Six on Saturday-Agatha Christie

I have just finished reading Agatha Christie’s murder at the vicarage. Within Christie’s work gardens and gardening come up again and again. Miss Marple is an avid gardener enjoying the opportunities it gives her to observe the comings and goings in her village. Garden parties are a regular setting. Christie herself even had a rather lovely rose named after her. In Miss Marple’s final case we know she is getting on as she is advised not to exert herself gardening. So I thought this week I would look at six Agatha Christie gardening links.

1. Deadheading the roses

I understand, Miss Marple that Mrs. Protheroe passed this way yesterday evening?

Yes, she did. I called out to her, and she admired my roses.

Miss Marple spends much time tending her roses. This gives her ample time to be a busy body observing her neighbourhood. My roses are doing very well but I am now having to start on my deadheading. Lots more blooms coming through. I have a mix of repeat flowering roses and old roses.

2. Secateurs

Miss Marple favoured bypass secateurs for her pruning as do I. I’m sure she’d appreciate the gold leaf gloves as well.

3. Poison plants

Agatha Christie worked for a period as a dispenser and had a knowledge of poisonous plants. Torre Abbey even has a garden dedicated to the poisonous plants of Christie’s novels. In Postern of fate, foxgloves were planted in amongst sage the murderer knew would be collected for the evening’s meal. My foxgloves are going over but they have held up well through rain and wind.

4. Ferns

I am developing several areas with ferns. The corner near the shed has the most established. One of the supposed highlights of Christie’s garden, though I’ve never visited, is the fernery. I have found myself giving more space over to ferns and the front garden is going to be largely ferns and hostas.

5. Rocks

“Yes.” she said, it must have come as a very nasty shock for him to come across you just then. But her turned it off very well-pretending he was bringing it to me for me for my rock gardens. Only-Miss Marple became suddenly very emphatic. “It was the wrong sort of stone for my rock gardens! And that put me on the right track!”

Even the wrong sort of rock can set Miss Marple on your case. I’ve dug in a few rocks we had spare to go in the front garden. I’d like to look at cultivating the moss for a more natural look. Natural yoghurt mixed with compost is supposed to work.

6. Mystery plant

Christie wrote great mysteries so here is one for all of you. My mum gave me two of these seedlings but didn’t know what they were. Gardens hour suggested morning glory but now we have flowers I can see that was wrong. Anyone solve the case?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this literary-themed six. Any other good gardens out there in literature? Now I finished one Christie I face the problem of what to read next as everything seems inferior after.

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The Mattock-The right tool for the job

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a run of photos on Twitter and Facebook of broken spades. People have tried using their garden spades to dig out established shrubs and trees or trying to break up hard landscaping. These were all cases of people using the wrong tool for the wrong job.

As mentioned in previous blogs I have lots of building work going on and I am having to remove a number of established shrubs to accommodate the changes. One of the hardest jobs has been removing the hebes from the front garden. I think these have been growing there for about a decade and were starting to die off and no longer flower. The ground was a solid mass of roots. There was almost no soil between the roots to depths of four to six inches. I removed the first one with shovel, loopers and weeding knife. While this got the plant out I knew these were the wrong tools for the job. I figured an axe might be a better tool for the job so did a bit of research and discovered the mattock. I asked around to see if anyone had one I could borrow for the job and had no luck. Pretty much no one even knew what a mattock is. This seems a great pity for such a useful versatile tool.

The term mattock is sometimes used interchangeably with a pickaxe. However, they are different tools. A mattock is a tool with a long handle and metal head. The head has two sides. On one side a narrow axe, then on the other an adze (a horizontal axe blade). The handle is usually wood or fibreglass. The axe head is not fixed on. It can be dismantled for transport. To put the head on it is slid down the handle. Then tapping the handle into a firm surface allows the weight of the head to secure it onto the handle. As such it isn’t designed to be swung up high as the blade can become loose. The mattock is lifted to just above waist height and the weight does much of the digging. The axe can smash apart roots. Then the adze can be used to scrape through. It works through mats of root and sod more easily than the shovel could. The weight adds force you would struggle to deliver with a spade even pushing with your foot. While still a hefty tool to use it is going to prove useful in my front garden where I have solid soil to break it up. This isn’t suitable for breaking up rock, a pickaxe would need using for that. But my ground is just compressed soil with lots of thick roots through.

Evidence for mattocks goes back to the Mesolithic period with mattocks made of antler. By the Bronze Age the mattock design we still use had been established. They have also been used to strip blubber from whales by the Inuit people and the Broch people in Scotland. It was used in agriculture to make planting trenches. Specific forms have been developed for different jobs such as the hop mattock with two forks instead of the axe. The shorter Japanese Ikagata has the same basic adze side combined with a three-pronged fork used for weeding. But the basic design of the mattock has remained the same signalling that this is a useful tool.

