Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Not Garden

On which low, and probably not original note, this is a whinge. I've been reading quite a few blogs lately in which people describe their lovely gardens, and particularly their prowess with their vegetables. Then, yesterday, en route to nag a child, I half heard Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall say on tv "Vegetable growing is easy," which prompted me to regress several decades and sneer "Oh yeah?" in a thoroughly teenage manner. Vegetables need TIME, Hugh, and time is what I don't have (actually I suppose the figure I had before children, enough brain cells to keep all the balls in the air and a first edition of Primrose Cumming's Deep Sea Horse are a few more things I don't have, but that is bye the bye).

I have mentioned my veg garden before, and skirted round the subject of my approach to veg. I have given you a bit of a hint with the picture of the radishes, but now here is the full and horrible truth.

It might be a side effect of modern life, or it might just be the fact I work for myself, have a husband who works epically long hours, and am utterly hopeless at getting my children to help out, but my vegetable gardening is done in small, furious and only partially effective spasms in between trying unsuccessfully to do everything else.

A few weeks ago I planted my potatoes (one of my plans for cutting down the work load is to plant as many potatoes as possible, as they need minimal effort from me). My daughter, who is a keen watcher of Gardeners' World, said "Weren't you supposed to chit them?" "I did chit them, " I said. "They did it all by themselves, dumped in the back hall in the bag I bought them in." My onions, I might add, also started sprouting by themselves in the self same bag. Have I discovered another time-saving device? This year I only had to replace a couple of onions that had been plucked out by the birds, rather than most of them. The potatoes seem to have sprouted fine, the little stars.

There are quite a few other things I have not done. I have sewed not a single seed: my wonderful friend Clare took pity on me and did courgettes and tomatoes for me, and Podington Garden Centre have done the rest. Even with all this, I have been horribly lax with my slug protection, which is a large dustbin of ash from the woodburner, which works fine as long as you are diligent with it, and all the rain means you have to be diligent.... so, three spinach plants have fallen victim. My pea plants are still lying next to the canes, rather than be tied up them; ditto my sweet peas. Haven't earthed up my potatoes either. Last year we planted potatoes in the muck heap, and then forgot all about them. I can tell you from this that the earthing up thing really is necessary, as we lost about 25% of the muck heap potatoes. Potatoes this year are actually in the garden, so hopefully I will get round to earthing up at some point.

Haven't netted the fruit yet. And as I dumped the netting in a far corner of the garden last autumn and then forgot about it, there are many strange dead plant remains that need to be removed from the netting, now that I have found it again.

But all that will have to wait, while I splash on more gallons of that cream paint. And if anyone is reading this who thinks they would like to buy our lovely home, I am making this all up. A team of fully trained gardeners man my vegetable garden constantly, hand-picking off each slug, and blasting each aphid with a jet of organic bug remover. It is utter, green, perfection.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Amazon, Gawd bless it

Non book dealers probably don't know about Sheppards, who publish a directory in which most dealers appear. We get a weekly newsletter from them about the latest shenanigans in the book dealing world, and this little nugget appeared in the latest edition:

News came in tonight that The Long Riders' Guild Press, publisher of Horse Travel Books, the largest treasure-trove of equestrian exploration wisdom ever seen has some 300 titles in print. The royalties from many titles are donated to worthy causes and the company is proud to be a pioneer with the new Print-On-Demand (POD) technology. A few weeks ago The Long Riders' Guild Press became one of the victims of an unprecedented bid to seize control by Amazon. The Long Riders' Guild Press is determined to fight this as Amazon's move may well cause many publishers to disappear.

