No. 11: A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees, Kenko

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This is undoubtedly my favourite opening quote from the Little Black Classics series thus far.

During these sticky summer months, however, it’s arguably more wonderful to lie in a hammock in shorts and a T-shirt, with a book and a glass of fruity Pimm’s to hand, as was my situation when reading this Little Black Classic. It was genuinely idyllic.

Nestled in this situation, I soon become absorbed in Kenko’s social commentary, punctuated with anecdotes and observations.

Kenko takes readers through life’s experience – friendships, relationships, death, and more specific events and factors, like inheritance, the weather, annual festivals.

These are, at times, rather disjointed – rather like Hebel’s fables last week they vary in length and don’t have much continuity or flow.

Fortunately, I enjoyed this classic so much more than last week’s.

These musings are beautifully translated. Take the line: “there is something dreadfully lacking in a man who does not pursue the art of love.” Pure poetry.

This once more made me think of my friend Hafez. Like The nightingales are drunk, the writer’s life dances across the pages in A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees. He’s full of opinion and humour and honesty and is forever contradicting himself.

One of my favourite sections begins “The changing seasons are moving in every way.”

I relish the changing seasons and we are lucky to have such distinct seasons here in the UK.

As much as I love Christmas, the long months of winter we suffer throws a constant black cloud over me, which my friends and colleagues can confirm. It’s winter blues with an attitude problem.

Similarly, summer leaves me somewhat disenchanted. I like the BBQs, and lighter evenings and aforementioned Pimm’s, but we all seem to forget the hay fever, heat rash, bug bites and sweaty train journeys until the day of arrival.

Like Kenko, it’s Autumn and Spring that I really relish. Autumn for it warm hues and crisp decay and family traditions. And Spring for new it’s new life and bursting green. It’s a charming reward after the bleak British winter.

Kenko perfectly describes my emotion after enduring winter and seeing spring: “Until the leaves appear on the boughs, the heart is endlessly perturbed.”

In February 2016, when a colleague comments on my slumped shoulders and cranky attitude I will quote this. No doubt giving more reason to call me a grumpy and protentious git.

Kenko’s musings aren’t all so profound and evocative.

Take his advice to readers on choosing friends:

“There are seven types of people one should not have as a friend. The first is an exalted and high-ranking person, The second, somebody young. The third, anyone strong and in perfect health. The fourth, a man who loves drink. The fifth, a brave and daring warrior. The sixth, a liar. The seventh, an avaricious man. The three to choose as friends are – one who gives gifts, a doctor and a wise man.”

Alas I have many friends that fit into the first category of seven, excluding one or two that I leave you to identify. I am lucky enough to have many wise friends and a doctor friend is moving into my flat in just a couple of weeks. Kenko would approve.

This is not to say that everything Kenko writes strikes home or is, at the very least, amusing.

His description of death left me cold and lonely – surprising for a buddist monk. They’re too chilling to record here – if you’re intrigued, please read yourself.

Similarly, there are various sections which have a definite underlying misogyny.

Early on he says man:

“shouldn’t lose himself to love too thoroughly, or gain the reputation of being putty in women’s hands.”

Not a great start but I was willing to give Kenko the benefit of the doubt.

Sadly, Kenko continued:

“It is depressing to watch her bear children and fuss over them, and things don’t end with his death, for them you have the shameful sight of her growing old and decrepit as a nun.”

Where to start?! Aside from the heinous remark about her appearance as an old woman (how did Kenko look in his old age, I wonder?) and the fact that I’m sure if she didn’t run the house well it would be cause for complaint, why is it depressing to “watch her bear children” when Spring is so celebrated?

Despite this misogyny, I really enjoyed this Classic, particularly Kenko’s view on friendships.

He celebrates the surprise of a letter from a friend and recalls specific relationships with friends that he mourns for. He articulately writes:

“What happiness to sit intimate conversation with someone of like mind, warmed by candid discussion of the amusing and fleeting ways of this world. But such a friend is hard to find, and instead you sit there doing your best to fit in with whatever the other is saying, feeling deeply alone”

With this in mind, I texted my dear friend Naina, who chose this week’s Classic, and asked if she would join me in a cup of sake.

Naina grew up in Hong Kong, and first tried sake on a trip to China. We met on a library tour at uni (yes, we were those people) and it was instant love.

She recommended we head to Hare & Tortoise, a short walk from the British Library, for a bottle of sake and some sushi.

My friends told me a bit about what to expect beforehand, and kindly corrected my pronunciation (I showed my naivety here).

As previously discussed, it’s rather warm and muggy in the UK and so Naina and I decided upon a cold bottle of the Japanese rice wine as opposed to hot.

It was served with tiny glasses that you essentially shot and it was delicious – perfectly cooling and sweet, and without the acidity of a grape wine. I’m smacking my lips at the memory.

This was accompanied with some delicious sushi and a hearty catch up, which Kenko would probably have approved of to a point, before making a generalisation about women gossiping.

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We walked off our sushi, strolling toward Naina’s bedsit, which is the epitomy of how I imagined London life as an adolescent.

