Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Desert Island Books - Part 2

I've always been a fan of Agatha Christie and she is is well known for her Poirot and Miss Marple books. Less well known is the fact that she was married to the eminent archaeologist Max Mallowen and she accompanied him on all the digs that he did in what is now Iraq. In fact she became the expedition photographer and catalogued and labelled all the finds. It was from these expeditions that she got the background material for some of her most famous novels such as Appointment With Death and Murder in Mesopotamia and also for Murder On The Orient Express - she always travelled by the Orient Express on her way out to the Middle East - how I would love to have done that fabulous journey travelling First Class on this legendary train:)
I'd actually never heard of Come Tell Me How You Live until a few years ago when I went to a special exhibition at the British Museum called Agatha Christie and Archaeology. It was absolutely fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed it and at the end I discovered in the shop this book. I bought it on impulse and am very glad that I did. It is a light-hearted and very amusing account of her life when she was on these digs. Well worth trying to find a copy of if you are interested in either Agatha or archaeology.

It must be pretty obvious from the dog-eared appearance of this book that I have read it several times! As long as I can remember I've had a fascination for the Second World War - not the fighting but the everyday lives of women and how they coped with life. These diaries of Clara Milburn were discovered and published in the late 1970s and I find them absolutely rivetting. She was an ordinary middle-aged, middle class woman who kept a diary right through the war detailing the ordinary everyday things that happened interspersed with war news as they heard it on the wireless or read it in the newspapers. She wrote about her garden, rationing and the food they ate, her clothes, the dog,the weather, nights in the air raid shelter - it is all so immediate that you are taken back into her world and worry with her about her son who is a prisoner of war and share her delight when letters arrive from him.

One of the things I love to see when I fly over England is the patchwork quilt of fields which are unique to this country - this book is about these fields,the hay meadows, pasture, water meadows and arable land and the history of agriculture which has shaped them. Together with this it tells of the wildflowers and wildlife which lives on and around them in the hedgerows,drystone walls and the wooded copses. Apart from history and ecology it is full of wonderful photographs of both the countryside and the plants and animals that live there. Just right for someone exiled on a desert island:)

Norfolk Life by Lilias Rider Haggard is another book about country life in England but between the wars this time - my favourite period apart perhaps from medieval/Tudor times. Lilias lived in Norfolk and was the daughter of H Rider Haggard who wrote 'King Soloman's Mines' and 'She', both of which were made into famous films. They were minor landed gentry and the book gives a fascinating insight into the life of a woman who had no need to work for a living, she was intelligent and had many interests but was essentially a countrywoman. From this particular book I'm going to put a tiny excerpt to give you a flavour of her writing:

The snow-flood is coming down the river, and a steadily rising tide of turbid water creeps over the marshes. This afternoon the Common lay without a sound, a flat, grey expanse up to the low hills on the horizon, where the woods lie black against the sky. Behind them the sun, a furious ball, was sinking through a pall of mist. A solitary swan was moving in the sunset waters of the river. Suddenly there was a winnowing of many wings, a strange whistling call, and out of the mist seven wild swans swept down with necks outstretched,and settled on the water in a flurry of spray. They floated there almost motionless while the fire on the water faded to the steel grey of the sky, and only their plumage was flamingo pink. It was like the fairy-tale of the enchanted swans, but in February one would search in vain for enough nettles to weave seven shirts for their disenchantment.

Of all the books I've written about, this is the one I would choose ahead of all the others. Incidentally, if you are wondering about the nettles - if you cut nettles and leave them lying under a hedge through autumn and winter to rot you can obtain lengths of fibre from what is left that can be spun just like flax and used to make cloth. I hasten to say that I have never done it, I just know it's possible:)

This book is here because it's a reminder of the best and most interesting holiday I've ever had. A group of us went regularly on archaeology/classical based trips, visiting all kinds of mostly Greek and Roman sites with a couple of free days to do our own thing. Evenings involved good food and quite a lot of wine:) Jordan is a fabulous country just packed with interesting things to see - the Dead Sea, the Rose Red City of Petra, Jerash, Mount Nebo( where Moses looked out over the Promised Land),Crusader castles, the desert where Lawrence of Arabia spent a lot of time and all sorts of other things. Driving out in the desert in an open top jeep is quite an experience, so is walking on the red hot sand! The food is wonderful, the people are friendly and polite and the weather is great. The final couple of days we spent in Aqaba which has a beautiful beach, warm sea and glass bottomed boats that take you out to see coral reefs in the clear waters of the Red Sea. This book has masses of pictures and the history of the places nearly all of which I've seen. I know I sound like a travel brochure but if ever you get the chance to visit Jordan, take it - you'll love it.

