(Illustration of fallen angels from Vincent of Beauvais, Le Mirouer historial (French translation of Speculum historiale), Paris 1463; BnF, Français 50, fol. 14r; found here. Yes, it probably is over the top, but I like it, so there)
I don’t write about politics here but the last week has been so utterly consuming and depressing that I feel I have to comment here now that my fury has somewhat abated. Something really ugly has been unleashed, something that has been fed quietly and in the dark for many years, and it’s shocking to see it unashamed and loud, spewing out hatred at those it deems ‘other’, people just going about their daily lives. I’m sickened by the racist and xenophobic attacks, which parts of the press and the Brexit campaign seem to have legitimised, at least in the minds of those who commit them. It is for all of us to stand up and condemn them. Both sides are publicly spitting hatred and contempt at each other and that is not helping.
For the rest, I think I’m only now finally able to believe that Britain voted to leave the EU. I don’t agree with those who voted to Leave because to me it’s not just an enormous risk with potentially not much to gain and plenty to lose; it’s also a real kick in the face to community, to working together (though heaven knows there’s a lot wrong with the EU, let’s not forget that) and sharing a common heritage. I’m genuinely afraid of what may happen in Northern Ireland, which seems to have been quite cavalierly sacrificed in Brexit. I deplore the state of politics now; some are arguing that we are now in a ‘post-factual’ era where emotions are key to winning over the electorate. That is truly frightening; is it correct though? (Please, no.)
And this is news of no interest to anyone except my family, but very sadly we had to cull Night Fluffy, thus further intensifying the shitness of the week. He was beautiful and not really aggressive for a cockerel, but I couldn’t let children go in the chicken run any more unless I was there between them and NF (just in case, he never actually attacked one) and I am afraid that although he loved his wifelets he was ripping out all their feathers in his enthusiasm and hurting them. We’d have re-homed him but nobody wants cockerels. I feel really bad about this; he was only doing his job. Let me assure you though that he did have a very happy life, no cockerel could have had better.
I am going to write about Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent but I find I cannot write anything unless I get this out of the way first, even though there is nothing new here. Of course I voted to Remain, but that doesn’t mean that I despise you if you voted Leave. We’re all in this together now; let’s do our best to heal and push our leaders to do better for us all.
Normal, irregular service will resume shortly.
Being an unreconstituted wimp, I have never read Daphne du Maurier’s story ‘The Birds’ nor watched the Hitchcock film because they are renowned for being scary and I certainly don’t require any external help in frightening myself rigid in any remotely uncanny situation. However, I am aware of the premise, and at the moment I am feeling anxious because what if it is in fact starting, and starting here, in this unexceptional part of Belgium?
First, it was the blackbird. I believe I have mentioned the cheeky blackbird before. He and his wife now boldly help themselves to cat food from almost literally under the noses of Mister Puss and Clara. I worry about this. Will cat food turn them into monster birds, who will grow beyond what nature intended and start carrying off children? The local primary school is all too close by. At least they seem to eat the food themselves and not take it to their babies.
When not thieving, Mr Blackbird is as good as biting the paw that feeds him by picking on Clara. No sooner does she step outside than he starts shouting at her and dive-bombing her. Ostensibly, this is because Mr Blackbird is a father and is doing his duty to protect his darlings.
(The baby blackbirds in their nest in the yew hedge, taken last week. I had to climb a ladder to take this picture. K, who peered into the nest before me, says that the baby birds smiled and waved at him but as you see they had fallen asleep when me and my camera arrived.)
However, Clara is usually nowhere near the nest when he starts up. So I think that Mr Blackbird is enjoying himself. A Napoleon complex perhaps? At first poor Clara hid under chairs or bushes to escape him, but now she frequently joins in the spirit of the thing, creeping and leaping and trying to catch him. Mr Blackbird had better be careful because his antics have improved Clara’s stalking skills no end and she nearly had him yesterday.
Oddly, Mr Blackbird completely ignores Mister Puss, who does actually pose a real threat to any baby bird being a dastardly slayer of all things furred and feathered.
Meanwhile, in the chicken run...
This morning, poor little Fluffy was limping, so I caught her to investigate. And Night Fluffy attacked me! Although I fended him off quite easily with my clog, using a technique developed when Mister Puss gets spring in his veins and pretends to be a tiger among the hostas – I don’t hit him! I just use the clog as a shield – this was alarming and I am not sure that it bodes well for the future.
Night Fluffy is also responsible for Flower’s decline in looks. Now that Night Fluffy has entered into man’s estate, as it were, he has a particular fondness for Flower and likes to lavish her with his love rather too enthusiastically. So enthusiastically that he's pulling the feathers out from her back. Apparently this is not unusual, and I am assured that a chicken saddle is the solution to this problem. I have purchased one, and it arrived this morning. With trepidation (and clogs), I entered the run to seize Flower and fit her with the saddle.