Hidden behind a Leaky Cauldron-esque door, a winding staircase lined with botanical prints, hanging crookedly, leads the way to Naina’s front door. Every time I mount those stairs I am reminded of the staircase landlady Mrs Crupp leads David Copperfield up to his first rented London accommodation.

Naina’s home overlooks a small public garden, which is conveniently lined with cherry trees. She sung of their blossom, which sadly fell a month or so ago.

Some cherries still cling to the branches, thus far undiscovered by peckish birds.

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After looking for the last clinging fruits, we settled under a horse chestnut tree, which had a low hanging canopy, making the perfect shelter for a light rain shower. Typically unpredictable British weather.

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Here I told Naina of Kenko and she read a few extracts, agreeing the opening quote it perfection.

In the words of Kenko, I so enjoyed sitting with this book spread before me, communing with someone from the past.

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Thank you so much, Naina, for choosing A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees, and for letting me mercilessly point my camera at you.

Next week I will be reading My Dearest Father by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

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No. 22: How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, Johann Peter Hebel

You might have noticed I’ve been rather quiet of late which, if you know me, is out of character. Life has been busy. Having returned from Plymouth, as discussed in the last blog post, I nipped home for a couple of weekends and spent an idyllic few days in Paris, nibbling on crêpes and winding around the stocked shelves of Shakespeare and Company. Utter bliss.

A Little Bit Bookish took a bit of a backseat. But here I am, at last, in the fine company of a Penguin. My friend Emma chose this week’s Classic – How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, which I am shortening to A Ghastly Story from hereon.

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A collection of fables, translated from German, these short stories offer moral warnings and advisories for adults, highlighting the perils of stealing, arguing, arrogance, trickery and trusting vagrant salesmen.

They make for a very different and varied reading experience. They’re classic German Gothic – castles, ghostly apparitions, murders – all the staples of a spine-chilling read.

Some of my favourite classic writing is Gothic, but I didn’t relish these tales. They are entirely readable, and they vary in length (some are over five pages, some are just a paragraph) making them easy to dip in to. But I found them disjointed – just as a began to settle into a tale it would end.

And whilst they were Gothic, they lacked real art and drama, the qualities I love in Gothic writing (think of the Brontës, think of Heathcliff and the mad woman in the attic… and what a pair they’d make! No one has thought of this before?! *quickly jots down a novel idea).

Although not subtly Gothic, these are spooky nonetheless.

A Ghastly Story, which this classic takes its name from, is not to be read before bedtime, even by a twenty-something-year-old.

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A husband and wife kill a butcher for his purse of money, before killing and seemingly eating a child who witnessed the atrocity. The butcher’s dog saves the day, sniffing out his owner’s corpse and alerting the neighbours. The closing image is of the sentenced murderers:

“their villainous corpses bound to the wheel, and even now the crows are still saying, ‘That’s tasty meat, that is!'”

This isn’t Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare.

Then, in ‘A Secret Beheading’ an executioner is forced to behead a young woman, without clarification of her identity or her crime. The tale concludes:

“No, nobody found out who she was, what sin she had committed, and nobody knows where she is buried.”

Incredibly morbid, and I couldn’t really make sense of the point here, other than I understand never to travel to Landau on my own.

Another tale, simply entitled ‘A Curious Ghost Story,’ begins in a similarly eerie vein. A gentleman, looking for refuge on a long journey, spends the night in a closed up mansion, rumoured to be occupied by ghosts. Sure enough, he is woken by an apparition, only to realise these ghosts are a group of forgers, taking advantage of the resources the mansion has to offer while the Lord of the Manor is away. The gentleman promises to keep their secret, and does so, receiving parcels of jewellery and new pistols in thanks.

I enjoyed this story more than A Secret Beheading and A Ghastly Story. I liked the fact it was a ghost story without ghosts, and the gathering of ‘baddies’ wuss out of murdering the gentleman, instead deciding that showering him with gifts is an appropriate course.

These really are a miss mash of stories and I’m not confident why they’re pitched as fables, with Hebel offering us idioms and warnings.

Take the closing line of The Cheap Meal: “Remember: Someone will always stand up for what is right.” And the close of Patience Rewarded: “Remember: Other people’s property can eat into your own just as fresh snow swallows up the old.”

And my favourite conclusion of any of these stories is that of The Lightest Death Sentence, which ends “This little story comes from our mother-in-law who doesn’t like to let anyone die if she can possibly help it.”

I was keen to swap notes with Emma, who read the stories in tandem. We were quaffing drinks at a garden party when the subject arose. She agreed she couldn’t quite settle into them, although she has since lent her copy to a friend who is really enjoying them.

Emma made several interesting points, including that they have been translated from German – some of the subtleties that I felt were missing could have been lost.

She interestingly pointed out that fairy tales by Hebels contemporaries also strikingly include character that just aren’t particularly pleasant to one another. Inn keepers trying to get one up on the other, murderous couples, dentist con artists. This was an excellent point. Think Rumplestiltskin, wanting first-born children for payment of magic, and Hansel and Gretel being threatened by a cannibalistic witch.

