well worth it, the rooms suddenly becoming inhabited by the people of the stories; I recommend it when the museum can open its doors once more. Keats lived in this house for just seventeen months, before travelling to Italy where he died. Next week, on 23 February, will be the 200th anniversary of his death.
From Gail, Manaton, 19 February 2021
Though I’ve spent much of the last month at my desk, I’ve been travelling too – not in person, but in my mind and on the page. First to West Yorkshire and our printers Smith Settle whose printing works lie not far from the Wharfe valley and Ilkley Moor, at the southern end of the Yorkshire Dales. Tracey and her team have managed to keep the presses rolling throughout the last year, though it has taken some juggling as now one and now another member of her small team has had to self-isolate. I’ve always been fascinated by the printing process. There’s something mesmerizing about watching a mechanical behemoth produce a perfect, pristine printed page. Some years ago the Daily Telegraph captured the magic of the process in a short video on the making of an SF book, and Jennie’s husband Tom celebrated in film the Smith Settle craftsmen and women at work.
Then to Hoxton Square where, next week, the girls will be bracing themselves for the delivery of the Spring issue, the fifth of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman and post-Roman novels set in Britain, Dawn Wind, and our Spring Slightly Foxed Edition, Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. Delivery days in Hoxton Square are always rather fraught. Will it rain? Will the van be able to get down the narrow, cobbled street outside our building? Are there any traffic wardens around? Is there space on the pavement to unload the pallets? And exactly how many boxes will there be and how long will it take to carry them all up two flights of stairs to the office? I’m always amazed at how efficiently the girls manage the logistics of moving hundreds of books and copies of the quarterly, while still manning the phones and keeping track of what is where.
The Spring issue has been printed, but, since time waits for no man, I’m turning my thoughts to the Summer issue and books on far-flung places. It’s time to follow Rose Macaulay to Trebizond, to revisit Anthony Burgess’s Malaya, to climb Mount Kenya with Felice Benuzzi, go language-hunting in the Karakorums and sail with the Coot Club on the Norfolk Broads. Since I doubt any of us will be able to travel far in person this summer I hope that this issue will at least transport us in spirit.
Though we had snow last week and the thermometer dropped to well below zero, there are now signs of spring everywhere. The snowdrops have formed great drifts beneath the margins of the hedgerows, the early daffodils are putting on a brave show, several primroses have emerged and the catkins are dancing on the hazels. And in our favourite greengrocer’s there are boxes of early Yorkshire rhubarb for sale. Hurrah! Time for my favourite breakfast compote:
Rhubarb with Orange
225g castor sugar
Zest and juice of one orange
Trim and wash the rhubarb and cut into 2.5cm lengths. In a saucepan dissolve the sugar in the water over a low heat. Add the rhubarb, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 3-5 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and allow to cool, then add the orange zest and juice.
This recipe is wonderfully simple, but whenever I read an especially complicated one I’m always reminded of Edward Lear’s recipe for an Amblongus pie:
Take 4 pounds (say 4 1/2 pounds) of fresh Amblongusses and put them in a small pipkin. Cover them with water and boil them for 8 hours incessantly, after which add 2 pints of new milk, and proceed to boil for 4 hours more.
When you have ascertained that the Amblongusses are quite soft, take them out and place them in a wide pan, taking care to shake them well previously. Grate some nutmeg over the surface, and cover them carefully with powdered gingerbread, curry-powder and a sufficient quantity of Cayenne pepper.
Remove the pan into the next room and place it on the floor. Bring it back again, and let it simmer for three-quarters of an hour. Shake the pan violently till all the Amblongusses have become a pale purple colour.
Then, having prepared a paste, insert the whole carefully, adding at the same time a small pigeon, 2 slices of beef, 4 cauliflowers, and any number of oysters. Watch patiently till the crust begins to rise, and add a pinch of salt from time to time.
Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of the window as fast as possible.