The gift of a book …

I have been thinking about Christmas presents – not really surprising given where we are in the year. But this married up with the annual attempt to clear out some books from our shelves – and resulted in this nice little unassuming discovery …The rather shabby Mr. Ingleside by E.V. Lucas – perhaps not a writer you’ve heard of? Neither had I, but I was curious so I  read it –  and found it unremarkable. In a nutshell – it’s the story of a man with two daughters and the girls’ search for employment.

What made it special to me was the inscription inside: my grandfather Vin had given this book to my grandmother for Christmas 1926.

Vin died in 1933, aged only 36. He had never recovered from the amoebic dysentery he’d fallen victim to when serving with the ANZAC troops in Palestine during WW1. As a family we know so very little about him now both his sons have died, so every small nugget of information is deeply precious … Christmas 1926 – my father was born in March that year, and my Australian grandparents, Vin and Dora, spent Christmas at the family holiday house, Uringah, at Cowes on Phillip Island near Melbourne …That’s my grandmother’s handwriting in the photograph album above, and it’s my grandfather’s in Mr. Ingleside. Why did he choose to give her that book, I wonder? It was published in 1910 so it wasn’t new.  Did he wish to make a point – that she’d found her profession with motherhood?

What’s even more intriguing to me as his granddaughter is that he’s inscribed the book to Dordy, not Dora – but Dordy was what we grandchildren were instructed to call her! It makes me wonder if she spent her whole life missing him …

So, this find led me on to thinking about Christmas (and birthday) presents in general and how very much the culture of giving has changed. In the old days – when I was a little girl (and way back from there when my parents and grandparents were young) – Christmas and birthdays meant the gift of a book. No, I didn’t say “books”, I said “book”. Because so special was this book in a world where there wasn’t much “stuff” that it felt like the most special gift in the world. And because this gift of a book was so very special, it deserved a very special inscription.

Dora – when much younger (aged just 18) – was given music for Christmas 1917: Chopin’s Nocturnes. Purchased from Allan’s at Collins St in Melbourne …This copy has been much played (by me as well as her). These are her pencil marks. There is an indefinable connection in playing from sheet music that you know your grandmother once played …The inscription in my copy of  Pepita by Vita Sackville-West also tells a story from my grandmother’s life …This was a gift to her for her birthday from her good Australian friend Kate Wight in 1937. Kate had featured in my grandmother’s photograph albums of the 1920s. Here she is (on the right) with her sister Peggy in their father’s garden at Kyabram in Victoria … By 1937 Vin had died and Dora had moved to England and re-married …In fact, 1937 was the same year that Dora married her second husband Roger at Chislehurst church in Kent – and there is Kate in the centre of this picture of wedding guests. Did she come to England specially for the wedding, I wonder …Gifted books in my other grandmother’s family also raise questions. My other grandmother Doris was given A Day in a Child’s Life by her father Otto in 1900 – she was 5 years old …It’s a really exquisite book with enchanting illustrations by Kate Greenaway – actually so special that it’s in very good condition and looks like it’s never been read – or played … Did she perhaps not like it very much? Far more likely, I think, is the possibility that it was considered so very special that she was barely ever allowed to look at it. Certainly I never handled it as a child.