Fortunately, Flower is a trusting soul and rushed up to me, so I scooped her up and was out again before Night Fluffy had taken in what was happening. He was very cross though, and flew up onto the gate and crowed. It struck me, as I wrestled with the chicken saddle and the unlucky Flower, that cocks crowing are really not so very different from lions roaring. I managed to get the saddle on, and took Flower back. Here she is, saddled up and displeased. I think I need to adjust it a bit, it looks rather loose. I’m having lunch first though.
In short, dear readers, the birds are revolting. Find a secure cellar, stock up with a few years’ worth of gin and books, and prepare to wait it out. In fact, let’s play a game. What reading matter would you take into a secure cellar in the event of birds going bad?
Note for chicken enthusiasts: the saddle I bought was from here. The lady in the video makes it look so easy...
I had planned to start writing about The Witch of Edmonton today, as I read it on Saturday evening with a large glass or few of Fitou in a break from Midnight’s Children (a book which was pretending to be an unexceptionable size but actually is quite long). However, today, for the first time since October, the sun shone on Belgium! And it didn’t rain! So instead I’ve been able to pot up the jasmine I bought on Saturday, aided by a trusty kitten:
The jasmine was lucky to survive: shortly after I took this photograph Mister Puss suddenly decided that mauling pot plants looked fun and the two cats really got going together. In recent months, Mister Puss has relaxed his Grumpy Old Cat mien. He doesn’t slap Clara about and swear as much; instead, they have bouts of playing, they can even sleep on the same bed together sometimes.
But Clara has The Paw. And The Paw can’t resist creeping out and patting Mister Puss’s tail – or even bottom! – this apparently is an Assault on his Dignity. She loves it best when Mister Puss is stretched out before the gas fire in the evening. Silently, she leaps onto the coffee table and leans over him. Slowly, The Paw stretches out, slowly closer, closer, and then – dab! And Mister Puss leaps up shrieking and they slap at each other for a few seconds before subsiding into Meaningful Stares.
Here is The Paw in action outside our back door this very afternoon!
And a look of Long Suffering:
I’ve also taken some chicken photographs for you. As you may remember, if my life is foremost in your mind at all times, Fluffy and Night-Fluffy were hatched in August by their foster mother Daisy. They grew fast, but whether they were boys or girls was unclear. Then – well, here is Night Fluffy just before my daughter and I went to England for a week at Christmas:
He’s also started developing spurs (scary!), attempting to crow in the mornings (he’s now quite good at this) and doing ungentlemanly things to the ladies. Definitely not a hen. The threat of the pot has been withdrawn, as long as he doesn’t become very violent and aggressive. So far, Daisy and Flower, the older hens, have been keeping him firmly under their claws despite his amorous ways. Here is Daisy with Fluffy and Night Fluffy (Flower was busy laying an egg):
More soon! Happy Monday!
* Edited to add: I meant to write this originally, but forgot! I have perhaps exaggerated the speed of Night Fluffy’s transformation; the first photograph was actually taken at the end of November, the second on the day of posting. But he did seem to change radically in that one week. Really!
I decided to take down the previous post and write a marginally more interesting update. It’s been a slightly weird time, with very mild weather that’s encouraged one of my roses, some pansies, fuchsias, hellebores and marigolds to bloom bravely if unseasonably; it’s not just me who’s a bit bewildered at the moment. Then, suddenly, last weekend the cold swept up and I realised it was nearly the end of November and where had the time gone?
Fluffy and Night Fluffy are now small hens. They grew really fast! After a short period of fluffiness, they spent weeks in motley as the fluff was replaced by feathers. Night Fluffy’s feathers are very beautiful and iridescent. We still don’t know whether they are boys or girls, but we think they are girls. Interestingly, Daisy, their foster mother, who used to regard herself as equal to our other hen, Flower (I don’t do the naming here), has become very bossy and dominant. She isn’t always very nice to Flower. Flower seems to cope though.
The green-eyed monster prowls our house. In the Pre-Kitten Era, Mister Puss treated me with disdain and during the summer would never spend much time with us anyway. Now, a combination of cold weather and the loss of Sooticus has encouraged him to hang out in the homestead a bit more.
He never cared to do so before, but now squeaks with rage if he sees her there and has pointedly started claiming it for himself when he can. Now whenever I sit down it seems one of them will leap onto my knee and then give Hard Stares of a Triumphal Nature to the other.
