Tuesday 28 August 2012

Threads of Connection Across Past and Present

It all began a while back with a comment from Liz of Carolina Knits on my post "And is there honey still for tea?". Liz, amongst other things, is both a virtuoso knitter and an Anglophile. She knits things I can only dream of making in my wildest (and most unrealistic) imaginings - elegant shawls, beaded gossamer wraps, complicated, colourful tea cosies, soft cowls and shrugs, lacy scarves, intricate gloves and beautifully draped cardigans, all drop as gracefully and easily from her needles as autumn leaves floating from maple trees in the Fall. She even spins and dyes her own yarn with blueberries. Have a read of her blog if you haven't already and you'll see what I mean!

Her comment related to the fact that my post, with its quotation from Rupert Brooke's poem, seemed to suggest that an England that one might have thought was long gone, although hankered after, was in fact, still alive and well. An England where church clocks still chime the hours and afternoon tea still happens and the landscape still looks recognisably similar to how it did in the past. And although of course in many ways Rupert Brooke's England isn't there any more, there are indeed ways in which it is.

While the kind of afternoon tea the poet envisaged on the lawns of Grantchester sloping down to the river, with tea served in fine bone china cups with saucers, accompanied by thin cucumber sandwiches, sponge cakes and honey, is not served every day in most 21st C English households, I for one, do stop for tea every afternoon, although it is usually just tea with a single piece of homemade cake or something similar, without the wafer thin sandwiches etc and the tea is in a large mug rather than a delicate china cup and saucer.

The ancient church clocks of villages up and down the country still mark the hours as they have done in many cases for centuries.  The clock in the church down the road here, for a start, has been doing so, since it was made and installed in the medieval tower, by a local clockmaker from Wantage, in 1575. Four hundred and thirty seven years (and counting) of uninterrupted ticking and chiming!

And although the English landscape looks drastically different in some respects from how it looked a hundred or more years ago, the pattern of country life and the seasons has a reassuring continuity about it. The mechanics of agriculture have changed almost out of all recognition but farmers are still not immune to the capriciousness of the weather. The age-old rhythm of seedtime and harvest still gives shape to the year in the countryside and with the reduced use of pesticides many of the wild flowers, birds and animals, that populated the landscape Rupert Brooke knew and loved, have made something of a come-back after a time when they were a bit thin on the ground. I have noticed in recent years, for example, that the larks I remember so well from my childhood, singing high above the fields, but which seemed to disappear in the nineteen eighties and nineties, are now back and in good voice. Scarlet poppies, blue cornflowers, pink corncockle and pale, mauvey-blue scabious again dot our cornfields with colour after a monochrome period in which they were largely exterminated; hedgerows more often than not, now get carefully relaid by conservation-minded landowners, instead of being replaced with fencing. What goes around, comes around.

Thinking about all this and my own nostalgic enjoyment of the past, made me want to send Liz a little parcel of English things as a sort of tangible reminder of what she was referring to in her comment. And what fun it was putting it together! It took a bit of time  - a book I wanted to send was out of print and took time to locate and I had some difficulty deciding what to include and what not - but eventually I had a little collection of nostalgic, quintessentially English echoes to send across the Atlantic and in due course a parcel arrived here from Liz with a collection of some similar, nostalgic American echoes. A wonderful Anglo-American swap made possible by the new and the old happily married together - ultra-modern 21st C blogging technology and a postal system now well over a hundred and fifty years old but still going strong.

I love the fact that although it is by its nature virtual, blogging makes possible these kinds of connections in real time with real people, near and far. And it is one of the great unexpected gifts of being part of this wonderful on-line community that real friendships and shared enthusiasms can and do cross over from virtual to physical reality.

And just as I wrote in my post on "Post" the other day, about my French great-great-great-grandmother sending little handmade items to her sister a hundred and sixty years ago, 21st C bloggers are doing exactly the same thing. In a delightfully nostalgic sense "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" And real and happy friendships spring up as a result. One of the ills, it seems to me, of 21st C society and one of the things that is very different from the world inhabited by our forebears is, all too often, a lack of time and space to spend time with friends and make real connections with people. I see this a lot in my work. So much isolation and loneliness are out there. How wonderful that despite all that we haven't got right as a generation, we have managed to come up with an idea that counters some of that so effectively and in which nostalgia for a bygone, rather more connected, age comes so vividly alive.