She’s the one of the left below, perhaps 2 years old here  …?By contrast with A Day in a Child’s Life, Baby’s Opera has been very much handled, and is really in tatters! There’s no inscription of it being a gift to her inside. Is that perhaps what gave license for this book to be used more frequently?! Marvellous illustrations, this time by Walter Crane …The inscription is from her to her grandson James (my son – and her first great-grandchild) for his first birthday, 25th December 1981 …These little nuggets of inscriptions make me wonder so much about the people involved. This book, John Hullah’s The History of Modern Music , published in 1862 Was a gift to my great-grandmother Mathilda Rose Herschel from her mother on her 19th birthday, 15th July 1865. Quite a dense learned book …Rose was certainly an accomplished musician. In later life the family lived near Cofton in Devon. They were regulars at the tiny church there and she played the organ for services. It’s lovely to have discovered that music with her name on it is still kept at Cofton church …As a family we don’t remember Rose so much as a musician as an artist. She painted prolifically – this (unfortunately photographed through glass) is her son, my grandfather, perched on the stairs, perhaps aged 3 or 4 …?1934 was a good Christmas for my 10-year old mother Mary shown here about that age (looking rather fed up) with her younger sister Jill on the left …She was given two books! She must have loved The Book of the Heavens, because it is sadly coming apart …It was a present from her parents. I wonder if she was given this charming little bookplate for Christmas that year too? It’s clearly written in a childish hand – and been written out once – unsatisfactorily, one presumes – and erased and written again …By contrast, Mrs. Lang’s The Book of Saints and Heroes, is a lot less thumbed. Perhaps a little worthy … A present from her grandmother Grace – not her grandfather Otto. This is clearly a family that gave presents separately. Perhaps they couldn’t decide on what to give …?My parents Dick and Mary continued the tradition of marking birthdays and Christmas with an inscribed book. I was given Lavender’s Blue for my third birthday – and it’s been well-used!My mother’s handwriting of the inscription is sadly smudged …Charming pictures throughout … But the book is in absolute tatters …And has been lavishly (and not very well) coloured in …I’ve even stuck pictures in to the back. Perhaps this indicates a passionate love for this book – but no, I don’t think that’s true. It’s just a good friend that travelled with me and met overfamiliarity …I do look a bit of a wild child …When we were older, my father Dick loved to give us Folio Society books – most of which, I am afraid to admit, I have never read – and they have vanished from my shelves. But one hasn’t …Poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins, a Christmas present from my parents Dick and Mary in 1974 is a book I really treasure …Several years later they gave me Mary Gostelow’s Embroidery …I asked for this book for Christmas. In those days you waited for books and clothes that you wanted – you couldn’t buy cheap second hand on Ebay nor did you have the disposable cash to go out and buy what you desired immediately. You waited. And this book was worth the wait – lots of lovely inspirational illustrations …There are other books on our shelves not connected to my family but which also were at one time given as Christmas gifts. I really like Needlecraft from Elizabeth Craig’s Household LibraryWhich was given: To My Darling Alice, Christmas 1952. But did Alice ever use it? I like to think it was a gift from her husband but it may have been from a parent. Whatever there’s no evidence that she actually liked it because the book is as pristine as a book published in 1950 could be …All that wonderful useful information gone to waste!By contrast, Continental Knitting by Esther Bondesen has been well used …And rightly so – so much of delight therein. Who wouldn’t want to make an ear-warmer like this …?!It was a present from Gwyneth to her grandmother for Christmas 1953. Lucky grandmother is all I can say! (And lucky me because it only cost me £1.50) …And while I’m on the subject of craft books, this treasure of a book, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them by Ruth E. Finley … Has a cracker of an inscription on the flyleaf! I don’t know who Katherine Matthew and Alice Ogle were, but I’m hoping that Katherine considered Alice as good a friend. Perhaps she even gave a book back – hmmm, I wonder if it was a crafting book …It’s a lovely book …Then there are books that were given as prizes …