I’ve been starting lots of books and not finishing them. This is unusual for me. Is the weather unsettling me, or can I just not find the right book? Is anyone else feeling like this?I had hoped to write a post about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland this month, as it’s the 150th centenary of its first publication, and I rashly lashed out and bought a copy of the annotated centenary edition, and it is HUGE, I can’t take it on the bus and even reading it in bed or on the sofa is vaguely offputting. And I keep getting distracted by all the notes. So that post may not happen...
... instead of posting here.
I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam with a dear friend and her children. It was insanely busy, but full of beautiful paintings like this one (Cypresses and Two Women, oil on canvas, 1890).
I let my partner cut off all my hair. Advantages: much less bother to wash or brush, I look less like a hearth rug. Drawbacks: I have nothing to hide behind, I have to wash the back of my neck occasionally, I look like a standard lamp.
I read quite a few books:
Little, Big, by John Crowley
Beauty, by Robin McKinley
Weathering, by Lucy Wood
Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge
Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
The Tortoise and the Hare, by Elizabeth Jenkins
The New Moon with the Old, by Dodie Smith
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Severina, by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Ingenious Pain, by Andrew Miller
The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge
The Tin Princess, by Philip Pullman
Longbourne, by Jo Baker
Extra(ordinary) People, by Joanna Russ
The Earthsea trilogy, by Ursula Le Guin
The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova (not pictured because I didn’t keep it)
The Behaviour of Moths, by Poppy Adams (ditto)
Now that term has begun, I’m rereading The Midnight Folk by John Masefield. I can’t really cope with anything too taxing at this time of year, and this is magical.
At the moment, we have two hens, and one of them, Daisy, kept getting broody. As she receives no gentleman callers, we asked our neighbours (whose hens do) if we could have some of their eggs for her to hatch. Daisy nobly sat on the eggs for three weeks and two duly hatched. Goodness but chicks are tiny! And if I’d been anxious about the kittens, I was a thousand times more anxious about these tiny, piping little puffballs. Cats! Rats! Crows! Magpies! Small, eager children! Wolves! Eagles!
I didn’t like to mention the chicks on here, lest I tempt fate and the day after I posted, something ate them. But Fluffy (the yellow one) and Night Fluffy (the dark one) are flourishing and growing and in fact most of their potential predators don’t seem terribly interested in them. Not even Mister Puss.
And the kittens... I am not given to peering at cats’ bums, but our kittens do rather brandish theirs in one’s face and after a few weeks it occurred to me that Clara’s bottom was quite radically different from Sootica’s. Further examination by K, our resident cat expert, ably assisted by the internets, confirmed that Sootica is a boy kitten. We are thinking about a new name, but our Chief Pet Namer has only offered Black Cat and Black Boy Cat and I am sorry but there are limits and those names are objectively crap. Any suggestions from total strangers gratefully accepted...
Now I know that everyone who visits here enjoys reading, so this might seem a rather shocking, but I have been wondering over the past few months whether perhaps it is possible to be unhealthily obsessed with books. I have noted the following symptoms in myself:
In an attempt to become a more rounded human being I have branched out into the world of Making Things. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have made me any more interesting nor given me any entertaining topics of conversation, perhaps because so far it’s principally entailed making doll’s clothes and it’s hard for most human beings to work up much enthusiasm about tiny shoes made of cardboard. Also, to be honest, everything I have bodged together looks a bit crap. And I don’t seem to improve. I thought that was supposed to happen, you practise a bit and you get better at things?
Here are some doll’s clothes I made. You would not believe how long it took me, nor how frequently my teeth were gnashed. I painted some little boxes as well, but even I can’t bear to humiliate myself quite so far as to post them on the internets. I am only showing you these because this is a quick post due to my guilt at not being a better blogger. I have tons of things to write about but not the time to do so. Uploading photographs is so much easier than actually formulating ideas.
(Florence, being suddenly upstaged by Mister Puss, in a dress originally intended for Bunchy; alas, poor Bunchy had to pass it on to Florence because it was too tight round the arms do you see a pattern here? No wonder Florence is smiling)
Please, tell me your interesting hobbies, I need some inspiration. Or tell me that you have no life beyond reading either.
* Of course I lie to make myself seem a bit more exciting and I say that I garden (and that’s true, but my idea of gardening is prancing out on a sunny day and planting out a few seedlings or doing a little light weeding before retiring to a cup of tea, you won’t find me braving February winds or remembering to dead-head every day, which is what proper gardeners do while emitting hearty whoops) and I like to travel, go to the theatre and visit galleries and museums (again true but these days I never do).
Hello! Sorry. Yet again I haven’t been writing here... I went on holiday with my daughter, my parents, my brothers, their wives and childer, to north Norfolk. It was gorgeous and we had glorious weather the whole time.