You might wonder what on earth Amazon could possibly want with a niche publisher - after all, Amazon sell the books on their site anyway, don't they? There are hundreds of small, niche, publishers out there using POD technology - are Amazon after them all?
It seems that they are. Amazon have their eye on the POD (print-on-demand) market. Well, rather more than their eye. They are making active efforts to make sure as much as possible is theirs. Previously, all POD titles had a Buy It Now button on their books on Amazon's site, but now Amazon have demanded that unless they are published through Amazon's own POD operation, BookSurge, the Buy It Now button for the title on the Amazon site will be disabled. This means the books will no longer be available directly via amazon, but only via re-sellers. To publishers, that Buy It Now button really matters.
There's a very clear exposition here. More info here, and a lot more here. I, as a second hand book dealer, sell a lot of stock on Amazon, and like most other dealers, sell there though I'd rather not as it costs me. A lot - which is one reason why I try and sell as much stuff as possible through my website, but the reach of is nowhere near that of Amazon, and so I still have to use them. The same is true, I'm sure, of the POD publishers, hence the iniquity of the Amazon tactic. Booklocker say:
By forcing publishers to sign their extraordinarily oppressive contract, Amazon gains the power to charge publishers whatever printing and distribution costs it desires, as well as controlling the retail, discount and wholesale prices of the books it prints, and, through this contract, automatically positions itself to control the market.
Amazon have published an open letter here. Our only motive, they seem to say, is to speed things up for our customers, and publishers can always use the Advantage programme (there are considerable cost implications for anyone wanting to do this - there are, of course, for anyone who uses BookSurge, but it's worse if you use Advantage.)
Small publishers like The Long Riders' Guild are far more than a publisher. Websites and operations like theirs don't just happen: it needs the money from its publishing arm to make the research happen. It's like my own website. That wouldn't exist if it weren't for the bookselling: and the bookselling wouldn't be as good as it is without the website. They need each other.
I hope that Amazon has mis-read its customers. I am prepared to wait for quality (Booksurge has known quality issues), and most of all I'm prepared to wait for a book if that means that small publishers can continue to seek out the excellent and the peculiar with passion. Amazon is driving this one from the wrong end.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Books for the younger element

Having said I'd finished with books for primary age children, I was looking for something I'd lost in the office and found this cache of books for the youngest readers: to be fair, they're also books for reading aloud.

When my own children were small I was very, very keen to indoctrinate them about that noble creature, The Horse, through literature, but I was doomed to disappointment on many fronts: there were dogs (Spot), cats (Mog) and of course engines; (I think there is a stage that most mothers of boys reach: the theme tune for Thomas the Tank Engine starts, and they twitch) but horse books I failed to find, until Berlie Doherty's Snowy was published. I loved this story of a barge horse, and thought I was doing a good and subtle job in making sure it was well to the fore in the pile of books we always read, until my daughter turned to me and said "Mummy, I don't want to read about that horse any more."

Things have moved on in the ten years since I was in the picture book market. Snowy is alas no longer in print, but due to the wonders of Amazon et al, we can now plunder the American market. There are also home grown efforts (I must admit I have done very little research on this - if any publishers want to tell me about their splendid range of pony books for the very young I will be very happy to hear from them). I read My Perfect Pony, by Gaby Goldsak, illustrated by Michelle White, which I bought from a charity shop: hence the glaring emptiness in the pocket on the front. Its previous owner obviously loved the necklace which once was there more than the book.

This is the story of Pepper the pony and his owner Lucy. It is a book with another agenda other than the joy of the story. In contrast to much Victorian children's literature, in which the moral was aimed at making you moderate your behaviour, there is a strand of modern children's literature which wants you to feel better about yourself. This one aims to bolster the self esteem of its infant reader by showing that it does not matter if you, the pony, are short and fat, and you can't jump, show or do gymkhana games often. What matters is that you don't throw a wobbly if you go past geese, or wave your hindleg at your child owner. That's all true, of course. What's not is the suggestion that you will still win in the end if you are a decent soul: would that it were so.

So, if I were still at the reading aloud stage, I would struggle to put this one across with any conviction (and I like to think I could put a picture book across with passion: my reading of Where's Spot? I like to think has few equals. "THERE'S Spot!"). Any infant listener to my reading of this book would also pick up my thinking "Oh ye gods, NOT ANOTHER ONE," when I reached the point where the Great White Horse takes the pony hero Pepper on a flight full of learning opportunities. I have written about the invasion of the pony story by the fantastic before, but its creeping into books for the youngest was an unknown to me until now.

It's a reasonably good looking book though: the illustrations aren't too cutesome, though in some pictures Michelle White has some ponies' hocks flexing normally, and some รก la Jumbo.

