Grannies in the Wainscot

“In all their time as such close neighbors they never exchanged a word.”

Bring up the topic of neighbor, and one story comes to my mind.

Grannies in the Wainscot, as short story—an essay of remembrance—is included in the sublime collection Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee. If it seems strange to have written a memoir of one’s life at age 23, as did Lee, his tender recall of the story of two enemy grannies is even stranger.

The setting could not be more romantic, with or without Laurie Lee’s lush prose. An old seventeenth century Cotswold manor house, had, by the late nineteenth century become a sagging but picturesque relic, and subdivided into three living quarters for poorer, less exalted folk. In the pre-war years of his childhood, young Lee and his family inhabited one section, while the other two parts of the home were each dominated by an old crone.

‘Granny Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed much of my early days. With their sickle bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair, they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike.’

There is nothing lovable in this description of the two old ladies, and yet, with Lee’s gift for nostalgic writing, you feel you recognize this pair, and a curious warble of affection begins to play.

Laurie Lee, poet

‘They communicated to each other by means of boots and brooms—jumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as ‘Er-Down-Under’ and ‘Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint’.

Yes, a stranger pair of neighbors you never did ‘hear the like of’ as my grandmother would have said. And speaking of my grandma Josie, she knew how to wield a broom with a fair bit of precision. I can also remember her little ‘war’ going on for years with the old neighbor lady in the back of the property.

So perhaps such stories of neighbors resonates a bit with all our memories. Lee’s recounting of the old beech tree I found particularly beautiful.

‘“Me dad planted that tree,” [Granny Trill] said absently, pointing out through the old cracked window.

‘The great beech filled at least half the sky and shook shadows all over the house. Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels. I had thought such trees to be as old as the earth; I never dreamed that a man could make them. Yet it was Granny Trill’s dad who had planted this tree, who had thrust in the seed with his finger. How old must he have been to leave such a mark? Think of Granny’s age, and add his on top, and you were back at the beginning of the world.’

The poignant part of Lee’s recounting, comes, of course, at the end.

One day Granny Trill stumbled and broke her hip.

illustration by John Ward

“She went to bed then forever.”

Granny Wallon came a’crowing… “her’s going you mark my words.”

But Granny Trill’s death knell was Granny Wallon’s, too. In the oddest, most neighborly act between the two rival crones in the decades they had lived next to each other without speaking, Granny Wallon soon went, too.

‘Granny Wallon had triumphed, she had buried her rival, and now there was no more to do. From then on she faded and diminished daily, kept to her house and would not be seen. The wine fires sank and died in the kitchen, as did the sweet fires of obsession….there was nothing, in fact, to keep her alive. No cause, no bite, no fury. Er-Down-Under had joined Er-Up-Atop, having lived closer than anyone knew.’

In Which We Wax Anthropomorphic

‘Do you mind,’ [Mr. Hamble] asked, ‘if I tell you a rather remarkable story?’
“It’s an animal story,” he said, rather apologetically.   — Mr. Hamble’s Bear

Fierce Bad Rabbit in action

The quality of fierce is not one that dominates my thinking, as anyone who reads this blog is quite aware.

But it does dovetail nicely with my recent musings on the food chain, anthropomorphism in books, and the works of Beatrix Potter.

Potter’s The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit, you may remember, involved an ill-mannered rabbit who received his come-uppance by being shot off a bench while peacefully munching on a carrot.

Anthropomorphism–the giving of human characteristics to non-human things– is frowned on today, as a fit subject for children’s books. I wonder at it, when stories like Peter the Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, The Rescuers, and many more, still continue to entertain, delight (and yes, horrify).

Virginia Woolf was dismayed to find that, over time, her story of Flush, about Elizabeth Browning’s spaniel, outsold her other ‘serious’ books at the time. People today will admit to reading it with an apologetic aside that it is actually subversive, feminist literature and can be permitted in the Woolf canon on those terms.

Jane Carlyle also adopted an anthropomorphic angle when writing of her beloved dog, Nero. Imagine the intellectual Thomas (her husband) getting this letter in 1850:

‘Dear Master—I take the liberty to write to you myself (my mistress being out of the way of writing to you, she says) that you may know that Columbine and I are quite well and play about as usual….I wasn’t taken to walk on account of its being so wet…’

And so on. Thomas Carlyle, man of towering intellect and little sentiment, was still delighted to receive these accounts from his ‘little vermin’ (also known as ‘the miserable quadruped’).

‘Nero ran with me through the Brompton solitudes last night, merry as a maltman,’ he wrote his brother, ‘ … ‘it amused me by its happy gambollings’.

The story of Mr. Hamble’s Bear is one of Margery Sharp’s finest short stories. (I write of it here) Yet, her apologetic tone can be heard loud and clear. She was very familiar with A.A. Milne’s ‘terrifying’ success with his Winnie the Pooh stories.

