Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prunus avium 'Plena'

Prunus avium 'Plena'.  Photos taken 15th April 2014 (a very early year), when a lot of the flowers are opening but the leaves are still small and reddish.

This a double variety of Wild Cherry. It flowers a bit later than most single-flowered Wild Cherry trees, and even from a distance has a noticeably different appearance when flowering: more tufty and irregular, the flowers less obviously sleeving the shoots.

When you get a bit closer, it's a magical tree, especially when the skies are like this. The pure white blossom has a touch of the same frilly opulence as 'Shirotae',  but here it's sprinkled through a rangy, open canopy.

[For comparison, the photo below is a single-flowered P. avium, showing the blossom sleeving the shoot:  ]

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities - "bestselling novel of all time". Allegedly.

The internet generally, and Wikipedia in particular, is obsessed with records. Consequently, you are quite likely to run across the the widely repeated claim that  A Tale of Two Cities is (as the Wikipedia article on Charles Dickens has it) "the best selling novel of all time".

It isn't the most unlikely statement I've ever heard, but when I tried to trace it back to an authoritative source, I at first got no further than a chatty review by the novelist David Mitchell  in the Daily Telegraph from May 8th 2010.


"Charles Dickens’ second stab at a historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, has sold more than 200 million copies to date, making it the bestselling novel – in any genre – of all time."

 Did Mitchell know what he was talking about? Maybe, but it seems that no-one else does.

Digging a bit more, I found a 2009 GMAT Practice Exam, where the following sentence is used for grammatical comprehension purposes:

"By the year 2000, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens' gripping book portraying the suffering of the proletariat under the brutal subjugation of the French aristocracy had around 200 million copies in print, making it more than that of almost any other English book ever written."

(The kids are supposed to correct the clumsy grammar towards the end)

And the earliest ref I've got so far, is as anonymous ("staff") preview article for the musical Tale of Two Cities on broadway.com (24 March, 2008):


"Since its inaugural publication on August 30, 1859, A Tale of Two Cities has sold over 200 million copies in several languages, making it one of the most famous books in the history of fictional literature."

That's it, so far as I can find. (And yes, I searched Google Books, too.)

To be fair, some Wikipedists are aware of the difficulty. (See the talk page for "List of best-selling books"). Arriving at aggregated worldwide figures for a massive seller over a long period of time is never going to be an easy matter. I'd really want to know how the estimate was arrived at, but failing that at least I'd want to believe that the claim is endorsed by some sort of expert.

A Tale of Two Cities might conceivably be a very high selling book worldwide. Though many Dickens fans would agree with me in considering it almost his worst novel, it seems there are quite a few not-so-diehard-Dickensian people out there who absolutely adore it. It has had a flourishing career in film and drama, above all in Selznick's film of 1935 starring Ronald Colman as Sidney Carton. On celluloid the rather lifeless lovers of the book became transformed into blockbuster romantic heroes/ines.

Whether you think it's Dickens' worst novel or not, there's at any rate no dispute about it being his shortest. And as western culture has spread across the globe, Dickens has been one of the chosen representative authors, and if you're only going to dish out one Dickens book to your pupils, then aside from the economic and logistical claims of brevity you could maybe argue that Cities is the most "global" Dickens novel, the one demanding least inwardness with English culture, and the one with the most accessible set of discussion-topics for young readers,  in e.g. India, Brazil or Nigeria.

Anyone know anything more about this?


I may as well add here what I wrote about the book before:

Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Everyone should agree that the first few chapters of the book are good (up to Part II, Ch 5). And so, it seems to me, are the last few. Still, one has the feeling that Dickens is using the French Revolution for his own ends - this is not a historical novel; it’s in a way more illuminating. His own preoccupations with prisons and resurrections are now more barely personal and psychological than they were in Little Dorrit. Yet his presentation of The Terror, something rather unlike what he had known yet extremely like some more recent societies, is deeply felt in its essence, though (or because?) it was imagined.

Psychologically, Madame Defarge and Sidney Carton are true images. The latter may need some defence, since we feel that Charles Darnay must, in logic, go to the wall and he speaks the plain truth when he says “Good could never come of such evil”. Charles and Lucie happy ever after is as impossible as Romeo and Juliet happy ever after. But still, Carton quickens the pulse; his expertise in this crisis and his flush of pride. Though he represents, perhaps, Dickens’ fantasy of a great, redeeming self-sacrifice; the fantasy of one who lives guiltily. I am certain that some have really gone to their deaths comforted by Carton at their elbow.

Of course this may seem a preposterous defence, and it needs no great effort to recall “the case against” - the tedium of those echoey footsteps in Soho, the perfunctory interest of Jerry Cruncher, and so on. Yet to flick through the pages again is to realize with what economy the book supplies scenes of great power. Since I’ve already mentioned the beginning and end, let’s review some of the inbetween: the child run over by the carriage (Part II, Ch VII); Monsieur the Marquis saying “You are fatigued” (Ch IX); Stryver’s courtship, and conversation with Lorry (Ch XII); Barsad’s visit to the wineshop (Ch XVI); Lorry’s conversation with Dr Manette about the latter’s collapse (Ch XIX); the death of Foulon (Ch XXII); Stryver’s remarks on Evrémonde (Ch XXIV).  

Still, these scenes are primarily dramatic scenes. It’s in the construction and the dialogue that the book is strong. (The construction, as we all know now, is based on an elaborate allegory of which the motif is “Recalled to Life”.) Another Dickens, the vigorous, comic, fanciful imaginer, is kept out of the book. The decriptive prose is thin, and the reason, oddly, is anger.  In the description of the grindstone (Part III, Ch 2) an account of hideous preparations for murder ends like this:

And as the frantic wielders of these weapons snatched them from the stream of sparks and tore away into the streets, the same red hue was red in their frenzied eyes; - eyes which any unbrutalised beholder would have given twenty years of life, to petrify with a well-directed gun.

The decription of the Carmagnole (Part III, Ch 5) is another example - the author hates it, and his fancy fails him. So, in the next chapter, Darnay’s acquittal - how unlike Pickwick’s trial, and even the English trial of Darnay himself. Nothing here like the Attorney-General who “turned the whole suit of clothes Mr Stryver had fitted on the jury, inside out; showing how Barsad and Cly were even a hundred times better than he had thought them, and the prisoner a hundred times worse”.

A Tale of Two Cities lends itself to dramatization, and to changes of title, because its own is an unhelpful one. The Only Way, by Freeman Wills. Let me make my own old-fashioned suggestion: The Death Penalty. This is a feature of the punitive apparatus that plays no part in Little Dorrit, but here it is made present. Culture, and history, and fantasy, all retire. But this anger, like the “well-directed gun”, claims to be tit for tat. When the wood-sawyer says, “But it’s not my business”, we expect a twinkle in his eye. It turns out that his “jocose” gestures do not mean sympathy. His little fancy (“Tickle, tickle; Pickle, pickle”) is a joke that denies human engagement. Jacques Three and Madame Defarge underline the point - they don’t soften. And so Dickens won’t soften either. His art becomes stalled and reactionary.