There is hope though: there are better books for the very young. Jessie Haas, whose books are not in print in the UK, but are obtainable through Amazon for a reasonable rate, writes the sort of book that will have you shuffling them to the top of the to-be-read pile all the time. Several years after they would have been any use to me in my campaign of indoctrination, my 12 year old picked them up and curled up with them. So maybe there's hope.

I'm reviewing the three books I have: I can't review Runaway Radish as I sold it, but I can thoroughly recommend it. It is a completely believable portrait of a small pony with a mind of his own, and the illustrations are wonderful. Margot Apple, who did the illustrations for Radish, also illustrates Appaloosa Zebra and Scamper and the Horse Show.

Appaloosa Zebra - a Horse Lover's Alphabet looks delicious. It would have been easy to go for a simple A is for Appaloosa approach, but Jessie Haas is more subtle than that and so we have hard hats and hacks as well as Haflingers; colts and Connemaras as well as Clydesdales. The book works on several levels: it's a delight to read, but it's also a stepping stone onto much more. You can enjoy the pictures and the text, or talk about the different breeds or disciplines mentioned (my daughter asked me about Lipizzaners, and now knows much more than perhaps she wanted to about her Mama's visit to Wembley to see them), or talk about just what the farrier is doing. It's a book that you, the adult reader will find enough in not to start screaming if it becomes the one and only book your lamb will read (and it might).

You might learn something too. The Icelandic Yakut is a new one on me, and I thought I had read and absorbed Elwyn Hartley Edward's Encyclopaedia of the Horse, the reference book cited, in its entirety.

The book does of course reflect the world of American equitation, and some of the breeds mentioned are unfamiliar but there is an article at the back of the book explaining more about the vaquera and the Yakut and all the rest. It is a beautifully pitched piece: not patronising, but giving you just enough information to feel satisfied.

The illustrations work wonderfully with the text: as they do with Scamper and the Horse Show.

I loved this. It's an affectionate, and funny, portrayal of a pony you could walk into any yard and find. Scamper is aimed at slightly older children. Molly and Anna are taking their pony, Scamper, to a show. Scamper, however, has his own ideas of how things should be. I love the economy and wit with which Jessie Haas lets us know just what sort of pony Scamper is:

"Tomorrow is the horse show. Today we're washing Scamper. First we have to catch him. 'Mom!' "
Just a few words in and we know Scamper, and we know who is really in charge of things equine in this family.

The story builds beautifully (and unexpectedly - I had the payoff completely wrong). If you're British, don't be put off by the fact the classes and even the colour of the ribbons (rosettes) are unfamiliar: it's immediately apparent from the story what is going on, and there is another another excellent article at the end explaining all, so you too will know what Trail and Pleasure classes are.

Sugaring is less obviously horsey: it's a description of a girl, Nora, collecting maple sap with her grandfather and two draft horses. It took me right back to reading about the Bobsey Twins in the 1960s: I was fascinated by the whole maple syrup business.

Again beautifully illustrated, by Jos. A. Smith this time, it is a gentle tale: it gives you the feeling of someone sitting back and remembering each tiny detail with deep pleasure. I don't know if this is one of Jessie Haas' own childhood memories (she is a Vermonter), but the story certainly has that magical quality of something wonderful remembered. I took it with me to read again as I waited for the children's train. Even sitting in the grey tarmac landscape of Wellingborough Station car park, I could smell the maple syrup and hear the horses' harness. Lovely.

There's great attention to to detail in all these Jessie Haas titles. For me they all pass the most important test of a book for a small child: I could read them over and over with conviction, and not want to suggest to my child that surely, now, it must be time for cbeebies?

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The Zeitgeist

is not something I am normally part of. I am in the vanguard of nothing: certainly not fashion. Or the current hot read. But, inadvertently, I am suddenly doing something fashionable.

My husband bought Country Life yesterday. I used to read Country Life avidly - well, to be more accurate, I would drool over the house advertisements avidly, if one can drool avidly. I think I did. However, living in our own country house, albeit on a much smaller and far less grand scale than the usual Country Life effort, has completely cured me of coveting other people's listed beauties. No longer do I think, "Oooh, how lovely," when I look at something's Elizabethan brickwork, or its ornate drain hoppers. Now I just feel grateful that it is not me that has to look after those acres of roof, cough up thousands for guttering, or do battle with ancient wiring which last saw an electrician in the 1920s, let alone the acres of gravel path, the lawns, the fences, the hedges......