‘It is a matter of indifference to many readers that A.A. Milne was an accomplished writer of other styles. For Milne, this was a problem. He expressed himself ‘greatly annoyed’ by this unforeseen success. The adorable bear he created happily sucked up his writing life as though it were a big jar of honey. So while Winnie the Pooh brought him fame, it came at a great cost.’

In Mr. Hamble’s Bear, the Pooh influence can certainly be felt. Perhaps it was this story that even later inspired the inimitable Paddington Bear.

Mr. Hamble’s Bear was one of Sharp’s earlier works. It would be decades later that this brilliant writer, older and perhaps less scrupled, turned her pen to cranking out a steady stream of anthropomorphic stories in the immensely popular Rescuers series. Ironically, most people do not even know that she wrote some very fine novels.

Beverley Nichols was unapologetically anthropomorphic when he wrote about his dog, his cats, and his flowers. He dismisses his critics quite cheerfully. And these works that star his dog, his cat, and his flowers, are the very books that gained him enduring popularity.

How does the food chain fit into all this? I have been worried about Vern. I’m afraid he’s fallen victim to it. He hasn’t been spotted since Saturday, and a gang of raccoon thugs have been blundering about the garden, tearing up shingles and falling clumsily off fences.

You see, in our new home, we’ve inherited some lively garden inhabitants. They are visible and audible both night and day. I enjoy sitting out in the morning with my coffee and watching the antics of the squirrels and birds. In the afternoon, if the day permits it, a glass of wine on the patio and a sharp lookout for Vern provides some cheap entertainment.

Vern? Oh, just a garden rat; one who appears to be an escapee from the pet store. At least that is what I tell myself, for he is considerably cuter than most rats of my experience. For one thing, he takes the sidewalk, and smells the flowers. He frolics across the lawn, sampling apples. He is small, brown, and sleek, and quite inquisitive; rather Brambly Hedge, actually. No furtive underbrush behavior for him. I would have named him Wilfred Toadflax, except that then one would be indulging in anthropomorphism tainted with plagiarism and with all due respect to Pooh, Paddington, and Mr. Hamble’s bear… that would be beyond the pale.

My anthropomorphic tendencies are in full flower. For one thing, the bite of autumn is in the air….and it’s what happens when writers are uncomfortable with the fierceness of their own feelings or the terrifying vacuum of their inadequacies. Too bashful to spin their fluff out of their own matrix, afraid it might be recognized and dismissed. Cue the dancing hippos, send in the clowns. Fatten up your squirrels. Pin your hopes on a happy, frolicsome Vern.


Further reading:

The good news regarding Margery Sharp’s lesser known novels is that ten of them are now available via Open Road Media ebook!

Two books mentioned available through Persephone Books; Flush, by Virginia Woolf, and The Carlyles At Home, by Thea Holme

My unpublished short story Fluffy the Garden Snake was my most ridiculous, most fun, and most popular story at readings.

Vern, by the way, is ‘vermin’ without the Mi in it. And he is definitely cuter than, say, George, who is one of the scrappy little squirrels that runs about the place. George is about to be put on a regimen of sunflower seeds and suet this winter, for I have never seen a more skinny squirrel. His friend and nemesis is a red squirrel, who goes about the place acting very much like a Gerald with rolling r’s. Gerald has an extremely luxuriant tail, and I just feel very sorry for George, who doesn’t.

 

My Sixpenny Book

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‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.’

quote from I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

This belated genusrosa post finds us in the kitchen. Yes—I know. We are usually sharing a walk in the garden together, talking about a good book. And I have a lot of garden walks for us to catch up on!

But today I’m in the kitchen, thinking about pumpkin bread.

Even so, something from a book is at the ready. Shall I leaf through Elizabeth David, or the sublime M.F.K.? Sad to say, I google the perfect recipe for pumpkin bread and fall down the pinterest rabbit hole for two catatonic hours; (cream cheese swirl or chocolate chunk?? baked in a jar for that homespun look or the perfect giveaway gingham loaf pan?)—

Then Cassandra Mortmain [I Capture the Castle] and her delicious six penny writing book comes to mind. Those creative, brilliant Mortmains had simple bread and margarine and eggs for tea.

‘How odd it is to remember that “tea” once meant afternoon tea to us—little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room. Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast…Stephen is lighting the lamp. In a second now, the rosy glow will have gone from the kitchen. But lamplight is beautiful, too.’

Suddenly it is dusk and E.B. White and his Dusk in Fierce Pajamas looms into view… Owen Johnson ‘with his chafing dish’ is never far from my thoughts as I’m scrolling through page after page of awesome wonderfulness and gorgeous autumn inspiration…

‘They are perfect little crystals of being–static, precious.’ [E.B. White]

For now, to celebrate the lovely fall season, one doesn’t just make pumpkin bread; one is expected to make pumpkin bread from specially molded bakeware that mimics the shape of pumpkins, then drizzle them with a delicately spiced sugar glaze that has been colored orange (to suggest the color of pumpkins, I suspect) and then they are to be served on pretty little plates that have been hand-painted with autumn leaves in all the appropriate colors that one associates with fall. Because it is in the fall, you see, that we have pumpkins.