Finally, another gardening book. I bought this in 1986, the year it was published. The author, Stephen Lacey, was only 29 and though he's written other books since none has come even close to The Startling Jungle, it has passion for the subject, great knowledge and lyrical descriptions of the flowers and foliage which make you want to rush out and get every one of them to grow in your own garden. This is another book which bears evidence of the number of times that I've read it.

You may have noticed something about the books I've chosen, they are almost all written in or about the 1930s and 1940s, those that aren't are written about aspects of an even more remote past - an indication of the fact that I don't find the modern world especially attractive. A desert island would probably suit me very well:)


meggie said...

Some excellent book reviews. I am fascinated by the 1920s/30s. Not sure why, but I love the clothes & the hairstyles the women had.
I used to joke I had been alive then, in a previous life!

Cherry Menlove said...

Hello Rowan
I too find pre and post war Britain wonderful to read about. Whether it be fiction such as Atonement or the books you have mentioned. We both have a love for the patchwork of our country that you can see from the sky.


LADY LUXIE said...

Hello. I enjoyed reading about your books and must say that I too, fined the 1930's and 40's to be such a desirable era to have lived in. Everything seemed pristine classic and sweet..sigh.

I love your book choices as well.

It has been enjoyable reading here..thank you :>

The Crafty Weasel said...

Thank you for tips on Agatha Christie books - I saw that exhibition too and I loved it - did you walk through the Orient express car that was outside the BM?

And thank you for the wonderful posts and travels through England. I am Portuguese and lived in London for 5 years. I am now in the USA but I am an anglophile at heart and I miss England everyday!

smilnsigh said...

Oh thank you for the wonderful book reviews! Must look for "Come Tell Me How You Live" for my 13 year old granddaughter, who loves ancient Egypt, and toys with the idea of Archaeology.

And I too love books which are diaries of real people. So "Mrs. Milburn's Diaries" sounds wonderful.


Jenny said...

I love the books you've chosen. Unfortunately, I can't find a one of them at my library! I'd never thought I'd like to visit Jordan until you wrote about it, and I'm convinced. Wonderful recommendations.

sheila said...

my husband thanks you very kindly [vbg] for giving me yet more books that I want to drag home!

now, off to see if I can locate any of them :)

I think I'll start with Mrs. Milburn's Diaries :)

Kelli said...

Rowan, I think you are right about the preserves!


PAT said...

Rowan, I bought a biography of Agatha Christie at the library book fair in June. I think it might be a good book for reading this fall.

I enjoy her characters Tommy and Tuppence as well as the more famous ones.

I love the 30's and 40's, also.

Great book reviews!

Janet said...

Somehow I missed Part 1 but I just now went back and read it, too. Most of your choices sound like things I'd love to read so I made lots of notes and will try to find some of these older books. I love reading about life in England during WWII....and like you, not the war part but just the daily life things. Thanks for some great ideas for an afternoon of reading!

tash said...

We have such similar tastes in books! You have inspired me to do my own "desert island books" which I'll post hopefully soon. Love the second and third books - right up my street.

Jacran Cottage said...

Ok, that's it ... can I join you and your books on your desert island?!?! Now I've added Mrs Millburn's Diaries to the list of books I'd love to read but could probably never find over here!

I also have a real interest in the 1940s and the homefront in Britain during WW2; the strength and courage of the women who held their homes, their families, and the country together. I think I'd probably join one of those 40s re-enactment gorups if I lived at home.

The patchwork quilt of English field is one of the things that excite me about flying home. Beside enjoying the beauty, it means I'm only mintues away from home and family!!

sheoflittlebrain said...

I now yearn for every one of these books! I never knew that Agatha Christie was married to an archaeologist..I still read her once in a while.
Mrs. Milburn's diaries sound just my kind of read. That WWII era draws me as well.
Lilias Haggard's writing made me think of Mary Stewart's lyrical senic discription.
Thanks, Rowan, for telling us about these books.

Julie Marie said...

It was so interesting to see more of your favorite books, most (all?)of which I had never heard of before. This weekend I am going to write about an American countrywoman and author. Since her books were always centered around the chaning seasons I thought I'd waiting until Sept. 1 to post about her.


Heather said...

Oh, I adore Agatha Christie and read her till I was sick of it when I had my oldest daughter. That book about her life sounds very fun--I will have to pick it up.

I saw you mention on Smilinsigh's blog that you were nervous about trying a header. If you host it elsewhere it is no trouble--it is only when you post it on blogger that it disappears and causes trouble. Try putting an image in photobucket or flickr and then linking it in the header--it really fairly simple to do. :) From the looks of your blog you should have something lovely to use as a header.

Remiman said...

