Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Wisdom crieth aloud

Hearken ye nations and give heed with ears, for my crimson bridegroom hath spoken. He asked and he hath received.
I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys. I am the mother of fair love and of discernment and of holy hope. I am the fertile vineyard which putteth forth sweet-smelling fruit, and my flowers are flowers of honour and loveliness. 
I am the bed of my beloved, around which stand sixty valiant ones girt with swords against the terrors of the night. I am fair and in me there is to be found no flaw.
I look through the window and behold my beloved through the lattice. I wound his heart with a single glance, with one hair of my neck I pierce him.
I am the wisest of the virgins who come forth like the dawn, like daybreak at morning, chosen like the sun, as fair as the moon, making no mention of what lieth within me.
I am as the mighty cedars, as the cypresses of Zion. I am the crown wherewith my beloved wil be crowned upon his wedding day and even am I all his joy, for my name is as a balm poured out.
I am the chosen vineyard unto which the Lord sent workmen at each hour of the day. I am the land of promise wherein wise men have sown gold and silver. If this grain doth not fall into me and die, then it will not bring forth the threefold fruit.
I am the bread from which the poor will eat unto the ending of the world, and shall never again know want.
I give and I ask nothing in return. I give pasture and I fail not. I give safety and am never afeared. What more shall I say unto my beloved? I am she who mediateth between the elements, who goeth betwixt the one and the other.
What is warm I cool and what is dry I make moist. What is cool I warm, and what is moist I dry out. What is hard I soften, and what is soft I make hard.
I am the end and my beloved is the beginning. 
I am the work entire, and all knowledge is hidden within me.
I am the Law in the priest, and the word in the prophet, and counsel in the wise man.
I kill and I give life, neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand. I offer my mouth unto my beloved and he kisseth me. He and I are one. Who can part us from our love? None in either length or breadth, for love is stronger than death. 

(Aurora Consurgens, alchemical text of the ?14th century)

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Forgetting Book

I had the most amazing dream last night. It was another one of the genre---like that dream of the smoky-berry-blood perfume 'Venisonwood'---in which I am contemplating in enormous detail an object which doesn't actually exist, but nevertheless, here it is, in the dream, and which by appearing to me seems mysteriously to enlarge the world.

I am looking at a Cambridge University Press hardback, by a (non-existent) medievalist called Elaine Cooper, called The Forgetting Book. The back-blurb was as follows.

THIS book examines the story of one of the most extraordinary documents, and lives, of the late Middle Ages. In early fifteenth century Bruges, a prosperous, literate, and upwardly-mobile merchant's wife named Joanna van der Weyden made an extraordinary decision, while still in her late teens: she would write down every dream she experienced. Joanna's own name for this unparalleled document was Het Vergetenboek, the Forgetting Book. In it she would record her dreams every morning for twenty four years.

Joanna's Forgetting Book was not rediscovered until 2008, and Elaine Cooper is the first medievalist to make an in-depth study of its value as a resource for social, cultural, and psychic history. While medieval literature abounds in dream-visions, the form is intrinsically artificial and convention-bound; a book containing the actual, lived dreams of one individual is without parallel. Joanna recorded over three thousand dreams, and Cooper shows that these are a rich resource for reconstructing the interiority of a late medieval woman, and of the culture of which she was a part. Her dreams---hallucinatory, bewildering, frightening, and sometimes exquisitely beautiful---reveal precious details of her lived emotional, economic, cultural, and religious worlds. They include her ambivalence about the pregnancies for which she longed, her anxieties about the much-loved, unpredictable husband she nicknamed 'Jacquinetto', and most strikingly, her powerful sense of living in an world the horizons of which were radically expanding, both inwardly and outwardly.

Joanna was convinced her dreams had meaning, and Cooper examines the medieval and biblical dream-theory on which Joanna drew. She appears to have known something of alchemy, astrology, classical mythology, and of the mystical writing of the Beguines; occasional poignant moments seem to point back to the rural folklore of her childhood. Her primary source of authority, however, was always her own soul: in this her book resembles nothing so much as Carl Jung's Red Book, in which the great psychologist recorded a decade's worth of dreams and inner images. Joanna's book shares with Jung's what is perhaps its most staggering quality: its extraordinarily beautiful, unique illuminations. Joanna, wealthy in her own right and alone for long periods while Jacquinetto travelled between the Hanseatic ports on business, took the bold step of commissioning exquisite illuminations for her dreams, which were then bound into the book. Even more extraordinary, these seem to have been for her eyes only, and executed under her exacting supervision. Joanna's dream-examination emerges, Cooper argues, as a kind of prayer, a discerning of God's meaning and intentions for her; her Forgetting Book is, in some sense, a private and intimate Book of Hours composed under Joanna's own interior authority.