BBC-A history of the world-Matthew Bigg’s mattock

A hand mattock in the Hornsea Museum ca. 1840

Within Sumerian mythology the God Enlil created the mattock to give to the humans. It is described as an object of beauty made of pure gold and a head made from lapis lazuli. The tool gives the Sumerians the power to build their cities, subjugate the people and take up weeds. Enlil is an important God within Sumerian mythology separating Earth and Heaven making the world habitable for humans. He is seen as a patron god of agriculture. It’s interesting to read about a tool like this in mythology which has lost its significance in the modern world. But for much of human history, this tool has proved invaluable in digging the earth.

Mesopotamian daggers and mattock head ca. 1000 BCE

My mattock finished off the remaining four hebes in an afternoon. It had taken me an afternoon to remove one without. Whether it is a tool of the gods or not it has proved worth its cost. This might not be a tool you are going to use regularly but it will save time when it is employed for the right job. Which I suppose you can say about any garden tool. But it seems worth saving the lives of all those broken spades and forks and recommending you get a mattock for the serious business of removing roots.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my shout out for this humble and almost forgotten tool. In a day and age where most families will only have a spade, maybe a fork and a hand trowel it is worth looking back to think if you are using the right tool for the job. Is it worth struggling on or go and spend a tenner on a tool that will save you time and stress using the wrong tool? I know I’m thankful I bought my mattock.

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And as a bonus the mattock in poetry.

 SIMON LEE,

THE OLD HUNTSMAN,

With an Incident in which he was concerned.

In the sweet shire of Cardigan,
Not far from pleasant Ivor-hall,
An Old Man dwells, a little man,
I’ve heard he once was tall.
Of years he has upon his back,
No doubt, a burthen weighty;
He says he is three score and ten,
But others say he’s eighty.

A long blue livery-coat has he,
That’s fair behind, and fair before;
Yet, meet him where you will, you see
At once that he is poor.
Full five-and-twenty years he lived
A running Huntsman merry;
And, though he has but one eye left,
His cheek is like a cherry.

No man like him the horn could sound,
And no man was so full of glee;
To say the least, four counties round
Had heard of Simon Lee;
His Master’s dead, and no one now
Dwells in the hall of Ivor;
Men, Dogs, and Horses, all are dead;
He is the sole survivor.

And he is lean and he is sick,
His dwindled body’s half awry;
His ancles, too, are swoln and thick;
His legs are thin and dry.
When he was young he little knew
Of husbandry or tillage;
And now is forced to work, though weak,
—The weakest in the village.

He all the country could outrun,
Could leave both man and horse behind;
And often, ere the race was done,
He reeled and was stone-blind.
And still there’s something in the world
At which his heart rejoices;
For when the chiming hounds are out,
He dearly loves their voices!

His hunting feats have him bereft
Of his right eye, as you may see:
And then, what limbs those feats have left
To poor old Simon Lee!
He has no son, he has no child,
His Wife, an aged woman,
Lives with him, near the waterfall,
Upon the village Common.

Old Ruth works out of doors with him,
And does what Simon cannot do;
For she, not over stout of limb,
Is stouter of the two.
And, though you with your utmost skill
From labour could not wean them,
Alas! ’tis very little, all
Which they can do between them.

Beside their moss-grown hut of clay,
Not twenty paces from the door,
A scrap of land they have, but they
Are poorest of the poor.
This scrap of land he from the heath
Enclosed when he was stronger;
But what avails the land to them,
Which they can till no longer?

Few months of life has he in store,
As he to you will tell,
For still, the more he works, the more
Do his weak ancles swell.
My gentle Reader, I perceive
How patiently you’ve waited,
And I’m afraid that you expect
Some tale will be related.

O Reader! had you in your mind
Such stores as silent thought can bring,
O gentle Reader! you would find
A tale in every thing.
What more I have to say is short,
I hope you’ll kindly take it:
It is no tale; but, should you think,
Perhaps a tale you’ll make it.

One summer-day I chanced to see
This Old Man doing all he could
To unearth the root of an old tree,
A stump of rotten wood.
The mattock tottered in his hand;
So vain was his endeavour
That at the root of the old tree
He might have worked for ever.

“You’re overtasked, good Simon Lee,
Give me your tool,” to him I said;
And at the word right gladly he
Received my proffered aid.
I struck, and with a single blow
The tangled root I severed,
At which the poor Old Man so long
And vainly had endeavoured.