Yet in the moment of execution this doesn’t matter.

And now, while he was composed, and hoped to meet the end with quiet heroism, a new action began in his waking thoughts, which was very difficult to master. He had never seen the instrument that was to terminate his life. How high it was from the ground, how many steps it had, where he would be stood, how he would be touched, whether the touching hands would be dyed red, which way his face would be turned, whether he would be the first, or might be the last... (Pt III, Ch 13).

Dickens’s anger is displaced, I think; but his guillotine is very sharp.


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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Gerald Brenan, Richard Ford, Ronald Fraser

Gerald Brenan, South of Granada (1957) 

This feels like it's becoming a rare occasion. I've actually finished a book, what's more a book that I haven't read before, and I've even read it in the prescribed order, from start to finish!  Dr Johnson, they say, never finished a book. I fear I'm going the same way, and can only look back with some relief at all the books I got under my belt in my twenties.

South of Granada, published in 1957 but mainly about Spain in the 1920s, is probably the most admired book in the "Hispanist" genre (i.e. books about Spain in English), notwithstanding Richard Ford. Most of it is about living in a then-remote village (Yegen) in the Alpujarras. The road from Almeria to Granada didn't yet exist, and only mule-traffic was possible. Don Geraldo is now remembered by a plaque, a circular walk (Brenan walked vast distances) and a projected museum. [Chris Stewart's popular books (Driving over Lemons etc) are also set in the Alpujarras. Did you know Chris was once a founder member of Genesis? Wikipedia can be quite interesting sometimes. Eventually everything becomes swamped by its hyperreal projection. The trivia section is what makes tomorrow's news. (In effect, the word "iconic" means "rich in trivia"; there's a vacuum at the heart of it.)]

One of the nicest things, I now remember, about writing about a book is that it gives me a chance to re-discover the pages that, by the time I finish it, are already gliding out of my memory.  Have I commented before, on the tendency of book reviewers to get hung up on the book's ending, to the detriment of their review? And sadly it's rare for the ending to be the most important part of a book.

In this case I'd be dwelling on a musical ending, an elegy and retrospect on returning to Yegen in 1955; a visit by Bertrand Russell amusingly not recounted, for the sake of the music; on the Civil War atrocities suffered by the Alpujarras as disputed territory; on the sad decline of his former servant Maria Andorra into madness and death. And the image of these final chapters does leave a long silence in which my own scurrying meditations make themselves heard.

But this is to get the emphasis wrong. I think the most valuable parts of the book are on the society of Yegen, its laws, seasons, clouds, winds, feasts, superstitions, folklore and habits. Brenan travelled widely and wrote interestingly about e.g. courtship in Granada, or the brothels of Almeria, or botanical treasures; but the book is best when least a travel book. For example, the August harvest:

Then, as darkness fell, preparations for the winnowing would begin. [There was no breeze except at night.] A group of men and women would assemble on the threshing-floor, a lantern would be lit, someone would strum on a guitar. Unexpectedly a voice would rise into the night, would hang for a few seconds in the air, and then fade back into silence again. From the poplar trees close by the trill of a nightingale answered it.

And now the wind had begun to blow. At first it came in little puffs, then it died down, then it came on again. Whenever it seemed strong enough, one or two men would take their long forks of ash or almez (the lotus or nettle tree) and begin tossing up the ears. This went on at intervals all night. The wind blew most steadily towards sunrise, and often I would come out of my room, where I had sat up reading, and climb the slope to watch the work going on. The great trough of mountains below would fill, as from a tank of water, with rippling light, the shadows would turn violet, then lavender, would become thin and float away, while, as I approached the threshing-floor, I would see the chaff streaming out like a white cloak in the breeze and the heavy grain falling, as the gold coins fell on Danaë, on to the heap below.  Then without clouds or veils the sun's disc appeared above the Sierra de Gádor and began to mount rapidly. The sleeping figures rose and stretched themselves: the men took a pull at their wine-skins, the women packed their baskets of provisions and returned home. Within half an hour they would be out again at the streamside washing clothes. 

As I copy this out, I think that the scenic description, though it reports Brenan's experience, is also essential in order to suggest, so far as it was possible for him, the experience of the unnamed threshers. It is a little idyllic, but that isn't wrong. Yegen, despite its coarse culture, its adulteries and envies, its assortment of idiots, lunatics, tragedies, rapes and other violent crimes, was by no means an unhappy village.

The immemorial life of the village appeared, to Brenan, to survive continually despite the comings and goings of people. The values of the village were turned inward; nothing outside it had significance. So only the road of his own time changed it for ever. This may be an over-simplification, but reading the book you will give it some credence.


It makes sense, I think, to add to this post what I have written previously about the Hispanist books of Richard Ford and Ronald Fraser.

Richard Ford: Gatherings from Spain (1846)

In October 1830, Ford (then aged 34), travelled with his family to Spain, originally for his wife’s health. They returned to England in the spring of 1833. Rarely has a stay abroad been turned to better account. Ford spent much of his time in Spain travelling from end to end of the country. He produced over 500 accurate sketches of Spanish scenes (now of importance to historians); seven years after his return, he began to write the topographical Handbook for Travellers in Spain. It took five years to write, amounted to 1500 pages, and was celebrated as a triumph. But Ford’s editors saw that he had material which would please a wider audience. The Gatherings (some 350 pages) re-used some of the best passages from the Handbook, along with much new material, but the re-structuring was crucial. Neither autobiographical nor topographical, the Gatherings was a book that sought to capture the essence of a land by focussing on topics. I am turning over a few random pages here; the running-titles say “Asses of La Mancha”, “Olla Podrida”, “Iced Drinks”, “Guerrilleros”, “The Beard”, “Music in Ventas”...

Ford was a patriotic Protestant who regarded Spain as a desperately backward, underlyingly Oriental nation. (England and Spain were, however, allied in their recent opposition to France under Bonaparte, and while he was composing the Gatherings Spain was again being threatened from the north, this time by the sabre-rattlings of the Second Empire.) Ford was also besotted by Spain and it was the centre of all his creative imaginings. The result was at the time an object lesson in dealing intelligently with the struggle to extend one’s humanity beyond a narrow localism. It was also a theme on which he improvises with great enjoyment on almost every page, being incessantly witty about Spanish improvidence, often crushing the French (largely despicable, except for hair-dressing and cookery), and not uncommonly refreshing himself with a raid on the complacent and stupid of his own nation.  