Astoundingly revelatory of a single medieval woman's intellect, education, and fraught, passionate inner life, the discovery of the Forgetting Book of Joanna van der Weyden must now rank as one of the most field-changing events in medieval studies in decades. As well as a study of the book's meaning and context, the volume includes a full translation and commentary on Joanna's text. Forty seven illuminations are reproduced in colour.

* * *

In the dream I could see the illuminations, beautifully reproduced in colour. One was of a dream Joanna had after numerous miscarriages in her early twenties. She was desperate to give her husband an heir, and the dream presaged her first successful pregnancy: she records of the dream that the fire gave her a son. In the illumination, she is kneeling in the darkened, stone-flagged main room of her house, looking nervously into the large fireplace. A calm, bearded man with a burning face is standing up in the fire. Red and gold flames lick his robes and hair. He is handing something out to her with both hands---a crab. Joanna, who recognised the crab as the symbol of the sign of Cancer, and of the moon and motherhood, knew from this that she would become pregnant.

Another illumination showed a dream that was in some way crucial---alerting Joanna to the fact that her husband was not being honest with her about their financial affairs. It showed Joanna asleep in a richly embroidered bed (alone, strikingly) and over her head float a number of objects: a black horse's head chesspiece; her husband's sleeping head; an egg.


Aside from the irritation that I would very much like to read Cooper's The Forgetting Book, I now have to think about what this dream means for me. After all, Joanna'a dreams are my dreams: dreams within dreams within dreams. Baffling.

Monday, 9 September 2013


At the top of the stairs, carpeted in a neutral coir fibre and with walls in Farrow & Ball's House White, is the bathroom. This was the dodgiest room to start with---there was a weird kiddie's comfort-blanket pinned over the window and areas where the plaster was falling off. It was also green.

We went for black and white, painting the walls and sloping ceiling in All White and the woodwork in Strong White, which is a pale grey. There are touches of black in the shower-rail, the soap-dish, and the frames of the prints on the wall. The bare woodwork has been covered with the white milk-paint mixture and then sanded to a silvery sheen. I also painted the shower tiles in All White eggshell, which is waterproof:

In the picture below you can see a chance find from the town market: a bath-rack in green, flaking copper, with two candle holders, places for a mug (or wineglass...) and a soap dish all riveted in. It's quirky and beautiful. Matching it on the floor by the sink are some gorgeous old wire milk-bottle crates that were being chucked out, and which we now use to store loo-rolls, white towels, and face-cloths. A white-painted school-chair serves as a place to hang clothes, and I often stick a small vase of herbs from the garden on it.

In my bedroom at the end of the landing I've also opted for white, but in the context of positively Carthusian starkness: I wanted it to be a bit Into Great Silence:

(Walls in Laura Ashley, Cotton White)

There is literally nothing in the room except the bed, a antique elm chair, a votive bowl in front of one of my icons, and a gorgeously shabby malachite-green coffered Indian cabinet which came from a shop down the road, where it had been serving as a cash desk. This was an absolute sod to get up the stairs, especially when my friend Ian and I realised that it was slightly too wide for the bedroom door. With my usual grace and delicacy I took the cussed object to pieces with a club hammer, and then reassembled it on the other side---apparently none the worse for wear.

There are also no curtains, a Scandinavianism I've picked up; but because the room faces right across the street and there's a fizzing sodium streetlamp ten yards away I built the two sets of wooden shutters you see above. I usually keep these closed, for the beautiful way they filter the light. The four metal handles are also from India---each in the shape of a nine-inch king cobra in green brass:

The point is to pick up the green of the hanging bowl and to echo the coffered cabinet. The whole space is ultra-tranquil, and most of my old rubbish fits into the chest or into the four drawers under the bed. (It helps that my office at work has a spare room attached...)

Saturday, 7 September 2013

New House I

Here's the long promised tour of the new house, already christened by my friend Dan 'the Bawdy Tavern.' What you need to understand is that every wall, and every ceiling, and every light-fitting, and every bit of furniture (with a very few exceptions) has been changed over the last six months. If it looks serene, that's because we've broken our backs over it. And before we go any further, let me record my massive thanks to my godsister Zoe, who owns the house and has financed the renovations, giving Ben and me a fabulously free creative hand. (Ben, would you like to write something yourself about this process we've been through?---the account below is just my view of it.)