The tears into his eyes were brought,
And thanks and praises seemed to run
So fast out of his heart, I thought
They never would have done.
—I’ve heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
With coldness still returning.
Alas! the gratitude of men
Has oftener left me mourning.

William Wordsworth

Houseplant hour: The man who hated aspidistras

This week I bring you a houseplant horror story W.F. Harvey. William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) was a writer best known for writing horror and macabre stories. Born into a wealthy Quaker Yorkshire family he trained in medicine. He served during WWI in various medical roles. He suffered lung damage during the war that caused issues for the rest of his life.

After the war, he worked in adult education until ill health forced his retirement. During his lifetime three short story collections were published. Then after his death, in 1937, a posthumous collection was published following the 1946 film release of his best-known work, the beast with five fingers.

Harvey’s horror stories are interesting as they don’t follow one theme or formula. Many horror writers write one story in different variations, but Harvey’s follow different directions.

The story today is in the open domain now for copyright purposes. It offers a warning to abusing your houseplants, particularly that stuffy symbol of the Victorian middle class, the aspidistra.

The man who hated Aspidistras

The earliest memories of Ferdinand Ashley Wilton were green memories—of aspidistras. The aunt with whom he lived at Cheltenham was fond of the plants. As you entered the hall of Claremont Villa there was on the right an upturned drain-pipe painted a sage green and decorated with arum lilies. This contained Miss Wilton’s umbrellas and her father’s walking-stick. Projecting into the hall on the left a fretful erection of mahogany supported a mirror, hooks for cloaks, and two shelves. On the upper shelf was a porcelain bowl that contained the cards of callers; on the lower, in a sea-green earthenware pot, precariously rested the first of the aspidistras. The second stood in the dining-room—in summer in the fireplace, in winter on the ledge of the window that faced south. In the drawing-room was the third, raised high above the ground on a fluted wooden pedestal. The fourth and last aspidistra stood on the round table by the couch in Miss Wilton’s bedroom. At night it was carried out on to the landing, for Miss Wilton, remembering something that her doctor had once said about sick-rooms and flowers, thought it on the whole wisest that she should sleep alone.

The aspidistras dominated Ferdinand’s life. They were always liable to be upset, so that he was not allowed to run about in the hall or dining-room. When he was very small he had a fancy that they repeated to Miss Wilton the many things that he had done amiss, and especially did he distrust that fourth plant, which stood at night, a sleepless sentinel, on the landing close to his bedroom door. As he grew older he learnt, reluctantly, how to sponge their leaves with soapy water. When a gentle rain was falling he would carry them into the garden in order that they might enjoy what Miss Wilton called a thorough soaking. But if Ben, the poodle, were in the garden he had to be brought in straight away and dried. The laws governing the vegetable and animal worlds seemed to Ferdinand strangely different. In very dry weather the bath would be half filled and the four aspidistras would stand in a row for hours partially submerged. Ferdinand was not allowed to sail his boat among the gloomy islands of this archipelago, but if his conduct had been satisfactory he was permitted to pull the plug before going to bed. Ferdinand was still a very little boy when he was sent away to school. He was constantly ailing and even when he was well he received more than his due share of kicks and bruises. In the matron’s room he felt as if he were back again in Cheltenham, the pot of aspidistras reminded him so much of his aunt. On it he vented the hatred of his schoolboy world. When the matron was called out of the room he would share with the aspidistras vegetable laxatives and iron tonics, or impart to their leaves an unnatural glow of health by polishing them with Scott’s emulsion or liquid paraffin. A vertical section of the pot illustrating Ferdinand’s activities would have shown a thimble, three hairpins, a number of needles, the case of a clinical thermometer and, an inch below the surface, an almost complete tessellated pavement of sugar-coated pills. When, however, in a rash moment, Ferdinand, in applying the contents of a bottle of tincture of iodine to the leaves, found to his alarm that the black stains were irremovable, the fat was in the fire. The matron made a formal complaint, but nobody owned up. The ten more or less ailing boys who had visited the room on that fatal morning were indiscriminately punished. To them it was known that Ferdinand was the delinquent. He did not escape. Like the aspidistra he was poked and prodded and shaken to the roots. Boyhood passed. At the university Ferdinand achieved a certain success. He published a volume of verse and was founder and secretary of the Mid-Victorians. He only met two aspidistras during the whole of the time he was up, one in the porter’s lodge whose leaves he would absent-mindedly trim with pocket scissors, and the other in a dentist’s waiting-room. Miss Wilton died. She left to her nephew the villa at Cheltenham and four hundred pounds a year. Ferdinand was able to devote himself to literature, and from Bloomsbury lodging-houses wrote his first series of Antimacassar Papers. It was at this period of his life that he found himself once again under the influence of aspidistras. He began by nagging them, treating them as ash-trays, pen-wipers, and cemeteries for safety razor blades. He ended by torturing them. One, he slowly did to death with weedkiller; into another, following the example of the Good Samaritan, he would pour in oil and wine. A third he garrotted with rubber bands; a fourth, slowly succumbing to a solution of bath salts, filled his room for weeks with the faint perfume of lavender. A horticultural detective would, of course, have quickly got on the track of the Bloomsbury murders, but no suspicion ever fell upon Ferdinand. He was so inoffensive, so subtle, so respectable, and in his own way so quietly ornamental. His requirements were so few and he needed little looking after. His landladies were always sorry when he went. The aspidistras never got over his departure.