Ford’s two seasons of riding through Spain were a gentleman’s life in microcosm. Never returning, he celebrated it and meditated on it ever after. Though he was in a foreign land and in unusual circumstances, his chapters on horses and servants are an immensely illuminating insight into the mundane preoccupations of his class; the things that, in novels, are usually not mentioned. Besides, Ford’s style is a search for the admirable; a never-ending moral adventure. This seems like a good place to get a sense of that style – it needs an extensive quote:

The cook should take with him a stewing-pan, and a pot or kettle for boiling water; he need not lumber himself with much batterie de cuisine; it is not much needed in the imperfect gastronomy of the Peninsula, where men eat like the beasts which perish; all sort of artillery is rather rare in Spanish kitchen or fortress; an hidalgo would as soon think of having a voltaic battery in his sitting-room as a copper one in his cuisine; most classes are equally satisfied with the Oriental earthenware ollas, pucheros, or pipkins, which are everywhere to be found, and have some peculiar sympathy with the Spanish cuisine, since a stew – be it even of cat – never eats so well when made in a metal vessel; the great thing is to bring the raw materials, – first catch your hare. Those who have meat and money will always get a neighbour to lend them a pot. A venta is a place where the rich are sent empty away, and where the poor hungry are not filled; the whole duty of the man-cook, therefore, is to be always thinking of his commissariat; he need not trouble himself about his master’s appetite, that will seldom fail,– nay, often be a misfortune; a good appetite is not a good per se, for it, even when the best, becomes a bore when there is nothing to eat; his capucho or mule hamper must be his travelling larder, cellar, and store-room; he will victual himself according to the route, and the distances from one great town to another, and will always take care to start with a good provision: indeed to attend to the commissariat is, it cannot be too often repeated, the whole duty of a man-cook in hungry Spain, where food has ever been the difficulty; a little foresight gives small trouble and ensures great comfort, while perils by sea and perils by land are doubled when the stomach is empty, whereas, as Sancho Panza wisely told his ass, all sorrows are alleviated by eating bread: todos los duelos, con pan son buenos, and the shrewd squire, who seldom is wrong, was right both in the matter of bread and the moral: the former is admirable. The central table-lands of Spain are perhaps the finest wheat-growing districts in the world; however rude and imperfect the cultivation – for the peasant does but scratch the earth, and seldom manures – the life-conferring sun comes to his assistance; the returns are prodigious, and the quality superexcellent; yet the growers, miserable in the midst of plenty, vegetate in cabins composed of baked mud, or in holes burrowed among the friable hillocks, in an utter ignorance of furniture, and absolute necessaries. The want of roads, canals, and means of transport prevents their exportation of produce, which from its bulk is difficult of carriage in a country where grain is removed for the most part on four-footed beasts of burden, after the oriental and patriarchal fashion of Jacob, when he sent to the granaries of Egypt. Accordingly, although there are neither sliding scales nor corn laws, and subsistence is cheap and abundant, the population decreases in number and increases in wretchedness; what boots it if corn be low-priced, if wages be still lower, as they then everywhere are, and must be?

It’s a style that makes heroic use of semi-colons, is ample and even allows repetitions, which however always contribute to the enlargement of the prospect.

The paragraph ends (as not uncommonly) in a very different place from where it began, yet plainly there are connections. His interest in the travelling gentleman’s well-being is in the in end inextricable from his interest in the well-being of a people where scarcity is everywhere.

One part of his interest lays in the lack of industrialization. In Spain Ford is constantly reminded of biblical, classical and Arab ways of life; this must have been commonplace and therefore unnoticeable before the Industrial Revolution, but now it quickens his imagination, which really enjoys what his judgment as sincerely laments.

The  chapter on sherry (XIV) is one of the best (where all are good) and is still informative. When we need a pause from information a switch-sentence comes along like this: “There is an excellent account of all the vines of Andalucia by Rojas Clemente. This able naturalist disgraced himself by being a base toady of the wretched minion Godoy...”  or an image like this (on the Capataz leading a tasting): “on whom wine has no more effect than on a glass”. One thing I don’t understand is that Ford gives the strength of fine sherry as 20-23% but today 20% is, I think, the upper limit not the lower. He despises sherries that are made to look pale by chemical means. He was also an early champion (I mean, among the British) of manzanilla, which he says the local inhabitants of Jerez much preferred to drink themselves as it was so much less inebriating (he does not seem to know of other finos). The only other Spanish wine he praises is Valdepeñas – now considered a modest table wine. Rioja and Penedés had always produced wine but it seems that their market identities really emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when they were the regions selected by French expertise who because of the Phylloxera plague could not grow grapes in France.

[The enormous Handbook is one of those volumes that one enjoys longing to possess. If you make the mistake of becoming serious about this, it ought to be the first (1845) edition; Ford, and then others, made destabilizing alterations to the later ones. In truth it is probably only a book for amazed dips, unless you plan to give up your whole life to a former existence.]  


Ronald Fraser: The Pueblo: A Mountain Village on the Costa del Sol  (1973). 

In the USA, this was published as Tajos: A Mountain Village on the Costa del Sol.  "Tajos" was a fictional name, in fact; the book was about Mijas, now one of the best-known villages in Spain. Fraser related his book to Julian Pitt-Rivers' People of the Sierra (1954) and to Brenan's South from Granada - all three were about isolated Andalucian mountain villages.  Fraser claimed, somewhat inaccurately, that his village was about 50 miles from the other two; Grazalema to the west and Yegen to the east (in fact, Mijas is a lot nearer to Grazalema than to Yegen).

Of course these villages are not isolated now. Especially Mijas, which is right on the doorstep of Fuengirola, Benalmedena and Torremolinos, and is now really a show-village though a very lovely one, about as transformed from the stories of the hungry '40s recounted here as it's possible to conceive.


Ronald Fraser: Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War (1979)

This brilliant book re-creates a unique succession of events in a unique historical situation – one of the lasting impressions of the book is that “the Spanish Civil War” was not like any other episode in history. This, for me, formidably validates the author’s procedure.

Nor, of course, was the war the same for any two of the hundreds of witnesses that Fraser interviewed. Yet their stories are by no means entirely detached, since they occupied a shared time and space, more importantly shared social conditions, which become clearer with each page. The book is a way of treating these (perhaps they might be identified with the war itself) without imposing a historian’s marshalling.

It’s best to read it straight through. The structure is improvised; the paragraphs and pages, though approached by the reader in a linear sequence, do not mimic the sequence of passing time. But this is a necessary discipline for the emergence of the image. Quite hard work at first, eventually compulsive. Though the book consists mainly of unliterary testimony, it becomes a seminal literary work, and characteristically so in demanding a new way of reading. It may be one of the lasting achievements of its own era, in the aftermath of ‘60s radicalism. 