As a result of this particular connection, for the last week or so, I have had my nose deep in the most wonderfully evocative book "Prairie School" by Lois Lenski about a country school in the prairies of Dakota in the last century. The book's charm is enhanced by delightful, black and white pencil drawings. Have a look! Aren't they just the most evocative illustrations?

It is nostalgic and beautifully engaging and although the weather has been quite hot here in the last ten days or so I have vividly felt the intense cold of the prairie winters the author describes and longed to cosy up to the warmth of  the ancient "Heatola" stove of the "teacherage", the little wood and corrugated iron building that housed both teacher and pupils, of the type common in the remoter districts of the prairies.

Thanks to Liz's generosity I have also had the chance to experiment with some quintessentially American "Peaches and Creme" yarn ...

... to make a Granny Square face flannel in wonderful sea-greens and blues that I want to bury my face in all the time, it's so soft!

And my crochet hooks also have a beautiful, new and proper home!

Thank you again to Liz and to all of you who read and comment here and with whom I have had the privilege to weave threads of connection in various ways. It is such a joy to be part of that virtual and tangible tapestry. May the warp and weft, of past and present, time now and time future, stretch far and wide and its colours catch the light for much time to come.

E x

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Dahlia Crochet Cushion

As you may recall, while I was away for my week by the sea, I began a second crocheted flower cushion. You can see the beginnings of it in my holiday window seat here. It grew much more quickly and easily than my first version (even allowing for my difficulties with keeping an accurate count of anything over ten stitches!) It's exactly the same delightful Lucy of Attic 24 pattern as before which you can find on Lucy's blog here but in very different colours from my first rosy one. Not early-summery, pale pinks and lavenders, deep rose and crimson reds with light gooseberry greens and pale blues for contrast this time, but more late-summer-nudging-into-autumn colours.

The colours of dahlias and chrysanthemums - deep burgundies, wine reds, tawny golds and burnt oranges lightened with some soft white peach, apricot and old rose. Not my normal palette at all but very much my mother's and as it is a birthday present for her next month that is as it should be. I am really pleased with the result and I hope my mother will be too. (She doesn't read this so I am not spoiling any surprises by showing you an advance peep by the way.) I can't believe how different it looks from my first version. Of course it's obviously the same pattern and everything but its mood is different, if I can put it like that, and actually I have really enjoyed working with these very different colours.

I don't want to abandon my normal palette entirely but it's been really good to spend time with a different one for a change and making something for somebody else (whose colours I know these are) has been enormously liberating - it's taken all the angst about whether a departure from my colour norm will jar horribly with my other makes and silenced that whispering voice in the back of my head that would otherwise have kept saying "These colours are not you, Mrs T!" It's freed me just to enjoy the colours for their own sake. Very liberating indeed. Anyone else find this?

And the really interesting thing is that I've found, on finishing the said cushion, and returning to my hooky basket to start something new, that although I naturally gravitate back to colours I loved before, I am seeing them slightly differently. Although the ground is the same it is also subtly different if you see what I mean and I find myself wondering more experimentally and less predictably about colour choices than before this project. Interesting. I'd be fascinated to know if anyone else has had a similar experience with colour especially with colour that they wouldn't normally think was "them".

And just to echo my finished cushion the dahlias are in flower most spectacularly in my garden.

I love dahlias - they are so opulent and flamboyant and they are also user-friendly to grow - you stick the tubers in the ground and let them get on with it. My kind of plant! They don't like severe cold and I think you are supposed to lift the tubers in the autumn and replant them in the spring to avoid losing them in a very harsh winter but mine, I'm afraid, were left to take their chances. They are so beautiful this year though, that perhaps I must take the extra trouble this autumn. The only snag with their wonderful rich pom-pom heads is that their deep, soft petals appear to be favoured to an extraordinary degree by earwigs chilling out on holiday. I do not like earwigs. They are not exactly harmful creatures but they do bite and are not easy to trap and remove. The jug of dahlias in the pic had to remain outside until all vacationing earwigs had checked out - much to their disgruntlement!

Wednesday 15 August 2012


Over the last few months I've been thinking a lot about post and I'm not talking here about what I am writing on my blog. I'm talking about real post! Nor am I talking about post that comes in the guise of real post but isn't - you know what I mean, those piles of junk mail and catalogues in horrible, polythene sleeves that clunk heavily and deceptively through the letterbox, treacherously raising expectations that something interesting has arrived but quickly giving way to disappointed realisation that it hasn't. No, I'm talking about real post that comes not in polythene or even workaday brown envelopes with translucent paper windows but in much more beguiling, windowless, handwritten envelopes. Post that goes or comes out of the blue. Not necessarily predictably, say at birthdays or Christmas but for no other reason than, well, just because.