I’m back with my Australian grandmother Dora now. She was given these two fine volumes on the English National Gallery to mark that she had been head girl at Merton Hall, Melbourne Girls Grammar School ...She started at the school when she was 16 in 1915, and I’m guessing this photograph must have been taken about that time …It is such a fascinating reflection on Anglophile and Anglocentric Melbourne that she was given these books on the English National Gallery despite the fact that Victoria had its own National Gallery from 1861 … My English grandfather Percival won the most distinguished prizes. This beautifully bound copy of Smith’s A Smaller Dictionary of the Bible (small it may be but it’s a really great reference book for obscure biblical names and places) … Was awarded to my grandfather in 1908 as the Toplady Memorial Prize for Divinity. It would be quite intriguing to read what my grandfather wrote to win such a prize …Another award book that has found its way to my shelves once belonged to my father Dick …He was given Van Loon’s The Arts of Mankind for the holiday task he completed in 1938 …To be perfectly honest, it’s not the most interesting of books – a bit out-of-date and old-fashioned. But it remains on our shelves because it brings to mind this young man on the left, shown here with his mother Dora and younger brother Bill (not yet in long trousers) and I wonder if this photograph is a glimpse of the end of the holiday in which he did that work …Not all book prizes in our collection were awarded to members of my family. I found this copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse in a second hand bookshop some time ago and it is kept in the car in a rather small glove pocket (for those dreadful times when you are stuck in a traffic jam and there is no mobile coverage). It is in woefully poor condition, but a book I am very fond of …I hope the poor condition wouldn’t offend the one-time owner, Tim Bliss. who was runner-up for the Gonner Prize for Literature awarded by Dean Close School sometime in the 1950s. If you check out his Wikipedia page to read about this distinguished neuroscientist, you may be able to guess why this book went on the pile of books to go to the local charity shop …Perhaps the most intriguing of our books are those where we cannot identify the donor. The Fireside Book of Folk Songs is just such a book …On the flyleaf, my mother has written below her name and the date the intriguing initials R.H.D …Some years ago she very helpfully wrote her memoirs and I know from those that she went to Moscow in 1948 for a couple of years as PA to the Economist’s Foreign Editor. Her brother John was working at the British Embassy there then, so she had an interesting and most enjoyable time mixing with fellow expatriates and exploring Moscow.

But nowhere in her memoirs does she identify anybody with the initals R.H.D. A mystery!

It’s a lovely book, with beautiful illustrations …And a wonderful – and eclectic – range of of music. I really treasure it …I forget where Stephen picked up this copy of Ancient Collects and Other Prayers. Good value for 3/6! It once belonged to C. Honora Blandford and rather coyly she notes it was given From a Friend on the 9th June 1870. Is one to understand that A.E.B. are the friend’s initials, or are they some other subtle allusion? I don’t know, but it remains very intriguing all the same … Perhaps I will solve these mysteries one day. I was certainly thrilled to be able to place the story behind my little Book of Psalms …It had two helpful clues – the name on the flyleaf …And the purple permission stamp for the prisoner-of-war camp at Bad Colberg in Saxony …You can read what I discovered about the provenance of this little book here

And then there are husbands!

Jane Grigson’s Fish Cookery has been a well-thumbed guide to my cooking life since 1981 …And the inscription really speaks for itself …And yes, he did go and change the nappy!Charles Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres is a rather obscure and dated poetry epic. I think – were I to be truthful – that this book would have gone to a charity shop were it not for the inscription …Way back in my university days …I made a friend who was then with another lady but is now my husband …Still Shining On – but now together! Christmas 2020 update: I was given four beautiful books. No inscriptions, and somehow I don’t miss them. Which is a pity because how will future generations be able to tell the stories behind them as I have done here … ?!

Revisiting Yeavering Bell

It was Vibeke Vasbo’s The Song of Hild (1991) that took us back to Yeavering. We were last there in 2017, and we’d always talked of revisiting sooner, but somehow other walks and climbs got in the way …I’d read a review which praised this book highly, and as I’ve always been interested in the northern saints, I added it to my reading list.

Vibeke writes a good story about the life of St Hilda of Whitby (c.614 – 680 AD) – but it is very much a story. Almost all that we know of the life of St Hilda is from St Bede, and he certainly did not describe her marriage to Penda, the Mercian king! Nor did Bede recount that she spent her childhood at Edwin’s court of Ad Gefrin at the foot of Yeavering Bell.

But part of the delight of Vibeke’s novel is that she writes delightfully about Hilda’s youth there:

“Ad Gefrin was the children’s favourite place, and a very safe spot when Edwin first imposed peace in the region …Best of all was a spot just beyond the stream at the foot of the Hill of the Goats. Before you reached the next stream there was a little meadow with the most glorious thick grass … On a summer’s day, when the sun had been shining for a while, it was the most blissful feeling, eyes closed, listening to the beck alongside and the skylarks and curlews above.”Later, as an adult, Hilda revisits her childhood home:

“[Hilda]  had reached the summit of the Hill of the Goats … there was a fierce wind blowing, and she had to sit in the lee of the wall … she wanted the vista for herself!”