But back to Country Life. It is Chelsea Week this week (and I love Chelsea: husband and daughter do too. When we lived in London, I used to go, and spent hours in the Pavilion admiring the old fashioned roses and pinks) and Country Life feel the garden designers, or at least the RHS, have missed the zeitgeist. We live in straitened times, and vegetable gardening is where it is at: but you would not know this if you looked at the show gardens at Chelsea. Part of this, CL feel, is because garden designs have to be submitted very soon after the current show, and there are penalties for changing the design. So, whilst the rest of the country might be busy digging up its lawns, and, I hope, its decking, to plant veg, Chelsea sails serenely and expensively on, creating beauty but not utility.

I think there is always a place for that which is supremely beautiful but of no tangible use. Those wonderful gardens delight me: they restore my soul, and my soul is something that needs a good bit of restoration in the midst of son's GCSEs, attempting to decorate and keep up with my ever mounting workload.

Our own garden is about two thirds flower to one third vegetables, fruit and herbs. One of my first acts when we got here was to (OK - not me on my own: it was a joint effort) convert the dog run to a vegetable garden, and ever since I have kept quiet about my vegetable growing efforts, as I soon realised it was Not What Other People Did. Not that my efforts are anything special: my aim is for the maximum possible yield for the minimum possible effort, and as veg growing does demand effort, I sometimes fail. I have noticed that the experts don't generally recommend leaving a lettuce plant to bolt because if you are lucky it will set seed and save you a job next year, which is my approach. For anyone who does want one of my very few gardening tips, leaving stuff to seed works unfailingly with lamb's lettuce, which will cheerfully bung itself all over the place, meaning you only have to find the plants and transplant them.
The picture above shows my conventional bit: to the right is what happens if you leave radishes. I don't need that space yet so I've left them there over winter, and well beyond. I like their abundance, and the masses of white flowers and coincidentally they are doing a very good job of stopping anything else taking over. As to what the radishes themselves might taste like..... I'm not sure I want to find out.

Friday, 16 May 2008

The Garden

My poor garden gets very little time in this blog (reflecting I suppose the amount of time it has spent on it: not enough.) Normally in summer I am out there planning what to do next, shifting things and trying to outwit the slugs and snails, but this season I am stuck in the house, decorating. This is because we have decided to move to be nearer the children's school, which is 20 miles away. In theory, we then won't be using as much petrol taxi-ing them backwards and forwards; they will be nearer to their friends: they are neither of them alas country children so it seems fairly pointless having all this when it's not used. The ultimate plan is to move back out to the country in a few years when they've finished school: to a nice small cottage with a hefty acreage. One day I'll plant my orchard.....

But back to the decorating. As a dedicated watcher of Location, Location, Location etc I know everything should be pale, but I am so, so, so bored of neutrality. The next house is going to be COLOURFUL. I have a copy of the Farrow and Ball colour card, and it is my colour porn. I look at it, and lust after the deep reds; the stoney greens and the dusky yellows.

Having said that, last summer my daughter and I painted her room: it is a rosebay willow herb pink. Plenty of colour there, and that's how it's going to stay.

Anyway, here are some pictures of the garden. It may look fine, but I must tell you that I have been very careful to cut out the grotty bits I have not got to yet. The veronica I moved from the highly unsuitable south facing border it has been for years to a much shadier spot and it is now romping away to such an extent it's verging on becoming a pest.
The dog is one of my larger garden pests. Though she is lying there innocently in the photograph, she has worn a fine path through the vegetable garden over the winter, and has only been stopped by an elegantly constructed row of canes. I now know why my rare white rosemary died. I stupidly planted it in a sandy corner which also makes an excellent bone-burying spot.