Blood of Spain is a large book but one of its virtues is the impression that each narrative takes place in the open air, a solo in the midst of unrecounted life. Eschewing the inclusiveness of summary, the mastery of De bello gallico, its selectiveness is open to the gaze. The focus is on certain areas of Spain at certain times – we never, for example, enter Galicia. The interviews were conducted in 1973-1975, some forty years after the events; it follows that while those who were children at the time are well represented, there is nothing from those who were old. Other limitations are stressed in the Foreword. Fraser admits that he tended to suppress acerbic material about enemies in favour of self-criticism; that perhaps contributes, in a small way, to the overwhelming sense of shock at how such reasonable and comprehensible people could find themselves in the position of slaughtering one another.

That is one of the central preoccupations for any reader. Equally fascinating is the political situation on both sides; revolutionary Catalonia, for example, is I think the only occasion when an anarcho-syndicalist system has subsisted, or tried to subsist, on a grand scale; in a region containing one of Europe’s major cities. But the situation everywhere had unique features – in the Basque country, for example, impossible contradictions of loyalty arose. The political complexities on the Right were less turmoiled (they were winning) but no less unpredictable (see e.g. Dionisio Ridruejo’s view of Falangism).

The front line is avoided in favour of the rearguard; it is not so much the military actions as the radicalization of individuals that impresses us as the primary condition of civil war. But Guernica, Oviedo, the siege of Madrid and the terrified descent on Alicante are all here.  We also encounter (among a hundred other memorable and distressing histories) Asturian fugitives in the mountains, refugees in Leningrad, rural collectivization in Aragon, village civil war in Córdoba province...

I’m looking for a quotation, but will just pick the page I happen to be re-reading. José Avila, a labrador (farmer):

Politics, that was where the trouble lay. Everyone read a lot, everyone had his own point of view, everyone went his own way. If there had been just two sorts of politics, left and right, things would have been better. But there were so many ideologies, especially on the left: republicans, socialists, communists, anarchists. I don’t know what the labourers really wanted. I don’t think they knew themselves. But whatever it was, it wasn’t good for us farmers. At work they began to make remarks to our faces. “Not a single fascist must be allowed to live.” It became risky for us to live on the cortijos (large farms). The labourers talked of the reparto (division of estates) but was that what they really wanted? When the republic took over the duke of Medinaceli’s three estates near here, the people didn’t seem satisfied with the land they got. They wanted something else. If only there had been a strong political organization, left or right, republican or non-republican, things wouldn’t have reached the stage they did. Guarantees, rights – fine! But law and order as well. That was what was missing.

And Juan Moreno, a landless day-labourer:

What did we want? Not the sort of agrarian reform the republic was trying to make. The state and capitalism are the worker’s two worst enemies. What we wanted was the land – for the workers to take it over and work it collectively without the state intervening... The reformists, the state socialists, wanted agrarian reform, wanted everything controlled by the state. When the state said “stop” – stop; when it said “render accounts” – render accounts; when the harvest was in – it would be there demanding its share. We didn’t want that. The land must be in the workers’ hands, worked and managed collectively by them. That was the only way the workers could control their own affairs, ensure that the produce which resulted from their work remained theirs to deal with as they freely decided. Not that each collective could remain isolated, a unit on its own. No! Each would be responsible to the local CNT organization (anarcho-syndicalist trade union), the local to the regional, the regional to the national. But each would be managed by a committee elected by the collectivists themselves, each at the end of the year would divide up the surplus produced among the collectivists... We hated the bourgeoisie, they treated us like animals. They were our worst enemies. When we looked at them we thought we were looking at the devil himself. And they thought the same of us. There was a hatred between us – a hatred so great it couldn’t have been greater. They were bourgeois, they didn’t have to work to earn a living, they had comfortable lives. We knew we were workers and that we had to work – but we wanted them to pay us a decent wage and to treat us like human beings, with respect. There was only one way to achieve that – by fighting them...  In many ways we were worse off under the republic than under the monarchy; the right became even more aggressive and reactionary, and we had to defend ourselves...


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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Prunus sequence UK

In 2014 we're seeing a more spread-out sequence than last year so it's easier to make sense of what's going on  (in 2013 all the early flowerers, except P. cerasifera, were held back by the freezing March and then bloomed all at once). These dates/times are for Southern England. As it's been such a mild winter this year, these dates are very early, around three weeks earlier than last year.

Phase I (very early, before equinox (Mar 20)


Prunus cerasifera (Cherry-Plum)  - starts before the end of Feb.

Prunus spinosa (Blackthorn)  - starts mid-March, before the equinox; continues to mid-April.


Winter cherry varieties (P. subhirtella)
Prunus dulcis (Almond) - mid March
Prunus  "Accolade" (hybrid of Winter and Sargent Cherry)  - just before equinox, carries on to 1st week of April.

Phase 2  (early, from the equinox but still before the first P. serrulata-derived ornamental cherries)


Prunus laurocerasus (Cherry Laurel)  - equinox
Prunus avium (Wild Cherry) - equinox


Prunus sargentii (Sargent Cherry) - equinox

Prunus "Spire"   (a hybrid between Sargent and Yoshino cherry, comes into flower between the two)

Prunus x yedoensis Yoshino Cherry - a week after the equinox, around the beginning of April. (Pale pink or almost white)

Phase 3 (beginning of April through May)

Prunus serrulata -derived varieties  (Japanese oranamental cherries)

This is the traditional sequence, taken from Alan Mitchell's tree books. In my experience Tai-haku can be as early as Shirotae.

1. Shirotae
2. Cheal's Weeping Cherry
3. Hokusai
4. Tai-haku (aka tae-haku aka Great White Cherry)
5. Ukon
6. Kanzan
7. Pink Perfection
8. Amanogawa
9. Shirofugen
10. Shimidsu (aka 'Shimidsu Sakura', 'Shôgetsu')

I'll update this post with more detail as we go along!

Now let's home in on a bit more detail. 

First week in April:

Sargent Cherry at height, P. 'Accolade' just past its best. P. dulcis virtually over.
Spire and Yoshino at height.
P. 'Umineko' and 'Snow Goose' (see below)
Schmitt's Cherry (see below)
Blackthorn at its height.
Bullace and Domestic Plum.
Wild Cherry nearly at its height.
Shirotae, Hokusai, Tae-Haku.
The first blossom-trees that aren't Prunus but could possibly be confused with Prunus,  start to show up: Amelanchier, Pear, Magnolia.
Other notable plants:  Celandines, Dandelions, Daisies. Daffs. Forsythia. Pussy Willow.

2nd week in April:

'Ukon' just opening (April 7th); 'Kanzan' by end of week.
Cheal's Weeping Cherry was probably out last week, but I only saw it this week.
Blackthorn just past its best, fading on some plants.
Additional Wild Cherry trees continuing to come into bloom. - at its height now.
Prunus avium 'Plena' starting.
Sargent Cherry still blooming strongly at start of week, finished by the end of week.
The earliest crab apples show. Amelanchier very prominent.
Dandelions! Lots of them.