Ferdinand, of course, should have realised that it is dangerous to indulge in hatred. The man who hates open spaces as likely as not will be killed when crossing a square. It isn’t the motor car but the square that kills him. Ferdinand had his warnings. Once on a wet morning a pot of aspidistras fell from a third-storey window ledge on to the pavement at his feet. On another occasion when travelling by train a sudden stop brought down from the rack a heavy and bulky package that indubitably involved risk of injury to passengers. If Ferdinand had not been sitting with his back to the engine he would have been struck on the head by the most monstrous aspidistra he had ever seen.

He was smoking one day in a despondent mood when his friend Basset Tankerville chanced to call. The Blue Review had noticed his latest volume of essays with less than its usual appreciation. ‘Listen to this,’ said Ferdinand to Basset. ‘“We begin to be conscious of the limitations of his point of view—the interstices of a Venetian blind. He is the embodiment of the aspidistra.” And then,’ said Ferdinand, ‘they have the impertinence to give half a column to a review of Gertrude Stein.’ ‘Glorious jingles,’ said Basset. ‘You should really try your hand at them yourself. “Ferdinand Ashley Wilton with his dashed aspidistras that wilt unless fertilised. With black tobacco ash. Ad astra Aspidistra.” But seriously, you do remind me of the plants. You are becoming more and more green with envy, more and more pot-bound. And, by the way, have you ever thought of how applicable to aspidistras is St Paul’s description of charity? That specimen which I see before me suffereth long and is kind. It vaunteth not itself, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked. Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. And the same, Ferdinand, in a large measure is true of you. You and the aspidistra are one.’ Those light words of Basset Tankerville, spoken as they were in jest, marked an epoch in Wilton’s life. They stirred the vegetable fibres of his being. His conversation became more and more torpid. The wit that had enlivened the Antimacassar Papers vanished and though from time to time he still wrote, his style—polished and stately as it was—became dull. He left London to live once again in Cheltenham, but it was as an invalid that he lived. Though he took the waters regularly his skin acquired an unmistakeable greenish tinge which the dark green cloak he always wore made all the more noticeable. A little odd, his housekeeper thought him, and very old-fashioned, but Mr Wilton gave next to no trouble. On sunny days she would pull up the Venetian blinds and place his chair in the window, where he would sit quietly for hours occasionally sponging his long leaf-like hands with soap and water. He was happiest, however, when the faintest of drizzles was falling. Then the man who hated aspidistras would be wheeled out into the rain to enjoy a thorough soaking.

My classroom aspidistra, solid enough to survive a gloomy classroom and four year olds.

After thought

A warning to plant keepers. Have you become the plants you look after? Hope you’ve enjoyed the story. Are there any plants you need to ask forgiveness from? For more houseplant conversation check the twitter hashtag #houseplanthour A fortnightly conversation on Tuesday all about houseplants.

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The dark is rising days 7 and 8

Over days 7 and 8 of the TDIR reading group we’ve been asked two questions by Julia Bird. What are our theological thoughts and what is the significance of the bread and honey?

The church scene indicates the old ones portrayed as older than the church. The other old ones are dismissive of the Reverend’s efforts to hold back the dark. They state it’s only natural he’d try, but futile before freezing him out of the attack. Will comes across as more accepting of the church, but he is still in a position of greater knowledge of the world. The world of the old ones being of an older, greater power. While the book makes use of Christian symbolism it is clear that the light isn’t the same as following the Christian path.

The symbolism of the honey is interesting. Honey being associated with great pleasure it fits well with the light. The land of milk and honey. The light working through joyous emotions. Hawkins requests honey. This may be a throw back to his pleasure working for the light or just a familiar food source from his own time.