 I'm not going to give you views of the hall and landing, which are ultra-neutral at the moment, but after you come in through the front door, you will find on your right....

...the Front Room. We looked at the space and thought: Scandinavia. Ibsen, that kind of thing: foul eau-de-vie and no curtains. After a pendant light had been put in---a preposterous shabby chic chandelier with a Homebase foam-moulding between it and the ceiling---we got the two worst walls plastered, retiled the hearth, and painted every inch of the damn thing. Early on in the process I devised a method for adding a transparent silvery hue to bare wood, involving powdered lime, milk, and small amounts of white paint, and this was pressed into service for all the previously unpainted wood. The walls are Laura Ashley 'Silver Birch'---a stroke of genius by Ben, and almost the only non-Farrow & Ball colour we used. Rather oddly I've had to adjust the tones of the pictures of this room: it is distinctly and obviously pale green when you are actually sitting in it, but tends to look like a washed-out yellow-grey in photos. The woodwork is Farrow & Ball 'All White'. Behold:

(Note the bottom of the chandelier, which came, improbably, from amazon.co.uk. The twisted and limewashed buddleija stump in the hearth came from the garden; note also the silvery driftwood mantlepiece, which I made from an old plank. The curving struts are intricately carved and are of uncertain age: they were washed out of Warwick Castle after a flood---we found them, and the green cabinet, thanks to Fran at the fabulous Liscious Interiors)

(Note the grey Gustavian chair, ultra cheap from Dunelm Mill; bowl made by a friend at Whichford Pottery)

Next up is the one room where we've gone for drama. The central room of the house had a big empty fireplace and bookcases, but also walls which desperately needed replastering and a fairly grim pendant light. We went for nineteenth-century Dublin meets Norwegian hunting-lodge (as you do), painting the walls in Farrow & Ball's Hague Blue and the ceiling in their Skylight, a soft grey like rain-swollen clouds. A more than usually austere Kahlo self-portrait gazes down over my wooden chest, which has five pomegranates on a pewter plate next to an iron candlestick (difficult to photograph well as it's right next to a glazed door):

The room now has a woodburning stove in the hearth, which took six months to arrange for various complicated reasons: this was by far the most frustrating and ornery thing in the whole renovation process and involved scaffolding and having a hole knocked in the roof. At long last, the room is finished, and it's developed a rather lovely Freud-in-Hampstead feel, helped by an elaborate chandelier covered with little brass leaves:

(Chairs are from IKEA; the gorgeous rug is Ben's)

Next up is the kitchen, which is long and thin and divided into two areas. The kitchen proper leads off the Storm Room, and has a beech work-surface and a Belfast sink:


I learned to tile to put the blue and white tiles up---we've definitely gone for a French-Country-Kitchen vibe here, especially as the room has a gorgeous terracotta-tile floor. (I have to resist coming over all Lizzie David with the lemons whenever I pass through.) The walls are James White in the main kitchen, and that leads straight into a breakfast area done out in Lime White (both Farrow & Ball again). The kitchen cupboards are done in the stunning lead-grey Plummet. The breakfast also room has beams across the ceiling, which are now done in Mouse's Back. It tells you everything that we've used four different colours of paint in a single space, not counting the white Dulux on the ceilings. (The whole room was a cheery orange/yellow before.) Here's the breakfast area, leading to the patio doors:

(Note the long mirror--a brilliant find by Ben---which opens the space up, and the chairs which came from a pub and have been stripped, painted, and distressed, which was very much how I felt myself after finishing the kitchen.)

(Platter with lemons from India; the sickle on the wall was found by Little Dan down the allotment. The dresser came from Dunelm Mill and had to have some work on it to make sure it didn't look too cheap and nasty)

(This is what's known in the trade as a 'detail'...)

From the breakfast room, of course, you step out straight into the garden. Tomorrow: upstairs!