3rd week in April:

'Kanzan' , 'Amanogawa'.
Prunus avium 'Plena'.
Bird cherry (Prunus padus) nearly at height.
Crab Apples, Pear, Midland Hawthorn.
Cow Parsley starts.


The photos below are from 3rd April 2014. There's always a few Prunus trees that I can't name. The only thing I can say about both of these ones is that they are extremely distinctive.

Mystery Prunus tree 1.

This is about the shape and size of Prunus 'Spire'. The general impression from a distance is that it's whitish, but not the dazzling white of e.g. Tai-haku.  The flowers are single, neat in appearance and noticeably large. They bloom among the emerging fresh green leaves (you don't get the wall-to-wall-blossom effect that you get with 'Spire'). 3. The flowers do indeed emerge white, with golden stamens, but flush with pink from a beetroot centre. Anyway, very nice.

With a certain amount of hesitation, I'm going to plump for this being Prunus 'Snow Goose', though I must say it is not so pure white as I was expecting. It certainly looks similar to Prunus 'Umineko', and I know that 'Snow Goose', which originated in Holland,  is of the same hybrid parentage (P. incisa x P. speciosa).

The main differences seem to be: Size and shape: 'Umineko' upswept, medium-size, a street and estate tree, often on standards of P. avium.   'Snow Goose' more closely upswept and compact, well suited to a small garden. Flowers: 'Umineko' cup-shaped, often nodding; 'Snow Goose', more erect and more open, hence appearing large.

Mystery Prunus tree 2:

This one has a similar shape to the previous, but it's a much taller tree; taller indeed than any other pink cherry I can think of. I've seen it as a street tree and also as a grouping behind a Sainsbury's petrol station.

On an overcast day like today it seems rather a dingy, sad-looking tree. But in a family with so many obvious beauties, this has a certain appeal. The bark is dark but unmistakably cherry-like (i.e. with rings of lenticels). If you can manage to get close to the blossoms, they look quite nice:

The flowers are single, pink, and seem small compared to other cherries, perhaps mainly because of the narrow back-rolled petals, which create a cogwheel effect.

Ah, found it! This one is Schmitt's Cherry (Prunus x schmittii), of hybrid origin (P. avium x P. canescens). Attractive lustrous bark on young stems, later peeling off in ragged strips, apparently.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

cherry laurel begins

Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) just coming into flower, on March 21st 2014. (On the same day I also saw the first flowers of Wild Cherry (P. avium) and Sargent Cherry (P. sargentii).)

Cherry Laurels can be fairly big but are never trees, because they have no main trunk. I feel quite a close connection with them; most of the "secret camps" of my childhood games were within the crowns of what I then knew as laurel bushes. They have a sort of room-like interior, a bit gloomy but mostly dry and with bare clay floors. This dryness is why cherry-laurels are favoured by gamekeepers, they are ideal for sheltering pheasants.

They come from the Caucasus/Black Sea regions, originally. However in the UK they were very widely planted as screening and game-cover and are a typical feature of secondary woodland, spreading invasively after a slow start (apparently introduced in 1576, but not recorded as wild until 1886 - much of the spread has come in the last forty years).

The wood is very heavy and dense. It feels like a great wood for carving, but apparently this is not so; it contains too much water and cracks when seasoned. It is good firewood. There are cyanides in the fresh leaves and fruit-pips, and these can cause painful headaches (often next day). In the good old days, junior entomologists used the crushed leaves in killing-jars. According to Monty Don, the water that drips off the leaves poisons those few plants that might otherwise tolerate the shade. Distillation of the leaves produces "cherry-laurel water" which in the eighteenth-century was a popular food-flavouring (because it smells like almonds). But you were supposed to dilute it. People who didn't do so died of prussic acid poisoning. Once this property had been well established cherry-laurel water fell out of use as a food flavouring but started a new career in the murder and suicide line.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

hand off

The grass lies on the land,

(1)        that set of keys.

Dumb as a bunch of keys, the grass is.

            It's you who know!

Do you know what you know?

           Take this clutch of grass

& potter back and forth,

           letting out your prisoners.


Friday, March 21, 2014

visit to the local sewage farm

...attracted in by morning sun and a large golden patch of Colt's-foot (Tussilago farfara).

Photos from 17th March 2014.

In northern Sweden,  "Hästhov" or "Tussilago" is much admired as the earliest spot of colour in a landscape that is otherwise pure winter. "Tussilago" is the name my Mum always uses for the plant, and I grew up assuming that "Tussilago" was a Swedish word and only much later found out that it was Latin. 

The name  "Hästhov" means "horse-hoof" and thus equates to the English "Colt's-foot". 

But there's also an ingenious folk-etymology (reported on Den Virtuella Floran) that "Hästhov" is a corruption of "Hosthäva" (which could mean good-for-coughs, the same meaning as Tussilago). This must be just a happy accident of Swedish, because equivalent horse-hoof names have existed in other European languages for ages.  

One of the earliest entries in the OED for coltsfoot is H. Lyte's translation of R. Dodoens Niewe Herball (1578):

"Called..Fole foote, Horse houe, Coltes foote, and Bull foote."

The presumed reason for this is the shapes of the leaves. Compare them with the hoof-prints of unshod horses. 

(Hoof-print photos by "Equinitis" and "Manesntails" on the Horsecity Forum)

The other early OED entries for coltsfoot also mention the name Baechion or Bethicon. This must relate to the early Italian betico farfarum, but that's all I know about it. 

In the late 1980s, approximately, colt's-foot tea was implicated in a couple of cases of infant mortality, and a number of scientific papers raised concerns about pyrrolizidine alkaloids in Colt's-foot that, so it was claimed, could be liver-damaging.

In reponse, the German government banned sales of Colt's-foot. How devastating this was can be judged from a book like Nancy Arrowsmith's  Essential Herbal Wisdom (2009); the plant was absolutely central to traditional European folk-culture. It was eaten, drunk, smoked, and slept on. Above all, it was one of the most widely esteemed of home remedies, taken for all manner of ills but especially for bronchial and cough-related disorders. (In France the herbalist's symbol is a colt's-foot leaf.)

An Austrian grower has bred out the toxins, so his patented variety can now be sold. This story thus becomes part of the larger global saga of gradual patentization of natural products, a corollary to our ever-growing belief that unmediated contact with nature is a risky sort of thing. The belief is usually associated with ignorance, i.e. urbanized living and a lack of real contact with the countryside. This is true, but the belief is also about growth of knowledge: a recognition that scientists continue to discover and responsibly publicize things about nature that are potentially threatening. Since very few people are in a position to assess the real risk, the obvious thing is to pay someone else to take it on our behalf, i.e. by guaranteeing our safety and being susceptible to redress in the courts.