I can see why!It’s quite a racy and very graphic read, but oh – how I struggled with this book at the early stages! The history is new to me, and I was particularly confused by the names – so many Æ names! I really struggled to distinguish Ædelfred from Æthelfrith,  Æthelberht from Ædelthryd. And as for Oswald, Oswine and Oswy! So I filled the back pages with notes, trying to give myself a grounding in basic dates and characters of the time …When I’d finished The Song of Hild,  I wanted to read a proper history of these times, and turned to Max Adam’s The King in the North (2013) – another challenging book at the start! This isn’t just a book about St Oswald, King of Northumbria (604 – 641/2 AD). Adams begins with pre-Bedan history – Colm Cille and Iona – and his sources are difficult and obscure for a beginner to this world like me. But once he’d gathered pace with Oswald’s life, I found it riveting.When he describes the court of Oswald’s royal predecessor, Edwin, Adams too takes us to Yeavering, to the royal estate of Ad Gefrin at the foot of the mountain:

“The place where hundreds of Bernicians underwent the rites of  salvation was another royal residence, one with the strongest heathen overtones: Yeavering … Yeavering is pre-eminent among the excavated settlements of Early Medieval Britain, investigated in the 1950s and 1960s by an archaeologist of rare talents … Here Hope-Taylor believed that he could actually identify structures commissioned by the historical King Edwin … “And Adams take us back to Yeavering again when describing Oswald’s life as an established king:

One of the most important [ancient routes] linked the ancestral seat of the kings at Bamburgh with the tribal holy mountain and cult centre at Yeavering. I imagine Oswald and his court making that journey of twenty miles or so towards the end of April because May Day, or Beltane in the British calendar, seems to have been the date when cattle renders from subject kingdoms were collected … At Yeavering the infrastructure for such ceremonial taxation was present in the great palisaded enclosure, a corral enclosing nearly three acres …

Here looking down on the now-completely-vanished township of Ad Gefrin with its huge corral (located in the centre of this picture) from the summit of the hillfort on Yeavering Bell …Now I was getting my teeth into this history, I was not to be stopped! After all, I was filling in some of holes of the history I had been taught at school. I raided our bookshelves, libraries, abebooks, and came up with a bookpile …Hillforts. Prehistoric  strongholds of Northumberland National Park by Al Oswald, Steward Ainsworth and Trevor Pearson (2006), was particularly useful because it focussed on the Iron Age hillfort …It’s only human to wonder – as you pass through the great entrance to the Yeavering hillfort – what this place was like those thousands of years ago when earlier humans lived here  …What was life like in the round houses spread over the enclosure – some 125 at least identified by surface traces …And Hillforts fills in some of the gaps. It is thought that by the Iron Age there would have been relatively little of the original wildwood left. So looking down to the valley with our imaginary ancestors standing beside us we guessed we would have seen an agricultural landscape too – but certainly rougher and less managed than ours (definitely no rectangular tree plantations!) …Yeavering. People, Power and Place by Paul Frodsham and Colm O’Brien was my final read, and a good choice for that as it draws together so much.  It was written in 2005 so is of a time with Hillforts, but it draws all the archaeology of the site together.  This was particularly important for me because I was struggling to hold all the timelines together in my mind.On the one hand there is the Iron Age Hillfort, dated variously to some time in the first millennium BC,  and situated on the summit of Yeavering Bell …Then there is the site of Ad Gefrin, on the whaleback below Yeavering Bell, and dated to Edwin’s rule in the 6th century AD. Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavation of this site ran from 1953-1962 … And in addition to all of this there is plenty of Bronze Age archaeology in this environment as well. Quite a lot to hold in the mind – each element of these stories is full of interest and history.

And Yeavering touches on all of them – not least the remarkable 20th century tale of the chance discovery of the Ad Gefrin site from the air in 1949.