The terrace and paths look a lot better now that we have restored the gravel areas, alas sadly trodden in over the years. My husband and my sister, who was

staying with us at the time were firm in their contention that 3 tonnes would do it. I did the last gravel top up, and it took 4 tonnes. We were all wrong. It took 6, which is a lot when you have to barrow it all from the yard as it is impossible to swing it into the garden without taking the trees out.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Radio 4: Saturday Live

Yes, it was me giving my all on the beauty of the hardback book, and I'm sorry I didn't let everyone know! If you want to listen (and have a few, a very few moments of the Black Beauty tune - can't think why they put that in) then it's here, at least for the next 7 days.

Friday, 9 May 2008

The Pony Mad Princess & Katy's Exmoor

The titles in this blog are, for once, not ones I'm going to be rude about. These were the best of the UK pony books for the 8-10s (in our opinion, at any rate, and I must there was a little difference in what we thought about each book!)

Diana Kimpton: Princess Ellie to the Rescue
Usborne, 2004 £3.99

Diana Kimpton's website

Series of, so far, 13 books

This was another title whose cover straightaway said "Turn away. This is not for you." Whilst quite a step up from the pastel kitsch of The Secret Unicorn, it's still girly. No other word for it. Girly. And girly was what I thought I was going to get.

However, I didn't. This was my favourite of the books for the younger element, though not Miranda’s: “OK,” was as far as she got. Maybe she felt it was a bit young for her: I didn't do very well when I tried to prise more out of her. For me, it was straightforward and witty, and a well-written story of a princess trying to be normal. Ironically, given the badging of the series, Princess Ellie hates pink, which is a pity as her father is convinced all princess like pink, and so that’s what her room is. Pink from ceiling to floor. Ellie is just grateful that no one makes pink riding boots her size, or she’d have them.

These are super stories. The pony stuff is accurate; the adults normal and well-drawn, and Ellie is my kind of girl. She gets muddy, falls face first in the muck heap and wears her wellies to dinner with the Prime Minister.

If you want something to read to your young that will make you laugh too, go for this. I'd love to see what this author could do if she turned her sights on the older market.

Victoria Eveleigh: Katy’s Exmoor
Tortoise Publishing, 2003 £4.50

Victoria Eveleigh's website

This is the most traditional of the pony books we looked at. It has a completely unsparkly cover, with a simple illustration of the Exmoors, and it was Miranda’s favourite. She liked the fact it was about an Exmoor: "a type of pony," she said, "you wouldn't normally have in a pony book." Oh yes you would, I thought, but now I come to think of it she's right: certainly as far as the modern pony book goes. They don't tend to mention the pony's breed. It was interesting that this was something Miranda picked up on. Was it because it was a rare breed? I asked her. "Yes," she said. "It made it more interesting. I like to read about rare breeds and them being saved."

I liked the fact the book is clear of any tinge of the Marketing Department. No glitz, no stars, and absolutely no pink. Or unicorns. Or magic ponies. I like the fact it is illustrated: though some illustrations work better than others.

There is far more to this book, though, than what it isn't. It is a well-told and absorbing story. Victoria Eveleigh lives and farms on Exmoor and her deep knowledge of the area shows through.

Katy, her heroine, lives on an Exmoor farm with her parents and brother. Life is not at all easy: money is a constant worry. Katy's birthday falls in the middle of lambing, and so tends to be drowned by all the lambing busyness. She finds a very poor foal on the Common, but her father won't let her bring it and its mother down to the farm. Katy is determined to have the foal for her own one day, but she will only be allowed to have it if it passes its inspection at branding time. Reading that back, I've made the father sound like an ogre, but he is not. He is a farmer who has to survive, and who cannot afford indulgences.

Like all the other characters, Phil, Katy's father is a well drawn character. You never doubt that any of them could be sitting around your table, talking. Victoria Eveleigh is particularly good on the relationship between Katy and her new friend Alice. Katy is used to being the outsider, and then she meets Alice on the bus.

"In no time at all the bus was pulling up at the school gates and Katy's heart sank. Now Alice would discover that she had accidentally befriended a nonentity, and she would pal up with some of the more popular children."

Oh, how true.