There was also an eye-catching stand of Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias). (The plant is perennial, the individual stems are biennial.) This one was subspecies wulfenii, with a bright acid-green inflorescence, which comes from the E. Mediterranean.  The W. Mediterranean form, ssp. charicias, is an equally common escape. It has chocolate brown splodges in the flowers (the nectar glands, in fact).


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jenny Allan's "Kit"

Now transferred to here:



Thursday, March 13, 2014

William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure (1604)

Kenneth Colley as the Duke* in the 1979 BBC film

[* In the First Folio, the Duke is named as Vincentio (not Vicentio!) at the end of the text, in the "The names of all the Actors". No-one calls him by that name in the text itself, (well, you wouldn't) and so far as I can see he is always just Duke in the speech prefixes and SDs.]

In short order and skyingly, Measure for Measure can now be enjoyed for what it is, a wonderful and serious romantic comedy that is more usefully seen in apposition to Twelfth Night than to the plays it’s more commonly linked with. It works by fleet-footed scenes (all, bar the final one, rather brief) and is not afraid to leave gaps and to make momentary, casual use of characters and situations in pursuit of its object. The play has in fact a formal brilliance that perhaps was a springboard for Shakespeare to leap beyond such perfection into the wild elongations of Lear and Antony and Cleopatra.

Measure for Measure was after Shakespeare’s death rather neglected for three centuries. The reasons, e.g. its bawdiness and the central place it gives to dubiously legal sex, no longer survive as “problems” and nor do the more recent concerns that have been expressed as moral doubts about the behaviour of (chiefly) the Duke and Isabella. Problematizing is not after all a once-for-all process; problems vanish sometimes, and to notice this is a necessary clarification that does not, as some people fear, make things less complex than they are; on the contrary, it just clears the deck for what now appear as the real complexities.


The scene is expository, but gives away only a portion of what the play is about. Shakespeare exposes the top of his hierarchy first (Duke, Escalus, Angelo), but he is not willing to tell us very much about them. It would be fatal to betray much about Angelo at this early stage; we should see three proper managers.

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do

is a thrilling image of character in action. The play will indeed show us these fiery effluences, but we don’t yet know where they’ll come from. As it happens, Escalus will play no vital role in forwarding the action, but we mustn’t know this yet, and likewise must be allowed to suppose that the Duke will be no more than an absentee figurehead. 


Lucio and the two gentlemen (who will hereafter be dropped, as we don’t yet know) begin by prolonging the illusion that the play will be about international politics, another potential route that the first scene might have led on to. These casual commentators have no conception, as yet, that the real matter of the play will be domestic affairs that concern them right here in Vienna.

The “sanctimonious pirate” will prove to exemplify a theme that is central to the play, namely the distinction between an ideal morality and how it can be worked out in a social setting that is already in place.

Or consider Pompey’s “you have worn your eyes almost out in the service”. Mistress Overdone’s trade may be unlawful, but the labour and dedication are real and cannot be wholly discounted. As with the pirate and as in most working lives there is a mess of conflicting codes; you do your best for the firm; what the firm does may be far from heaven’s best, but you do still do your best.  

With Claudio’s arrest, first outlined and then shown, the play finally develops a solid core of narrative interest. Even so, Claudio and Lucio find themselves second-guessing, as the accused always do. Claudio’s sister, not yet named, is shadowed at the end. She sounds – well, a little too young to be of great importance.

The scene gives a glimpse of Vienna. But the glimpse is not a characterization of Vienna, what it shows us is how earthily concerned the play is to be with Vienna’s daily life. To suggest as some have done that Vienna is really in a more desperate moral state than other places is taking what the Duke says a bit too uncritically; it leads to the false difficulty about the Duke’s record, and it understates the directness of the play’s application. Only Angelo echoes him. Vienna is in fact remarkably like any other town; certainly like Jacobean London. What the Duke himself calls excessive laxness is merely the freedoms ceded by a contemporary and realistic government that, however fierce in other ways, felt unable to impose full control on sexual mores. Shakespeare’s image of a city-state that tried to do so was, no doubt, Geneva – i.e. a bizarre exception that none but Puritans spoke up for.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

pulmonaria begins

Pulmonaria officinalis
Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), just coming into flower. I saw this one, just coming into flower on 5th march 2013, in a young woodland shelter belt between road and housing in West Swindon.

Pulmonaria is good for chest ailments, thus proving the doctrine of signatures to be not so silly after all. But probably the resemblance of the spotted leaves to diseased lungs was only noticed when the medicinal properties were already known. If Pulmonaria had been good for heartburn or urinary infections then we'd see that, instead.  NB I'd like to have a definite literary source for this resemblance. I'm quite suspicious about it, and it isn't in William Coles Art of Simpling.

P. officinalis is native to central Europe, and is a frequent non-native plant almost throughout the UK. In Sweden it's much rarer and  only seen in the extreme south. On the other hand P. obscura (unspotted leaves) is native and fairly common in central Sweden. (This latter is the plant known in Sweden as Lungört; P. officinalis is known as Fläcklungört.) P. obscura is also known (though incredibly rare) in Suffolk,  - first recorded 1842, but very likely native: all records are on ancient woodland and nobody bothers to grow P. obscura in gardens.

Pulmonaria officinalis, early flowers


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

29/10/00 - Alone in the flat - I revert to atavistic behaviour - reading Shakespeare, whose plays I’ve neglected for ages. The last time it was The Merry Wives of Windsor - this time The Merchant of Venice - a better play, indeed intermittently gripping (I.3, IV.1). Questions unanswered: Why is Antonio sad (I.1)? Is Shylock’s speech supposed to sound “foreign”? What does “The quality of mercy is not strained” mean, exactly? Why does Portia deny Shylock his principal? (She has saved Antonio - what else matters?)


Yes, there’s no doubt Shakespeare keeps us waiting in the Merchant - in fact, it’s our main posture. Hate and financial embarrassment are significantly more interesting than love in this play. So Act I builds with a dramatic force and logic like the swiftest tragedies. Portia appears as a lively prattler - her good sense is a benefit of economic independence - you can hardly foresee how instrumental she will become in the major plot.

In I.3 it must be said that Antonio behaves with dignity; his outburst of anger surely appeals to us as a principled rejection of usury. In fact we have only Shylock’s word for Antonio’s anti-Semitism, and if Antonio acts imprudently here it is from the practical and productive motives of love (Antonio not denying his previous bald rudeness, but not displaying it either). If his later explanation of Shylock’s hatred is countenanced, it seems that the play intends us to think that Shylock is morbidly over-sensitive. Which is how inconvenient oppressed minorities are usually described by their oppressors.

Whatever may be justly said in extenuation, I think the Merchant is seen most accurately as fundamentally anti-Semitic and also (in David Nirenberg’s terms) anti-Judaic - an author working within the general climate of opinion. If Shakespeare for the most part restricts coarse racial insult to the lips of Graziano, that is more from manners than principle - Graziano is a great joker (so no harm done, then?) and is within the fold of the righteous - fit to marry Nerissa.