‘for it is dusk…’

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I’m not sure if pinterest is enlivening to the imagination, or enervating to it. Has it replaced, not only imagination, but the actual doing? There are just a few doing, forty five million are watching, scrolling, and dreaming. Have we pin-terested ourselves into a state of catatonic ineptitude? (some day I will yes I will create that super cute jewelry organizer created with a vintage ironing board and two wooden candleholders—how could I not?)

I don’t want to lose my imagination. I think I know what season I’m in. I can still find my jewelry. I can even make jewelry.

‘All I know of her is that she appeared one night at dinner, her beauty set off by the lustre of artificial satin and the watery fire of aquamarine…’

Somehow, with the riches, variety, and opportunities of blogdom; I am just not writing. It’s not ‘the age thing’. I protest that notion. I write in my head constantly. And I still read constantly. But I am not writing. Pen to paper; fluid, articulate shapes appearing. Ideas forming, rushing upon one…

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This lack of writing may not be bad for the world, per se, but it is not a situation I like for myself.

‘All I know of her is she appeared one night at dinner…’

Cassandra Mortmain’s story is told through a series of notebooks; journals, if you will. First, there is the sixpenny book that symbolized the humble reality of her circumstances; yet she made the most of every glint of light on shabby taffeta. Her improving fortunes, as the novel builds, are suggested by the upgrades in her notebooks: the sixpenny book is followed by the ‘schilling book’, followed by the ‘two-guinea book’. She painstakingly teaches herself to write—like her father did, once—by faithfully recording ordinary life as it was. Of course there was nothing ordinary about the Mortmains. (That being said, if this were today, Rose and Topaz would have been the pinterest addicts, and Cassandra the free spirited boho who ran an animal shelter.)

My new resolve, to be celebrated over a glass of white wine and—as it turns out, no pumpkin bread at all but some yummy butternut squash hummus that I intend to eat right out of the container—is to simplify. No more separate blogs for separate interests. This blog will suffice.

I actually kinda love it here.

It’s been quirky and unexpected, and I never know what is going to get the writing juices flowing. It could be a chance encounter with a new book, an odd word, a storied photograph, a curious shimmer of light on my fruit bowl (think Somerset Maugham), a comparison of Homer and Barbara Cartland…(can it be done?? let’s find out!) …you get the idea. Or, as in this post, I return to mine some favorite material.

It always comes back to words for me, whatever the subject. Other words from capable pens that still ring with perfect pitch, and still thrill me, or perhaps my own stumbling toward something elusive I can’t define. We can’t allow ourselves be stifled by the sheer amount of brilliance or choices out there, or feelings of having to fit into a certain ‘category’.

‘Father says the desire for self-expression is pathetic.’ [Cassandra Mortmain]

Ignoring Mr. Mortmain for the moment–but we’ll come back to him later in another post–some of the poetry and favorite quotes, photography, will be moved over from my Pollyanna Press to here. In time. I might write a post about my jewelry making enterprises. On occasion. The only blog to keep her Queen Bee status is my Margery Sharp blog. She–and her writing–has been a happy preoccupation of mine for many years now. Margery deserves her own blog and shall have it.

The genusrosa theme will be switched to a minimalist magazine layout. Well…not too minimalist…that’s just not me. But the idea is to organize the subjects for my readers a bit more efficiently (without the aid of a vintage ironing board and candleholders), so you can pick and choose your way.

However, if you’re looking for the perfect pumpkin bread recipe, I suggest pinterest. If you’re not back in five hours, we’ll come looking for you with our flickering lanterns and beeswax candles. The curiously gentle, ethereally beautiful Topaz might even be there, wearing her black rubber rain boots.

‘Topaz came downstairs just then, in her black oilskins, sou’wester hat and rubber boots, looking as if she were going to man the lifeboat.’

I love the world of I Capture the Castle. It was beautiful, inconsistent, tender, contradictory, achingly sad, heartbreakingly funny. Like life. It was also a reminder that worlds can be created beyond our own. Worlds that are real, nourishing, inspiring, and lovely. But only if we write.

We must keep writing…pen to paper…fluid, articulate shapes appearing. Ideas forming, rushing, rustling, breathing; ‘tamed and shabby tigers‘ spring to life once again.

‘It was…autumn, very gentle and golden. I loved the quiet-coloured fields of stubble and the hazy water meadows. Rose doesn’t like the flat country but I always did—flat country seems to give the sky such a chance. One evening, when there was a lovely sunset, we got lost…’

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Additional notes:

Poetry reference also from I Capture the Castle:

‘Twould ring the bells of Heaven
The wildest peal for years,
If Parson lost his senses
And people came to theirs,
And he and they together
Knelt down with angry prayers
For tamed and shabby tigers
And dancing dogs and bears,
And wretched, blind pit ponies,
And little hunted hares.
[Ralph Hodgson]

My books:

A Garden for Allegra

Composing Molly

Someday…a sequel for those girls!