Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Year's Day

So much has happened in the last year: the first anniversary of my second marriage; the monthly deadlines and daily decisions at work; and, in the week before Christmas, leaving a much-loved family house, after over a decade living there. As it happens (and doesn't it so often happen this way?), the builders hadn't finished the house we were supposed to be moving into, and so I put all the furniture into storage, and departed Crouch End with eight suitcases, in a sudden flood of tears.
Since then, I have been hither and thither, until arriving in the Highlands for Christmas and the New Year, whereupon there has been feverish activity (unpacking suitcases, wrapping presents, last minute shopping in Ballater, and the discovery of a wonderful bookshop there, which I highly recommend to anyone with a love of Scottish literature, gardens and history).
And in between these bursts of energy come the inevitable moments of exhaustion, and the occasional yet piercing sense of homesickness. All of which has reminded me this afternoon of Freud's essay, 'The Uncanny', and his quotation therein of the saying, 'Love is homesickness'. In Freud's analysis -- or rather, in my reductive version of his more sophisticated approach -- a man's longing for home might represent a desire to return to his true place of origin, his mother's body. (Intriguingly, the link in Freud's essay between that which is eerie, and yet also uneasily familiar, comes from the German, unheimlich -- meaning uncanny or seemingly supernatural -- and heim, meaning home.)
So where does that leave me, exactly? I have come to love Tillypronie, this house high in the Aberdeenshire hills, surrounded by heather-clad mountains and deep, peat-dark lochs. The first time I came here, in the summer of 2009, I felt an odd -- and yes, almost eerie -- sense of recognition, although perhaps that was because I was already falling in love with the man who brought me here, and who was to become my husband.
Yet the house has always seemed like another woman to me; a maternal guardian, perhaps, to successive generations who love returning here, in every season of the year. All of them have their own memories and childhood associations with the fabric of home; each has a deep and abiding relationship with this peaceful, hidden place. Might that also be true of other houses where I have lived? Certainly, I feel comforted by knowing that my former home in London now belongs to another family with children who will play in the garden, just as mine did in the past; as did those of the previous owner (and doubtless others before them, too).
I'm not quite sure where any of these musings might lead me to on New Year's Day, 2014 -- nowhere in particular, except for the knowledge, as I grow older, that in endings there are also beginnings; and apparently familiar stories can evolve into rather different, unexpected narratives. Here I sit, as winter darkness falls outside, safe within the shelter of ancient walls; where the scent of hyacinths is filling the room. And with that scent comes another remembered fragment -- not Freud, this time, but T.S Eliot:
        Frisch weht der Wind   
        Der Heimat zu,   
        Mein Irisch Kind,   
        Wo weilest du?   

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;     
They called me the hyacinth girl.”   
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,   
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not   
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither   
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,     
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

The German lines in that passage of The Waste Land come from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde; the translation, so I am told, is: Fresh blows the Wind/ To the homeland./ My Irish child,/ Where are you dwelling? Like Freud's Uncanny, Eliot's Waste Land continues to confound me, with every passing year -- but somehow, both seem resonant on this, the first day of the year, when the past seems as close as the future, and the world keeps turning, even as we look back and yearn for safety, before moving onwards again...

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Tillypronie garden opening

The Tillypronie garden is opening tomorrow afternoon (Sunday 25th August, from 2 until 5pm), so I'm hoping that the weather forecast is accurate, and that the skies will be clear. The garden is looking lovely: the heather is out, and scented like honey; the herbaceous borders are blooming and the water garden flourishing; while nestled beside the house, lavenders and jasmines are still flowering. Along the lane, wild raspberries are growing, and cornflowers wave between the harebells. Much baking is already underway for the teas (scones, flapjacks, and a great many cakes), and I have been gathering sweet-peas, which are heavenly this year.
Somebody said to me the other day that gardening is the closest thing to play for grownups, and though I'm sure many professional horticulturalists would disagree (any full-time job is hard work), I find it a beguiling mix of being soothing and absorbing. There's something about dead-heading roses or weeding the rockery that clears my mind of the infernal, internal chatter of workaday worries or stress. You can never finish a garden, which is one of the things I love about gardening -- and nature is a good antidote to the idea of control, or completion, or deadlines (in the words of Margaret Atwood, 'gardening is not a rational act'). In the four years that I've been coming to Tillypronie, the garden has taught me that it is futile to plant anything that rabbits and deers find delicious, and that the weather will always outfox us. Instead, I've learned to appreciate the joys of self-sewing plants (foxgloves, forget-me-nots, bluebells), and to bless the rugged rosa rugosa, that survives the hungriest rabbits and the deepest snows.
Anyway, it was a great pleasure to meet so many people at the last garden opening, at the beginning of June -- including the visitors who had been evacuees to the school at Tillypronie during the Second World War -- and I'm looking forward to talking to other visitors soon.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

E. Nesbit's birthday

Glad to see that google has celebrated E. Nesbit's birthday today with a railway children inspired drawing on the home page -- but sorry that a google elf got her age wrong. She would not have been 89 today, having been born in 1858... Anyway, here's my own tribute to the great writer.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Tillypronie in summer