These are the realities of European fairy tales before Disney and Pixar adopted them and gave them a glossy finish.

Fairy tales, whether for adults or children, are dark and it seems I’ve been living in a rose-tinted, theme park with candy floss clouds and doe-eyed characters.

I left with Emma’s comments and, for some reason, Hafez and his eloquent, tragically optimistic poetry tickling my brain.

Like Hafez I needed a tipple to lighten the mood. A frighteningly alcohol-dependent statement, I am aware.

I visited The Fable, a bar not far from the Monument, London.

Upon entering this establishment is a table surrounded by a book wall, protecting it’s occupants from cheating villains and deceptive ghouls. I knew I’d just found my new local.

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Here I had a much needed drink, dubbed an Aperol 1919 (Aperol, gin, rhubarb syrup, apple and prosecco – all the best things).

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As I sipped on my fruity cocktail, in a Carrie Bradshaw way, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Hebel was just having a bit of a laugh, and possibly poking fun at those stories of a similar ilk.

If he was, I’m not confident he passed this off. I’ve felt pulled and tugged by these so-called fables. It would be interesting to read them along side Aesop and the Brothers Grimm, who are both on the list of Little Black Classics.

Whatever, musing over the fables with a glass in hand was an excellent way to conclude the journey. Thank you Emma G for choosing this one – I’m pleased we really were reading from the same page!

Next week I will be blogging about A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees.

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No. 65: The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe, Richard Hakluyt

I was enormously excited about reading this Little Black Classic.

Mum’s side of the family are from Devon (with a little bit of Cornwall), born and bred. My sister and I spent idyllic summers at our Grandparents home in Plymouth, flying kites on Dartmoor, paddling for shells at Bigbury and consuming countless picnics in orchards and moorland.

Every memory of these holidays glow in a hazy sunshine. Perhaps this is my memory romanticising these happy days, but either way they’re very precious memories.

Sir Francis Drake played a big role in these idyllic fortnights. Born in Tavistock, a charming market town that we would visit every summer, Drake moved into Buckland Abbey, 30 miles outside of Plymouth, after his circumnavigation of the globe.

There are countless, fascinating exhibits here, but one stayed with me.

It’s a large statue of Elizabeth I and King Philip II of Spain playing chess, the chess pieces taking the shape of ships rather than the usual pawns and knights etc. Elizabeth sits bolt upright, calm, confidently looking on at her opponent.

On every visit, I would stand and stare at the two of them for as long as I could. It’s an electrifying statue. It instilled in me a general fascination in the Spanish Armada and Drake’s role in this great naval battle, fighting for his Queen and country. This only delighted my Mum and Grandparents, Plymothians being fiercely proud of Drake and their city’s connections with the great navigator.

Last weekend, I visited my Grandma in Plymouth. Some ten years since our summer holidays in Devon, I still love visiting. It’s my home away from home, and I couldn’t resist taking ‘The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe’ with me.

At Paddington, I settled down in my seat, very excited to read of Drake’s adventures as I hurtled toward his old stomping ground.

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This Little Black Classic is divided into two parts, the first focusing on Drake, otherwise referred to as ‘the general.’ The second follows Thomas Caddish of Trimley, also departing from Plymouth, but I will be concentrating on my old friend Drake in this blog.

In November 1577 Drake and his fleet of five ships and 164 men left Plymouth, heading first for South America. Hakluyt walks us through every stop and discovery en route, including wildlife, vegetation and people of the land.

I particularly enjoyed his description of a fruit on the island of Maio, off the west coast of Africa, very early on in the voyage:

“having taken off the uppermost bark, which you shall find to be full of strings or sinews … you shall have a kind of hard substance and very white, no less good and sweet than almonds: within that again a certain clear liquor, which being drunk, you shall not find it very delicate and sweet, but most comfortable and cordial.”

Is this the first recording of a coconut, in the English language at least?

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From the west coast of Africa, Drake and his fleet sailed around South America, the voyage thus far being smooth, prosperous and relatively uneventful.

Enter Mr Thomas Doughty, a member of the crew threatening the voyage with mutiny.

It was decided that the only punishment for the troublemaker was execution, the same punishment he would receive on land in England. Doughty took communion alongside Drake before he “embraced our general” and said “prayer for the Queen’s Majesty and our realm” and “laid his head to the block, where he ended his life.” The leaders of the voyage concluded by making speeches, “persuading us to unity, obedience, love, and regard of our voyage.”

This seems rather contrived. A crew member threatens mutiny, he accepts his punishment seemingly peacefully and hugs the man whose power he usurped before his execution.

Where’s the blood, the shouting, the protestation, the tears, the gore, the pleading?

It’s obvious Hakluyt is writing spin. When the Queen read his account on their return back in England, she would be presented with a problem the voyage faced, Drake calmly taking charge of the situation and justice prevailing.

Ultimately, Hakluyt is writing a portrayal of Drake, not an account of the voyage and its crew.