Friday, 6 September 2013

Garden III

(Note the new cauldron filled with water on the deck---it's going to have a waterlily in it)

(Looking through panicum at melianthus major and euphorbia mellifera, the honey-spurge)

The garden has a new resident: an emerald-striped dragonfly the size of a small bird, which zooms up and down the paths at waist height with a crepe-y rustling. It's a fearsome beastie---gwas y neidr in Welsh, 'the serpent's servant'---and I wish it would chase away the urban foxes who keep digging everything up if they so much as scent fish, blood and bone meal. We had foxes in my area a mile away six years ago and I gardened in exactly the same way and never had this problem. I planted a campsis the other day which they have torn to pieces in the act of digging up the planting hole. You live and learn.

In other news, what a year it's been for cabbage whites, who have been dancing their tumbling mating gyres in pairs and triplets through the garden. They have found the horseradish leaves particularly toothsome, and I can't resent their caterpillars' placid, remorseless chomping:

Garden II

The garden is deliciously beginning to thicken up, though it's still very early days and next year it will (I hope) look amazing. But here are some pictures I took this morning....

(A view towards the Cell, looking through the 'hot' border: crocosmia 'lucifer', persicaria amplexicaulis 'firetail', hemerocallis 'stafford', with dahlia 'bishop of Llandaf' in the background and a lime green cotinus.)

(In the background, note the golden haze of deschampsia cepitosa...the purple foliage in the front is atriplex hortensis, a kind of edible spinach-like self-seeder which reaches six foot in height by October.)

(So much depends upon a red bucket, glazed by hose-water...)

Monday, 29 July 2013

Furor Hortensis

My housemate Ben and I are still awaiting the delivery of some finishing touches for the absurd, gorgeous bauble which we have been creating over the last five months---renovating, as readers may recall, my lovely godsister Zoe's house in an Oxford side-street. Nothing, but nothing, has made me so happy in years as this. Ben and I constantly go around touching the walls and giggling like idiots, exclaiming at each other like astonished matrons in a Hogarth etching. When all is finished, you'll all be subjected to a fusillade of pictures. For me, part of the draw was the opportunity to make a garden for the first time in six years, and I've gone at it like an artist who's been locked up in a dungeon without paper or pencils. So let me talk you through it....

Here we are at the end of the garden, on the day we first saw it, 22nd February this year. As Zoe gave us the tour, I took in the lovely brick wall on one side (rubbish fence on the other, hmm); the full-grown fig-tree on the neighbour's side, the area of brick paving.

This is looking from the patio doors up the garden, where there is a fabulous little shed we call 'the Cell', for its Prosperan overtones. Ben is going to use it as a writing nook, though at this stage it was being used for paint tins, bits of old slate, pots, the dusty impedimenta of barbecues long past, and the like. I noted the lovely old apple-tree and the tangle of philadephus and ceonothus up at the end. Ivy on the wall: good; brambles at foot of wall: not so good.

Down by the side of the house was an area that had been concreted and was dominated by a leggy forsythia. I looked at the concrete and felt the dismal sense of the goddess Necessity having plans involving me and a sledgehammer.

So that was the end of February, and what we weren't to know was that spring 2013 was going to be the most bollock-freezingly miserable, cold, and dark for years. By early April nature was a month behind---no sun and not a shoot nor a bud to be seen anywhere---and I had began to feel actively cheated and depressed. 

But that's to leap ahead. That first day I sketched out the whole garden in my head, and on February 23rd Ben and I came back and I made the first incision, so to speak, planting the handle of an old red mop at what I already knew would eventually be the corner of a square of decking:

It might not look like much, but the placement was crucial, splitting the garden into two unequal halves both lengthwise and breadthwise. I got to tinkering and that night I drew up the full plan (click to enlarge):

As you can see the garden basically faces south-east, and gets strong light for most of the day. Black quadrilaterals mean seating; the thick black line is the brick wall. The black lump on the left is the trunk of the apple tree. There would be, I decided, a broken slate path leading to a square of decking under the shade of the fig tree, from which you would step onto a wider curvilinear path leading to the door of the Cell. The garden would be broken into sections so that there would be no vantage point from which the totality would be visible: unseen areas would always hover, hidden by hazes of thick, head-high planting, making the garden look much bigger than it is. The dodgy fence would be replaced with six-foot high hazel hurdles, beautiful natural objects made without a single nail.