The books you've chosen tell us a great deal about you and I must say I enjoy getting to know all these details which paint a more and more complete picture of the blogger who comes here and shares.
I've perused my lbrary and find that I can not choose just 10 books to take to a desert island. So I've decided to take ten large empty note pads and many pencils so as to enable me to put down on paper my own stories and memories. I would enjoy it if you stopped by and read aloud from your choices however.:-)

Tea & Margaritas in My Garden said...

Enjoyed reading about your books Rowan. I`m going to try and see if I can find that Mrs. Milburn`s Diaries. It looks so interesting. I bet my Mum would like it too as she was a young girl in England during the war. It`s always interested me too.Norfolk Life sounds so interesting too! I really need to be independantly wealthy and just buy books LOL


Rosie said...

I like the sound of Mrs. Milburn's Diaries, I have the wartime 'Diaries of Nella Last' on my waiting to read pile so may look for Mrs Milburn to add to them.

Ragged Roses said...

A great collection of interesting books (again Rowan!). I was a huge Agatha Christie fan when I was younger and my oldest has just started reading them this holiday. She's hooked now. They are a great read, I recently found her a vintage Penguin edition of Murder on the Orient Express which she thinks is very cool!

Sophie Honeysuckle said...

I found the facts about Agatha Christie fascinating!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for introducing me to Mrs. Milburn, Lilias Rider Haggard and Nella Last.
I too enjoy reading about life before and during the Second World War.
Angela Thirkell's novels set in the period at war's end, and just after are also favourites of mine.
Judith - in Canada

Janice said...

Hi Rowan, Such a great post (as usual). I am a bookophile ( I think I just made that word up !) and an anglophile AND and "phile" of the time period of WWII in England, as others have mentioned. In addition to your interesting list, the other readers have listed interesting favorites I would love to read as well.

I did get a copy of England Is A Village by C.Henry Warren, from your first list. I am looking forward to reading it.

I always love a visit with you, Rowan, Janice

peppylady said...

I'm tagging you to do the face behind the blog

kate said...

Rowan, I don't thinka a desert island would suit you really... you would miss your garden! Your book selections are fascinating. I didn't know this about Agatha Christie - I headed over to the library'a online catalogue and put the book on hold. Thank you for this. Unfortunately, none of the other books are in the library holdings, so I will have to do some scouting. Lilias Haggard's and Stephen Lacey's books both sound like wonderful reads. I would also like to find the book, 'Fields'. Off to second-hand book stores I go!

I love these posts where you write of books. A big thank you!

Mary said...

Rowan, I love this post and am going to look for the book by Mrs. Milburn - sounds really interesting.
As I'm sure you know, Agatha Cristie grew up in Torquay - my father told me how he roller skated with her on the old wooden Princess Pier - part of which is still there. A large section of the Torquay Museum is devoted to A.C. - I loved it when I visited a few years back and am planning to take my husband there in October during our stay. When she retired she lived on the River Dart, a beautiful estate which was inherited by her daughter, an eccentric, who passed away a few years ago. I believe the estate is being restored (perhaps by the National Trust - not sure) and it will open to the public eventually.

I have more info. and some old photos of Dame Agatha - perhaps I'll do a post on her - if that's OK with you - as so many people love her books etc.

Mousie/Paisible said...

that's great Rowan, ideas of books to read...i just finished a biography of Agatha was very interesting and i have something in common with her !!! she loved clotted cream...with scones...i enjoyed very much reading your post...see you dear...

Anonymous said...

You're a bit of a bookaholic too ??? So am I, just love books. I will take the time to read all about the books you mention again, maybe there's something there for me too to read ; )
Have a great day !!!

Sandie's Patch said...

Hi Rowan,
I was at Arkwrights' Mill at Cromford yesterday and on the gates where notices of free tours,lectures and so forth. One of which was a talk about Alison Uttley given by Janet Ede, to be held this Thursday the 6th September at 7.30pm. Thought you might like to know, don't know if you'll be able to make it or not.
The series of tours etc are all free as part of the 'Heritage Days' initiative.

Andylynne said...

Well what a find, you blog and the wonderful books. Thank you so much it is a treat and I intend to drop in often. I've enjoyed my visit and have come away with wonderful treasures.

Julie Marie said...


As you haven't posted in a few days I thought I would just add another comment here and wish you A VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Hope you had a great day doing what you wished all day long!


Anonymous said...

Belated Birthday greetings Rowan!
I hope you managed to put up your feet and have a pot of tea all to yourself!

Sandie (Sandies' Patch)

elaine rickett said...

I don't know whether you remember but on my last post about the Norfolk coast you commented that I might enjoy 'Norfolk Life' by Lilias Haggard. Well guess what?
Whilst on holiday I found a second hand bookshop and managed to find, in amongst the thousands of books, two by Lilias Haggard - Norfolk Life and A Norfolk Notebook - (I am reading the notebook at the moment and am enjoying it immensley. I will give you a mention in my next post - thank goodness for your vast home library.