Miranda also fell for the character of Katy. "I liked the way Katy went behind her father's back to get something that she really wanted. I thought she was very brave at that age." Interestingly the auction was the source of her one criticism: "I didn't believe that someone so young would be able to bid for a horse!" Which is a very interesting conflict: on the one hand she likes the drama and the bravery, and the excitement of the story: even the wish fulfilment of this girl getting out there and fighting for something, but on the other hand my pragmatic girl realises how difficult this would be for the average child. Reading the scene with an adult perspective, I like it. It's a close-knit community, and most people there know who Katy is: it's obvious she's not doing something in isolation.

This is a good, well observed story. Although in many ways it's a traditional pony book (girl doesn't have pony, struggles, gets pony) I think it's timeless. It's not written to "appeal" to the youth market, but it does, because Victoria Eveleigh has got it right. She understands Exmoor, she understands ponies, and most importantly of all, people.

There are two further books in the series (Katy's Exmoor Adventures and Katy's Exmoor Friends), and Victoria Eveleigh is planning another book set on Lundy.

H M Peel to be republished

You'll have to wait until 2009 (though at the rate this year seems to be going, it'll fly by), but at last, Hazel's books are going to be available again. The first two will be Easter the Showjumper and Night Storm the Flat Racer.

Fidra Books (of course) are the ones who are bringing Hazel back to us. Here's the link.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Oh. My. God.

Thanks, of a rather shaky, sort go to Juxtabook for this one. If you go to the Penguin Classics site, you too can register for a free Penguin Classic, the only minor catch being that you have to review it on their blog within 6 weeks of getting it.

Oooh, I thought. Free is always good, and free books are always better. If I am really spectacularly lucky, I might get Dickens' Dombey and Son which I don't appear to have, and neither does any book shop around here. I might even get one of the Greek and Latin authors, whom I almost certainly would have read already, which would make the reviewing task a bit easier. There are hundreds of things I would like to get.

No. I have "The Sickness Unto Death," by Kierkegaard. I looked it up in the hope that though complex (Kierkegaard's concept of despair) it might be short, but no. 265 pages. Blimey. I have not read anything even remotely similar since I tried and failed to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship as a student. You must read this, I was told. Shallowness was my all, even then. You must be joking, I thought. Where's the P G Wodehouse?

I am essentially a pragmatic soul, and philosophy is something I struggle with. I told my husband about my new and exciting book experience. "Have you read any Kierkegaard?" I asked. "Yes", he said. "But not that one." "I'm not going to enjoy it, am I?" I said. "No," he said. And added "It'll be like wading through cold suet."

Pollyanna though I undoubtedly am, I'm struggling, I am, to find a good side to this, but I am a good Protestant girl, brought up to believe that difficulty is good for one so I hope the Kierkegaard will polish my shallow soul up.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Oh the excitement....

Soon, very soon, I will be living in a registered heritage asset. Aren't I lucky? I used to live in a building, a listed building, but soon it will be a registered heritage asset.

Margaret Hodge, the blessed Margaret, inspired mangler of the English language (or at least nodder through of an underling's work) was taxed about this a couple of weeks ago on Radio 4. She laughed. "Oh, we'll soon get used to it," she said. Why should we? Why should we have to put up with this pompous waste of words? For a start, it's lazy. Australia already uses the term heritage asset, so instead of trying to think of something less clunky, our civil servants simply lifted the term, and then debased it still further by strapping "registered" onto it.

It is not just ugliness that riles me. My children are used to me leaping up and down when I find mistakes in writing (I have the excuse that one of my other businesses is proof-reading). The thing that drives me to apoplexy quicker than virtually anything else is when the apostrophe is not used correctly. Its and it's is one that particularly bugs me. I taught my daughter the difference, but then found looking through her books one Parent's Evening that she was getting it wrong. I mentioned this, in a steely manner, to her teacher, who said she would mention it to the teacher concerned, but that they thought the content of her writing was the important thing. When I got home, I asked my daughter what the difference between the two forms was, and she told me: 100% correct. So why don't you do it right at school? I asked. Because they don't bother what I put, she said.

It does matter, though. It matters that you get it right. If your spelling is right, and your punctuation correct then people can concentrate on what you say, rather than being distracted by your mistakes.

I found, thanks to Juliet, this site. Hurrah!

The English language can be confusing: I have a whole shelf of reference books and don't always get it right myself. But I do try, and there are always things I can learn.