In the same vein, there are a lot of references to the inferiority, unnecessary cruelty and foolishness of the Spanish, the great enemy of the English during the Golden Age of Elizabeth.

Not far from Chile, “we found people, whom the cruel and extreme dealings of the Spaniards have forced for their own safety and liberty to flee from the main.” For the English, however: “The people came down to us from the waterside with show of great courtesy, bringing us potatoes, roots, and two very fat sheep, which our general received and gave them other things…”

There are countless references of tribesmen and kings welcoming the men, giving them gifts of foods, cloths, tobacco and jewels. The English are being glorified, and yet we pillage and steal throughout.

On one island, the crew discovered flightless birds and in just one day slaughtered 3,000 birds for sustenance. In Tarapaca, the men stole 13 bars of silver and 4,000 ducats from a sleeping Spaniard. Hakluyt is separating the English from the Spanish, but they are evidently one and the same.

Somewhere in the Americas (the location is very vague in the text) the women of one tribe “are very obedient and serviceable to their husbands.”

Two paragraphs later, the women: “tormented themselves lamentably, tearing their flesh from their cheeks, whereby we perceived that they were about to sacrifice.”

Even here Hakluyt seems to draw attention to the morality of a social group, but their actions are arguably questionable.

When the fleet returned and Hakluyt’s account was printed, this voyage must have been utterly groundbreaking. A man and his men experience all sorts of wild and unexpected adventures to return to their beloved, glorified motherland.

It’s almost a Tudor version of The Odyssey.

As for Drake, I can see why Plymothian’s worship him. He’s depicted as fair, gracious, humble, although today I find this entirely questionable.

In A-level history, I was required to write a timed essay on a topic of my choosing. Most of my classmates wrote of recent history, like the World Wars or the Suffragette movement, or sensibly something that we had studied.

Picturing that statue of Elizabeth and Philip playing chess, I chose to write about the Spanish Armada, a topic I had never studied at school.

“Are you sure about his, Lucy?” My O’Brien asked. “It’s a fascinating topic, but you’re going to have to do a lot of reading.”

This was not a hardship. I consumed tomes about the warfare, the differing cannons used, the varieties of bullets, the weather along the English Channel, tactics, leaders, ships.

I essentially became a self-taught Armada nerd.

My essay’s conclusion praised Drake. What a guy! What a leader! He won it for us and for his Queen.

My manic fan girl writing definitely lost me points. It was ultimately the English weather that won it for us, unpredictable that it is. But we’re prepared for that, and the Spanish weren’t.

I didn’t write too much about the ships he set alight and pushed toward the Armada. That was the real Drake.

Today, with the Armada on our minds and the Little Black Classic in my hand, Grandma and I set off on our own voyage from Royal William Yard (below), once a depot for naval victuals.

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Our destination was the Barbican, but the really adventure lay in passing Drake’s Island (below), the eery, now abandoned spit of land where Drake allegedly set sail from on the voyage that Hakluyt describes. Drake was made Governor of the island in 1583.

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The following day, I marched my poor Grandma up on to Plymouth hoe to greet the statue of Drake.

The sun was dazzling, sending beams sparkling across the water. The grass on the hoe rivalled that of my childhood memories.

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There he stood, facing out to sea, his eyes searching for any approaching threat as his hand reaches down for the infamous globe.

Alas poor Drake, like many statues, is the victim of low-flying birds, his hair and shoulders streaked with an off-white.

It was a real thrill to see him nonetheless, standing tall over our beloved, beautiful Plymouth.

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Next time I’ll be blogging about Johann Peter Habel’s ‘How Ghastly a Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog’ (I thought The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe’ was a long title…’).

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No. 27: The nightingales are drunk, Hafez

I’d like to introduce you to Hafez. Hafez is a poet from fourteenth-century Persia. His interests include mythology, nature and women. He loves a social gathering, particularly if there is wine involved, though I’m sure he won’t mind my saying he’s no connoisseur. He thinks aloud, particularly in the battles of his heart, and is an argumentative drunk.

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Are you sold? You should be. Hafez’s poetry made for brilliant Bank Holiday reading.

The tone is pretty much set in the second poem, which begins:

“Ah, god forbid that I relinquish wine”

It was clear Hafez and I were going to have some fun together.

My first impression of the poet was that he is, essentially, a party boy. These poems are, for the most part, based around Hafez drinking, his creative juices pumping as he drinks.

Amid his musings about life, love and religion, he demands “Bring wine!” and, on one occasion admits “I’m drunk; it’s true!”

Hafez won’t let anyone ruin the party and tell him to sober up, demanding:

“Go mind your own business, preacher! what’s all This hullaballo?”

Despite there being some 700 years age difference between the two of us, I felt an affinity with Hafez. I was surprised that he could be so unashamedly drunk and proud and honest, despite there being great distance between the two of us. Chaucer, another fourteenth-century poet and a lot closer to home for me, being associated with London and Kent, wasn’t so forthright and personable in his writing.

Hafez’s poetry is littered with references to him enjoying a glass of wine and being drunk. I don’t exaggerate – every other poem mentions booze.