Apologies for the long silence; it's mainly down to the demands of my day (and often night) job at Harper's Bazaar (you can read my editor's letter for the August issue here; Charlotte Bronte fans will, I hope, approve). And then when I did try to write a blog last weekend, I was inexplicably excluded from my own account. Anyway, having spent several frustrating hours attempting to be allowed back in again, here I am, at last.
London life has been busy, busy, busy -- and tremendously hot in the recent heatwave. Not that I'm complaining about the sunshine, after several summers of rain, and such long and icy winters. The city now feels, to me, mostly centred around the world of work -- of rushing to the tube in the mornings; of always being behind on my list of deadlines; of coming home in the evenings, feeling almost too tired to walk. There are great pleasures -- dear family, close friends, the camaraderie of an office, the sense of achievement at completing a huge September issue; excursions to the opera (an amazing evening of Tosca at the Royal Opera House); a memorable outing to Buckingham Palace -- and there are small frustrations. The endless whirr of anxieties that come with editing Bazaar; the buzzing worries in my head about budget and circulation and advertising revenue... and then the moments of exhilaration, with a sense of creativity shared and unexpected successes (our August issue has been the best-selling of the year so far... although the second I write that, I fear that I am tempting the gods, and will be slapped down for even the slightest sign of hubris).
Thank heavens, then, for the solace of Scotland, which offers such gentle peace at weekends. This has been the first summer that I have experienced long spells of sunshine at Tillypronie; previous years have been marked by wind and rain. So I have fallen in love with the place with even more passion... swimming in the cool, peaty water of the loch, then floating quietly, watching the swallows dart just above the surface, seeing their silvery feathers closer than ever before. And the garden has captured my heart entirely... the brave roses, finally emerging with green shoots after the rigours of snow-bound months; the heather, coming into flower again; a bed of self-sown forget-me-nots down beside the pond; the scent of mock-orange blossom and lavender; the bees buzzing amidst foxgloves and daisies; a wild-flower meadow filled with buttercups, cowslips, harebells and cornflowers. Each week, something new comes into bloom; fading petals replaced by fresh buds unfurling. Here, then, is a sense of blessings... of the year turning, quietly, untouched by the hurtling speed of the city. Soon there will be raspberries ripening, and the deepening purple of the heather-clad hills.
And so I give thanks for the high, clear sky, the cry of the curlews, the lapwings as they soar through the mountain air... and the man I love, who brought me here, safe in the heart of the Highlands.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Tillypronie garden opening

The garden is looking lovely in the evening sunlight, before tomorrow's open afternoon (from 2pm to 5pm, with tea and cakes, as always; all proceeds to charity). Such is the lateness of spring that there are still some narcissus in bloom, and the bluebells are coming into flower beneath the rugosa roses. The rhododendrons are already opening, but the azaleas only just beginning to unfurl. The weather forecast is good, and baking well underway. (All my fingers crossed that the skies may stay clear...)
Up here in the Highlands, the curlews are nesting, and oyster catchers are looking quite at home beside the stream. It's so peaceful, yet the world around us is busy, busy... baby birds to be fed (including the swallows beneath the eaves), and a host of young animals on the hillsides. Long days, short nights, and nature hurtling forwards, after that long frozen winter. Does a new season look more glorious with each passing year?

Monday, 27 May 2013

Painting and decorating

Up at Tillypronie, where the sun is shining at last, we have been dabbling with different paint samples, trying to find the right shade for the morning room (redecoration having been called for after the depredations of a cruel winter). I was determined to find an exact match for the beautifully faded chintz cushions; was their background Wimbourne White or Pointing, or could it be String or Clunch? Yes, we ventured down the Farrow & Ball path -- lured by Slipper Satin and Calamine -- but in the end, settled on Classic Cream, from Homebase House of Colour. (And if you ask me, it's just as subtle as F&B, and much less expensive.)
Meanwhile, I have also been diverted by a picture in the study by Winifred Austen (a painter and engraver of birds and animals), which is a preparation for one of her delicate etchings. She sounds intriguing (you can read a little more about her here); and even the briefest biography suggests the outline of a story worth telling at greater length. One of her teachers at the London County Council School of Arts and Crafts was named Cuthbert Swan; her first commissioned work was in 1898, when she was 22, for E. Nesbit's 'Book of Dogs'; her housekeeper in Suffolk, Mrs Field, was also known as Mouse (oh, and she had an early interest in psychical research).
Much more to report -- including a trip to Braemar Castle, on the trail of a former editor of Harper's Bazaar; but first must quickly get outside for a walk in the heather, before returning south to London and the working week again...

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Magnolia blossoms for Charlotte Bronte's birthday

Charlotte Bronte was born on this day in 1816, and I thought of her today, while walking in the park. Hampstead Heath is far less windswept and wild than the Yorkshire moors that inspired her, although spring has been a long time coming this year, and the blossom seems far later than usual.
Anyway, I have been trying to write a piece about the brief blooming of magnolias, and the flowering of the Bronte sisters' talent, but every time I have tried to post it, my internet service provider (the inappropriately named Talk Talk) has silenced me (or rather, this blog). Which is probably a useful lesson in the impossibility of making plangent connections between petals and poetry. Better, by far, I have decided, simply to let Emily Bronte's beautiful poem, Love and Friendship, do the talking here...

Love is like the wild rose-briar;
Friendship like the holly-tree.
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms,
But which will bloom most constantly?
The wild rose-briar is sweet in spring,
Its summer blossoms scent the air;
Yet wait till winter comes again,
And who will call the wild-briar fair?
Then, scorn the silly rose-wreath now,
And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,
That, when December blights thy brow,
He still may leave thy garland green.