That, dear readers, was the easy part; I then threw myself into the task like a man possessed. Ben and I did the house as an equal collaboration, but I think it would be fair to say I did the majority of the outdoor work. Of course, first the garden became the general dumping-ground for crap from the house, which was to linger until we got a skip in April. I bought a sledgehammer and a crowbar and began (THUMP...THUMP...THUMP...) to smash up the concrete by the house. It was several inches thick and laid on a bed of hardcore and bits of jagged, rusted metal. By early April, we had this charming view (note the incongruous box-ball which I'd picked up for a song):

The next month or so was grim: heaving the smashed concrete and 200 old bricks through the house in paniers (too narrow for a wheelbarrow), I filled a nine-tonne skip in a single weekend. By a stroke of good luck, the mass of rusted metal and other bits of tin crap were helpfully removed by two gentlemen of the travelling persuasion, whom I found rooting through the skip. 'Come in, come in!', I carolled, and in two hours they had cleared the house and garden of all unwanted scrap metal.

Finally we had a more or less empty box. I could then---on one of the spring's rare nice days---begin the work of digging out the borders, using the hosepipe to outline where the broken slate path would go:

I knew the whole damn thing would have to be turfed (backbreaking) and then double dug. There's something honest and enjoyable about a hard day's digging, but large areas of the garden were very hard work, and simultaneously, you must recall, we were working like dogs on the interiors. (This was the point I tore the meniscus in my left knee.) The fig and the various shrubby trees---which included a holly and several vigorous ash sports---had filled the area under the grass with their parching roots, which had to be pruned back severely. I always knew when I'd put my spade through one of the odd, reddish roots of the fig because of the sour-sweet green odour that filled the air.

At this point I ordered two tonnes of horse manure to dig in to lighten the heavy clay soil. The house is only about 600 yards from the Thames and the soil is thick, fertile clay that holds water in winter and bakes into concrete-like cakes in summer. The compost was meant to come bagged, at the end of April. Well---did it fook, as my friend Ian would say. I was waiting in for the lorry on the appointed day, conscious that it was 11am and I had The Dream of the Rood to teach at 2pm. No sign. Around half 11, I heard a lorry backing up the street, and wandered out from the house---only to find that the bloody bastard driver had gone and deposited two tonnes of loose manure into a parking space actually in the road, four doors down. And had driven off.

Two tonnes of manure, mes si chers, is the size and shape of a car, now slumping into the road.

First I rang the compost company up and gave them an earbashing. Next, in that odd state of seething, steely panic that dire necessity brings, I borrowed a wheelbarrow from the neighbours and set to work: shifting all two tonnes into the front garden in just under three hours. I had to cancel the Rood class, but I turned up for the tutorials which were scheduled after it quite literally covered in shit.

In retrospect, I think that was probably the low point of the whole process.

After another fortnight, the nearer part of the garden was double dug and ready for planting, though it still looked an awful mess. I was also beginning to sow manically, as you can see from the table in the picture below: verbena bonariensis, oenothera, digitalis...

A problem was the sheer quantity of roots and perennial weeds, especially ground elder and creeping buttercup. There's nothing for these: you just have to burn them, and you can see them smouldering sullenly in the picture. The area that had been under concrete and hardcore had now been liberated and a monstrous buddleia stump excavated with a mattock:

In the end, I dug in five tonnes of organic material, figuring that this kind of effort right at the beginning of making a garden is never wasted. In this I was continually accompanied by two robins, three blackbirds, a thrush, and a squirrel, which lent a certain Radagast-the-Brown fantastical quality.

The next step was to make the decking, which I did by watching youtube videos (full of bluff middle-aged men saying things like: 'Obviously, first you take yer two-by-four...') and then just getting on with it. Down it went, with a membrane underneath to stop the grass growing through:

Note that by this time the Cell door and windows had been painted in Farrow & Ball's 'Green Smoke', a lovely and elusive green-blue-grey colour chosen to look good at any time of the day. Below you can see the finished deck, and at this point---the first few days of May---you can see that the first planting had taken place:

The remainder of the project was a little easier. It took me until July to begin to dig out the two borders at the back of the garden, as they were also choked with weeds and were dominated by mature shrubs which I sliced to the ground. Improbably, half an old car was buried on the left-hand side:

When the slate chippings arrived in a monstrous bulkbag I began to lay the paths. At this point, magically, the structure of the garden suddenly became greatly more legible and I could begin to work on the fine detail of planting. It's currently thin and pinched: it will be far more wild and witchy next summer when the biennials and perennials I've grown from seed flower (over 350 of them...). 

Discussion of the ideas behind the planting will have to wait for another post, but here are some photos of the garden taken on the 23rd of July---exactly five months after I first pushed the mop handle into the ground as a marker.

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