But I left my pencil case on the Eurostar on the journey there, and in the pencil case was my memory stick with three half-completed blog posts on it... oh dear. Although, as it turned out, I must have been insane to think for a moment I’d have the chance to write anything with four overexcited pre-schoolers charging around a smallish house from dawn to dusk.
I maintained my 2013 tradition of reading mainly crap. Most entertaining, but still, we shall Draw A Veil.
Instead, let’s look at some beautiful angels from the roofs of Norfolk churches. These are from St Mary’s in North Creake, and are fifteenth century:
The fifteenth-century roof angels in South Creake were restored in 1950 and found to be peppered with seventeenth-century musket shot; it seems that this was how churchwardens dealt with infestations of jackdaws in bolder and more bird-filled days.
Alas, while we were away, the doughty Merle passed on to the eternal chicken run in the sky. My partner, who had elected to stay at home and tend the tomatoes, found her dead in the nest box one morning. She hadn’t been in good health this summer. Even though she’d enjoyed a long and cheery life, we miss her bossy ways and suspicious glances.
On a happier note, here is the library of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk for the purposes of drooling.
Back to the Brothers Grimm, and a short tale of rampant naughtiness. I’m not going to type it all out here but you can read a translation of it by D.L. Ashliman (from 2001) here. A Cock and Hen go up the mountain to gather nuts but when dusk comes neither of them wants to carry all the heavy nuts home, so the Cock builds a cart of nutshells, but then neither of them wants to pull the cart... According to the notes at the bottom of the Ashliman translation, this story has been given many different names so you might find it in another collection of Grimms’ tales as ‘The Adventures of Chanticleer and Partlet: How They Went to the Mountains to Eat Nuts’, ‘The Vulgar Crew’ or ‘Riffraff’, to give just a few. The German title is ‘Das Lumpengesindel’ which, apart from being a lovely word in its own right, means something like ‘mob’, ‘riff-raff’ or ‘rabble’.
(Horst Lemke, Die Schönsten Märchen der Brüder Grimm, Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Lesering, 1965; found here)
Joyce Crick, who translated the Oxford World’s Classics edition which I have, tells us that this one was contributed by August von Haxthausen ‘from the Paderborn region’. An exuberant celebration of out-and-out knavery, it lacks the cruelty of ‘Cat and Mouse as Partners’, the other ‘beast fable’ I’ve read in this collection, although I did wince for the poor innkeeper’s face and bum. What carries it along is a certain charm and good humour:
When they [the Cock and Hen riding in the cart drawn by the Duck] had gone part of the way they met a pin and a needle going on foot. These called ‘Stop! Stop!’, saying it would soon be dark as stitch, and they couldn’t go a step further, and the road was so muddy, mightn’t they ride in the cart for a little. They’d been staying at the tailor’s hostel outside the town gate and had lingered over a beer. As they were very thin and didn’t take up much room, Cock let them both get in, but they had to promise not to tread on his toes, nor on Hen’s neither.
The Grimms and Joyce Crick have been at pains here to retain the sense of a storytelling voice (rather than text) through little colloquial touches and it all bounces along with cheery energy – it’s pretty much all narrative, there are no extraneous flourishes. The birds, needle and pin are of course being used to reflect human weaknesses but the storyteller isn’t really condemning them, he’s indulging our fantasies, our wish to identify with the tricksters who take what they want and never have to pay the price. There is a moral at the end, given to the unlucky innkeeper:
Then he made an oath that he would never again take a pack of low-life ruffians into his inn, who would eat his pantry empty, pay not a penny, and on top of that, by way of thanks, get up to all sorts of no good.
But this isn’t his story: it’s a sensible oath for an innkeeper but I think most of us have flown away with the fowls.
(Edited to add: I’ve just remembered that it’s April Fool’s Day, so a good moment to be thinking of misrule, tricksters and ne’er-do-weels.)
Next week: ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’.
On Monday afternoon we brought Mr Puss (working name while we bicker over his real one) home from a nearby cat rescue centre. We had agreed that we were definitely looking for a lady cat, but Mr Puss’s friendliness and charm, especially to our two-year-old daughter, won us over. He is very sweet and patient, if perhaps a little pleased with himself (but who could blame him?) and since he set paw over the threshold not one mouse has been seen strolling about the sitting-room, not one mouse conversation has been heard in the kitchen and not one mouse-in-lead-boots gymnastic session in the small hours has kept anyone awake. I was feeling rather pleased that this was a bloodless revolution but this morning while I was at my Flemish class Mr Puss caught a mouse, swiftly killed it and brought proudly over to my partner and daughter to consume before them. He devoured every last whisker. Sorry, mice.
And Merle has laid an enormous egg.