Two people have alluded to real post of this kind on their blogs recently and opened interesting and intriguing avenues of thought. You may have read their posts yourselves already but if you haven't, have a look; one is Annie at Knitsofacto in her post here about letters written home from her great-great-great uncle while on military service in South Africa in the late 1870s. Letters all the more poignant for their expressed longing for the home he never arrived back to. The other is Judy at I read-I sewed-I crocheted in her post here in which she reflects on the red post boxes that are so distinctive a feature of the British landscape and many of which have been in use for well over a century. As Judy points out, these little red boxes have received into their dark interiors not just bills and official communications in their time, but all people's outpourings of the heart, their news and gossip, invitations and reminiscences and conversations, big and small, in the days before convenient, but evanescent, electronic and telephonic media took the place of snail mail. And at the height of the postal system's glory days in the late 19th / early 20th C you might reasonably expect to receive several deliveries of post a day - at least once in the early morning by breakfast and again some time in the afternoon.

Of course postal deliveries several times a day are a refinement that is long gone but nevertheless snail mail still works and childish though it may sound, I love using it - both to send and to receive. I particularly get a thrill at posting abroad, especially far away and love both the sophistication and simplicity of a system that means I can put an envelope (or even better a parcel) in the little old Victorian letterbox that is set in the wall down the road and know that in a week or so it will turn up in Texas say or North Carolina.

In fact I don't know whether I get more of a thrill from being the one doing the posting or the one receiving post when it comes! Not much in it probably!

When I arrived back from holiday last week I coincidentally and unrelatedly found three interesting pieces of snail mail waiting for me and I can't tell you what a lift to the spirits they were. All three were surprises and all three contained handwritten letters along with other delightful handmade contents. And my enormous delight at the contents was matched by my enormous delight at the letters. Different paper, different envelopes, different handwriting, different sentiments but the common thread was a tangible gesture of friendship and connection hard to beat. Don't get me wrong - I don't want to knock electronic communication - for a start all three unexpected pieces of snail mail were from people I've "met" through blogging; I use electronic communication all the time and mighty convenient it is too; I love writing this blog and being able to read others' blogs and contribute to the conversation that follows in the comments section whenever I can; but there is still something just so lovely about snail mail, especially the unexpected sort.

My parents are enthusiastic genealogists - many of my childhood holidays were spent poking around in ancient English churchyards trying to decipher crumbling inscriptions to locate long dead relatives in their final resting places, an activity which neither my sister nor I relished much, if at all. More interesting, for me anyway, are the hoard of photographs and letters that my parents have collected from all sides of the family, some of them going back to the beginning of the 19th C. My mother showed me a letter this week that I thought I would share with you as this post is about post. It's from the French side of my family written in 1852 from my great-great-great grandmother, Anaïs Préaud, to her sister Augustine. The letter is written on very thin paper about six inches square and Anaïs' six-year old daughter, Marie, my great-great grandmother, has written her own message to her aunt on the back.

As Ecclesiastes says profoundly truthfully (if a little cynically), "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Just as we 21st C bloggers like to send one another little handmade surprises, the Victorians did too. A hundred and sixty years ago Anaïs was sending her sister, along with her letter, a little something she had made her. I'd love to know what she'd made but it was almost certainly needlework. She writes "Je t'envoie ci inclus un échantillon de mon savoir-faire. Je te prie de l'agréer comme un petit souvenir d'amitié. J'y ai travaillé avec un bien grand plaisir et je souhaite qu'il te plaise." "I enclose a sample of my skill. I hope you will accept it as a little token of affection. I very much enjoyed working on it and I hope you like it." She goes on to ask her sister for a fashion update on embroidery over "pagoda sleeves" and "musketeer collars" which she isn't sure she knows how to do.

On the reverse, little Marie has written in an exquisite hand, that I am very sure I could not have emulated when I was aged six, that she wishes her "lovely niece-spoiling aunt a happy year and good health" and she sends her "a big hug". She signs it off "la petite nièce bien obéissante avec toi, Marie Préaud" One wonders whether she was not always totally "obéissante" with her "petite mère" but saved "obéissance" up for her favourite niece-spoiling aunt!

A huge thank you again to my three bloggy friends for the entrancing surprises they sent me - I treasure them and the letters that accompanied them and perhaps one day, in the next century, I will have a great-great-great granddaughter who will find them among my things and wonder at the friendship that blogging unlocked in 2012.