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Note for "Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights"

This is a post I probably will write one day. But for the moment:

I think this is a terrific collection of biographical and critical ideas, by Clare B. Dunkle (arising from researches for a prequel to Wuthering Heights)


On the question of Emily's second novel

I believe that Emily could have had more than two years for writing a second novel - i.e. from the time that Wuthering Heights was first packed off to publishers (July 1846?)  up to when she became ill on October 1st, 1848 (at Branwell's funeral).

[Can I complain here that Bronte chronologies on the web are incredibly inconsistent? Some say that Emily wrote Wuthering Heights between October 1845 and June 1846, some say it was written from December 1845 to July 1846, others again say it was probably begun in August 1845. Beware how your casual guesswork develops immortality! Again, some say that the agreement with Newby to publish Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey was in July 1847, others say August 1847 - this I'd have thought was a matter of record. Bloom's Notes clearly states that it was on  July 15th that the sisters agreed to Newby's proposal that they bear part of the production costs.]

Juliet Barker says that Emily and Anne at first reacted to the many rejections of their first novels by retreating into the privacy of Gondal. She thinks both Tenant and Emily's possible second novel were begun around mid-1847. In The Brontës she says (re the coming year - 1848): "there was much to look forward to... Emily and Anne had got their first books in print and were both working on a second novel..."

Dear Sir,--

I am much obliged by your kind note and shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel. I would not hurry its completion for I think you are quite right not to let it go before the world until well satisfied with it, for much depends on your next work. If it be an improvement on your first you will have established yourself as a first-rate novelist, but if it falls short the critics will be too apt to say that you have expended your talent in your first novel. I shall therefore have pleasure in accepting it upon the understanding that its completion be at your own time.

Believe me, my dear Sir,
yrs. sincerely,
T.C. Newby

Feb. 15, 1848

Thomas Newby's letter of Feb 15th 1848 implies that Emily had definitely begun a second novel but not yet completed it. Of course Emily was under no compulsion to tell him the whole truth, she might in fact have practically finished it, or again, she might still have been only projecting it. The only thing that seems definite is she told him there was going to be a second novel. (The rascally Newby seems to me to give quite good advice.)

The letter has no addressee name on it, and it isn't absolutely conclusive that the letter IS addressed to Ellis Bell rather than Acton Bell. (It would of course make perfect sense if addressed to Anne, then midway through The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.) However, the letter was found in Emily's writing desk. Among other things in this desk there was also an empty envelope from Newby that is addressed to Ellis Bell. The letter and the envelope were separate, but the folding of the letter is consistent with it having arrived in this envelope.

Emily's last dated poem was Sept 14, 1846. So basically there is no known creative work from the last two years of Emily's active life.

According to Bloom's Notes there is a conjecture that Emily spent some of her last years writing an "expanded version of Wuthering Heights", which of course does not survive. I have no idea of the source of this conjecture.

Charlotte could (as Clare says) quite likely have destroyed the putative second novel out of concern for Emily's reputation. "All the evidence suggests it," though, is too strong. It's also entirely possible that Emily ordered its destruction herself. We know she was a perfectionist and we know she had sensitivities about things being published without her control. Also, if Emily did order its destruction then  it might have been Anne she asked, rather than Charlotte. It's all speculation. (Margaret Lane, The Bronte Story, 1953. - quoted here: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/198483-was-emily-bronte-working-on-a-second-novel). 

The disappearance of the Gondal prose writings is almost more painful still, because we know more about them. It's certainly possible that Charlotte destroyed them after the death of her two sisters, though I don't know if she would necessarily have thought them in any danger of being published. It's also possible that Emily and Anne took the decision to destroy them. After all that's the most usual fate of adolescent writings - their authors get rid of them.

So I think the claim "Again, almost certainly, Charlotte disposed of them when she went through her sisters' papers" is overstated. Clare infers Charlotte' attitude from some minor edits (e.g. of poems and WH) and her public judgments of her sisters' work, which seem to us so distressingly lukewarm. But I don't know what evidence there may be that Charlotte did do any actual destroying. What I do know is that she didn't destroy the Angria work that she wrote with Branwell, though she might quite reasonably have thought of it as prejudicial to her own and her brother's reputation, if she was the kind of tender-minded tidy-upper who would worry about the Gondal writings. Who knows, maybe Charlotte was the family member who was least exacting when it came to tidying up papers? Against this, of course, you could argue that Charlotte might have been too ill to deal with her own juvenile work in the same way she had allegedly dealt with Emily's and Anne's.

Also, you might reasonably tend to link the absence of Gondal prose (though not Gondal poems) with the virtual absence of any personal papers relating to Emily and Anne. That's really what lies behind Juliet Barker's complaint that you could (with pardonable overstatement) write the known facts of their lives on a single sheet of paper. It seems unlikely that two dying sisters could both have been so determined to destroy all mark of their past lives. Surely this loss of their papers occurred after their death.

Coming back to the other side again, Charlotte re-edited Wuthering Heights in 1850, and though she made unauthorized changes to paragraphing and to the rendering of Joseph's dialect, her main intention was to put right the many errors in Newby's edition (Newby having ignored Emily's list of corrections). Was this evident care for her sister's work compatible with otherwise obliterating her history and the bulk of her writings? Perhaps. "'Wildfell Hall' it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve." There's a sinister ring to that remark. Suppression, though in this case impracticable, was apparently something Charlotte viewed without qualms.

But we need to remember that we don't know. It's always tempting to put named individuals into the frame (just as Shakespearean-authorship folk always pick a nobleman). But Emily's and Anne's papers could have disappeared or been destroyed without Charlotte's involvement, especially after Charlotte's death. Persons responsible unknown.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Miny imperial

#the tower
towers, buoyant serapi
Berenice strolled on flags
and on heavy inscriptions
Oh, heavenly. I am stood here patient enough

Have you forgiven gas attax yet?

I must feed my child
Cathy.. betrayal #

Berenice scrambled flailed
the plaster knife ran all over the surface
They mustered, unbuttoning

Sov, du lilla videung

Franco in Moscow

Language can't say what I know

They're always asking for strength

the village lives only on its surface,
courting, labouring...
its dead are forgotten

Life, an illusion

The pearl waves pouring through the flume

An afternoon dark with mustering pines

And the child ran into the barn, I panicked,
I couldn't see her I flew
and then I trod on my ankle
like a fool

I banged the cupboards
and the dust flew what a dingy night

I was life, multitudes, when I came to know this.