All of this history filled our minds as we set out on a extraordinarily sunny late September day to ascend to the summit of the Bell …The ascent was just glorious …Though steep at times, still that springy soft turf underfoot …The sun catching the top of the hillfort ahead of us …Climbing up through the heather …Approaching the fort entrance …Reaching the cairn at the top …And glimpsing the view beyond …That view looking over the walls ..Finding a good picnic spot …A little piece of heaven …Cheers to that!Then – down from the heights, at the entrance to Ad Gefrin …Of the mighty royal estate of Ad Gefrin, there is now no evidence…But the Hill of the Goats remains …

Alabama Chanin Style

I started my Alabama Chanin style dress well over two years ago – though it had been bubbling away in my mind for much much longer. Now I will always think of it as a Lockdown project because it is over these last few weeks that I have worked with most dedication and enthusiasm.

Way, way back in 2016 I was looking carefully at two little Japanese books I’d inherited from my father’s family. Nobody in the family today seemed to know very much about them. These pictures below show the covers, frontispieces and a couple of content pages …There were pages and pages of wonderful illustrations and designs  …I can’t read Japanese, and my father (who had been able to read Japanese) died in 2015, so I decided to put these illustrations up on my Instagram account in search of a translator …And I got one! Apparently these two little books were published in Tokyo in 1884 and 1881 respectively. The top book contains arabesque patterns for kimonos and the lower book shows crests and symbols of Japanese clans and families.

How did they come to my family, we wondered? Luckily my mother remembered the answer to that. Apparently my paternal great-grandmother had been an enthusiastic patron of all things Japanese, and is believed to have acquired these little books for her library … what treasure … I couldn’t really believe it …Anyhow – jumping forward to me and my humble little stitching plans, I found myself with a most fabulous resource of illustrations just made for embroidery and other designs ..

What I’d always wanted to do was to stitch myself a dress using the Alabama Chanin style of embroidery. This involves working with a double layer of fabric. Cutaways and very simple embroidery stitches make the pattern …I started with a practice piece using a variation of the leaf pattern above and working with old cotton t-shirts (as recommended in the book). And yes, I got a little bit carried away with the embroidery, but most importantly what I discovered was that I hated sewing cotton knit fabric. My needle struggled to pierce the fabric …As it happened,  I had found a double layer dress of very light woven cotton on Ebay … Just perfect, so now to find my pattern. I went back to my little Japanese pattern books, and selected a beautiful and quite simple design of falling maple leaves …I particularly associate maple trees with my father. He was always trying to make little bonsai trees with them during my childhood …With the image scanned from the little Japanese book, I then enlarged it and printed it out on stiff paper. That’s my template sorted. Now to cut the leaves out …I worked very slowly at first, sometimes adding pattern by tracing through the template …And sometimes building up the design by placing the maples leaves cut out from the template where I thought they might be effective …Either way, there was always that tricky moment of cutting the fabric …But then the fun starts and I could start stitching! Very basic running stitch round the leaves …Using a washable marker to ink in the maple leaf details …Stitching the details in with stem stitch …The stalks were stitched in chain stitch. Adding more colour …I’d completed the front of the dress …And moved the pattern over the shoulder and round to the back of the neck …When I came to a halt.  Not really sure why. But the project sat unloved for a year or so …

Until the virus struck this summer. I came back to the project like a madwoman – I guess Lockdown has a strange effect on us all. I found myself stitching madly and enthusiastically …Adding pattern to the sides of the dress …So that the maple leaves moved down the back, and round the body …Producing this trailing effect …I love this pic of the dress held up to the light so you can see all the little maple leaves silhouetted through the body …Finally just to hem it … and ta-dah! It’s finished! I am so pleased with the way it spirals round the sides …Under the arm …And, of course, down the back …What a fascinating mix of cultures and times and history are worked into it – the historic Japanese prints, the South-Eastern American techniques of Alabama Chanin, and me, at the vortex as it were, with a family connection to Japan, stitching away in the very north of England in the early 21st century Coronavirus Lockdown …