But there is another side to Hafez, a darkness…

“What does life give me in the end but sorrow?”

This is the first line of a four-line poem. It’s so short and final, giving a real bipolar edge to his writing. My stomach dropped when I read it and I flicked through to the following pages to learn whether Hafez found some shred of joy once more. I’m pleased to report he did.

He doesn’t seem to do anything by halves. He’s mouthy, ecstatic, drunk, romantic, sweet, sad, bad. He is very human and I could quote so much of his poetry here because it’s brilliant. You should go and read it – you’ll find a real friend in Hafez.

Love and wine seem to be his lifeblood, his religion almost. He worships the two in equal measure, and is equally infuriated by both, which I’m confident most of us can relate to.

Despite Hafez’s moments of melancholy, his poetry filled me with such joy. Life doesn’t seem quite so bad when Hafez leans in with a glass of wine in hand.

And so, to the celebration. And it did feel like a celebration, unlike when treading the pebbles for Hardy’s previously discussed poetry, which was mournful, poignant and reflective.

After a busy Bank Holiday sightseeing, my man and I followed Hafez’s style and indulged in a bottle of wine.

It was a rather special bottle, dating 1990, the year we were both born. Tim’s Grandpa, is Swiss and lives in a beautiful town called Montreux (also Freddie Mercury’s preferred place of residence). He purchased a hundred or so bottles in the year of Tim’s birth, as he did for all of his grandchildren’s birth years.

We visited Tim’s Grandpa at Christmas last year. Tim plucked a couple of these precious, dusty bottles from his Grandpa’s cellar, which is conveniently situated beneath his ‘caveau’. It’s like something from a book, this caveau. Down a flight of stairs you wouldn’t know existed, is an imposing wooden door. Behind this is a large room, the caveau, which can sit sixty or so on high days and holidays. A lot of the furniture was crafted by Tim’s Grandpa, and tools, jugs and cupboards are mounted across the walls – plenty to gaze at while you swirl your glass. A small kitchen sits at the other end of the room, where raclette is prepared and empty wine bottles are discarded.

Here, Tim and his Grandpa adjust an artefact’s position, and below is my favourite display of sewing machines…

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Tim and I tucked into the 1990 bottle, intended for special occasions, with some Continental nibbles on the balcony of my flat after a busy day sightseeing.

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It was idyllic. We sat, quaffed our wine, and I recited some of my preferred extracts from Hafez’s collection.

I am joking. We did sit and quaff wine. But most of our attention focused on a group of hoodied men who were being questioned by two policemen in the park opposite my flat.

Welcome to East London.

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Despite this, and the threat of light drizzle, we sat and sipped at our wine. And the drizzle did hold off. There’s no denying that it was very pleasant, and we felt rather smug.

Two drunk nightingales. I‘m sure Hafez would have approved.

Thank you Dad for picking this Little Black Classic.  I raise my glass to you, and to Tim’s Grandpa also. Next week I will be blogging about The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe.

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No. 33: The Beautifull Cassandra, Jane Austen

It was appropriate that my sister chose The Beautifull Cassandra as my third read, the short story having been written by Austen for her own sister, Cassandra.

I like Austen, and Sense and Sensibility is my favourite of her works. It’s not as happily tied up as her others – you’re left with a bit of an uncomfortable feeling as Marianne Dashwood marries a man almost twenty years her senior, her first love marrying another for her money.

But my chief reason for loving Sense and Sensibility is that the Dashwoods make me think of my Mum and sister. Mrs Dashwood, worried for her girls, the apples of her eye, wanting what’s best for them and, at the same time, whatever will make them happy – the two not necessarily marrying. Elinor Dashwood, the older sister, down-to-earth, sensible, thoughtful, wise, fiercely protective of her younger sisters, Marianne and Margaret. Marianne, next in age, is more innocent, idealistic, prone to dramatise, putting her heart on the line more readily.

Many parallels can be drawn between the Dashwood women and the Richards!

I was really excited about reading The Beautifull Cassandra, and getting a sense of the young Austen sisters.

This Little Black Classic consists of six short stories, written by a teenage Austen for the amusement of her family.

If I’m totally honest, I struggled with them. As a said before, I like Austen but I don’t love her like I do Hardy. And I didn’t find she was teaching me anything, as with Mayhew (click for previous blog links). I really had to make myself read these short stories, which was a shame. I was genuinely desperate to enjoy them but alas I found myself a bit bored and rather ashamed of this.

I guess I find Austen’s writing… well… a bit samey. (I can hear the gasps of Austen fans as I type this.) I know, this is a terribly narrow-minded, uneducated conclusion. But despite my love for Sense and Sensibility, her writings are remarkably similar and I can get them confused.

The collection in this Little Black Classic includes all those Austen traits that we’re now so familiar with – family, money, love, class, humour. It is striking that these were clearly the seedlings that would grow into her renowned repertoire.

For example, I could see Mrs Dashwood (Elinor and Marianne’s sister-in-law) in Lady Greville in ‘Letter the Third,’ and Lydia Bennet in Henrietta in ‘From a Young Lady.’