I rose straight up with my child held above my head, the warmth of patterned blankets descended from Government Hill and burst into floral borders is that the way you imagined it


yellow mint tabs, caplet abstracted, multiplication red plaza mosaic,
The figures were cultivating the green, soil plots and the cream chimneys,
generators of a low grey thudding hum across a walkway behind a temple.
The fox-form slunk into the bramble,
The fox's buoyed tail like the sock of coastal plains; no paintings near the coast,
grey and mint panels, ranks of long canted grass reflexion,
the lofted spokes energised, enervated. sink-white aloft. 


Monday, February 17, 2014

flowers from Jämtland (July 2013)

A few more photos from my stay in Jämtland last July:

Angelica sylvestris

Wild Angelica (Strätta, Angelica sylvestris). One of the most characteristic plants of Norrland.  Often, as here, flushed pink. Grey Alder in the background. 

Dianthus deltoides

Maiden Pink (Baknejlika, Dianthus deltoides). Quite common in villages, road-verges, old farmsteads, pastureland... anywhere, in short, that human beings have managed to win back from the blanket forest.  

Trichophorum alpinum

Cotton Deergrass (Ullsäv, Trichophorum alpinum, formerly known as Scirpus hudsonianus). Common in northern Sweden. Once recorded in Scotland (a bog in Angus from 1791 - c. 1813), but long extinct. An extremely beautiful sight, I thought.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The flowers of Jämtland - Nattviol

Platanthera bifolia flowers and fruits

Pictures from a stay in East Jämtland last summer (early July 2013).

Above, Lesser Butterfly-orchid = Nattviol (Platanthera bifolia). This one is the woodland variety with longer spurs (ssp. latiflora (Drejer) Löjtnant), known in Sweden as "Skogsnattviol".  On the right of the picture above, you can see a dried-up spike from the previous year.

Nattviol means "night violet" and refers to the fragrant scent at evening, designed to appeal to moths.

Here in Jämtland it's close to the northern limit of its range, but this should not lead you into thinking that the plants are rare or sickly.  Here in the woody copse known as "Sjögrens" at the back of our old summer cottage (to which, alas, we were saying our goodbyes) there has always been this healthy colony of nattviol. Perhaps the conditions are exceptionally good, in the sheltered Indal valley, on a calcareous west-facing slope.

Nattviol is a common plant in Sweden and much celebrated, tending to become a symbol of the mystery and melancholy in those white nights of summer.

Dofta, dofta nattviol,
sommarnatt är ljum,
ingen oro sjuder.
Och till skogens tysta rum
långt ur fjärran ljuder
vemodsensam bondfiol.

Fragrant, fragrant night-violet,
summernight warm,
no unease here.
In the wood's silent spaces,
far from commotion,
one sad and lonely peasant violin.

(Erik Grotenfelt - a Finland-Swedish poet, 1891 - 1919. This unhappy poet, novelist and children's-book author, who was an early champion of Edith Södergran, received his military training in Germany, fought for the Whites during the Finnish Civil War, ordered the execution of sixty Red Guards and at least two women at Västankvarn in May 1918, initially carried out the sentences himself  (the men, he said afterwards, were not experienced in the enforcement of judgments), and shot himself a year later.  He was later claimed by Finnish Nazis as an inspirational forerunner, which more or less terminated any lingering interest in his writings.)

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

New on Intercapillary Space...

I've put up a couple of little notes on Intercapillary Space.  They are not much more than annotated links but they cover quite a lot of interesting ground (of a modern-poetry-and-poetics variety, but also taking in militancy and civil unrest, tiger economies, friendship...).



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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Tapping World Summit 2014

Yes, it's that time of year again....

The summit starts on February 24th. Lots of free stuff but it is time-limited, so make sure you sign up before the 24th and you can get a mass of free info about how (and why) to tap. Get on there now and you can watch Nick Ortner's 30-minute chat with Wayne Dyer, which is amazing.


As for the summit itself, I'm expecting it to be the usual format of two presentations a day, all conducted by the brilliant Jessica Ortner.

(If you don't know why you'd be at all interested in this, then EFT aka "tapping" is a simple but profound technique for changing how you do things to get through life.)

If you're bothered about how this fits with conventional medicine, check out the interview with Lissa Rankin MD:



Tuesday, February 04, 2014

What did the summer contain?

What did the summer contain?
(16)   It wasn't only the pine-scent, wasn't only
the meadow-sides flowing like a bright flag.
         At the river you picked up a
                                              handful of
         not only red river-gravel but all
            those one-syllable words: air, & love ...
(What dumb signposts they are! We who are tired
             of kicking up & down the same old road,
well, we have left some dents on them.)
         But, what was it?
Where the grass rippled up a bank,
         where we danced a mazurka & the
                                   sun became a golden berry -
what worm of no syllables
        lay wreathed & smiling in its gut?    


Monday, February 03, 2014

William Shakespeare: King John (1595?)

Mrs Siddons on Constance, quoted in Thomas Campbell's Life of Mrs Siddons

King John is now about the least-performed of Shakespeare’s plays. I have read a review of a college production at M.I.T.; but it’s a long time since Mrs Siddons and her directors seized eagerly on the role of Constance to make a showstopping display of female loftiness.  The words used by Mrs Siddons, Mrs Jameson and others are “vehemence”, “passion” and “exquisite sensibility”. These were topics of urgent interest. The Romantic/Victorian cult of “the feminine nature” - though really depending on a belittlement of women as practical agents, as is now easily seen - permitted the relief of some acute pressure in that bizarre culture.

R. L. Smallwood’s interpretation of the play (in the New Penguin Shakespeare, 1974) turns its back on all this to emphasise the centrality of the Bastard and Hubert as, eventually, decent bystanders. This reading is humane and detailed, but it has some scarcely acknowledged difficulties. (Despite the evidence of speech prefixes, I hardly accept Hubert as identical with the citizen on the walls of Angiers. The two roles have clearly defined functions and nothing but questions seems to be gained from assimilating them.)

One difficulty is that the Bastard’s outrageous (and nearly implemented) suggestion that Angiers be levelled first and argued over later must be regarded as a sort of sarcasm. The idea is proposed with considerable energy. Another is that the Bastard is not shown as being in possession of the facts, so far as John’s death warrant on Arthur is concerned. This matters if his decisions are to be regarded as morally normative.

                                    If thou didst but consent
            To this most cruel act, do but despair...

So he says to Hubert. But John did consent, and the Bastard, not knowing this, is not really put to the test.

A better approach to this rumbustious character is via his kinship with Richard Coeur de Lion. His impatience with treaties is a military and temperamental one. He is well positioned to make deflating criticisms but he is not at all suitable as a comprehensive guide to political and national behaviour. Pugnacity is a sort of behaviour that is occasionally useful.

It is perhaps with these issues in mind that someone else has proposed playing King John as a “black comedy”, i.e. (so I suppose) a play in which all the action is to some extent vain and there is no moral centre. “Black comedy” seems to me an anachronistic genre, I mean when applied to Shakespeare; it can glide over difficulties but not help us.

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