Within a biblical context honey has the symbolism of joy and pleasure, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel (God with us). Butter and honey shall He eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good.” Isa 7:14, 15. Honey also signifying truth.

 Within Celtic traditions honey and mead, in particular, is the drink of immortality. Within Greek mythology Pythagoras ate nothing but honey giving him knowledge. To look wider, bees have a strong association with rebirth which plays a large part in the story with the seasonal cycles of Winter back into Spring. The dark rising with the winter cold.

Or it could, of course, have no symbolism beyond Susan Cooper having a love of honey.

Honey haiku

Sweet, heavenly treat

gift from benevolent gods

Bringing joy and light

The dark is rising-day 5 contemporaries and influence

Today’s question poised by Robert MacFarlane: 24 December: Day 5 of #TheDarkIsReadingTo which other books/writers do you think TDIR is related? Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Holdstock; also The Mabinogion, WG Hoskins, Jacquetta Hawkes…

And – where is Cooper’s influence visible in recent/contemporary (YA) writing? https://t.co/5RiAO6Izxq

The most obvious contemporary writer to Susan Cooper would be Alan Garner. Both wrote books based on Arthurian lore. Their stories were heavily based in the British landscape and folk traditions of the land. Other connections could easily be made to T.H. White and his story of Merlin compiled as the once and future king. Much like Cooper and Garner they all have a good understanding of the land and animals present in the British Isles. 

But looking at their work in isolation with regards to literature seems a mistake. The late 60s saw a folk revival in music. Much of this with a pagan nature. Bands like the incredible string band and pentangle form a backdrop to Garner’s and Cooper’s work. Many of these bands drawing on the same source material of Arthurian legend and the Mabinogion. Within movies the 70s saw many darker horror movies with similar rural backgrounds. The Wicker man being the most famous, but Robin Redbreast and Penza’s fen deserve a mention too. 

Kids TV took similar dark turns with the ITV children of the stones. A wonderfuly scary show that would never be made now. The TV adaptation of Garner’s the owl service didn’t go quite as dark, but deserves a mention.

Reading the twitter thread on this question many people are linking Cooper’s work to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. While these are based in magical worlds within modern day settings I’d say the magic comes from a more contemporary setting. The world of folk tales and legend plays a role, but there are other authors more strongly following Cooper and Garner’s work. Not that I’m critising Harry Potter. I just don’t think they have the same grounding in landscape, the myths and legends of the British Isles and nature of the Isles. Diana Wyne Jones with a smattering of Merlin through her stories seems more of a follow on. Albeit with a bit more humour. Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s spiderwick chronicles come through in similar ways. There is a background of folklore placed in the contemporary setting.

But however you look at TDIR, in terms of influence or not, it’s a very enjoyable winter read.

Tonight is Christmas Eve so our family traditions were observed. In TDIR Will and family head out carol singing. In my family we stick a candle in a potato cut in half to light the way for Father Christmas. Who knows where these traditions come from, but they must be observed each year.

Tomorrow will be full of excess so if I don’t get a chance I’ll say it now; Merry Christmas to all my blog readers. May your day be full of joy.

The dark is rising-day 4 the magic of names

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” J.K. Rowling

Today’s set question on the dark is rising: Speaking aloud (en-chanting) is vital in TDIR, as is the knowing of names. What are the powers of language in this book (from which so many people read aloud?

Within TDIR people can gain power by knowing someone’s true name. Maggie Barnes is prevented from harming Will early on through the use of her true name. The concept of names having magic is an old one in folklore. Rumpelstiltskin being one of the best known. An old tradition states that un-named children could be stolen by fairies and replaced by changeling’s. In the hobbit Bilbo avoids giving Smaug his name. More recently in the Studio Ghibli movie spirited away the character Chihiro loses her name to the witch Yubaba.

The ability to name things correctly remains important for the modern world. Conservation efforts need accurate identification of species to support them appropriately. Unfortunately the loss of knowledge like wildflower names, bird names and insects endangers these efforts.

Within my own practises mantras play a part. A sacred syllable instilled with power by uttering it out loud.  Within other faiths prayer plays a significant role as does communal recitals of readings, songs and prayers. Words undeniably have power. Within TDIR Maggie is stopped through the use of her name. The light characters avoid their names being known. The lady also avoids her true name being used when first meeting Will.

I have just reached the chapter, the book of gramayre. Robert MacFarlane having posted this as the word of the day; Gramayre being the old French for knowledge. The book being a grimoire. So it looks that words will playing a role over the next chapter.

Today ended with a bright red sunset. Knowing the old rhyme this can only bring ill for Will tomorrow.

“Words are, of course, the most powerful powerful drug used by mankind”

Rudyard Kipling