Austen’s wit and turn of phrase can be found throughout, emphasising that she was a clever wordsmith even as a teenager. Take the quote that Penguin used for the opening, which I have paused to drink in (pardon the pun) several times when seeing it plastered across the wall of the Underground.

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It did pass briefly through my mind that perhaps my celebration of this read would involve downing pints, but I am the world’s slowest drinker. And, more to the point, I didn’t think Jane would have approved.

It was, however, obvious that I needed to get my sister, Katy, involved in this week’s Little Black Classic activity, particularly because this story written for Austen’s own sister was undoubtedly my favourite in the collection.

As with all of these short stories, she opens with a dedication. Here is the dedication for her sister, Cassandra:

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This exaggerated (I hope) description sets the tone for the following story…

Cassandra is from a prosperous family of milliners, based in London. When Cassandra is 16, she puts on a beloved bonnet and ventures out in to the city. Here she finds a coffee shop and devours six ices (SIX!) and refuses to pay, knocking out the pastry cook when they demand she fronts the bill. She hails a taxi and orders him to drive her about town, refusing to pay when he finally drops her off at the same point they started at, instead placing her bonnet on his head. She then ignores one of her friends in the street, before returning home and concluding ‘This is a day well spent.’

The scandal! The horror! I couldn’t possibly ask my sister to mirror such behaviour.

Instead, I requested my sister don her best bonnet and meet me outside Jane Austen’s brother’s house, on Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. (Alas a lorry was parked slap bang in front of the building and its plaque commemorating her stay here, hence the illegible image below).

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We proceeded to eat just one cake each, not six, before heading for a drink in the piazza, determined NOT to have sobriety classed as one of our weaker qualities.

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What I really liked about this story was Jane’s evident affection for her sister. The sycophantic dedication and sensationalist story are clearly world’s away from her relationship with her respectable and humble sister – Austen’s best friend and lifelong confidante.

Jane never married. Cassandra, the older of the two, was engaged but alas her fiancé passed away, leaving her some money. Otherwise they were at the mercy of their brothers.

This is undeniably poignant – neither finding love, living as spinsters.

But I confess I find it touching and heart-warming that they had each other. It clearly provided Jane with a lot of inspiration and material. Sisters are essential to her writing. Dashwoods, Musgroves, Elliots, Bennets, Bingleys – the list goes on.

Speaking for myself, I find having a sister by my side is a bit like having a magnificent shield on my arm. I can personally recommend a sister – they take all sorts of hits for you, and you feel rather invincible when you’re together.

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Perhaps I am feeling sentimental about the Austen sisters, and my own, because my Katy is, rather excitingly, engaged as of three weeks ago!

In actual fact, my family raised a glass to the happy couple at Dungeness, in the last blog post. We provided a fleck of joy on an otherwise soulless landscape.

I’m incredibly excited for my sister, who will be gaining another two sisters of her own and I, brilliantly, will be getting a brother! This calls for six celebration ices…

A huge thank you to The Beautiful Katy for choosing this Little Black Classic. Next week I will be blogging about The nightingales are drunk.

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Footnote: People have been asking me a lot of questions about the Mrs Beeton pie I made in week one. In hindsight, I think I was censoring my writing, not wanting to scare anyone away from the first blog post. For the record, it was vile. Looked great, smelt lovely, tasted awful. The issue undoubtedly lay with the liquid. Mrs B recommended filling with water before cooking, and pouring the gravy in post-bake. At the time of reading the recipe I thought it was odd, but as Mrs B says, I does. I learnt my lesson – sometimes it is best to go with your gut.

No. 14: Woman much missed, Thomas Hardy

I was pretty excited about reading Woman much missed, being a huge fan of Hardy’s novels.

Purely coincidentally, I picked up a copy of Far From the Madding Crowd last week, a book I read some ten years ago when I first discovered and fell in love with Victorian literature. A colleague spotted me clutching the book, published in tandem with the film set for release this year (with Carey Mulligan in the fiery role of Bathsheba). We soon found ourselves gushing over Hardy’s brilliance, quoting favourite lines from his works and analysing TV adaptations (we agreed Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne as Tess and Angel in Tess of the d’Urbervilles was particularly brilliant casting).

Hardy was a man caught between Victorian industrialisation and early twentieth century war. He’s rather out on a limb, I would argue, and his literature echoes that. Perhaps he is most loved for taking us away from city life to the harsh, poignant realities of rural life.

What I really like about Hardy is that he writes real, flawed male and, importantly, female characters in a time where women weren’t really able to have a voice of there own. His confused, cruel, victimised, feisty women are a cut above the either virginal or haggish women that Dickens was alone preoccupied with.

Hardy’s female characters are, if you will pardon the pun, hardy.

As a result, I was keen to read the poetry collected together in this Little Black Classic, written in honour of his deceased wife. What did Hardy miss about her? Why did he fall in love with her? Who was the woman who would walk through the pages with me?

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A couple of things really struck me about Mrs Hardy.

In the poem ‘Without Ceremony’ Hardy describes how “my dear” would “vanish without a word,” suddenly leaving the room without explanation, and concludes that, now she has passed and he misses her, he will adopt her attitude that “‘Good-bye is not worthwhile!'”

I found this very touching, particularly because this quirk of hers would really irritate me. As someone who always justifies my reason for leaving a room, however menial (normally explaining that I’m just nipping to the loo to my poor colleagues), I don’t think I ever exit silently. How rude! Perhaps it did once drive Hardy to distraction, but his celebrating this quirk of hers in his poetry is rather lovely.

In ‘Lament’ Hardy essentially describes his wife as a keen party-goer – whether it was a lawn party or dinner party. She loved the change of seasons, and Christmas, and the celebrations both brought. She would have been “bright-hatted and loved” and “Her smiles would have shone With welcomings.” It sounds as though Mrs Hardy was very sociable, welcoming both the varying celebrations that each season brought and welcoming her guests with equal relish.

It was clear that Mr and Mrs Hardy shared a love for the countryside and the sea. The poems are littered with these images and there are so many references to rain. I’m not sure whether this is a creation of his mourning or whether the West Country was unfortunate to suffer a few years of awful weather but, heavens, there is an awful lot of rain in Hardy’s Wessex.

In Hardy’s poetry, Mrs Hardy almost seems to be attracted to the sea…

“I found her out there On a slope few see, That falls westwardly To the salt-edged air Where the ocean breaks…”

“O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea, The woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free – The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.”

These quotes are taken from two separate poems. The image of Mrs Hardy, windswept by the sea stayed with me, although I still struggled to make sense of who she was. She just didn’t jump off the pages for me in these poems. Really, what was entirely spelt out, was Hardy’s grief.  Here is, very obviously, a man in mourning, desperate to be in her place instead.

It was clear to me that I needed to head to the seaside, in order to have my own hair flapping free and taste that salt-edged air. This was no hardship, as I do like to be beside the seaside*.

(*sung, with foot tapping)

I decided to read up more on Mrs Hardy beforehand so that I could take her with me to the scene that she seems to favour, certainly in Hardy’s poetry. I was very surprised and, truth be told, rather upset by what I found. The woman of Hardy’s poetry and the woman I read about didn’t seem to be one and the same.

Emma Glifford was from Plymouth (my Mum’s hometown) and married Thomas Hardy when she was 34, which seems rather late in life for a Victorian woman to marry. After twenty years, their marriage became strained, possibly because they were unable to have children, possibly because Jude the Obscure came between them, having many poignant parallels with their own life together.

They began to spend time apart and Hardy met another woman. Emma became a recluse while Hardy started a new life with his mistress. She died at the age of 72, and amongst her possessions Hardy found a diary, essentially a burn book, listing all of Hardy’s wrongs against Emma.

A seed of guilt grew and grew, and Hardy never forgave himself for the unhappy life he had created for his wife. Hence this collection of terribly sad poems.

Needless to say I have paraphrased this enormously; there are many more complexities to their lives that my words won’t do justice.

With this in mind I headed for Dungeness, a place so eerie it could be the perfect setting for tragic poetry and ghostly figures from literature. It also has a nuclear power station. Ooh er. A hotspot indeed!

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Dungeness is, admittedly, on the English Channel, whereas Hardy was linked to the West Country and the North Atlantic. But I am one woman with one salary, and the West Country was a long way to travel for a brisk seaside walk.

Appropriately, it was a miserable, overcast day with plenty of drizzle. Hardy would have approved. Consequently, I didn’t tread the pebbles or approach the water as much as I would have liked. I was also full of fish and chips and although a good helping of sea air did me good, my heavy, cold body and wet hair craved a good cup of tea at home.

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Dungeness is an important place to my family. We make an annual trip to the scene (the UK’s only desert, did you know) and revel in it’s weird, desolate atmosphere.

There is something very compelling about it. It seemed like a good place to take Hardy and his wife. Sure enough, I could picture her, holding on to her hat as she strode along the shingle, a dot on the bleak landscape.

I feel very sad for Mrs Hardy, and Thomas Hardy too. His poetry clearly includes a lot of poetic license, his guilt translating to grief throughout. Their story could almost be found between the pages of one of Hardy’s own novels.

Thank you so much Poppy for picking Woman much missed. No. 14 because we became friends when we were 14 years old! Next time I will be blogging about The Beautifull Cassandra.

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No. 26: Of Street Piemen, Henry Mayhew

Prior to reading these chronicles of Victorian London, I had no existing knowledge of Henry Mayhew. I restrained from typing his name into any search engine, relishing the prospect of my first Little Black Classic being a complete unknown.

What I found was a very revealing and genuinely gripping account of life in Victorian London, without the familiar circus cast of Dickens’ cannon. Ultimately, this is a great read for anyone living in London or any Londonphiles.

A collection of eight extracts, taken from various articles and essays, guide the reader through varying London scenes: the struggling independent piemen competing against pie powerhouses; the small, more human appearance of the Metropolis from a hot air balloon; the chaos of popular markets; the lewd and clearly tempting setting of the Music Hall; the progress reflected in London’s great ports; the poverty and squalor of young flower girls; the rural views offered by a train journey to Clapham; and finally the patience of local birdcatchers.

It has to be said that I do skim read long descriptions in any book (cheating, I know) and Mayhew’s elaborate depictions were no exception. I tend to regard detailed scene descriptions as waffle, preferring soundbites of description. For example, in one city portrayal Mayhew described London as ‘one immense black spot’, a portrayal that I paused to drink in.

Mayhew also drew a lovely image, from the vantage of the hot air balloon, of a train’s cloud of smoke seeming nothing more than the puff of a boiling kettle. An Englishman reducing a revolutionary, industrial machine to a signatory of teatime. Truly marvellous.

I could also appreciate the power of the chapter dedicated to London’s ports; living in London docklands myself, where old weather beaten dock buildings stand aside modern accommodation, I enjoyed imagining the hustle of shipments.

It was the accounts of real life Victorians struggling in the great urban smoke that were particularly compelling, especially as Henry interviewed many himself. It seems that however beautiful the city was from above in a hot air balloon, or outside of a rattling train carriage, this beauty didn’t reach some poverty-stricken city-dwellers.

The opening study of London piemen really captured my imagination. These forty or so street vendors were competing with the new penny-per-pie stores popping up across London, an antiquated version of our independent high street retailers struggling under the weight of giant corporations.

Henry clearly felt for these men, hinting that the quality of the meat in these pies was not the highest, using a lot of seasoning.

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This made me think of happy summers spent in Devon with my Grandparents, in the house my Mum grew up in. The homely and moderately nauseating waft of hot pasties and sausage rolls filling the car as we stopped for lunch is a prominent memory, and today I just need to walk past a West Cornwall Pasty Co. stall to be right back in the back seat, attempting to catch any renegade pastry in a greasy paper bag.

In honour of these hard-working piemen I decided to cook my own traditional, comforting English savoury pie.

I turned to two women for instruction on pie-making.

We had ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ on our family lounge bookshelf for as long as I can remember. Perhaps its sheer enormity is what placed it in my consciousness. I never dared pluck it off the shelf for fear of it falling on me. Death by book.

It was at university that I became more familiar with Mrs Beeton, studying her in one of my modules. A Londoner herself, Isabella Mayson married publisher Samuel Beeton when she was twenty, and thus the first published cookery writer was born. Rather intimidatingly, Mrs Beeton wrote these articles, advising readers on how to successfully run a Victorian household, when she, like me, was in her early twenties.

She covers everything: the different methods for cooking meat; which vegetables are in season when; tips for hosting a dinner party; drugs to keep in the medicine cabinet for all ailments; appropriate care for animals; fashion; and the duties of a housemaid.

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I really like Mrs Beeton. Admittedly, this household bible is rather intimidating. Despite being her age when this was published, I am incapable of poaching eggs. Otherwise, here is an ambitious woman with valuable advice for everyone under the one household roof. She is clearly confident and knows her own mind.

She also signed off letters to her husband with ‘Fatty.’ Here is a woman I could have been friends with.

The second woman I turned to was my Mum, another intelligent, capable woman with a great sense of humour.

Mum studied Home Economics at university (Food Technology in modern terms), which I benefited from, growing up with delicious and nutritious food, and was packed off to university with knowledge of a balanced diet and recipe book written by Mum. Any food related emergency, I call Mum.

Between the two of them Mrs Beeton and Mrs Richards gave me confidence to set to and bake a chicken pie.

I managed to track down mace, a ground spice Mrs Beeton litters her pie with, and also armed myself with rosemary, salt and pepper, remembering Mayhew highlighting that the piemen used a lot of seasoning.

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I confess that I bought the puff pastry rather than making it. I know, I know. I’ll withdraw my Great British Bake Off application anon.

I made a stock with the chicken, herbs and onion, which filled the flat with a lovely, homely smell, while simultaneously boiling some eggs. Move over Nigella.

At Mum’s suggestion I fried up some leeks to add some green to the pie. When everything was ready, I layered chicken, leeks, ham and the sliced hard boiled eggs, before seasoning with mace, salt and pepper. This was followed by half a pint of water and the puff pastry casing.

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I placed this in the oven for 45 minutes and, upon removing this golden crown, I filled it with the gravy as Mrs Beeton instructed.

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It looked and smelled beautiful.

Flavour-wise, I’m not so convinced.

It was terribly watery, and the chicken was rather bland. I did add a lot of seasoning, as recommended by Beeton and Mayhew, but I would often hit a patch of mace, which made my eyes water.

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In Victorian times, I’m convinced this pie would have been delicious, comforting, filling. But for me it was rather tasteless and thin. It didn’t pack much of a punch and it was an awful lot of work. The kitchen was chaos.

All credit to those London piemen; an awful lot of work in a struggling trade.

A big thank you to Tim for choosing my first Little Black Classic. That’s No. 26 ticked off the list! Next time, I’ll be blogging about Thomas Hardy’s ‘Woman much missed.’

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